Sunday, August 06, 2006

The ONLY Presbyterians?

What does it mean to be Presbyterian? If you read some of the talk going on in our denominational crisis, it seems that the only Presbyterians are PCUSA. Some are suggesting that separation from this denomination is the equivalent of leaving The Church.

The fact is, there are many Presbyterian denominations currently in the USA. All of us are related, because we’ve all come into being through some sort of separation and/or reunion of the same. The PCUSA, for example, was formed in 1984 when the UPCUSA (northern Presbyterians) was rejoined with the PCUS (southern Presbyterians) who had separated just about the time the Civil War began.

Other Presbyterian denominations include
  • Bible Presbyterian Church
  • American Presbyterian Church
  • Cumberland Presbyterian Church (they just reunited with PCUSA this year)
  • Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
  • Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
  • Free Presbyterian Church
  • Independent Presbyterian Church
  • Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
  • Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States
  • Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church
  • Orthodox Presbyterian Church
  • Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod
  • Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, General Synod
  • Reformed Church of America (Presbyterian in structure, not name)
  • Christian Reformed Church (Presbyterian in structure, not name)

As anyone can easily see, “Presbyterian” covers a lot of ground (I may even have missed one or two along the way). While there is a wide range of history among all these denominations, most of them really differ in smaller ways theologically. Some of these denominations split off from the “main line” back in the 18th Century, so their traditions have evolved significantly over the last two hundred years. Other denominations, like the PCUSA, PCA, and EPC are very new, and are developing along new, significantly different lines.

The PCUSA has chosen to fully embrace modernism and liberalism, hence the conflict we find ourselves in today as conservative evangelicals in a liberal denomination. The PCA separated in a reactionary movement to this process and, as a result, is almost the antithesis of the PCUSA. It refuses to ordain women or allow them to lead in the church. It also embraces the Westminster Confession in a very strict way. The EPC is conservative and evangelical, but much less restrictive than the PCA. Of all the denominations listed above, these three are the only ones of any numerical significance.

To conclude, insisting that any one of these denominations is the only “Presbyterian” one, much less “The Church,” is a step beyond credibility.

Keep praying—keep the faith,


Presbyterian Parson said...

Do you believe that neo-orthodoxy is to be equated with modernism and liberalism. I suspect that is perhaps the most common theological orientation among PCUSA clergy. I think most still believe the Bible is still our central authority in faith and life. It is what guides our preaching every Sunday. Part of the crux when it comes to scriptures is measuring where the canon speaks with greatest authority. Many modern issues were not anticipated by Scripture. Do I not use chemotherapy to cure cancer, because it is not clearly mandated by Scripture, when it is seems the plain sense of the Bible is that a simple faith in Jesus is enough to heal or that the elders of the church should just anoint with oil and pray for the sick?

Now of course you might argue, that it did speak clearly for all times about sexual morality, but that is a tricky argument to make, because our modern understanding of marriage has evolved away from women being the property of fathers and then their husbands, the Biblical norm, toward something approaching a legal and economic covenant between a man and a woman - a modern convention accepted accross a theological spectrum of belief. But we make this kind of call frequently with Scripture - what is essential for all times and what is conditioned and limited by human traditions that are non-essentials reflected in the Biblical narrative?

I find labels like modernist and liberal to not be the most helpful. Doesn't a modernist accept that germs cause disease and not just evil spirits invading the body like anamist religions (pre-modern), I find the conservative pastors in our denomination to be open to many modern changes. I also find them to be quite liberal (open to change) when it comes to changing the ancient practices of liturgy and the church or even those practices that were common among Presbyterians for centuries, not that that is a bad thing either. Quite a modern thing indeed to sit at a computer and send messages all over the world!

Presbyterian Parson

Jason said...

I can still remember, while going through my new member class at the Kirk some 15 years ago, a chart diagramming the various Presbyterian denominations, splits, and reunifications. I remember thinking that I might as well be looking at a circuit board diagram or blueprints for the space shuttle, very complicated.

Classical Presbyterian said...

That's exactly right!

It is so tiresome, and downright narrowly sectarian, for people to say that our particular denomination is The Church that we dare not split!

You are just pointing out the facts that the institution of PCUSA fear: there are PLENTY of options for the biblically faithful!

Anonymous said...

For the very latest national news re our situation see the just issued August 5 issue of WORLD magazine, page 33, entitled "Loophoe blues"!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Dear Parson, thanks for your comments, I find them an interesting read. You have already anticipated my first reaction, how is the current debate captured in a metaphor about modern medicine and the internet? Certainly we are not staunchly opposed to technology which can heal people.

I would caution though, that it is a logical fallicy to assume progress is good. In my mind, technology and social advances change our problems, they do not solve them. We are thrilled to have nuclear medicine and nuclear power plants, but are nuclear weapons a good thing? It is wonderful for us to share in the big discourse from around the globe at a computer, but is it wonderful that most children and teenagers now have easy access to pornography, violent images, websites where pedophiles look for targets, etc? Again, our problems have changed, not disappeared. After all, when was the last time we thanked God for our automobile which allows us to travel far and wide compared to how often we've grown angry at traffic or the price of gas!

The Bible does have clear condemnations of these "alternative" sexual practices. I agree that the Bible does not clearly anticipate the idea of a committed relationship between 2 men or 2 women, but while you accuse us of taking a difficult position to defend, you take one yourself. There is no positive word in the record of Jesus' teachings toward these alternative practices. An argument from silence is indeed a weak argument! This is where the slippery slope begins: if the Bible does not expressly forbid it, it must be ok. Where does this end? If the Bible failed to anticipate places such as Amsterdam which attempt to offer prostitution and drugs in "safe" environments, are we compelled to support them since the Bible did not anticipate a "safe" way to use drugs and have sex with prostitutes?

Obviously, I do disagree that the Biblical idea of marriage was strictly one of property and Christianity has always seen women as second class citizens before modern liberalism. Christianity made powerful moves against society in asking men to serve their wives as Christ served the Church (to be willing to die for them, how many Biblical figures would die for their sheep?). We also see women like Ruth, Ester, Joyce, Hannah, Eunice, etc. praised for their contributions as leaders and teachers, not just as servants. Few other institutions in those days did the same.

Again, I respect our differing opinions and I value your willingness to converse with us so honestly and openly.

Peace be with you.

Presbyterian Parson said...

In response to anonymous, you are right, an argument from Bibical silence is not much of an argument as a Reformed Christian. So I will offer a couple of musings, not so much an argument in favor of anything goes sexual freedom, but instances where the Bible does not speak so clearly about monogomous homosexuality...

Here are a couple Biblical thoughts to weigh and measure. I think there is a tendency to take Romans 1 reference about homosexuality out of context, which I find is the only one relevant to our modern discussion (Tough to argue about the Leviticus reference, since we have dropped a few hundred others out of our discussion from this book). Sometimes chapter and verse numbers do us a diservice by what creates the misconceptions that verses can stand alone out of their context. We cannot read Romans 1:26-27 disconnected from Romans 2 (or Romans 3, etc...) I find Paul's thoughts about judgements against sinners to imply that all of us are corrupted by a sinful nature that only God can judge and overcome through imputed righteousness, therefore none of us can stand in judgement of another's sin, only God. Here I see Paul reinforcing the same double-edged approach to sin and the righteous as Jesus, for those who are obviously sinners there is grace, and for those who attempt to live godly lives there is a warning for those who use their higher commitment, obedience, as the validation for why they can sit in judgement of others, whose sins are more obvious. That was a problem of the pharisees, who Jesus went after quite often in the Gospels, perhaps because the "log" was so great in their own eyes, that they were blind to their own sin of SELF-righteousness. Paul's conclusion is that "all sin and fall short of the glory of God." Now we of course can go farther with Paul and enter one of those great debates about what chapter 7 and 8 mean and whether our nature actually changes after regeneration in Christ. One group - the Augustian/Lutheran/Calvinists said - total depravity still applies on this side of eternity and the other group - the holiness/Methodists(the original kind)/Pelagian crowd says perfection is the goal and possibility after regeneration and that the sinful nature can be repaired. I just cannot escape my Calvinist roots on human nature, sin and righteousness. Regardless of how many times and how sincerely I repent of my sloth, it just has not changed that part of who I am (much to my wife's disappointment), but for the grace of God....

A second area in Pauline thought that I find interesting is his teaching about celebacy. I believe he wrote to the Corinthian church that if a person is burning with lust then it is better to marry to have an outlet for sexual practice, because he understood his own celebacy to be a spiritual gift, his celebate life was something he was able to do without burning with lust. How does this apply to the gay man who trusts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

Back to my first point about Paul and Romans, unfortunately on this side of eternity, we still must make judgements about who shall be ordained and who we choose not to ordain. I believe the discussion around standards of conduct IS relevant. Our conduct as pastors does effect the spiritual life of others. There is much sexual practice that can cause the church and a particular congregation to suffer in ways that do not build up the body. How any candidate handles their sexuality is relevant to decisions of ordination just like any other area the Confessions call sin. Tough to define on paper though who shall be ordained -- that is where discernment and relationship is key. Standards can guide those decisions but should not make them for us.

I do not believe anyone has a "right" to ordination, but also do not believe the door should be closed in an absolute way to anyone whose faith is in Christ. I believe conduct does matter. I find that much of the debate about homosexuality has as much to do with discretion (staying in the closet) as anything. Every denomination has always ordained gay people, but they were in the closet. When Amendment B was passed, the floor debate would lead one to believe we passed a "don't ask don't tell policy" without calling it that. Key buzz words at the time included those in the ammendment "self-avowed" and promises from Robeta Hestenes, chair of the committee, that this would not be a "witch hunt" policy. Subsequent court cases have seemed to indicate that we have an "ask but you don't have to tell" policy. As long as noone is self-avowed about their sexual practice then ordinations have been allowed to stand.

One of the interesting parts to me about the response to GA's action is no one knows exactly what has been adopted, until the church court system starts trying what promises to be a lengthy list of cases to figure out how the amendment B standard clause works when someone declares a scruple and a governing body chooses to ordain or not ordain in response to the declaration of the candidate. Time will tell. Hope we are all still in this together.

Blessings to all,
Presbyterian Parson

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

That is an interesting list of denominations you put together. You could make the case that church schisms are a "been there done that" sort of thing. Like looking for lost car keys under the same pillow, over and over again.

I don’t know who is suggesting the PCUSA is THE church. I will say this:

I think it is enormously tragic that we should fight liberal vs. conservative. I do not think "the denomination" is very modernist and liberal. It has a fair number of people in it who are, and a fair number who are not. We are a good cross-section of the American society, so the numbers should be closer to 50-50. (My friends from other countries tell me that there are no liberals left in America. We are all either conservative or ultra conservatives, they tell me. They say we have completely abandoned the values of liberalism and democracy. But that is a different discussion)

People are liberal or conservative independently from whether they follow the teachings of Christ. The fact that they are one or the other definitely colors the way they read the bible. You yourself have preached this. But the totality of the Gospel message is more than either, and even more than the sum of the two. Much more, I would say. This fact alone says Christian conservatives and Christian liberals need to stay together. We cannot change each other's inclinations any more than we can change each other's personality traits. If you scrape the stripes off a tiger, all you get is a badly scarred tiger. Nevertheless, we can learn to respect each other, as Paul urged us in 1 Cor 12 and other places. Together we can give a more faithful witness to the totality of the Gospel. Alone and apart we are much less the Church than we are capable of being.

I do think that over the years, secular liberals and secular conservatives have attempted to hijack the Church to serve their own political interests. In many cases, they have been very successful. It is a shame we have been so naïve. It would help immensely for us to become aware of our innate preferences apart from our faith, so that we can be more precise about our faith, and more discerning of the spirits that surround us. I believe we are called to join hands and together not only resist the attempts of secular forces to move in on the Gospel, but instead take the unified Gospel back out into the world, in a reverse infection. We need to be the UN-virus (pardon the 60s lingo) that infects the world of the secular conservatives >and< the secular liberals. This is what Jesus used to do. When the unclean and impure touched him, touched his body, rather then him becoming unclean by virtue of their contact, it was them who became clean by virtue of his.

This, you and I believe, is one of our most important assignments.

We should leverage our differences into a broad outreach to promote the good news of the Kingdom of God - one that reaches all corners of our society. There will be conservative churches that reach the conservatives, and there will be liberal churches that reach the liberals. There will be churches that reach both. When asked, we worship under one denominational roof because Jesus Christ is one. We love each other because He first loved us.

Why not?

For The Kingdom, Jodie

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be uplifting if every respondent to Tom's Blogs were to meet with the Kirk's ruling elders and give his or her full testimony including when and under what circumstances that person received the gift of faith and the knowledge of repentance from the Holy Spirit?

just a commoner said...

Thanks for responding Parson, I finally took time to register a name.

I would just say that a celibate homosexual man who has trusted his life to Christ, who avoids succombing to lust, and even avoids fullfilling his desires in a legally recognized relationship, is the picture of Christian faith. I would be happy to be in a congregation with such a leader.

Certainly, there is a mountain of evidence to show homosexuality can result from a complex interaction of genetics and environment, not a choice. Certainly, I did not choose to be a heterosexual. It is not our preferences God judges, but our actions, which either fulfill our own desires or his desires.

I do not care what a person's sexual desires are, the only thing relevent for ordination is what do they say Christian teachings are? If they are Biblical in their views on sexuality, I say they should be nominated unless some other issue is presented. I too want to avoid a witch hunt at all costs. I do not want my life nor anyone's life in the church scrutinized for perfection; I know I have sinned many, many times and I have given in to lust in the past. My failings with lust are no different than homosexual ones, they can be forgiven by our merciful father just like any sin. I certainly expect any person, even ordination candidate to sin, I just expect them to adhere to faithful scriptural teaching.

I appreciate your biblical references. I would say I am more convinced of homosexuality provisions than you, but we are not that far apart. I agree the Levitical codes are more difficult to defend, though I would say the things that immediatly come to my mind as having been dropped are things like sacrificial instructions and codes on unclean food, which are specifically refuted in the new testament. I still maintain that it is logically very difficult to make any statement other than homosexual relationships were not a priority for Jesus' ministry. It is very difficult to go from there to the point that any committed sexual relationship is permissible. I have particular difficulty with this because I feel that many (I do not mean you) who argue that these relationships are appropriate argue this based on a principle of justice or fairness. You are allowed to have sex within marriage, so it is not fair to say someone else does not have the same opportunity. I believe this argument makes sense from an American, democratic point of view. There is certainly no reason some form of homosexual union should not be legal in America, just as there is no compelling reason to outlaw abortion. However, there are compelling reasons for Christians to refuse to fulfill these desires, even though it would be far easier on them to do so. In my reading of scripture, Christians have no such things as "rights", this is an American concept. I suppose this is where my real opposition lies, that we need to be God's church, and not hijacked by America as Jodie spoke of. In the Bible, many of our figures we have discussed, especially Jesus and Paul, ended up suffering greatly for their ministry. I have found no guarantee that being a Christian will be fair or easy, just that it will lead to joys beyond these!

As always, thanks for the helpful thoughts!

Peace be with you.

Anonymous said...


You have said that your blog is addressed to both Kirk members and the general public. It is somewhat unpleasant to air our church's disagreements on the internet, but, if this is the venue of choice, so be it and this member must respond.

First, I understand your continued opposition to the PCUSA stance on abortion, your opposition to the "authoritative interpretation" language approved at the recent General Assembly and your opposition to the GA receiving the "Trinity" report for study. Our denomination's position on the abortion issue was improved somewhat at the last GA but it is still not restrictive enough to suit most Presbyterian lay people. The "authoritative interpretation" is, as you have said, a "gutting" of our constitution, and indeed a slippery slope that will allow all sorts of mischief far beyond the issue of homosexual ordination. The "Trinity" paper has made our denomination laughingstock of press, talk shows, comic strips and pulpits throughout the land. Hopefully, this paper will be studied to an early death.

Second, no one ever accused democratic legislative process of being pretty or even logical, but Presbyterian polity allows us to correct mistakes as we go forward. Witness the overwhelming GA majority correcting an error made in 2004 by backing away from "a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel" a measure that effectively had labeled only Israel, its borders and fence as the problem in the Middle East, no matter about Palestinian suicide bombing. I do not believe the majority of members in PCUSA are acting like "boiled frogs" when they elect to stay and fight for this change rather than bolt out the door. However, that is not my main reason for wanting to stay in PCUSA.

Splitting any congregation always does damage to the faith, friendship and loyalty of members on opposite sides in confrontation. I do not make light of the issues you and others raise and if this were a secular organization, I might lead the walk out the door. But, this is God's organization and He expects more from us than that. Jesus never left His Jewish faith and He died because of loyalty to His temple and Passover and the example He wanted to afford his followers! I certainly agree that PCUSA is not the only and maybe not the best of all Presbyterian organizations, but it happens to be the one God has called you and me to.

Third, I really believe this New Wineskin Initiative is yet another manifestation of the age old confrontation between liberals and conservative or dare I say "Old School vs/ New School" or "Old Way vs/ New Way" which in final analysis is nothing more than argumentation between clergy and/or seminary professors as to who has correctly interpreted Scripture and/or who has the most strident voice. I don't know if I am on the right track here but it sure smells like it. Tell me I am wrong. However, if we are going down the road of accusation of specific Presbyterians in positions of authority in PCUSA, I think the sooner you identify exactly who we are up against the better. On the other hand being upset by the ranting of fringe groups in the bleachers of PCUSA is not cause sufficient to put congregations through the wringer of schism. Could it be that we have become unwilling to subject scriptural interpretation, faith and belief to the maelstrom of representative democratic polity?

Finally, you have accused some of us who have responded to you as being in denial and perhaps you are right. However, maybe there are those on the other side of this issue who are in denial as to the goodness still present in PCUSA.

God bless us all regardless of our disagreement.

Bill Diggs

Anonymous said...

Here are some more helpful thoughts! I pray hearts and minds will be opened and ears uncovered.

"That is one reason confrontation is not enough to change a heart. Being knowledgeable enough to dismantle all the "gay Christian" movement's claims will not be enough to persuade a homosexual to repent. The heart, having been hardened through deception or rebellion or both, has to be softened. And that is the work of God alone. Ours is to simply speak the truth, trusting Him to quicken it to our hearers."

"Sexual orientation simply cannot be changed," a gay psychiatrist says confidently,[46] warning "there may be severe emotional and social consequences in the attempt to change from homosexuality to heterosexuality."[47] This argument draws heavily from the social sciences, as it must; the Bible supports no such claim. Indeed, St. Paul makes the opposite remark, clearly stating homosexuals can change, when he asserts:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders... will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6: 9-11; emphasis added)

For a three-part series that addresses the pro-gay theology by dividing its arguments--or tenets--into three categories: social justice arguments, general religious arguments, and scriptural arguments see

Anonymous said...

How much schism will be wrought within evangelical congregations when it is discovered their constituent members may not be as monolithic in thought and loyalty to their pastoral leadership who are at odds with the denomination as is often assumed? When schism is called for nationally, it will almost certainly polarize local churches as well. Our ordination vow is to seek peace, purity, and unity. As pastors, a hyper-focus on one, will fail our commitment to one or the other and diminish our pastoral wholeness and calling. Shall shepherds divide their flocks and leave some to be devoured by wolves?

Paul writes, we are to speak the truth in love, a statement that when applied to ministers of word and sacrament creates a perfect balance between prophet and pastor in application of the Word of God. While blessing a schism is heavy on truth it is weak on love - relationship is sacrificed on the alter of principle, rather than allowing both to live in the fullness of the Gospel.

Enjoying the thoughtful blogs,
Presbyterian Parson

Trey said...

I would just like to say that I do not necessarily agree with most you say, but I do not think that showing what you may call, "defaults" of other denominations of Presbyterian; yet, I think that calling one (PCA) the atheist?? I think not...

DrMom said...

Quote from Presbyterian Parson:
"While blessing a schism is heavy on truth it is weak on love - relationship is sacrificed on the alter of principle, rather than allowing both to live in the fullness of the Gospel."

If one side has rejected the Biblical basis of faith within the denomination, they're the schizmatic ones...not those of us who continue to maintain the tenants of our faith. Also, principle is vitally important. I am not willing to "hedge" on my religion to play nice with people who are gutting my denomination. We've been doing that for 30+ years and all is has led to is movement farther away from the basic Biblical tenants.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of what side you take on the sexuality issue, I think we ALL should look at this in the simplest form possible:

1) GOD loves us. He calls us to love one another.

2) When given the choice between LAW and COMPASSION, Jesus chose COMPASSION. (Healing on the Sabbath etc.)

3) Imagine that someone was trying to get you to come to their church, but they kept dropping in comments about how much of a sinner you are. Would you go? I wouldn't; a friendly, non-judgemental approach would be better. But if I came through the door, and kept coming, I might figure out that I am a sinner and repent. IF YOU REALLY FEEL HOMOSEXUALS ARE SINNERS, SHOULDN'T YOU BE TRYING TO GET THEM IN THE DOOR OF YOUR CHURCH? AREN'T THESE THE TYPE OF PEOPLE JESUS HUNG OUT WITH? THE OUTCASTS?

I realize the issue is in regards to leadership/ordination of homosexuals, not just getting them to come to church. But, by taking this stand WILL ANY OF THEM COME?

In the long run I want to come to church on Sunday and worship God. Having the chance to love my brother, and possibly influencing him towards Christ far outweighs the division and discension that breaking away will cause. I don't agree with a lot of what PCUSA has done lately. BUT THIS IS NOT WORTH IT.

I am praying for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Abortion is murder. The baby is not created by the mother or the father but by God. If the mother has the right take the baby's life then why doesn't the father have the right to take the baby's life? The baby belongs no more to the mother than the father. The mother's body merely the vessel God has chosen.

This behavior of abortion has simply become socially accepted by a lot of people...even a lot of Christians.

The behavior of homosexuality has also becomely largely accepted by society....even a lot of Christians.

A lot of good people defend these ideas out of fairness...or trying to make sense out of a harsh world.

It's good to the research...and most of all pray.

We are letting the socially accepted tolerant of the world creep into Christian world views. It is ok to defend the faith , in fact we are called to do just this.

Nancy Pearcy has written a book about just this subject called "Total Truth". It is not a light read so be prepared to do some work.