It is safe to say that our Presbyterian Church (USA) is currently undergoing a major “schism,” in that many of our more conservative sisters and brothers are choosing to separate from us and join denominations they find more congenial to their views. They have been threatening this for a long time. The recent move to drop the ban on ordaining Gays brought this matter to a head, and many presbyteries are finally allowing churches to take their property with them when they go. This flow may only intensify in the next couple of years, when the denomination may change its rules to allow Gay marriage.
Having listened carefully to the concerns of those who advocate separation, I must say that I don’t always recognize the denomination of which they are so vociferously critical. Let me address some of the more common charges made against the PCUSA by people building a case for departure.
First of all, I take issue with the charge that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has drifted into “apostasy,” and is no longer an expression of the catholic and apostolic Christian faith. I am not sure they have worked through the consequences of this opinion. If the PCUSA is no longer a Christian church, then a congregation would have to re-baptize PCUSA members who wished to join. It also means that members of PCUSA churches would not be welcome at the Lord’s Table in their churches. Is that really what they intend? I doubt it. So maybe they should tone down the hyperbolic, incendiary rhetoric.
They imply that we of the PCUSA deny the traditional formulation of the Trinity, and that creative experimentation with the language in which the truth of the Trinity is expressed is a transgression of the Third Commandment. Yet the church has throughout its history done just this. Are our critics prepared to condemn such luminaries of the faith as Augustine (who developed both a psychological analogy, and one of lover-beloved-love), Patrick of Ireland (who is said to have used a cloverleaf to illustrate the Trinity), John of Damascus (sun-light-heat), Mechtild of Magdeburg (heart-body-breath), Catherine of Siena (table-food-server), and many other perfectly orthodox teachers of the faith on the same grounds?
The PCUSA does not suggest that different ways of talking about the Trinity in any way replace the traditional terminology, which remains the indispensible anchor of our understanding of God. Indeed, the use of the traditional language from Matthew 28 remains mandated for the Sacrament of Baptism in our Book of Order. One of the motivations for the paper they find so offensive, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” was actually to lead the church away from the dangers of Unitarianism and Modalism.
The Trinity is a great mystery beyond human comprehension. To reduce it exclusively to three particular words which contain their own baggage in people’s perceptions and experience, and then refusing even to discuss analogies that might make it more clear and accessible, veers dangerously close to idolatry.
Biblical Authority and Interpretation.
They also express frustration with the views and practices of the PCUSA concerning Biblical authority and interpretation. However, it is simply not true that the PCUSA no longer accepts the Bible as authoritative in its life and work. We believe that the Holy Spirit is always opening the mind of the church to new nuances and readings in Scripture. Passages once considered marginal come to the center; once authoritative passages are viewed more in context. As the church strives to make the good news of Jesus Christ intelligible to people in new times and places, the Spirit leads us to new understandings. But different interpretations do not diminish Scripture’s authority for us. Indeed, they are a result of taking the whole message of the Bible with great seriousness.
In short, the PCUSA has been more faithful to the fullness of the Scriptural witness in all its diversity. We are willing to question whether traditional readings are indeed still faithful to the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. The Reformed Tradition has an acute allergy to idolatry in all its forms, especially when dressed in orthodox language. We admit that we may occasionally need our perspectives broadened to appreciate a wider view of the Biblical witness.
For instance, the church came to the decision to welcome women into ordained ministry, not by simply caving in to contemporary cultural standards, and political pressure (as some charge), but by listening carefully to the full witness of Scripture. We found women in leadership positions in Paul’s churches. We decided it was important that the primary witnesses to the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection of Jesus were all women. We noticed women wielding authority in the Old Testament, especially Deborah the judge, and the prophetess Huldah who is the first person to validate Scripture as the Word of God. We decided that this wider witness overrode Paul’s handful of scattered comments mostly referring to particular women in the particular churches of his time.
In other words, everything they complain is a “rejection of Biblical authority” has actually been the church responding self-critically to the broader witness of Scripture. We feel this holds the Bible in higher regard than to force it into a doctrinal straitjacket based on a few verses, arbitrarily chosen to prop up the values, doctrines, principalities, and powers of another age.
In short, we agree wholeheartedly with Heinrich Bullinger when he writes in the Second Helvetic Confession: “We hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contribute much to the glory of God and [human] salvation” (Book of Confessions, 5.010). Amen.
To sum up, the case may be made that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is more confessional, responsible, and open to following and being critiqued by the good news and the complete Biblical witness than those who try to force the Scriptural text into narrow theological categories and strict moral rules reflecting the cultural conditioning of previous generations. The case may be made that the PCUSA is being far more responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit than churches retreating into doctrinal shelters sealing them away from the present world.
Those seeking to depart complain rather bitterly that the PCUSA allows and encourages the work of people who question what is called the “penal-substitutionary” theory of the atonement. In fact, they seem to assume that this is the only orthodox way to understand the saving work of the Lord on the cross.
Many Presbyterians find it unpalatable to have a doctrine of the atonement in which God apparently demands the suffering and death of God’s Son to somehow appease God’s wounded honor or overflowing wrath. As if Jesus had to die in order to protect us from this violent and vindictive deity. This gives us an image of an abusive and heartless god which is far from Jesus’ depiction of his Father in a parable like the Prodigal Son. Did Jesus die to reconcile us to God, or to protect us from God?
The Confession of 1967 holds that “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for [humanity]. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.” (Book of Confessions, 9.09.)
We believe faithfulness to Scripture is more important than adherence to particular historically-conditioned theological doctrines, or even to the Confessions of the church. The PCUSA recognizes that the Word and Spirit of God may be leading the church to hear Scripture in ways that do not reflect a medieval, feudal, and patriarchal understanding of society.
The particular view of the atonement that they advocate is found in neither Jesus nor Paul, and was not fully articulated in the Western church until Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. (The Eastern church doesn’t hold this doctrine at all.) While the PCUSA certainly accepts this as one way of framing the atonement, we do not find it wise to close ourselves off to others, especially theories that are more ancient, more universal, more relevant to contemporary experience, and more faithful to the whole witness of Scripture.
Simply forcing people to assent to doctrines that are not required by Scripture and that do not make sense to 21st century people, is not something the PCUSA finds to be in the interest of effective evangelism.
Some are offended by the willingness of the PCUSA to entertain and permit theological questions and reflections that extend rather far from what has been considered traditional orthodoxy. Yet we Reformed Christians have always held that “the life of the mind is service to God.” While we may not embrace the findings of those exploring the extreme frontiers of Christian doctrine and practice, we feel that allowing and even encouraging such efforts strengthens the church in both its encounter with the world, and its faithfulness to the Word and Spirit of the living God. After all, many of those who “pushed the envelope” of doctrine – including numerous great saints as well as the Reformers and many others whom the church has eventually followed – served to keep the message of Christ fresh and relevant to new generations.
And, when some go too far, rather than wielding the heavy hammer of ecclesiastical discipline, we find simply hearing them out to be much more effective. In the end we trust the wisdom of Presbyterians gathered in councils, guided by the Holy Spirit, to sort out what actually gets preached and taught in our churches.
Some advocates for separation say that the PCUSA has fallen into “universalism,” which they seem to think means denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the essentiality of faith in him alone for salvation. On the contrary, our denomination has never adopted any form of universalism.
At the same time, some Presbyterians may notice that the idea that it is God’s sovereign will to save/restore the whole world (John 4:42; Acts 3:21; 1 John 4:14, etc.) has a long, venerable, and Scripturally-based history. For instance, Paul’s argument in Romans 5:18, when he writes: “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Or in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” Does “all” mean, well, all? No less an orthodox theologian than Gregory of Nyssa held to a form of universalism. The wider church never officially agreed with him, but his opinion in this matter did not prevent his being lifted up as a great saint and theologian of the faith.
Perhaps what gets mistaken for universalism is the reticence of many Presbyterians to automatically judge and even condemn to hell their neighbors of other faiths. Frankly, we know too much of a history in which Christians committed horrible atrocities. In addition, we have also known of too many who do not call themselves Christians, who nevertheless appear to live in greater conformity with Jesus’ actual life and teachings than many Christians do. We can no longer accept a facile equivalence between being nominally a “Christian” and actually living in ways God calls on us to live.
Our church has awakened to the mature realization that it is possible to live a life in obedience to God’s law, and at the same time not be part of our faith community, as Paul affirms in Romans 2:14-16. Jesus himself allows that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16). We long ago acknowledged that Jesus could have sheep in folds that do not call themselves “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” or “Protestant.” Is it beyond possibility that Jesus could have sheep who belong to folds that do not call themselves “Christian”?
So, we continue to confess that salvation comes by no other name (Acts 4:12) and that there is no other way to God but through him (John 14:6). We simply recognize our own imperfections and humbly decline to tie salvation to something dependent on our human names, institutions, and rituals. Neither do we presume to make this evaluation on the Lord’s behalf, but we leave it up to him to recognize his own at the Day of Judgment.
This means approaching our neighbors with the good news humbly and incarnationally, rather than with a superior, patronizing, exclusionary, or even threatening attitude. Maybe, while affirming that trust in him alone remains a necessity, we also confess that the true uniqueness of Jesus Christ is found precisely in his inclusion somehow of all in God’s plan for salvation.
Salvation vs. Liberation.
Proponents of separation charge that we have replaced a traditional emphasis on salvation with a new stress on liberation. But we hold that if salvation does not include liberation, it is an empty word. Jesus comes into the world to set people free from sin, and from institutions and beliefs that keep people in bondage. When he heals the sick, drives out demons, welcomes women and children, and proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God, Jesus is a liberator. To be saved is to be set free. Even the Greek word usually translated as “forgive” is rooted in the word for “release.” Salvation is emancipatory.
This liberation is not merely spiritual or psychological. It also calls to be realized in our relationships, from the family to the world. Jesus did not simply preach; he was probably better known in his own time as a healer, exorcist, and community organizer. His work was more than talk; it was saving and liberating actions. Salvation that is just a matter of words and opinions is incomplete at best; salvation is only real when it is extended into our life in community.
We find it disingenuous when some (though certainly not all) who complain that we reduce salvation to liberation, appear to benefit morally and materially from unjust social structures, oppressive institutions, and exploitative practices. It makes us wonder if they aren’t more concerned with protecting a profitable and comfortable status quo, than with obedience to the radical demands of the Lord Jesus.
The position of the PCUSA on abortion is far more nuanced than critics charge. It is not simply a blanket affirmation of the “pro-choice” position. Our denomination never advocates or recommends that anyone get an abortion for any reason. We do not take the position that abortion is always justified just because it is a woman’s choice. We do allow that there are extreme circumstances when the decision to have abortion may be morally justifiable. We also hold that many abortions are morally wrong. We believe this intensely personal decision should be left to a woman, her family, and her church community to address prayerfully. We find this approach more faithful and pastoral than advocating that the State prohibit it in all, or almost all, cases.
Seeing such difficult and complicated personal moral issues in black-and-white, either-or, terms, relegating them to the often sordid and corrupt political machinations of the State, and taking the decision away from the church and individual believer, is not in our view faithful, or even effective in reducing the number of abortions.
Still, our churches are free and even encouraged to study the issue and come up with a position they can support in good conscience, even if different from that of the denomination.
In terms of sexual ethics, the Bible’s views are famously diverse, ranging from the forms of polygamy we find in some of the Old Testament, to the celibacy advocated by the Apostle Paul and practiced by the Lord. It is the view of the PCUSA that the relatively few Biblical verses that appear to talk about homosexuality need to be read in light of the very many more passages that advocate for justice and inclusion.
While it appears certain that homosexual practice was condemned in Israelite society, so were other practices that Christians have always allowed. The church has had to make a determination concerning whether Old Testament statutes refer to the ceremonial law, now fulfilled and completed in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or the moral law, which remains in force for Christians (epitomized in the Ten Commandments). Different generations and families of Christians have always held to different understandings of which specific laws fall into which category.
The prohibition of homosexual behavior is not explicitly included in the Ten Commandments. We find it generally associated with other purity laws we Christians no longer literally keep. Hence the view of some that these laws have no more effect for us than many other kosher laws. On the other hand, the mainstream of the church through its history has almost always categorized these laws as moral and continued to uphold them.
The ambiguity is not conclusively cleared up in the New Testament. Jesus says exactly nothing about the matter. The verses in which Paul appears to address it are notoriously difficult to translate from the Greek, which is often done with a remarkable disregard for context. The 1 Corinthians 6:9 passage, while very clear in some English Bibles, is not nearly so clear in the original, with at least three highly charged words: pornoi, malakoi, and arsenokoitai, that scholars, linguists, and cultural historians continue to argue about. To assume that these words clearly refer to what we know as same-sex relationships is somewhat presumptuous and perhaps even biased and anachronistic.
Then there is the view that what people in Paul’s day knew as “homosexuality” (the word wasn’t even invented until the 19th century, by the way), almost always referred to a violent, abusive, or coerced sexual act or relationship. There is no evidence that Paul ever personally knew anyone who lived in anything like the same-sex relationships of mutual love, commitment, and respect we know today.
Finally, we have to take into account the wildly inclusive practices of Jesus and Paul, reaching out even and especially to people who had been rejected and victimized by the larger society. While there is no mention of Jesus’ inclusion of any homosexuals in his circle, it is hard for some Christians today to imagine that the Lord who welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of other people categorized as sinners, would then turn around and reject loving same sex partners. The Lord rejected no one who came to him in faith.
It is becoming clear that there is enough ambiguity and room for doubt about homosexuality in the New Testament that the church needs to exercise caution when issuing blanket prohibitions about it.
The PCUSA does not condone or approve of any and all sexual behaviors between consenting adults. The removal, in 2011, of the “fidelity and chastity” language from the Book of Order does not imply an “anything goes” morality. Adultery and other sexual relationships characterized by lies, abuse, inequality, coercion, violence, or those which lack long-term commitment, mutuality, and reciprocity, remain morally repugnant to virtually all Presbyterians and Christians. We have now returned to a polity in which we trust local councils, those who personally know the individuals coming for ordination, to make their own prayerful and Scripture-guided decisions. We find this preferable to enforcing a simple one-size-fits-all legal edict. (And the implication that some make that accepting Gays somehow opens the door to condoning practices like bestiality strikes many of us as offensive, paranoid, and disturbed.)
Furthermore, does merely having a license from the State always make a sexual relationship proper and good? Does nothing immoral ever happen in marriage? Does not having a license from the State make a sexual relationship always wrong? Does God care about love, commitment, fidelity, and trust, or does God just look at the government paperwork?
We live in a time of sexual confusion and turmoil. While we respect people’s right to adhere to and follow a particular standard in their own congregations, we are no longer willing to impose one standard on every session and presbytery absolutely. Rather, we trust councils to seek and rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in assessing the gifts and vocations, and moral lives, of those they ordain.
Does this mean that councils will ordain people of whom others don’t approve? Yes. Will councils err? Certainly.
But we don’t feel that errors in this area are necessarily any more egregious than others. Why are sexual sins worse than, say, economic sins (concerning which the Bible has a great deal more to say)? Why are they worse than racism and other forms of bigotry? Why list some sins explicitly in our polity, and leave others out? What about the other, certainly less ambiguous sins listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: Idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, and robbers? Are these no longer problems in the church?
Some critics habitually charge us with caving to and compromising with, if not actually embracing with enthusiasm, values and practices from the prevailing culture. While the stances and commitments of the PCUSA may have often appeared to be in harmony with some of the social movements that appeared since the 1950’s, we have always responded mainly to our reading of Scripture. Indeed, some of these, like the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements, explicitly reflected and expressed the values of the Lord Jesus and Holy Scripture. If we seem to habitually come down in favor of inclusion, economic and ecological justice, equality, peace, and non-violence, it is because we hear Jesus and the Bible advocating on behalf of the same values.
On the other hand, when some reflexively uphold and defend values more in tune with the policies and traditions of the State, big business, the wealthy, and other established, powerful elements of society, we wonder where such loyalties are mandated in Scripture.
The Bible begins with stories of wandering migrants, continues in an account of escaped slaves, and settles into a narrative about members of a small, victimized nation. The New Testament presents us with a Messiah who is born in a barn to displaced parents, who even as an adult owned practically nothing, and reached out to all manner of poor, sick, rejected, excluded, and oppressed people. The Bible always speaks from the perspective of the poor, the alien, the disenfranchised, the victims, and the weak. This is especially the case when we understand the Bible to reveal the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is impossible to take the crucified Jesus seriously and still ignore, let alone advocate, the tyranny of the powerful over the powerless.
Therefore, when the Bible is made to support oppression, violence, and injustice, we feel the text is being seriously misread. We are forced to ask the question whether many in the church who say they uphold the Bible, aren’t really just supporting the values of previous supposedly more stable, orderly, prosperous, and complacent generations.
While we understand ordination to be on behalf of the whole church, that does not mean that councils do not still have the right to determine their own membership. They do. This is a basic principle of Presbyterian polity.
The PCUSA does not challenge any session’s right in this area. Recognizing that God calls both men and women into leadership, no session or presbytery is required to ordain or even consider for ordination anyone whom it does not deem appropriate. Under the new Form of Government, a council may even formally adopt the standards of the old Form of Government.
As far as the objection to Book of Order, F-1.0403, is concerned, it does not mean that theological convictions are of no consequence. (It is in fact often conservatives who have generally been advocating for language like this as a way of ensuring their continued inclusion in denominational decision-making processes.) Then there is the final stipulation: “No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.” So the reader is referred to other parts of the Constitution (which includes the Book of Confessions as well as the Book of Order), where theological convictions matter a great deal. We simply don’t feel that the Form of Government is where this belongs.
Finally, we are reminded that neither Jesus nor Paul, nor even the 16th century Reformers, intended to break away from the religious communions in which they were respectively raised and nurtured, Judaism and Roman Catholicism. In their devotion to the truth they and their followers became obnoxious to traditionalists in those communions, and they were eventually systematically excluded. In the case of the Reformation, actual war was made against them. But they did not choose to separate; they were, as we say, kicked out.
It is therefore important, in our view, to state that all our congregations remain welcome and valued members of the PCUSA. We don’t want any congregations to leave. We value other voices. We cherish having different perspectives among us, even if they do occasionally annoy the majority. The majority sometimes needs to be annoyed.
If one of our presbyteries dismisses a church to another communion it is with our deep sadness and regret, and at that church’s request. They are choosing to separate from us. We are not kicking them out.