According to the Religion New Service, global Presbyterian denominations continue to distance themselves from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in response to actions of its General Assembly to permit the ordination of practicing homosexuals (2011) and to redefine Christian marriage to allow, but not mandate, same-sex weddings (2014). The Presbyterian Churches of Brazil and Peru join the Presbyterian Church of Mexico who, in 2011, ceased its mission partnership with the PC(USA).
Representatives of the PC(USA)–including the denomination’s highest elected official Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons–contend that the disagreement is simply about the extent to which the Christian church should endorse LGBT people in their sexual identity: “Some think they should be loved and changed, and some think they should be loved and accepted.”
The churches of the Global South don’t quite see it that way. In their letter announcing the break, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil stated that the PC(USA)’s position goes, “against the principle of the authority of Scripture over the life and faith of the Church.”
As a result, partnerships in Brazil—such as ones that provides continuing education for Brazilian pastors and missionaries and plants new churches—will cease in 2016. However, the PC(USA) continues to maintain links to the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil, a younger and smaller denomination that separated from the Presbyterian Church of Brazil in the 1970s. Work will also continue in Peru, though through other Presbyterian denominations in that country.
These rifts are tragic given that American Presbyterianism has a long history of significant global mission work—including starting virtually all of the denominations that have now distanced themselves from the PC(USA). The founding fathers of these indigenous Presbyterian Churches now find themselves being chided by their spiritual offspring for abandoning the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
It seems that while the PC(USA) is the legal successor to prior Presbyterian denominations, dating to the founding of the United States, it is not heir to the same theological vision or has squandered what inheritance it did receive leading to a significantly diminished witness at home and abroad.
At home, the denomination itself reports that fifty American congregations have departed since the redefinition of marriage in June 2014, and 209 congregations total in 2013-2014 alone. The last time the denomination had a net-increase in membership—one unrelated to a denominational merger—was 1965.
Once again explanations vary as to the reason. Parsons claims that approximately one-third of the recent decline can be attributed to congregations departing to more conservative or evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).
The remaining two-thirds are due to “…aging, the lower birthrate, people moving to where churches aren’t.” There is no doubt that both of these causes—theological conflict and demographic shifts—have precipitated the numerical decline of the PC(USA). These same trends threaten the denomination’s very existence.
Theologically, the PC(USA) made the calamitous choice of choosing to abandon consistent doctrinal standards—of even the most elemental type—in favor of an ad hoc, case-by-case approach, in which no belief is out-of-bounds as long as you can get a majority to vote for it. In a denomination that has come to value niceness as the zenith of the Christian virtues, simply appealing to one’s private, subjective interpretations or experience is generally sufficient to pass muster.
The PC(USA) is a denomination full of well-educated people, but at times it evinces a peculiarly petulant stupidity. Take, for example, a recent conversation in which it was claimed that should Presbyterian pastors be required to believe and follow our confession’s he would immediately be fired since he does not observe the Lord’s Day in the fashion envisioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith.
His assumption is, of course, that he shouldn’t be deposed from ministry because of this. This is based on the presupposition, almost universally shared today, that whatever I/we/culture do is right simply because I/we/culture do it.
Now, I have no desire to depose a person from the pastorate simply for working on a Sunday—I do desire, however, that Christians (especially pastors) observe a sabbath in accordance with God’s creational ordinance and for their own enjoyment.
This argument—that we cannot require confessional affirmation—assumes that all things to which the confessions speak are of equal importance. Such a claim is not a necessary one. The choice does not have to be between total subscription to the confessions and total freedom to believe as one wishes.
A third way exists—a way, incidentally, pursued by the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) —that allows for a diversity of beliefs in some areas and for consistency of beliefs in others. Where the PC(USA) has made “mere Christianity” optional, ECO has made it central. ECO has chosen rightly where the PC(USA) chose wrongly: to preserve a core theological identity that affirms mere Christianity while avoiding doctrinal relativism or doctrinal obscurantism. An organization will decline when the beliefs and narratives that once supported it become to diverse to hold it together: this is where the PC(USA) is today.
The PC(USA) is also, quite literally, going extinct. Over the last forty years, the make up of our nation has changed considerably, yet the PC(USA) remains remarkably homogenous—even the gays and lesbians qualify for AARP. That larger demographic shifts are all but absent in the profile of the PC (USA) suggests that it has been unable to effectively carry out the very essence of its stated mission—bearing witness to the kingdom of God here and now—which includes both ethnic and age diversity under the gospel. A denominational report indicates that almost 50 percent of church members are not employed. Only 7 percent of members report, on the other hand, being “full-time homemakers.” Could it be that almost half of our church members are retired?
So who’s right—the Global South or the West? Is this a theological crisis or a demographic one? The answer is, both. A theological vision that is based on the absence of conflict rather than upon the presence of truth isn’t compelling to a culture that, for the most part, no longer values civil religion of the sort that typifies PC(USA).