Whither the Presbyterian Church?

“For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” (II Tim. 4.10)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (I Jn. 2.15-17)

Whither the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

For the 46th year in a row, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost members and churches, and for the fourth year in a row, the net membership loss has exceeded 60,000.  2011 represents the first time that the membership of the PCUSA has officially dipped below two million—the reported number is 1,952,287, which is actually inflated, as it includes the membership of churches (like mine) that have voted to disaffiliate but are being sued for their property.  To be sure, 86,645 people (a number that is annually declining) joined PCUSA congregations in 2011.  However, the loss of 150,449 members more than offsets that gain.

Not only is the PCUSA losing members, it is losing whole congregations.  In 2011, only eighteen new congregations were organized, and no congregations were received from other denominations, whereas 21 congregations were dismissed to other denominations and 75 congregations were dissolved (which number probably includes congregations that left the denomination without the blessing of presbytery as well as those congregations that simply died because its members were too old, too few, and/or too poor to continue constituting a viable congregation).  To remedy this egregious loss (and the like losses that have been transpiring for decades), the 220th General Assembly of the PCUSA voted to approve the General Assembly Mission Council’s proposal to organize 1001 new worshiping communities in the next ten years.  This same proposal was introduced last year at the PCUSA’s Big Tent event in Indianapolis by GAMC director Roger Dermody.  As I wrote in response to this proposal then, I still contend now: This proposal will not work because the PCUSA has not taken into account the consequences of the pluralistic worldview that pervades its seminaries and many, if not most, of its congregations, especially the insurmountable barrier that this worldview poses to evangelism.

The annual hemorrhaging of members and congregations is symptomatic of a much greater underlying problem: The PCUSA is in love with this present world.  Or, to be more precise, the PCUSA in large measure is given over to the doctrines of Theological Liberalism, which, in turn, is in love with this present world and ever has been since its inception.

Theological Liberalism was born in the aftermath of the devastating attack on religion in general—and Christianity in particular—by the Enlightenment.  During the Enlightenment, European philosophers, of whom Immanuel Kant and David Hume were foremost, succeeded in convincing most who were educated in Europe’s universities that supernatural revelation was simply irrational.  The only sources of knowledge accessible to humankind, the Enlightenment philosophers asserted, were empirical observation and reason based solely thereupon.  That a Supreme Being who formed the human mind and the human tongue might use the minds and tongues of just a handful of men in a minor civilization that had been gone from the face of the earth for seventeen or eighteen centuries to deliver His message to all humanity for all time was judged to be an offense to reason.

Moreover, during this same time, the disciplines of literary and historical criticism were developed that effectively said that the text of Scripture cannot be taken at face value (let alone as the Word of God); the books of the Bible were each hodge-podged together by ancient scribes from even more ancient sources.  Moses was deemed not to be the author of the Pentateuch (in contradiction to the testimony of the New Testament; Mt. 19.8, Lk. 16.29,31, 24.44, Jn. 1.17,45, 5.45-47, 7.19-23, Acts 26.22, 28.23), Isaiah was not the author of the last twenty-seven chapters of the book ascribed to his name (cf. Mt. 3.3, 12.17-21, Lk. 3.4-6, 4.17-19, Jn. 21.38, Acts 8.30-33, Rom. 10.20), and Peter was not the author of the second epistle ascribed to his name (cf. II Pet. 1.1,14,16-18, 3.1).  We Presbyterians are fond of quoting Chapter 20, Section 2, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it in matters of faith of worship.  So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”  Thus, those who use the tools of literary and historical criticism would bind our consciences to their teaching in opposition to the plain text of Scripture.

In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, jealous for the high regard of the cultural elite, sought to recast Christianity into the world’s way of thinking, jettisoning the idea of propositional revelation in the hope that the cultural elite would find this sentimental Christianity more palatable and to their liking than the inflexible approach of “It is written” or “Have you not read” (cf. Mt. 4.4,7,10, 11.10, 21.16,42, 19.4, Mk. 7.6, Lk. 3.4, 24.46, Acts 1.20, 2.16,25,34, 4.25, 7.42,48, 13.33-35,40,47, 15.15, 28.25).  The doctrines of Christianity, he believed, must be decontextualized from its foundation in Scripture and recontextualized into the prevailing contemporary worldview.  If there is a conflict between the text of Scripture and the fundamental presuppositional beliefs of the prevailing contemporary worldview, it is the text of Scripture that must be made to agree with the world’s way of thinking than to require those in the world to reorient their thinking to the context of God’s self-revelation in Scripture.  Furthermore, if there is anything in Scripture that is unpalatable to the prevailing contemporary worldview, it must be jettisoned in order to make Christianity appealing to those in the world so that they might meet Christ in the context of prevailing public opinion.

Moreover, not only did Schleiermacher seek to recontextualize the Christian faith into the worldview of its cultured despisers, he adopted the cultured despisers’ literary and historical critical approach to the Scriptures, seeing it as merely a different interpretation of the Scriptures rather than as an utter repudiation of the objective self-revelation of God in the context into which He chose to reveal Himself.  In the context of Scripture, all of God’s self-revelation coheres.  But if that context is discredited, as is far too often attempted through the employment of literary and historical criticism, God’s self-revelation becomes marred, distorted, obscured, and even obliterated.

Thus, the Christian faith became for Schleiermacher and his spiritual heirs a deeply personal, subjective reality that has meaning only for oneself, but which has no objective content to which one is obligated to conform.  Only the external demands made on the Christian faith by the world must be obeyed; otherwise, the Christian faith will be judged to be irrelevant.

Thus it is that Schleiermacher was too in love with the world and the things in the world that he compromised the Christian faith to the world, hoping to curry the world’s favor.  And Schleiermacher’s spiritual heirs in the PCUSA today are still doing the same thing.

In the wake of hundreds of PCUSA congregations reevaluating their relationship with the PCUSA in the aftermath of the ratification of the removal from the PCUSA Book of Order of ordination standards that required PCUSA officers to practice either chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman, a group of PCUSA pastors and seminary professors calling themselves NEXT Church wrote, “Some seek separation, differentiation, even the establishment of a New Fellowship which has all the marks of a new denomination.  This new fellowship echoes the church of a century ago, when there was not a Book of Confessions, but a singular confession, and Scripture was yet to be read aided by the tools of historical and literary criticism.  The New Reformed Body seems to us to be the church we once were, rather than the church God is calling us to be.”  A with Schleiermacher, the NEXT Church leaders are envious of the world’s methods of interpreting Scripture.  To them, the PCUSA’s state of being compromised and continuing to compromise itself to the world’s way of thinking is “the church God is calling us to be.”

This is made nowhere more evident than in the address of Princeton Seminary Professor William Stacy Johnson at a NEXT Church conference on February 27, 2012.  “Mainline religion,” he said, “faces a tsunami of change: and adaptive challenge.  The real adaptive challenge is not confronting the tsunami, but the gospel itself.”  In other words, the Gospel must be adapted to conform to the deeply-held presuppositional beliefs of the prevailing contemporary worldview.  He claimed that a large number of factors collectively imperil the probability of the survival of Theologically Liberal denominations like the PCUSA.  “But if you are a conservative, the news is even worse.  (There has been a) dramatic decrease in the percentage of Americans who believe the Bible is inerrant, and (a) dramatic increase in the acceptance of religious pluralism and inter-religious marriage.  Three quarters of Americans respond ‘yes’ that there are religions other than their own that can offer a true path to God.  The number of people who adhere to no religion at all—the ‘nones’—increased from two or three percent in 1990 to close to seventeen percent in 2010, (and) the number of ‘nones’ in their twenties now stands at twenty-five percent.”  Furthermore, he said, “The real adaptive challenge comes from the gospel itself.  The adaptive challenge in the church goes all the way down.  It includes the need to envision and re-envision the gospel itself.  (What we need is) not just a better delivery system for the message, (but the) message itself needs to be re-envisioned.”  But this has been the approach Theological Liberalism has been taking ever since Schleiermacher.  The Church in Europe adopted this approach, and now the Church in Europe is dead.  This has been the approach that has dominated the PCUSA since the 1960s, and the PCUSA has been losing members every year ever since.  Johnson complained that “Christianity as usual is not working,” but what he has proposed in the re-envisioning of the Gospel is “Christianity as usual” in the recent experience of the PCUSA.

The NEXT Church leaders, like Schleiermacher before them, are “in love with this present world.”  Johnson has rightly noted the inherent pluralism that is part and parcel with the spirit of this age.  But he is in love with the spirit of this age and would have the Church wed the spirit of this age by conforming the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the liking of the spirit of this age.  But the Church’s Bridegroom is not the spirit of this age but rather her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and in order for her to wed the spirit of this age, she must forsake her first love (Rev. 2.4), who “loved (her) and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present (her) to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (or holy and blameless).” (Eph. 5.26-27)

But the PCUSA has prostituted herself, and continues to prostitute herself, to the world.  But the world has never loved her, does not love her, and will never love her.  Certainly the world approves of her prostitution, for by it she does its bidding.  But it is written, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.  And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute.  They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it in their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” (Rev. 17.15-17)

But this need not be the fate of the PCUSA.  Even after philandering Israel had prostituted herself with other gods, the Lord said,

“Therefore, I will allure her,
     and bring her into the wilderness,
     and speak tenderly to her.

“And there I will give her vineyards
     and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.

“And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
     as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

“And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered no more. … And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.  And you shall know the LORD.” (Hos. 2.14-20)

The prostitution by the Church of Jesus Christ to the world that is inherent in the re-envisioning of the Gospel grieves Him.  If she persists in her prostitution until the end, then her end will be as described of the Great Prostitute in the Book of Revelation.  But until then, He persists in calling her tenderly back to Himself, for He wants her restored to Himself and not to perish.  “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn and live.” (Ezek. 18.31-32)

Whither Evangelical Presbyterianism?

The love that Theological Liberalism has for this present world is plain for all to see.  But what is less plain is the love that Presbyterian Evangelicals have for this present world that lulls them into complacency.  In their aforementioned letter, the NEXT Church leaders claim that they “will miss (Presbyterian Evangelicals’) focused commitment to evangelism.”  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  American Evangelicals are losing their commitment to evangelism, and Presbyterian Evangelicals are not significantly different.

The Lord’s complaint against the Church in Ephesus is rightly leveled against Presbyterian Evangelicals today.  We “have abandoned the love (we) had at first.”  Therefore, we are admonished to “Remember therefore from where (we) have fallen; repent, and do the works (we did at first.  If not, (the Lord Jesus) will come to (us) and remove (our) lampstand from its place, unless (we) repent.” (Rev. 2.4-5)

The world is lost in sin.  Our friends, neighbors, family members, and co-workers do not know the hope that lives within us, the hope of salvation that is found only in Jesus Christ.  Our hearts must be broken by the plight of the lost, which plight breaks the heart of the Lord Jesus.  We must renew our commitment to reaching out to the lost with the hope of salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin that is found only in Jesus Christ, for that is the only hope the world truly has.  The works of the Law cannot save; Allah, Buddha, and the pantheon of Hindu gods cannot save; the doctrines of pluralism and Theological Liberalism cannot save.  Jesus Christ alone can save, but those who do not know Him will perish in their sin.  Do not forget the warning that the Lord gave to the Prophet Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. … Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die.  Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezek. 3.16-21)

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (I Cor. 1.21)

But the biggest impediment to evangelism in the Church today is a sense of guilt for the sins of which we have not truly repented, which sins continue to fester and plague us.  These are sins that this present world has in abundance.  Yet we are called to put them to death, for their continued presence in our lives undermines and belies our testimony of the power of Jesus Christ to deliver us from the power of sin and darkness.  “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6.2)  “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” (Col. 3.5-6)  And indeed, if we have not put our sins to death, it shows that we are “still in love with this present world,” and that “the love of the Father is not in” us.

Likewise, our love of things—nice homes, nice cars, things that money can buy—is another impediment to evangelism in the Church today.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the love of money (and by extension, that which money can buy) is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (I Tim. 6.10)  They lead to complacency and dullness of heart toward the things that break the heart of the Lord Jesus, and they show that we are “still in love with this present world,” and that “the love of the Father is not in” us.

“But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.  Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (I Tim. 6.11-12)

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