What Is in a Name?

What is in a name?  For most of us, ours was chosen for us before we were born.  As for my name, Loren James Golden: my first name was chosen simply because my parents liked it (and yes, I was actually named after Canadian actor Lorne Greene); my middle name was chosen because it was my father’s first; and my surname was my father’s surname—and my mother’s adopted surname upon marrying him—and my paternal grandparents’ before them, and my great-grandparents’ before them, etc. (although sometime around the Revolution it was apparently changed from Golding, possibly to distance my patriot ancestors from loyalist relations who supported the British crown during the War).  Our names represent our character and our identity, whether good or bad, and it is that character and identity that come to others’ minds when they hear them.  Some names are universally admired and adored (or nearly so) because of the people they represent, such as Mother Teresa or Jimmy Stewart, whereas others are just as thoroughly condemned, such as Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler.  Others are loved by some and scorned by others, whereas others still—most, in fact—are known to very few.

Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from the Lead Pastor, Rev. Jim West, of my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City—a weekly e-mail entitled, A Note from Pastor Jim, sent to members, former members, and friends of the church—stating that the Session (the governing board of elders in a Presbyterian church) was prayerfully considering changing the church’s name.  Mostly this is because of confusion over the name Presbyterian—most Christians do not know what “Presbyterian” means or the theological heritage for which it stands (indeed, many pew-sitting Presbyterians do not know that), and many Evangelical Christians in particular associate it with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which they regard as apostate, inasmuch as most of the leaders in that denomination have bent over backward to accommodate the denomination’s doctrine and policies to the ways of the unbelieving world, in contradiction to such passages as Romans 12.1-2, I Corinthians 1.18-25, James 4.4, and I John 2.15-17.  But even the name Colonial is being questioned, especially considering that the church is endeavoring to transition to a multiethnic congregation (in the mold of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), and “most African Americans have ZERO positive association with the word ‘colonial’,” associating it with “images of plantations and slaveowners.”  Pastor Jim also recounted that he almost declined to candidate for the position of Colonial’s Lead Pastor back in 2007, before he even visited the church, because the name gave him the impression that it was “a very old, formal congregation that (he) assumed would be petrified in its traditions and homogeneous in its wealthy, white, generally liberal membership.”  (Obviously, he visited the church and revised his opinion of it.)

This news came as something of a shock to me.  My last three church homes, representing nearly my entire adult life (from age 24 and on), are all Presbyterian—Eastminster Presbyterian in Wichita, Kansas (EPC; 1991-1996), Colonial Presbyterian (EPC; 1996-2014), and Denton Presbyterian in Denton, Texas (PCA; 2014-present), in all three of which I have been an active, contributing member (for details, see my post, One Presbyterian Layman’s Journey of Faith).  Obviously being Presbyterian is immensely important to me (after [1] being found in Christ and [2] being a member of a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church).  This is not to say that I would not regularly attend a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching, non-Presbyterian church if no Presbyterian congregation fitting that description was planted within a reasonable commute from my home.  However, I believe that the standards of classical Presbyterianism—the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms—“contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.3, §14-1.E.3; PCA Book of Church Order §21-5.2, §24-6.2), and being a member of a congregation that cannot affirm the Reformed interpretation of secondary doctrines (e.g., the Doctrines of Grace/Predestination, Covenant Theology, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Signs and Seals of the Covenant) would put me in the uncomfortable position of being at variance with the pastors and elders who would have authority over me, for the bare fact that these doctrines are of secondary importance does not mean that they are unimportant, for they are taught in Scripture.  Moreover, classical Presbyterianism, such as is expressed in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, has a certain high quality of exegetical preaching to which I have become accustomed in the past 28 years, and which I have rarely found outside of classical Presbyterianism, and I have a deep appreciation for the Presbyterian form of government, both of which would be greatly missed, were I to regularly attend a non-Presbyterian church.

I became aware of Colonial’s reputation as a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching congregation while I was still a member of Eastminster (when both churches were still affiliated with the PC(USA); both have since transitioned to the EPC).  When I secured employment in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, my thoughts immediately turned to Colonial as my next church home (I really did not seriously entertain any other possibility), and all the pastors at Eastminster recommended Colonial as well.  I felt some struggle in my first few years at Colonial, because my theological formation at Eastminster (which included taking distance learning classes at Reformed Theological Seminary) was essentially Old School Presbyterian (with which I have consistently identified ever since), whereas Colonial is basically a New School Presbyterian church.1  Nevertheless, I committed to Colonial and grew to love her, and when I secured employment in north Texas, it was at least as painful to leave Colonial as it had been to leave Eastminster nearly eighteen years earlier.

Quite apart from any sentimental attachment to the name Colonial Presbyterian Church that I might have, I believe it unwise for the church to change her name, either by omitting the name Presbyterian or by replacing the name Colonial.  Pastor Jim states that he loves the EPC, and that neither he nor the Session have any intention of abandoning their Presbyterian heritage, and I believe him.  However, to drop Colonial’s middle name would give the impression of embarrassment over, and a desire to distance the church from, the EPC and Colonial’s Evangelical Presbyterian heritage, irrespective of the Session’s intention.  Truth Matters, and Evangelical Presbyterianism is all about the Truth.  Rather than drop the name Presbyterian from the church’s name out of concern that it might be confusing to prospective visitors, it would behoove Colonial to publish on its website an essay on what, in her own words, Evangelical Presbyterianism is (the brief overview of what Colonial believes on the About Us page is limited to primary doctrines that are in no way unique to Evangelical Presbyterianism), and why it is important that Colonial is an Evangelical Presbyterian church.  (Update, February 22, 2020: Subsequent to my publication of this post, Colonial has updated her About Us page to include a section entitled, “Why Presbyterian?”, in which she does this.)

If anything, it would be worse for Colonial Presbyterian Church to change her first name than to drop her middle.  A name is much more than a label or a brand, more than something by which we introduce ourselves and others call us.  As stated above, it represents our character and identity, and Colonial’s character and identity are impeccable.  Colonial has a history and reputation of faithful preaching and community involvement, and that history and reputation are bound up with the name Colonial Presbyterian Church.  If Colonial were to change her name to Light of Christ Church, for example, it would be more descriptive of her mission statement, but the history and reputation bound up in the name recognition would be lost, even if the faithful preaching and community involvement remain unchanged.  Moreover, rather than focus on a perceived link between Colonial’s name and slavery in the antebellum South, why not instead identify Colonial Presbyterian Church as a colony of heaven planted by God to bring the light of Christ the Savior to a dark world lost in sin?  If Christ has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and (has) made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev. 5.9-10), and if Colonial is Better Together, striving to be “a multi-generational, multi-ethnic family,” cannot Colonial’s good name be used to illustrate the concept that, as a colony here on Earth of the Kingdom of the King of kings, the generational and ethnic makeup of Colonial ought to resemble that of the Kingdom whose colony she is?

As Pastor Jim emphasized, the decision of the Colonial Session to discern the Lord’s leading as to whether the church should change her name or leave it as it is was not a frivolous one, nor one reached rashly, nor one on which the Session is of one mind.  As he said, “this is a very sensitive topic, (and) there are many strong feelings out there about our name, our history, our legacy, and our personal investment in this organization called Colonial (and Presbyterianism as well).”  More importantly than the decision as to whether to change the church’s name or keep it the same is the need to preserve Colonial’s peace and unity.  I cannot emphasize highly enough: This is not a decision worthy of splitting the church.  Colonial during this season of discernment needs all our prayers “that (Colonial) may all be one, just as (the) Father (is) in (the Son) and (the Son) in (the Father), that (Colonial) also may be in (God), so that (Kansas City and) the world may believe that (the Father) has sent (the Son).” (Jn. 17.21)  And may Colonial “complete (the Lord’s) joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2.2)

1 For the uninitiated, New School Presbyterianism is not Theologically Liberal Presbyterianism.  When the Presbytery of Philadelphia was formed in 1706 (the precursor to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, which was organized in 1788), it was an amalgam of two distinct parties—Scots-Irish Presbyterian immigrants and English Puritan immigrants who preferred the Presbyterian system of government (see Hart & Muether, Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729).  The Scots-Irish (Old School) were the group that lobbied for the adoption of the Westminster Standards in 1729 and were skeptical about open-air revivals and the charismata (especially speaking in tongues), whereas the Puritans (New School) had more pietist sensibilities, resisting subscription to any confessional standard and being more amenable to open-air revivals and the charismata.  This conflict persisted in American Presbyterianism for most of the first two centuries of its existence, resulting in the Old Side/New Side split of 1741-1758 and the Old School/New School split of 1837-1869, until it was eclipsed by the so-called “Fundamentalist/Modernist” controversies of the 20th century.  It could be argued that New School Presbyterians were more susceptible to Theological Liberalism than Old School Presbyterians, but it would be unfair to characterize them as Theological Liberals, as they, like Old School Presbyterians and unlike Theological Liberals, hold to Biblical inerrancy and believe in the primacy of preaching the Gospel.  Nevertheless, the undercurrents of the older conflict still persist today.  The PCA is predominantly (but not exclusively) an Old School Presbyterian denomination, whereas the EPC is predominantly (but not exclusively) New School.  Both denominations adopt the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard, but the EPC has authored a document entitled “Essentials of Our Faith” that outlines primary doctrines of the Christian faith, and requires her officers to “affirm and adopt” it “without exception” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.5, §14-1.E.5), while generally allowing greater latitude for officers to declare exceptions to secondary doctrines in the Westminster Standards (EPC Book of Order §13-6) than the PCA (PCA Book of Church Order §13-6, §21-4.f).

On the Sinfulness of Sexual Desire

In the past several decades, as activists seeking to normalize homosexual and transgender behavior—as well as other aberrant forms of sexual behavior that are not easily classified as abuse—Evangelicals have sought to draw a distinction between those who practice such things and those who merely are afflicted with the desire to do them.  Thus, in the ordination debates that raged in the Mainline Protestant denominations in the 1990s and 2000s, Mainline Evangelicals made a distinction between homosexuals, defined as those who were afflicted with same-gender sexual desires, and practicing homosexuals, defined as those who acted on those desires.  The point that they wanted to make was that homosexuality, like all forms of sexual expression outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is a sin, as defined by God’s Word (Lev. 18.22, 20.13, Rom. 1.24-27, I Cor. 6.9-11, I Tim. 1.9-10).  Thus, they argued, while it is a violation of God’s Word to ordain practicing homosexuals, it is not a violation to ordain non-practicing homosexuals.

This year, an attempt was made to introduce this distinction in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative denomination formed in 1973, before the ordination debate in the Mainline denominations reared its ugly head, threatening to further fracture the already faltering denominations.  This attempt came not in the General Assembly, but in the Revoice Conference, hosted by the PCA’s Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  The Revoice organization’s stated purpose is, “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”  In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to have homosexual, transgender, bisexual, or similar desires, even to find one’s identity in these desires, just as long as one does not act on them.

Homosexuality, like these others, is a sin to be repented of and mortified, not a morally neutral condition of same-gender sexual attraction to be embraced and incorporated into one’s identity in Christ.  After Paul identified “men who practice homosexuality” (Gk. arsenokoitai and malakoi) among those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”, he wrote, “And such were (Gk. æte; note the imperfect [past] tense of the verb) some of you.  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.” (I Cor. 6.9-11)  In other words, among the Corinthian believers were some who used to be homosexuals, but they repented of their homosexuality and turned to Jesus Christ in faith, and now they were no longer homosexuals.  This does not mean that they did not continue struggling with same-gender sexual attraction, but they recognized it for what it was—a desire to engage in sexual intercourse with a person who was the same gender as themselves—and sought to put that desire to death.  They did not find their identity—in whole or in part—in their sinful desires.

James explained this well when he wrote, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Jas. 1.13-15)  Our hearts are corrupt.  “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21)  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9)  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15.18-20)

All sin begins as desire in the human heart.  Again to quote James, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?  Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jas. 4.1-3)

Sin infects every aspect of our being, especially our desires.  We want what we want, regardless of whether it is right or wrong in the sight of God.  This is why so many men in positions of prominence in the culture—inside the pale of the Church, as well as outside—have been caught up in the day of reckoning that has come with the #MeToo movement.  They wanted what they wanted, and for a time they could take it for themselves with seemingly no consequences.  But “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Lk. 12.2-3)

Our identity must be found in Christ alone—not in what we do, not in our family or cultural relationships, not in our position or station in life, and certainly not in our sinful desires, for “the world is passing away along with its desires” (I Jn. 2.17).  So then, Paul enjoins us, “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.”  Rather, we are to “put off the old self with its practices and…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3.5-10)  We are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13.14)

This world is fraught with “identity politics”, wanting us to find our identity in our “sexual orientation” and in a “gender” that is not defined by having been made male (XY) or female (XX) by God, wanting us to state whether we prefer to be referred to with masculine or feminine (or neuter or plural) pronouns.  The world wants us to squeeze us into its mold of self-centeredness in all things sexual (and yet is surprised when people follow that to its logical conclusion and blatantly abuse others).

But we do not belong to this world; we belong to Christ alone.  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.1-2)

When Progress Founders: An Evaluation of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Efforts to Reform Itself

In the early-to-mid 2010s, the Presbyterian Church (USA) found itself facing an unprecedented (although not unpredictable) crisis: In the aftermath of the 2010 vote to ordain practicing homosexuals to the offices of teaching elder (Presbyterianese for minister), ruling elder, and deacon, and reinforced by the 2014 vote to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, hundreds of Evangelical congregations, representing hundreds of thousands of members, sought dismissal and/or disaffiliation from the denomination, so as to affiliate with an Evangelical Presbyterian denomination—especially the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians—while many thousands more Evangelicals quietly left their PC(USA) church homes for Evangelical churches—some Presbyterian and some not.

In the midst of this crisis, then-Moderator Heath Rada issued a “Call to the Church”, reporting that, in meeting with many congregations and Presbyterians in his functional role as goodwill ambassador for the denomination, he had met with a great deal of dissatisfaction with, and fundamental loss of trust in, the PC(USA) government. Then the PC(USA) bureaucracy responded in the most predictable way possible: It polled its membership (with the results published in a twenty-page report entitled, “When We Gather at the Table”), established three committees—“The Way Forward Commission”, the “All Agency Review Committee”, and the “2020 Vision Team”—and began a series of “Big Tent” conferences aimed at promoting unity among PC(USA) Presbyterians. Similarly, another group of PC(USA) leaders began a series of “NEXT Church” conferences to talk about the “exciting” opportunities about what God has in store next for the PC(USA).

Meanwhile, Evangelical Presbyterians have continued departing the denomination in droves, and the flagship publication of Evangelical Presbyterians, The Layman Online (formerly The Presbyterian Layman), has discontinued coverage of the PC(USA), while its governing board, the Presbyterian Lay Committee, has reorganized itself as Reformation Press, in order to function as a non-denominational ministry. Thus, for the first time in Presbyterian history, there is no Evangelical presence in the PC(USA) strong enough to thwart the Theologically Liberal leadership of the denomination from making genuine progress toward fulfilling the goals of its humanistic agenda. Thus, the hopes of the PC(USA) leadership in the denomination’s Louisville, Kentucky, offices for The Way Forward Commission, the All Agency Review Committee, and The 2020 Vision Team are especially high.

And yet, there are still PC(USA) leaders who are dismally disappointed that The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report to the 2018 PC(USA) General Assembly is preoccupied with reorganizing the way the denomination’s offices in Louisville—the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board—relate to one another and do business. Raymond Roberts, a Virginia pastor who co-chairs the PC(USA) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, expressed his frustration that The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report “lacks theological substance, … does not address (the PC(USA)’s) most significant crisis,” and puts forward “two recommendations that depart from core Presbyterian principles.” With surprising insight and candor for a Theological Liberal, he wrote:

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lacked a compelling shared vision for decades. The drift that has resulted from this lack of vision is much more responsible for the recent loss of members than any General Assembly decision concerning sexual orientation. …

Making disciples of Jesus Christ is a core church function and for decades it has been obvious we are no longer good at it. Statistics don’t lie. The repeal of blue laws contributed to waning in Sabbath observance. Colleges that were formed, in part, to give congregational leaders and professionals a critical understanding of the Bible and the faith lost their denominational distinctiveness. Campus ministries disappeared. Church camps closed. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this visible, much-discussed decline, our denomination never ask(ed) how we ought to reform our approach to this core function in a changing world.

PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, on the other hand, applauds The Way Forward Commission’s work. He believes “that the most significant problem that (the PC(USA) is) facing at the national church level today is the belief that the corporate model of leading the church is the best leadership model. However, this model has proven to be an impediment to the transformation of our denomination for many years.” He blames this type of thinking for “membership loss, internal conflict, struggling mid councils, and a host of other negative outcomes.” He believes that changing the governmental structure in the manner recommended by The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report is instrumental in enabling the PC(USA) to “return to ‘being’ the church that Jesus intended us to be. A church focused on liberating those trapped by the winds of despair, while giving hope to those who need to hear a Word from the Lord.” Ironically, Nelson wrote, “change without transformation could simply be understood as ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’” Reading through The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report, it is difficult to see how these recommendations are not thus aptly described.

In response to reactions, such as Roberts’, to The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report, the Commission’s Moderator and the Moderator of The All Agency Review Committee wrote in a joint press release, “Our mandate (from the 2016 General Assembly) was limited to dealing with the dysfunctions in the form and structure of (the PC(USA)). We were never asked to explore or discuss vision or theology for the church. This work has been entrusted to our colleagues on the 2020 Vision Team.”

However, when one turns from the Titanic deck chair rearranging activities of The Way Forward Commission to The 2020 Vision Team’s Interim Report to the 2018 General Assembly, one encounters the Pollyannish PC(USA) Liberal thought silo, surrounded by thick, impenetrable walls. There is no theological reflection to be found here. There is nothing transformative to be found here. The Interim Report is full of Theological Liberal platitudes that fail utterly to grapple with the depth of human depravity before God, to show any genuine appreciation for the tremendous cost borne by Jesus Christ on the Cross in bearing the penalty for that depravity on behalf of sinners like you and me, to show any appreciation at all for the grave insult Religious Pluralism shows Him by allowing for fallen men and women to come to salvation from sin and death in ways independent of faith in His substitutionary atoning work on the Cross. There is no appreciation for the fact that the PC(USA) has no compelling reason to give anyone outside the pale of the Church why he or she should become a Christian, much less a Presbyterian. And there is no appreciation for the fact, as Roberts lamented, that the PC(USA) has patently lost the capacity to train disciples of Jesus Christ.

The 2020 Vision Team’s Interim Report identifies an “urgent need to address issues such as racism, poverty, income inequality, climate change, domestic violence, and human rights.” Most of these are, indeed, serious sins that afflict the human race, regardless of the fact that all of them are also causes near and dear to the heart of liberals—religious and secular alike. And to the extent that they are sins, they are violations of the Second Great Commandment, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19.18, Mt. 22.39, Mk. 12.31), and need to be repented of. But the First and Greatest Commandment is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Dt. 6.4-5, Mt. 22.37-38, Mk. 12.29-30) To be sure, fulfilling the Second Great Commandment is indispensable to fulfilling the First. After all, as the Apostle John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn. 4.20) However, one gets the distinct impression, listening to Theological Liberals talking about sin, that they believe that one demonstrates love for God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength solely by demonstrating love for one’s neighbor, as if fulfillment of the Second Great Commandment (in all the ways approved by religious and secular liberal consensus) was all that was necessary to fulfill the First.

To be sure, Theological Liberals object to this characterization, which is at the heart of Evangelical criticism of Theological Liberalism. But it is often noted that Evangelicals and Theological Liberals live and talk in their own thought silos, while being critical of the other, and yet not really engaging the other. They attend different churches, are often polarized by political affiliation, read books and articles exclusively written by authors with whom they agree, listen to sermons delivered by pastors of the same school of thought as themselves, really make no attempt to understand the other’s point of view, and thus do not really listen to the criticism of the other. This is truly tragic, for it means that they are close-minded—and close-hearted—to one another, and fail to love one another, as required by Christ (Jn. 15.12).

I am an Evangelical Presbyterian layman who has been a member of two different PC(USA) congregations (both of which are now in the EPC) and am now a member of a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America. I have observed interactions between Evangelical and Liberal Presbyterians most of my adult life, and I have made an attempt to understand Liberal Presbyterian thought. My criticism of Theological Liberal thought as follows is not intended to be mean-spirited, but is intended to help Liberal Presbyterians to see serious areas of weakness in Theological Liberal thought, especially as it relates to the current crisis in the PC(USA), and to present solutions to turn the denomination around—all from an Evangelical Presbyterian perspective—so that perhaps one day there can be genuine reconciliation.

Liberalism Versus Christianity

Theological Liberals will doubtless chafe at yet another argument pitting Theological Liberalism against Christianity. They will argue that they have successfully blended the two and personally see no inherent conflict between them. And yet the hegemonic influence of Theological Liberalism in the PC(USA) has so alienated Evangelical Presbyterians that they have departed in great numbers—some to increase the membership of Evangelical Presbyterian denominations (such as the PCA, the EPC, and the ECO), while others have departed to further swell the burgeoning worship attendance of non-denominational megachurches (which often do not have formal membership). Conversely, there has been precious little growth to offset these departures, and the majority of new members coming into the PC(USA) (apart from those transferring from other formerly Mainline Protestant denominations) are disaffected Evangelicals. The number of new conversions each year of those who have never had prior church affiliation is likely smaller than the number of PC(USA) presbyteries—and most of those are probably going into Evangelical remnant congregations. Liberal Presbyterianism is simply failing to produce a compelling reason for people outside the Christian Church to become Presbyterians.

Prior to the 1960s, there was social pressure in the United States to be thought of as Christian and to attend (at least occasionally) Christian worship services. At the same time, Christianity was coming under increasing attack in the academy—both in secular universities and also in Mainline Protestant seminaries. Consequently, there was a sizeable population of those who wanted to be thought of as Christian but could not bring themselves to believe in basic Christian doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, and especially the Inerrancy and Sufficiency of Scripture. The Mainline Protestant Churches—including the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (which merged in 1983 to form the PC(USA))—offered a comfortable church home to such as these.

However, beginning in the 1960s, it became increasingly socially acceptable not to be thought of as Christian, and today it is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable in some parts of the country to be affiliated with organized religion—especially traditional Christianity. At the same time, traditional gender roles have come under increasing attack, traditional marriage is falling apart with liberalized divorce laws, technology is enabling the spread of pornography to every home in America, and courts have increasingly upheld marriage redefinition and gender reidentification—all of which have contributed to a culture that is profoundly absorbed with the deified SELF. These trends are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the formerly Mainline Protestant denominations—including the PC(USA)—have continued to abase themselves, by accommodating these more recent societal changes, just as they had the changes in the early & mid-Twentieth Century, hoping to stave off membership decline, especially in the younger generations. But that desired outcome has not happened since the mid-1960s. They have only succeeded in alienating those in their respective memberships most in tune with Biblical truth—those who have not (significantly) compromised on fundamental Christian doctrine. Their message to the younger generation is: “See? We have done everything in our power to accommodate our message to what you already believe regarding sexual orientation and gender identification. Our track record might not be spotless, but it very clearly shows definite progress toward this goal. We see that younger Christians are especially attracted to churches that emphasize service over theology—and that’s what we do! Please don’t leave us!” In the words of National Review columnist David French,

There is a persistent belief among church-goers that a person should be able to get all the benefits of Christian community without any of the doctrines that make religion unpalatable to modern moral fashion. That’s in essence the mission statement of Mainline Protestantism.

And it simply doesn’t work. The Christian community and Christian service that people love are ultimately inseparable from the entirety of the Christian faith that spawned them. Carve out the doctrines that conflict with modern morals and you gut the faith. When you gut the faith, you ultimately gut the church.

It makes sense then that mainline denominations aren’t thriving. They’re dying. Without the eternal truths of the Christian faith, the church becomes just another social club. Why sacrifice your time and money for the same wisdom you can hear at your leisure on NPR?

Here’s the interesting thing: Some of the casual Christians who’ve fled the unsatisfying Mainline are joining more traditionalist churches and schools without changing their beliefs. They don’t become more theologically orthodox, they just crave the benefits of the more orthodox communities. Once in their new religious home, they exert the same kind of pressure for cultural conformity that helped kill the churches they fled. It’s the religious analog of the well-known phenomenon of blue-state Americans leaving their high-tax, heavily-regulated states for red America and promptly working to make it more like the place they left.

Liberal Hermeneutics

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2.13-14) Theological Liberalism latches onto the “zealous for good works” part of this verse but expends very little effort into understanding what “for his own possession” Biblically means, essentially taking it for granted that everyone who seems “zealous for good works,” irrespective of explicit faith in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is thereby part of “his own possession.”

Are we, then, “a people for his own possession” if our interpretation of His Word is lightly influenced by that Word and yet heavily influenced by personal prejudices and worldly philosophies? Consider how Liberal Presbyterians described their own approach to hermeneutics nearly forty years ago, and which description still accurately characterizes the Liberal Presbyterian hermeneutic today:

Disagreement over social issues rent the United Presbyterian Church. Strife over American involvement in the Vietnam War, escalation of the struggle for civil rights of minorities, and heightened awareness of unequal opportunities for women preoccupied the attention of many Christians. Many concluded that none of the previous theological systems adequately addressed these problems. Theology became issue oriented, and a diversity of approaches rather than a confessional consensus prevailed. Liberation theology…employed the social sciences to expose the political concerns of those groups whose interpretation of the Bible was viewed as a justification of human oppression. Others gave a higher priority to the need for clarity of philosophical concepts and consistency with scientific criteria (Process Theology was named as an example of this) than to continuity with confessional traditions. …

The social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology provide crucial insights for a thorough understanding of Scripture.1

Believing that the Bible in and of itself does not contain the solutions to perceived social problems, Liberal Presbyterians have turned to the wisdom of the world in the form of secular philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. And then, to baptize the solutions they have thus developed in a Christian cloak, they mine the Scripture for perceived support of these solutions, rejecting any passages that do not conform to them, especially any passages perceived as contributing to the “justification of human oppression.”

But secular philosophies and social sciences were not developed from a Christian worldview; they have neither a Christian understanding of the nature of sin nor an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God over both the social ills that prevail in this fallen world and also the redemption of—not just the remedy for—these same social ills. Indeed, the worldview of these philosophies and social sciences is fundamentally anthropocentric. They do not point to God and His Kingdom, but to man and his. And in adopting them as an authority to interpret, correct, and rebuke the Scriptures, Liberal Presbyterianism has itself become profoundly anthropocentric. Thus, worldly wisdom becomes the Procrustean bed on which Liberal Presbyterianism would make God to lie down—and non-Liberal Presbyterians, too, for that matter.

A perfect example of the use to which Liberal Presbyterians have put their Procrustean bed can be seen in the debacle that ensued in the Spring of 2017, when the Abraham Kuyper Center at Princeton Theological Seminary announced that it was awarding its annual Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life to Rev. Dr. Timothy Keller, then-pastor of the PCA-affiliated Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who is also a prolific author and popular speaker. The Kuyper Prize, which is accompanied by a $10,000 honorarium, is ostensibly intended to honor those who contribute to the “Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement,” which Keller exemplifies. As Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, wrote,

Unfailingly thoughtful and cerebral, frequently appearing in secular media as a religious and cultural commentator, Keller is one of the most influential pastors and Christian thinkers in America today. He is a guru of the rebirth of urban evangelical Protestant Christianity. His theology like his denomination’s is orthodox and Reformed. Keller typically avoids culture war issues and hot button debates. He affirms traditional Christian sexual ethics and marriage teaching but rarely speaks about it. His churches are full of New Yorkers who are socially liberal but drawn to his intellectually vibrant presentation of Christianity.

This announcement had scarcely been made, when PTS students and alumni vociferously protested it, not because Keller was not a Neo-Calvinist who actively engaged culture and society Biblically and theologically, but because he was the most prominent clergyman of a Presbyterian denomination that “does not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals”—a cause central not to Reformed Christianity but to Religious and Secular Liberalism. As one PTS alumna wrote in her blog, “An institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.” Another excoriated Keller in her Christian Century column for being “one of the loudest, most read, and most adhered-to proponents of male headship in the home. I am literally shaking with grief as I write this. I have spent years with women who have tried to de-program themselves after growing up in this baptized abuse. … I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

In response to “many (who) regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained, (which) conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA),” PTS President Craig Barnes wrote, “In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, (the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the PTS Board of Trustees, Rev. Keller, and I) have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.”

Tim Keller was in essence denied the Kuyper Prize (although he did “graciously agree to keep the commitment” to speak at the Kuyper Center’s 2017 conference) because Craig Barnes and other PTS leaders felt the need to aggressively restate PTS’s and the PC(USA)’s absolute and unswerving commitment to Liberalism’s tenets of inclusion of women and impenitent sexually immoral persons in ecclesiastical leadership, over against those, such as Keller and the PCA, who would exclude them on Biblical grounds (Lev. 18.22, Rom. 1.24-27, I Cor. 6.9-11, I Tim. 1.8-11, 2.12-3.16). In the aftermath of Liberal Presbyterianism’s momentous victories over Evangelical Presbyterianism in the PC(USA)’s 2010 and 2014 General Assemblies, and the subsequent disillusionment of Evangelical Presbyterians with the PC(USA), Barnes, the PTS Board of Trustees, and the Kuyper Committee had the unique opportunity—a Kairos moment, if you will—to extend an olive branch to Evangelical Presbyterians, to show us that we would be welcomed and affirmed in the PC(USA), despite the deep differences between us. Instead, they poured salt in an open wound.

Conformity to the World’s Ways of Thinking

What is egregiously absent from the Liberal Presbyterian hermeneutic is the Biblical warning against adopting the unbelieving world’s ways of thinking. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2) “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 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. … For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor. 1.20-21,25) “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas. 4.4) “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 the 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)

The first and most apparent danger of adopting the world’s ways of thinking, as Liberal Presbyterianism has done, is that it is rendered incapable of genuine Biblical reflection, incapable of receiving the whole of Scripture as the infallible Word of God, and thus incapable of heeding the Lord’s rebuke when it has wandered from His wisdom and His ways. Instead, Theological Liberals unquestioningly accept the inherent value of the world’s opinion, adopting it as their own, and viewing the Scripture—and those who look at the world through the lens of Scripture—through the lens of the world. Evangelicals seem muddled and backward to them, refusing to adapt themselves to the ways of the world—which Theological Liberals believe to be the way of the future and the way in which progress is measured. The future is coming, whether we want it to or not, they say, and those who refuse to adapt themselves to it, as Theological Liberalism has done, will quite simply not be in a position to speak meaningfully or relevantly to the world of the future. Thus, the opinions and beliefs of Evangelicals—and of Evangelical Presbyterians—are of no consequence to them.

And yet Mainline Protestant denominations like the PC(USA) are dying, and Theological Liberals are at great pains to explain why. If only we had a retooled vision, they tell themselves, we would grow. If only Evangelical Presbyterians stopped resisting the positive changes we have wrought for greater justice and inclusion, they could channel their passion for evangelism and mission in ways that could make the PC(USA) truly great. But it is not for a retooled vision statement that the people of God languish (Prov. 29.18), and Evangelicals’ fervor for evangelism and missions comes from a conviction that what the Bible says is true: men and women who die without trusting in the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ alone will be judged by an omniscient, holy, righteous, and just God for all the sins they committed in life and will be sentenced by Him to an eternity of torment and pain (Mt. 13.40-43,49-50, 25.41-46, Rom. 6.23, Rev. 20.11-15, 21.8, 22.15). Such is the fate we all deserve, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23), and the only hope for escape from this “second death” (Rev. 20.14) that anyone can possibly have is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 3.24-28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8-9). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12) The PC(USA) is languishing precisely because it has turned away from this compelling vision, from this prophetic and provocative Gospel message and endorsed competing visions and gospels that can make no eternal difference for anyone.

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10), but Liberal Presbyterianism regards the ways of non-Christian religions as equally valid paths to God as Christianity, as if the lost were not lost, because they adhered to a different religion. Moreover, Liberal Presbyterianism regards Hell and the Biblical doctrine of eternal punishment as outdated concepts, not to be taken seriously, despite the fact that the Lord Jesus Himself emphatically taught them. And so, the lost stay lost and are not brought before the Lord, in order that He might save them from their sins. “Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.” (Is. 45.20-21)

A Call to Repentance

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? —Micah 6.8

This is the favorite verse of most Theological Liberals and one of the few passages of Scripture they commit to memory. But they constrain its requirements and think them fulfilled by a humanist metanarrative that they have written over the top of Scripture. Thus, it is “justice” to include women, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals in ordained office in the Church of Jesus Christ and to vociferously malign those who would exclude them on Biblical grounds. It is “kindness” to lobby the President and Congress of the United States to change their policies on immigration, climate change, gun control, and homosexuals and transsexuals serving in the US armed forces, and to side with aggrieved homosexual couples wanting to get “married” in court cases against Christian florists, cake bakers, and photographers who decline to offer their services to accommodate their “wedding”, but not to warn non-Christians against the wrath that awaits them if they do not repent of their sins and put their trust in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the only hope of salvation from sin and death. And it is to “walk humbly with your God” if one endeavors to love one’s neighbors by doing good works that do nothing more than make their lot in this life a little more comfortable, but do nothing to warn one’s neighbors against idolatry—or worse, to encourage it, or to imagine that God accepts the worship of other gods as if it were offered to Him. And so, Micah 6.8 is subverted to the service of the humanist metanarrative undergirding Theological Liberalism.

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and (mammon). —Matthew 6.24, Luke 16.13

The wisdom of this world is fundamentally at odds with God (I Cor. 1.18-25), and it has coalesced in the philosophy of humanism. In humanism, man2 is the measure: He defines his identity on his own terms. He believes in the essential goodness of the human spirit—especially his own. He believes that greater education is the key to overcoming fear and the social problems that plague this world. He is the hero who breaks down oppression, bringing equality and justice to all.

Yet humanist man, for all his bravado, is profoundly blind to his own faults and shortcomings: He fails to recognize the inherent corruption in the human soul—especially his own.3 He fails to recognize that he has set himself up as an idol in the place of God. If he is religious, he fails to recognize that he has subverted God to his own humanist causes, that he has usurped His authority.4 He aspires to be the liberator of the oppressed, but in his blindness and his rush to judgment, he is not above using the power of the state to oppress those who oppose his ideas of progress.

And so, Theological Liberalism would fain to hold Christianity and humanist philosophy together in tandem, to bow their knees to both masters. But which master do they love and extol, and which master do they hate and malign? “No one can serve two masters,” not even Theological Liberals. So, is it more important to be a Christian and serve and worship Christ the eternal Son of God as Master? Or is it more important to be a Liberal and hold Christ as an example of how to live, after having made Him to lie down on the Procrustean bed of almighty humanism and cutting off the doctrines He taught “that make (Christianity) unpalatable to modern moral fashion,” essentially making Him into a humanist mascot to be used, instead of the Master to be worshiped and obeyed?

O foolish Liberal Presbyterians! No amount of rearranging the denominational offices in Louisville—or in the synods, presbyteries, or sessions of the PC(USA), for that matter—nor any amount of work to come up with a new vision statement to encourage PC(USA) laity and clergy to greater efforts of social work, will avail to remedy the most significant problem facing your denomination today! You are estranged from God; you are not walking humbly with Him! You have become enamored with this present evil age and have adopted its attitudes, prejudices, and philosophies as your own. You would lead the world to solve its problems of racism, poverty, and domestic violence, but you are insensitive to the alienation, marginalization, and disrespect you have shown to Evangelicals in your midst—your notions of “inclusivity” leave much to be desired! For the sake of your own souls, I beg you to remove the plank from your own collective eye before you presume to remove the speck from your brother’s.

By the mercies of God, I implore you to repent of and repudiate the use of secular philosophies and ideologies to undergird your hermeneutical methods! They have not led you to a deeper understanding of God and the Christian faith, but quite the reverse. God does not correct His Church by speaking to her from the world, but by the words He has spoken through His prophets and apostles. By presuming to listen to God by filling your ears with the “crucial insights” of secular philosophies and social sciences “for a thorough understanding of Scripture,” you have drowned out the voice of the Spirit of God, conflating Him with the spirit of this present evil age.

Oh why do you curry the favor of the world, seeing that it does not love you in return? Men and women are not coming to you from the world as a result of your worldly preaching; you are not giving them a compelling reason to leave their secular lifestyles and be joined to you. The world finds you useful, in that it has an example to which to point, so as to ask Evangelicals why they could not be more like you, but they love you no more than they love them. I urge you to turn away from the idea that God is somehow pleased that you are compromising historic Christian teaching on the Atonement, the Resurrection, marriage, and human sexuality, and instead devote yourselves to the earnest study of His Word, repudiating the world’s influence, trusting in everything His Word says, using the hermeneutic principles of §6.001-§6.010 of your Book of Confessions, and neither the principles of §9.27-§9.30, §9.41-§9.42 of the same, nor those of “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”.

Do not be bitter toward Evangelicals who have broken fellowship with you, but consider their Spirit-led decision as a warning to you that you have strayed far from God, and that you need to repent of your worldliness. Do not be quick to judge pastors who lead congregations that seek the Spirit’s will whether to remain in the pale of the PC(USA) or to seek dismissal to the EPC or the ECO. Rather, ask yourselves how you have offended those congregations and what the Lord, quite apart from worldly wisdom, would have you do to reconcile yourselves to them.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is dying. Contrary to the vain and empty words of its Stated Clerk, it is not reforming. Reformation begins with reclamation of the Gospel of Salvation from sin and death by the grace of God alone through faith alone in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and proceeds with a reordering of the life of the Church according to its doctrines. This is how the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th Century, and this has patently not been happening in the life of the PC(USA) so far in the 21st Century.

Yet reformation cannot begin by the will of man, but only by the will of God. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21.1) “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9.18) “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Ps. 127.1) I concur with Paul, who wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (Rom. 9.2-3) If you are an Evangelical reading this, would you please join with me in praying that the Lord would redeem and reform the PC(USA) to once again become a Bible-believing and Bible-preaching Church in which unbelievers repent of their sins and are converted unto Jesus Christ? “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (Jas. 5.16)

I anticipate anger, resentment, and denial from hardened hearts for what I have written here (assuming that it is actually read and not ignored by its intended audience). But I pray that the Lord would have mercy on the hearts of the leaders of the PC(USA), that they should repent of their worldliness and recover the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which they have lost through neglect. I pray that He would ignite a fire that would cleanse and refine the PC(USA), so that she should faithfully preach repentance and forgiveness in the name of Jesus once again, as she once did of old, but does no longer.


Footnotes

1 “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”, in Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1999), pp. 28-29.

2 That is, mankind. By no means do I mean to imply that women are somehow excluded from this definition.

3 It is said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” However, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21) And again, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9) Power does not corrupt the human soul; it only magnifies the corruption already inherent there, giving it greater capacity to do evil.

4 An example of this can be found in Douglas Ottati’s book, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2006), where he asks in the Introduction (p. x), “What do we mean today by traditional words such as creation, sin, grace, and salvation?” rather than what God, from His omniscient and eternal perspective, means by them in His Word.

Now Celebrating Fifty-One Years of Uninterrupted Decline by Mishandling the Word of God…

The Presbyterian Church (USA) this week published its annual membership data, showing that net membership losses in 2016 amounted to 89,893, making it the fifth year in a row in which membership losses exceeded 89,000, and the highest annual percentage loss (5.72%) yet.  At the beginning of 2012, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 1,952,287, which had fallen to 1,482,767 by the end of last year—a five-year decline of 24.05%.

In fact, the PC(USA) and its immediate predecessors, the (Northern) United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States, have been losing members ever since 1965, when the UPCUSA had a peak membership of 3,308,622, and the PCUS had a membership of 945,975,1 for a total membership of 4,254,597.  At the time of the reunion of these two denominations in 1983, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 3,131,228—a drop of 26.40% over eighteen years.  Over the entire fifty-one year period of the decline, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have lost a net 2,771,830 members, or 65.15% of the combined 1965 membership of the UPCUSA and the PCUS.

Two years ago, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition addressed a comment made by Theological Liberal Rachel Held Evans, who had said, “Just about every denomination in the American church—including many evangelical denominations—is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates.”  In response, Carter wrote, “The fact is that the percentage of people identifying as Protestant has declined since the 1970s while the total number of Protestants has increased (62 percent of Americans identified as Protestant in 1972 and only 51 percent did so in 2010).  Yet because of the population increase in the U.S., there were 28 million more Protestants in 2010 than in 1972.”  Carter noted that there was “a clear and unequivocal trendline: liberal denominations have declined sharply while conservative denominations have increased or remained the same.”  But more than that, the numerical losses experienced in the Theologically Liberal mainline Protestant denominations have been more than offset by the explosive growth of non-denominational churches.  “As of 2010, four percent of Americans (12,200,000) worshipped in a non-denominational church.”

So then, the losses the PC(USA) has been experiencing for the past half century are par for the course for the mainline Protestant denominations (such as the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but are an aberration when looking at American Protestant Christianity as a whole.  In 2016, the PC(USA) had total gains of 55,266 and total losses of 145,159.  Of these losses, 43,902 were certificate transfers to other churches, 26,193 were deaths, and 75,064 were identified as “other”, by which is meant that these people had at one time joined a PC(USA) congregation but were no longer coming and were thus cleaned off the membership rolls.  To be sure, some (if not most) of the former members in the “other” category have left Christianity altogether (more on that reason later).  But many will have gone to churches (especially non-denominational churches) that accept members by profession or reaffirmation of faith only and do not acknowledge membership transfers.  So, even as the PC(USA) and the other mainline denominations are imploding, more theologically orthodox congregations are growing, partly at the expense of the PC(USA).

To be sure, numerical growth does not always indicate a healthy church.  For example, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has a weekly attendance of 52,000 (more than the PC(USA)’s largest presbytery), but Osteen preaches the Prosperity Gospel and implies that the chief end of God is to glorify man and to enjoy him forever.  However, a half century of unmitigated decline definitely is not an indicator of a healthy church, either.
Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that the PC(USA) is doing church, but there is no evidence that the General Assembly Council truly understands this.  To be sure, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II, like his predecessors before him, is doing damage control by trying to put a positive spin on the numbers.  However, some of his comments, to put it mildly, stretch credulity.

We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom.

Apparently the severance of relations with the PC(USA) by some of its overseas partners in the aftermath of the decisions to ordain practicing homosexuals and to allow its teaching elders to perform same-sex weddings has not convinced the GAC otherwise.  Nor, for that matter, has the fact that growing Evangelical denominations and non-denominational congregations shun the PC(USA), and that prominent Evangelical pastors preach against it, convinced them that their “priestly and prophetic voice” really is not very well respected at all.  And if it was as respected as Nelson said it was, why has nearly a quarter of the PC(USA)’s membership walked away from it in the last five years?

Our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now.

He has pruned two-thirds of the PC(USA)’s membership in the past half century so that it can grow more fruit (Jn. 15.2)?  In fact, most PC(USA) churches are not passing on the faith to others.  “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19.10)  But considering what a low priority evangelism is for the PC(USA), the PC(USA) clearly does not share this mission with Him.  I just don’t see the PC(USA) producing any good fruit (Mt. 7.15-20).

These efforts (to create ‘fellowships’ comprised primarily of non-white immigrants) alone could demonstrate our intentionality toward fulfilling our failed commitment (set by the 1996 General Assembly) to increase racial ethnic participation by 20 percent by 2010.

Yes, especially if the PC(USA) can hold onto enough of them, while continuing to alienate its predominantly ethnic white congregations by undermining the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, if these new “racial ethnic immigrant congregations” are truly being built up by sound Biblical preaching, it is only a matter of time before they, too, run afoul of the Theological Liberalism entrenched in power in the PC(USA).

We are not dying.  We are Reforming.

The PC(USA) is not being reformed according to the Word of God.  Most of its teaching elders “interpret” Scripture to be “the witness without parallel” to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (C-67 §9.27), but not itself the revelation of God, “the infallible rule of faith and life.”  The Word of God is “interpreted” to mean primarily (if not exclusively) God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

As a consequence, many PC(USA) teaching elders deny such basic tenets of the Christian faith as the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ on the Cross, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the ultimate return of Jesus Christ at the end of time, and the sole saving efficacy of faith in Jesus Christ.  Some even deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and at least one denies that God is a personal being.

As justification for their gross mishandling of the Word of God, they cite Chapter XX, Section 2a, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath 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 and worship.”  Because they “interpret” the Word to mean Jesus Christ and not the Scriptures, they believe themselves exempt from believing and teaching these doctrines, all of which are indispensable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And yet all these remain ministers in good standing in the PC(USA).  None of them could give a compelling reason why non-Christians should be Christians; after all, one cannot give what one patently does not possess.  Can it, therefore, be any wonder why former members of PC(USA) congregations have left Christianity altogether?

The PC(USA) is profoundly conformed to the “thought forms” (C-67 §9.29) of this world and is patently not being “transformed by the renewal of (its collective) mind,” and thus quite unable to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2)  Is there still any doubt as to why the PC(USA), contrary to Nelson’s baseless assertion, is dying?

1 The PCUS reached its zenith in 1968 with 957,430 members and also experienced modest membership growth in 1970 and 1972.  However, its membership gains were more than offset by membership losses in the UPCUSA, and after the foundation of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973 (when the PCUS lost 40,177 members), the PCUS experienced no further net membership gains.

One Presbyterian Layman’s Journey of Faith

Early Spiritual Formation

I was born into a family of Methodists.  When I was a few months old, I was baptized in the same Methodist Church in which my parents and maternal grandparents had been married, in which my mother had been baptized as an infant and in which she had been raised, and of which my parents and grandparents were members.  Growing up, my family attended United Methodist congregations in Wichita, Topeka, and Rose Hill, Kansas (except for two years in the mid-1970s, when we attended a Presbyterian congregation in Topeka,1 where my uncle’s2 family attended), and I became a communicant member of the United Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I was eleven years old.

In the 1970s, my mother’s parents and siblings left United Methodism for Baptist churches.  My grandmother took a child evangelism class, and I was her first subject.  Thus, at the age of seven I asked the Lord Jesus into my heart.  My sweet, godly grandmother had at least as a strong an influence on the formation of my faith as I was growing up as the churches my family attended, and from her I learned a deep respect for the Bible as the Word of God.

After I graduated from high school in 1985, most of the members in my graduating class who attended the same church as I moved away for college, while I stayed home and attended Wichita State University.  Seeking a church with a fellowship of Christians my own age, I began attending First Bible Baptist Church in Wichita, where my grandmother attended, and where my uncle3 was the teacher of the college-age Sunday School class.  After attending there a few months, I decided to get rebaptized.

This upset my mother.  Rather than risk upsetting her further, I stopped attending FBBC.  My church attendance over the next few years was sporadic, and I mostly attended the Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I attended at all, which was seldom.  After a couple of years, my mother suggested that I start attending FBBC again, which I did for a while.

In December 1987, the Rose Hill Methodist Church wanted to designate the Sunday following Christmas to be led by the college students who would be home for the holiday, and I received a call asking if I would be willing to deliver one of two messages that morning.  I was about to politely decline, but I distinctly recall an inner prompting that I should preach, using a handful of texts that outlined the Gospel message.

I continued attending FBBC afterward, but my attendance began growing sporadic again, and a few months later I learned that my uncle was no longer teaching the college-age Sunday School class, and I stopped attending.

In May 1988, my parents and I visited (on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary) the same United Methodist congregation in Wichita in which they had been married.  I learned that they had a college-age Sunday School class (which was much smaller than the one at FBBC), and so I began attending there and participating in Sunday School.  My church attendance began improving, and I soon transferred my membership from the Methodist Church in Rose Hill.

The senior pastor at this church was very charismatic, and although I enjoyed the fellowship of my Sunday School class, the way the Bible was handled from the pulpit bothered me.  About halfway through the service, the senior pastor would set his own context, into which the associate pastor read the Scriptures, and then after the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor would preach about whatever he wanted to preach about, irrespective of what the Scripture read that morning actually said.  After nearly a year, I visited another nearby Methodist church for a few months, which also had a small college-age Sunday School class; but the way the Scriptures were handled there was not much better than it was at the other Methodist church, and the college-age class there met less frequently, so I went back.  And so this continued for nearly three years after I left FBBC.  I was spiritually hungry but failed to recognize that I was being spiritually malnourished.

Into Presbyterianism

In the Spring of 1991, a few months after I had graduated from WSU with a mechanical engineering degree, I noticed that there was a large Presbyterian church in northeast Wichita with relatively new construction.  So I visited there on May 5, and what I experienced was profound.4  After the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor (Dr. Frank Kik) read the Scripture, and then he preached on it, explaining its meaning in its original context and giving practical application to our lives today.  He preached in such a way that it was clear that he believed the Scripture to be Truth, to be the Word of God.  This was such a radical difference from what I had been feeding on at the theologically liberal Methodist churches over the previous three years.  This was how Scripture was supposed to be treated.  The following Sunday I attended the Methodist church for the last time (because I had a book I was borrowing for the Sunday School class that I needed to return), and after that, I began attending Eastminster Presbyterian Church regularly, transferring my membership there that Fall.

Eastminster was founded in 1957 as a new church plant of the United Presbyterian Church in North America (UPCNA), a theologically orthodox denomination that merged the following year with the larger, theologically liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), which in turn merged in 1983 with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)).  Dr. John Gerstner and his more famous pupil, Dr. R. C. Sproul,5 had been visiting theologians there, educating the members on historical Presbyterian theology and helping form Eastminster’s Evangelical and Reformed character.  In 1976, after an earthquake devastated a number of churches in Guatemala, Eastminster, which was then bursting at the seams, gave approximately two-thirds of its building fund to help rebuild the churches in Guatemala, keeping only one-third of what they had raised to fund a modest expansion of their cramped facilities.  But the Lord blessed Eastminster, and in the late 1980s it built a new, larger building on land it purchased in northeast Wichita, donating its old property to the Presbytery of Southern Kansas to establish a new congregation.

When I first started attending Eastminster, the PC(USA) was in the midst of the dispute over the Human Sexuality Report (HSR), a document prepared by a task force commissioned by the 1987 General Assembly to prepare a major policy paper on the subject of human sexuality, including an “understanding of the variety of expressions of human sexuality”.  The sexuality that the HSR promoted was perverse and essentially pagan, advocating that Biblical sexual morality be jettisoned in favor of a “justice/love” sexual ethic that essentially said that human beings should be free to explore whatsoever sexual experiences they desire, just so long as they are consensual to all parties involved.  Eastminster was poised to leave the PC(USA) for the smaller, more theologically orthodox Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) were it to have passed, but in the end the HSR was defeated by 534 to 31 at the 1991 General Assembly, and Eastminster stayed in the PC(USA).

My faith flourished at Eastminster, and I took to Reformed Theology as a duck takes to water.  I got involved in the life of the church, participating in the singles ministry, the chancel choir, Sunday School, and serving on the Adult Education Committee.  After a few years at Eastminster, I began taking distance learning courses from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Also at Eastminster I witnessed firsthand the pain suffered by a split in the Church.  In the late 1980s Eastminster had hired a Director of Adult Education named George Granberry.  Granberry had grown up in the Presbyterian Church6 and had earned a Master of Divinity degree from Denver Theological Seminary, but he was not ordained in the PC(USA) because he disagreed with the ordination of women.  (Indeed, it was partly because of Granberry’s position on the ordination of women and Eastminster’s potential move to the PCA that he had been hired.)  He was also a charismatic teacher and an effective leader who regularly taught one of the adult Sunday School classes.  In 1993 he left the Eastminster staff to start a new PCA congregation in Wichita, and he took a couple hundred members with him.  Several months after his departure, the tension surfaced in an Adult Education Committee meeting, when an elder who agreed with the ordination of women and a deacon who disagreed commandeered the meeting for several minutes when they got into an impromptu argument on the subject.7  In a recent sermon on Philippians 1.12-26, Eastminster’s new senior pastor mentioned hard feelings he had found from members who were still bitter about churches that had come out of Eastminster, but he said that he rejoiced, inasmuch as through them Christ is still being proclaimed, just as Paul rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed by those who preached Him out of envy or rivalry.  Likewise, I rejoice, regardless of the denominational affiliation, that Christ is proclaimed, whether by congregations like Eastminster or by congregations that came out of her, like Heartland Community Church.

In late 1996, a job change brought me to the Kansas City metropolitan area, and the pastors at Eastminster unanimously recommended Colonial Presbyterian Church.  I had first become aware of Colonial a couple years earlier, when The Presbyterian Layman published an article on the largest congregations by average attendance and giving, most of which were (and still are) Evangelical.8

Although Eastminster and Colonial are sister churches in many ways, Colonial had a different origin than Eastminster.  Colonial was founded in 1953 as a new church plant of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which merged with the UPCUSA in 1983 to form the PC(USA).  When Evangelical PCUS congregations began leaving the denomination in 1973 for the PCA, Colonial elected to remain with the PCUS and the PC(USA) to be “salt and light” to the denomination, despite its growing acceptance of Theological Liberalism.  Although the two congregations are indisputably Evangelical, Colonial is less Reformed in its theology than Eastminster, being more open to staff members who disagree with the historic Presbyterian interpretation of the Doctrines of Grace (i.e., Predestination).  Colonial also leans more toward Baptistic influences, accommodating parents who wish to dedicate their infant children without applying the sign and seal of Baptism.  Colonial has also been active in partnering with other Evangelical congregations in the city, irrespective of denominational affiliation, to present a unified witness to the city of the saving power of Jesus Christ.  Like Eastminster, however, Colonial had suffered through two church splits—the first was Heartland Community Church, which separated from Colonial in 1986, and the second was Covenant Chapel, which split in 1989.  Both congregations affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), although Heartland later transitioned to independency.

Shortly after I joined, Colonial purchased 127 acres of undeveloped land in southern Johnson County, Kansas, where it intended to build a second church building.  At the same time, Colonial established a second worship site that met at a local Catholic high school for several years before the building on the new land was complete.  At first, I worshiped mostly at Colonial’s original campus (the Wornall campus).  Later, I supplemented by also worshiping at the new campus (the Quivira campus) before settling to worship primarily at the Quivira campus.

My faith continued to grow at Colonial as I engaged in the life of my new church home.  Once I had gone through the new members class and had transferred my membership, I joined the choir.  I also participated in several short-term missions trips to Guatemala, to serve a school in the city of Cantel that Colonial supported, and I engaged in a men’s Bible study led by one of the associate pastors that meets every Friday morning at a local restaurant to study different books of the Bible.  I also served as the Deacon of Communion at Colonial’s Quivira Campus from January 2010 through December 2012.  It was also while I was worshiping and serving at Colonial that I met and married (at Eastminster) the love of my life, the former Angela DeYoung, and the first of two daughters was born to us.

Out of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

In January 2010, the Colonial Session went on retreat, intending to talk about the role of elder in the church.  But when they returned, they announced to the congregation that while there, they discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to a Season of Discernment, to seek the Lord’s will as to whether the Lord was calling Colonial to separate from the PC(USA) and to affiliate instead with a Reformed denomination more in line with Colonial’s convictions, or to stay and continue to be “salt and light” to Heartland Presbytery and the PC(USA).  The Session also discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to get out from under nine million dollars in debt, largely incurred by the purchase of the Quivira Campus and the construction of a new church building there.  The Session decided to address the first of these two issues first, and they approached the Executive Presbyter of Heartland Presbytery to appoint an Administrative Review Committee (ARC) to enter into discussions with Colonial and to participate in four town hall meetings, in which the Session would present a case for Colonial to separate from the PC(USA), the ARC would present a case for Colonial to remain affiliated with the PC(USA), and then the congregation would have the opportunity to ask questions or make statements.  Because of scheduling conflicts, I was able to attend only the third of these meetings, which turned out to be the least confrontational of the four, but I did listen to the transcripts online.9

During the first town hall meeting, an inactive elder expressed a concern that Heartland had not been supportive of the three tenets of the Confessing Church Movement (of which Colonial was a part), particularly the tenet that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the only way of salvation.  He stated that Heartland’s inability to support this tenet bothered him greatly, so he asked the representatives of the ARC if this were something that Heartland would be able to affirm today.  In response, one of the representatives stood up and said,

Well, I think that the first thing that needs to be said is, as (Executive Presbyter Rev. Charles Spencer) said earlier, there is no one person that can speak for all of the hundreds of members of Heartland Presbytery.  And I think there are a couple of things that come to my mind.  And one is a very important part of the Book of Order, the Constitution of the PC(USA), “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”  There are those who would say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord,” and I would be one who would say that.  One reason being because what I know of God I know through Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord.  But am I going to be so arrogant as to say, “I know everything there is about God to say the only way God can reach another human being is through Jesus Christ”?  I don’t know that.  I know that’s how God found me, and I believe very strongly in Jesus Christ.  But I think sometimes, frankly, we Christians—and we Presbyterians—become a little arrogant.  And the fact is, I think there is always something more—whether we’re talking about individuals, congregations, or presbyteries—there’s always something more to know about God and how God is working.  And I become uneasy when any of us—and I’ve been guilty of it myself—put too many restrictions on what we believe Scripture is saying or what God is doing, and that’s one thing I just think needs to be kept in mind and in balance.  I suspect a good number of people in Heartland Presbytery would say, “Absolutely!  The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  But there may be others who see it a bit differently, and I don’t think they’re all heretics.  I just think some of us are at a different place in our spiritual journey and our spiritual growth, and I think we do well to remember, we have to leave room for that spiritual growth to take place wherever someone may be.

In other words, this ordained PC(USA) pastor implied that Jesus’ words in John 14.6 were not to be taken at face value, that it could be that people of other religions could come to the Father through avenues apart from Jesus Christ, and that those who took Jesus’ statement literally were “arrogant”.  Never mind the colossal arrogance that had to undergird the assumption that the Lord’s own words could not be taken at face value because we know better today.  If his intention was to persuade an Evangelical congregation not to leave the PC(USA), calling its plain interpretation of the Lord’s words in John 14.6 “arrogant” was hardly the way to go about it.

After the last town hall meeting, the Session and the ARC polled Colonial’s members with a non-binding survey as to whether they believed Colonial should remain affiliated with the PC(USA).  Out of a total of 1,713 members surveyed, 1,183 (69.1%) responded.  Of these, 1,079 (91.2%) said NO, and only 104 (8.8%) said YES.  Of these 104, 54 said that they would transfer their membership to another congregation, 19 said that they would stay with Colonial, and 31 said that they were undecided in the event that Colonial were to disaffiliate.  A few days after the survey results were published, the Administrative Commission of Churches Seeking Dismissal from Heartland Presbytery (AC), announcing their intention “to pursue reconciliation with ministers, members and congregations.”  On the same day, the AC sent a letter to Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session, reminding them of the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause,10 and threatening to “ensure that all property of Colonial Presbyterian Church continues to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

Notwithstanding the AC’s threat, Colonial asked for the AC to negotiate in good faith for terms of separation, with Colonial retaining control of its property.  But after two months of no response, the Session announced on August 7 that it had scheduled a congregational meeting on Sunday, August 22, to vote whether to separate from the PC(USA) and if so, whether to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  On the evening of Tuesday or Wednesday before the scheduled congregational meeting, Colonial’s lead pastor and clerk of session were summoned to appear before Heartland Presbytery, where they were grilled, and the Presbytery threatened to dissolve the pastors’ relation to Colonial, dissolve the Session, and appoint an Administrative Commission to serve as Colonial’s governing body in the event that the congregational meeting were not canceled.  The next day, Colonial filed for quiet title and for temporary restraining orders against Heartland in both Missouri and Kansas.  The congregational meeting took place as scheduled, and Colonial voted 927 to 27 (97.2% to 2.8%) to disaffiliate from the PC(USA) and 914 to 29 (96.9% to 3.1%) to affiliate with the EPC.  I voted with the majority on both of those votes.

Subsequent to Colonial’s change in denominational affiliation, Heartland Presbytery took Colonial to court in both Missouri and Kansas in an attempt to uphold the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause.  On June 9, 2011, the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruled that the PC(USA) has no legally-binding trust over Colonial’s property, and that the property belongs to Colonial; Heartland appealed the ruling.  On February 2, 2012, the Johnson County, Kansas, District Court ruled that inasmuch as Heartland and Colonial were Missouri Non-Profit Corporations, the Missouri courts were the proper venue for the property suit, and that the Kansas courts would abide by the findings of the Missouri courts; Heartland missed the deadline to appeal the ruling.  On June 26, 2012, the Western Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court ruling, that Colonial owned its property free from any legally-binding trust; Heartland appealed the ruling, but the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting the Appellate Court ruling stand.

In 2011 Eastminster sought and was granted dismissal from the PC(USA) to the EPC by the Presbytery of Southern Kansas.  Eastminster’s situation was different from Colonial’s, in that the PSK was less theologically liberal than Heartland, and Eastminster had given its old property to the PSK to establish a new congregation when it had moved into its new facilities in the late 1980s, which led to a much more gracious separation for Eastminster than Colonial.  Today, both Colonial and Eastminster are in the EPC’s Great Plains Presbytery.

Today

In mid-2014 another job change brought me to Denton, Texas, on the northern edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  Denton County has no congregations affiliated with the EPC, and the closest (and the only one in the entire metroplex) is an hour’s drive away in Carrolton.  Highland Park Presbyterian Church, which disaffiliated from the PC(USA) in 2013 to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), is also an hour’s drive away.  Given that my daily commute to work is about forty minutes (and the same on the drive home), my wife and I decided against an hour-long drive just to go to church, so we sought a new church home in Denton.

There are five Presbyterian churches in Denton.  Three of these are affiliated with the PC(USA), one with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and one with the PCA.  The three PC(USA) congregations here in town are theologically liberal, meaning that none of them would be a good church home for my family.  The Cumberland Presbyterian Church broke from the PCUSA in 1810 over the latter’s (then) Calvinistic interpretations of the Doctrines of Grace.  The CPC has adopted a semi-Pelagian theology, with which I strongly disagree.  That left Denton Presbyterian Church, a young church planted in 2007 by a cooperative effort between the PCA’s North Texas Presbytery, Christ Presbyterian Church of Flower Mound, Texas, and the Southwest Church Planting Network.  Denton Presbyterian became a particular church in 2011, meeting on the campus of North Texas University in Denton.  Although my wife and I briefly considered a couple of non-denominational churches in Denton, we now regularly attend Denton Presbyterian (although we do make use of some of the programs at the much larger Denton Bible Church).

Such is the outline of my journey into Presbyterianism and out of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Today I am still very much a Presbyterian—just not a typical PC(USA) Presbyterian, which I never was.  My spiritual character was profoundly shaped by the two PC(USA) congregations of which I was a member; but then again, neither of them was a typical PC(USA) congregation either.  Indeed, had Eastminster been a typical PC(USA) congregation, it is extremely unlikely that I would be a Presbyterian today, and had Colonial been a typical PC(USA) congregation, my transition to the EPC or the PCA would have occurred sooner.  Angela and I worship and teach children’s Sunday School weekly at Denton Presbyterian, while we endeavor to raise up our two young daughters to be godly women of grace and a deep, abiding faith.


Footnotes

1     John Knox Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas, was affiliated with the UPCUSA.  It closed in 1987.

2     My father’s (now late) brother.

3     My mother’s sister’s (now ex-) husband.

4     My experience is perhaps best expressed in what Charles Wesley wrote in the third stanza of his classic hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” (The Methodist Hymnal, 1966, No. 527): “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

5     Dr. R. C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries and the host of the Renewing Your Mind radio broadcast.  Like his mentor, Dr. Gerstner, he was a theology professor at the PC(USA)’s Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Dr. Sproul left the UPCUSA in 1975 for the PCA after the Kenyon case, believing discipline to be a mark of the true church, and that discipline had failed in the UPCUSA.  Several members at Eastminster provided financial aid to help Dr. Sproul start Ligonier Ministries, long before he became nationally known.  He last taught at Eastminster on a Sunday evening in the Fall of 1991, on his way home from a Ligonier conference in San Diego, which was my first exposure to his teaching.

6     Specifically in Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, where I would later attend.

7     For my own position on the ordination of women, see my post on the subject.

8     Listed by size, Eastminster was ranked #25 on the list, and Colonial was listed at #20.

9     These transcripts, together with other resources, were posted on Colonial’s website during the Season of Discernment but have since been removed.

10    “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” (The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order 2007-2009; Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2007; §G-8.0201)

What keeps the ECO and the PCA from becoming one?

The ordination of women (please note that the linked post has been completely rewritten and expanded) is perhaps the greatest difference between the ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but it is not the only difference.

Confessional Standards

The ECO has adopted the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions as its confessional standard, whereas the PCA recognizes only the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its confessional standard.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery (or Session) the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”

Similar to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and unlike either the PC(USA) or the PCA, the ECO has adopted an “Essential Tenets” document, and it asks its officers to affirm, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document makes a distinction between “Doctrinal Progressives”, “Doctrinal Restorationists”, and “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition”.  It says, “Doctrinal Progressives understand the church’s confessional and theological tradition as an evolutionary development of doctrine in which the church’s expression of the gospel becomes richer in each succeeding age. In this view, contemporary theology and new confessions of faith are more developed, better expressed, fuller apprehensions of truth than the faith of previous centuries. Our way is the way.”  It is clear that the ECO is here referring to theological liberals in the PC(USA).  The “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document also says, “Doctrinal Restorationists understand the church’s theological and confessional tradition as a series of missteps leading to imperfect understanding and inadequate articulation of the gospel. In this view, a particular moment in the church’s confessional and theological tradition, such as … the seventeenth century Westminster standards, is the pure faith of a theological golden age. Their way is the way.”  It is fairly clear that the ECO is here referring to the PCA and other Reformed denominations (such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church) that use only the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard and require their officers to take ordination vows similar to the PCA vow quoted above regarding the Westminster Standards without much room (if any) for expressing disagreement with the Westminster Standards.  In contrast, the “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document states, “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.”  In a nutshell, the ECO is defining two extremes—the “Doctrinal Progressives” and the “Doctrinal Restorationists”—and then charts what it perceives is a middle path between the two extremes, saying that the Reformed understanding of the Confessions is this; that is, “Our way is the Reformed way.”  The PCA, I am reasonably sure, takes exception to the ECO’s definitions and its adoption of the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, making them a point of contention between the two denominations.

The Scriptures

Another major difference between the ECO and the PCA is in how it perceives the Scriptures.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”  By “as originally given”, the PCA means the original autographs as penned by the prophets and apostles, and the PCA requires its officers to believe that these autographs were so inspired by the Holy Spirit as to be without error, and by implication that our modern translations are trustworthy and reliable to the extent that they accurately deliver the message of the inerrant autographs.

The ECO requires its ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the unique witness to Jesus Christ and the authority for Christian faith and life?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document further expands on this vow, stating,

The clearest declaration of God’s glory is found in His Word, both incarnate and written. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word, the full expression of the Father’s nature, and since in the incarnation the Word became flesh all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are offered to His disciples. The written Word grants us those treasures, proclaims the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and graciously teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son. We affirm that the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary also inspired the writing and preservation of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of God’s Word and illumines our hearts and minds so that we might receive both the Scriptures and Christ Himself aright.

Remember that the ECO requires its officers to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and (to) be guided by them in (their) life and ministry”, thus making the statement quoted here about “the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as the Word of God an extension of the ordination vow regarding the Scriptures themselves.

To be sure, the ECO vows do not preclude officers from believing the doctrine of inerrancy as required by PCA officers, but neither do they require them, as do the PCA vows.  Notice also that the ECO “Essential Tenets” document declares that the Scriptures are “infallible”; it does not say that they (or the autographs) are “inerrant”.  To the casual observer, this might seem like splitting hairs; after all, don’t the two terms mean that the Bible is not mistaken in what it says?

The difference is perhaps best spelled out in Positions 1 and 2 of a survey taken by the Presbyterian Panel in the summer and fall of 1979, the results of which were published in “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”.  Position 1 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is without error in all it teaches in matters of science and history, as well as in matters of theology.”  This position is essentially the doctrine required of officers in the PCA ordination vows.  Position 2 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals and reflecting their personalities, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is trustworthy in all it teaches in matters of theology and ethics, but not necessarily in matters of science and history.” (emphasis added)  The word “infallible” has been typically employed to say that the teachings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding theology and ethics, though not necessarily of science and history, are exactly as intended by God, whereas the word “inerrant” has been typically employed to say that the actual words of Scripture are exactly as intended by God, and therefore everything on which the Scriptures speak, including matters of science and history and not just of theology and ethics, are exactly as God intended.  Now, the immediate problem in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant in this sense is that there are minor contradictions in the Scriptures themselves, such as numerical discrepancies in the historical books (e.g., did David slay seven hundred Syrian charioteers under the command of Shobach, as in II Sam. 10.18, or seven thousand, as in I Chron. 19.18).  For this reason, those who hold to Biblical inerrancy (as I do) hold that only the autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were thus without errors, and that the later copies and translations of the same Scriptures are inerrant only insofar as they accurately reproduce the message of the autographs.

Now, even beyond this issue, there is a further stumbling block to many, in that some of what Scripture says is, to put it mildly, rather amazing—some would say incredible.  For example, all the patriarchs in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives by contemporary standards—Abraham lived to be 175 years old (Gen. 25.7), Isaac lived to be 180 years old (Gen. 35.28), Jacob lived to be 147 years old (Gen. 47.28), Joseph lived to be 110 years old (Gen. 50.22), and Abraham’s ancestors in Genesis 5.1-32, 9.29, 11.10-32 lived even longer still, with Methuselah living longest, dying at the age of 969 years (Gen. 5.27).  For this reason, some will say that whereas the teachings of Scripture regarding theology and ethics are 100% reliable, the teachings regarding science and history might not be (after all, people don’t live more than 120 years at the most).  The ECO ordination vows regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture allow ordained officers to take this position, whereas the corresponding PCA ordination vows do not.

In addition to the issue of the ordination of women, the differences in confessional standards and the requirements of officers regarding their beliefs about the reliability of the Scriptures are matters of serious contention between the ECO and the PCA and are the basic reason why these two denominations won’t “become one” anytime in the foreseeable future.