My biannual reflections on the PCUSA



Today, I received an email from an executive presbyter (EP) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that attempted a brief summary of the preceding General Assembly that met in Portland. Comments made celebrated the efforts of a delegate, who was also a pastor from the same presbytery, on to turn aside divestment from fossil fuel companies as a church. This measure passed, and, as is true of all such measures, now goes to all of the presbyteries for deliberation and a vote for approval. Ostensibly, this measure is a concrete expression of both economic justice and environmental theology, but represents a more measured and careful attempt to change corporate policies with regard to climate change. The EP elaborated upon the focus and consultations that the pastor-delegate performed, and expressed his sense of pride in the pastor’s service. Plenty of people disagreed with this measure and the original, yet it carried once it arrived for a vote for the GA.
And we should be proud. Responsible care for the earth and its inhabitants routinely emerges throughout the Bible, especially in the OT. It’s not as though “green theology” arrived following the prick of the surrounding culture and its practices of recycling and responsible use of water, fossil fuels, and sustainable agricultural practices. Right from the opening pages of holy writ, one finds imperatives for the human creature to care for and tend the land that contribute to human flourishing and the well-being of the earth. It’s not like you’ll find a “plan B” in the Bible whereby the Lord informs his people that poor care for each other and the planet is “no big deal because you’re all going to join me in the clouds, anyway.” No, there are positive constraints and enablements from God that commend that humanity take care of each other and the earth.
Now, right at the conclusion of the recent GA, across the country, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem (PA) voted to leave the PCUSA. The motivation for taking the vote stemmed from disagreement about the denomination’s polity to ordain gay elders and to allow for same-sex marriages. More than 75% of those eligible to vote that day chose to leave. The local presbytery has enjoined this disagreement by canceling the employment contract of the incoming pastor and initiated lawsuits to keep the breakaway church from taking possession of the property.
I’ve attempted to find where, as well as read between the lines, the church and the presbytery have taken up the imperative to care for each other and the earth. It would be simple to merely state the opposite: “We’re taking care of our own and our own patch of earth, because we don’t believe the other will act in our interests.” Of course, both sides believe their interests come from God.
Writing on the slow death spiral of the PCUSA has the sensory effect of car spinning out of control when you are inside the vehicle: All time slows down, all of space collapse to what is happening near you, and all the other matters of life simply go unattended and unresolved. And then the car stops moving. In the best case scenario, you and your passengers have finished your event unscathed and your vehicle remains as it was before the loss of control. I’m not a positivist, at least anymore, so I won’t claim that most people end up with the best-case scenario; I won’t speculate or Google on the percentages of safe recovery from a vehicle losing control. But, there is that moment even within the events that have complete and safe recovery that is true of all the other events: for just a moment, you sense that your life, your way of life, is about to conclude.
Well, that sensation comes with writing about the PCUSA. Not that I am leaving the church or demiting from my ordination. No, I believe too strongly that the unity of the church is directly related to its mission: even if the way other Presbyterians practice their faith tacitly denies the unity and the mission given by the Lord. As well, it appears from early church history, pastors “stuck around” to keep up with Jesus among those who are lost, or unable to get away troubled times and contexts: the antagonism from the outside of the church rivaled any conflicts from the inside, and after awhile, those who stayed in the faith seemed to put aside their differences in light of the persecution they received.
Now, while I have affinities for both groups of brothers and sisters (and know one of the pastors), I wonder if there is another way, that involves both resolute commitment to one’s theological anthropology and a willingness to gather up that which will empower living in a pluralist society. I ran across this quote from Amos Yong of Fuller recently, and it captured in a serendipitous way some of what I propose:

“My own work, however, has focused primarily on what might be called positive apologetics, which includes constructive theological explanations that are more expansive than those proffered by other faiths. It seems to me that one way to “make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) is to provide an account of the world from one’s own religious and theological tradition that includes, rather than ignores or excludes, whatever truths, goodness and beauty are witnessed to by other traditions. There is no shortcut toward this goal, only authentic dialogue with those in other faiths. In the process, one is transformed by their witness even as a more deeply and more profoundly expansive Christian apologetic emerges for the pluralistic world of our time.” (The Future of Evangelical Theology: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora)

I mention this quote, as this conflict in Pennsylvania represents a repeating conflict within the PCUSA: a church of any particular membership size has a theological conflict with the denomination it belongs to; decides to enter a process of discernment to depart from said denomination; executives of the denomination move prohibit schism by a multiple pathways, including litigation to keep the property from leaving the denomination. I’ve yet to read of a conservative or evangelical congregation in the PCUSA enter into theological dialogue with the denominational exec’s: because, what is transparent to all is that a difference in faith, theology, and mission exists. Ask either side in this conflict and most are reluctant to find anything redemptive in the theological perspectives of the other. You simply do not read those affirmations in any of the media. Yet, this conflict, as intramural as it may seem, has glocal implications.


The way forward for other churches and presbytery executives deserves an alternative that embraces the constructive and positive elements of the theological commitments of the other for inclusion in their “account of the world.” This hardly requires churches to abandon their theological anthropology; this hardly demands that presbytery executives change polity for a theology they are not persuaded of. No one for a moment should abandon their truth claims.


I won’t deny for a moment that the tension and confusion associated with life in this kind of plurality is and will be difficult. Yet, for most pastors, rare is the one that has understood this pluralism from a lived experience as most of their congregation routinely moves about in religious plurality (especially regarding sexuality) at work and in their neighborhoods.


This way forward may arrest the death spiral I mentioned above, and not merely for the sake of those writing about the church’s response to the world while in mission. Rather, it has to do with growing our confidence in the Gospel while living in pluralistic world that fractures everywhere. Instead of schism, the way forward of embracing the thoughts of other faith traditions while resolutely holding on to a commitment to following the resurrected Jesus, who called his church to “Love one another” (John 13:34-34) lends a social cement for otherwise broken and ever-breaking world.

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