Those New Wineskins

I am a Presbyterian, and last week I represented my congregation (along with my two pastors) at a gathering of 1,900 to talk about the direction of our denomination, the PCUSA. The catalyst was a recent decision to remove any ethical standards from our constitution, thus allowing the ordination of gays (and anybody else). This prompted a February letter from seven pastors of large churches describing the state of the denomination as “deathly ill” and inviting anyone with similar concerns to the August meeting.

These seven anticipated 300 people, not nearly 2,000. The size of the response was perhaps the most notable aspect of the two-day gathering. Those who came—mostly pastors, nearly all evangelicals—appeared to have reached a turning point. There was no interest expressed in rescuing or reforming the denomination, as had been the case at other gatherings of evangelicals for decades. Instead of bad-mouthing liberals, speakers described them respectfully and appreciatively. They assumed that the denomination would continue on its course. The question was whether Presbyterians of orthodox beliefs could carve out a space to be themselves—to set themselves apart from a theologically liberal denomination in order to carry out God’s mission on earth.

Most of the discussion was about structures—proposals for new ways for evangelicals to live peaceably with (or depart peaceably from) the denomination while affirming their distinctive beliefs and mission. This is a work in progress, but it’s evidently going to happen. Here are the main points:

The Fellowship of Presbyterians will serve as an umbrella over a variety of responses. It will offer an orthodox statement of faith, and opportunities for fellowship and training. For a church like mine, it can help in a couple of ways. First, it will enable us to affirm our distinctive stance—to say, we are Presbyterians who belong to the Fellowship; you can look at the website to see what we (and many others) stand for. Second, it will help us build alliances with like-minded Presbyterians, to encourage each other and stimulate each other. With the wide theological diversity in our presbytery (the local governing body for Presbyterians) that isn’t happening. We are just too different.

Possible changes in the way presbyteries are formed. There are proposals percolating to allow churches to form presbyteries of like-minded churches. As is, churches are joined together by geographical region, regardless of their theology or sense of mission. If churches could choose presbyteries the way they choose pastors, they could form alliances of the like-minded that could work closely together. This is a work in progress. To allow such presbyteries to form would be a mind-boggling change for the denomination. It’s only going to happen if the imminence of denominational death concentrates minds.  This, more than any other proposal, would change the very nature of the denomination.

A new Presbyterian body—in essence, a new denomination. The idea is to make this new denomination a friendly, sister denomination to the PCUSA, such that churches could, if they wanted, jointly affiliate with both. (They can do that now with denominations like the Methodists or the UCC.) Other churches will undoubtedly choose to simply leave the PCUSA and join this group. The underlying suggestion is that no other Presbyterian denomination–there are several small, conservative ones–is suitable.

Does any of this really matter? Should anybody really care? Maybe not. Denominations were once a powerful organizing force, but today most American churches are independent and it’s not clear what value denominations add.

Given the discouraging environment we western Christians live in, though, there ought to be a place for mutual reinforcement and strategic cooperation. A few small denominations seem like-minded enough to offer that. (The Covenant is one example.) It’s been a long time since Presbyterians have had that experience. The hope of this Fellowship is that congregational vitality can be encouraged through structures that actually work.

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4 Responses to “Those New Wineskins”

  1. chosenrebel Says:

    It was inevitable that the PCUSA would move in this direction. In the early 80’s I attended a relatively orthodox presbytery in California in which a well known heretic was denied ordination. Afterward, a member of the presbytery stood up and said “I believe the same thing ______________ believes. What are you going to do with me?” The answer was basically, “nothing.”

    In other words, “we won’t let your kind in, but we won’t cut the cancer out when we find it.” That kind of approach in the PCUSA insured that this development was just a matter of time.

    But the Sovereign God is not powerless and will use it for his greater glory and the joy of the nations. We will only know how as we look back.

  2. Bill Reichert Says:

    “The hope of this Fellowship is that congregational vitality can be encouraged through structures that actually work.”

    But it’s not the structures that are the problem, Tim. It’s the beliefs. And beliefs “work” only when they’re shared. That’s why the PCUSA is dead, or nearly so. No change in structures will ever change that.

  3. Mark Almlie Says:

    As an ordained evangelical Covenant pastor I would love the added fellowship of these churches. On the other hand the evangelical presbyterian church (epc) would seem like a good fit too. They are the moderate and growing denomination theologically in-between the pcusa and the pca. I would look into that.

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