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INTERNAL STRESSES WITHIN THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (USA)

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Overview:

Church conflicts have arisen in the past between those who support traditional interpretations of the Bible, and human rights activists. The topic under consideration changes. Past crises have been over the right of African-Americans to live free of slavery, and of women to seek ordination. The main present conflict is whether gays and lesbians may attain equal treatment in the church. Gays and lesbians in committed relationships seek ordination and recognition of their civil unions.

These conflicts have the power to generate a schism within the denomination. It is unclear whether the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be able to steer itself to a compromise solution without splitting the church.

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Past crises in the church:

The "The Presbyterian Church (USA) was founded in 1983, with the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States. This healed a major split in the denomination which had lasted for almost five generations. In the mid-19th century, Presbyterians -- and other large national denominations -- had split along north/south lines over the issue of slavery. Presbyterians and other mainline denominations have gone through additional crises during the 20th century, without schism:

bulletThe Fundamentalist - Modernist controversy of the 1920's. The church had to decide whether to retain its traditional, historical beliefs, or to absorb modern theological ideas concerning biblical inerrancy, whether the authors of the Bible were directly inspired by God, the search for the historical Jesus, the existence and nature of Hell, etc. A commission, organized in 1925, successfully avoided a denominational schism. Some liberal ideas were accepted by the denomination.
bulletFemale ordination: During the middle of the 20th century, various liberal and mainline denominations agonized over whether to allow women to be ordained. Largely secular forces had shifted the mood in the U.S. and Canada towards equal opportunity for women. Conservative elements within various churches continued to interpret the writings of Paul as having permanently excluded female ministers. One by one, the denominations reinterpreted the Bible and accepted the secular standards; they started to ordain women. In 1939, the United Methodist Church was the first of the large mainline churches to change. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in Canada followed suit in 1956 and 1958.

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Current crisis in the church over homosexuality and salvation:

A major liberal - conservative divide has opened within the denomination during the past two decades. It surfaces most often over the issues of homosexuality and salvation. Some indications of this are:

bulletBob Davis is director of the denominational renewal group Presbyterian Forum. At the 212th General Assembly of the year 2000, he commented: "One side says we understand Scripture to say homosexual behavior is sinful, the other says it is a gift from God. Those are pretty disparate positions."
bulletRev. Dirk Ficca was severely criticized by conservative Presbyterians for suggesting that God might save Jews, Muslims, and other non-believers in Christ.

The gulf is wide and appears unbridgeable:

bulletConservative Presbyterians generally side with Fundamentalist and other Evangelical denominations in their belief about the nature of homosexuality. They view it as sinful, condemned by the Bible, abnormal, unnatural, chosen and changeable. They encourage gays and lesbians to seek therapy to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual. A small minority of psychologists and psychiatrists offer reparative therapy to effect this change. There are many dozens of conservative Christian ministries who offer support to gays and lesbians who seek to become heterosexuals. Because of their view that all homosexual behavior is sinful, conservative Presbyterians typically believe that sexually active gays and lesbians should be denied ordination and church recognition of their committed relationships. They also reject religious pluralism -- the concept that the main religions of the world are all legitimate, valid, and true -- when viewed from within their particular culture. A logical development from this rejection of pluralism is that non-Christians cannot be saved and attain Heaven. Some of the organizations within the Presbyterian church which promote these beliefs are: the National Korean Presbyterian Council, Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterian Forum, The Presbyterian Layman (a periodical), and the Presbyterian Renewal Leaders Network.
bulletLiberal Presbyterians generally side with the vast majority of mental health professionals, human sexuality researchers, gays, lesbians and religious liberals. They view homosexuality as normal and natural for a minority of adults. It is neither chosen nor changeable. They reject efforts to change a person's sexual orientation as useless and potentially devastating. They see safe sexual activity within a committed, monogamous relationship to be free of sin, whether the couple is gay or straight. They view gay ordination and recognition of gay relationships as fundamental human rights issues. Denial of these rights are akin to racism and sexism. They also generally accept religious pluralism: the concept that religions other than Christianity are valid, and that their followers can gain salvation and attain Heaven without trusting Christ as Lord and savior. Some Presbyterian groups promoting these beliefs are: the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians.

At the 1978 General Assembly, a resolution was passed, welcoming gays and lesbians as members, but prohibiting them from being ordained unless they promised to remain celibate. Gay and lesbian ministers who were already ordained were allowed to remain. By the mid-1990s, each annual General Assembly was being inundated by dozens of overtures (resolutions) regarding ordination of homosexuals. Later in the decade, resolutions were brought to the General Assembly concerning commitment ceremonies (aka civil unions) for gays and lesbians.

In 1999, the General Assembly voted to begin a two-year moratorium on discussions related to gay/lesbian ordination.

Late in the year 2000, a group of 113 presbytery executives and other officers issued a statement calling for a "third way" out of the impasse over sexuality issues in the PC(USA) through dialog. Several gay-positive Presbyterian groups agreed to dialog, but five leaders of the main conservative group, Presbyterian Coalition, refused to cooperate. Their statement said, in part: 

"Involvement in the issues of our day and church, including meeting with those with whom we disagree, has never been, nor is it now, about our way, or their way, or some other third way which might be mutually satisfying. Rather it is about Christ's way. Alone. Therefore, we have not, and we will not, engage in any search for an alternative to Scripture's clear and plain teaching." 

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Additional liberal - conservative theological conflicts:

During the years 2000 and 2001, two additional controversies have emerged:

bulletCriteria for salvation: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s statement of faith, regards salvation as a process. It states:

"Through Jesus' death and resurrection God triumphed over sin. Presbyterians believe it is through the action of God working in us that we become aware of our sinfulness and our need for God's mercy and forgiveness. Just as a parent is quick to welcome a wayward child who has repented of rebellion, God is willing to forgive our sins if we but confess them and ask for forgiveness in the name of Christ." 5

The implication is that salvation is only possible through belief in Jesus Christ and prayer to the Christian God. This implies that four billion humans (two out of every three people on earth), who are non-religious, or who follow non-Christian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism etc. will not be saved. Thus, they will automatically go to Hell when they die.

Rev. Dirk Ficca discussed the criteria for salvation at the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference in Orange, CA, during the summer of 2000.  According to PCUSA NEWS, Rev. Ficca, "suggested that an omnipotent and merciful God might provide other avenues to salvation for Jews and Muslims and other non-believers in Christ." This suggestion ignited a firestorm of protest from conservative elements within the Presbyterian Church. The church's General Assembly Council (GAC) subsequentlyrestated "the Lordship of Jesus Christ and our salvation through Christ." However, the GAC did not specifically comment on the salvation status of non-Christians. More details

bulletDenial of ordination for women: The Presbyterian Church (USA) started to consider women candidates for ordination in 1956. Now, almost five decades later, it may reverse this policy. Various overtures (resolutions) have been received for inclusion on the agenda of the church's 213rd General Assembly during 2001-JUN. One group of overtures deals with female ordination. They would empower individual congregations to refuse to consider female candidates for ordination purely on the basis of their gender. 2

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Theological commission proposal:

During May, General Assembly moderator Syngman Rhee endorsed a proposal to form a theological commission similar to the one created in 1925 during the Fundamentalism - Modernism crisis in the church. Its purpose would be to try to guide the denomination safely through its present disturbance -- called by some, the "Presbyterian civil war." PCUSA News reported: "General Assembly moderator Syngman Rhee has endorsed a proposal to create a 'theological commission' to try and steer the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through the turbulence that threatens the church as the 213th General Assembly prepares to convene...This 'commission' might enable us to discern the way the Spirit is leading us in the future, a way that we as Presbyterians can walk together, if not in unanimity, at least in unity. I am convinced that this way can only be discerned through much prayer in the unity of the body of Christ, which is the church. We must sit down together, we must pray together, we must discern together, we must act together, seeking all the while the mind of Christ, that our actions may reflect, not our own agendas, but the will of God. This requires of us humility more than honor; listening more than lecturing; being loving more than being right."

On JUN-11, PCUSA News reported that: "The Rev. Syngman Rhee, moderator of the 212th General Assembly (2000), Elder John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, and the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Assembly, each supported the idea being formally brought to the Assembly through Overture 01-33 from the 'Presbytery of John Calvin' in Missouri. This overture calls for a commission, that would report back to the Assembly four years hence, in 2005." The three leaders addressed the Peace, Purity and Unity of the Church Committee. PCUSA News reported that "They voiced their support of a commission to take a 'more foundational approach' to resolving the conflicts faced by the denomination. They also discussed probing deeply into our confessions of faith and possibly writing a new confession."  Elder John Detterick stated: "As we struggled with divisive issues in the past, we've often tried to find narrowly-defined solutions. Perhaps it's time to step back and look at the larger issue and say, 'Is there a more foundational approach to understanding who we are and what we are arguing about and what our beliefs really are?' "

The Rev. Syngman Rhee commented: "As I traveled around this year, I found a lot of people who have become disillusioned [and] discouraged, because the central stage of our church has become a battleground...The people are longing to have a way to deal with these difficult issues in a constructive and graceful way.  That's why I was grateful to see some of the overtures from different presbyteries to create a commission."

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The 213rd General Assembly:

The Assembly started in Louisville, KY, on 2001-JUN-9. The two year moratorium on discussions on lesgay ordination has ended.

bulletModerator: The new moderator is Jack Rogers. He describes himself as agreeing with conservatives within the denomination on "nearly every issue except [that he favors] the ordination of gays and lesbians." Having friends in both the liberal and conservative camps, he feels that he can bridge the gap between the warring factions.  He notes that the church has historically reversed direction on issues like slavery and the ordination of women "as a result of more careful reading of scripture and openness to the Holy Spirit." He believes the church will eventually do the same with gay and lesbian ordination.
bulletCriteria for Salvation: Overtures from the Presbyteries of San Joaquin, San Diego and Beaver-Butler expressed concern that the U.S. is rapidly increasing in religiously diversity. In opposition to religious pluralism, they wanted to emphasize that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.  The implication of their position is that religions other than Christianity are false and deceptive spiritual paths, whose members are lost.

The General Assembly approved the following statement:
bullet"As a witness to what we believe, we affirm the following statement:

     "We confess the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord.  Every other authority is finally subject to Christ."

     "Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior.  It is 'his life, death, resurrection, ascension and final return that restores creation, providing salvation for all those whom God has chosen to redeem.'  Although we do not know the limits of God's grace and pray for the salvation of those who may never come to know Christ, for us the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting Him alone.  We are humbled in our witness to Christ by our realization that our understanding of him and his way is limited and distorted by our sin.  Still the transforming power of Christ in our lives compels us to make Christ known to others." More details

bulletTheological commission becomes a task force:  The Peace, Purity and Unity Committee asked the 213th General Assembly to form a task force instead of a commission. A commission would have been composed of only ministers and elders; thus gays and lesbians would be effectively prevented from serving. The Committee proposed a 17 member commission, balanced in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and representing the theological diversity within the denomination. The task force would seek the peace, purity, unity and mission of the church. It is to cover issues of Christology, Biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power, and other issues the task force may choose. In addition, the task force is to "develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discuss the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the peace, unity, and purity of the PC(USA)." It would make an interim report to the 2003 General Assembly and a final report to the 2005 General Assembly.

91% of commissioners voted in favor of the task force. Moderator Jack Rogers commented that the General:  "Assembly has mandated that these people consult very widely in the church, and that their results be reported back, not just to a General Assembly, but to the church at large."

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Survey of Presbyterian ministers:

The Presbyterian Panel, the research arm of the church, released a study in 2001-AUG of 2,150 church leaders: pastors, non-pulpit clergy, elders and lay members. The survey found that 73% of church ministers expected a split on liberal - conservative lines. They said that it is "very" or "somewhat" likely that in the next 50 years "a large group will split off...to form a new denomination." However, six in ten churchgoers disagree.

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Two PCUSA leaders acknowledge possibility of schism:

PCUSA News reported on 2001-OCT-15 that two leaders of the church have acknowledged the possibility of a liberal/conservative split in the church. The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination's stated clerk, and the Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the General Assembly, made their comments just before the opening of the OCT-10 meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA). Kirkpatrick had recently attended a meeting of the Presbyterian Coalition, an organization of evangelical and conservative networks within the PC(USA). About half of the presbytrys at the meeting voted to include "gracious separation" from the denomination as an future option if the denomination does not back away from the current pressure to grant gays and lesbians equal rights to heterosexuals in the denomination. He came away from the meeting with a sense that some Presbyterians feel so deeply alientated about the ordination of sexually active homosexuals that they are thinking not "if" but "when" the split will happen. 11

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Moderators' Conference -- 2001-DEC-1 & 2

Over 120 moderators of middle governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) attended a conference in Louisville, KY. They heard many calls for moderation:

bulletThe Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly, pleaded with the attendees to "stop our Presbyterian civil war" and help the membership
"rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place." He quoted earlier conflicts in the denomination which have long since been settled:
bulletA prominent 19th-century southern Presbyterian pastor argued that "the hope of civilization itself hangs on the defeat of Negro suffrage."
bulletA leading Presbyterian theologian in the Northern church once warned that "all virtue in civilization would be lost if women were emancipated from the rule of men."

He observed that much of that hostility is caused by "artificial controversies [fomented by people who] want the church to be a homogenous group - want us all to look alike, think alike and act alike...we benefit from interaction with people unlike ourselves."

bulletThe Rev. Jack Haberer asked the moderators to "pursue a policy of ecclesiastical détente" to help the church "get past this seeming cleavage." He is an evangelical minister from Texas. He feels that his own interaction with liberals in the church "has enriched me." He characterized the PC(USA) as "the
think-tank for the (global) church.
" Haberer pointed out that in earlier controversies over slavery, women's rights and divorce, "It was Presbyterians who came up with the right answers." He called for Presbyterians who "have gravitated into enclaves of agreement [to] discover the virtue of patience...[and] speak the truth in love."
bulletBarbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Presbyterian Theological Seminary, NY, referred to the church's "tug-of-war over sexuality." She suggested that both sides give up their stubborn insistence that "our party is correct, and the other party is wrong."
bulletThe Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination's stated clerk, suggested that, "when Christians disagree among themselves [and begin] questioning one another's motives...the devil can have a field day." He said that the sexuality conflicts are minor compared to other denominational challenges, including "the 25-to-30-year trend of loss in membership and vitality of this church" and "a decline in the number of ministers and the quality of pastoral leadership."
bulletThe Rev. Joe Small, head of PC(USA)'s Office of Theology and Worship, urged the moderators to resist tendencies to "demonize each other, place blame, and categorize our opponents as 'the bad guys." He continued: "The center of our life is Jesus Christ, and He is our peace. Let us go forward, knowing that the future is in God's hands and that all will be well." 12

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Related Presbyterian essays on this web site:

bulletMENU: Homosexuality and the Presbyterian Church
bulletRecognition of same-sex unions
bulletGay - lesbian ordination

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References:

  1. "Presbyterian General Assembly Council rules on minister's freedom of speech," PCUSA News, 2001-FEB-24.
  2. "Presbyterian congregations request opt-outs," PCUSA News for 2001-MAR-1.
  3. PCUSA News report on 2001-MAY-14.
  4. "Rhee, Detterick, Kirkpatrick support formation of commission," PCUSA News for 2001-JUN-11
  5. "Brief Statement of Faith," at: http://www.biblehistory.com/Salvation%20Presbyterian.html
  6. "Assembly to get answer with to [sic] three overtures on salvation beliefs," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-11.
  7. "Committee likely to recommend a task force rather than a commission," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-11.
  8. Jane Hines, "Theological Issues Committee members prepare Minority Report," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-21.
  9. Bill Lancaster, "Rogers calls 91 percent vote for task force a 'very significant matter' "PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-14.
  10. Jane Hines, "Commissioners add a word to salvation resolution," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-15.
  11. "Church leaders say split is a possibility," PCUSA News, 2001-OCT-15.
  12. John Filiatreau, "Byword at moderators' conference: Moderation," PCUSA NEWS, 2001-DEC-3.

Copyright © 2001 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-12
Latest update: 2003-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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