It’s been a little over a month since the Presbyterian Church (USA) rescinded its “fidelity-chastity” language and replaced it with its vaguer “joyfully submit” language regarding ordination. Although I have mulled over what this tectonic shift means for me and my congregation, I still have not formed a coherent response. So instead I offer observations and questions and invite your participation. Please leave a comment!
The new ordination “requirements” set up a functional local option for presbyteries and sessions (local and regional governing bodies for all you non-Presbys out there); that is, it’s up to the individual judicatories who is ordained as elders, deacons, and pastors. Here’s my question: does this mean that connectionalism (that much-touted-yet-extra-biblical concept) is dead? Does this mean that each local church is now in control of its property, too? Does this mean that local sessions could make a policy of not ordaining women as elders and not calling women as pastors? (This could be the law of unintended consequences, since the new language is so vague!) My hunch is that connectionalism–as far as property and money go–is still alive; and it’s my hunch that dissent from women’s ordination will not be tolerated; and it’s my hunch that permission to ordain people who engage in sex outside of marriage will go from permission to coercion. And speaking of coercion…
Comparisons to Women’s Ordination
The frequent comparisons of homosexual ordination to women’s ordination bode ill for those on the traditional side. Do you know of any pastors in the PCUSA (or any other mainline denomination, for that matter) who think that women are not qualified for ordained service? How about elders or deacons? Members? Me either. It’s because there aren’t any; they’ve been systematically removed, reprogrammed, or squeezed out from the PCUSA. Just ask Walter Wynn Kenyon.
Look at what has happened with women’s ordination (besides the property trust, it is the only essential to our polity affirmed by the GAPJC), and you’ll see the future of homosexual ordination. (Disclaimer: I am happily married to a female PCUSA pastor; I’m just trying to stimulate conversations that never happened before this change.)
A Crisis of Denominationalism; a Crisis of Protestantism
If you step back, get some perspective, and look at what has been happening in the PC(USA) for several decades, it looks more and more parochialism–inside baseball for an increasingly small and fractious religious group in the U.S. This is nothing short of a crisis of denominationalism in America. We have hundreds of competing colonialist denominations–and scores of “non-denominational” denominations–that have split up and hunkered down into opposing, calcified camps that have little in common any more. Last time I read Galatians, though, factioning is a work of the flesh, not of the Spirit. Likewise, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one, as he and the Father are one–as a witness to the world (John 17:20-23). Does the church in the U.S. today resemble that prayer at all? Thankfully, it is my observation that believers on the ground are starting to live beyond the boundaries of established denominations; hopefully, the institutional realities will eventually catch up.
It is my contention that the PCUSA’s shift in theology also represents a crisis of Protestantism at large. If a church body can overrule clear biblical teaching by a simple majority vote, what is left of the Protestant ideal? There is a verbal contract among Protestants–basically the five solas–that hold us together, however loosely. If we get rid of those, especially sola scriptura, that leaves us in a similar place as the Roman Catholic Church immediately before the Protestant Reformation erupted: sola ecclesia, or at least prima ecclesia–that is, the church has precedence over Scripture. And frankly, the PCUSA (and other denominational entities) don’t have the historical gravitas to get by with sola/prima ecclesia.
In some ways, the current Presbyterian implosion represents the breakdown of the very Protestant machine that has been running for 500 years.
Orthodoxy or orthodoxy?
Peter Larson recently wrote an excellent article in The Presbyterian Outlook countering a disingenuous open letter by Barbara Wheeler and John Wilkinson. Well worth the read. In it, however–referring to the Reich church in Nazi Germany–he asserts that “In every age, it is those who break away from the Apostolic, orthodox, confessional faith who ‘leave’ and separate themselves from the one true church.” In his closing, mimicking Wheeler and Wilkinson’s plea, Larson entreats them: “Please don’t go! Don’t leave the apostolic, orthodox faith. Don’t walk away from 2,000 years of Christian teaching and practice. Don’t depart from the moral absolutes of God. Don’t leave the one true church that will stand forever because it is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.’ (Ephesians 2:20). (Note: there have been many Presbyterians who have used similar language lately; Larson is just a good, useful example.)
Which begs the question: What, precisely, is the capital-a “Apostolic,” little-o “orthodox,” little-c “confessional” faith? When I read Larson’s invitation without the immediate context, it could almost be the same invitation that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians would say to us Protestants! Ironically, in the subtext of Larson’s appeal (e.g., referring to the “Faith”), is an implicit recognition that sola scriptura is not enough anymore in our contemporary context–that there is a “Faith,” a set of doctrines and practices, that is separate from and yet encompasses Scripture.
Whatever happens in the coming months and years, no doubt the PCUSA has committed itself, at least on an official, corporate level, to being a smaller sect within the universal church–a body that shares less and less with historic Christianity and the vast majority of Christians in the world today.