Denominations and the Prospect of Doctrinal Purity

September 12, 2011

Presbyterian pastors are feeling some pressure while the evangelical wing undergoes its process of evaluation, discernment, and decision-making. Every time the denomination takes some controversial action, pastors endure the painful visits of parishioners who express their intention to leave the PCUSA.  Today I would like to explore where this pain leads, and follow up this week pondering the meaning of “church” and maybe even “denomination.”

One of our Historic Principles of Church Order affirms the voluntary nature of one’s participation in the Presbyterian/Reformed wing of Protestantism. We have gone on record saying that one does not need to be a Presbyterian in order to be saved or to find authentic Christian community. The Reformers had reacted to the overstatement of the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, which likened leaving its embrace to being cast out into a lifeless, airless abyss where spiritual survival was impossible. We do not believe that this is what happens when a person leaves one denomination (or congregation) for another, because we believe that those bodies are one way the Body of Christ functions in life-giving diversity of spiritual gifts and emphases. In other words, we do not believe the PCUSA is the Church of Jesus Christ but a functionally distinct arm of it.

We do retain the right and obligation to define ourselves and to invite people to into our fellowship under agreed-upon terms.  This assertion, by the way, is one of the reasons why evangelicals get upset: the pressure put on presbyteries to affirm irregular ordinations is seen as violating the denomination’s right to define its qualifications for leadership. From this long-standing historical position, the PCUSA has said to its candidates who do not fill its qualifications, “We see your gifts and potential for ministry, but your belief and practice more closely aligns with [such-and-so] denomination than with ours. Bless you as you pursue God’s call in that setting.”

We know the PCUSA is not the only legitimate expression of the Christian faith, a realization that keeps us humble. Pastors cannot coerce their parishioners into staying, nor condemn them if they leave, and feel very sad when the whole discussion comes down to the painful reality that some no longer feel they can be associated with a Body they believe is irreparably tainted by errant doctrine and practice.

Having said all this, I would like to pose some questions to challenge the individual Presbyterian’s thinking. Is leaving his or her PCUSA congregation for another denomination really going to solve the conscience problem? The short answer is “No,” derived from the following considerations to be explored this week:

1. Did Jesus raise the expectation that the fellowship of the saints would be doctrinally pure, and did he require it?

2. What did Jesus require and expect of his disciples and the church to follow?

3. What did the Apostle Paul have to say about association with persons espousing errant belief and sinful practice within the Body?

4. Is denominationalism legitimate, from a biblical standpoint? Does a perfect denomination exist? Is one obligated to find it and transfer to it?

5. Is it possible for an individual and a congregation to thrive spiritually in an errant denominational environment?

6. What perspective do we gain from the plight of persecuted Christians around the world?

Meanwhile, it might help my readers to know just a little of my denominational background and experience, because my context most surely informs (or colors) my viewpoint.  I was raised in an observant Catholic home, attending Catholic grade school through eighth grade. My involvement in church music placed me in a position to hear the transforming gospel as it was proclaimed during the Catholic charismatic movement. In 1970, I gave my life to Christ and experienced an immediate infusion of joy, purpose, and ministry calling. I was also launched into a life-long process of reformation according to God’s Word as an apprentice of Jesus (to use Dallas Willard’s terminology). By the time I graduated from college and married in 1975, I was drawn into the fellowship of a Presbyterian church characterized as evangelical, although at the time it was traditional in form. In that context, my call to pastoral ministry intensified, I enrolled at Fuller Seminary (Northern California), and registered with San Francisco Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. On the “nine-year plan” working toward an M.Div., during which time I also gave birth to two daughters, I was finally ordained in 1987. Until the end of 2006 when I changed lanes to do academic work, I served as a Presbyterian pastor. Since then, I have been most closely associated with the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world (Fuller) as student and instructor. Meanwhile, I have served as (the equivalent of) a parish associate at a Lutheran church (ELCA) close to my home, where I teach regularly, preach occasionally, and conduct the Eucharist almost every week. [If my Lutheran connection makes my readers question my Presbyterian purity or credentials, please keep in mind that the PCUSA and the ELCA are in “full communion.”] If anything, my background demonstrates an openness to the many ways Christ’s Body finds expression in the world today. Keep that in mind as this week’s posts unfold.


One Response to “Denominations and the Prospect of Doctrinal Purity”

  1. So glad you explained your background. I was wondering because I knew you were attending St. Matthew’s where the amazing Kevin Murphy is the lead pastor. Wasn’t sure how that all worked. Thanks for clarifying.

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