To Leave or Not to Leave: That Is the Question

September 20, 2011

The “organized church” of the twenty-first century is a far cry from the fledgling association evident a few decades after Christ’s Ascension. The Christian Church has seen the East/West split between Catholic and Orthodox in 1054, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and the continued delineation of Christian tribes by theological emphasis since then. Does the existence of these denominations indicate that the Church of Jesus Christ has failed or that it exists in a perpetual less-than-God-glorifying state? This is an important point to ponder. If the answer is “Yes,” then any consideration of breaking from the PCUSA—with the possible exception of returning to the Catholic fold— falls under the category of disobedience.

But I think the answer is “No,” because there is a legitimate positive way of looking at the differentiation between denominations. I think Paul’s concept of spiritual gifts gives a framework for understanding the special gifts and callings of groups of Christians as much as it does for individual believers. While believing that no denomination is doctrinally perfect, pure, or complete, I also believe that the world-wide Church demonstrates a vast diversity of ministry emphasis, governing style, worship structures, and theological distinctives through its denominations. I also believe that there are orthodox (small ‘o’) Christians in every denominational group (and non-denoms, too); some may feel themselves to be a remnant, but they are there. Their association with a theologically errant body does not automatically mean they too are errant (they may be, but they are not so merely by association).

A person might shift from one denomination to another because one desires to be reinforced in one’s beliefs as they have evolved over time, like I did when I changed lanes from Catholicism to the Presbyterian Church in 1974. It might simply be a matter of preferring one method of governance over another, one theological emphasis over another, or one “personality type” over another (for instance, the more affective worship style over a cognitive style). I see these choices, for the most part, as morally neutral shifts so long as the believer making them is focused on obedience and service to Jesus Christ and not merely upon personal ease, demand for perfection, or avoidance of conflict.

Embedded in our Historic Principles of Church Order is the basic acknowledgment that the Presbyterian denomination is not the only legitimate face of Christ’s Body here on earth. If a person chooses to leave, the PCUSA does not condemn that person as leaving the Church Universal but gives a blessing to accompany transfer to a different tribe.

Here is the problem: many evangelicals I have talked to are disgusted by the doctrinal left-turn the denomination has recently taken. Some are heartsick by the adoption of worldly values by the church. Others are frustrated that a conservative-evangelical teaching framework is ridiculed, dismissed, or overruled. They really do not feel welcome, and feel the pressure to leave and “shake the dust off their feet” (Lk 9:5). I confess that I am very tempted by the line of thinking that says, “With these recent decisions, the denomination has departed from our biblical and Reformed heritage; with that rejection, we have no other choice but to turn them over to their own way and move on. We should find other like-minded Reformed people to fellowship with.” Personally, this feeling is completely understandable to me, though it grieves me to say so. And I may still get there some day, but not yet.

Another way of looking at the dilemma evangelical Presbyterians face is this: The PCUSA problem is not caused by us who hold to biblical and confessional standards; the problem is generated by those who are promoting a “progressive” theology (I put the word in quotes because I believe it actually to be regressive theology going back to the Garden: “Did God really say . . . ?”). Why should we orthodox people be the ones to leave? We have not departed from the historic faith; we have remained faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture and repentant when we have sinned. We are not relentlessly pushing the doctrinal envelope to see how much divergence we can get away with. We most closely identify with the historic Presbyterian Church. So why should we be the ones to leave? This was John Stott’s argument in the late 1960s contra Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the Anglican/Evangelical controversy. Stott never left the Anglican Church—and was soundly criticized by some evangelicals for not doing so— and yet is credited with fostering a robust evangelical movement that has given faithful witness to Jesus Christ for decades.

So the question: Should a theological conservative leave the liberal PCUSA? Following my reasoning from yesterday’s post and today’s addition, one could say, “No, not unless they throw you out. Stay and find your mission field where you are. There are plenty of people to be converted right here in the PCUSA. Preach the Word, demonstrate the Kingdom of God, stand for what is right, and practice church discipline in fulfillment of your ordination vows.” On the other hand, if one were sorely tempted to adopt a sinful lifestyle unacceptable to God by remaining in close proximity to those engaged in it, then one must flee to a safer pasture.

The sadness in all of this is that individual church members have reason to lose patience and seek a remedy they can live with. They may be told, “You can’t leave the PCUSA,” but more than one has replied, “The *#&* I can’t!” And out the door they go, either to another congregation they perceive to be “better” or to nowhere, in complete disillusionment. This dynamic is going to kill the PCUSA (and, frankly, other denominations as well) unless we can find a way to repent as a denomination and return to our biblical roots and our Reformed Heritage.

Tomorrow, I would like to pause and reflect on our situation from a global perspective, from an angle my readers might not expect.

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7 Responses to “To Leave or Not to Leave: That Is the Question”

  1. Grandpa Brad Says:

    Thank you for your clarity of thought and expression. Having grown up in a very narrow denominational orientation I learned early on through my profession that Christians are everywhere on the map. It was not for denominational orientation that I became Presbyterian but for the privilege of sitting under a pastoral preaching and teaching that is uncompromising in Truth. I am still here after more than 20 years even though the Pastor has since moved on to other callings. It is my decision to remain in the PCUSA until God makes it known to me that he wants me elsewhere. “Waiting” on the Lord seems to be a lost art these days!

  2. Derek Simmons Says:

    RevMary:

    As you know from an earlier email and a couple of comment posts, I’m a “goner”—at least from the PCUSA. I’m a “goner” because in my praying and fighting and staying for more than two decades I did not see any of His Light at the end of the institutional tunnel, a lengthening tunnel being built by the growing cadre of “progressives” with the”tunnel” vision that only a love of diversity for its own sake brings. Those “progressives” had by dint our my(our) ineffectual efforts to stop them, taken over the reins of the/my denomination. They were and are steering it to the brink of apostasy at ever gathering speed. So I jumped out to a safer—and yes more comfortable place. I continue to pray and for you braver, stronger, undoubtedly more mature souls who have either resisted capture by what I experienced in the PCUSA or who may have lived blessedly without such experiences. Yes, I am a “goner” from the PCUSA. I am NOT, however, gone from my worshipping community that yet bows its knee under the banner of the PCUSA and pays its tribute to the Presbytery. There are too many saints in that remnant of the Church Universal to leave them for my soul’s sake and theirs.
    But none I know in this group hanging on and hanging in have the continuing “faith” in their abilities or His Desire to save the PCUSA from its inexorable gallop to and over the brink. I do know of many–you included–who He will rescue as His loved and saved whether you jump before the final plunge or ride the wagon to the bottom. But as for me(and my house), I see the PCUSA in a sad, broken but deserved heap and, shifting metaphors–shipwrecked out of a love of culture and man(including the man in the mirror) greater than a love of Christ. You fight on. You stay on. And we both will continue to pray on.

    Your Brother in Christ,
    Derek

  3. Judy Says:

    Mary, our decision to leave seems quite clear to us, if we want to stand against apostasy in the PCUSA . “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.” John Wesley


  4. Unfortnately, in our case, we didn’t even get the choice to leave amicably. Even at the mention of leaving we were thrown out as apostates. Obviously, the PCUSA sees themselves as the “true” church above all and will do anything to keep the money and property. We are so much more fruitful and happy not to be fighting with the PCUSA about the truth of Jesus Christ and spending our time seeking out the lost in our world.
    Laurie Johnston

  5. William L. Goff Says:

    Greetings Mary,
    Although we disagree about the issues surrounding homosexuals, I am glad to know you are staying in the PCUSA. I am also glad that today marks the end of the DADT military policy.
    Regarding denominations, I think there is skant emperical evidence that people make decisions about what chuch to attend or join based on denominational lables or thelogical positions. More promanent are considerations of proximity, programs for children and music. – Bill Goff


    • This was not my experience. In searching out a new Church, in a place with literally hundreds of choices as in the Chicago suburbs, wouldn’t one first narrow down the search a little by concentrating on those denominations you find most in accordance with your own faith? So you might never even see the evangelicals who, hearing of the PCUSA’s unfaithfulness, would not even visit. And if you do visit, would a conservative Christian come back if the sermon were all about the progressive agenda, and not about Christ? Or vice-versa, would you go back to a church where the pastor preached a sermon against homosexual practice?

      Of course, if the sermons are milch-toast ones, so the folks in the pews aren’t getting much Biblical meat, I could see where the only relevant facts might be location, program, etc. And what does it say about our culture if the substance of our faith is not the most important factor in choosing a congregation?

      When I taught the new member class I received a lot of questions about church doctrine, and lost more than one (solid, evangelical) family when they found out about the struggles of the PCUSA.

  6. paul dickey Says:

    As John Owen said: “If the Lord Jesus Christ should cease to give out spiritual gifts unto men for the work of the ministry, he need do no more to take away the ministry itself; it must cease also; and it is the very way the ministry ceases in apostatizing churches,–Christ no more giving out unto them of the gifts of his Spirit; and all their outward forms and order, which they can continue, are of no significance in his sight.”
    –Sermon entitled “The Everlasting Covenant, the Believer’s Support Under Duress,” vol. 9, Works, pg. 432.

    Paul

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