Stay or Leave: Strangers in a Strange Land

September 21, 2011

Over the last two weeks, I have been trying to unpack the very difficult situation evangelicals experience as conservatives within a liberal Protestant denomination, the PCUSA. My intent has not been to whine nor to accuse, but to sort out the dilemmas individuals face when they realize they do not belong in a church they feel has left them. Facebook and this blog (among many others) have given people a platform in which to express their feelings and thoughts on the matter. In those forums, it seems the available options are laid out in rather black and white terms: if one stays in a wayward organization, one is complicit with it; the only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance and spiritual turmoil caused by such a situation is to leave the organization. The Fellowship of Presbyterians offers another alternative of “differentiation from within” with the option to separate, as a way of removing one’s congregation from the day-to-day fray. Yes, we are all tired of fighting the same battles over again; yes, it gets downright upsetting to attend meetings in which the Word of God is mocked and sinful practice is celebrated; no, we do not want to be found guilty before God for participating in a corrupt religious organization; and no, we do not want our witness sullied by association with a church that has lost touch with the transforming power of the gospel.

A commenter on this blog, a long-standing friend, has said that for her, leaving the denomination was the way to “stand against apostasy.” Aside from the fact that “apostasy” is an extraordinarily strong word—we could debate here whether it yet applies to the PCUSA as an organization, along with “heresy,” “false doctrine,” and “corruption” (terms I have used at one time or another in describing our deplorable condition)—is leaving the only legitimate, or even necessary, way to register disapproval? If so, where does one stand, if one must stand against apostasy?

The conclusion I am arriving at is that there is, in fact, no place to stand, outside of or against doctrinal rebellion. We are surrounded. If we step out of the PCUSA in order to register our disapproval, we step right into another situation (either within or without another denomination) that—perhaps on a different topic—is struggling with “issues.” We exist in a world that is going to hell in a hand-basket. It is indeed “a strange land.”

So the question is, “How are we to be, as citizens of another Kingdom, while exiled as foreigners in a place in which we do not belong?”

“On Christ the Solid Rock I stand . . .” We are to live our lives in radical obedience to Jesus Christ, which may call for subversion or perhaps the church equivalent of civil disobedience.  Let me illustrate with two lives that inspire me:

Louie Zamperini, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book Unbroken (2010), was brutally abused in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. He and hundreds of American and Allied soldiers and airmen were trapped and tormented by utterly despicable war criminals. There was no means of escape. The system governing the POW camp was beyond the reach of the Red Cross, and abuses were rampant; death by starvation, injury, and despair was commonplace. But realizing that these conditions did not define them, Zamperini and many others found ways to subvert their enemy. These efforts were—from a Christian, ethical point of view—particularly laudable when the goal was to acquire food, clean water, or safety for a fellow detainee. [From a war perspective, rejecting the assumptions of a corrupt camp officer helped them keep their American values and human dignity intact.] They survived by holding fast to what was good, and in their minds rejecting what was evil. Despite Japanese attempts to co-opt his “testimony” for propaganda purposes, Zamperini chose punishment rather than aid the enemy.

The second illustration is a much more humble one, but heartbreaking in its simplicity. An International Justice Mission lawyer told the story of a teenage Christian girl who was kidnapped into sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. She was forced to do the bidding of customers and pimps: a mind-numbing, spirit-crushing, scenario if ever there was one. Her life was a living hell, from which she was rescued by IJM advocates. When they found her, upon the wall of her room was a quotation from Psalm 27:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
                        whom shall I fear?
            The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
                        of whom shall I be afraid?

And need I mention the persecuted church around the world? Just one week’s reading from is enough to challenge our American complacency, when countless Christians around the world choose death, dismemberment, and social isolation rather than recant their faith. It makes the “stay or leave” question among Presbyterians somewhat frivolous by comparison.

I will do everything in my power to stand for Christ, the Word of God, and the transforming power of the gospel. I will stand against doctrinal error and yes, apostasy. I stand—for now—within the confines of the PCUSA, where I feel my teaching ministry is needed to counter the bad theology taking hold all around me. My readers may feel my life is a set of contradictions, and it’s probably true; but within my circumstances I am compelled to answer God’s call to stake out safe pasture for the sheep, take care of them, and protect them from false doctrine with clear and true teaching. I certainly feel like a stranger in a strange land, but that is nothing new or unique among the people of God. So far, the word I get from God is that the PCUSA is my mission field, so what else can I do but stay?


12 Responses to “Stay or Leave: Strangers in a Strange Land”

  1. Mary Fields Says:

    Nothing else. If God has spoken you must obey. Fight the good fight, Mary . Break the Mary mold ! God speed.

  2. “Love” is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
    -Jubal Harshaw, Stranger in a Strange Land

  3. Yes, Mary, but . . .

    Every denomination has “issues” but some are further off the mark than others.

    It all comes down to which ministry God has called you. If it is to be a missionary to Louisville, as a colleague of mine once said upon accepting a job at GA, that is one thing. But if your ministry is to proclaim the whole Gospel to the unchurched, or to build a stong congregation as described in Ephesians 4,5, then being in the PCUSA will hinder, not help, that ministry.

    And while this whole fidelity and chastity thing continues to be a trial, I must say that from a gut level the anti-Israel stance of the denomination simply repulses me. Gen. 12:1-3.

  4. Raymond M. Tear Says:

    I agree with Whitman Brisky’s fundamental point. I would emphasize the portion re: “what is God calling an individual or congregation to do”. And add that, while perfect faithfulness is impossible, relative degrees of faithfulness DO matter; i.e., the higher the degree the better.

  5. Mary, all of this strikes me as so overwrought. This is not a doctrinal issue. It’s an ordination standard. If it was a doctrinal issue then people should have been trying to block the installation of every person who shares these alleged heretical doctrines and ecclesiastical charges should have been filed against all those currently ordained. I know nobody likes to lose. Many of us didn’t like it when that awful provision was shoved down our throats in 1996. But it was an ordination standard not a doctrinal issue, and connectional ecclesiology trumps disagreement over such a second level issue, so we stayed and worked for change. It’s what I hope you will do as well. But it isn’t fair to turn this into a matter of doctrinal purity. If you really believe this, then your duty as a presbyter would be to stop blogging and to start filing charges against the heretics. The church has a disciplinary mechanism to chasten the errant and failure to utilize it if one is aware that heresy is present is a type of complicity.

    • In all fairness Tim, Mary has been more than faithful in the litigation process over the years, devoting much time and effort for no compensation, and being on the receiving end of much vilification by the other side. And while this may be an “ordination standard”, it is not arbitrary. It is Scripturally (and doctrinally) based. It goes to the very heart of “sola scriptura” because if you can ignore one clear Scriptural mandate, you can ignore them all.

      As for filing a disciplinary case for “heresy” I doubt you have ever given much thought to the procedural obstacles to the effectiveness of that process. It would be even more difficult to sustain if the matter were one of faith alone, without behavior. And it has been made even more difficult by the recent change eliminating the prosecution’s right of appeal.

  6. Whitman, I realize that some folks in the church would like to turn this into a doctrinal dispute about the authority of scripture, but that’s my point–that dog won’t hunt. If it were true, then splitting the church would not be a schism but rather a purification. But that’s not what’s going on here. You can’t leverage a difference in biblical interpretation about the ongoing applicability of marginal prohibitions into an assault on the Bible itself. That’s just bearing false witness against your neighbor.

    All sides accept the authority of scripture, all sides affirm Sola Scriptura. If you or any one else knows someone who doesn’t believe that, then you should, as I said, file the charges necessary to bring the person to account. In the absence of such charges, one is completely out of order even to be talking about splitting the church. People took vows to live by the Constitution of the church and you don’t get to create a schism just because the process is complicated.

    I believe the same thing I have believed since I first became a MWS in the PCUSA, yet not a sole ever challenged me in any of the four presbyteries I ever served as to whether or not I accepted either scriptural authority or Sola Scripturea. But now, all of a sudden, since they are no longer in the majority, people who never made a peep about my beliefs have cast me as the unfruitful works of darkness from which they must separate themselves forthwith. My question is, when was it exactly that I became the unfruitful works of darkness and why didn’t you try and stop me when you knew this? What we have here is not heresy but rather the losing side of a political argument casting about for language that will legitimate their need to be in a denomination in which the only people to which they have to be connected are people who don’t question their interpretation of a few scattered biblical texts.

    All of this seems like folks want to take the easy way out if they can’t have their way. Our side took it on the chin for more than thirty years and yet stayed faithful to the process and to people with whom we disagreed. It wasn’t hardly thirty days after the other side no longer was getting their way that they were meeting in Minnesota plotting a pull out. I think people should remember their ordination vows, accept their new role as the loyal opposition, and work faithfully with the other side on issues of common concern and work for change on the issues over which we differ. That’s the Presbyterian way. Those are the promises we made to each other. And in those promises there was never any fine print about how to get out of our promises if times were tough and we were in the minority. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and be faithful to your word. Again, that’s what many of us have had to do for decades. It’s just that now the shoe is on the other foot.

    • Timothy,

      You may say that it is merely a difference in interpretation of a few passages. Perhaps if that were the only disagreement, and that difference of interpretation involved two “reasonable” interpretations of the texts, I could agree. But these conditions do not apply.

      First, about 2 1/2 years ago our Presbytery accepted into the denomination a MWS from the UCC who, in her exam, denied that salvation could come only by Grace through Faith. She further denied, even nominally, the authority of Scripture. I and one other elder were the only commissioners taking part in the examination. She was overwhelmingly approved over my objection.

      So in Chicago, denying the authority of Scripture or salvation by Grace through Faith, pretty much all three solas of the Reformation, is not heretical. And some Presbyterians apparently worship a goddess rather than the God of Abraham thus violating the First Commandment. You may be right that in the context of these things, disagreement over homoerotic practice is just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

      Second, I am sure you would concede that a pro-forma acceptance of the authority of Scirpture is not enough. You must actually accept that authority even when that requires you to change your opinion about something or your actions. And it requires an objective hermaneutic which allows discussion about the meaning of the text itself and does not allow for unlimited freedom of interpretation based on speculation or personal preference. I have debated the issue of homoerotic practice in the courts of the Church, on the floor of Presbytery, in print, and in countless meetings, formal and informal. Whenever I cite the text, the other side either refers to some personal experience with a person engaged in homoerotic practice, or turns to speculation about what they think Paul might have really had in mind in Romans 1 (or some other such speculation), all without pointing to anything in the text itself. This is not submitting to the authority of Scripture. It is making Scripture submit to you.

  7. I agree. It does seem a bit “overwrought” to compare the situation of people who are being seriously persecuted with the situation of people who are forced to share a church with those they disagree with.

  8. Jake Horner Says:


    Framing the issue in terms of a Doctrine of Scriptural Authority tends to make the discussion more complicated than it needs to be. Consider this question: Does YHWH affirm, approve of, and/or bless homoerotic practice? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you are worshiping a different God from me. One of us is worshiping a false God.

  9. Michael Garrett Says:

    Timothy Simpson’s argument is great example of why the progressive/conservative disagreement has reached an impasse. For him this is simply the changing fortunes of politics. The present moment is no more than the “Republicans” being voted out the majority and the “Democrats” being voted in (or vice versa). Since one side had to take their lumps for so long, it is only fair that the new losers stick around and take theirs.
    From the conservative point of view this change is so much than a fluctuation in who holds the power. It is the most current visible example of a sea change in biblical interpretation that puts us at odds with most Christian bodies that have ever existed or currently exist. And if one wishes to argue that we hold to other points that put as at odds with other Christians bodies, the magnitude of this change should be seen in how our international mission partners are considering relating to us in the future.
    I suspect we have reached the tipping point in the PCUSA when it comes to a shared understanding of scriptural interpretation (a “few scattered biblical texts”?). It makes little sense to argue that we all affirm Sola Scriptura, when we clearly do not at all agree on the practical meaning of that confession. It is an empty banner. Our biblical engagements are simply instances of talking past each other.
    I do not wish to accuse those who disagree with me of “heresy”. I do not question the integrity of their confession in Jesus Christ. I simply don’t want to be compelled to follow them down a road that I believe to be contrary to the will of God and ultimately injurious to the people who travel it. I can’t in good conscience lead a congregation down that path.
    If there is a way to remain in the PCUSA, do effective ministry, and not be compelled to support or participate in the errors of our new ordination standard, I’d love to remain. If that option is not provided,then remaining is for me becomes an unfaithful choice.

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