Force Play

October 10, 2011

Disturbing news has come out of the PCUSA Middle Governing Bodies Commission that met this weekend. The commission was charged with consulting presbyteries and synods around the country on matters related to form, function, and mission, and reporting its findings to next summer’s General Assembly. It was also given the authority “to act on behalf of the General Assembly to organize, divide, unite, or combine presbyteries and synods, upon an affirmative majority vote of those middle governing bodies affected.” At the time the commission was constituted (summer of 2010), one could hear the church breathe in sharply in reaction to the authority and power this commission was handed.

The commission’s existence gave one ray of hope to disillusioned congregations and presbyteries: perhaps a way forward could be found by creating new presbyteries comprising like-minded congregations? These could be either “overlay presbyteries” (a presbytery within the geographic bounds of the original presbytery from which it differentiates) or non-geographic presbyteries (formed by the transfer of congregations from their original presbytery to an adjacent one, or by the creation of a new presbytery that gathers churches from more than one presbytery within a synod).

But from the Middle Governing Bodies Commission, no help or recommendation toward non-geographic presbyteries is forthcoming. As reported by the Presbyterian Outlook here, on Saturday, the MGBC decided by an 11 to 8 vote not to recommend creative solutions to the crisis of conscience now experienced across the church. This group will not use its considerable power, and the research it has conducted will go to waste, by declining to advance one of the more creative approaches to the problem the denomination faces.

So on the one side, evangelical congregations are reaching the breaking point beyond which toleration cannot stretch. The political and theological climate is getting more intense and motivating many to move on, move out, or otherwise disassociate themselves with the actions of a wayward Christian body. On the other side, as of Saturday, hope for a truly creative way forward is dashed—at least soundly discouraged—by a group they thought would think outside the box. The force play that results is putting these congregations in an impossible situation. The desire to leave the game is intensifying; and yet the dismissal policies being considered or enacted in presbyteries hostile to that idea make leaving the denomination a bankrupting proposition.

What is going to happen here is that individual Presbyterians, who up until now have tried to find an acceptable, orderly solution to their conscience dilemma, are going to take matters into their own hands. They may be advised that it is unwise to leave their churches, that their congregations needs their moral support, that sticking together is more effective as the process unfolds, that the church is worth saving. But they believe in their hearts that it is over: not just this inning, but the game. The church they have known is abandoning its roots and rejecting a transforming gospel. They will go and shake the Presbyterian village’s dust off their feet.

The only other option left now is for presbyteries to draft overtures directly to the General Assembly, to simply go over the MBGC’s head and get the idea of non-geographic presbyteries before the national council next summer. Deadlines are looming for such a proposal to work its way through a presbytery in time, but it must be done, or most certainly all hope is lost for an equitable and orderly transition from within the PCUSA.


4 Responses to “Force Play”

  1. Steve Hayner Says:

    In relation to the institutional structure, you are no doubt correct. But for evangelical congregations who have kept their ministry focus clear, the game is definitely not over. I just returned last night from participating with First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC, in their mission conference. This weekend they launched 5 new initiatives that will have a wonderful impact on Greenville and the world, and help their people to move into a new missional identity. (They have moved from being a “mission supporting” church to a “mission sending” church and now to a “missional sent church” where every member is challenged to live out faith tangibly as Kingdom citizens in a 24/7 world.) Structures will come and go, but the call of God to be ambassadors of the Gospel has not changed.

    • revmary Says:

      Steve, this is thrilling news and demonstrates what CAN happen when church members undergo the spiritual transformation you and I promote. Some Presbyterian folks mourn that the PCUSA structure is holding them back from missional engagement, but others simply live as though the structure doesn’t hold them back! Spiritual boldness to walk and minister in the power God has given can overcome the intimidation of a structure that would seem not to allow it. Others, however, feel that association with that structure is itself a denial of the gospel (I know this seems extreme, but I’ve had pastors tell me so), and feel that their witness from within it is garbled. Thanks for sharing such good news, Steve, and for your steadfast pursuit of God’s calling not only for yourself and your institution, but for the church at large.

  2. Jake Horner Says:


    I wonder if the best course of action isn’t to call for a national boycott. That is, recommend that every evangelical congregation withhold all per capita until the PCUSA starves to death.


  3. Whit Says:

    So much for the Progressives’ protestations that they honor Evengelicals, and want to keep us in the Church! What are the chances that the leaders of liberal presbyteries, who depend on their Evangelcal congregations for money, are going to support overtures that allow those congregations to leave for more congenial presbyteries?

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