Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

October 15, 2011

Churches, their sessions and teaching elders especially, are doing a lot of soul-searching these days about what is an appropriate relationship with their presbytery and the PCUSA denomination. Building on yesterday’s concentric circle framework, today let us consider the nature of our connectionalism and ask, when does connectionalism go too far? Is there a point at which the expectation of closeness or unity between a congregation and the PCUSA is unrealistic?

If Presbyterian relationships between congregation, presbytery, synod, and GA were healthy, the diagram would look quite similar to yesterday’s. Expectations at each level of relationship are moderated by appropriate degrees of transparency, proximity, and engagement. The closer the proximity, the higher the assumption of emotional safety, and the greater the engagement in tasks. If a church and its presbytery, for instance, are sympatico on most topics, presbyters can feel a nice sense of belonging and warmth in their meetings and consequently get a lot done together.

The relationships within a congregation have the potential for being very close; but one does not expect that level of engagement to extend to the middle- or higher-governing-body circles.  The relationship between congregation and presbytery is functional but not “intimate.” The trust clause in the Form of Government and ministry collaboration might suggest strong ties, but when times are tough (like now) they can collapse into terms of a contract.

If there are too many “religion and politics” topics that cannot be addressed in safety, the relationship must maintain a certain level of superficiality, suffer through difficult debates, and perhaps get stalled in mission. A current example of the tension this condition brings is when a church requests dismissal. Most presbytery dismissal policies I’ve seen require close-in meetings between presbyters and congregants to sort it all out. If there has been no direct personal connection between church members and presbyters before, such proximity can feel intrusive or even intimidating because it crosses boundaries that were appropriate until now.

Miss Manners, etiquette counselor, gives us some insight into the reaction when boundaries are violated. She advocates expressing social disapproval of an intrusive question with cool withdrawal. By doing so, one takes a conversational step away from the offender as a way of adjusting the relational distance between them. If the verbal intruder keeps up the attack or inquisition, the social victim is forced to take another step backward conversationally, by turning to another person or getting up and walking out.  Miss Manners would say we must be vigilant about maintaining appropriate  boundaries. To do so maintains polite society and respects personal privacy, while it makes room for those true covenant relationships to take priority. 

The relationship between congregations and the denomination works much the same way, though it is not obvious. When one party in the relationship offends or crosses a boundary with the other, the natural reaction is to reinstate a safe distance by stepping back. As the liberal challenges to our constitution and confessions began to accumulate (starting in the 1960’s for some of our church members!), more conservative congregations slowly withdrew into a safe space, maintained a superficial relationship with denomination, and carried on with mission in their neighborhoods. The liberal reaction to this was not to “take the hint,” but to press in even closer, “getting in the face” of conservatives through demonstrations at GA, inflammatory demands at presbytery, and intimidating congregations into some sort of quasi-closeness: “We’re all Presbyterians! You have to tolerate us! You have to celebrate our ordinations!” Many evangelicals saw this as a violation of the most basic covenant we have, that of the PCUSA constitution and the ordination vows we have taken. To keep our boundaries intact, we have sought to detach from those actions and ideologies we find offensive while trying to attach appropriately through the presbytery ties that bind (per capita, for example) and perhaps more warmly with local, like-minded Christians who are not Presbyterian. I know isolation is not a healthy option, but some have taken it because they feel trapped. Other evangelicals are looking for ways to differentiate where they must, and relate where they can. But the process is hard, and progress seems illusive. To be fair, it is probably true that at one time or another in the last thirty-five years, some liberals would say they were the ones whose boundaries were violated. The point is proven: a sense of appropriate boundaries is necessary for the health of an organization and the emotional safety of its members.

So what am I trying to say? Now that 10-A has passed, nFOG is installed, and a gay ordination has made national headlines, liberals are implementing a strategy that supposedly invites all Presbyterians to “come close,” “keep their voice at the table,” and, by the way, affirm and celebrate gay ordination as the great solution to denominational divisiveness. Liberals are baffled, mystified, that evangelicals find that solution unacceptable. Evangelicals are trying to step back to maintain a safe distance from what they maintain is doomed doctrine; liberals are now implementing their victory in ordinations, policy changes, and the like.

What I don’t think liberals fully appreciate is how deeply offended conservatives are by what they perceive to be a broken social and ecclesiastical covenant. If the covenant in which they took their vows is no longer in place, then what is the new one to be? They want a role in drafting a new agreement that enables them to differentiate where they must and relate where they can. But the institutional responses to these ideas (Middle Governing Bodies Commission, Office of the Stated Clerk) now appear to be going nowhere.

In the interest of restoring good order and health in our denominational relationships, please, can we not cooperate to define and maintain appropriate boundaries? Good fences make good neighbors, if only to acknowledge that we are neighbors in proximity but in need of our own safe spaces.


10 Responses to “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”

  1. Of course we appreciate how deeply offended you are. And many of us would be happy to help if we can. But when someone is unwilling to work together with people who disagree, that rules out many forms of help.

    I think the surprise may be because of the 14 years when liberals were in the same position. We typically tried to live as graciously as we could with a structure that we thought violated the Gospel.

    And please don’t argue whether it did or not. That’s not the issue. The point is that both of us feel just as strongly about the implications of the Gospel. I don’t see any appreciation of our position in postings like this, nor did I see any interest during the last 14 years in helping churches for which G-6.0106b was violating their understanding of the Gospel. You are demanding the ability to do something that you weren’t willing to let others do. I’m not out for revenge, but your current position limits what can be done.

    I would really like to avoid a split. The problem with splitting is that many congregations have a mix of people, and many people aren’t ideologically pure — there’s not always a neat division. But if conservatives really can’t abide working with liberals there’s probably no choice. I guess I’d endorse splitting Presbyteries or other workarounds if they accomplish anything, but given the kind of rhetoric I’m seeing I doubt that they will.

  2. By the way, if you want to talk about covenants: You may recall that there was a major disagreement about inerrancy and related issues in the early 20th Cent. The PCUSA is the successor to a denomination that specifically decided to allow liberal and conservative positions to coexist. There have been for decades several Presbyterian denominations that use more specifically conservative standards. G-6.0106b was a violation of the basic approach that characterizes the PCUSA. We have just returned to the covenant.

  3. Charles,

    you wrote:

    “And please don’t argue whether it did or not. That’s not the issue. The point is that both of us feel just as strongly about the implications of the Gospel. I don’t see any appreciation of our position in postings like this, nor did I see any interest during the last 14 years in helping churches for which G-6.0106b was violating their understanding of the Gospel. ”

    And in the last 14 years, has your ‘side’ ever given a BIBLICAL support for their position other than, “its not what WE think Jesus would have done or thought.”

    Without those Biblical underpinnings, why would you expect anyone who takes the Bible as the Word of God to ‘appreciate’ your position when Biblically, there isn’t one ??

  4. Whit Says:


    A while ago, when 6B was still in the Constitution and looked safe, I was asked by an Evangelical PCUSA pastor who I then represented in the Church courts, why the gays and gay advocates had not just departed the PCUSA and formed another denomination given that evangelicals would most certainly have allowed them to do so taking their property with them. My answer, which I still think is valid, is that for them the Church represents a family, and evangelicals represent, in their minds, sort of spiritual parents whose approval they desperately seek. They interpret our refusal of intimacy, in whatever form, as rejection (which, at least as to their theology, it is) or even hatred (as does Charles Hedrick) and seek to overcome that rejection by greater efforts at intimacy. For them to leave would have been to reconcile themselves to our rejection. Evangelical generousity in letting them leave with their property would have been viewed not as generousity but as rejection.

    Thus, now that they have forced their way in the door for Thanksgiving dinner, a departing congregation or presbytery is like one’s parents changing the locks on the door and asserting that they have no child. A separate structure within the denomination, while not quite like changing the locks, will be perceived like an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with the stipulation that there is no room at the table for the child’s “partner.” It is still rejection, or at least rejection of something which they believe, wrongly I think, is an essential part of their identity. They believe that if they force intimacy upon us we will grow to like them and accept them, not realizing that it is not them, but their theology, that we reject. Though, of course, because their approach to Scripture is, as Reformed Catholic commented, subjective, rejection of their theology is rejection of, at least, the part of themselves from which their subjective lens was formed.

    So in the end, they will never allow a withdrawal to separate structures. And forced into intimacy, there will indeed be a large number of those in the middle of the Church for whom the theological issues are less important, who will accept their theology and lifestyle as just another option. As a result, more individuals, and some congregations, on the right will leave and the remaining evangelicals will be even more isolated. Remaining evangelical congregations will find it more and more difficult to maintain theological cohesion within a liberal denomination and a libertine culture. I have heard that at least some liberal presbyteries are currently adopting rules which would force sessions of evangelical congregations to ordain gays.

    And I agree with the comment by Charles Hedrick that the roots of this dispute go back to the beginning of the last Century. While I am not arguing for literal interpretation or some of the implications of “inerrancy,” once it became acceptable to view Scripture subjectively the current impasse became inevitable, even though it took a century. If there is no agreed, objective framework for the interpretation of Scripture, Scripture cannot serve as authority and, as you noted a few posts ago, there can be no right or wrong interpretation. And so as the culture moved leftward and went through the sexual revolution and its aftermath, there was no anchor for our hermeneutic. Exegesis thus followed culture. And we are where we are.

    With an objective framework, there can still be disagreement and error, but at least there is the assumption by both sides that there is an answer to be found in Scripture, a method to discovery that answer, and a framework within which those who disagree can discuss, and perhaps resolve, their disagreements. And even when there is no agreement, each side can appreciate the good faith argument of the other side and continue in communion in the hope and expectation of eventually reaching a resolution. But when there is no agreed objective framework, discussions are simply listening sessions where each side airs its subjective interpretation (or as in this case one side airs its objective arguments while the other its subjective opinions), with no hope to reach resolution except to agree to disagree.

    I would note here the obvious that for evangelicals, the arguments of the other side do not seem made in good faith because they are not based on the Scriptural text itself and seem simply pulled out of the air to reach the desired result. And for the other side, because they do not accept the idea of a single correct interpretation (or multiple consistent correct interpretations), they see our adherence to the text as simply a way to perpetuate injustice and power. These worldview differences lie at the heart of our dilemma.

    Mary, as little hope as I have of a way for the denomination to continue, I do appreciate your attempts.

    • revmary Says:

      Whit, thank you for taking the time to write your comment here; I particularly appreciate your Thanksgiving Dinner analogy. You rightly identify a very deep-seated need for recognition and affirmation that can never really be satisfied, not relationally, not politically, not ecclesiastically. That is the sadness for me, that there isn’t anything we evangelicals can do consistent with our consciences that will be ‘enough’. So it seems more prudent and wise to reframe the issue around a new question: what can we do to accommodate one another’s consciences and callings without sacrificing our own? It may be time for us to have an alternative Thanksgiving meal the weekend before, or something like that.

      • Jake Horner Says:


        “You rightly identify a very deep-seated need for recognition and affirmation that can never really be satisfied, not relationally, not politically, not ecclesiastically.” Jesus Christ is the only one who can fill that need, and when people turn away from His Word to them what is to be done? Call for repentance, and proclaim Jesus Christ boldly, unapologetically, and stubbornly.

        “It may be time for us to have an alternative Thanksgiving meal the weekend before, or something like that.” I kinda hate to mention this, but this was my reality as a child because my parents were divorced. Maybe it’s time …

        In Christ,

        Jake H.

  5. I don’t disagree with Whit. Although I’m not so sure liberals crave approval of conservatives. However I would be willing to accept special presbyteries or other units.

    I would also permit gracious dismissal with property. I don’t see Jesus endorsing us keeping people in the denomination by holding their property hostage.

    I’m not sure why liberal churches remained. Partly I think because we felt that the PCUSA was already on our side. The theological basis was set in the 1920’s. I think we’ve always felt that the reason homosexuality was treated so different from any other issue was emotion, not exegesis, and that this would dissipate over time. My own feeling is that G-6.0106b was passed specifically because it was clear the direction things were going, and conservatives wanted to lock in their position for a few more years. So I think it was obvious from the beginning that it was temporary.

    But a lot of it is that we really didn’t want an ideologically pure liberal church. Perhaps this is another version of your family analogy, except I don’t really feel that conservatives are the parents. (Actually given the history of the PCUSA I see them more as rebellious teenagers.) I belong to a PCUSA church in New Jersey. We’re in a liberal area. I’m not aware of anyone in our congregation who objected to 10-A. When we talked about it after Church one Sunday we had a member in tears of gratitude, because he had a gay family member that he wanted to feel accepted. But we have active members who are very conservative (young earth creationist), and have served on Session. And we value fellowship with the few conservative pastors and churches in our area. Most of us don’t want to be forced to choose between two ideologically pure denominations.

    There are plenty of areas where the mix is much more even. What do you do if you’re forced to choose in an area where it’s 60/40 or 40/60? I suspect many people on both sides in those churches would rather find a way to hold their church together. The hard-core conservatives, who really can’t abide serving with people who reject inerrancy and the positions based on it, are already gone.

    One of the problems with special presbyteries is that it raises many of the same issues as a split. As long as you have a congregation that’s entirely conservative or liberal you’re fine. But how do the 60/40 congregations choose? Or are they not the ones that are interested? But even if it’s just for churches that are unanimous now, what will happen to the conservative presbyteries when a young adult who grew up in the church but is accepting of homosexuality (or worse — who is gay) becomes a candidate for elder?

    The only advantage I can see is if we think this issue is temporary — as I do. In that case it avoids setting up duplicate national organization, pension plans, etc, for a split whose justification will only last for 20 – 40 years, and it makes it easier for churches to move back when the next generation of leadership takes over. Perhaps that’s advantage enough.


    Incidentally, I would never say that there’s no right or wrong interpretation of Scripture. There are issues of various degrees of clarity, so these questions have to be asked in a particular context. In most cases there are interpretations that are clearly wrong. There are also gray areas: interpretations that seem implausible but that are possible, or interpretations that are wrong that we agree to tolerate because they are held by people that it doesn’t make sense to anathematize. But how wide those areas are is specific to the subject.

    The recent synod PJC decision didn’t say that there’s no right or wrong, just that there were two views on a specific question that were held by scholars working within the PCUSA traditions, and they didn’t feel that a judicial commission should judge between them. That’s the job of presbyteries. I agree. We appoint PJCs to judge procedural issues. We choose their members as people we trust on those issues. It’s the job of presbyteries and the GA to make theological judgements.

    Even Scott Anderson’s statement almost certainly didn’t mean that. Yes, I know he said it, but in the context of the overall statement, I think he again meant that there was an acceptable range of interpretations on specific topics.

    • Peajay Says:

      Mr. Hedrick, my experience in Chicago Presbytery and McCormick Seminary showed me liberals really did dream of an ideologically pure Presbyterian Church. Their visions for the mission of the Presbyterian Church was one solidly and unequivocally committed to their vision of social justice. They welcomed evangelicals and other conservatives to stick around, of course, so long as they were willing to contribute to support and implement that mission.

      For instance, with regard to abortion rights, their commitment was that abortion was a matter of individual conscience and no one could say choosing an abortion was ever immoral. The live of the foetus had no moral standing in the question. These were uncompromising moral commitments, and no conservative input was allowed to change, temper, or nuance them. The only conservative input wanted was money to support the medical benefits program, women’s ministry area, and the various advocacy groups.

      I remember years and years of “we want you at the table” speeches. But it wasn’t to be at the table to help shape the mission of the church. There was never an offer to compromise the fundamental direction of the church programs. And if evangelicals didn’t support that mission direction — say by withholding Per Capita payments, or finding alternative health coverage — suddenly there was no place for such divisive presence at the table.

    • Whit Says:

      Charles, I was a little ambiguous. I was saying that it was the gays who craved acceptance from evangelicals, not liberals in general. This seems similar to the relationship between gay children and their parents in many cases.

      As for Scott Anderson’s “acceptable range”, whether homoerotic conduct is sinful is a yes or no question. If both yes and no are acceptable, the “range” is a full 360 degrees. I think what you meant was that it was a matter of indifference upon which people of good faith may differ.

      But having been a member of a 60/40 congregation in a 33/67 presbytery, I agree with your analysis of the pain this change will inevitably cause. And if it were only this one issue, sexual morality, perhaps I might agree that we should stay together and let the Holy Spirit work it out over time.

      But, as Mary as demonstrated in a subsequent post, the issues are far more extensive. There is no good solution to all of this. I return to my conclusion that going or staying should revolve around a determination of where one believes one can best do ministry.

      And as for wanting an ideologically diverse denomination, would you stay in a denomination which, on political matters, was conservative – as far right is the PCUSA is left?

  6. I guess it depends upon what you think the Church is about. If we spend most of our time talking about sexual hot-button issues, then I agree, sitting around the table together may not be that useful. Our Presbytery tried it with homosexuality. We had all kinds of processes designed to build understanding. The problem is that they’re irrelevant. Our views come from our basic approach to the Bible, and that’s not likely to change.

    But in the churches I’m familiar with, that’s not what we’re about. We’re doing worship, helping people in the church and community, supporting missionaries working with allied churches, etc. I realize for some people the Church is about stopping abortion and homosexuality, or lobbying Congress for liberal causes. And at some national meetings that looks like the focus. If that’s true, we may not have much to talk about. I just don’t think that’s really what the PCUSA is.

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