The PCUSA as a Masked Ball

November 5, 2011

The question is whether a PCUSA-ordained person still has the same dance partner now as when he or she took those ordination vows. The longer one has been ordained, the more serious is the question. I have been dancing with the PCUSA for twenty-four years (and longer if you count the years as a church member). Sometimes I feel as if I am waltzing at a masked ball, with a partner of unknown identity. Could it turn out to be someone other than the one with whom I came to the party?

To those who believe the incremental changes occurring in the PCUSA in the last century are well within the “Reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God” tradition, and therefore the denomination remains true to its identity, I say:

The Swearingen Commission of the 1920s opened the Pandora’s box to unbridled theological change within the PCUSA. By erroneously applying the 1729 Adopting Act to allow local discretion as to beliefs and practice, the church activated a virus that has been mutating our DNA ever since. The Adopting Act had a very specific application, which has been generalized over the centuries to include any scruple a minister transfer might declare. Originally, the purpose for the Adopting Act was to acknowledge the hypersensitivity of English immigrants to any kind of connection between government and religion. The Westminster Confession on Civil Magistrates (original Chapter XX, Book of Confessions, 6.108-111) indicated that Presbyterians were subject to the power of the civil government. English ministers transferring into the Synod of New York in 1729 were allowed membership, upon declaring a scruple with this particular provision of the constitution. There is no evidence in minutes for two hundred years that the Adopting Act was ever used to cover a scruple of another doctrine or of behavior. In our contemporary setting, we understand that we are to be law-abiding citizens, and to that degree a Christian (or a Presbyterian) is not immune to the civil law. The limit to this view is found in Westminster’s paragraph (BOC, 6.109), where freedom of conscience is claimed, establishing the right of the believer to be free of civil mandates that specifically contradict biblical law.

Despite the limited applicability of the Adopting Act, it was this “compromise” that was cited to support the conclusion of the Swearingen Commission of the early 20th century, that no church officer could be required to subscribe to any particular set of beliefs (at the time, the issue revolved around the “five fundamentals”). It took another fifty years, but eventually the Westminster Confession itself was considered too confining a statement of belief, and the Book of Confessions was born. The affirmation of a boundary around a “bounded set” has devolved into a “centered-set” without outer edges. Hence, candidates and minister transfers are pushing the limits of orthodoxy with their strange and creative articulations of the Reformed faith, to the point that some can deny the deity of Christ, reject substitutionary atonement, question the resurrection’s historicity, or otherwise undermine the foundations of Christian faith.

Their very presence on the rosters of Presbyterian leadership, with the affirmation not only of a presbytery but the PCUSA for which the presbytery ordained them, is evidence that the doctrinal and moral scrutiny of the church has seriously eroded. There are many, many presbyteries in the country that would absolutely disavow such slack examinations for ordination, so I do not want to take credit away from the faithful who have not fallen to worldly formulations. But the virus has taken hold at the national level, indicated by the advice being given to executive presbyters and presbytery clerks, that put roadblocks in a faithful presbytery’s efforts to reinforce essentials of Reformed faith. This cannot lead to anything good, if in the process, the church basically states “our faith is, by its very nature, unspecific, so that all people can find a place in the PCUSA.” That is not what our Historic Principles of Church Order establish for us; quite the contrary is true. And yet, as a denomination, we have lost our corporate will to “enforce” sound doctrine, to conform our teaching to the standards of the church, or to commit ourselves to specifics that are defining of our Christian heritage. This is more than a shame; this is a deal-breaker for many, and the basis upon which some are now saying, “PCUSA, I do not recognize you. You are not the church in which I vowed submission to Christ and the Word of God.”

2 Responses to “The PCUSA as a Masked Ball”

  1. Jake Horner Says:

    Perhaps it is appropriate to say that what was at one time a masked ball has become an acid test.


  2. Dennis Evans Says:

    What you say is true. As someone who became orthodox at the age of 18 and highly unorthodox and sycretistic up until that time, my small experience of Presbyterian Churches, from my junior high years through college, showed me a Presbyterian denomination where it was common to not believe in the divinity or resurrection of Christ, or to hold the Bible as inspired in the sense of its content defining what we believe. My calling from God was essentially to be a mole or a voice in the desert. And I was told by my “Care of Candidates Committee” that I was too conservative and would be happier in another denomination. That was probably in the year 1971. What you say is true but not new at all, and was never a surprise to me.

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