Responding to Joe Small: On Bitter Schism

December 13, 2011

In the interest of constructive dialogue, I would like to respond to the “Open Letter” written by Joseph D. Small and published yesterday in The Presbyterian Outlook.

First, a little background and an affirmation: I have been acquainted with Joe for many years most especially through our participation in a Reformed dialogue on the Sacraments in Geneva in the late 1990s. I last spoke to him at breakfast in Minneapolis during the August Gathering of Presbyterians. The grief he expressed then and now about the divide in the PCUSA is based on a grounded orthodox understanding of our faith and heritage. He is a steady guy, a thorough thinker, and a patient, devoted Christian. I think the world of him, and was glad to see his name on the New Reformed Body theological statements released last week.

Joe makes three points I would like to comment on, having to do with bitter schism, naming essential tenets, and possible historic missteps. In the interest of limiting the length of my posts, I’ll take these one at a time this week.

Schism. Joe mentions three significant separations, dating back to the 1930s (Orthodox), 1960s and 70s (PCA), and 1980s (EPC). Each of these peeled away from the UPCUSA the most conservative congregations so that what reunited with the PCUS in 1983 was a more liberal church than the Northern stream of the early 1860s. (One recalls the “North-South” split ostensibly caused by the Civil War but with deep theological issues at the root.) He characterized these separations as “bitter” and admonishes the church, if it is to differentiate now, to avoid the bitterness of the past. He is, of course, justified in giving this caution; but it is a tough sell.

While not intending to avoid the charge of bitterness, we should at least take a look at what bitterness is and whether it is bitterness or something else we have been experiencing together. In English usage, the word bitterness is defined as “marked by intensity or severity” as in relentlessly determined (partisanship), animosity (enemies), cynicism and rancor (contempt), among other usages. The NT biblical word translated “bitterness” is pikrias, which points to envy or resentment, the sort of rancor that is held and fed and (as envy is a ‘deadly sin’) leads to other sins. We are admonished in Scripture to “get rid of all bitterness and anger” (Eph. 4:31). It is a poison that erodes one’s spirit, most certainly.

In an unsolicited dialogue with PCAers in the last year, I can attest that this sort of poison exists in the wider Body of Christ over some issues like the women’s question and über Calvinism. But disagreement within the family, in and of itself, does not have to be bitter, and separation from the PCUSA is not by its very nature bitter though bitterness is always a temptation. As Joe suggests, we must do what we must do without rancor and without bitterness. But this means honestly held convictions expressed with civility and processed respectfully must not be attacked but must be accepted as the expression of conscience. The Book of Order guarantees as much, and allows that conscience may in fact require an individual to leave the Presbyterian fold.

What is problematic, and the issue Joe is raising methinks, is when an entire congregation feels its conscience has been violated, not just individuals who are free to leave at any time.  The system makes it extraordinarily difficult for a congregation to act as a unit, giving all benefit to the denomination in times of division. The ensuing arguments pit a loyal PCUSA minority against a disenfranchised majority (in the case where the vote to leave is not unanimous), in many cases awarding to the minority all visible forms of church (property). An insistence upon this arrangement by presbyteries rubs salt in an open wound, cripples the ability of a majority to carry on in ministry, and gives evidence that the issue is money and power, not ministry.

Joe makes the assertion that “these divisions have resulted in the multiplication of weakened churches and the diminution of credible Reformed witness to the gospel in America.” I would simply ask if statistics are available to prove this. I do not doubt that within the PCUSA this is true. But is it really a loss to credible Reformed witness in America if PCA and EPC churches are more vital and growing than ever as a result? [I do not know this is true, but would welcome evidence one way or the other.] Only if one considers the PCUSA to be the only Reformed witness around! And finally, as to evidence, how does the decline of PCUSA churches compare with the status of other denominations and non-denominational churches? If our decline is steeper than others, or if it is consistent with other denominations, that tells us something about factors going way beyond schism to explain the weakening of churches.

But surely, churches are weakened and the Kingdom of God suffers a terrible loss when property issues bankrupt a thriving congregation, put a large property in the hands of a few remaining members and perhaps as a remedy is sold for other uses. The “narrower divide” Joe seeks would be much more attainable if we took competition for resources out of the equation.

Tomorrow: Identification of Essential Tenets of Reformed Faith


5 Responses to “Responding to Joe Small: On Bitter Schism”

  1. FWIW … in reference to the decline of the PC(USA) in respect to other mainline denominations. The Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) has this year dropped below the 2 million member point. I fully expect the PC(USA) to join it after this year’s end-of-year reports are filed.

  2. Collin Says:

    Right, I wasn’t aware of how Redeemer Presbyterian was weakened by being part of PCA. Would they have been stronger by having to fight PCUSA bureaucracy in setting up multiple venues? I would be interested in seeing statistics to back up Mr. Small’s claims.

  3. Chuck Says:

    I believe it is very easy to identify ‘bitterness’ and other poisons in each of the camps that have formed to do battle over Theology in the PCUSA. Someone once said, “I’d rather fight 100 men than one Calvinist who thinks he is doing God’s Will.” That’s how ‘we’ get when it comes to protecting God’s Church.

    Is it ‘bitter schism’, though, to acknowledge that we are no longer One Church, and haven’t been for many years? Conflict resolution is sorely needed in the PCUSA today. If we honestly examine how much time and energy is spent on conflict rather than Evangelism, our response should be sorrow and repentance. I believe the time has come for all participants to step back from the conflict and assess our current state.

    The PCUSA has been in decline for four decades, not four years, so charges of schism have a rather hollow ring for me. What has happened to our denomination? A quick answer is that we have forgotten that we are supposed to be fruitful. We are supposed to make the saving grace of Jesus known to our world. And the statistics clearly show we are not meeting that goal.

    When the Church isn’t fruitful, Scripture clearly indicates that God is going to take out the pruning shears and make it healthy again. Pruning shears are sharp! God is going to remove a lot of dead and diseased wood from His Church. We may not enjoy the process, but we should celebrate the fact that He loves us enough to do that work.

    Why are so many leaders in the PCUSA upset with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and other expressions of dissatisfaction within the denomination? Are they afraid that they will lose power and influence? Or is it that the Liberal faction of the PCUSA has won the battle over control of the denomination only to find that they will lose the war?

    The fact is that people are going to leave the PCUSA no matter what the ‘politicians’ do. The current situation is untenable for too many people. How we respond to that reality, through grace or through rancor, will determine our fruitfulness in the future.

  4. Dave Hackett Says:

    Somehow it seems relevant to note the stunning growth of the Presbyterian Church movement in South Korea, which now has more than twice the number of members than the PCUSA. But here’s the kicker, there are reportedly more than 200 different Presbyterian denominations in South Korea – that’s denominations, not churches! Which is to say that numerical growth and spread of the Presbyterian church movement there was *facilitated and enhanced* by this division and subdivision and sub-subdivision of denominations. Dr. Ralph Winter once told me that most growing churches, globally, grow through divisions instead of growing inspite of them. I’m sure there are other costs to this divisioning and splitting, and very unattractive personal power attributes, etc, but the fact stands that South Korean Presbyterian church growth came hand in hand with splits.

  5. sinaiticus Says:

    In my opinion, lurking behind every discussion of “schism” and separation (and divergence from “orthodoxy”) is the question of our relationship with other Christian bodies, especially the ancient forms of Christianity. Are we still concerned about that? Is it schism when we are not in communion with other churches? Or is that a different case?

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