The PCUSA Has Lost Its Moral Authority

March 12, 2012

The news is reported in The Layman that the Rev. Brian Merritt has defied PCUSA law, most recently upheld by the GAPJC in the Spahr case, and married a lesbian couple in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. Last week, the Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell revealed in a blog entry on Huffington Post that for years his executive presbyter shielded him from ecclesiastical prosecution: “There were a handful of Presbyterian pastors who were out LGBTQ people before we Presbyterians amended our constitution. The reason no formal complaint was brought against me was because I was part of a Presbytery where powerful people protected me as an out gay pastor. There was an informal ‘underground railroad,’ where those in authority shielded us from prosecution . . .” These are just two pieces of evidence that prove to me, at least, that the PCUSA has utterly failed in church discipline and has lost its moral authority.

Our moral authority as a church is tied to our willingness to promote what the Scriptures promote, to obey God’s commands, and to accept and teach the Scriptures as “the only rule of faith and manners.” I have expanded upon this theme in previous posts, here and here. It would appear that brazen acts of ecclesial disobedience will go unchallenged from here on out, and if they stand, will finally, once for all, tell the world that we are no longer anchored in the Word of God.

What concerns me now is that these flagrant violations of the Book of Order continue to occur even though the official decision-making process is not over. There is still the defining PJC case (Parnell v. San Francisco) pending to decide whether the ordination of a committed homosexual person is acceptable. The General Assembly has not met yet to decide whether the current definition of marriage remains acceptable as faithful summary of what the Scriptures teach.

Meanwhile, those in violation of their ordination vows, like Mr. Merritt and Mr. Webb-Mitchell, demonstrate nothing but joy in marrying a same-sex couple or coming out at a gay teaching elder. They appear to be proud of what they are doing, proud to have thumbed their nose at the church, and proud to be leading others to follow suit. But still it is true, according to the Scriptures and the Book of Order, their actions are indecent and out of order. I fear for their souls, not to mention the spiritual peril of those who follow them.

What we are seeing now is a rapidly accelerating slide, the proverbial slippery slope that is carrying the church away from its First Love. The passage of Amendment 10A was the tipping point. Wrongly, though predictably, people saw the deletion of the fidelity/chastity ordination requirement as license not only to ordain practicing gay clergy but now to allow same-sex marriage. It has emboldened my own presbytery to bring forward a minister transfer who was married to his same-sex partner in a public ceremony in San Francisco a few years back. His long wait for validation in our presbytery is apparently over, but the move is premature and will be challenged as such at the meeting tomorrow. Regardless of these efforts to legitimize homosexual practice, the denomination has not yet changed its definition of marriage, nor has it allowed clergy to conduct such ceremonies. But the passage of 10A seems to have signaled to those pushing the limits that nothing will push back if they go the full distance and live and act as if homosexual practice is completely normal and acceptable within the PCUSA.

The ultimate proof that the PCUSA has lost its moral authority is the paralysis of our application of discipline. We’ve lost a mark of the true church when we lose that. And if we’ve lost that, the PCUSA is not “the true church” any longer. And how can such a church then turn to those who are attempting to remain faithful to the Scriptures and tell them, “No, you are not the true church if you want to separate yourself from us.” Surely, God is weeping at the blindness that claim reveals.


42 Responses to “The PCUSA Has Lost Its Moral Authority”

  1. Derek Simmons Says:

    So NOW that the PCUSA has “lost its moral authority”….. Now what?
    Derek Simmons

  2. Steve Niccolls Says:

    Mary: I will pray for you and the other like minded representatives to the SF Presbytery tomorrow. There’s a part of me that wishes that I was a delegate to the Presbytery and part of me that is happy I am not. (The reason part of me is happy that I am not is I might not be able to keep myself decent and in good order.)

  3. David Says:

    Wait. We had moral authority?

  4. David Says:

    Discipline is such a tricky mark. Proclamation of the word and the sacraments are so much easier to identify and execute. But when it comes to discipline we can take it to a legalistic extreme where no one trusts each other and everyone is acting out of fear of being disciplined by the church.

    I agree with your premise about no one pushing back. I think those that broke the law should be held accountable because they went against our polity but also because they went against the unity and fellowship of the church. They chose to act as lone wolves and that is distinctly not Presbyterian. Frankly, I just don’t think that those in positions to do so have the mental fortitude to follow through on that. Furthermore, it would only serve to fracture our denomination more. I’m not saying it is right. I am just saying I can see what would make good people sit and do nothing.

    I would not go so far as to fear for their souls. God has a lot of grace even when it comes to bad theology. I know god has seen me through a lot of my awful ideologies. Therefore, I too am going to try and have as much grace with others who I see as wayward.

  5. Peajay Says:

    Unless things have changed dramatically since I lived there, it’s probably not correct to say the PCUSA has lost its ability to discipline ministers. A colleague was expelled for obtaining alternative medical coverage to avoid participating in the abortion-affirming BoP medical plan — and it was a presbytery with a reputation for being friendly to evangelicals who did the expelling! I’ve seen the tools of discipline applied effectively and efficiently against evangelicals on other occasions as well. It’s not so much the lack of discipline as the recipients of discipline.

    But if the PCUSA has, as you write, “lost its moral authority,” what is a minister or member to do? On what basis can one continue to recruit new members to such an organization? Since every Presbyterian congregation is part of this organization, and contributions to every Presbyterian congregation are, at least in part, contributions to the whole organization, how does one invite people to increase their partnership in that mission?

  6. Dr. Mike Says:

    Your article implies that the embattled PC(USA) actually had moral authority at some time in their history? When was this? As I look at its history, the PC(USA) has never had unity or harmony. Seems to me its entire history has been marked with one compromise with the world after another.

  7. Aubrey Lester Says:

    PCUSA seems more intent on empire building than on saving souls.

  8. Adel Thalos Says:

    I agree and disagree (not being dialectic).

    The PCUSA has simply shifted to a new set of morals and it enforces those with impunity.

    As a conservative/evangelical/inerrantist I was black-balled and barred from accepting any positions in the PCUSA. They enforced their slowly developed new morals.

    Leadership in the denomination has been ceded to liberal/progressive/humanist non-Christians, who have slowly instituted a new ethic…a progressive/liberal/liberationist ethic. It is now being enforced more stringently as orthodox believers abandon the empty stinking carcass of a once excellent Christian denomination.

    Adel Thalos
    Teaching Elder
    Hixson, TN

  9. Tom Paine Says:

    I am waiting for a call to use the Rules of Discipline more frequently from anyone for something that isn’t in some way related to roughly 6-7% of the population. I also hope someone will list the denominations that do have “moral authority” in our culture – ones that people might put their personal feelings aside and reconsider their beliefs because the church has spoken on an issue. I would submit that we do not do that often in our culture and instead believe churches have moral authority when they restate beliefs we already have. I am not saying discipline and beliefs are unimportant. But for folks on the far left and right of the conflict in the larger church, they are like bands that both play a single song. In someway it always is about homosexuality, an aspect of human behavior that is reflected in only about 6-7% of the population.

    • WyDave Says:

      It’s hard (impossible? I have vague memories that the association of stated clerks was asked this very question at one point) to gauge what the proportions are re:LGBT issues vs all other applications of the ROD. I have a hunch that there are a lot of cases that are dealt with quietly within a given presbytery and make no headlines.

      Things being what they are these days, it’s the LGBT cases that get headlines and are appealed up the chain (and sometimes sent back down and then re-appealed, lather rinse repeat). Compare that with the case of a friend and colleague here whose misdeeds in his previous presbytery caught up with him shortly after moving to this presbytery. He demitted after the investigating committee filed charges. His name and offences are now a footnote in our presbytery minutes and got no notice beyond this presbytery.

      • Tom Paine Says:


        Oh, no question, the ROD are used often to handle misconduct that is totally unrelated to the LGBT issues. It is less how it is actually used that how people call for it to be used. I was simply observing that I find few blogs or columns written about our need to enforce the ROD more stringently, except on LGBT issues.

  10. Chuck Says:

    I don’t know if we LOST our moral authority, or just found that the responsibility of exercising moral authority was too inconvenient. And now it’s rather late to try and exercise that authority…because the culture and customs of our denomination reflect those of our culture.

    As others have observed many times before, we lost the Theological battle a long time ago. Now we are seeing the consequences of that loss.

  11. Joe Duffus Says:

    I doubt seriously whether anyone in the National Capital Presbytery will bring charges against Rev. Brian Merritt for performing a “wedding service” he knows to be wrong, against his ordination vows and against the laws of the state where the couple will reside. But, if I understand our polity, that is what should happen. Am I correct in that?

    Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell’s blog post brings up another question for me, however. Are not he and other now-openly gay or bisexual teaching elders in PC(USA) guilty of having lied in their ordination vows? Pastors who have come out of the closet since the passage of 10-A did not suddenly become that way. They have been to some extent hiding it or finessing it all these years. Is there no sanction for having been false in their vows of ordination?

  12. Eleanor Duffield Says:

    While my theological orthodoxy is readily seen, I am also a retired teacher of government and politics so right process and procedures are essential.

    It seems to me that for the same progressives who contend God’s Word was written by men who reflected their own times and cultures, the same can be said for those progressives today who argue our own times and cultures must be imposed on Scripture. And the question is clear: Does God really change God’s mind?

    Do we of the Reformed faith believe “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God? Or not?

    Thank you, revmary. On days when you don’t post I go wanting.

  13. Carl Pelz Says:

    From my vantage point, scripture is clear about the evidence for being born from above, abiding in Him, and walking in the Spirit. When the actions of those within the corporate church contradict that evidence, we are to challenge one another and apply progressive discipline up to and including disassociation. It is difficult imagine that some within PCUSA are believers. Fortunately, beyond the shared responsibilities of challenging, disciplining, and, when appropriate, disassociation; who is a believer or not is the business of our loving heavenly Father.

    Shifting focus to the ECO, it is reassuring and even exhilarating to see the shift back to Jesus Christ, scripture, the reformed tradition, and clear stands on issues from sexual conduct to election! Still… what assurance do we have that over time the ECO won’t go down the road of PCUSA?

    That question seems to be inextricably linked to questions about what hermeneutical principles will be applied to scripture, how those principles will be applied, and who is qualified to apply them. For instance (and to Eleanor’s point above), when should the impact of scripture on us today be limited or even dismissed because it is deemed to have been written for a particular historical situation in a unique cultural context? Topics that come to mind when that question has been applied include slavery, gender roles, church leadership, and homosexuality. It seems that the moral authority of the church is tied to not only taking scripture seriously but how we consistently interpret and apply scripture. Other thoughts?

  14. Whitey Says:

    So NOW that the PCUSA has “lost its moral authority”….. Now what? So what?

    Can anyone be surprised? Most of the powers that be in the pcusa turned away from the Christian faith a long time ago.

    How can anyone be surprised at anything they do?

  15. Jeff Winter Says:

    Over the years,I have met some Brett Webb-Mitchell’s in this denomination. When the Constitution specifically stated that ordained ministry is only for those who are married (one man and one woman) or for those who are celibate, these people worked behind the scenes disrupting the peace, purity and unity of the church. They had no respect for the Book of Order. Instead of showing integrity by leaving the PCUSA they worked to dismantle it. I have absolutely no respect for Mr. Webb-Mitchell or Mr. Merritt (I don’t want to use the word Rev)and those who support them. I agree with Rev. Naegeli that our denomination doesn’t have any moral authority. I also believe that most persons who lead this church don’t have the sanctified gonads to call homosexual expression for what it is…..Sin before a Holy God

    • Matthew Ray Says:

      We will have to agree to disagree there. What you seem to be asserting is that there is no place in the church for Gay and Lesbian people, who aren’t willing to “change”, or remain celibate for life. Our denomination decided to allow local pastors and congregations to deal with the marriage issue, and on ordaining openly gay elders and clergy. Nobody is forcing you or your church to adopt these policies. It is merely an option. Meanwhile, there are many PC(USA) congregations that will choose to provide a safe and welcoming place for LGBT persons, be it in ministry or as members.

  16. Gene Says:

    You may not want to use the word Reverened when referring to Rev. Merritt or Rev. Webb-Mitchell, but, not doing so shows a lack of civility, a lack of class, and a lack of dignity. And the term “sanctified gonads”….really? Has anger and bitterness and a sense of lost entitlement reduced you to..this?

    You are an ordained minister in a denomination where the ordination of one is, like it or not, recognized by all. That includes those who are GLBT and ordained.

    Please raise your standards and show the respect that these persons are due Rev. Winter.

    I neither like or respect you, but you have earned the title of Rev. and it would be petulent and childish to refuse to use it.

    If you are unable to function propertly in this denomination, never forget that there are others which might take you.

  17. Adel Thalos Says:

    Gene, while the term “reverend” has become merely a titular term for an ordained person, the term itself means a person who is worthy of honor. Its roots in the church is based upon 1 Tim 3, with the idea of “worthy of respect” referencing leaders. Consider 1 Tim 5:17 “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor…” Integrity is what brings worthiness. That is why I, like reverend Jeff Winter (a man of high integrity) would not use that term for people who lack such. It has nothing to do with civility. I personally would not even use the term mister. As another Biblical example of this, go no further than the book of Ruth. The family member that was closest in line, who refused to redeem Naomi and marry Ruth did not earn the respect of the Biblical author enough to even be named…rather a term that avoids using his name was used (a nobody). Therefore, in my opinion, Reverend Jeff Winter is being quite civil and appropriate.

  18. Gene Says:

    By definition, no man of “high integrity” would plan on bringing the leader of a SPLC listed hategroup (Linda Harvey) to the General Assembly. Not that I am complaining, for the quality of the company you keep says a great deal about a person/group. In this case, OBO, and Mrs. Harvey and her extremist views are well known, and will do more good for those working for full inclusion than those working against it ( OBO ) of that there is no doubt.

    That aside, and your weak arguements aside, in the PCUSA, an ordained minister (not an ordained elder or deacon) is, as a matter or course and manners, referred to by the title of Reverend. There are many pastors whom I deeply disagree with, and in the case of Reverend Winter, see as deeply morally flawed, but that does not change the fact that as a minister in the PCUSA, the proper title, unless I intect to write/speak like a petulent child, is The Reverend Jeff Winter.

    And, The Reverend Brian Merritt.
    And, The Reverend Webb-Mitchell

    • revmary Says:

      And to further muddy the etiquette waters, the honorific “the Reverend” is used only in writing or in referral to the minister in the third person. But when addressing the minister directly, one says “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Dr.” or “Ms.”

      • Eleanor Duffield Says:

        And isn’t reverend an adjective as in The Reverend Doctor Mary Naegeli or The Rev. Mary Naegeli? 🙂

  19. Karen Says:

    If one has been baptized and therefore claimed in the baptismal waters as a child of God, are they not saved by grace through faith? You need not fear for their souls, they are in the hands of a loving God. We need to leave the judgement to the One who was judged in our place and move on. To support same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination is not about straying from the Word of God, it is about interpretation of the Word that is not literal. It is about love and grace triumphing. We need to love one another and to have compassion for others instead of judging them against our own values.

  20. Adel Thalos Says:


    Baptismal regeneration is not reformed.

    same-sex marriage has nothing to do with “interpretation”. Otherwise it would be alright for me or anyone else to interpret scripture just about any way they or I please. Scripture is with one absolute voice about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. There isn’t the slightest wiggle room on this issue. It’s like the man who came to me and told me that God had told him that it would be good for him to divorce his wife so that he could marry another woman. It’s his interpretation and the Holy Spirit’s fresh movement….right? By your interpretation, there is nothing one could say against this.

    Or the man who wants to have multiple wives…why not? Scripture can be twisted in that direction too…right?

    What about pedophiles…I bet some could put together some scripture twisting to allow for this…

    You name it…and someone has probably twisted scriptures to the point that it would be allowed, by your method.

    One of my sins happens to be over-eating. If I work hard enough at it, I could probably “interpret” (twist) scripture to allow it… Why not? Who’s to judge?

    Where is the end of this kind of thinking? Why not universalism/unitarianism, like the majority of those who also advocate for same-sex affirmation? They can twist scripture to allow for this view…

    Adel Thalos
    Hixson, TN

    • I think for some it does have to do with interpretation. I do not think we can escape interpreting scripture anyway we please. Some people are just more subtle about it than others.

      And does your over eating keep you from becoming a minister?

      • Adel Thalos Says:

        There are always a certain amount of “reasonable” interpretations. What is not allowed (logically and humanly) is to interpret away. For instance, what if I were to interpret what you just wrote as to say that there is no interpretation involved at all. Is this a reasonable interpretation of what you just wrote. Of course not. So, in fact, there are clear rules of interpretation. Where Biblical revelation is not absolutely clear, there is room for interpretation within reasonable bounds. But clearly there are unreasonable interpretations. For instance, when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father but by Him. It is unreasonable to interpret this as…all major religions are equal ways to “the eternal”…as liberal/progressive theologies teach.

        As for my sin of over-eating…I do not come out of “the closet” and proclaim that over-eating is good. And justice requires that because I have an internal proclivity to over-eat, I should be affirmed and celebrated in this. Rather, I confess my sins, turn to Christ and continue in the struggle of sanctification. Sometimes with success, other times with failures. But I never proclaim sin as good.

      • I wanted to say for the record. I think their interpretation is just poor exegesis. I also think some people haven’t put any thought in it at all.

      • Adel Thalos Says:

        It’s much more than merely poor exegesis on a minor textual issue. These are core moral and ethical issues, and core essentials of the faith. They are at the heart of Biblical faith, justification and sanctification. The prophets and apostles did not waiver on these issues…getting them wrong means we don’t inherit the kingdom of God. These are very serious, eternal issues.

      • Could you clarify for me? What park of this are you saying is core and essential to faith and how does it impact justification and sanctification?

      • Adel Thalos Says:

        Consider 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Does this text leave room for unrepentant, self-affirming homosexual behavior? Does not this text have something to say about unrepentant homosexual activity regarding both justification and sanctification?

        I would argue that it clearly does on an individual level and a corporate level. Does a church/denomination that affirms and even celebrates what the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures teaches as immorality that leads to non-inheritance of the kingdom of God….does that church/denomination apostate itself? I would argue that indeed it does.

  21. Jodie Says:


    Repentance is not merely a case of contrition. It means to change direction. To no longer do what you were doing. If you continue to overeat, you have not repented of the sin of gluttony.

    You have simply wished you were repentant.

    Your rationalization notwithstanding, you are very much refusing to repent of a self acknowledged practice which the confessions and the scriptures call a sin.

    And yet, you seem to give yourself a break here. It’s OK. I get it. The sin of others is always more damming than the sins of our selves.

    It’s called self righteous ness.

    • Adel Thalos Says:


      I assume therefore you live in sinless perfection…how Wesleyan/Arminian of you… I would expect that you have no struggles with sin in your own life…

      I’ll be telling everyone I know that I have conversed on a blog with a sinless Jodie…what a joy..

      Instead I have a proper reformed view of sanctification.
      As John Calvin put it…
      “This restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples, renewing all their minds to true purity that they may practice repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only at death.”

      You might want to learn something about the reformed view of sanctification…

      • Jodie Says:


        Your non sequitur and contemptuous tone aside, it is hard enough to converse with self proclaimed proponents of the Scriptures who nevertheless refuse to learn and live by them. So I really have no patience left for discussing revisionist interpretations of Calvin.

        Besides, surely you are not suggesting that the reformed view of sanctification is at variance with the Scriptures, or alternatively completes them in any way, are you?

      • This level of discourse is the primary threat to the denomination.

      • Adel Thalos Says:


        Non-sequitur…really? How?

        My conclusion followed from your position. Since you have stated that repentance requires a turning and no longer continuing in that sin. So therefore, you must be claiming to have repented and no longer follow any sins in your life, making you sinless…congratulations. (Otherwise some might claim that you are a hypocrite, having personally attacked me for not having complete victory over an area of struggle with sin in my own life.) You must therefore not have a reformed perspective on sanctification, but rather be claiming an Arminian/Wesleyan complete sanctification…once again congratulations…

        I believe the Scriptures are in complete accord with the Reformed perspective of sanctification, which is clearly described by Calvin in the quote above. I could suggest several texts on the reformed view of sanctification, but I’ll not waste my time, since you show no propensity for learning.

        I’ll simply leave you with this from the Westminster Confession of faith:
        ” This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.”

        Ultimately though, this has nothing to do with the issue discussed in this blog posting. The issue rather is calling good what the Scriptures clearly and with one voice refer to as corruption and egregious sin.

  22. I have, with interest, followed your characterizations of my acts of conscience. I will continue to pray for you and all that believe that our wise disciplines are battering rams to punish and to persecute people of conscience. I will pray for repentance of that sin. I say this with love and hope for your eventual transformation. You deserve better for yourself than this dissent and disunity. I too fear for your soul, but I remember only God knows the heart. I know that you will pray for me as well that I will continue to grow into the love and unity that Christ is calling our entire church.

    • Jake Horner Says:

      Brian, when it comes to your acts of conscience allow me to quote that great theologian Rhett Butler: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Your act of conscience doesn’t mean jack if it is out of step with the will of Jesus Christ. In fact you deluded two women into thinking Jesus would bless their marriage. YOu didn’t actually do anything in DC. For it is Jesus who creates the one flesh bond through the power of the Spirit. And Jesus isn’t going to do that for people that are openly defying him. How can Jesus bless out of one side of his mouth what he has declared to be sin out of the other side?

      OUr wise doctrines and confessions are certainly not battering rams to punish and persecute. Rather, they are Rods to be applied with just enough energy to restore a wayward thinker or actor to orthodoxy. They are a true blessing of God for the well being of the church, his body.
      It is good that you pray for Mary, all of us sinners need prayer. God does indeed know her heart, and I suspect his word to her is “well done, good and faithful servant”

      Peace, unity, and purity are all over rated. I’d give them all up to follow Christ.

      If you want to see how its done right check this out:

      Brian, my word to you is to care for your own soul. Jesus Christ just plain loves Mary’s to death.

      Jake Horner

      • Maybe you could try to enter into an intelligent dialogue without profanity or the beginning of a profane phrase? Just a suggestion. It seems to demean the character of your dialogue. Also, are caps on half a word a muffled shout? Oh well. There are so many assumptions thrown around in your response that it would be silly to try and respond. All I can say is that I love you, because God loves you. Neither have given up on me, nor will they give up on you as well.

  23. […] few weeks back a blog post by Mary Naegli came to my attention.  She is current Director of the Presbyterian Coalition.   It was a blog […]

  24. Bob Wardrop Says:

    When has the PC{USA} decided to ignore the Holy Bible? God said that when a man lies with a man as with a women- “It is an abomination.” This denomination is in the process of dying. Sorry but true! Bob Wardrop

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