Two Degrees of Separation

May 22, 2012

This is the third and last installment in my series considering the options for a church in conflict, and what happens when separation is necessary for the sake of mission. I have tried to make a case, at least anecdotally, for the positive reasons to separate ministries. And here are two more just to keep us nimble to the idea that separation can be good and honoring of Jesus Christ:  the planting of “daughter churches,” which call out of one congregation a group of people that seed the new church; and the division of one congregation into two or more campuses with separate resident pastors.  These are “positive” because the two entities share a vision for ministry that includes multiplication; but it does entail separation, a concept I now explore further.

The PCUSA has the opportunity, through business coming to the General Assembly this summer, to “plant” new presbyteries and to allow realignment of congregations. The Mid-Council Commission (MCC) has made a report with recommendations to reconfigure presbyteries if necessary, though on a timetable that is too slow to address the current concerns. We might not have to wait too long, since, in nFOG polity, Synods already have the power to divide presbyteries for the sake of mission; they should start doing so along theological lines as soon as possible. If the San Francisco Overture (Item 05-01) were to pass, this action would be possible within a year. The MCC Report can pave the way for creative and necessary new organizational designs that allow incompatible congregations to differentiate as to theology and therefore mission, and take the heat off some of our current conflicts. Is this conflict avoidance? I don’t think so; I think it more a compromise that splits the difference, so to speak, and keeps everyone under the one tent for now. This is one degree of separation.

For some, however, this is simply not enough differentiation to ease a plagued conscience. For them, the only way to differentiate is by complete disassociation with those congregations and/or presbyteries that have gone on record defying our polity and the legitimate authority structures therein. Their desire to differentiate should not be characterized by the term thrown about too often and unwisely these days, “schismatic.” It is in fact these congregations that welcome the authority of the church, so long as it is based upon the Scriptures, our only rule of faith and practice. These churches are not throwing off the denomination’s authority; rather, they welcome accountability of a biblically based church discipline. The problem is that what passes for discipline in the PCUSA these days is corrupt and inconsistent. With no backup and no recourse, congregations are coming to the conclusion that the “honor system” we lived by peaceably for centuries, because we enjoyed a theological consensus, has now been compromised enough to dismantle our three pillars identity: constitutional, confessional, and connectional.

What I am identifying as a legitimate option here—a division of the PCUSA into two new entities so that we can all move forward in mission—is alarming and grave. Yes it is. But that is where we are. I fully expect a lot of criticism simply for putting the situation in these terms, but I think I am being honest with the reality and am trying to offer a way forward. If we do not own our true situation and collaborate toward a solution in which our ministries can flourish in new pasture, here is what is going to happen:

The members of our congregations who can no longer tolerate the double-mindedness, if not overt disobedience, of the PCUSA will float away to other rows in God’s vineyard. Out of burnout or disgust, they will migrate to their local non-denominational church to heal—this in fact is already happening. They will last there about two or three years, until they get bored with the music and feel the loss of a liturgical and confessional floor beneath their feet, and they will begin looking for each other and for Reformed / Presbyterian leadership to help them reconstitute themselves under the marks of the true church: Word, Sacrament, and Discipline. What form this takes a few years from now is anybody’s guess, but unless God intervenes in some remarkable way at our next General Assembly, this is what is going to happen. If God does step in, we all should watch out, because we are going to end up on our faces before the throne of grace and truth.

The Diaspora of 2012 may well mark the turning point for Presbyterians. The unfortunate outcome of this scenario is the emptying of PCUSA church buildings, leaving a shell of our former self to stand as a monument to something that once was. The denomination may own property and be land-rich in the end, but it will be people-poor. Thus decimated of population, it will only possess a form of godliness without the power. And potentially, a flood of church properties may be put on the market, to be “repurposed” for who knows what non-Kingdom-of-God-type uses. It is inconceivable that this could be considered good for mission.

However, if as a body we can work out an equitable division of resources so our flocks can find safe and verdant pasture, we may in fact enhance our overall witness to the world. If it is truly about the mission of Jesus Christ, then we must give up our idealized view of this rancorous, divided, and impure body and in humility and repentance submit to dynamics that foster healing and effective ministry. This will include a plan to reconfigure or create new presbyteries, call out new ministries that differentiate from existing ministries, allow for fluid transfer of congregations or presbyteries within synods or denominations, and assign properties in such a way that all can find a temporal home. It means forsaking any illusion that the PCUSA is the “true church” or that a subset of a congregation can be identified as “the true church,” begging the question of whether the other subset of that congregation can be called “the false church” or “the fake church” or “the apostate church.” Right now, might we be able to agree that we are two different churches, leave it at that, and then accommodate a separation that will enable each to fully explore the implications of its calling without hindrance from the other church?

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12 Responses to “Two Degrees of Separation”


  1. If I understand the Middle Governing Body idea correctly, new Presbyteries could be formed, BUT… the original Presbytery will continue to hold “in trust” the property AND no church may leave without consent from the original Presbytery. Additionally, this will be a ten year “Experiment”, meaning that the newly formed Presbyteries could be disolved at the end of a decade. How this could be a good thing, I don’t know.

    From a Biblical perspective, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this “solution” will create a PC(USA) that is “neither cold nor hot” (Reveleation 3:16) – and we all know what happens with lukewarm churches.

    From a practical perspective, this “solution” will only deepen the divide we currently experience. The inconsistent “standards” (I think that’s an oxymoron) will become no standards at all – some Presbyteries will allow ordination of unqualified theologians, others will not. Some will stick to Biblical principles, others will not. Of course, this is already happening, but right now, we’re at least talking about it. Once separated along our lines of disagreement, communication about these issues wil cease.

    So, where does this leave us? I think we must consider divorce at this point, because reconciliation is not possible due to the stiffnecked insistance of one party in this dispute that they are right. As painful as this might be, sometimes it is better to come to an “end with fright, than a fright without end” (Lieber ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende). We can only continue in unity if we repent and return to the Truth of Scripture. Anything less will simply not do.

    • revmary Says:

      Hi Gertrude, I agree with you about the current recommendations attached to the MCC Report. What I am proposing, and perhaps I should spell this out more clearly, is a new set of recommendations that really capture the CONTENT of the report in its ACTIONS, sort of a hybrid version drawn from the various other overtures coming before the committee. These would start the experiment now, make newly formed presbyteries permanent in two years (rather than rescinded in seven), and unhitch any presbytery realignments from GA approval.
      But on your second point, you are illustrating the second degree of separation, a view shared by many, and for you (and them) the only solution is complete separation. I agree that this procedure must be made available in an equitable fashion, so that it is a genuine option.


      • Hi Mary! I understand completely what you are proposing. However, I don’t see it working out in the long run. To me it’s like a couple deciding to live in different parts of the house. They’re married in name only – which is neither a marriage nor a divorce. Since I’m one for simplicity and clarity, I guess I can’t warm up to the idea. Then again, I’m not exactly running away from the PC(USA) at this time, either. I’ve decided to “wait and see”. We’ll all know more after this year’s GA is concluded.

  2. Truth Tolife Says:

    A separation within the same house–what Swissmiss calls marriage in name only–can have the affect of convincing the less sure partner that divorce is the answer. Remember when Sonny and Cher (“I got you Babe!) announced their divorce? They said they’d been living in opposite ends of the mansion for several years and thought it was time to make official what had been de facto.

    Two degrees io separation can be achieved by first establishing one degree of separation.

  3. Jodie Says:

    Mary,

    I can actually agree with your last paragraph. We do seem to be two different churches.

    But I would ask you to consider carefully if the two different churches really exist at the rank and file pew-sitter level, and ask carefully if the reason there are fewer and fewer pew sitters is really a function of whether our clergy are conservative enough or liberal enough, or whether there is enough discipline, or connectionalism, or adherence to reformed theology in our denomination.

    Most Presbyterians don’t even seem to know that ordination and marriage are not sacraments in Presbyterianism. Nor do they know how to quote the Bible in anything that looks like biblical context. Biblical literacy is at an all time low, even among the conservatives who want to claim the high ground of biblical authority.

    My sense, down in the trenches if you will, is that people are leaving the Church, and I mean on average all Americans are leaving the Church, because it offers no respite from the brokenness and conflict of their daily lives. Our people come from failed relationships with their husbands and wives, with their children, with their parents and brothers and sisters, with their bosses, with their schools, with their government, with their employees. Its not what we fight about, but rather the fact that we fight. If, when they come to church, it’s all about divorce all over again, you tell me: What does the Church have to offer that they can’t get out of reading the funnies on Sunday morning.

    People crave reconciliation and forgiveness and want to learn a path that gets them there.

    If we want the Church to survive in America, we have to stop talking about divorce all the time and start pouring out Living Water again.

    Isn’t that why you went to seminary in the first place?

  4. Chas Jay Says:

    Jodie,
    Maybe those that worked to remove the ordination standards would have sought unity and agree to obey those standards, the denomination would not be in such disaray. What we got was denomination-wide voting on numerous times to remove the standards until they got their way. There has also been the church courts that have been very lenient on liberals that have disobeyed the Scripture and Book of Order but very strict on conservative ministers and congregations. From my perspective, the liberal side calling for unity now are like a spouse that has multiple affairs and declares that they are going to continue to do so but are upset with the other spouse for wanting to end the marriage. My perspective is further solidied by the little news of West Hollywood Presbyterian leaving the denomination with property in tact, not having to pay a fee or going to court, and becoming a part of the UCC.
    Unity will never exist where disobedience and division under a guise of “social justice” is the rule.

  5. Jodie Says:

    Stop it Chaz,

    Do you really want to be obedient to the Scriptures? Let’s do that. Find us the scriptural ordination standards and lets measure them against Christ’s call for unity.

    Find us how, in accordance to the Scriptures, do we attain “purity”? How, in accordance with the Scriptures, do we “preserve” it?

    The liberals and the conservatives need each other for balance like the opposing members of an A frame. Without the conservatives, the liberals loose their roots and starve to death. Without the liberals, the conservatives descend into self righteous navel gazing. They are complimentary opposites, the left and right hands of a common Body. Cut one or the other off, the Body is injured, as the Scriptures tell us.

    And yet you speak of divorce. To borrow Westmoreland’s immortal logic in Viet Nam, you are burning the Scriptures in order to save them!

    It >>is<< ironic that West Hollywood Pres is leaving the denomination. The only congregation I know of that would ever actually call an openly gay pastor. Now, when they can finally have what they always wanted. Why? Because even now, it remains impossible to minister to the gay community within the confines of the litigious PCUSA. And you are mistaken. They are paying to leave, just like everybody else.

    Jodie

  6. Chas Jay Says:

    Jodie,
    You have some nerve telling anyone to stop. You’ve been politiely asked not to post on other blogs and you’ve never respected the wishes of the owners of those blogs.
    You’ve been shown scripture. It’s a waste of time to discuss with you and others who claim “it’s only a guide that is open for interpretation.” With such a loose claim about Scripture, you have very little claim that your interpretation of “unity” is the correct one and mine, which is not a unity of the PCUSA, is the wrong one? What happened to the “diversity” of interpretation as well as “conscience”? That now ceases to exist because of what happened in May 2011? I surely haven’t found a verse in the Bible calling for us to be united in the PCUSA, because that’s what you are for. If you really think unity is of most importance I suggest you leave the PCUSA and go to one of those Orthodox or Catholic churches. My personal suggestion is the Belarus Orthodox Church because the Archpriest Siarhei Hardun gave an excellent speech at the 2010 PCUSA General Assembly that is my favorite.
    I find it rather funny that you have no problem thinking that conservatives would become self-righteous navel gazers without the liberals. Maybe you should remove that mote of self-righteousness in your eye first before pointing out the specs in others. In other words, your description (it is open for interpretation) is that liberals have no roots but need the conservatives around so that liberals can say to others “look, at how wonderful and tolerant we are unlike those self-righteous navel gazing conservatives.”
    The entire reason that the More Lights and Covenant Network came about was to divide the denomination into sides, submit proposals at every General Assembly for another denomination wide voting of the same issue numerous times – removal of the ordination standards. That was no display of “unity” but a spirit of division by people wanting “their gifts” acknowledged and celebrated. I don’t go to church to celebrate or acknowledge their gifts or other peoples “gifts.” I go to church to worship and celebrate God’s Gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ, who paid for my salvation with His blood. The reason given by West Hollywood for leaving the denomination was that “we were just starting to tolerate them and didn’t really acknowledge or celebrate their gifts.” Their focus is about themselves and their “gifts.” The focus for the followers of Christ is His purpose which is to bring people to God’s gift, His only Son. It has never been about mans “gifts” because our righteousness is as filthy rags.

    In Matthew 5:30 Jesus said something that contradicts your statement about unity “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Those of us leaving are doing exactly what Jesus told us to do. There’s also a verse written by Paul found in II Corinthians 6:14 that states “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”
    I have a difficult time understanding why you think that your intepretation of that “mere guide”, the Bible, is of utmost importance and must be obeyed for a unity of a denomination under 2 million members Those that you side with had such standards removed, remember? It’s now just a guide that is “open for interpretation.” Why do you question our “call” from God if we can’t “question” your call?. There’s an old adage that is proving so true about this – Be careful what you ask for because you might get it. You got what you demanded but now you don’t like it.

  7. Jodie Says:

    Chaz,

    Obviously you have a lot of stuff to sort out. But when Christ speaks of unity, he speaks against the fratricidal hostility you just illustrate. It’s exactly the kind of thing that incapacitates the Church from fulfilling its calling. Jodie

    • Chas Jay Says:

      Jodie,
      I was not being hostile. I was simply being matter of fact. The PCUSA is just a denomination, which is a man-made construct. There are people in the PCUSA that are a part of the Church along with Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Anglicans, Evangelical Free, non-denominationalists as well as those that are in the denomination of my own upbringing – Southern Baptists. The Holy Spirit moves as it wishes in the best of times and places and often moreso in the very darkest of times. This has been the story for the last 2,000 years. Broken people moved by The Holy Spirit to repent of their sin and to make Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior. Even today, people are doing so in places like Iran where a courageous man will not deny Jesus Christ and is willing to be put to death for his faith and belief that Jesus Christ is Lord. The PCUSA may look very ill but The Church, His Church is Alive and Well.

  8. John E Says:

    Chas wrote:

    <>

    This sums it up as well as anything I have read. The very same thoughts have occurred to me. Thanks for expressing them so well.

  9. John E Says:

    I don’t know what happened to my prior posting. What I MEANT to say was this:

    Chas wrote:

    “The entire reason that the More Lights and Covenant Network came about was to divide the denomination into sides, submit proposals at every General Assembly for another denomination wide voting of the same issue numerous times – removal of the ordination standards. That was no display of “unity” but a spirit of division by people wanting “their gifts” acknowledged and celebrated. I don’t go to church to celebrate or acknowledge their gifts or other peoples “gifts.” I go to church to worship and celebrate God’s Gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ, who paid for my salvation with His blood. The reason given by West Hollywood for leaving the denomination was that “we were just starting to tolerate them and didn’t really acknowledge or celebrate their gifts.” Their focus is about themselves and their “gifts.” The focus for the followers of Christ is His purpose which is to bring people to God’s gift, His only Son. It has never been about mans “gifts” because our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

    The very same thoughts have occurred to me. Thanks for stating it so well in this forum.

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