Real Power in the PCUSA

July 2, 2012

One of my favorite verses in my favorite chapter of the whole Bible is this one:

10”But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:10-11)

As a long-time observer (if not commissioner to) the Presbyterian General Assembly, I have absorbed the ethos of the Reformed tradition in ways not possible back home in a congregational bubble. Also, for years, as part of one renewal group or another, I have been an observer and advisor to commissioners on the Church Orders committee. It is there that I have heard every argument for homosexuality under the sun; and because of my service on Committee on Preparation for Ministry in San Francisco Presbytery, the subject of GLBT ordination has been on the front burner for me. Not so much this year.

In Pittsburgh I am having quite a different experience. Because of my academic interest in the missional church, I was drawn to the Report of the Mid-Council Commission (MCC), and it is in Committee 10 that I have been spending most of my time at this Assembly.  I am hearing some recurring themes from yesterday afternoon in Plenary Session to today’s input in the Mid-Councils Review committee. Elections and reports drew attention to the Big Picture of the PCUSA as interpreted by Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and Linda Valentine, Executive Director of General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).  The merits of our Presbyterian/ Reformed tradition were celebrated throughout, which is what one would expect, I know. Today’s Open Hearing testifiers and advisors from PCUSA entities picked up where the Plenary left off. In the Blue Sea of True-blood Presbyterians, a couple of things washed over me:

1. When Presbyterians at this Assembly talk about “mission,” they use as examples—exclusively so far, without exception— good works such as providing water, food, shoes to the homeless, or other ministries of mercy. In no case have I heard examples given that suggest these social-service-agency-type ministries have any Christian proclamation attached to them. I do know compassion ministries must be done, and I am glad we are doing them! But this is an incomplete view of “Christian mission.” Where is the mission of evangelism, discipleship, and ministry equipping, those activities that cannot be duplicated by a non-church group? Where is the verbal component that points people to Jesus Christ and invites them to experience the transforming power of the gospel? It seems we Presbyterians are not conversant on the spiritual side of mission. As further evidence, the GAMC budget, representing the mission side of our work, allocates only 7% to evangelism and 7% to theological concerns, but 25% to justice ministries. This is a pretty good indicator of the priorities, and one important reason why we have lost evangelistic vitality.

2. For all the music and banners and liturgical dance in evidence so far at this Assembly, for all the talk of being the church of Jesus Christ, we are still a denomination in slow decline. The MCC Report says that the church will be dead in 20 years if we continue at the present rate of member losses. All indications are that the rate of decline will increase, and there is a reason for this. There’s a lot of “show” but not a lot of power. I should say not a lot of divine power in evidence, like the Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead who dwells in our mortal bodies by faith. There is plenty of evidence of human power jockeying for position all around this Assembly. But there is a tremendous resistance to change. Person after person spoke in the MCC Open Hearing this afternoon on why it would be terrible for the church to eliminate synods or to allow flexible-boundary presbyteries. “Un-Presbyterian” is one word heard often. Okay, so humor me a minute: some say it is “very Presbyterian” to have local option regarding ordination standards and unbridled expression of personal conscience to the point of blatant disobedience of God’s Word, but it is un-Presbyterian to allow some flexibility in the formation of new presbyteries for missional purposes? I really do not get this. As one testifier said this afternoon, “At Assembly after Assembly, I hear the Body say that ‘God is doing a new thing!’ And yet, you always vote ‘no’ on the new thing.” And why is that? Because, I believe, people have a vested interest in retaining the status quo so as not to risk losing position or power or money if anything changes.

I am praying that the power we would want to see would be God’s power, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, that brought the Valley of Dry Bones alive, that healed the blind, sick, lame, and possessed, that transformed Saul the Pharisee to Paul the Apostle, and changed me from dead in the flesh to alive in Christ. Make it so, Lord Jesus!



6 Responses to “Real Power in the PCUSA”

  1. I do appreciate your stand on many of the issues you debate in the face of much opposition. Your comments today on mission ring true to me, and it seems that the social justice, medical, and anti-poverty measures continue to displace rather than supplement the goal of spiritual renewal through the spread of the Gospel and making of disciples. Spiritual renewal treats underlying disease–the other works are just treating the symptoms.

    I have been reading a book “When Helping Hurts” and unfortunately it seems that many of the works the church promotes do more damage than good. It is sad that so much effort and resource goes toward things that have no lasting value.

    Thanks for what you do, Mary.

  2. Sandy Althaus Says:

    How blessed those of us who are not at the GA to have your Godly view expressed so eloquently, objectively and yet honestly in your personal assessments and belief. I hear unconditional love flowing from you through it all.
    Praying for you to “keep on keepin on” as you serve Christ obediently and faithfully. Not an easy task, but God’s Divine Power will continue to strengthen you I know.

  3. Jake Horner Says:


    Are you familiar with Ron Heifetz, et al. ‘adaptive challenge’ language and thinking? What you describe above sounds like it could have come right out of one of his books.

  4. Melinda Byrne Says:

    Amen Mary!

  5. robertmera Says:

    Please! Please! Please! Don’t stop writing!!

  6. Jodie Says:

    “Where is the mission of evangelism, discipleship, and ministry equipping, those activities that cannot be duplicated by a non-church group? Where is the verbal component that points people to Jesus Christ and invites them to experience the transforming power of the gospel?”


    I should ask you the same question. Would I be wrong in concluding you feel called to this type of Church ministry?

    I believe the Holy Spirit calls different people to fulfill different roles in the Church. Those in the Church who feed the hungry, really do so in the name of Christ (the institution that performs this mission calls itself a Christian Church), and those who preach, preach in the name of Christ.

    But I do not believe the Holy Spirit calls any of us to throw rocks at each other. If I am called to preach and you are called to visit prisoners, I should not yell at you for not preaching and you should not yell at me for not visiting. Together we are preaching and visiting.

    There may be a spirit out there calling us to attack each other on such grounds, but test it. It is not the Holy Spirit.

    “It seems we Presbyterians are not conversant on the spiritual side of mission.”

    Not sure that is entirely true, but isn’t that what Jesus sort of said about those who would feed the hungry, and cloth the naked? That they might not even know they were serving Him in doing so? Yet, as Jesus said, they are doing the will of the Father regardless. It is not every one who says “Lord, Lord”, but the ones who DO the will of the Father.

    So why don’t we rejoice in the fact that our brothers and sisters who are called to the social justice page of the Gospel are answering their call, and let those who are called to the spiritual side of mission make themselves heard doing just that, lest we end up like Cain and Abel.

    May the Holy Spirit empower all of each of us, each to answer our own calls to His glory to the best of our abilities.


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