Taking the Long View on Church Dismissal

October 21, 2013

The study of history was never my strong suit in high school, and though I had a couple of world-renowned history professors at Stanford, the discipline did not capture my imagination. I was at the time much better suited as a mathematical sciences major (first) and ultimately music major. Problem sets and musical analyses were more my forte in these formative years. I’ve been on a remedial course ever since.

What turned me around was Church History in seminary. I took three courses: Early Church, Reformation History, and American Church History to fulfill my requirements. For the first time (with the possible exception of Music History in college), I could attach ancient events to my own life and see the relevance of history as something important to my life’s work. Through the lens of church history, I have been able to circle back and appreciate biblical history, political history, art history, and even music history.

It also helps to have lived through several decades of personal history. To this day I am an avid reader of the daily newspaper, a habit I started in grade school at the suggestion of my mother. This accumulation of knowledge and experience contributes to a long-view perspective on the shake-up we are now experiencing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This week I would like to ponder the dynamics of dismissal from the PC(USA). There is a long view (version 1), and local view (San Francisco Presbytery), and another long view (version 2) that I would like to describe eventually. But my starting point is this observation: most departing churches I know have come to their decision as the result of a gradual accumulation of concerns rather than any one precipitating event.  For many, it has and is a slow-motion process of waking up and realizing something is terribly wrong. For others, there was perhaps one piece of bad news coming from a GAPJC or a GA; but because Presbyterians rarely do anything quickly, a process of discernment has revealed a spiritual and ecclesiastical osteoporosis that is only now causing pain.

Taking the long view, from an evangelical perspective, I see two movements in particular that have sent the PC(USA) off the orthodox path. In each case, there was a precipitating event, unrecognized for its import at the time, but a decision that changed the course of history within our tribe (if not the world).

The first trajectory is a distinctly Presbyterian one, and it focused primarily on the American Church. It was the outcome of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the 1920s. The issue boiled down to whether one’s identification as Presbyterian rested on subscription to basic fundamentals of Christian faith. I have written about this before (here, and here), and only remind us today that an unwillingness to define ourselves doctrinally has allowed Presbyterian leaders to believe and preach whatever they want. “Whatever they want” has crossed the line of orthodoxy in practice, if not in our books. The fact that our Confessions and Book of Order remain as orthodox statements of our faith is irrelevant to people who want to do what they want to do. Freedom of conscience has been enshrined as the only truly meaningful (that is, universally applied) principle of our governance. There is no such thing now as doctrinal purity, because there is no belief standard by which that can be measured. This alone is enough to drive evangelical churches crazy.

The second movement—relevant to our consideration of why conservative churches leave the denomination—is the sexual revolution, and specifically the invention of the birth control pill. What has become a reliable means for family planning in the marriage context has also been permission-giving to sexually active folks regardless of their relational context. It is obvious that over the last fifty years, there has been a significant upsurge in promiscuity (sex without any anchoring commitment), sexual exploitation of women (without the commensurate commitment to raise a family together), and so-called advanced reproductive technologies that have made possible the creation of babies without a relationship at all (sort of a reproductive Tower of Babel). For challenging and insightful reading on this dynamic, read What Is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  

The pressures that result from these trends have all come to bear on the Presbyterian Church, culminating now in its debate about what constitutes marriage.  For the evangelicals who remain in the PC(USA), a redefinition of marriage, possibly (though not inevitably) next summer, would be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Tomorrow: A case study from my Presbytery

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7 Responses to “Taking the Long View on Church Dismissal”

  1. Derek Simmons Says:

    BINGO!

  2. emd5542 Says:

    Thank you Pastor Mary. Bingo is right on. I’ll try to post on Facebook and wait for responses but not while holding my breath. Looking forward to more, Eleanor

  3. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you Mary. I can’t say I am looking forward to your coming posts in the sense that they will lift me up and give me inspiration, but rather they will help to clarify my own continuing sense of alarm. I fear we are moving toward someone else’s planned destination and the movement is speeding out of control. Many of us will surely need another place to land. But “nonetheless” there is joy in the Lord: )

  4. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    Thanks Rev Mary,
    Looking at Biblical history, even when man fails, God’s will prevails. History is looking back and seeing things that shape the events in one direction over another. Faith is believing that God has everything in His controll and is working
    toward His purpose and for the salvation of His people.
    (Heidelberg catechism, question one).
    Sometimes getting there is a process like the Israelites faced with years of wandering because of a conscience
    that was dulled to God’s ways and words. That is what your post reminds me of.

  5. Jodie Says:

    Mary,

    The definition of marriage has always been fluid. Remember “Fiddler on the Roof”? “Orthodoxy”, “tradition”, these are terms we use to resist change.

    But even among Evangelicals the definition of marriage has changed during our lifetimes. It was not long ago that if a person was divorced it would be unthinkable that they should be tapped for ordination – either for the pulpit or for Session.

    Women have become the stronger sex. The all star athlete and high school valedictorian these days is much more likely to be a female student than a male one. I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and now we have an African American president. I never thought I would live to see the day when the Iron curtain came down, and now it’s the Muslims who are the bad guys, and I am considering going on vacation in Russia.

    They even want us to accept gay marriage and gay ordination. I am still just getting used to seeing gay men sit together in church. And I am finding that praise music is getting un-singable and way too loud.

    What we are really suffering from is “Future Shock” . We long for stability and stasis. I myself tire of the constantly and radically changing world we live in, even as I recognize that my entire professional life has been about causing and enabling radical changes to the world I live in.

    I feel almost apologetic…

    Jodie Gallo


  6. […] a recent blog post, Mary Naegeli considers that 1927 General Assembly decision a turning point, leading nearly a […]

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