Quite often I find myself asking the question, “How did things get this way?” particularly in reference to my tribe, the PC(USA), but also to the culture developing around us all. It is safe to say that we are shaped over time, individually and corporately. The way things are now is the result of decades of shaping mechanisms at work in and among us. You could say the same for any culture anywhere in the world, but my experience limits my thinking to American culture.

This weekend I had a chance to air my brains out as I breathed in sea air and enjoyed miles and miles of hiking. My thoughts turned to how my parents, both deceased, shaped me. Though my personality type was quite different from theirs (which is important to note since a lot of their discipline was aimed at producing offspring to be like them), their relentless discipline did shape my mind, my emotions, my musicality, and my faith. There were a lot of baby steps watched and encouraged along the way; they also shut some doors while opening others. Pleasing them required a lot of energy, and I was not necessarily successful; but it wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I really felt that God’s hand in shaping me was stronger than my parents’.

As God shaped the people Israel—starting with Abraham’s call in Genesis 12 and intensifying at the time of the Exodus and wilderness wandering—he did so out of love and desire for covenant relationship. In order for the Hebrews to love and appreciate God, they were going to have to understand the righteousness, justice, and holiness that made God tick. How fortunate they were for God to reveal himself, speak to them, and point them in the direction that would bring them life and prosperity as a people. Deuteronomy 4:32-34 picks up this theme with the comment that YHWH God connected with a called and chosen people, creating a completely unique circumstance for which they should be extremely grateful. The passage goes on:

To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power. . .” (Deuteronomy 4:35-37).

God showed his love to Israel by disciplining them, by instructing them, by setting parameters that would keep them safe spiritually. He is still doing this today, albeit by means other than pillars of fire or stone tablets. From a New Testament perspective, we understand that Jesus, the Word become flesh, embodied God’s self-revelation. The Holy Spirit dwells in each believer’s heart by faith, to be God’s voice and instructor and even a loving drill sergeant when that is what we need. To actually know God, to have a relationship with him, and to have his Word is not to be taken lightly! Consider everyone else in the world who worships gods that have no power, that cannot hear or speak, and actually do not care for the well-being of their followers.

But God insists that if we are people of his possession, then we must welcome the discipline he gives. We are given many privileges as children of God, but we are not given the prerogative of determining on our own what is right and wrong. God has been extraordinarily gracious to let us know what is right and to point us toward the life that results.

Unfortunately, ever since Eve, we have been having our adolescent rebellion. Just like I did as a kid, we go off and experiment with some other way of living, if only to irritate our parents and assert our independence. The difference in the spiritual realm is that independence from God is self-destructive.

If only we could truly embrace the love of the Father and trust Christ as Teacher and Lord! With God’s help, we can grow up and find ourselves. The God-centered life is what we were designed to live, and we are most fully ourselves when we are not the center of our universe.

I fear, however, that aspects of PC(USA) life are in active rebellion against God, and the church is going to suffer great damage as a result. We are in a period of ecclesiastical experimentation, trying out new ways of worship, theology, and relationships. The experiments that are not God-centered are going to come back to haunt us. When we lose sight of God’s definition of acceptable behavior and weaken a good system of discipline that holds us accountable to God and to each other, we suffer. When we lose a desire to please God, we get lost in self-orientation. We are so hell-bent on making sure God is pleased with us despite what we are doing, we are dulled to God’s requirements and empowerment to live for him. Consequently, our hearing goes bad as we let the world’s voices blare and drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures.

What the denomination does is one thing. But what are you and I to do to stay alive spiritually? God calls us to obedience for our own good:

So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time. (Deuteronomy 4:39f)

Is it not time, individually and corporately, to embrace the discipline of God, submit to the shaping work he wants to do in our lives, and thereby choose life? Yes, it is!

(I am called to appear for a second day of jury duty tomorrow. It all depends on how the jury selection process goes whether I can write a blog post then. Otherwise, I will pick up where I left off on Wednesday.)


One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to www.pc-biz.org and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:


  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture


  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world


  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

Amended Wednesday, October 23, after comments from Menlo Park readers, to set the record straight:

Most of the “gracious dismissal policies” I have read from around the country go to great lengths to describe the chief concern of the church, that of the integrity and continuity of the mission of Jesus Christ.  Putting aside the false notion that there is no “church presence” in a community if there is no PCUSA congregation there, it is laudable and achievable in some parts of the country that a departing congregation and its dismissing presbytery can see the larger work of the Kingdom of God and share it in the end. This is the way it should be. However, I believe that in some cases, the concern for mission and ministry is darkly overshadowed by a far greater concern for money. A case in point:

The quest for a workable “gracious dismissal policy” in San Francisco Presbytery began in 2009 and its first document on the subject was adopted unanimously in September of that year. It was, by today’s standards, primitive and generous, and one church (Community Presbyterian Church of Danville, CA) was dismissed under its terms.

A remedial case was filed against the presbytery for letting the church go too easily, and the original policy was rescinded.  The GAPJC eventually rendered a decision in Tom et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco, informing the church that when determining the terms of dismissal, a presbytery is obligated to consider the value of the church’s property held in trust for the denomination.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Presbytery went back to the drawing board to establish a new, more comprehensive policy. A team of twelve presbyters representing the full theological and political spectrum of the presbytery worked for five months with a Christian mediator to develop a document that was thorough, challenging, and as balanced as such a thing can be. It, too, was adopted unanimously by the presbytery in June 2012. It should be noted that everybody, and I mean everybody, understood that Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC), the largest congregation in our presbytery, was in the pipeline when the new policy was enacted. The unspoken but very real question before the body was whether this policy would yield a workable outcome should MPPC renew its notice of intent to seek dismissal.

MPPC’s process had been put on hold when the original policy was rescinded. They took the process up again earlier this year and submitted all requested information in May of 2013. A Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) was assigned to work with them as a commission of the Presbytery. By early August, the teams had worked out a deal to their mutual satisfaction.

At the next meeting of the Presbytery, on September 10, the body was informed that an agreement had been reached and was asked to call a meeting of MPPC’s congregation for November 3. In addition to the congregational meeting, a series of Town Hall meetings were scheduled for October to reach the thousands of members at three sites with Q & A sessions.

But two weeks later, on September 24, MPPC’s representative committee was notified by the PET that upon further review, the PET wanted to reopen negotiations. The PET said it had not properly accounted for assets of a separate private foundation, The Church of the Pioneers Foundation, from whom the church leases office and residential property. The PET felt that the terms of dismissal should be increased to several times the earlier, agreed-upon amount. The PET cancelled a pre-scheduled meeting with the church, so conversation has stalled. It appears the presbytery hopes it can make a financial killing from the dismissal of San Francisco Presbytery’s most successful church.

So tell me this isn’t about the money. The overriding concern of the Presbytery here is not mission. No, it is ecclesiastical extortion. It is unjust. Not to mention ironic: At the very meeting where MPPC’s congregational meeting was approved, the Presbytery closed down a failed new church development within ten miles of Menlo Park. What confidence do we have in a Presbytery that cannot demonstrate its ability to start new churches and does not to this day have a mission strategy for the San Francisco Peninsula?  

There’s a lot wrong with this picture: how could the Leadership Council usurp the authority of one of its commissions? Was it right for the presbytery to renege on its agreement once the congregational meeting date was set by the body? And legally, how can leased property be considered the church’s asset under the Trust Clause?

More thoughts tomorrow.


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

Yesterday’s blog post gave rise to some interesting comments on Facebook (not here, regrettably), suggesting that a nerve was hit on this question of just what the church is supposed to be and do in relation to “the culture.” I am aware that many books have been written on the subject of the church and culture (or Christ and Culture by Niebuhr and D. A. Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited). I closed my reflection yesterday with the statement that, despite the fact we possess true freedom and righteousness in Christ, believing and acting on this truth is a sticking point for the church and its members.

Why does the church (and the saints who comprise it) choke on the idea that we can, must, and are empowered to act differently from the world? Here are some reasons for the difficulty we have differentiating ourselves from the prevailing winds of our time:

1. Ignorance. Many of us honestly do not know enough about God and God’s purposes for us to recognize, much less live, the godly life. This may be a chosen ignorance, among those who are happily indifferent to the things of God. But I have also observed newcomers to our church, for instance, who exhibit a spiritual knowledge deficit and unfamiliarity with the basics of biblical and moral ideas. This gap limits one’s ability to practice the Christian faith as a way of life.

2. Intractability. It is a feature of human nature that our prideful hearts do not want the fundamental transformation that Jesus empowers. In the flesh, we like what we like when we like it, and we do what we want to do when we want to do it. [This is another of Naegeli’s Laws.] The idea that Jesus might change our ways of thinking and doing, particularly when it goes against the grain with which we feel so comfortable…? Unbelievable!

3. Fear of isolation. Bottom line, we’re afraid we’ll lose our friends if we stand against the prevailing mores they exhibit. The recovering alcoholic, as an example, has some big decisions to make about where and with whom he will spend his time. If “bar” and “drinking buddies” have to be avoided in order to stay sober, he has a painful redirection ahead. It takes a special kind of courage to adopt a new social circle, to learn a new conceptual language characterized by freedom instead of addiction, and to embrace a God-centered worldview. But these are essential movements that go with conversion, and too many of us have gotten stuck somewhere along that process such that our turning is incomplete and we fear the consequences of a total surrender to God.

4. Inertia. It is just plain hard to make the effort (to which grace is not opposed, as Dallas Willard said often) to change a long-standing thought or behavior. It is difficult to swim upstream against the current of prevailing culture and there are risks in doing so. [For those counting my top 20 sermon illustrations, here’s one of my favorites:  At the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, tens of thousands of runners wend their way on 7.5 miles of city streets between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. But there is one runner who dares to be different and, costumed as a salmon, starts at the ocean and runs in the opposite direction, upstream to spawn as it were. Imagine how intimidating it is to come against a wall of runners moving en masse towards you, and the difficulty of navigating through the boisterous crowd going that way in order to go this way toward the Bay. And so it is as we swim against culture’s godless currents.]

So far, my comments have been directed toward the individual, but let’s take a look at the PCUSA for a minute.  What are its reasons for experiencing difficulty in obeying Jesus and the Word Written in areas where biblical and societal norms collide?

PCUSA Ignorant? To get at this, we can point to the occasionally atrocious theology we hear spouted from various microphones at General Assembly and to the biblically vacuous decisions of GAPJCs in the last two years. There are some wonderful and faithful biblical interpreters in the Presbyterian tribe, but the application of biblical instruction to everyday life is left to everyone’s own opinion. The teaching office of the church has abdicated its responsibility to make disciples by teaching them to do everything that Jesus told them (Matthew 28:19ff).  Our confessional heritage has been squandered in the process.

PCUSA Intractable? The outright rejection of Scripture and the Confessions by some who have prominent authority and influence in the PCUSA and the embrace of a false teaching that the male-female union is not a prerequisite for marriage is evidence enough. But the “testimony” of some in the LGBTQ tribe says outright, “My experience is this, and I don’t want to change it.” In light of Hebrews 12:3ff, we have to say that the folks that insist on pursuing same-sex attraction are not willing to undergo discipline and, yes, make the sacrifices that would align their thinking and their behavior to God’s revealed will regarding sexual expression.

PCUSA Isolation? In preparation for the last Assembly, I heard pro-gay-marriage folks saying that to be missional the church had to meet its potential members (LGBTQ people) where they are, affirm their lifestyle, and demonstrate that they are welcome and affirmed in their same-sex attraction. I’ve heard others say, “Our neighbors think Christians are gay-bashing homophobes and on the basis of that opinion have rejected the church. We can reverse their opinion of us by being welcoming and affirming of gays in our congregations.” In other words, folks won’t like us if we hold to a [biblical] position on sexuality; our membership is dropping, but we can reverse this trend by adopting the values our society is trending toward. [Oh, but some of the same people say we are being counter-cultural by being welcoming and affirming long before our culture is! Can’t speak for the proverbial Peoria, but here in the San Francisco area, a pro-gay culture is pervasive, as it is in other large coastal cities in the U.S. Here, the church is “catching up,” on the road to perdition, I would add.]

PCUSA Inertia? A Presbyterian legal system built on precedent, dating to actions and decisions as far back as 1729, is stuck in a mode of decision-making that is veering it away from definitive biblical norms. The momentum (yes, something different from inertia) is moving in the direction of granting such freedom of conscience to every individual Presbyterian that no Presbyterian body can properly administer discipline. What is in a state of paralysis (getting back to inertia) is our inability to see our position in the world as truly prophetic—not hip and ‘on the right side of history’— and reaching it with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. The sheer effort required to learn the Great Story of God and God’s Creation and translate it into living, breathing examples of the Kingdom of God at work has proven to be Herculean for our predominately white, aging, and cocooned constituency.  

After this critique, please note that I am still a PCUSA pastor and have no plans to seek dismissal any time soon. Why not? Because I believe that there are still a few ears that hear what Jesus is saying to the churches, and I’d like to help them bring the Word to life. Tomorrow, on the suggestion of one of my commenters yesterday, I’m going to ponder the choices we have in relation to the culture: the church moving with the culture? The church moving counter to the culture? Or is there another alternative?

I’m not sure why Ed Koster is still responding to PCUSA remedial cases that were completed over a year ago, but since he mentions one case I spent about three years on, I will comment on the points he makes in his recent Outlook article.

The PCUSA faces a problem of discontinuity that is messy in its consequences: Any particular presbytery ordains for the whole church, based solely on the local governing body’s discretion.

This scenario works if the presbytery reflects the doctrine represented in our Confessions, which have been agreed to by the body as our means of interpreting what the Scriptures teach.

This doesn’t work if the presbytery interprets Scripture and the Confessions out of their plain meaning and historic understanding or does what it wants despite what the Bible says. Recent cases cited by Mr. Koster confirm that presbyteries are not held accountable by higher governing bodies for their doctrinal determinations.

Another problem is created by the ordination of teaching elders for the whole church. Those “who held beliefs that many considered heresy,” once ordained are unleashed upon the church, expect acceptance (of themselves and their beliefs) and calls and offices within the church where they influence others toward that heresy. This is why we no longer have a theological consensus in the PCUSA.

Judicial strategy cannot overcome a rigged system. I agree, given Swearingen, that the PJC could decide the way it did (i.e. we don’t enforce a doctrinal standard); but I disagree that it was required to. I believe that a GAPJC must act in consideration not only of legal precedent but also on Scriptural teaching. We are now trapped in a downward spiral of error that cannot be corrected officially, since judicial precedent trumps all. This is why many are leaving over doctrinal issues; all avenues of recourse toward correction have been removed. One might counter that “A GA can change anything,” but GA is the bastion of “diversity” and doctrinal cowardice. I don’t see a mid-course correction coming any time soon.

Koster recommends that judicial cases be developed around conduct rather than doctrine. It is true that doctrinal arguments have gotten nowhere in our system, but it is not in keeping with the Rule of Discipline, which specifically makes the link between that conduct and the content of Presbyterian belief. [D-12.0100, “you have acted contrary to the Scriptures and/or the Constitution of the PCUSA.”] For instance, [hypothetical here] if a teaching elder were to erect an idol in the church sanctuary and direct the congregation to worship it, the action would signal the elder’s heresy about God, as one, spirit, living, etc. The only way to prosecute the bad action (which is not explicitly prohibited in the PCUSA Book of Order) is to go after the false belief behind the action, namely that God is of human making and resides in a thing.

In the Parnell (note the proper spelling) and Caledonia cases, the conduct of the candidate was not being tried (that would be a disciplinary case). Parnell and Caledonia were remedial cases, challenging the presbyteries’ wisdom and doctrinal teaching as demonstrated by their affirmations of candidates who believe “what many consider heresy.”

I beg to differ with Ed Koster regarding the arguments presented as being focused only on doctrine and not conduct. Janie Spahr’s repeated violations (her conducting same-sex weddings) have been subject of disciplinary action for years. In addition, the Parnell case did focus on doctrine in order to give the GAPJC the opportunity to correct the error first introduced into the PCUSA mix with Swearingen almost a century ago. The commission declined to make that correction and proved the system is rigged. As a result it is much clearer to contemporary Presbyterians what the issues are and they will act accordingly.

In the Naegeli and Parnell cases (especially the former), the Synod PJC was presented with ample evidence of the candidate’s beliefs, life choices (conduct), public commitments (conduct and beliefs), and Presbytery’s failure to respond appropriately (institutional conduct). With that considerable body of evidence, the PJCs were still unwilling to question the Presbytery’s action to affirm an unsuitable candidate. Our efforts failed in their objective, but succeeded in clarifying the take-home lesson for ordinary Presbyterians: Believe and preach and promote what you will; nobody will stop you.

What I think Mr. Koster is saying is that we were wrong to approach these cases the way we did. What is more accurate to say is that our efforts were unsuccessful in achieving the goal we had in mind, namely an ownership of our authorities. We complainants followed our conscience and pleaded the cases based on the authority of Scripture and the reliability of the Confessions to interpret it. We were following a Reformed pattern of argument but were disappointed that Swearingen and the downward spiral it started was considered more Reformed than our approach. This engendered the greatest sadness for me and is a deep hurt for evangelicals in the PCUSA.


Friends of “Bringing the Word to Life,” I submitted the following letter to Presbyweb in response to a letter to the editor by Mike Garrett. I believe the fray is going to start up again, and commend to you as a catalyst a very thoughtful and well-written “prophetic word” by Jim Goodloe, found here.

Dear Presbyweb,

In response to Mike Garrett’s letter which observed the “deafening silence of disengagement,” I want to agree and to explain further.

As one who has contributed to the debates in the last several years and lately by blog, I can acknowledge the truth of his observation in my own experience. There are a few factors contributing to, for instance, my rather sporadic blog coverage of PCUSA matters lately:

1. The Presbyterian decision-making process is rigged, and thoughtful discourse has nowhere to go to make a difference. I have read the most reasoned and helpfully clarifying pieces by colleagues, directed both to GAPJC and the General Assembly, but they get nowhere because decision-makers choose to remain so open-minded that their brains fall out. What we have going now is not debate based on Scripture and reason but on emotion, experience, and a worldly view of unlimited personal rights. Interjecting a voice of common sense and Scriptural sanity, for the moment, is an exercise in repetitive head-banging with no appreciable result.

2. I struggle with soul-care in the midst of the fray. Topics and discussions that have the ongoing effect of raised blood-pressure, sleep deprivation, and a constantly critical attitude are not good for my spirit. I am still learning how to stay in the discussion with eyes on Jesus without sinking into Galilee’s waters.

3. Who is the audience? Those a theological conservative like myself might encourage to action are opting for alternative ways of being Presbyterian, either by sheltering in place or dismissing to other denominations. Those to whom truth must be spoken are not listening, or if they are, they are patronizing and even, at times, abusive in response. The role of the prophet within and to the PCUSA is not acknowledged or respected because the church has lost sight of what constitutes the Word of God. So what else is new?

4. So the question of engagement, for me, boils down to call and empowerment by God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a costly business to put oneself out there with a counter-cultural view, and there have been times and seasons when I have given this service willingly and even joyfully. But now more than ever there is little personal support holding up the arms of a prophet. To answer this challenge, I have tried to balance draining “engagement” work with projects that are spiritually uplifting. In the last few months, I have collaborated on a curriculum for study of the Essential Tenets, reviewed the five-part The Bible series, and now am preparing to speak at a congregation’s all-church retreat. Three books await the daily discipline of personal engagement. This all takes time, which I have in only finite quantity, and the choice about how to spend it is sometimes torture. If, in those daily dilemmas, comments 1, 2, and 3 above seem particularly strong, then “Presbyterian stuff” goes to the bottom of my things-to-do list.

But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon enough. And others will be right there alongside me to try again to help our denomination listen to Scripture and reason. Until then, I remain

Christ’s servant and your friend,
(The Rev. Dr.) Mary Holder Naegeli
Walnut Creek, California

Overnight I have had a chance to read not only the Final Decision and Order of the GAPJC in Larson v. Los Ranchos, but also the briefs submitted by the Complainants/Appellants and the Respondents/Appellees (the Presbytery). My initial summary of this case appeared in yesterday’s blog; today I’d like to share my impressions of what this decision means. Folks who believe a manner of life suitable for ordination in the PCUSA includes fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness are going to find it difficult to apply their reasonable biblical standard in ordination/installation decisions. Here’s what I observe to be the effect and fall-out from the GAPJC decision:

1. Presbyteries as a whole are not afforded the right to hold a corporate conscience, which is reserved only for individuals and must be “respected” by the ordaining body. The potential here is that one dissenter of a presbytery’s corporate conscience can tyrannize the rest, giving to one individual the power to override the conscience of the whole. Presbyteries do not have the right to state or enforce any requirement upon all candidates, but only to examine and make a determination of suitability for ordination on a case-by-case basis. The only basis now is “case-by-case,” not Scripture or the Confessions, because, after all, the PCUSA cannot agree on what the Scriptures and Confessions teach (Parnell). Situational ethics in full bloom.

2. The appeal to conscience has now flipped sides, but the door is shut behind those who were granted freedom for their consciences earlier this year. In previous cases, including the ones I argued before the GAPJC (Naegeli v San Francisco; Parnell v San Francisco), liberal progressives were demanding freedom to exercise their conscience and redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. They were granted that freedom by Parnell. Now that it is evangelical conservatives asking for and acting on the same principle—Los Ranchos Presbytery declaring its conscience to apply the fidelity/chastity standard as a matter of biblical obedience—the door to freedom of conscience is slammed shut and its logical implication must not be allowed. Because— don’t we all know now— the Church has adopted a new and better standard of inclusion, and it is just plain wrong to think or do differently.

3. The removal of “fidelity and chastity” from the Form of Government disallows presbyteries the option of applying it in their ordination decisions, but instead requires  an ordaining body not to use it as an ordination standard. This despite the fact that the language that replaced “fidelity and chastity” in the Book of Order offered no replacement standard at all but simply removed the explicit provision. [This argument was used to gather support in presbyteries during the ratification process.] The illogical leap that has been made with Larson is to equate an omission with a prohibition: fidelity/chastity is now omitted and therefore its application is prohibited in all cases as a standard for ordination. The ‘new normal’ is that fidelity and chastity cannot be applied to candidates ever anywhere.

4. Despite its emphasis on case-by-case basis determinations, the GAPJC has twisted itself in a knot of presbydoublespeak. In a former case, in which a specific ordination decision was challenged by members of San Francisco, the GAPJC basically said, Who are we do circumvent an ordination decision rendered by a council that knew the candidate and determined that her interpretation of Scripture and manner of life were acceptable? In other words, we are not in a position to overrule a specific case regarding a specific candidate, despite ample evidence of her violation of Scripture and Confessions. But in the Larson case, the GAPJC did not hesitate to void the action of a presbytery that took its ordination responsibility seriously and was transparent about its obedience to Scripture and Confessions. So on the one hand, a presbytery ordaining on a case-by-case basis can make decisions that  are not—for all practical purposes— reviewable by a higher governing body even if they depart from scriptural standards; but a presbytery concluding and recording its understanding of biblical and confession requirements as a Resolution, and acting consistently in light of that belief, is ruled out of order. So much for a presbytery’s right and obligation to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and “to nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ . . . includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members . . .” (G-3.0301c). Keeping the door open on a case-by-case basis doesn’t resolve anything or counsel anybody in matters of conscience.

My friends, if you are in a presbytery where the question of sexual ethics is not disputed, count your blessings. For those of you who are in contested presbyteries, life is going to get harder and peaceful sleep will be elusive. Do not in any way diminish or mute your witness against error in doctrine and immorality in life and ministry. Take seriously your calling to teach and to admonish, according to the Scriptures. Your position may in fact lose support or even be ridiculed, but is it not better to suffer for having done the right thing than to suffer the consequences of going along with the wrong thing? (1 Peter 4:12-17).  Courage for the journey . . .


The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC)  has issued three Decisions after hearing oral arguments last Friday in Louisville. Each is disappointing to evangelical conservatives in the PCUSA, but taken together they create an odorous outcome for any presbytery trying to uphold a biblical understanding of marriage or congregations desiring a peaceable withdrawal from the denomination. A quick rundown of the case Decisions, which can be read in their entirety on the GAPJC website (scroll down to 221-02, 221-03, and 221-04): 

221-02, Newark Presbytery v McNeillIn 2009, Presbyterian teaching elder Laurie McNeill was married, according to Massachusetts law, to another woman. The ceremony was conducted by two Episcopalian priests in an Episcopal church, and publicly announced at the next meeting of Newark Presbytery. Disciplinary charges were filed against Ms. McNeill, and the Presbytery’s PJC acquitted her of all charges. An appeal was filed with the Synod of the Northeast, which affirmed the Presbytery’s decision. An appeal was received by the GAPJC based on constitutional interpretation issues. The GAPJC was unconvinced, however, and upheld the lower PJC rulings on the following basis:

• Ms. McNeill was not married in a PCUSA church or by a PCUSA teaching elder;
• Ms. McNeill made clear publicly that the PCUSA did not recognize her relationship as a marriage;
• No evidence was previously provided to claim that Ms. McNeill’s “marriage” violated Scripture or the Confessions, and it is too late to introduce that argument now;
• Since Ms. McNeill was not required to testify, nor to incriminate herself, it must be proven by another means that her “marriage” was in fact sexually expressed. To quote a concurring opinion, “While it is tempting to assume that ‘happily married’ persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption.” They want pictures, folks, taken last night.

Bottom line: It is okay for a PCUSA teaching elder to marry someone of the same sex, just so long as the PCUSA had nothing to do with the ceremony itself.

221-03, Tom et al v San Francisco Presbytery: In 2009, San Francisco Presbytery unanimously adopted a Gracious Dismissal Policy, requiring departing churches to pay Presbytery annually for five years: (1) funds to offset declining per capita and (2) funds to offset a declining contribution to the mission budget. Community Presbyterian Church of Danville was dismissed by the Presbytery pursuant to this policy the following year, agreeing to pay a lump sum of $108,640 and another $210,000 total over five years. The three complainants filed a remedial case against the Presbytery, but the Presbytery’s process was sustained. They appealed to the GAPJC, but before that appeal was heard, the Danville church was dismissed with its property to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The GAPJC, recognizing that an irrevocable action had taken place, nevertheless chose to “exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and to prevent future violations.” To this end, the GAPJC ruled that a presbytery must “exercise due diligence regarding the value of the [church’s] property. . . Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake.”

Bottom line: To cut a fine point here, the ruling does not require presbyteries to exact a payment for property held in trust by a congregation when it departs. It only requires an evaluation, a taking into account the value of property, and “fiduciary responsibility” to act in the best interest of the presbytery (and PCUSA). However, the interpretation of this somewhat vague language, particularly in those presbyteries that do not have dismissal policies at all, is likely to embolden presbyteries to become more aggressive about extracting money or property from departing congregations.

221-04, Larson et al v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos. In September 2011, Los Ranchos Presbytery passed a resolution advancing its belief that the manner of life required of teaching elders within its bounds included fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness, and indicated that all candidates for ordination or membership in the presbytery would be notified of this policy as they came under care or initiated a transfer. Twenty-one members in opposition to the Presbytery filed a remedial case, which was heard by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. After a May 2012 trial, the SPJC upheld the Presbytery’s resolution, but this decision was appealed to the GAPJC.

The basis for the appeal was the claim that the Presbytery improperly restated the Constitution, overreached its authority, and violated the conscience of members of the Presbytery. The GAPJC ruled that a presbytery policy taking the place of a case-by-case evaluation of each candidate is out of order. It made the distinction between declaring to the whole church what it believed was an acceptable manner of life (allowed) and notifying potential candidates of the policy (not allowed, because it “would have the practical effect of discouraging [candidates] prior to the required case-by-case evaluation or examination”).

Bottom line: Presbyteries are barred from determining, apart from the formal examination process, what constitutes a manner of life appropriate for ordained office. A presbytery membership in full agreement about such a standard is not affected by this ruling; but a contentious presbytery will conduct the debate again and again. The evangelical and pragmatic see this as a colossal waste of time; liberals see it as an opportunity to make debates unpleasant enough to wear down opposition to a progressive trend. And then, a “new normal” is adopted and the conscience violated is the conservative one.

All in all, not a good day for evangelical and orthodox Presbyterians, particularly those in divided presbyteries. More on this in my next post.

The issues have been confused for years and I’m ready to stop out for a couple of days from the marriage curriculum and address a question that keeps coming up. The second form of the question popped out in the one-minute speech of a GA commissioner, who said, basically, that if it were up to the Book of Confessions, she would never have been ordained. The first form of the question, around for years, asks: “The Bible requires silence of women in the church, yet we ordain women. Why can we not ordain committed homosexuals despite the prohibition of homosexual practice in the Bible?”

So today let’s start with the one-minute speech (fast forward to 39:40). The commissioner claims that a strict application of the Confessions would mean that women could not be ordained. But I challenge this claim on two counts:

First of all, when the decision to ordain women as teaching elders was made in the predecessor bodies (UPCUSA in 1955 and PCUS in the 1960s), there was no “Book of” Confessions; both bodies embraced the Westminster Standards alone. Westminster makes no statement whatsoever that prohibits or limit the ecclesiastical role of women; it is silent on the subject.

Secondly, when the Book of Confessions was adopted in 1967 by the UPCUSA, it compiled two ancient creeds (Nicene and Apostles’), four reformation confessions (including two that the English church replaced with Westminster), and one contemporary declaration (Barmen) into our confessional collection. A search of those seven creeds, catechisms, and confessions yield two passages of prohibition of women’s ministry. From The Scots Confession (BOC 3.22):

The Right Administration of the Sacraments
. . .  we abandon the teaching of the Roman Church and withdraw from its sacraments; firstly, because their ministers are not true ministers of Christ Jesus (indeed they even allow women, whom the Holy Ghost will not permit to preach in the congregation, to baptize) and, secondly, because they have so adulterated both the sacraments with their own additions that no part of Christ’s original act remains in its original simplicity.

And from The Second Helvetic Confession (BOC 5.191):

THE MINISTER OF BAPTISM. We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.

But there’s more. At the time of the adoption of the Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 was also drafted and included. One of its particular objectives was to affirm the equality of all people (regardless of social-economic status, race, or sex [NB: not sexual practice], based on Galatians 3:28). It was this declaration that compelled the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in 1975 to declare affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement. In fact, that decision (Maxwell et al. v. the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in the matter of Walter Kenyon) stated explicitly that our form of government derives from our confessional faith:

“Our form of government must be inseparably connected to the faith we profess. The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of people before God is thus essential.” (Minutes of the General Assembly, UPCUSA, 1975; 257)

The significance of this piece of history is that the church made a confessional affirmation intentionally to reverse statements within previous Reformation confessions. They chose to keep the text of the Second Helvetic and the Scots confessions intact, but to speak to the concern of the 1960s about social equality in C67 and later to the controversy regarding women’s ordination in A Brief Statement of Faith (10.4, 64) adopted upon reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS:

The same Spirit . . . calls women and men to all ministries of the Church. 

So the GA commissioner spoke in error, that the Confessions alone would have prevented her ordination. The opposite is true, and not just conceptually but in historical experience. Our confessions formed the defining piece of the puzzle, “compelling” the GAPJC to make affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement for service in the church.

In summary, this is one of those cases of “evolving theology” reflected in the Book of Confessions. The church chose to include “women and men” in the Brief Statement of Faith (10:4), for instance, and not change the reference to women clergy in 5.191 (2nd Helvetic, Ch. XX). This was done as a result of intentional action at the GA level to include women in the manifold ministries of Christ. It was a conscious choice to revise the confessional witness to be consistent with Scripture’s witness about women. With this revision, the church could continue to practice the discipline of faith shaping a way of life.

Tomorrow, applying the same rationale and method, can we affirm the ordination and/or marriage of committed homosexuals on the basis of an inconsistency within the Book of Confessions?