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May 11, 2011

Column #1,550

Presbyterian Church USA: “No Longer a Church?”

By Mike McManus

            This week the 2 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to abandon its constitutional requirement that its clergy adhere to a Biblical sexual standard of “fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

            Why?  It wanted to allow sexually active homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

            It is not the first mainline Protestant denomination to take this step.  The United Church of Christ did so way back in 1972.  The Episcopal Church voted to ordain gays in 2003, and the Evangelical Lutherans, in 2009.

            What is the likely result for PCUSA?

            A more rapid exodus of church members.  As the church has debated gay ordination over and over in recent decades, about 60,000 people a year have left the denomination. A church which once boasted 4 million members is half of its former size. Some orthodox believers left to create the Presbyterian Church in America, which now has 350,000 members and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church with 115,000. Both are growing steadily.

            Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, lamented sadly, that  “once preeminent mainline Protestantism in America is collapsing. Forty-five years ago one in every five Americans belonged to the “seven sister” mainline Protestant denominations. Today, only one in 15 still does.

            Traditional Christians leaving those denominations have largely joined evangelical, often independent churches, with the result that overall church attendance and membership has declined only slightly. Gallup estimates that 62 percent of Americans are church members, down from 70 percent in 1999.

            Nevertheless, the decision of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities to become the 87th regional body out of 173 regional presbyteries to abandon the “fidelity and chastity” sexual standard – is profoundly sad to traditional Presbyterians.

            “Presbyterians are grieving today because there are many of us who believe that Scripture is our authority for faith and living the Christian life,” said Elder Marie Bowen, Executive Director of Presbyterians Pro-Life.

            “To base our standard of ordination on culture is to deny the very faith we have in Scripture.  Many members will leave the denomination because of this decision, and there will be churches that leave as well.

            Rev. Parker Williamson, the retired but long-term editor of The Presbyterian Layman, a conservative publication with 500,000 subscribers, sighed, “I’m disgusted, but not surprised.”

            He noted that the national press is focusing on the gay ordination issue, but he sees what has happened as more profound: “There is no national (sexual) standard anymore. What does it mean? “Each person can do what is right in his own eyes.  We now have multiple, various standards. You have a denomination that fits the Book of Judges, “There was no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes’” (17:6). 

In fact, Williamson declared, “in my judgment, the denomination can no longer be called a church. It is a political organization, a man-made arrangement, but it is not a church.  It still displays symbols of the faith, but not the substance of the faith, because it has rejected God’s words.”

He noted that when the Scottish Confession of Faith was adopted in 1560, there were three “marks of the true church:”

1.      “The true preaching of the word of God

2.      ‘The right administration of the Sacraments

3.      “Ecclesiastical discipline, uprightly administered as God’s word proscribes.”

In 1996 PCUSA defined those standards with regard to sexuality as “fidelity and chastity”  pledging “we would live chaste lives, in obedience to Scripture,” said Williamson. In four of the biannual General Assemblies since then, there was a vote to abandon that standard, but it was never ratified by a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries until this week.

Nineteen of the presbyteries who voted against the measure two years ago, switched their votes this time.

            What is PCUSA’s new standard?  A vague commitment: “We will be guided by Scripture.” That replaces a standard of being obedient to Scripture.

            “This is a lonely time for Presbyterians who believe what the Bible and the Church have consistently taught that we would be faithful in marriage and chaste in singleness,” said Alan Wisdom, IRD Vice President and Presbyterian Action Director.

            “Now we belong to a denomination that gives no clear counsel on sexuality.  In a society where the abuse of sexuality is devastating millions of lives, this abdication by the PCUSA is tragic.” 

            However, none of the Presbyterians quoted in this column will leave the denomination. Williamson said, “My personal decision is to stay in as long as I can be useful to those trying to get out.”

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