The PC(USA) has posted a desperate appeal to those who are planning on leaving the denomination in a document entitled “Why Choose the PC(USA)?” The seven, bullet-pointed appeals are a bit curious. It claims:
1. The PC(USA) is doing important work, like growing 1001 worshiping communities. These are the much-touted alternative worship and experience settings designed to give dying churches new life. There are a number of gatherings in the list which appear to be evangelical and Biblical fellowships. But they also include, among others, an already closed café in Bend, Ore., which a Yelp reviewer described as a “blend of faith-based charity and ZenMother Earth vibe. With deep pockets; funding to date from donations and grants is said to top $2M.” It also includes the “New Queer Faith Forum,” which meets at the Metropolitan Community Church of L.A., a church which states “there isn’t a reputable Bible scholar or theologian who contends that the Bible condemns homosexuality” in a network of churches that boasts having presided at over 5,000 holy union ceremonies for gays and lesbians.
2. It says that God’s Spirit is working in congregations, though they are declining in numbers. As proof, it says there is “new life springing up all over.” However, it then links to a promotion to the National Evangelism and Church Growth Conference 2013, where neither of the keynote speakers are members of the PC(USA). One of the two speakers is Doug Pagitt, whom Pastor John MacArthur has called a Universalist. When asked about whether or not hell is actually a place, Pagitt replies that those are Platonic categories which don’t make sense to him.
3. It says that the PC(USA) is involved in the Gospel’s concerns, such as preaching, worship, evangelism, education, care for the poor and the well-being of the environment. This seems to ignore the very reason why people claim to be leaving, and the reasons why the Presbyterian creeds themselves give ground for departure. One of the leading complaints from departing congregations is that the denomination in many of its manifestations has abandoned theologically sound preaching, worship and evangelism, or that it educates and cares for the poor without reference to the Gospel. The confessions name three marks of the true church: the right preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the right practice of discipline (Scots Confession 3.18).
4. Then, ironically, the paper names that the PC(USA) is heir to a great confessional tradition. This is certainly true, but being an heir is not the same as being an adherent.
5. It says that the PC(USA) has incredible resources to steward, including hospitals, schools, seminaries, financial wills and bequests. It does not say why this is a good reason to join or remain in a denomination, particularly for those who follow the one who told us to sell all that we have, give to the poor and follow him.
6. The sixth one is a puzzler. It says that the Bible emphasizes unity, and that Jesus prayed for unity among His followers. This is the only Biblical citation in the paper. Jesus actually prays for unity among all those who believe in Him, and given that wavering commitment to the Lordship of Christ is a voiced concern by the faithful in the PC(USA), it would seem a wild stretch to suggest that Jesus means everyone who has membership in an institution should stay put regardless of actual creed. Furthermore, it isn’t clear how institutional membership is what Jesus meant by unity at all, given that Protestantism wouldn’t exist if it were.
7. Finally, the paper suggests that some churches have found that the decision to leave focuses their energies “inwardly” and makes it more difficult to return to an “outward-focused ministry for some time.” No evidence is cited. The whole, defensive paper is dedicated to keeping people in, and then concludes that inward focus isn’t a good use of energy. Perhaps the PC(USA) should listen to its own counsel here.
Jim Miller is the pastor of Glenkirk Church and the author of Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon, 2013)