A wide spectrum of representatives at eight different churches in California, Colorado and Washington who have been dismissed or are presently seeking dismissal recently reflected on their reasons for leaving Presbyterian Church (USA). In spite of characterizations to the contrary, gay and lesbian issues were not particularly important in their deliberations – their primary concerns centering on what they saw as an increasing politicization and theological drift of the denomination.
Phone interviews, oftentimes quite extensive in length, conducted with a wide variety of ministers and staff, elders and members at these churches revealed results at variance with those who assert that the motivation of churches seeking dismissal is “95 percent about gay and lesbian issues.” The approval of gay ordination naturally caught the attention of many in these churches, and led to serious discussion around the topic – as several members had gays or lesbians as sons or daughters or grandsons or granddaughters. These people often felt somewhat conflicted, especially if there were to be a vote for dismissal, as they might somehow be “voting against” members of their own families.
The discussions within the churches, however, soon revealed an outpouring of support of welcome to worship and “sitting beside us in the pews” for gays and lesbians. Remarkably, this level of understanding and welcome to all “children of God” removed almost entirely any level of concern – and the congregations soon moved on to what were considered more profound problems with PCUSA. When queried about the gay and lesbian concern, people said it was “an issue, not the main issue,” or it “wasn’t much of an issue.” Gays and lesbians at a 4,000-member church – after an overwhelming percentage voted to leave and join ECO – were asked about their reaction. They said they were not that upset, that they were staying, and that “this is our home church, and we’re not leaving.”
The conversations, at “town hall” as well as small group and one-on-one meetings then soon focused on the increasing politicization of the national denomination – with PCUSA seen as taking stands on very sensitive political, social and economic issues that often diverged from the beliefs of large numbers of Presbyterians. One particularly salient example was the stand of PCUSA on abortion, with its emphasis on unlimited public funding of abortions and no limits on access to abortions. That there should even have been discussion about late-term abortion, as well as the fact that members were actually funding abortions through their per-capita contributions to the denomination’s medical insurance (which covers any and all abortions for those who are employed by PCUSA), was considered especially problematic. Even for those who were conflicted about their own views on abortion, or were frankly pro-choice, it struck them as odd that the denomination should take any public stand at all on what is, after all, such a sensitive issue.
The problem expressed by those in these churches, over and over again, was how much time and effort was being devoted to these topics, time and effort that was being taken away from what members felt was their main mission of serving Christ. One person in particular reflected on how difficult it often was, in trying to encourage new members to join his church, to explain how statements from the national body did not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of all Presbyterians.
The main concern of those at these churches, of course, was theological – or what is sometimes described as theological pluralism. The problem was over simple, core beliefs, not arcane doctrinal disputes. Mentioned most often here was the change in the language in the Book of Order that we are to make decisions “in obedience to Scripture” to “guided by Scripture.” People found that this change in language violated, for them, one of the most basic aspects of what it mean to be Christian, allowing people to “pick and choose” how they might live their lives. In fact, if there was one phrase that was repeated more than any other in these conversations, it was “authority of Scripture.”
Of equal level of attention was the nature of Christ. Of course there was review again of the famous Kaseman case, in which more than 30 years ago, a minister who was being examined for acceptance to a church denied both the divinity of Christ and the resurrection. The striking thing about that case was how the pertinent presbytery could approve him for acceptance, and how the Permanent Judicial Commission could subsequently agree with the presbytery. This case still has currency in the debate, these many years later.
More recent, however, is the testimony by ministers – and even one secretary at one of these churches – that in conversations at PCUSA events how they felt among the minority of those who held belief in the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. Equally concerning was how ministers from PCUSA pulpits regularly suggest that the Bible – especially the life of Christ – is fiction, that there is no salvation, no heaven, no hell and indeed no afterlife.
Although not a reason for leaving, an important element of the experience of these churches was the subsequent impact after they left on their membership and overall level of giving. These churches found that they did lose some members in the short run, even though many of those who voted against dismissal chose to stay in the church community they had come to value. Soon, however, membership often began to grow – often considerably – as it turned out that people had been quietly watching and waiting for these churches to “take a stand.”
The same thing frequently happened with financial contributions, even in the short run as churches lost some members – since those among the large majorities remaining simply increased their pledges. This fact would seem to call into question those who posit that leaving would necessarily pose a grave financial threat to any church seeking dismissal. The direct quotes from the churches are noteworthy: “we were not harmed financially because of our decision,” “we gained more than we lost,” “we are stronger now that we were before,” and “financially we are stronger, because we took a stand.”
In summary, an extraordinary group of individuals at eight different churches provides some important guidance on why they felt, always quietly and without rancor or acrimony, that they could not in good conscience remain affiliated with a denomination that no longer reflected their core beliefs. These beliefs, and their discussions, had little to do with gay issues, but rather with what they felt had become a national body seemingly more interested in political issues than with representing Scriptural authority and the lordship of Christ. As many of these people said, “we felt that we were not leaving PCUSA, we felt that they left us.”
Retired college professor and member of the Community Presbyterian Church of Cambria, Calif.