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A Shadow of Former Things: PCUSA General Assembly Post Mortem Analysis

From my seat on press row looking back at observer seating during GA222 debate of the apology overture

From my seat on press row looking back at observer seating during GA222 debate of the apology overture

There seemed little reason to be meeting in a space as large as the Portland Convention Center as the exhibit hall was nearly empty as were the bleachers and most of the chairs in the section for observers of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Press row was a mere 11 chairs, four occupied by The Layman, four by The Presbyterian Outlook, one by the GA Junkie, and none by secular press.  So, if you were waiting for secular news media coverage of the PCUSA General Assembly (GA222), there wasn’t much. The Associated Press did seek to disperse one article entitled “Largest Presbyterian denomination picks 1st black leader,” in reference to the election of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as the fourth Stated Clerk of the PCUSA.

It’s not that Presbyterians didn’t garner big headlines last week, it just wasn’t the Presbyterians in the PCUSA. The PCA, Presbyterian Church in America, made plenty of headlines for its renewed conversation about the role of women in leadership, while the PCUSA’s election of a pair of female co-moderators in the 50th year of the ordination of women failed to make a media ripple.  Similarly, the PCA’s repentance of “racial sin” also made national headlines whilst the PCUSA’s many apologies issued to several native people groups, African Americans or victims of church sexual abuse did not.  The PCUSA’s own Presbyterian News Service, The Presbyterian Outlook and The Layman were joined in the press section by bloggers but no other Christian media outlets were physically present.

Why did the biennial meeting of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country garner so little attention? Well, news outlets like extremes and from a worldly perspective, nothing particularly explosive happened. Volatile items of business like that related to Israel and fossil fuels, were answered in measured ways.  The so-called “apology overture” in which LGBTQQ advocates were demanding a public and comprehensive apology for harms done in the past, was amended down to a statement of deep regret.
So, from the world’s perspective, little news was made during the eight day meeting that costs more than $33K/hour. But one must also consider the possibility that the lack of media coverage is an indicator of the world’s disinterest in the machinations of a declining denomination wherein the debates are now largely between varying degrees of liberalism.
 
The world has little interest in the fact that the PCUSA GA:

The second mark of the Church: the right administration of the sacraments

According to Reformed theology there are three marks of the true church: where the word is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and church discipline rightly applied.  The first and third marks have been at issue among American Presbyterians since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s. But to this point, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been maintained, at least in the denomination’s documents, with integrity. The new Directory for Worship adopted by the General Assembly effectively decouples baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table.

Efforts were made by commissioners to amend the proposal to restore the explicit requirement that those receiving communion be baptized.  Those efforts failed and the debate was illustrative of the reality that pastors are not currently administering the sacraments in keeping with the PCUSA’s constitution. They are not asking if those partaking are baptized and they are offering to baptize those they know are baptized into the Christian faith. This leads directly into the conversation about the assembly’s action on evangelism … but first, let’s talk evolutionary theory.

Embracing evolution and eschewing evangelism

In several separate items of business the PCUSA affirmed evolutionary theory and eschewed evangelism.

In 1969, the PCUSA started down an evolutionary path that resulted in the 2016 full endorsement of evolution. Evolution and climate change were not matters of serious debate but treated as foregone conclusions by a wide majority of commissioners.

A majority of commissioners also rejected calls for a commitment to evangelism.

I couple these two issues together because of the Gospel. If you do not accept the reality of Man’s unique creation in God’s image, you need not accept so-called binary ideas like the purposeful nature of male-female creation. Nor do you need to acknowledge that Creation, in God’s original design, was perfect, marred by sin and now subject to sin’s degradation.  So, if sin is not personal then redemption from sin need not be personal, effectively eliminating the need for a personal savior.  That changes the nature of the Gospel.

Evangelism becomes something radically different and the first Great End of the Church, “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind,” means a social-justice, progressive restoration of creation and not the seeking and saving of the spiritually lost.

When you change the gospel being proclaimed you redefine the mission of the church. That means that henceforth, when you see the word “evangelism” used in PCUSA literature related to local, national and international mission, you must now ask what is expressly meant by that term because this General Assembly made clear that it does not mean personal conversion to Jesus Christ alone as Savior and Lord, by faith alone, through grace alone, as defined by Scripture alone.

There can no longer be any question that Machen was right when he observed that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. The PCUSA has made abundantly clear which faith alone will be practiced under its denominational flag.

All of which leads to how the PCUSA GA222 could sit still and receive prayers contrary to both the Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Muslim prayers to Allah 

For many, the most troubling aspect of the entire GA222 happened at the very beginning of the week, during Saturday’s opening worship service.

Mateen Elass, who speaks Arabic and has a lifetime of experience with Islam, addresses the issue better than I could. He says:

“as a token sign of its expansive tolerance, a Muslim was invited to participate in leading this liturgy. His name is Wajdi Said, president of the Muslim Educational Trust in the Portland area.

When it was his turn to lead, Mr. Said began by chanting in Arabic, most but not all of which was translated into English on the screen for the ignorWajdi_Finalant participants. Hardly anyone there, I’m guessing, had any idea where the words Mr. Said chanted came from. The first sentence was not translated — apparently, Wajdi threw that in on his own. This is what he said: “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed.” Within the Muslim world this is a common interjection when one fears the presence and power of evil spirits. Since Islam teaches that Christians and Jews who reject the claims of Muhammad are the vilest of creatures, under the sway of Satan, it is not surprising he would begin with this intercessory prayer for himself. Apparently, he need not have worried.

The remainder of his Arabic chanting was the most well-known chapter of the Qur’an, the Fatiha, which observant Muslims recite a minimum of seventeen times a day. Often called “the Mother of the Qur’an,” this chapter composed of seven verses, is a prayer to Allah. Its main request is that the petitioner be led on “the straight path,” that is, the path revealed through Muhammad, and not be misled on the paths either of those who have incurred Allah’s wrath (popularly understood to refer to the Jews), or of those who have gone astray (popularly understood to mean the Christians). So here at the start of the business of the PCUSA General Assembly is a Muslim man praying to the Allah of the Qur’an that the gathered delegates be led to Islam and away from the cursed Jews and the wayward Christians. What an uplifting way to begin the national meeting of a denomination once faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ….

After he finished this chanted prayer of Islam, Mr. Said then spoke a seemingly extemporaneous prayer in English seeking blessing, where he once again invoked Allah’s power to “…lead us to the straight path, the path of all the prophets, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, Moses and Jesus, and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. Amen.” To the untrained theological ear, this may sound somewhat innocuous. But in his prayer Mr. Said made three bold claims antithetical to the gospel:

  1. Praying to Allah (a god different from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ), he was pleading that the Presbyterians gathered there would be converted to the straight path, i.e., become Muslims. That is the definition of chutzpah, to use a Yiddish term.
  2. He revealed the Islamic belief that all true prophets were in fact Muslims, i.e., believers in the straight path that Muhammad taught. In other words, there is no plan of salvation that God is unfolding, pointing to the coming of a Messiah for the world, but only a static message which prophets have been repeating unchanged from the time of Adam, the message of surrender to Allah and his will, to be rewarded or punished for eternity depending on how well or poorly you please him.
  3. Jesus is only one among these numerous prophets. To be sure, he has high ranking in the prophetic pantheon, but like all the rest he is only human.According to Islam,  Jesus is no mediator between God and humanity, he has no divine nature, he did not die for the sins of humanity, he was not raised from the dead, he did not open the way for the Holy Spirit to indwell and transform human beings into his likeness, he is not the Lord and Savior of humanity. 

Elass goes on to catalog a list of theological concerns

  • a practicing Muslim is invited to lead the worship of Christians
  • he invokes the name of Allah in Islamic prayer, and prays the anti-Jewish, anti-Christian prayer of the Fatiha
  • he asks Allah to convert the assembly
  • his prayer implicitly denies biblical  salvation history pointing toward the culmination of the Incarnation of God the Son into this world for our salvation
  • he disparages the person of Jesus by demoting him as “one of the prophets” without any corrective from Christians present
  • the liturgy he leads is woven from Qur’anic passages, with no Biblical input

Elaas concludes his blog by observing that:

Many liberal Presbyterians have castigated evangelicals for leaving the denomination over the diminished place accorded Jesus in the life of the PCUSA. The theological left says this is nonsense, that the PCUSA still stands for the unique lordship of Jesus, and for the truth that salvation is uniquely through him. But if the denomination lets stand this travesty, they will show once and for all that their words have no meaning.

Now, it is important to note that following receipt of a letter of protest from 25 Korean commissioners, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly issued an apology that some were offended – but he not apologize for the offense itself.

Those who were holding out hope that the PCUSA’s commitment to Jesus Christ was exclusive, need hope no longer. And the “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” document to which they continuously point as evidence of their commitment is on the same dusty shelf as the 1991 Evangelism document this GA denied to celebrate.

Fall out: Per Capita is going up

After all the financial implications of the assembly’s action were taken into account, the PMA is saddled with absorbing more than $450K in new programming demands without any identification by the assembly of new funding sources.  Other measures approved by the assembly will be offset by increasing per capita assessments — a per member tax — by 17 cents in 2017 and 18 cents in 2018.

In context, per capita rose a full dollar in the six years from 2011 to 2017 — and $1.58 in the eight years from 2010 to 2018.

  • 2010 $6.15/member of the PCUSA
  • 2011 $6.50
  • 2017 $7.50
  • 2018 $7.73

Per capita increases are driven by two inversely related forces: rising budgets and falling membership.  And while the GA rejected evangelism, the OGA projected year over year membership losses through 2020 of an additional 400,000 members.

Seven or eight dollars per member may not sound like a lot of money but by the time synods and presbyteries attach their per-capita demands, local churches are expected to pay $30-40/member.  In a time when more than half of the denomination’s 9,800 congregations are already financially distressed, the per capita increase is not going to come as welcome news from the assembly.

It’s difficult to see how the decisions of this most recent GA — which were largely socially progressive — help those struggling congregations that are overwhelming white, rural, small and aging.

Indeed, there were many other actions taken at the assembly — Jerry Andrews preached a fine sermon, organizations held lunches, seminaries held receptions, course was reversed on synod reorganization, a commission was created to deal with institutional structural demise, and again, apologies were issued to many groups wronged by the denomination throughout time. But in the end, little was done that will better enable local congregations to reach their neighbors with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in the way that the Church throughout the ages has defined it.

The next meeting of the General Assembly will be held in St. Louis, Mo. in the summer of 2018.  By then, this year’s shadow of things past will be longer still.  

 

 

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Carmen Fowler LaBerge