In his April report to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, 221st General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada spoke about what he has heard and seen across the Presbyterian Church (USA) during his travels.
One of his most emphatic statements came when he spoke of how the PCUSA is “criticized by many outside the church as not believing in the authority of Scripture and not accepting Jesus as the only path to salvation.”
Rada said that both statements are untrue, and “almost blasphemous accusations about the PCUSA. First of all, there is not a teaching or ruling elder who is ordained in the PCUSA who does not have to answer the question in the affirmative – ‘Do you accept the Bible as the authoritative Word of God?’ — or a similarly worded statement that means the same thing. If they cannot say they do, they are not ordained. To say the PCUSA does not believe that is a lie. It is sad that people who want to harm us have used this untruth to lead many people who are less informed about such matters to turn against us.”
In making the declaration that all ordained officers in the PCUSA submit to the authority of the Bible, Rada must have somehow missed the Rev. John Shuck’s highly publicized announcement that he is a Presbyterian minister – a Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained minister –who confesses that he “doesn’t believe in God.” Shuck teaches the Bible as myth and proudly declares that his “personal beliefs don’t align with those of most Presbyterians.”
Shuck made a list of those personal beliefs:
- “Religion is a human construct
- “The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution
- “Jesus may have been an historical figure, but most of what we know about him is in the form of legend
- “God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force
- “The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being
- “Human consciousness is the result of natural selection, so there’s no afterlife.”
“In short, I regard the symbols of Christianity from a non-supernatural point of view,” wrote Shuck. “And yet, even though I hold those beliefs, I am still a proud minister.”
Shuck also made it very clear about what he thinks of the PCUSA’s ordination vows Rada spoke of when he wrote, “We require modern people to affirm anachronistic ‘vows’ thus forcing them to take great liberties in their interpretation.”
Some might desire to argue that because Shuck was ordained many years ago he hasn’t taken those vows recently. But they would be wrong. Presbyterian ministers are required to recommit to the denomination’s constitutional standards every time they move from one presbytery to another. As Shuck has recently made such a move, he has done precisely what the moderator says is not happening: Presbyterian ministers are knowingly lying and taking ordination vows in jest.
It is curious that the moderator would not have heard of Shuck. One might have presumed that they would have met as they both served as elected commissioners to the 2014 General Assembly. That’s right, Shuck, who admits that he does not believe in God, the divinity, atonement nor bodily resurrection of Jesus, the veracity of the Bible, nor the reality of heaven, was one of the people elected to discern the will of God as a member of the denomination’s highest council.
It is futile to suggest that his presbytery did not know about his beliefs – or unbeliefs – as throughout his ministry, first at First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton, Tenn., in Holston Presbytery, Rev. Shuck hosted a radio show on NPR and maintained a blog site called Shuck and Jive, where his views are openly expressed.
Only Lord and Savior?
Another theological question Rada said he is often asked is does the denomination “believe in Jesus Christ as our sole means to salvation?”
To Rada, the “answer is blatantly obvious. One cannot join a church in our denomination without answering the question in the affirmative that she or he believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you do not, you cannot be a member in our churches. And I have not met one single person—member or officer of our church—who does not believe that as truth. There has been a campaign of hate and divisiveness built against us. And it is not a true reflection of our particular body of Christ.”
So Rada asked the question, “How do we undergird the basic theological and faithful principles of our church in a way that lets the world know the truth about who we are? Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important to members of the PCUSA than the acceptance of and love for Jesus Christ.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee agrees, “Nothing is as important to the members, but loving and serving Jesus Christ alone, above all others, as the authoritative Word of God made flesh, is less important to the denomination’s clergy. The PCUSA’s own Research Services results bear that out. A high percentage of PCUSA clergy do not believe what the moderator acknowledges is the primary criteria for membership. There’s a disconnect between what the PCUSA says it believes in its confessions and what its people are preaching from the pulpits.”
Maybe Rada could begin with having a discussion with the Rev. John Shuck and others who have taken their ordination vows with a giggle and a wink.
His eight other points
Rada made eight other observations during his talk – though none as controversial as the one above.
- On the issue of gay marriage, Rada said that the recent decisions of the PCUSA “have been liberating and celebrated by some, they are painful and heartbreaking for others. But I am no longer seeing this as the defining issue of our church.” He said Presbyterians are telling him that they are tired of the fight and that they wish to continue as Presbyterians. He spoke of two churches in Texas that that many thought would be leaving the denomination, “but in the past few weeks they have stated that they are no longer going to be divided over this matter, and they have called dynamic pastors to lead them in ways that might make them be more strongly aligned with the denomination.” He said that while some churches were still considering leaving the PCUSA, “more and more I am hearing of those deciding to stay because what we offer as faithful followers of Christ is far greater than some of the issues that have been dividing us.” So he asked the question: “Now that it appears likely that the major storm of separation and upset over gay-marriage issues may be diminishing, what do we do to bring back the harmony we need and should expect as one body?” His answer was that the PCUSA needed to “undergird that in this ‘big tent’ we call the PCUSA, there is room for us to disagree in love and not be afraid that alternative positions will be crammed down our throats. People are not being asked to betray their conscience. Grace has been a hallmark of the Presbyterian Church throughout our history. And grace will continue to be a huge part of our DNA.”
- Rada also addressed the issue of the PCUSA’s relationship to the Jewish community in the United States since the divestment vote at the 2014 General Assembly. “I can tell you that I have worked hard to communicate with both our Jewish friends and our Palestinian support groups, to see how we might communicate in ways that will uphold the dignity and strong anxieties which both bodies have—and I might add that I believe both groups are legitimate in their fears. … This matter will continue to raise its head at our General Assemblies and will likely continue to be divisive.”
- “What about funding?” Rada said that the programmatic funds for the PCUSA are not increasing, in fact, “we are far short of what we need. Many people suggest to me that it is related to communication and the fact that people are not clear on what they should, can, and actually do give their money to support.” The question he asked was “What can we do to increase financial resources for our programs and operations?”
- Another area Rada mentioned related to “our witness to Christ around the world. Our global missions program is still extraordinary.” Rada spoke of the time he has spent with mission co-workers since he was elected moderator. “Their faithfulness and love and compassion, as well as their commitment to the faith and our denomination, and particularly to the wonderful people they are serving, is remarkable.” He also commented that “The Presbyterians who are breaking off from us and becoming other denominations do not have the same history of relationships and long-term bonds of love. Nor do they have the networks and relationships with both the governments and the churches that we have developed. They are losing a huge advantage in their efforts to make a difference around the world.”
- “Our church offices in New York City, with the United Nations, and in Washington, D.C., are huge factors in living out the faith by promoting worldwide peace and justice, the critical issues that Christ called us to pursue.” He spoke about visiting the White House where he was “informed by so many people from other church communities and nonprofits that we are the denomination that brings the message of Jesus into the realities of policies and projects being undertaken by our government.”
- “We are seeing an amazing emergence of young adults coming back to the church. Whereas statistics indicate that these folks are leaving evangelical megachurches in large measures, the PCUSA is seeing young adults returning to our membership.” Rada gave three examples and qualified that the phenomenon is mostly in “urban areas. Rural areas are not having the same experience.
- Another point raised by Rada was communications. “We need to find new ways to communicate in a society that is focused on communications like it has never been before.”
- The last point Rada made was about how the PCUSA functions as a denomination. “The basic question I am asked in different ways over and over is, Is the PCUSA set up to function in the most effective way to meet the needs of our denomination in 2015?” And the answer – not from the pew-sitters but from those at the General Assembly level – is No. “There is a growing interest and concern about the way we operate at the assembly,” he said. “My personal assessment is that we must spend time in setting our priorities as the Presbyterian Mission Agency and as a denomination. Does the structure need to change? All evidence says yes. But we can’t change effectively until we know our priorities,” he said.