The denomination that I serve in and have been part of for the majority of my life is continuing to be embroiled in theological and political controversy. In an effort to put the current events into context, here is a summary of the past 100 years.
Download the PDF (The Presbyterian Story) or read full text below.
THE PRESBYTERIAN STORY
Rev. Karl Schafer, 2014
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the Presbyterian Church was known largely for its growing congregations, reputable seminaries, and widespread missionaries. Leaders in the denomination broadly agreed on the major issues of theology and polity. These trends yielded a solid reputation for Presbyterians in America as the 1900s began.
In the early 1900s, there arose a split among Presbyterians. The conservatives were named “fundamentalists” and affirmed adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647. The more liberal members were called “modernists” and affirmed a re-examination of the Westminster Confession of Faith to determine if it was still valid.
Over the next 100 years, several milestone events characterize a denominational fragmentation that has resulted in the splintering of Presbyterians into multiple denominations and dramatically shrinking numbers of adherents to the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination today in 2014. Many of these milestones surfaced at the national meetings of the denomination, called General Assemblies, which occurred every several years.
1910 – In response to the disagreement between conservatives and liberals, the General Assembly affirmed Five Fundamentals, which were the closest to “essential tenets” of the Reformed faith that have ever come from the Presbyterian Church. (One of the questions that all ministers, elders, and deacons are asked upon their ordination is whether they adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. While these have never been defined—and still remain undefined today—this list of Five Fundamentals was the only time that the Church has agreed on such a list). In the early 1900s, the denomination required that anyone ordained must affirm the Bible, the WCF, and these Five Fundamentals:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The virgin birth of Christ
- Christ’s substitutionary atonement
- Jesus’ bodily resurrection
- The authenticity of miracles
1910, 1916, 1923 – In these subsequent years, the General Assembly repeatedly affirmed that all candidates for ordination must affirm the Five Fundamentals, reminding the Church of the importance of these priorities in their faith and ministry.
1924 – Ever since the Five Fundamentals had been supported by General Assembly, objections had come from the liberal camp of Presbyterians. Finally in 1924, the liberal side acquired victory over the Five Fundamentals through The Auburn Affirmation. Authored and approved to give freedom of conscious and restriction on matters of theological interpretation for Presbyterians being ordained, The Auburn Affirmation can best be summarized as follows:
Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.
Specifically, The Auburn Affirmation affirmed:
- The Bible is not inerrant. The supreme guide of scripture interpretation is the Spirit of God to the individual believer and not ecclesiastical authority. Thus, “liberty of conscience” is elevated.
- The General Assembly has no power to dictate doctrine to the Presbyteries.
- The General Assembly’s condemnation of those asserting “doctrines contrary to the standards of the Presbyterian Church” circumvented the due process set forth in the Book of Discipline.
- None of the five essential doctrines should be used as a test of ordination. Alternated “theories” of these doctrines are permissible.
- Liberty of thought and teaching, within the bounds of evangelical Christianity is necessary.
- Division is deplored, unity and freedom are commended.
1927 – Adherents to the Auburn Affirmation successfully lobbied General Assembly to declare that regional governing bodies or presbyteries (instead of the national church body) would have ultimate authority to determine anyone’s fitness for ordination. Rather than having a national standard by which every congregation abided, this regional preference allowed for a wide diversity of theological positions on the Five Fundamentals and the beginning of the perspective that presbyteries oversaw and approved/disapproved ordination. Those who disagreed with The Auburn Affirmation left to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination.
1967 – A new confession was written and added to the Book of Confessions, entitled the Confession of 1967. Authored on the noble and timely theme of reconciliation, subtleties within this confession hint at the theological shifts happening throughout the denomination. Most notably is the diluted language about the Bible. Here, the Bible is described as the Word of God, although qualified by the influence of human personality and cultural relativism. Such language can be acceptable to people affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, but is widely viewed by evangelical theologians as introducing an increasingly relativistic way of interpreting Scripture.
1981 – The highest court of the PC(USA) upheld the ordination of a minister who answered the question “Is Jesus God?” by saying, “No, God is God.” Later, in an attempt to explain his position, he said, “Saying Jesus is one with God is a better way of saying it … but I, too, am one with God.” This and similar statements have gone unchecked by the denomination in the proceeding decades.
1993 – At the height of a cultural movement in America promoting the role of women, the PC(USA) sponsored the Re-Imagining God conference. The goal of the conference was to re-imagine ways of expressing faith in God and Jesus Christ without using male-dominated language. Many of the results were liberal theological views that shrunk any defined theology of the atonement of Christ and introduced a plethora of alternative notions of where ultimate authority comes from. The religious person’s personal experience was elevated at this conference above biblical teaching and theological tradition.
2001 – The General Assembly of 2001 made two milestone decisions that charted the future of the denomination.
- GA discussed at length a resolution that sought to declare “the singular, saving lordship of Jesus Christ.” Convinced that this statement was disrespectful to other religions, the GA defeated the resolution. In affirmation of the decision, one speaker stated that all religions are essentially equal and Christianity cannot claim to have the one correct way. That left the argument open for others to affirm their own—equally legitimate—paths to salvation.
- GA formed the Peace, Unity and Purity (PUP) task force to examine the causes for theological and ministry discord that continued to threaten the unity of the PC(USA).
At the heart of disagreements for the next five years was the language of G-6.0106b in the Book of Order, which read: Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. The disagreement over this statement focused on the call to remain in marriage, which is here described as between a man and a woman.
2006 – The PUP task force returned with its findings about disagreement in the denomination across a wide variety of issues. Generally, they affirmed unity and conciliation above all else. Specifically, they recommended that G-6.0106b remain in effect, but that GA issue an Authoritative Interpretation allowing presbyteries the authority to hear and decide on the fitness of candidates who disagreed with such ordination standards.
2008 – The 2008 General Assembly proved mixed on theological and polity issues related to homosexuality. The range of actions taken by the Assembly demonstrates this stance:
- Amendment B, which was an attempt to replace the text of G-6.0106b in the Book of Order with language that removed the language about ordained officers of the church agreeing to live in fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. This Amendment was defeated.
- The GA passed a resolution to define again that marriage between a man and a woman.
- The GA voted to render all preceding judicial rulings null and void on homosexuality and ordination standards. This included the 1978 Definitive Guidance that stated that “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with requirements for ordination.”
- The GA agreed to a modified translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the confessions in the denomination’s Book of Confessions. The newly approved translation removed the reference to “homosexual perversions” as a list of sins not permitted in faithful leaders.
2010 – General Assembly voted to pass Amendment 10-A, which removed the “fidelity-chastity” language from the standards for ordination in the Book of Order (see text of G-6.0106b above). The result of the 2010 General Assembly and subsequent ratification of this action by a majority of the presbyteries in 2011 was to remove a national standard for ordination as it relates to marriage and homosexuality. Anyone ordained to the office of minster, elder, or deacon after 2011 would need to be approved according to the standards of their local governing body: the presbytery. This new structure for ordination came to be known as “local option,” which permits each presbytery to determine its own standards for ordination. While some presbyteries retained the “fidelity-chastity” language from G-6.0106b, other presbyteries immediately began ordaining practicing gay and lesbian ministers and congregations ordained practicing gay and lesbian elders and deacons.
2014 – Several landmark decisions were made at the 2014 General Assembly meeting.
- The Session of each PC(USA) congregation must decide (1) whether its property may be used to conduct same-gender marriages in states where they are legal, and (2) whether it permits its pastors to perform same-gender marriages in states where they are legal, should pastors choose to. (Vote at GA: 371-238)
- GA approved and sent to presbyteries for ratification a re-definition of marriage. Traditionally, the Book of Order has stated that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” The recommended change is to define marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” A majority of presbyteries must approve this language for it to affect a change in the Book of Order. (Vote at GA: 429-175)
EFFORTS AT INTERNAL REFORM FOR THE PC(USA)
Various groups have initiated organized efforts for the past 50 years to address the continued theological disunity in the denomination. This section summarizes each of these groups, why they started, and what their goals were.
Presbyterian Lay Committee – Formed in 1965 in response to the Confession of 1967, the PLC sought to protect the theological integrity of Presbyterians. The PLC are the publishers of The Layman magazine.
Confessing Church Movement (CCM) – Launched in 2001, the CCM reacted to the actions of the GA that could not affirm unequivocally that Jesus Christ alone saves people. This movement asked adherents to re-affirm their faith with three main tenets:
- The Bible alone is the Word of God and our sole authority for faith and life.
- Jesus Christ alone is the Way of salvation, the Truth of God’s Word and the Life of the Church.
- The Holy Spirit continues to work to bring people into conformity with the will of God, toward holiness, including living within fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.
New Wineskins Initiative (NWI) – Following the General Assembly of 2001, concerned pastors and elders met to form a renewal movement that was situated within the PC(USA). Rather than leaving the denomination at this time, these churches affirmed the need for renewal and sought it from within the PC(USA) between 2002 and 2005.
The New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) – Out of the NWI came the NWAC as a more official renewal effort with defined intentions. Comprised of about 200 congregations at its height, the NWAC existed officially from 2005-2011 with the intention of finding a safe harbor from the theological and polity problems they saw in the PC(USA). Many of the churches that formed the NWAC left the PC(USA) and many eventually formed a partnership with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) denomination and formed a non-geographic presbytery within the EPC called the New Wineskins Presbytery.
Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) – After years of arguing within the PC(USA) about theology, social justice and the morality of homosexuality, leaders called for renewal and gathered to form PFR in 1989. The organization consistently called for evangelical perspectives on faith and conservative-moderate views of Scripture as the denomination continued to argue about the same issues for the next two decades. In 2014, PFR joined with the Fellowship of Presbyterians to form The Fellowship Community as it continues its internal renewal efforts.
Fellowship of Presbyterians – In response to the increasing disagreement and lack of partnership that should characterize a church denomination such as the PC(USA), a group of pastors proposed in January 2011 the formation of a new movement called the Fellowship of Presbyterians. Designed as an internal reform group, the Fellowship became a movement that offered a place for missional-minded, evangelism-focus, theologically conservative PC(USA) congregations to engage in ministry with like-minded congregations. At the time, there was not a firm plan to defect from PC(USA), but to partner together in ministry without continuing the debates that had overtaken the denomination for decades.
Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) – Stemming from the renewal efforts of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, ECO established itself as a new Reformed body (or, denomination) in January 2012. Theologically conservative and aggressively missional, the denomination has grown dramatically in two years by accepting mostly conservative-leaning PC(USA) congregations disenchanted by the continuing liberal actions of the General Assembly. As of September 2014, ECO claims 148 congregations and 254 ordained pastors.
SIZE AND TRENDS OF THE PC(USA)
The last year of membership growth for the PCUSA was in 1967. Since that year, the PCUSA has lost between 2 and 5 percent of its members annually.
In 1967, the PC(USA) had 4.25 million members.
In 2013, the PC(USA) 1.76 million members.