Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Today the Presbytery of Philadelphia voted to transfer a congregation from the presbytery, a presbytery in the Presbyterian Church USA to a presbytery in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. At the end of our debate the moderator pointed out that while we had conducted ourselves in a respectful and caring fashion we had addressed only the polity issues, not the theological issues. This is my attempt to address those theological issues. And don’t get me wrong, I voted for the motion to transfer the congregation with its property to the EPC. Nevertheless I think I have some theological disagreements with my brothers and sisters in that congregation.

While I write this on the same day, (and the next day) that the decision was made I will not publish this until the story has been released by the presbytery (which has now been done: see press release.)

First I am proud of the folks at Oreland Presbyterian Church, the Administrative Commission that worked with them and the Presbytery of Philadelphia. They and we managed to do the very difficult and painful job of deciding how to transfer a congregation to another denomination with love and grace. The Oreland Church followed all the rules for such a process and went beyond what was required of them to seek a loving and just way of leaving. The Administrative Commission listened, loved and made good recommendations to the Presbytery. And the Presbytery, while hurting, made a good and just decision.

First, I confess that the members of the congregation the session and the pastors, of Oreland Presbyterian Church, (soon to be Oreland Evangelical Presbyterian Church), are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We share, as the title suggests, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” (and yes I did borrow that from Paul, Eph. 4:5, NIV). They are my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

But in the Presbyterian Church USA there are also millions who are also my brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact all those who affirm that Jesus is Lord and Savior and believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and believe in the gift of grace through faith are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

So what’s the big deal? After all there are thousands of denominations and all who believe what I confessed in the previous paragraph are my brothers and sisters in Christ. What does it matter if one congregation leaves the Presbyterian Church USA for another denomination?

I’m going to talk about emotions first. While theology cannot be governed by emotions theology certainly contains emotions. If it didn’t why would we put so much energy into theology and attach such emotion when we disagree theologically? One member of the presbytery said that it felt like we were doing a clean cut and that we should feel like a tearing was taking place. I agree with him. IT HURTS! With Oreland gone I feel like my arm has been ripped off. I feel like my wife just divorced me. How can beloved brothers and sisters in Christ leave me, my presbytery, the denomination of which I am a member? I know they will say that I am not the reason. In their statements they pointed to decisions made by General Assemblies, the failure to discipline people who did not obey the Book of Order, even some actions taken that they believe border on heresy or are ethically wrong and horrible. But while they do not reject me personally it still hurts. Now my close friends will not be at presbytery meetings. Now we cannot meet together and plan how to get some overture passed by the presbytery. There is an empty place in the presbytery and in my heart.

There are two particular doctrines considered from a Reformed perspective that affect how I look at questions of ecclesiology when a congregation leaves the presbytery: the doctrines of providence and of covenant.

I remember back in seminary Jack Rogers, my favorite professor was teaching a class called “Presbyterian Ethos.” One day Jack asked us what was the central doctrine of the Reformed (Presbyterian) faith. There was a long silence and then Jack started almost jumping up and down. He said if we got nothing else out of the class we should get that Presbyterians believe in covenant.

I describe it this way. There should be one Church. If we are one in Christ we should be able to all live within the same Church, disagreeing on some things but agreeing on the essentials. The problem is we don’t all agree on what the essentials are and sometimes we disagree on the content of the essentials. My Roman Catholic brothers and sisters believe in Apostolic Succession through bishops and in the infallibility of the pope. I don’t think that any one man is the true representative of Christ on earth and he certainly isn’t infallible. Roman Catholics think these things are essential. I disagree strongly. And my Baptist brothers and sisters think that you can’t be baptized until you are old enough to make a confession of faith for yourself and then you have to be totally immersed in water. We disagree. I baptize babies and while I think total immersion is the best image of dying and rising with Christ that putting water on the baby’s or the adult’s head is sufficient. We disagree on what Baptists think are essential.

So while there should be only one Church there are lots of denominations. Our division is evidence of our sin and inability to see the totality of God's will. But I do know this: God called me and a lot of other people to be members and/or officers in the PCUSA. By the providence of God I am a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA. God put me here.

So I am part of a covenant between God, myself and this group of people called the Presbyterian Church (USA). And I believe that covenants cannot and should not be broken easily. If God has put me in the PCUSA God put me here for a reason and I have to stay here unless certain things happen that I will talk about in a minute.

The Oreland Church listed a bunch of ways the PCUSA has gone wrong. I agree with most of the things they said. We have failed to do appropriate discipline when people have said things that sound like heresy. Sometimes statements by the General Assembly have been insufficiently faithful to the Bible and the Christian tradition. Some, if the press is to be believed, have stepped out of the Christian faith, in my opinion. We don’t do adequate examinations for candidates for ordination and some of those candidates’ statements of faith border on or in some cases cross the border into heresy and still we vote to allow them to become ministers of Word and Sacrament, teaching elders, those called to proclaim the great and wonderful truth of the Gospel.

But while these things are appalling and horrible they are to be expected in the Church. After all, the Church is made up of a bunch of sinners. Not only do we all make mistakes we also all sin. Some of our sin is theological in nature some is ethical, some in unfaithfulness to God. As is said in the Westminster Confession, not only do individual Christians sin and stray from correct theology so do synods and councils, (and presbyteries and General Assemblies).

I don’t say any of this to excuse individual Presbyterians or the denomination as a whole. When sin or heresy occurs all faithful Christians must seek to lovingly correct the sinner or the heretic. But you don’t leave in the midst of trouble. We are members of one covenant body. Again, to refer to something Jack Rogers said, we’re a rag tail scruffy bunch. We aren’t perfect as individuals or as a group. But you can’t choose the members of the covenant community to which God has called you. God chose not you. It’s just like you can’t choose the members of your family. Uncle Joe is still Uncle Joe even if he gets drunk at family gatherings and makes obnoxious statements.

So I think my standards for what would drive me out of the PCUSA are different from those of my brothers and sisters at Oreland. I see the Confessions of the Church and believe that the essentials of the faith are adequately expressed in those confessions. Of course some deny those essentials. The PCUSA should lovingly discipline those who deny the essentials and one of our great failings as a denomination is that we don’t do adequate discipline. But as a denomination we still confess the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ. My standards are simple:

1. If the denomination told me that I could no longer preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ I would have to leave; and
If the denomination said that I had to do something that I could not in good conscience do (my conscience as bound by the Word of God: the Scriptures) I would have to leave.

I have many disagreements on important matters with my brothers and sisters in Christ in the PCUSA. But they are still my brothers and sisters. I seek to correct them and they seek to correct me. But we are part of a covenant people called together by God. I dare not leave this covenant people unless the covenant people deny the Gospel. I cannot leave unless this part of God’s Church tells me I cannot preach the risen Christ.

I think a favorite hymn of mine, The Church’s One Foundation, says it best. These are the first three verses:

  The church's one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.
               Elect from every nation,
yet one o'er all the earth;
her charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with every grace endued.
     Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

That is my beloved PCUSA. We are a scruffy bunch. But we are one Church. We sure aren’t perfect but all of us, even when we disagree, are trying to perfect the Church. We aren’t the whole Church but this is the part of the Church to which God has called me. I dare not leave.

I wish my brothers and sisters at Oreland had not left. But they are still by beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

One day we will stand before Christ in glory. One day there will be no denominations but only one great Church. May God speed the day. And in the meantime I will stay in the PCUSA.

Pastor Bob