Monday, May 9, 2011

Them and Us: Different Flavors of Presbyterian

It's easy to be unaware that there are different "flavors" of Presbyterian in the United States today.  Depending on just how you count, there are about eight distinct and separate denominations right now that have "Presbyterian" in their name.  I usually try to avoid making much of the differences out of a sense of public civility.  I prefer to keep family arguments inside the house.  Unfortunately, there are some decisions being made right now in another Presbyterian group that I need to distinguish myself from.  What you will see in the headlines is about Presbyterians deciding to ordain practicing homosexuals.  And now, a bit more of the rest of the story.

I'll explain some things as we go, but let me say right up front that neither I, nor Christ Covenant, nor our denomination - The Evangelical Presbyterian Church - are deciding to do that.  It is another Presbyterian denomination called the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Frankly, we disagree and are saddened by their decision, but it only applies to them.

Presbyterian Flavors
There are four Presbyterian denominations represented in the Fredericksburg, VA area.  As mentioned earlier, Christ Covenant is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church of America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have congregations here as well.  All of these denominations and their churches would share some history and structure - John Knox, Scotland, The Westminster Confession, governed by elders - but each has its own history and distinctives as well.  To make things even more confusing, local congregations within each denomination will have local distinctives that differ from other churches in the same denomination - worship style, program structure, etc.  Like I said at the beginning, it is easy to be unaware - even confused - by the different "flavors" of Presbyterian in the United States.

Personally, I continue to have good friends in all of those denominations.  In particular, I will be eternally thankful to the faithfulness of Dr. Alan Hager and the Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church that he leads for the start they gave to Christ Covenant where I now serve.  (By the way, click here if you would like tor read that church's position on the decisions of their own denomination.)  I am certain that all the churches in all the denominations will be seeking to serve God and people in a way that they consider faithful.  We have that freedom in the United States, and I'm thankful for it.  We just have different sense of what faithfulness looks like; and what we are trying to be faithful to.

Let me tell you a bit about the EPC.  We cherish our motto: In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.  We leave many decisions to the local church, ownership or property, role of women in leadership, curriculum and missions for example.  At the same time, we hold fast to certain convictions and have set them out in our statement called The Essentials Of Our Faith.  I often tell inquirers that the EPC is "conservative in theology and contemporary in expression." Click here if you would like to know more.

Now I want to be honest.  There is a sort of family feud going on here.  The EPC began it's history in 1981, almost exclusively with churches that wanted to leave what is now the Presbyterian Church (USA).   I did that with a church I led in Louisiana.  I led a church in Michigan that had done that.  I'm now planting a church in Fredericksburg that started as an extension of a PC(USA) church before choosing to realign with the EPC.

The Flashpoint Issue
At this moment, the flashpoint issue that you will hear mentioned in the news and around water coolers has to do with the ordination of active homosexuals.  This has never been approved in over four centuries of Presbyterian history around the world, and now, the PC(USA) is in the process of becoming the first Presbyterian body to take that step.  I won't bore you with details of Presbyterian process for doing this, but after five previously failed attempts since 1996, it now appears certain that the 12 month process that ends in July of 2011 will allow ordination of active homosexuals.

For the record, it is my conviction that the real issue is far deeper than this particular flashpoint.  It is about the authority of the Bible in the life of the church, and not simply an interpretation on a particular issue.  That is why I left the PC(USA) 25 years ago.  That is a long story, better hashed out over a cup of coffee.  Email me if you would like to talk more.

I made my choice 25 years ago.  Christ Covenant made their choice in 2008.  Right now, the churches of the PC(USA) are making their choice.  While they are free to do that, we don't want to be connected by the headlines with their decision.

So What About Ordination of Practicing Homosexuals?
This is a question that deserves far more attention than bumper sticker slogans or even a single blog post.  It's not enough to simply say "I'm opposed to it" as I am.  There has to be a larger, longer and humbler conversation that speaks to the questions of "Why?" and "So what are you for?"  You might be surprised to know that I have held my convictions for some thirty years, and since 1995 have had gays and lesbians that looked to me as their friend and pastor as they worshiped in the churches I led.  The Gospel of grace has a way of doing things like that.  It keeps pulling us out of our comfort zone and blowing up the tight political and theological boxes that we too often put other people in.

The change to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) crossed the threshold of affirmative votes by presbyteries on Tuesday, May 10.  The process of voting and officially changing their constitution will be final on July 11

Other Sources
Click below for information and perspective from a variety of sources
Presbyterian Outlook - an independent PCUSA focused magazine
Wall Street Journal
The Road to Gay Ordination in the PC(USA) - Christianity Today - Dr. Don Fortson
"More Light" Presbyterians - A Gay Advocacy group in the PC(USA)
Presbyterian Lay Committee - Conservative Advocacy group in the PC(USA)

1 comment:

  1. Well said. The links were especially helpful. Culture has clubbed us over the head time and time again and it can be very easy to lose sight of real fullness of life. Your faithfulness and teaching are much appreciated!


Subscribe to Grace in FXBG by Email