You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I’m Not Afraid of Schism)

It’s been a rough half-century for folks in the mainline Protestant denominations.  The numbers are undeniable.  We are smaller than we were in the 1950s and 60s.  Everybody seems to have a pet theory about why this is happening.

Extremists on one side are convinced that this decline in numbers is caused by fanatical adherence to superstitious dogmas that have been rendered irrelevant by philosophical, scientific, and technological advancement.  Extremists on the other side are convinced that the wrath of God is smiting our denominations with death because they have bowed down to the heresies of the modern world.  I want to say the same thing to extremists on both sides:

“Shut up and sit down.  This kind of talk isn’t helpful.”

While these voices tend to be the loudest, I find more often that they are in the minority.  Most folks in our churches identify themselves as moderates who tend to lean to one side of the spectrum or the other.

In spite of rampant conspiracy theories to the contrary, I find that most moderates on both sides are compassionate and intelligent believers who are essentially saying the same thing:

“I want to stay faithful to the core values of my faith, but I’m afraid that my denomination is becoming a place where I won’t be able to do that.”

We’ve all been through this before.  American mainline Protestant churches have split over the abolition of slavery, biblical literalism, the ordination of women, and (most recently) same-sex marriage.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which I will abbreviate as PC(USA), is currently wrestling with the recent creation of a group that calls itself the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  ECO is a group that has come together out of its founders’ desire to have a denominational community with shared theological values and a commitment to evangelical mission in the world outside the walls of the church.  They believe the PC(USA) has drifted from its core theological roots and become too inwardly and institutionally focused.  They see the PC(USA)’s recent decision to allow for the ordination of non-celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people and this summer’s upcoming vote on same-sex marriage as symptoms of the larger and deeper theological problem.

Just to be clear about where I stand, let me lay all of my cards out on the table.  Those who know me or follow this blog will already know this, but I’ll say it again for the sake of any newcomers and first-time readers.  I identify as a theologically liberal Presbyterian.  I am a vocal advocate for LGBT equality in church and society.  I am not a part of ECO.  In fact, I probably represent much of what they think is wrong with the PC(USA).

The PC(USA) itself does a fairly good job at holding the middle ground in this debate.  They follow the example of Karl Barth and other Neo-orthodox theologians of the 20th century.  How do I know the denomination does this?  Because it frustrates folks on both sides.  Liberals think it’s too conservative and conservatives think it’s too liberal.

Liberals and conservatives have their own unique ways of vying for greater power in the decision-making process.  Liberals tend to invest in taking hold of regional and national positions of authority in the councils (formerly known as governing bodies) of the denomination.  They, in the tradition and spirit of historic liberalism, tend to put their trust (too much trust, I would say) in the amendment of large-scale human institutions.  The heroes of this bunch tend to be Moderators of our General Assembly and professors at our denominational seminaries.  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek).

Conservatives, on the other hand, love to cast themselves in the role of the oppressed underdog.  They see themselves as heirs of the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation.  Their heroes tend to be the pastors of large and wealthy congregations.  They tend to idolize their pastors and demonize the denomination.  As one elder screamed (yes, screamed) during a recent meeting in our area, “The PC(USA) just wants more of our money so they can keep spreading their lies!”  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the Rebel Alliance, fighting the Sith-dominated Galactic Empire (Star Wars).

In reality, both sides are delusional.  The PC(USA) is not the United Federation of Planets and ECO is not the Rebel Alliance.  It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re essentially dealing with two different religious traditions under the roof of one denomination.  This leaves us with two options.  We can either: (A) Organize our denominational life together in such a way that leaves room for both parties to coexist, or (B) Peacefully part ways in a spirit that is consistent with our highest shared values.

As a liberal, I will primarily direct my critical comments toward the members of my own party.  But before I do that, I want to invite any conservatives and evangelicals to listen in and witness one liberal who is not a demon-possessed heretic that wants to invade your church, seize your building, fire your pastor, and force you into compliance with my wicked homosexual agenda.  Are you ready?  Let’s go.

I am a liberal who supports the creation of ECO.  My reasons for doing so are primarily biblical in nature.  I was reading Genesis 13 the other day, where the nomadic caravans of Abram and Lot are traveling together through the Promised Land, but have achieved critical mass in regard to the land’s ability to support both groups.  Conflict began to brew.  Abram then takes the moral high ground,

Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Abram even lets Lot have his first choice of the land.  There is a recognition that division is necessary, but a complete rejection of backbiting and contentiousness.  Here is an example of a person of faith who can declare “Separate yourself from me” and “we are kindred” in the same paragraph.

In the same way, our denominational landscape is being strained in the attempt to support both liberals and evangelicals.  It is clear that there are many among us who no longer wish for our caravans to sojourn together.  As heirs of Abram’s covenant, why can’t we do with each other what Abram did with Lot?  Who among us will take the moral (i.e. relational) high ground?

In this moment, I would call upon my fellow liberals to step up to the plate.  You have invested much energy in securing positions of power for yourself at the presbytery and General Assembly levels.  Use the power afforded you by those positions to walk like Jesus, who said,

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.

I would venture to say that we should support the creation of ECO, let these congregations and presbyteries go their own way, and find a way to send them off with a parting blessing: their buildings, investments, and pensions.  Let’s leave a legacy that will provide an open door for reconciliation in some future generation.

Institutional division is not necessarily a church schism.  We can part ways and remain true to each other on multiple levels.  After Abram and Lot part ways, the relationship between them continues to grow faithfully.  Abram fights for Lot, rescues him from danger, and prays earnestly for his well-being.  Let’s learn how to do the same for each other.  Enough of all this backbiting crap.

Listen, we don’t really need their numbers and their money.  Their presence will not hold back the tide of mainline decline.  We are still shrinking, no matter what.  This is a subject for another blog post, but I see mainline decline as a good thing.

My point is that we might best guard the “peace, unity, and purity of the church” by allowing people to go their own way, even if we happen to disagree with where they are going.  We made a vow to guard the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church, not necessarily the denomination.  We should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Liberal Presbyterians: be ye not afraid of ECO.  Support its creation.  Send them off with a blessing.  Like Abram and Lot, let there be no strife between them and us; for we are kindred.

Singing Up the Sun: A Prayer for the Church

Christians in the Reformed tradition have long recognized the dual nature of our life together as a faith community.  On the one hand, you have churches that exist as religious institutions.  On the other hand, you have the Church that lives as the Body of Christ, the spiritual fellowship of God’s covenant people.

Heinrich Bullinger, writing in 1561, observed:

Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end… And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).

The Westminster divines identified this duality by referring to the visible church, which is “a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” and the invisible church, which is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.”

Writing over three centuries later, the authors of the Confession of 1967 noted,

The church in its mission encounters other religions and in that encounter becomes conscious of its own human character as a religion… The Christian religion, as distinct from God’s self-revelation, has been shaped throughout its history by the cultural forms of its environment… But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian.

Earlier today, as I was praying for my church, the image of an egg came to mind.  When people glance at an egg, they tend to notice the hard and plain exterior shell.  Most people don’t think about the baby chick inside.  They just see an egg.  But if they could somehow get inside, they would immediately notice the disparate chick-to-shell ratio.  There’s a lot more bird than egg in there!

As cracks start to appear, many throw up their hands in mourning (or celebration) that the egg is now broken, ruined, and not long for this world.  In one sense, they may be right.  However, I wonder whether those who focus exclusively on this fact might be forgetting about the amazing new life that lurks just beneath the surface.  The cracks signify, not the failure, but the success of life that has grown too big for its shell.  The cracks mean that the shell has done its job and life is now ready to burst forth into the world.

I think the church is like that egg.  It looks rather rigid, plain, and fragile from the outside.  The cracks in our institutional shell are obvious and appear at both congregational and denominational levels.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Lackluster theology
  • Biblical illiteracy
  • Indifference to social justice
  • Cliques
  • Power-plays
  • Denominational schisms
  • Liberal/conservative conspiracy theories (take your pick)
  • Not enough/too much inclusivity (take your pick)
  • Worship is too traditional/contemporary (take your pick)
  • Obsession with church property
  • Dwindling financial resources
  • Declining membership
  • I could keep going…

With all these cracks, it looks like our egg is falling apart.  That’s because it is falling apart.  It’s supposed to fall apart.  Ecclesia reforma, semper reformanda.  Our ancestors gave us this shell in order to safeguard the precious treasure of life within it.  Just as they hatched from their own institutional shells (think Calvin during the Reformation), life dictates that we must hatch from ours.  What’s more is that we will most likely hand our spiritual progeny another shell from which they too will one day break.  The shell’s job is to protect and nurture life.  Its breakage during times of change is a sign of success not failure.

There’s a lot more bird than egg in our church.  There is new life waiting to be born.  The future will not look like the past.  The decline of mainline Protestant churches doesn’t bother me.  I think God is coaxing our churches out of their collective shell so that we can take up the prophetic mantle once again.  We are not dying; we are being born.

For some this will mean questioning “the way we’ve always done it” and reforming our denominational or congregational structures from within.  For others it will mean abandoning traditional denominations or congregations altogether.  Whatever new thing they come up with will not be the end-all/be-all perfect solution forever.  It will one day be broken and discarded by their descendants.  As Jesus warned his disciples, “Not one stone will be left on top of another.”

Whatever path we feel called to follow, let’s let our focus be on the new life that God is bringing to birth from within the cracking shell of our churches.  Let’s be open to the vibrant and prophetic future into which we are being led.  Let’s move forward in faith, not fear.  For some of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be hens who produce new eggs with shells that will nurture and protect the next generation until those chicks are ready to break out.  For others of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be roosters who climb to the rooftops and sing up sun, announcing the arrival of a new dawn.

Thanks be to God!