It Doesn’t Work: Presbyterian Church USA

It Doesn’t Work: Presbyterian Church USA

Since the change of the definition of marriage, the PCUSA seems to have lost all counterbalance to contemporary progressive ideologies. Having lost its conservative contingent, the PCUSA appears to be in theological and moral freefall with few voices seeking to preserve any historic biblical understandings. On the first day of the 2016 General Assembly, the opening prayer was by a Muslim imam offered to Allah.

LGBTQ ideology has divided one church after another: Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Mennonite Church USA, United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America.

In this series, we will look at some of their stories. Each one shows how legitimizing alternative sexualities in the church is a mix of oil and water. It simply does not work. Another case in point: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) was organized as a merger between two Presbyterian denominations that separated during the Civil War. The northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) and the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States officially joined together on June 10, 1983 in Atlanta, Georgia. The combined membership topped 3.1 million. Since then, developments in the PCUSA serve as yet another painful and profound illustration of two realities: first, that compromises on sexuality are invariably connected to a much broader erosion of biblical authority and faithfulness; and second, that competing visions of biblical sexuality cannot remain under the same denominational umbrella.  In short, it doesn’t work.

Signs of Decay

Signs of theological decay were already present prior to 1983. The southern Presbyterian branch had already shed members and churches into the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church officially organized in 1981 out of concern that both northern and southern Presbyterians were no longer holding to their basic standards of belief. Ordination in the UPCUSA only required affirmation that the Bible is “God’s Word to you.” In 1974, UPCUSA ordination candidate Walter Wynn Kenyon informed the Pittsburgh Presbytery that he could not participate in women’s ordination services. The presbytery narrowly ordained him but in 1975 the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly overturned the presbytery. In 1981, the same court approved Mansfield Kaseman’s ordination despite his unwillingness to affirm the deity of Christ, the Trinity, bodily resurrection, the sinlessness of Jesus, and Christ’s death as an atonement for sin. In 1979 the UPCUSA church order was amended to mandate election of women elders in all sessions. Those who would not ordain women as elders were being denied ordination. Zeal for evangelism had significantly dried up. UPCUSA had 1400 missionaries in 1958, but only 300 in 1980. 

Nevertheless, a sizeable contingent decided to stick around and hold fast to orthodoxy in the “big tent” of the PCUSA. It would prove to be a long losing war of attrition

On June 18, 1984, the PCUSA Permanent Judicial Commission ruled in favor of Westminster Church of Buffalo and their open and affirming policy when the Western New York presbytery brought charges. The Commission ruled the denominational ban on gay clergy unconstitutional, saying the ban goes against “the constitutional power of each congregation to control the selection of its own officers for ordination. The Church is committed to inclusiveness, and segments of the membership cannot be excluded except by constitutional amendment.” The Commission would reverse this ruling in February of 1985. 

Orthodox stances on sexuality were reinforced at the 1985 General Assembly, which voted down an amendment to the church constitution that would have protected homosexuals from employment discrimination. Additionally, the General Assembly declared all homosexual acts are inherently sinful regardless of the nature of the relationship or the degree of commitment. 

“Fidelity and Chastity”

By 1993, exhaustion prevailed. A three-year moratorium on homosexual ordination was called. 1996 came and the orthodox won a tremendous victory when the General Assembly voted 313 to 236 to approve a report calling homosexual practice a sin and adding requirements to the constitution that officers must practice sexual “fidelity and chastity.” The majority of the 172 presbyteries would approve this the following March. 

The official wording was as follows:

“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 of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of Word and Sacrament.”

The “fidelity and chastity” amendment brought plenty of angst. Chris Glaser, a homosexual leader of the Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns called the vote “spiritual abuse.” Rev. Myra Kazanjian of Pittsburgh said, “We are asking people again: ‘Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Let’s live our lives in secrecy.’ I don’t believe that is the Gospel.” Kazanjian was among 300 people who marched through the hall at the Albuquerque Convention Center to protest the vote. After the vote Friday, hundreds of gay and lesbian church members and leaders gathered to sing, “We Are Staying in the Church of God.” 

“A lot of people will leave,” said Sandy Martin, an elder from Pittsburgh. “I don’t think they realize what kind of pain they bring to gays and lesbians. One of the things that could happen is the church could split on the issue.”

But the PCUSA would not split over drawing firm lines. The 1997 General Assembly gave final approval to the “fidelity and chastity” amendment. 

Meanwhile, Theological Decline Was Evident on Other Fronts

At the Peacemaking Conference in 2000, Rev. Dirk Ficca delivered the keynote address, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World,” suggesting that there are many paths to God. At one point Ficca asked rhetorically, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” Conservatives would raise an outcry. A month later an explanatory letter would be sent and the 2002 General Assembly would approve a statement saying “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord… No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.”

The 1992 General Assembly adopted a pro-choice position on abortion, saying that each situation is different and that no laws should restrict it. By 1998, the General Assembly granted a “Relief of Conscience” program for congregations to not have their mandatory medical dues go to cover abortions. PCUSA medical insurance would continue to provide coverage for abortions.

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