Will people leave the Presbyterian Church?

Now that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has authorized ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings, the next move that those of us in the denomination are watching for is:  Which congregations will leave?

Several hundred have already left.  Perhaps that’s the worst of the exodus.  They got out in advance of the vote that re-defined marriage to include persons of the same sex.  These conservative churches knew the sentiment in the denomination was moving in favor of gender equality.

If more churches leave, I’m not worried.

It’s not that we have enough people to endure the loss. True — the Presbyterian Church (USA) has 1.8 million members, the sixth largest Protestant denomination in the country.  But we have been losing members now for decades.   We are losing more than gaining, primarily not from congregations leaving but from older members passing away.

Rather, I’m not worried because I never became a pastor in this denomination because of the numbers.  Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I became a Presbyterian because I liked the freedom of style in this Reformed church, its history of involvement in public affairs (12 of the 54 Signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians) and its democratic governance. (We don’t have any authority vested in an individual like a bishop.  Decision-making is shared between the pastors and the members.)  I never aspired to belong to a denomination just because of its size any more than my goal has been to be the pastor of a church because of its size.  I don’t have “steeple envy.”

Indeed, “size” as a measure of “success” for a church can be misleading.  The hard reality is, the churches that are booming in size are more likely to tell people what they want to hear rather than taking on the responsibility of a prophetic voice.  A prophetic voice tells truth knowing it will result in controversy, knowing some members will become upset and leave.

The prophetic voice among Presbyterians was heard in the 19th Century,  when ministers and members spoke against slavery.  A Presbyterian wrote the most influential book of that day — Uncle Tom’s Cabin — showing slavery in all of its heart-breaking cruelty.  The novel was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Her brother, the most famous preacher of that day, Henry Ward Beecher, was an ardent abolitionist.  The result of the prophetic voice against slavery was that many congregations in the South split from the national Presbyterian Church.  They formed their own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the PCUS).

Over a century later, in 1983, the PCUS joined again with the Northern branch of Presbyterianism to form the Presbyterian Church (USA), but many of the Southern congregations resisted.  They objected to the way many Presbyterian pastors no longer took the Scriptures literally.  These Southern congregations took the Scriptures as the inerrant, absolute Word of God, directly inspired from heaven.  They resisted the findings of science that the Earth was not created in six days nor that the planet is only 6,000 years old.

These breakaway congregations also objected to the ordination of women, which was allowed in the newly merged Presbyterian Church (USA).  These Southern churches broke off and formed their own denomination, called the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA).

Today, the PCA is the denomination that some of the congregations are joining which are breaking from the Presbyterian Church (USA) over gender equality.  The PCA, however, still does now allow ordination of women:  something that its predecessor, the Southern church — the Presbyterian Church in the United States — eventually did allow, ordaining women as elders and deacons as long ago as 1960 (following by 30 years the approval of women in the ministry in the largest Northern church, the Presbyterian Church in the USA).

Other breakaway congregations today are joining a newly formed sect called Evangelical Presbyterians since this denomination allows ordination of women.  These congregations joining the Evangelical Presbyterians want to preserve the progress that they finally relented on with the ordination of women.

Interestingly, these are the type of fundamentalist congregations that opposed ordination of women back when the issue was gaining support in the 1950s.  Some of these churches now accept ordination of women.  What happened to the indignation over obeying “The Word of God” about only men being ministers?

One wonders if the same pattern will play out in these congregations in another decade or so over gender equality.

Ours is now one of only two denominations in the land that has definitively stated that marriage may occur between persons of the same sex, and with our ministers officiating the ceremony.  The only other denomination stating this is the United Church of Christ.

We have taken this position not because it will gain us members — but because it is our responsibility.  Truth-telling is the prophetic voice.  In the 19th and 20th Centuries, many pastors supported the ordination of women in the church.  Progress occurred — but only in stages.  First, women were allowed to be ordained as deacons, which approval occurred in 1921; later, in 1930, women were authorized to be elected as elders, serving on the church council, called “the session.”  Finally in 1956, the vote passed allowing women to be ordained as ministers.

But that vote occurred in only one branch of Presbyterianism — only in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  Ordination of women as ministers was resisted by the Southern church (the PCUS) and by another Northern branch, the United Presbyterian Church of North America (the U.P. church).

In 1958, the two Northern branches merged — the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America, becoming the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA).  The U.P. church which had been opposed to ordination of women had to accept the change as a requirement of the merger.  But some of the U.P. congregations resisted.  They refused to ordain women as elders for their church council nor to hire women as ministers.  Even into the 1980s, the prominent First Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsburgh used to make it a point of boasting that no woman had ever preached from the high pulpit.  There was an additional pulpit lower down at floor-level.  They did allow a woman to preach from there!

Today, the most controversial civil-rights issue concerns gender:  gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.  The very same arguments opposing gender equality are being employed that were used against racial equality:  The Word of God is cited.  How can people go against the Bible in saying that slaves are equal to whites?   It’s not a matter of popular opinion–it’s a matter of obeying the Word of God!

The very same words were spoken against the LGBT community.

Again, the occasion called for a prophetic voice.

If people can’t take it — and they leave the denomination, bemoaning how the Presbyterian Church (USA) has denied the Word of God — well, I’m afraid that’s part of the process.  The same reaction happened over slavery and over the ordination of women that is now happening over gender equality.  Such upheaval is part of raising a prophetic voice.

Both sides maintain they are adhering to the Bible.  Lincoln observed the same quandary, when he said in his Second Inaugural Address that both sides in the Civil War pray to the same God, read the same Bible and think they’re following God’s will — but they can’t both be right!  Only time would tell.

Only time will tell if those leaving the denomination will evolve into a different mindset about how they’re reading the Scriptures on the matter of sexual orientation.  They insist they’re merely following “The Word of God.”  But their kind said the same thing about slavery and ordination of women.  It took time, but they changed on the issue of slavery; they changed on the ordination of women.

This change, however, may take longer.  In the meantime, if people leave, it’s a loss we are willing to endure.  I’d rather be in a smaller church with the freedom to speak truth than be in a larger church placating people for the sake of holding onto numbers.  There’s something worse than a church losing people.  It’s a church that’s afraid of losing people.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Will people leave the Presbyterian Church?

  1. Jake

    John,

    FYI most of the churches that have left joined the EPC not the PCA precisely because the PCA forbids the ordination of women. Some are now considering the ECO as a reasonable destination.

    Jake

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    1. johnzingaro Post author

      Thanks for the clarification, Jake. I thought the PCA allowed each congregation its own jurisdiction on the ordination of women, but I just checked on that, and it’s not so. Even its predecessor, the Southern church–the Presbyterian Church in the United States–allowed ordination of women as deacons and elders.

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