The New York Times reported yesterday that a sufficient number of presbyteries of the liberal, mainline Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) have voted to approve gay marriage that church order Book of Order will, beginning in June of this year, define marriage no longer as between a man and a woman but between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Those who still believe in nature may be glad that the language still stipulates human beings but we may also wonder how long that shibboleth will stand now that America’s mainline Presbyterian body has capitulated to the cultural demand that marriage be re-defined in terms of affection and consent. The article notes two interesting facts. First, though the PCUSA is usually said to be 2.4 million members, the article described the PCUSA as having 1.8 million members. Second, it attributed the loss of 600,000 members since 2011 to the leftward move of the denomination and particularly to the 2011 decision to ordain homosexuals and lesbians as ministers.
The church, with about 1.8 million members, is the largest of the nation’s Presbyterian denominations, but it has been losing congregations and individual members as it has moved to the left theologically over the past several years. There was a wave of departures in and after 2011, when the presbyteries ratified a decision to ordain gays and lesbians as pastors, elders and deacons, and that may have cleared the way for Tuesday’s vote.
Such frankness about the decline of the church and the open acknowledgment of the connection between the continuing leftward movement of the PCUSA to its declining membership seems to me to be unusual. For those who study such things the trend has been plain for at least 40 years. Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing in 1972. Nevertheless, the popular press has not often been so blunt about the realities but as large congregations noisily leave the PCUSA, increasingly with their church properties, it has become impossible to hide what was becoming obvious: The mainline Presbyterians are, ironically, on their way to the numerical sidelines.
There is another indicator of the shifting fortunes of the old mainline denominations, as congregations dwindle they are no longer able even to maintain their church properties. Those buildings are being inhabited (or re-inhabited) by confessional congregations. It’s difficult to know how often this is taking place but I know of three instances in the last few years and I have heard reports of others. The irony lies in the history. In the 1920s and 30s, when the mainlines made the decision to follow the culture rather than Christ, they sometimes drove out members and ministers with phony ecclesiastical trials (as in the case of Machen and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). In some instances, they merged and merged again leaving a tiny remnant behind as in the case of the formation of what became the United Church of Christ leaving behind the continuing Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS). Those remnant congregations became homeless and sought refuge in unlikely places, e.g., mortuaries, bank basements, private homes. Those who remained with the mainline usually retained the prominent church buildings with their tall steeples and social prominence. Less than a century later, however, some of those old tall-steeple buildings are reverting to the exiled.
The PCUSA (and the would-be mainliners such as the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church) demonstrates what happens when the church does not get right the question of Christ and culture. In the early 20th century the wave of the future seemed to all the smart set to be, as Lefferts Loetscher put it in 1954, “the broadening church.” For all the mainline rhetoric about being committed to Jesus’ words—Red Letter Bibles were important to mainliners since it allowed them to identify “the true words” of God, the words of Jesus as distinct from the mere opinions of the apostles—they have forgotten what Jesus said about how to relate following Christ and culture:
Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matt 8:21–22)
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:37; ESV)
This was not the message of the mainline denominations in the first half of 20th century nor has it been their message since. Since the early 20th century one has been able easily to predict what the mainlines would do by reading the New York Times. Whatever the editorial page demands today, the mainlines will do in 5 to 10 years. In the case of homosexual marriage, the PCUSA dragged its feet a little but has finally come to heel as the faithful servant of its cultural master. The powers that be in Louisville will now be able to attend the American Academy of Religion sessions and cocktail parties with their head held high: they are no longer barbarians.
Things have changed, however, for the “conservative” churches since 1972 too. The more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) broke away from the old Southern Presbyterian Church in 1973, before its merger with the Northern Presbyterians to make today’s PCUSA. The PCA’s self-identity since its formation had been of a fast-growing, “leader denomination” (to quote a prominent speaker at General Assembly from a few years ago). In the 1980s my PCA pastor friends reminded me frequently that they were part of one of the fastest growing denominations in the USA. Thirty years later, however, that identity seems to be in jeopardy since there have been reports since 2009–10 that the numerical growth has slowed.
The congregations leaving the PCUSA today are not joining the PCA. They are joining the newly-formed Evangelical Covenant Order (a name that must have been invented by Tom Cruise and John Travolta) or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church both of which are to the left of the PCA. As a result the EPC, once potentially headed toward the confessional sideline, is now firmly entrenched in the borderline.
What should we learn from all this? First, as Darryl Hart has been teaching us for years, the distinction between “conservative” and “liberal” is inadequate. The NYT story reports that some “conservatives” remain in the PCUSA. At this point one asks exasperatedly: what on earth or heaven are you conserving? We might ask the same of those “conservatives” who remain in the RCA and CRC: To what end? Conservative is not enough. Of what real value is it to do what the liberals do but to do it 25 years later? The other great flaw of the “conservative vs liberal” analysis is that it fails to explain what really happened. The truth is that the PCUSA, the CRC, and before them, the RCA went broadly evangelical before they went liberal. Again, to conserve that process is not enough. In God’s ordinary providence, rust will do what rust will do.
The best way to analyze what happened is to use the distinction between “confessional and non-confessional.” This way of analyzing things offers actual help and a way forward for denominations such as the PCA and my own federation, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). To set the clock back to 1973 or to 1959 does not change the the nature of the clock. To commit to being confessional, to interpreting Scripture with the church by using the confessions, by setting theological and practical priorities by using the confessions is the way forward. In my own federation there are congregations that seem convinced that 6/24 creation is a mark of orthodoxy even as they adopt the evangelical piety of Scripture choruses and soloists for public worship. We do confess a principle of worship but we do not confess the length of the creation days. Since the PCA’s adoption of the new strategic plan, the PCA seems to have set in place priorities that allow Federal Visionists and paedocommunion while making confessionalists feel increasingly unwelcome. What will a “big-tent” approach yield? Ask the PCUSA, which has lost a larger number of members than is held by the entire NAPARC.
With the death of the mainlines we’re witnessing the last gasp of the informal Constantinianism in America, the gathering of cultural elites in the narthex of tall-steeple PCUSA congregations. The informal coalition of cultural and political power brokers in and with the mainline is dead. The WWII generation was probably the last to care to identify with the mainline or to seek the approval of the mainline. Now that the culture has got what it wanted, capitulation, even the NYT will ignore it. There is no reason to pay attention to the PCUSA. They aren’t saying anything that can’t be found in the Times. The point of paying attention to the PCUSA was to humiliate it into ideological conformity.
From its inception, however, Christianity was a marginalized not a culturally powerful or influential religion. Our Prophet, Priest, and King was crucified as a common criminal outside the city walls. He called us to take up our cross and follow him. Often that cross requires us to be culturally marginal. It’s not easy nor always pleasant to follow the Savior who had nowhere to lay his head but he has made a promise to his people:
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life (Matt 19:29)
Heaven may not be a cocktail party at AAR but it will do.