Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

It happened again yesterday. I lose track in the last nine years how often the question comes, but for some reason yesterday was a tipping point that sends me today to the keyboard and this blog.

Here’s the question (asked sometimes kindly and sometimes with less kindness, but always basically the same):

“Why are you still in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Don’t you know it is in decline because it is too liberal/too conservative, too traditional/too trendy, too political/not political enough, etc.?”

Well, here’s why.

1. I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints (since no one person or church or doctrine can capture all of God), and you will encourage your people to never stop learning. Which leads to…

2. Because God is big, we have a lot to learn. We have ten PCUSA seminaries in the United States. Count ’em. Ten. We have sixty-five PCUSA-related colleges and universities in this country. Which is not a typo. That’s a lot of higher education institutions for a denomination our size, and there are lots of conversations about closing some of them down. Whether they all make it or not, the fact that we value the education of clergy and laypeople enough to invest in these institutions is itself indicative of a very important denominational value: we believe because God is sovereign and we’ll never know all of God there is to know, our leaders should be life-long learners, exposed to the depths of the tradition, and given the tools to interpret not only scripture but the congregations we serve and the world in which we live. John Calvin said that Christians should never fear knowledge, no matter where it comes from, because any time we learn more of the truth about the world we are learning more about God. You will rarely find a Presbyterian dismissing science or running from an insight because it might challenge her or his faith, and you’ll rarely find a Presbyterian who doesn’t place a high value in thinking for him or her self. Which makes us a rather diverse and disputatious lot…

3. We fight a lot, but we fight fair. If God is sovereign and education is paramount, it follows that if you have ten Presbyterians in a room you’ll have at least twenty opinions. We spend a lot of time in groups talking about what it means to follow Christ, and sometimes those conversations get heated. But we spend a comparable amount of time making sure all voices are heard and all perspectives are honored. Decision-making is therefore messy and slow, and we all spend a fair amount of time complaining about it. But we’ll take messy and slow if it means honoring all the people of God in their rich diversity. And we realize diversity extends beyond the relatively small boundaries of our little denomination, which means…

4. We think it is important to play well with others. In any city in America, you will find Presbyterian (USA) folk partnering with other Presbyterian denominations, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, and and many others in the work of the Spirit in the world. We welcome their members to take Communion at our tables and their ministers to preach from our pulpits. We see ourselves as a small part of a much larger family of faith, and we have much to learn from them. We do not believe that the Presbyterian way is the only way. Why? See #1 above. Lot’s of things follow from #1, including the last reason I am still Presbyterian (USA)…

5. The world needs our witness. Jonathan Sacks says in America we no longer broadcast, we narrow-cast. It is possible to  construct our world in such a way that we can go through our day never encountering an alternative point of view. Our politics seems irreparably polarized. Ideology trumps everything else. And when you look at religion, it is much the same. Denominations splinter into churches of the like-minded. People run from church to church looking for places that “fit” their own world view. Special interest groups dominate the conversations within denominations. The world and the universal church need to see a group of people who know how to stay together even when they do not always agree, a group of people who believe at the core of their faith that they will never know all of God there is to know and who therefore refuse to narrow-cast. The PCUSA does not do this perfectly, but it does try to be this kind of witness in a world that desperately needs it. It defies the easy categories our culture is so good at imposing (and my interlocutors are always asking me about) – liberal/conservative, traditional/contemporary, Democratic/Republican.

That’s why I’m PCUSA. Still. Because my primary identity is Child of God, a God so much bigger than the categories we seek to impose. The five reasons above will probably not satisfy the people who ask the question of me, but in the end I’m not trying to satisfy them. I’m just trying to be faithful to my call. And I’m so very grateful to be able to do so among these sisters and brothers in our little corner of Christ’s big Church.

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144 thoughts on “Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

  1. Chris this is fabulous!

    Thanks for taking the time not only to write it down, but for your careful attention to those who have responded. Good work my friend!

    I love the way that you explain our deliberate system of being connected with one another in both our love of God and neighbor, and our disagreements with one another.

  2. I enjoyed your article also very much. I would like your permission to publish your article in my church’s newsletter. I am the temporary supply preacher for the church located in Tuscaloosa, AL.

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  4. How I wish you were still here with your Christ-filled love and wisdom. Your reasons should be the reason for many, and the world would be better. God is so great and his love ought to make us adore Him in wonder, making us firm yet broadminded.

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  6. I have had a significant number of folks pass this essay along with full endorsement; and I understand their thoughts and desire to acknowledge God is God and we ain’t. But I wonder how close to reality points #3 and #4 are? Faithfilled Presbyterians spend of time in groups talking about what it means to follow Christ, however, if folks from certain PC(USA) constituencies are involved, then those conversations get heated and less respectful and loving.

    So the middle of the road PC(USA) folks do spend a fair amount of time making sure all voices are heard and all perspectives are honored. While those whose perspectives are more extreme laed to decision-making is therefore messy and slow, and we all spend a fair amount of time complaining about it and we end up forcing people to take sides when consencus building ought to be our methody and mindset.

    So we take messy and slow thinking, since it appears the PC(USA) approach means we honor all the people of God in the full, rich diversity of God’s creation. And those PC(USA) folks in the middle do realize diversity extends beyond the relatively small boundaries of our little denomination, and that means…We think it is important to play well with others.

    Well we think that those from another denomination, we will have no trouble working along side, but if they are from a slightly different Presbyterian “brand”, then we get worked up about those differences. As an example, consider the Covenant Network – read their resources on the website and I think you will agree with my conclusion: they are a group of people who believe at the core of their faith that they know all of God and sexuality there is to know and who therefore are one group in a narrow-cast mode.

    All this is to say the PC(USA) is most illustrative of how special interest groups dominate the conversations within most denominations. So is there really any reason to stay in the PC(USA) becuase is different than any other denomination? Those in EPC, ECO, RCA, CRCA, Cumberland denominations affirm the five points:

    1. God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints …which leads to…

    2. Because God is big, we have a lot to learn. …we believe because God is sovereign and we’ll never know all of God there is to know, our leaders should be life-long learners, exposed to the depths of the tradition, and given the tools to interpret not only scripture but the congregations we serve and the world in which we live.
    3. We fight a lot, but we fight fair. If God is sovereign and education is paramount, it follows that if you have ten Presbyterians in a room you’ll have at least twenty opinions. …

    4. We think it is important to play well with others. We see ourselves as a small part of a much larger family of faith, and we have much to learn from them. We do not believe that the Presbyterian way is the only way.

    5. The world needs our witness. Jonathan Sacks says in America we no longer broadcast, we narrow-cast. It is possible to construct our world in such a way that we can go through our day never encountering an alternative point of view. Our politics seems irreparably polarized. Ideology trumps everything else.

    • Thomas, I’m sorry to say that somehow I missed this comment until just today as I was going through the comments section. My apologies. I could not agree more about the special interest groups within the church and the sometimes negative effect they have had on our community discourse. My words were and are intended to lift up another view beyond those special interests that takes them into account but also asks that we go deeper into our common tradition for common ground.

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  8. The Presbyterians (and Quakers) are all for diversity; how do they square this with their groups remaining overwhelmingly (over 95%) White and middle/upper middle class?
    Not much “Celebrate our differences!” there.

    • Thanks George for your comment. I think most Presbyterians would say that our lack of racial and class diversity is particularly troubling. There are lots of perspectives on why this is the case, not only for us, but for most of the mainline Protestant churches in the United States. We need to do all we can to address it in a spirit of prayerful discernment, and I think we are.

      • OK but it’s clearly either not working or you don’t really mean it; all the “White” Mainline groups/churches have been preaching this over 40 years and haven’t really changed.
        If Congress or the military or a political party were like this you’d be on them like white on rice; why do churches get slack? Could this mean that you think your services to whatever “Progressive” causes you support are so valuable that your “allies” won’t notice how White/Privileged you are? Or is religion in general, or at least Mainline Protestantism specifically, so marginalized that nobody cares how White you are any more than they’re seriously worried about lack of diversity in, say, the Girl or Boy Scouts?

  9. john calvin was with his doctrines predestination and TULIP, Was the most doctrined form theology i have ever seen. Calvin killed thousands of people because they would not believe his tulip doctrine. He burned people at the stake. 5 point calvinism is a lie.

    • Kaz, I’m glad to be able to respond to your concern. TULIP is an acronym for a certain interpretation of Calvin that was popular with later groups, but is not a good representation of Calvin’s thought. And I am not sure where you are getting the idea that he killed “thousands.” That is simply not true. Calvin was a complex figure, and far from perfect, but what you are suggesting here is incorrect.

      • Calvin, in fact, was involved in the killing of only one person–Michael Servetus. This was a pretty amazing record, given the thousands killed by the Church prior to Calvin for alleged heresy. Burning at the stake was a favorite means of killing by the Catholic Church in the centuries prior to Calvin.

        Servetus was condemned by both Catholics and Protestants, and was indeed burned at the stake, and it is true that letters by Calvin contributed greatly to his conviction. That said, Calvin was more or less trapped into seeing that the execution got carried out, as Servetus had been arrested by the French Catholics for heresy, and had escaped from jail and traveled to Geneva, where he was caught again. French authorities pressed for extradition so that they could carry out the death sentence, and Calvin (who did not personally participate in the execution) was basically faced with the dilemma of either executing him (which he did not want to do) or turning him back over to the French for them to do it.

        There were all manner of things carried out by Calvinists later in history, but given Calvin’s aversion to killing, he was probably rolling in his grave at the thought of his name being associated with the process.

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  12. Wow, not sure what to say in response. Pollyanna? Out of touch?

    Over the past 20 years I’ve been a part of eight PC(USA) congregations, large and small, east coast and west. I’ve served in a variety of roles in these congregations, from involved layperson to seminary intern to pastor. Frankly I’m not the least surprised that the denomination is in steep decline. A few observations I’ve made over the years:

    Most congregants unknowingly/uncritically hold to a Christendom model of church: It’s an inculcator of morals and civility that form the foundation of a democratic society. Nothing radical, nothing spiritual, nothing fundamentally different from what the Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses are trying to do. Our working theology is roughly this: be a good citizen by being either moral (conservative) or inclusive (liberal) and God will bless you.

    Decline effects both conservative and liberal congregations alike and says more about a congregation’s culture than its theology. Though our Reformed spiritual theology is solid, it apparently hasn’t trickled down to the troops in the trenches. My experience in the congregations I’ve been a part of reveals that a lifetime of church attendance hasn’t led to a functional biblical literacy or any kind of disciplined spiritual life. It’s telling when the monthly potluck is by far the best attended event on the calendar.

    Along with this is strong emotional attachment to the church “the way it used to be”. Let’s be honest, this is so very true. In my experience this attachment isn’t all that principled or theological Not that you can’t make a theological case for our tradition (like any style of worship), it’s just that most parishioner don’t think this way. In truth, it functions as a symbol for a bygone day when “things were the way they’re supposed to be”. My overwhelming experience has been that that average parishioner gives much more mental attention and emotional energy to worship style than those outside the church or new to the Christian faith.

    Over the years I’ve seen far more passionate discussions generated by the Book of Order and the Presbyterian Hymnal than the writings of Lewis, Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Paul combined.

    I heartily agree with another commentator here that our denominational ‘discussion’ has been hijacked by special interest groups. Mostly on the left but some on the right. All it takes is a couple of days at GA to realize how deep, honest and open most of our discussions aren’t. In our conversations we politely dance around those with opposing views, pretending to be “open” to a different conclusion. Not that I think we should be open, however, since much of what I see being bandied about at GA has little real future.

    I’ve been to numerous denominational clergy events and my observation is that a significant percentage of PC(USA) leaders are low-energy, depressed, unhealthy and wouldn’t be taken seriously in most secular leadership roles. Pastoring a church has become a safe vocation in a place that, frankly, doesn’t have very high standards. As one PNC chair of a large congregation commented to me: “I’ve read over 200 PIFs and I’m convinced that the PC(USA) has many, many unemployable pastors. It’s very discouraging for the future of our denomination”

    Also, consider this: if every congregation in our denomination were to clean up its membership rolls by removing those who haven’t attended in, say, two years (a very generous allowance) our ‘membership’ would plummet by 30-50% overnight. We love our membership rolls, but it’s a poor reflection of what’s really happening in our churches. (And ask yourself this question: why don’t most of our member’s children attend a Presbyterian church? This is certainly true in the congregations I’ve been a part of and I’ve heard some say there are studies that strongly corroborate this.)

    Some of you will accuse me of being cynical and selective. That’s fine but you still have to ask why the precipitous decline? (And for the record, I’ve had significant involvement with one congregation that seemed to get it – University Pres in Seattle. They had a profound impact on the University of Washington and surrounding community so I know it’s possible.)

    There’s no reason to believe it will change in the future. And this might not be your church but the great majority of congregations have declined significantly in the past the decades so it begs the question, “why?” I don’t think it’s because we stand for the hard truth of the Gospel and the world just can’t take it. The world has seen us and has said to itself…”if this is what the Gospel’s about, who needs it?”

    • Darrin, Thank you for your response. Apart from your rather unkind salutation, I appreciated the thoughtfulness and honesty of your words. No doubt your experience over these last twenty years spread over eight congregations has convinced you of the truth of what you say. I will not deny that what you say contains a great deal of truth and surely describes a number – perhaps a large number – of the PCUSA congregations and its leaders. However, my experience of an admittedly much smaller number of congregations over twenty-five years in the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament, and further involvement with the church at various levels of its councils, convinces me of a truth that runs counter to yours. Simply stated, I experience this as a church of faithful, deeply committed, deeply flawed, and altogether human beings who are being-saved by nothing more or less than God’s sovereign grace. Further, I experience this denomination as one that does not hide from the deep challenges facing it, but in naming these challenges refuses to fall for what often masquerades as “realism” on a good day, but is usually a thinly-disguised, poisonous cynicism. Again, I appreciate your argument, but I would suggest if you are looking for at least part of what is often wrong with our church you look no further than the very first line of your response to me.

      • What a gracious and well worded response. In my work in Haiti with PC(USA) I have a colleague who comes from a different faith journey. When describing Presbyterians to her, I say we can be a stubborn lot. We argue, and we squabble, but most of the time, at least we stay in the fight. Keep up the good work.

    • Darrin, I agree with most of what you said, but I’m also still hanging on in the PC-USA. First, the ways in which I think you are spot on:

      1. Clinging to the Christendom model. Boy howdy, this is right on the mark! But it isn’t just us–this is pervasive from the liberal side that still clings to the institutional model of church to the conservative side that increasingly wraps itself in the flag. This is a huge problem for Christianity in our country (indeed, to a large extent in the entire Western world), and is not unique to the PC-USA, so even though it is something we might fight in the PC-USA if we remain, it is a fight we will have in any other denomination as well.

      2. Decline due to culture (versus theology). Absolutely! Some of this feeds right off of your first point. It is also largely due to your third point (which I will take up below). If we could get a handle on some of the other issues you bring it, this could be mitigated. But again, this one is also a problem across the board, not just in the PC-USA (and not just in so-called “mainline” churches).

      3. “The way it used to be.” Yes, I think we may have this disease worse than some denominations–but I’m not totally convinced of that, either. You are again spot on that this is a huge congregational killer–and often one where there are a few key people pushing it, holding the rest of the congregation hostage. See more under #6.

      4. Passion for the Book of Order (as opposed to Calvin, Luther, Paul, et al). Absolutely! I’d go a step further and say that BOO and Robert’s Rules too often trump Scripture. Again, I believe this relates back to #6 below.

      5. Special interests. Well, of course. Again, not unique to the PC-USA, though–I came in from the UMC, and found PC-USA, relatively speaking, to be a breath of fresh air. Not the way it should be, mind you–just better than where I had been.

      6. Lack of clergy energy. Bingo! I think this is your jackpot statement. Even such things as reliance on the lectionary are symptomatic of this–don’t have to search the Scriptures, just dial up the list and go preach… I’ve had opportunity of late (as I transitioned a small church back to a lay pastor) to attend several other PC-USA churches–and for a start, the preaching is mediocre at best…not anything that would inspire me to come back if I were spiritually hungry. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Your first and second points tie right back to clergy’s failure to teach–no matter how much we cherish the model of strong elders and everyone being ministers, the clergy still set the tone. Per #1, and #3, we are in a state of cultural flux that happens every 500 years or so–and have been since the 1960s. It is up to the clergy to educate congregations to this, and to LEAD. Same thing for #2–this is a lack of clergy leadership as well, in my experience. #3 in particular is a leadership issue in that it is usually driven by a small vocal minority (often even a vocal individual) who holds the congregation hostage. Good leaders can empower others to become a voice of change–and yes, sometimes those “way-it-used–to-be” people will leave the church over it–but part of leadership is empowering others to realize that that’s perfectly ok! In fact, it is like cutting out a tumor. The last church I served had two people who needed to leave. Once that happened, the spiritual health of the congregation soared! #4 is also related to lack of clergy energy–and to a failure by clergy to tie the session table to the Communion table. They are both the Lord’s Tables–and Scripture is the primary Book at both. BOO and Roberts Rules are just minor guidelines when you can’t develop a game plan for the details. Once you get that order of primacy of books straightened out the rest will come–but again, this is a clergy/leadership issue!

      We also need to keep in mind that we can only empower one congregation at a time, from the bottom up. One reason why I remain in the PC-USA is because it retains some connectionalism that is useful while still vesting power in the local session. It is only on the local level that we can correct these problems–the solution does not come from the top down. I’ve seen it happen in specific congregations in the PC-USA–and if we would focus primarily on #6 above, I believe it could happen in a lot more.

      • Thanks, Heidi, for the time you put into writing this. While I want to believe things can be changed at the level of the congregation and/or larger denomination, I’m not optimistic. (Even this polity wonks in Louisville give us something like 18-20 years before we’re insolvent.) That said, God is always up to something within the lives of specific individuals, which is how I think of ministry these days. I’m not going to try and move the immovable, but look for where God is moving already.

      • Darrin, I suspect that is what God has in mind for us all along. Jesus worked with individuals–those He called, those He healed, those He broke bread with… He wasn’t concerned about changing the synagogues–He was concerned with changing people one by one.

        My father was a UMC pastor–and he realized early in his ministry that the UMC as an entity was far more hindrance than help. Still, he touched thousands of lives, and people he touched went on to touch others in Christ’s name. I’ve touched a handful, and have helped one small PC-USA congregation to lift itself at least somewhat above most of those things you mentioned–and if I never accomplish more than that in Christ’s name, I will still feel that He has used me where He wanted me to be used.

        At least in the PC-USA, once a pastor has the opportunity to work with a congregation, there isn’t near the interference from bishops and district superintendents that one struggles with in the UMC–or their equivalents in other churches with an episcopal form of polity. In a presbyterian form of polity, at least there is an opportunity for the best of both connectionalism and congregationalism. What a given congregation does with it, on the other hand, varies tremendously, and in my experience, one of the biggest determiners is whether the pastor is cognizant of the issues you named, and takes steps to educate his or her congregation about them. I see the PC-USA as one of the least detrimental of the mainline settings in which to attempt to do that.

    • Darrin,

      I am a little late to this conversation – and perhaps everyone has checked out here – but would like to point out a few things. You present a good argument and I agree with some of what you are saying, but I do not understand your comment about this being a “safe vocation.” I regularly preach things that people do not want to hear. I regularly challenge the church to essentially change or die (for some of the same reasons that you are pointing out). I might very well be the last pastor of this particular church- half of our membership is 65 or older and as we know, the levels of attendance and giving in younger generations is “less” to say the least. I am not looking for a pat on the back here, but come on, man! Truth be told, I am not sure that there is a “safe vocation” of any kind these days. We are entering a time when more and more mainline (and perhaps all) churches will have bi-vocational pastors. I am 40 years old and wonder what else I could do- Pharmaceutical sales? School teacher?
      I am also a little suspect about your comment regarding membership rolls. Are churches willing to pay extra per capita so that they will be able to advertise a larger number of members? Maybe but not here. I have no desire to give that false impression to our members or visitors. I would also prefer to give more mission money to the Presbytery than membership money.
      I could also make the argument the church has historically been “hijacked by special interest groups.” You could begin with the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
      But big picture- is the PC(USA) heading in the same direction as Blockbuster Video, Pan-Am, and Montgomery Ward? Maybe. Maybe even likely. But we are not alone- look to any organization that depends upon membership and you will see the same things, whether it is NPR, the Symphony, Rotary, or even the NRA. As for the church, we will be okay- because much more then tradition or denomination, we belong to the life and resurrection of the body of Christ.

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  14. I have to say the idea that Presbyterians are not inherently narrow minded is foolish. I agree that there is an illusion of intellectualism, but just think of the Puritans, the Covenanters, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the many intelligent design wackos, Frances Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, DJ Kennedy and all the fanatics that revise history and actually claim, for example, that the United States government’s structure is patterned after Presbyterian polity. Of course, the PCUSA is not like that, but only because it no longer knows what it believes and TULIP is downright embarrassing.

    • Jon,

      Thanks for your post. I think, however, that your reading of Presbyterian history is somewhat limited. The early history is much more diverse and nuanced than you seem ready to admit. The PCUSA stands in a rather wide historical stream that certainly includes some of the names you mention, but also many others you fail to name. That the modern-day PCUSA does not resemble the voices you name is not a sign of us not knowing what we believe, but rather a sign that we interpret the wider tradition differently.

  15. I smile at the comment that if PC(USA) churches cleaned up their rolls our membership would plummet. Do people think we can afford to pay per capita on people who aren’t there? I know of few churches, at least of the neighborhood variety, that could afford to do this.

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