I have a love / hate relationship with the PC(USA).
For those who don’t know – perhaps those who see or hear an item in the news, a statement by various PC(USA) officials or groups – the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a corporation,” is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. It is not a large denomination; it boasts fewer than two million members. It is not a particularly wealthy organization; as odd as I find the concept, there are, in this world, individuals with more assets than the PC(USA). Throughout the history of the PC(USA) and its predecessors, it has wielded a greater political and social influence than its numbers would suggest. Even in the formation of the U.S. Government, Presbyterians played an active role. Its historical traditions are Christian, Protestant, and Reformed (Calvinist), and it is named for its unique form of governance – by ruling and teaching elders working together.
There are things about the PC(USA) that I love. Many Presbyterians I know are wonderful people – people I genuinely like and admire; but I suppose I could say the same thing for many denominations and religious groups. I am very drawn to and share many traditional Presbyterian beliefs. It is not a one to one correspondence; there are issues where I part company with historic Presbyterianism – where I do not believe it best represents biblical Christianity. Nonetheless, from my point of view the Westminster Confession is unequaled among documents of its type. I have a great respect for the theory of Presbyterian polity – especially in its anti-elitist, non-hierarchical elements, and in the roles that laity, elders, and clergy played.
Additionally, I have found many PC(USA) Presbyterians to be thoughtful; I can fit well in many local Presbyterian churches – partly because the atmosphere they foster is less turbulent than that of many traditions. [Don’t get me wrong: Presbyterians have always fought with one another – sometimes in very petty ways; but there has been a species of deliberation, an avoidance of the pep-rally mentality that is more common elsewhere. I do not mean this to insult other styles – it is just a strong personal preference.]
Finally, I have found among many PC(USA) individuals a strong concern for the well-being of the people around them. I would venture to say that the large majority of PC(USA) Presbyterians I know mean well most of the time. Not everything they do is always effective, or even good – I could say the same about myself – but many times, I think their hearts are in the right place.
If you are familiar with the PC(USA) on a national level, and if you consider the list of things I love about the PC(USA), you can pretty much guess the things I decidedly do not love. In fact, it seems to me that, as an organization – particularly as a national organization – the PC(USA) has been going out of its way to abandon many of the things I valued about it.
In blunt terms, the tenor of the denomination’s theological commitments has changed – from historically Presbyterian, historically Reformed, historically Protestant, and in cases from historically Christian teachings. This is not so much a clear case of abandonment. That would have made things simpler. Instead, it has been a selective embrace of pluralism – not as a description of culture, but as a desired theological state. That way, Presbyterian can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean with little regard to the history of Presbyterian beliefs. Personally, I am suspicious that this is a temporary state only – that pluralism is embraced during the time of transition – until such time as the progressivist stream of the church comes to complete dominance; I rather doubt they will then embrace tolerance of conservative Christian views. That is just my suspicion, of course.
In blunt terms, the anti-elitist, anti-hierarchical elements of Presbyterianism have been traded in for a much more clericalist system. This is a result of many factors – the overdevelopment of an organizational bureaucracy – especially on a national level; the lack of commitment of members and ruling elders to fulfill their roles in theoretical Presbyterian polity; ecumenical trends that have weakened that distinctive; a faulty understanding of the role of clergy – that results in both unreasonable of clergy and unjustifiable positions of power and privilege; a reticence to exercise discipline – when various functionaries have violated the spirit and letter of the Book of Order or General Assembly instructions. Other factors occur to me, but it doesn’t really matter much. Obviously this is the product of a great many years of trends. The bottom line is that the PC(USA) doesn’t really seem operate along the lines of historic Presbyterian polity anymore.
And in blunt terms, the PC(USA) has – perhaps gradually – become obsessed with secular politics. It is notable that this only applies to leftist secular politics; but whether leftist or rightist, I would find this to be at best a misunderstanding of Christianity. Sometimes nakedly political are unavoidable; I get that. I also get that there is nothing inherently wrong with politics. But, dress it up however you like, the vast majority of what is meant by politics – even Presbyterian politics tm – amounts to nothing more than trying to get your way by force, than trying to make people do what you want them to do when your vision has failed to persuade or inspire. I do not find this to be the New Testament mandate of the church.
To each their own. Personally, I’d probably not object if people did not so strongly conflate the concepts of morality and Christianity with their preferred political ideologies. This one thing causes me to recoil because it is the opposite of the truth. And I find it difficult not to point that fact out. It is a kind of “The king has got no clothes” moment.
Over the years, I have struggled with how best to respond to PC(USA) doings. I’ve heard all kinds of arguments, rationales, rationalizations. I’ve tried any number of them myself. But they’ve mostly missed the mark. The fact is, for reasons I don’t clearly understand, I feel compelled to speak when I see the PC(USA) threatening to do active harm in the world. That has been the case with many of its statements and actions that concern Israel and the Jewish people. I also feel compelled to speak when I see them threatening to go off the rails generally. I would dearly love to see the PC(USA) do neither of these things. I harbor no illusions that speaking out will benefit (PC(USA)) Presbyterians in any way. Yet in spite of my innate skepticism, I find myself wishing that it could.