The PC(USA) is now living through one of three formal schisms it has experienced in the past 75 years — those that saw congregations depart for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1930s, the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1960s and 1970s and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the 1980s and again since 2005. Sexuality wars have been the precipitating reason in the current round of departures, but our battles over ordination and marriage are not the only cause.
A decade ago, the “Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church” was delegated to deal with evident unrest in the church around christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power. The 2006 report of the task force was admirable in many respects, yet it failed to settle any of the unrest. Its sections on christology and the Bible were unremarkable, setting forth broad generalities as indications of widespread agreement in the church. Its work on ordination standards focused on the possibility of ordaining gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, and so only led to another round of political battles. And, tellingly, the task force neglected to deal with power at all. Because theological diversity was assumed to be the desirable norm within agreed-upon generalities, the task force report failed to address deeper theological difficulties in the church, including disputes about christology, Scripture, ordination and power.
We Presbyterians are not alone in ecclesial disagreement, discord and division. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and even the Southern Baptist Convention also experience conflict and schism. Lutheran theologian David Yeago describes the ELCA as living in a state of “impaired communion” — diminished, weakened, and damaged ecclesial relationships. “Impaired communion” has also characterized Presbyterian life for decades. We have retained formal structures of communion while emptying them of meaningful connections. We have shed mutual responsibility and mutual accountability for the shape of our faith and life. Amid impaired communion, appeals for unity based on our presumed need for one another have little effect. We haven’t needed one another for a long time. In the midst of impaired communion, appeals for unity on the basis of our presumed need for one another have little effect. We haven’t needed one another for a long time.
And yet we have to acknowledge that the biblical and theological presumption is the unity of the church. Paul’s letters consistently urge unity in the face of all-too-apparent conflict and division. Philippians 2:1-11, with its direct appeal to Christ, is only one instance of the biblical trajectory that both recognizes the reality of discord and urges us to “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:15-18). John Calvin, no stranger to deep disagreements in the church, nonetheless wrote to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, “This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute among us … . So much does this concern me that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross ten seas, if need were, on account of it.” In our own time, Lukas Vischer reminds us that “The reasons that compelled the first generations to struggle for community are still valid today . . . that with his reconciling work in Christ God has laid the foundation for a community in love, and that obedience to God involves giving visible expression to this unity.”
Ecumenism — the search for the visible unity of Christ’s church — is not restricted to relationships among denominations. Perhaps the most pressing ecumenical challenge today is the search for unity within denominations. Reformation era division of the church and the ensuing proliferation of denominations do not provide justification for further splits in any existing denomination. The chief ecumenical task before the PC(USA) now is to pray and study and work for our own visible unity.
At various times in the history of our denomination, different groups of Presbyterians have been alienated from prevailing beliefs and practices in the church. How might those who now are angry or threatened or grieving or dismayed by current realities in the PC(USA) respond to what they view as the church’s departure from norms of faith and life? Some consider following other congregations that have left from the denomination. Yet the witness of Scripture and the history of the whole church (including the Reformation era) confirm that division in the church is a grave matter that should never occur hastily or easily. Although there may be times when withdrawal and separation are inevitable, they can only be a last resort, not a first instinct. Every effort must be made to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not a mere sociological phenomenon, a human construct with no more claim on our loyalty than our current brand of laundry detergent. Even in a voluntaristic church culture, Presbyterian congregations are not local franchises with the option of disaffiliation from the parent company. Furthermore, there is no refuge to be found in a popularized invisible/visible church distinction that rationalizes withdrawal from the actual church by appealing to the “spiritual unity” of all Christians in the invisible church. Platonic notions of an ideal church that no one can see, accompanied by abandonment of the pale shadow of church that we can see, has no place in Scripture. Calvin notes that the New Testament sometimes speaks of “church” as all the elect who are in God’s presence and sometimes as a particular gathering of persons who profess Christ. But he goes on to say, “Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter.” Communion with the actual church, with quite visible people and communities, cannot be dismissed as inconsequential by claiming that alienated, separated and fragmented communities are nonetheless “all one in Christ.”
Differences within the PC(USA) are real, however, and the problem remains. While the imperative to unity comes to actual congregations and ministers, many of them maintain that ecclesiastical unity without unity in faith, hope and love is an empty fiction. It is difficult to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10) in a denomination that celebrates diversity while proliferating rival constituency groups, dueling overtures, constitutional rules and regulations, authoritative interpretations, permanent judicial commission rulings and property disputes.
Unfortunately, the PC(USA) has dealt with divisive matters by reducing complex differences to “two sides of the issue,” voting, producing winners and losers, and deluding itself that “the church has decided.” The church — the whole church — does not resolve deep conflicts by tallying votes (whether in 1997 or 2011). What may work in politics does not work well in the church, where matters of faith and faithfulness are in dispute. And especially when matters of faith and faithfulness are in dispute, the church’s legislative “winners” should not attempt to coerce acquiescence, and “losers” should not forsake those with whom they disagree. The gospel calls us to something other than capitulation or exodus as conditions for unity. Those who think of leaving (as well as those who would be happy enough to see them go), and those who require acquiescence (as well as those who discount the convictions of others), are called to explore together the promise of the gospel.
Given the reality of the church’s politicized life, there are no easy ways forward; the difficult task before us all is to discover ways that estranged elements in the church can live together with integrity. Perhaps we can discover what “the ministry of reconciliation” means within the church, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), among us! The Confession of 1967, built around 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, makes an audacious claim: “The new life takes shape in a community in which people know that God loves and accepts them in spite of what they are. They therefore accept themselves and love others, knowing that no one has any ground on which to stand, except God’s grace” (9.22). This is what the gospel calls all of us to do.
If we have the will to live out an internal ministry of reconciliation, we can begin by developing creative, faithful models of relationship among groups that hold conflicting views concerning the state of the church’s faith and life. Possibilities range from non-geographic presbyteries through theological and missional “orders” to disciplined communities of prayer and study. The whole church must work together to develop patterns of relationship that enable all to live with integrity in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). A churchwide consensus must be forged that will create free spaces for living out diverse theological, ethical and missional convictions. Only when such arrangements are in place can the long-avoided work of honest, sustained conversation about the shape of Christian faith and faithfulness begin.
JOSEPH D. SMALL, recently retired as the GAMC’s director of Theology Worship and Education Ministries, is a church relations consultant for the Presbyterian Foundation.