The Death of Denominations?

Actions by recent General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are beginning to force many of our members to consider a choice between God and our denomination. We are not alone. Other denominations are doing the same. If denominations continue to force their members to choose between their deeply committed personal religious beliefs and their denominational affiliation, the denominations will lose.

Looking back from the future, our spiritual descendants may well decide that imposing this choice upon individual Christians caused the death of denominations (at least, as they were known in the 20th century).

The congregation I serve is typical of many growing congregations in our denomination. Our pews are filled with women and men who did not grow up in the Presbyterian denomination. Indeed, many of them didn’t grow up in the church at all. Our members feel great devotion to the mustard seeds of faith they are growing in spiritual fields like Western church. As a pastor, it is thrilling to watch these enthusiastic newcomers come into their own as Christians.

These newcomers to Presbyterianism are more interested in the questions God places before them than the historic answers contained in documents like The Westminster Confession. They read Scripture with eyes which are not distorted by some of the historical interpretations prior generations learned as children. Instead, they are doing what Luther and Calvin exhorted people to do: they seek to understand Scripture under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and within the context of a community of faith.

It is my experience that newcomers to Presbyterianism value our basic belief system. They treasure the emphasis we place on interpretation of Scripture by individuals. They cherish our democratic form of government. They like the way we have historically engaged the major political, economic and social issues of the day. However, we should not confuse an appreciation of Presbyterianism with the rock-solid commitment to the revelation of God’s will these newcomers have discovered in Jesus Christ.

Studying the life and ministry of Jesus, Western’s members unanimously have come to believe that gay and lesbian individuals should be ordained officers and ministers in the church. Some have asked me, “If ministers can pray over a barn, political convention, football game or family pet, why can’t they do something as crucial as blessing the committed, monogamous love between homosexual or heterosexual individuals?” Our members base their concerns about our denomination’s policies by what they read in Scripture, what they see in Jesus.

If our new and some not-so-new church members are forced to choose between their strong Christian commitments and the polity of the Presbyterian denomination, I have no doubt what will happen. They will leave our church and find a congregation whose polity does not clash with their now indispensable faith. Some will leave loudly. Most will leave quietly. Either way, at some future General Assembly, all will be recorded as members lost.

In August, I was talking to the pastor of an urban church in the West. His congregation has doubled in size over the past six years. Like our congregation, most of their new members have no historic ties to Presbyterianism. He expressed relief that many of his folks hadn’t yet learned about the General Assembly action on blessing gay/lesbian relationship. When they do, he said, he will have a difficult time retaining them as members. The members will feel compelled to choose between their faith and their denomination. Why are we forcing this choice on our new members?

In some ways, we have taught our new members too well. We have taught them to become students of Scripture. We have taught them to trust their own theological eyes and ears. We have taught them to do what Jesus would do. We have taught them that “God alone is ruler of the conscience.” The independence of these new members is not a sign of individualism run amuck in the Presbyterian Church. It is a sign of the captivating, redeeming power of the Word of God as it operates in and upon fresh, open hearts and minds.

I am sure some people will say, “Well, these newcomers never really understood what it means to be a Presbyterian. They just weren’t cut out to be Presbyterians.” There are Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians expressing similar sentiments about individuals leaving their denominations. An attachment to the dying, dead ways of the past is a very ecumenical phenomenon. Sadly, this fixation on “our way or no way” may well lead to the death of denominations as it drives our new members to become new members of other churches.

I have a deep love for our denomination. I am the fourth consecutive generation of my family to devote my life to ordained Presbyterian ministry. Nonetheless, I will never, ever tell a believer to stay in this denomination if she or he feels that our polity compromises or squashes the convictions of his or her faith. I will tell them what the church has always preached, “We must do what we believe God wills us to do, what Jesus would do.” I am certain that they will do so.

As we vote on GA overtures, through which a shrinking majority seeks to control the behavior of a steadily growing minority in our denomination, I pray that we understand what we are doing. Denominations are not ordained by God. The Church is. Our new members do not put their faith in the Book of Order. They put their faith rightly in the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. As we move forward, may we consider these very crucial distinctions.


JOHN W. WIMBERLY JR. is pastor, Western church,
Washington, D.C.