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How Connected Must a Presbyterian Church Be?

Two things define us as Presbyterians, beyond the fact that we are a church governed by elders, gathered in an ascending series of governing bodies: we are a confessional (or at least aspire to be!) church and a connectional church.

Two weeks ago this column was devoted to discussing the perplexities of being a confessional church in a time of widespread biblical and theological illiteracy.

The suggested course was a massive churchwide investment in education from congregation to seminary at the same time that we try to defend the faith of the church under very difficult circumstances.

This week the question is: How connected does a Presbyterian Church need to be in order to be true to its way of being the church? We’re speaking of the polity issues.

The PC(USA) grew from the ground up, from congregations, to a presbytery, to a synod with presbyteries, to a General Assembly with synods and presbyteries. Which is to say that our own history demonstrates that we are a church oriented to its constituent congregations from whence the entire superstructure has evolved over a period of more than three centuries, and that we have lived and prospered with all manner of governing bodies and structures to support the work of governing bodies.

The polity wars of the last quarter-century have been predicated on the existence of a corporate structure called a denomination, which has power, and therefore becomes the object of the political efforts of individuals and groups of varying points of view seeking to control it.

What was, however, no longer is, and even what we now have, before our eyes is rapidly disappearing. Congregations are the center of the action; synods which still serve useful purposes in some geographical areas have progressively weakened; and presbyteries have lost much of their strength — defined in terms of money, program, ability to influence ministerial selection in congregations — that they had a generation ago. And the General Assembly is rapidly becoming very consumer oriented as its supply of undesignated funding reaches record lows.

We all know that the money in support of mission increasingly stays home in the congregations and increasingly moves beyond the Presbyterian sphere of activity. Also, there are vast networks of what we would call para-church (alongside of) activities through which Presbyterians and congregations engage in mission.

Increasingly the latter have gained official recognition under the rubric of “validated mission giving.” It is no longer considered to be questionable to give some benevolences to causes outside of Presbyterian channels. Indeed, most churches feel free (as sessions are given constitutional authority to do) to direct their financial resources to any of a wide range of mission opportunities known to them.

With the money goes power, and with the loss of it, loss of power. The change has been dramatic in the last three decades, and now seems to be irreversible.

So what will be the glue that holds the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — a confessional and a connectional church body?

Confessional uniformity has never existed, and now holding the diversity within some limits is exceedingly difficult unless we recover a level of biblical and theological literacy on which a confessional church lives or dies.

Nor will we have the kind of national body any more in which everyone moves in lockstep and which is supported financially, with no (or few) questions asked.

Rather what we seem to be heading toward (if we’re not in reality already there), is a rather loose conglomeration of governing bodies, churches, networks, associations — with all manner of ties with similar bodies in other denominations, not only within, but beyond what is considered the Protestant mainstream.

And yet, political efforts within the denomination continue to be premised on a denomination that no longer exists — one in which there is a HQ that can be captured, and if captured, a new flag raised, and new orders issued and a new regime entrenched.

We must say it as clearly as it can be said: That denomination no longer exists (if it ever did, and if so probably only for a few decades in the middle of the last century). What we have now is vastly different. And thank God, it cannot be taken over. There is nothing to take over. Repeat, nothing to take over.

On the other hand there are enormous residues of financial and human resources waiting to be tapped in the service of Christ’s mission, if all of us wake up to the fact that we live in a new world and that the new day demands a whole new approach to being the church.