My ordination as a pastor in 1983 coincided with the reunion of the northern and southern streams of the Presbyterian Church. Some might say I’m a little worse for wear, but clearly for the new denomination it’s been all downhill from there. During the entire 28 years (so far) of my ministry, the PC(USA) has hemorrhaged, losing over 2 million members. By one estimate, in the last five years the decline has accelerated with the wholesale departure of 500 congregations fed up with the direction of the church.
However, even though my sympathies lie with those who are passionate about living in obedience to Scripture, pursuing holiness and preserving the purity of the church, I am not persuaded that leaving is warranted. I cringe at the rhetoric today that is often prideful, judgmental and fearful, voiced across the theological spectrum by many I consider friends. I long to see in others and myself more evidence of a Christ-like humility, patience, forbearance and love in the body of Christ.
And so, with some fear and trepidation, I humbly submit to the increasing number of congregations now poised on the brink of departure the following rationale for “Why Stay?”
Biblical plea for unity
With thousands of denominations in the world today (one statistic puts it at 38,000), you get the sense that the instruction in Ephesians 4:3 to maintain unity has not been an ecclesiastical forte. Leaving? Everybody’s doing it — and has been doing it for a long time! A congregation may tend to think, “What’s one more?” And, besides, when threatened with what is believed to be unorthodox or even heretical teaching, are we not obligated to separate at any cost?
Along these lines I have been influenced greatly by the church historian Richard Lovelace, and especially urge your reading of Chapter 10 on “unitive evangelicalism” in his “Dynamics of Spiritual Life.” A conservative evangelical devoted to church renewal, Lovelace persuasively argues that the Biblical warrant for schism is slim to none. Even in the classic separatist text, 2 Corinthians 6:14ff, Lovelace argues, “Paul is exhorting Christians to separate from pagan idolatry, not from the church, as Charles Hodge points out.”
Lovelace admits staying together isn’t easy. He knows from personal experience that those who commit to unity and continue to relate to different others will likely suffer from the wearying effects of cognitive dissonance. But this is much preferred over developing a “spiritual pride, leading to the ‘Donatist heresy’ — the [heretical] belief that Christians should separate from others because of their weak faith or imperfect practice.”
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:24-30 about the wheat and weeds makes it clear it’s not so cut and dried, arguing for a greater tolerance of ambiguity and even error and against a too-rigorous separation. That Jesus did not sanction yanking out the diabolical when it mixes in the kingdom cautions against being overly discouraged when opposition to the gospel comes even from within, or having too great expectations for a totally pure body, or promoting a too-exclusivist church.
The critical question is: Are any of us as biblical as we’d like to think we are, or hope to be? The honest truth is, with any of us in it, the church is a mixed bag — always has been, always will be. It is naïve to presume the Presbyterian Church, much less the larger church, has ever been theologically pure and conflict-free. Indeed, it took four centuries alone to nail down Christology. Why are we so done with human sexuality after 30 years?
In a flawed human church (the only kind we’ve got), we must continue the best we can right where we are. To give up on loving the unlovely and unlovable; to write off those we deem weak, needy and disagreeable among us; to refuse to listen, even “to hear the overtones of God’s voice in the words of our adversaries”; and to privilege purity of the church over purity of heart, is to fall far short of the perfection we claim to protect.
To abandon an impure church in order to seek some refuge of peace and purity, some perfect haven (what Bonhoeffer called a “wishdream”) in order to pursue “really effective ministry,” may be no less worthy of repentance than the homosexual practice those who depart oppose. Thank God we have an Equal Opportunity Savior!
Historical results of schism
But (if you are still reading) if the biblical plea for unity does not persuade you to stay, perhaps considering the historical results of schism will.
If one of the biggest evidences of the truth of the gospel is a unified church (in John 17:21 Jesus prayed for us to be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me”), then one of the biggest victims of schism is credible witness to Jesus Christ. When the church splits, our witness to Christ takes the hit.
But the church continues to suffer, too. Again I am leaning heavily on Lovelace here, who, after spending decades combing through centuries of church history, is convinced “that splinter groups remain weakened fragments.” Furthermore, “Ungracious separation” (about the only kind there is) not only “splinters the church, [but also] does not advance missions as some have claimed.”
Simply put, schismatics rarely prosper. When you leave your patch of brown grass for greener pastures, often what you end up with is another patch of brown grass. Sweet-talking schism promises renewed health and vitality, but seldom delivers. More often than not diminished spiritual power and gospel influence results not only for those who are left, but even for those who leave. Before long, as Lovelace puts it, the newly — and briefly! — “purified church inevitably develops again the old leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the result is another partially apostate body with a faithful remnant.” What you have left, you become a part of again.
While it’s true that no schism delivers all that it promises, resulting in permanent and pervasive reformation, it is also true that no denomination is beyond recovering its orthodoxy, and we should be careful of getting “locked into the assumption that apostasy is always terminal.”
Prevailing cultural influence
Finally, please consider that the current practice of wanting to increasingly relate only to like-minded persons is not biblical behavior, but the result of a prevailing cultural influence.
Bill Bishop, in his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” documents how over the last 40 years birds of a social-economic-political and religious feather have been increasingly flocking together. The more we hang out with people who look, think, act and believe like us, well — the more we hang out with people who look, think, act and believe like us. When people marinate almost exclusively with others of like mind, experience and even prejudice, the less cross-fertilization of thoughts and ideas there is, and the more extreme, rigid, antagonistic and polarized people become — including theologically. What we end up with are people who are “allergic to difference of opinion …blind to compromise … and conflict averse.”
But part of what sets the church of Jesus Christ apart is a call to be agents of reconciliation, breaking down barriers and dismantling walls of hostility between disparate groups. Our life together is not diminished by conversation, but enriched. The church is not the big sort; rather, through Christ, it is the big mix, marked by the grace, generosity, friendship and radical hospitality — truly countercultural practices.
That’s why my heart sank, when in response to the recent letter from former GA moderators urging the church to “move forward in unity,” one evangelical pastor wrote, “Sorry, not a chance” and championed a retreat into like-mindedness.
I was equally saddened when a progressive pastor suggested the former GA moderators didn’t need to “beg” conservatives to stay, that we should be careful of making an idol out of unity, remain self-differentiated and just let them go — like it’s no big deal.
I believe both responses are influenced by the prevailing cultural norm of clustering in increasingly like-minded enclaves, a kind of big Presbyterian sort — the answer to which is: We need to get out more! Because it isn’t just former GA moderators pleading for unity, or patience, or gentleness, or humility. It’s Ephesians 4:1-3.
So I urge you to stay … and pray. Pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Pray for the ability to trust Jesus Christ who is the head of the body. Pray for the capacity to speak the truth in love. Pray for courage to listen and understand what the different other is saying. Pray to be on fire with love not only for the likeminded but even your “enemy.” Please stay, and keep working for the peace, unity and purity of the church.
HEIDI HUSTED ARMSTRONG is interim pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, Seattle.