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The trouble with “the National Church”

Barry Ensign-George, who oversees the Office of Theology & Worship in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, wants to disentangle "Presbyterian" and "U.S.A.".

I hear it again and again, written and spoken by others, by myself – “the national church.” Meaning the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a denomination, and its denomination-wide ministries. When we talk about work being done at the denominational level we regularly think and speak of that work in terms set by the boundaries and realities of the United States of America. “The national church”: this way of thinking and naming who and what we are as a denomination has come to trouble me. I want to persuade you that it should trouble you, too.

“The national church” is troubling on at least three fronts: first, our self-image; second, the relationship it sets up between denominational agencies and congregations/councils of the denomination; and third, it raises the question of where our most basic commitment lies – which comes first among our commitments: (Presbyterian) Church – or – (U.S.A.)?

“The national church”: this way of thinking and naming … has come to trouble me.

Our self-image

You’ve probably heard it too: “Did you know … that the government of the United States is modeled on the Presbyterian pattern for organizing the church?” On the face of it, it’s a factual statement. There is a resemblance between the United States’ political structure and the Presbyterian church’s polity. Presbyterians organize decision-making bodies rather than appointing individual persons to make decisions. These decision-making bodies are linked from local congregations (led by sessions) through regional gatherings (Presbyteries and Synods) to a denomination-wide governing body (the General Assembly). So too the government of the United States of America organizes people by decision-making bodies from city councils to state government to the federal government and its three branches.

But we’re doing something more than identifying resemblances when we make this assertion. It alleges a deep connection between the United States of America and the Presbyterian church. It stakes a claim: we provided the template for the nation.

The connections between the United States and the Presbyterian church are old and deep. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian pastor, was the only clergyperson to sign the Declaration of Independence. Other examples of Presbyterian influence are abundant. For example, Presbyterians have long been over-represented in Congress with the percentage of U.S. representatives and senators who are Presbyterian being greater than the percentage of Presbyterians in the population of the U.S.A. Historically, Presbyterians have also been overrepresented among Supreme Court Justices, particularly compared to Baptists or Pentecostals, much less declared atheists, or followers of other religions. This over-representation is not a new development. It has been a reality for a long time.

Our denomination’s historic influence within the United States feeds an image of ourselves as people who matter, who deserve to be heard.

Our denomination’s historic influence within the United States feeds an image of ourselves as people who matter, who deserve to be heard. It fans an expectation that we will be listened to by those in power, because it suggests to us that we are people of power. But we are also a denomination that has experienced a half-century of loss — not only of members and congregations but of influence and standing. Some of those losses are specific to the PC(USA), and some are shared broadly across denominations (particularly what are often called the “mainline” denominations – “mainline” being one more way we have told ourselves that we are central, we’re the norm). When we use the phrase, “The national church” we invite a self-image that doesn’t match reality. Who we may once have been obstructs our ability to be who we are.

A wedge

Thinking and speaking of “the national church” drives a wedge between the denominational agencies and the other parts of the denomination. It implies that what happens at the denominational level is distinct, with its own life and characteristics that set it apart.

The words we use attest to this wedge. After all, we don’t refer to regional congregations and councils as “the state church.” We don’t refer to congregations and councils in a county as “the county church.” Our mid-council boundaries freely cross state and county lines. Doing so blocks any tendency to think of ourselves as “the Missouri church,” or “the King County church” (a not entirely random reference for a person who grew up in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle). We do so because state and county lines don’t deeply shape how we think about what it is to be the church. The fact that we speak of the denominational entities, and denomination-wide ministry and life as “the national church” is one indicator of the nation’s hold on our way of thinking about ourselves, our faith, and the church in the world.

The effect of thinking and speaking of ourselves as “the national church” is corrosive for denominational agencies and for congregations and mid-councils. For congregations and mid-councils, it fuels the belief that the PC(USA)’s actions at the denominational level are disconnected from them. This sense of disconnection is expressed in the word “Louisville,” so often said in anger or disdain. For those, like myself, who serve at the denominational level, it tempts us to view our work as apart from and out ahead of the rest of the denomination, going where they will follow.

The truth is that congregations, mid-councils and denominational entities rightly understood are deeply interwoven with one another, profoundly interdependent.

The truth is that congregations, mid-councils and denominational entities rightly understood are deeply interwoven with one another, profoundly interdependent. We need one another to grow fully into what God calls us to be. Part of this reality finds expression in the Book of Order. “The mutual interconnection of the church through its councils is a sign of the unity of the church.” (G-3.0101) It then starts with congregations. “Congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), while possessing all the gifts necessary to be the church, are nonetheless not sufficient in themselves to be the church.”

In other words, congregations are church but are not the fullness of the church: “… they are called to share with others both within and beyond the congregation the task of bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the world.” Though the Book of Order does not say so explicitly, mid-councils, the General Assembly, and the denomination itself are also given by the Holy Spirit the gifts necessary to be church yet they are not sufficient in themselves to be the church. So they are called to share with others the task of bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the world both within and beyond the mid-council, assembly, and the denomination.

Our primary commitment: Church – or – USA?

Underlying and nurturing the false self-image and the wedge is the basic question of where our denomination’s primary commitment lies. This is an acute problem for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Our very name identifies us in terms set by the nation. We define ourselves by the borders of this nation-state. Speaking of denomination-wide ministry as the work of “the national church” sews confusion about our loyalties, about how we understand ourselves. What comes first? What is most basic and primary – Presbyterian Church or (U.S.A.)?

In her essay “Presbyterianism and Denomination,” theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw has identified “two cardinal sins” of denominations in general and Presbyterian denominations specifically: “nationalist idolatry and divisiveness.” Pauw notes: “The fact that the phenomenon denomination has typically restricted itself to a national identity in its very self-definition must be seen as an enormous weakness.” “Presbyterians,” Pauw observes, “have been prominent offenders” in the tendency “to merge national identity and Christian identity.”

Increasingly, political commitments determine religious commitments and identification. Our culture pressures the church to pick sides.

It is telling that Pauw links nationalist idolatry and divisiveness as persistent Presbyterian sins. We live in a time of deep, pervasive political divisiveness. It was once a basic conviction of sociologists that religion shapes political commitments. Recent scholarship has identified the ways that the pattern has reversed. Increasingly, political commitments determine religious commitments and identification. Our culture pressures the church to pick sides. It drives us to identify ourselves with one or another of the visions of the United States, with “conservative” and “progressive” serving as the brief description of the available options. The pressure to choose sides brings with it the temptation to use faith commitments, the church, as a tool to undergird our chosen option.

What is more basic, our political commitments or faith in Jesus Christ?

What shall we say?

If “the national church” is problematic, what can we say when we talk about that thing we are talking about when we say those words?

Once we begin to hear “the national church” as troubling, alternatives are at hand. There is “denomination,” which readily becomes “denominational.” There is “denomination-wide.” Or “at the denominational level.”

Disentangling Presbyterian and United States of America, even a bit, even if initially in our speech, might help us reckon with the long history of Presbyterian entanglement with this nation.

God’s church exists across national borders and will survive the disentangling process.

There is no escaping our Presbyterian entanglement with this nation. One strand of that entanglement is laid out in detail by church historian William Yoo in his book What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church. We have indeed been in places of power. Our misuse of that power, our entanglement with our nation’s sins is real. Changing our denomination’s name (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?) would not clear us of that entanglement. Changing how we talk about what we have called “the national church” could open a space between PC and (U.S.A.) big enough to allow us to see a history of entanglement and find better ways forward. God’s church exists across national borders and will survive the disentangling process. Our reckoning with that entanglement could bring greater clarity about what is basic and primary as we live as citizens of the realm of God while also living in the United States of America.


The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here

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