Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Beaver-Butler Presbytery voted down the Open Theological Declaration at its November 17th meeting in Aliquippa, Beaver County, PA and referred it to a special task force empowered to look at the issues the Declaration confronts.
Incoming presbytery moderator, the Rev. Connie Dunn was charged by the body last night with appointing members to this new task force and with instructing it to conduct its work so that it may present a report to the whole presbytery at its March 2009 meeting.
The 55-47 (I believe, but may be wrong on the actual vote) to refer the Declaration to the new task force came after nearly an hour of highly spirited debate.
Principle objections raised during the debate centered largely around the Declaration's statements about the nature of Christians' shared beliefs with Jews and Muslims about the nature of our understandings of who God is and what constitutes either valid or invalid promotion of joint worship.
Not a few minister-presbyters raised questions about participation in and conduct of mixed-religious wedding services with Jews. They also raised questions indirectly (or obliquely) about whether or not this Declaration calls into question Christian understandings of the historical precedence of the Jews' status as God's chosen people and whether or not the document calls into question the validity of the Old Testament scriptures.
Where We Go from Here
Those of us who are appointed to serve on the newly created task force will do so. We truly have no choice at this point.
We have invested ourselves, our beliefs and consciences into this debate--seeing it as a fight over matters that truly rise to the level of covenanted orthodoxy. We will continue to stand where we must.
In the mean time, a dozen individual sessions, their collected elders, their pastors have officially signed this document and stand behind it. Our call to other sessions and presbyteries to consider this or some very close parallel statement have lost none of their passion and immediacy. We need to take decisive steps and make a bold, clear but loving stand in the face of what we see as serious steps away from the gospel handed down once-for-all to the saints.
We may not back down. And we are committed to this fight at the judicatory level. This is a church fight that must be appropriately and correctly waged within the courts of the church. Certainly affinity groups and related reform organizations are welcomed and encouraged to share this fight with us, but ultimately, the fight must be waged from the lowest recognizable regional courts to the highest.
Again, our Defender is strong and we are called to stand in place.
Please continue to pray for us and to check in with us regularly regarding updates or questions. We may be contacted via this blog or by e-mail. My e-mail is email@example.com and Pat McElroy's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
Grace & Peace,
+Rusty Stuart & Pat McElroy
Monday, November 17, 2008
Relevant Excerpt from
Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord
by Donald G. Bloesch
© 1997; IVP; Downers Grove, IL
LCC #: BT202.B49
From Chapter 10: “The Finality of Christ” — Pgs. 243 - 249
An Emerging Confessional Situation
Theologians of various persuasions are beginning to speak of a new confessional situation, a status confessionis, as the church finds itself engulfed in a crisis concerning the integrity of its message and the validity of its language. The many attempts today to resymbolize God and to reconceive Christ are signs that people of faith may be called again to battle for the truth, to engage in a new Kirchenkampf (Church struggle).
The problem of theological authority has become especially acute, since it would seem that cultural experience is supplanting the biblical witness as the ruling criterion for faith and practice. An emerging neognosticism locates truth in the alteration of consciousness rather than in the an event in sacred history. The philosopher Schopenhauer, a favorite of New Agers, has declared that we are justified neither by faith nor by works but by knowledge. Tillich’s contention that self-discovery is God-discovery betrays a gnostic mentality. When Carl Jung asserts “I do not believe, I know,” he is placing his trust in intuitive knowledge over historical revelation.
In feminist circles there is a call for a new canon and a Third Testament that would drastically alter the foundations of the faith. Rosemary Ruether pleads for augmenting the canon with writings that manifest a sensitivity to the concerns of women and other oppressed peoples. She recommends including tracts drawn from goddess religions, Gnosticism and marginal Christian traditions often deemed heretical.
The new mood in the culture was strikingly anticipated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, on of the mentors of the new spirituality: “Man is weak to the extent that he looks outside himself for help. It is only as he throws himself unhesitatingly upon the God within himself that he learns his own power and works miracles.” The motto of the New Age is struggle, growth and freedom as opposed to the biblical motto: faith repentance and service.
The loss of transcendence is especially disconcerting when we consider the theological options today. There seems to be a confluence of various theological movements (liberationist, feminist, neomystical, process) toward a religion of radical immanence in which human experience and imagination preempt biblical revelation as the measuring rod for truth.
That real heresy is now a problem in the Church is attested by the frequent attempts to downgrade the Old Testament. Johann Semler, one of the first German theologians to apply the historical-critical method to the study of Scripture, described the Old Testament as “a collection of crude Jewish prejudices diametrically opposed to Christianity.” Complaining that the Old Testament promotes a legalistic type of thought, Schleiermacher recommended that it be ranked as a mere appendage to the New Testament. Radical feminists see the Old Testament as incurably patriarchal and the Sky Father, the supposed god of the Old Testament, as an obstacle to women’s liberation. Existentialist and process theologians view large parts of the Bible as mythological and have assigned themselves the task of translating what they consider basically poetry into a modern ontology. There is some sentiment in liberationist circles to deemphasize the Jewish matrix of Scripture out of a commitment to the rights of Palestinians.
What is ominous is that the new theologies, which are for the most part aligned with ideological movements, are seeking to revamp the worship practices of the church, notably through the production of radically altered prayer books and hymnals. Father language for God is being drastically curtailed and new symbols for God are being offered: the infinite depth and ground of all being, the creative process, the Womb of Being, the Primal Matrix, the pool of unlimited power, the New Being, the power of being, the Eternal Now, and so on. Try praying t one of these!
In November 1989 the Anglican Church in New Zealand introduced a prayer book that not only eliminated allegedly sexist language but dropped most references to Zion and Israel. It was explained that a prayer manual was needed to offer texts more relevant to the Maoris and South Pacific Islanders. Wendy Ross, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, protested: “The only precedent for this was the German church during the Nazi era that wanted to de-judaize the Scriptures. We don’t have copyright because [the Psalms] are too old, but it is our ancient and sacred literature and we don’t like having it distorted. . . . We regard the removal of the words Zion and Israel in most cases as profoundly anti-Jewish”
Such activities should remind us of the close parallels between the religious situation today and the situation of the church in Germany in the later 1920s and 1930s. The so-called represented that segment within the German church that sought to accommodate to the rising ideology of National Socialism. Hitler was hailed as a new Messiah, and the election that brought the Nazis to power was celebrated as an act of God. The German Christian were especially intent on combating the idea that revelation was limited to biblical times: it continues, they said, throughout human history — in every culture and race. The religious institutions of the German people were deemed equal (if not superior) in authority of the Bible. Scripture was reinterpreted through the lens of the Volkgeist (the spirit of the Germanic people). A concerted attempt was made to purge the Bible of Judaic expressions like “Zion” and “Hallelujah.” They preferred to speak of the people of God rather than of the people of Israel. Interestingly, in some radical circles God was conceived of androgynously and referred to as Father-Mother.
The German Christians enlisted in their support some of the leading theologians and biblical scholars, among them Gerhard Kittel, the erudite New Testament scholar; Emanuel Hirsch, a Kierkegaard scholar; and Paul Althaus, a renowned Luther scholar. Others beguiled at least for a time by the new ideology were Friedrich Gogarten, a former student of Troetsch; Rudolf Otto, well-known historian of religion; Werner Elert; Otto Weber; and Heinrich Bornkamm. The respected Catholic theologian Karl Adam, who later broke decisively with the Nazis, gave this tribute to Hitler at the time of his meteoric rise to power: “Now he stands before us as the one for whom the voices of our poets and sages called, as the liberator of the German genius, who took the blindfold from our eyes and — through all the political, economic, social and confessional veils — let us see and love the one essential: our unity of blood, our German self, the homo Germanus.”
It was against the German Christian compromise that the Confessing Church movement emerged with its vigorous attack on natural theology and its bold reaffirmation of the uniqueness of the revelation of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. In the words of the Barmen Declaration, drawn up primarily by Barth:
Jesus Christ, as He is testified to us in the Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we are to hear, whom we are to trust and obey in life and in death. We repudiate the false teaching that the powers, images and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God, as a source of her preaching.
This statement does not rule out the possibility that God may communicate his light and truth in various ways, but it does insist that the church is bound in its proclamation to the definitive and incomparable revelation given in Jesus Christ. In the fourth article the church is urged to take care not to accommodate its message to prevailing ideological and political winds.
As in prewar Germany, there is currently in the nations of the West a resurgence of interest in the occult, a growing openness to Eastern religions and the rise of a naturistic mysticism. Pluralism is celebrated as something good in its own right; the destructive or demonic side of religion is conveniently overlooked. An inclusivistic mentality regards with disdain any appeal to a particular revelation or an absolutist claim to religious truth. The mst we can achieve is a “relative absoluteness” in which our religious way becomes only one among others, though through dialogue we can gain some further intimation of the infinite mystery that hovers over all religions.
The god of pluralism and inclusivism can be a jealous god; whatever does not fit into a pluralistic or globalistic agenda is condemned as backward and provincial. Theological semanaries in the mainline churches today are remarkably open to including Buddhists and Hindus on their staff but are conspicuously reluctant to invite scholars identified with either the old Catholicism or the evangelical side of Protestantism.
The battle today is between the historical Christian faith with its confession of the reality of a supernatural God and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the new spirituality, which embraces most of the recent theological and religious movements. It is the difference between a biblical monotheism and a naturalistic panentheism, between a catholic evangelicalism and a neomysticism and neognosticism. One side defends both the particularity of divine revelations and the universality of its claims and mission; the other champions an inclusivistic or global vision.
Class conflict is also an important factor in this growing cleavage. Those who constitute the so-called new class — upwardly mobile professionals, teachers and social workers — are open to an inclusivistic and relativistic worldview, for it lends moral sanction to their growing affluence. On the other hand, those identified with the older business and farming interests are more likely to defend traditional moral values and religious claims. The New Age movement could aptly be called a royal theology, for it justifies the privileged status of the upper middle and upper classes by its doctrine of karma, in which social status is determined by merits or demerits accumulated in previous states of existence. Shirley MacLaine, one of the gurus of this movement, argues that “if you’re poor or unemployed — you have only yourself to blame. You have victimized yourself by not living up to your potential.” The key to changing society, they say, lies in a transformation of consciousness.
Against this view biblical Christianity insists that the key to changing the world is the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The world can be changed because it already has been changed through the miraculous intervention of the living God into human history. The powers of darkness have already been defeated, and therefore the future of the human race is not bleak but filled with hope and promise.
A truly just society is dependent not on experiments in social engineering, not on the cultivation of a global consciousness, not on an amalgamation of the world religions, but on a universal acknowledgment of the reality of the holy and living God of the Scriptures and acceptance of the message that he has acted decisively and irrevocably for the salvation of the human race through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hope of humanity rests on the kingdom of God, which is now at work in our midst, and on its consummation through the coming again of Jesus Christ in power and glory when his universal lordship will be assured to all who repent and believe.
In its witness, the church should not press for a return to a monolithic society in which church and state work together to ensure a Christian civilization, for such an undertaking would only draw the church away from its redemptive message and blur the lines between the church and the world. Neither should the church withdraw from society and cultivate little bastions of righteousness that strive to preserve the ethical and religious values handed down from the past. Instead, the church should witnes to the truth of the gospel in the very midst of society in the hope and expectation that this truth will work as the leaven that turns society toward a higher degree of justice and freedom. The church cannot build the kingdom of righteousness, but it can serve this kingdom by reminding the world that there is a transcendent order that stands in judgment over every worldly achievement and that the proper attitude of leaders of nations is one of humility before a holy God and caring concern for the disinherited and the oppressed.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Here is a brief update on recent developments on the cusp of our Presbytery vote.
- We have eleven Sessions from Beaver Butler Presbytery who have endorsed the Declaration.
- We have ten minister members of Beaver-Butler Presbytery who have endorsed the Declaration.
- We have had several meetings with various evangelical groups within the Presbytery and are confident that the Declaration will pass on the floor but not without significant debate and some serious dissension.
- We have received phone calls and e-mails from Churches in Coastal Carolina Presbytery, San Diego Presbytery, Presbytery of Atlanta, Shenango Presbytery and West Virginia Presbytery who are interested in potentially getting this document to the floor of their own Presbyteries. The First Presbyterian Church of Nitro, WV, along with one of their elders and their Pastor, have endorsed the Declaration and intend to present it to West Virginia Presbytery just as we have presented it to Beaver Butler in order to make it a Presbytery Declaration rather than just the Declaration of one congregation. Our prayers and support are with you Nitro!
Some interesting developments have taken place over the last few weeks throughout our denomination concerning the issues our document raises.
- San Diego Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own asking for the re-convening of the 218th General Assembly to reverse its decisions. We appear to share the same concerns.
- San Joaquin Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own outlining their intention to study the issues and write a more thorough response while still expressing their grave concerns over the 218th GA. We appear to share the same concerns.
- Central Washington Presbytery has made a Declaration of their own outlining their intention to study a possible departure from the PC USA as a Presbytery because of the actions of the 218th GA. We appear to share the same concerns.
- While all this has been progressing, the Covenant Network has held their annual conference and marshaled their plans and legal muscle to move their agenda forward under the auspices of the decisions of the 218th GA. They have also expressed their clear intent to never quit this fight until they get what they want.
Where do we go from here?
We obviously have a fair bit of affinity among us concerning the issues pressing us. We appear to have several Presbyteries who are prepared to take similar steps to address those concerns. It would seem providential and prodigious for us to combine our efforts as one. We are game for an e-meeting with representatives from interested Sessions, Presbyteries, and even Synods, should they be so led, to discuss what we might do as a corporate, univocal statement and/or plan. We will begin promoting a time for a get together in cyberspace after our Presbytery meeting.
Pat and Rusty
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Pat and Rusty
115 East Grandview Ave.
on the northeast corner of Rte. 19 and Rte. 68 (Main Street and Grandview Ave) in Zelienople
it's the red brick Church next to the gazebo
Thursday, October 16, 2008
An analysis of concerns and the practical outworkings of Advisory Opinion #22
During the past few weeks Rusty and I have been receiving and fielding a number of comments and concerns via e-mail and face to face conversations, mostly with members of Beaver-Butler Presbytery but also with voices around the broader PC USA denomination. We have received more questions. Some of them are repeats that we have addressed in this blog before. We have found that the Spirit is generating more refined answers to these questions and that the questions are evolving, as is the case with any good argument. This post is an attempt to address those old and new questions with sharper responses. We would like to thank all of those who responded because all of these responses aided in the development of our own understanding and further convinced us of the urgency for this declaration in this time in the life of our denomination.
The feedback we have received has been extensive. There is a broad group of people who understand what the declaration is all about and agree not only with its principles but also with its particulars. For that we rejoice. We have also received criticism (some of it constructive and some of it frothing with resentment but all of it helpful) from those on the left, those on the right, and even those in the middle (however that spectrum might be determined). Generally, concerns have fallen into three kinds of broad categories. Some of our conservative friends, with whom we share profound theological common ground, have accused us of being too nice or even cowardly. They say that the declaration has no teeth and that it should advocate for the departure of the whole Presbytery from the PC USA. Some of our institutionalist friends, who tend toward preservation of the institution at all costs, have accused us of hubris and of not being nice enough. They say we have created a mountain out of a molehill. Some of our friends on the left (and yes we do have friends on that end of the spectrum) have accused us of being knee-jerk crybabies who, after having won so many battles at GA or in Presbytery votes, are now ready to take our ball and go home after we lose one. In effect, they tell us that we were just getting interesting and are wondering why it is that we wish to react, in their estimation, with such a drastic measure.
In order to answer all of these concerns, we believe it is best to return to a basic understanding of what the GA did, what it did not do, and what we can expect as a result of their rulings. We believe the declaration answers these questions in its present form if one reads it in detail but obviously people are concerned on certain points so they bear further clarification/elaboration. This will require us to revisit some previous questions on this blog.
What is Status Confessionis?
A previous posting referenced an article on WRAC’s website concerning the definition of the term. It gives the historical background of the term and how it applies today. As we understand it, Status Confessionis is a simple declaration that the errant upper governing body, in this case the 218th GA, has left the Church constitutionally, confessionally, and biblically and, because of their profound errors, we will not go along nor can we be compelled to unless and until the upper governing reverses its folly and comes back to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. So far as we are aware, it is the only form of ecclesiastical protest that has any confessional and historic warrant within the Reformed tradition. This approach separates itself strategically from individual congregations seeking dismissal because of its corporate nature and separates itself from those on the left who advocate individual defiance of biblical and confessional provisions in the Constitution. We see its theological foundations lined out in the Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession. In fact, it is exactly the stand that our Reformed predecessors took in the face of the corruption in the Church of their day. We are compelled to do no less now.
Might this strategy invite disciplinary proceedings? It is possible. It certainly meant that for our Reformed predecessors. It may mean that for us. We are prepared to accept it if it comes. If it does not, we are prepared to hold fast to our confession and continue to confront the Church with her folly above and beyond this declaration. We view this as a first step. There can be no repentance without first recognition of sin. We hope that this will draw our denominational folly into the light and force us to deal with it post haste.
However, we are far from naïve. Repentance has never been our strong suit since the outset of the reunion in 1981 and arguably much further back than that. We have become experts at ignoring our sin, covering it over in legalese, and then holding our hands over our ears like the three year old who keeps repeating, “LALALALALA… I’m not listening!” as their parents attempt to get their attention. In fact, we expect the denominational hierarchy to ignore us as long as possible. We suspect this is why they have neither said nor done nothing yet. As of now we are nothing more than a few congregations petitioning our Presbytery to take a bold stand together. We will see what will happen if the Presbytery chooses to do so.
What did Advisory Opinion #22 really say?
For those who would like a full transcript of the AO, here it is: http://www.pcusa.org/constitutionalservices/ad-op/note22.htm. The opinion is a summary of the actions of the 218th. It is an accurate summary. We take the Stated Clerk and his staff at their word in this report.
Why talk about this subject in the first place? Since some of our critics have accused us of sloppy interpretation of the actions of the 218th, we enter this opinion as exhibit A of our accuracy which has been further confirmed by the denominational news services, commissioners from the Assembly, and subsequent interpretations from both renewal groups and those groups advocating liberal theological practice. We assert that our interpretation is based upon the very words of the Assembly itself, its spoken intentions, and the products of the Stated Clerk’s office since the GA which has only been confirmed by these other sources.
Grayde Parsons and his staff state clearly, just as we do, that the GA approved an overture to remove G-6.0106b from the BOO in its present form and replace it with revised language that has no reference to sexual practices as an ordination standard. The report sums up the net effect of this action in this way under Roman numeral I:
Until a majority of the presbyteries vote to approve that amendment, the standards contained in the current G-6.0106b remain among the standards to be applied in examinations for ordination and installation.
Of course, according to our polity, this is true. However, the sentence is deliberately evasive. This standard is only among those standards to be applied in examinations. Others may supersede it. And it can only be applied during examinations rather than the outcome of those examinations. Nowhere does the report say that this standard cannot be scrupled.
In fact, when one reads further, under Roman numeral III concerning the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 one finds this:
We believe this modifies the 2008 GAPJC decision of Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in that the scrupling of either belief or practice is now allowed.
In fact, this is the very interpretation that Stated Clerks have been handing down to their Presbyteries nationwide. One can scruple belief. One can scruple practice. The AI has changed the meaning of the Constitution without changing the words and has thus turned it into a piece of paper with meaningless words.
In the last paragraph of this section, there is a paragraph that attempts to place the little Dutch boy’s finger back into the hole in the dike which says this:
The 218th General Assembly left in place the prohibition in Bush, which told ordaining bodies: “Restatements of the Book of Order, in whatever form they are adopted, are themselves an obstruction to the same standard of constitutional governance no less than attempts to depart from mandatory provisions.”
Some believe this sentence (oddly constructed as it is) means that candidates still cannot scruple mandatory provisions of the Constitution. If this is the case, it is a direct contradiction of the statement made just one paragraph before it. We believe this is a reference to the development of a litmus test or subscriptionist statement within a Presbytery which is still not allowed. Hence, any of those documents approved by some of our Presbyteries as expressions of the Presbytery’s collective belief and used to inform candidates of same are rendered effectively obsolete.
Grayde Parsons and Mark Tammen both affirmed that this is indeed what they meant and what the GA said at the recent leadership gathering for middle governing bodies. They are quoted in an article in the Presbyterian Outlook (http://www.pres-outlook.org/news-and-analysis/1/7962.html) where they said:
Tammen: “First, the Assembly deleted the specific prohibition against ordaining gay and lesbian persons [contained in authoritative interpretations dating back to 1978]. That’s gone. It leaves us with the whole constitution, and the responsibility to examine people’s lives. That is a change. It may not change the process in your presbytery. But it is a change. Taking away one explicit prohibition doesn’t change the process. It just means the process is more important in asking the follow-up questions.”
Parsons: “In some sense, ordination is very unique to the presbytery. But once you are ordained, it is for the whole church. But re-examination is required to move to another presbytery. Therefore, we have a hybrid system — ordination is for the whole church, but every governing body reserves the right to determine their own membership.”
We believe that what the Stated Clerk’s office has affirmed in this opinion is exactly what we have said from the beginning when we crafted this declaration and exactly what the GA actually did. The AI and subsequent reversal of court precedent have together overturned the plain meaning of the Constitution without ratification by the Presbyteries. It is not only bad theology. It is horrible process and a clear violation of our covenant. This is unique in our history. That is why the time for Status Confessionis is now.
How do we know that is what the opinion really said?
This question is related to the above because there are some institutionalists who are convinced that we have no idea what the GA has done. These institutionalists also argue that we will further have no idea what the GA did until we have a few court cases to interpret it for us. They say that we will have to be ready to launch court cases and challenges when other Presbyteries act on these (in their opinion) false interpretations of the Stated Clerk’s office. In other words, we need to wait until the lawyers tell us what the GA actually did and then we will know for sure what the net effect of this GA was.
Tongue in cheek references to Shakespeare aside, we will grant that while many of us were extremely upset after the passage of the TPUP recommendations that the many who decried it ended up being wrong because of the amendments to recommendation #5 on the floor. Subsequent court cases at the GAPJC proved that PUP actually strengthened the Constitution. Could we be wrong now like we were then?
There are a number of reasons why we believe we are correct about the 218th but none so critically important as this question right here. If we are indeed wrong about the actions of the 218th, then this declaration is out of bounds. Here are a number of reasons why we believe we are not:
1. The TPUP recommendations are no more including the amendment to recommendation #5 that made it a constitutional protection.
2. All cases supporting the plain reading of G-6.01016b have been overturned leaving no other precedent that the wording of the provision which can now be interpreted in any way a candidate or Presbytery desires.
3. The Stated Clerk’s office confirms our interpretation.
4. The courts will use, among other things, these new AI’s and this new AO to guide their decisions. They have no other precedent left upon which to base their decisions.
We believe that all of this is enough to settle the question but there is one last all-encompassing point that needs to be made. The question is, “Could we be wrong now like we were then?” We believe that question is now irrelevant. Even if the GA PJC makes a ruling that we would find favorable, the courts are now irrelevant in the land of the 218th. They can be overturned in an instant by a majority vote of any Assembly. While that has always been the case, no Assembly has been this brazen in its use and abuse of its powers. It has opened the doors for future Assemblies to walk down paths which God’s people would only tread on the way to exile. Because of this, we believe the time for Status Confessionis is now.
We need to wait until after the vote to amend the Constitution is finished. We will not know if we need this unless the vote fails.
The above is another institutionalist argument. The fear is that the only way we will know for sure is if the Constitution itself is changed or a court tells us differently. Surely we desire to work against any changes to the Constitution that will damage orthodoxy. We have no desire to see this recommendation pass and, as we have already vowed, will work against it.
The only problem with this argument is this: there is no need for the passage of the constitutional change for the liberals to get what they have desired all along. They have it already because of the actions of this Assembly. No doubt they will work to codify it into the Constitution through this means but they also know that they no longer need to. One can simply read their own publications to see this.
We have already taken a trip with Alice down the rabbit hole. That is our reality. Our denominational leaders have told us so. Our renewal leaders have told us so. Our liberal compatriots have told us so. Clearly everyone gets it. If we already live in that world now, then the time for Status Confessionis is now, not after another vote. Otherwise we fail as watchmen.
This declaration does not go far enough.
This is an argument from our conservative friends. We agree with them theologically and that is evident from the declaration itself. Attempting to lump us together with liberals or institutionalists are charges that will not stick. Hence we have been told that it has no teeth. They wish that it advocated separation. They accuse us of being too set in staying put because we do not advocate schism.
Our staying is rooted in our call. We would refer our friends to the recent writings of Mark Roberts on his blog (the series on “Why I am staying in the PC USA”). We are still called as witnesses to and within this denomination until God releases us from it. Some disagree with that assessment. They are entitled to their opinion.
The reality is that some of these folks are advocating wholesale schism right now. My question to my brother and sister conservatives is this: “How will schism happen under your plan?” We are Presbyterians. Everything we do has a process. Whatever a conservative Presbytery is going to do, it must respond at least by pointing out what the issues are first. That is what we do here.
Secondly, this document does take demonstrable action. If you still do not think so, do a Google search of the terms Status Confessionis and read more about it. It is no small thing.
Thirdly, some have said that because it has no teeth it will simply be ignored as the Confessing Church Movement has. The accusation is that it is just one more proclamation in a long string that have been ineffective. That may be true, but we have no idea what the subsequent actions of any governing body will be once we make it.
What we hear from our conservative friends is that they are not willing to endorse another statement. They are done with proclamations. They are ready and willing to act. We insist that this declaration is an act and a timely one. We further insist that any action beyond it would be premature without it.
Pat and Rusty
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
1. This is an awfully risky tactic. Is it too risky and bordering on irresponsible?
The "tactic" may be somewhat risky, as you observe. But, then life in the Gospel is inherently risky. Now, the reason we feel the risk is so fully justified is because of the level of constitutional crisis in which we now find ourselves. The risk in temporal terms may be grave, but if we continue to "box as though at the air" the risk in eternal terms is graver still. The denomination IS indeed in a constitutional crisis as we now move to using Authoritative Interpretations to legislate and the legislative process to overthrow our own ecclesiastical judiciary. The other observation that must be made is that while our approach may be risky, the damage already caused to our covenanted connectionalism are far riskier to our collective health than anything we have proposed.
2. Is the timing right for this kind of extreme tactic?
Let us grant for the moment that the tactic is extreme. That no one has tried such a thing yet in the PC USA indicates that this is the case. We will not argue that point. So let us then focus on the real question… is the timing right for this tactic? Of course this is debatable but here are the reasons why we believe this kind of proclamation could not have been made before this Assembly and needs to be made now.
Certainly there were upsetting, even disastrous, outcomes from previous Assemblies. The Re-imagining God conference was an issue that received great attention but the Assembly seemed to correct itself on that score with the report Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Several recommendations were made at previous Assemblies to remove previous AI’s but failed. Several recommendations to change our Constitution were never ratified by the Presbyteries. All previous Assemblies had one thing in common: while we might have disagreed with some of the recommendations coming from the Assembly, we could at least say that they had followed proper process and that their recommendations were subject to the ratification of the Presbyteries while honoring our judicial system or were innocuous enough to be endurable. This is one reason why our declaration would have been inappropriate before the 218th General Assembly.
Certainly the 217th Assembly was full of concerning outcomes. The reception of the Trinity paper was particularly disturbing to us but it was merely received and not adopted (certainly a careful political maneuver but a distinction that we were forced to grant them). Thus, while heresy appeared to be tolerated by some, it was not formally embraced by an act of the whole Assembly. The passage of the PUP Task Force recommendations concerned us greatly. However, during the two years of “lag time” between Assemblies, we found that the amendments on the floor to the PUP recommendations, particularly recommendation #5, actually made for judicial cases that supported the plain reading of the Constitution and the significance of the Trinity paper seemed to be waning. Frankly we were more concerned about the FOG task force and its potentially damaging effects on our communion than anything else at this Assembly, thinking that the constitutional, interpretive and judicial support given to our current covenant would prevail. It turns out that this trust was ill-placed. The 218th General Assembly was a completely different Assembly than any one Assembly prior to it, which is why this declaration has become necessary now.
The difference in the 218th Assembly is not only its lack of tactical and diplomatic savvy, not only its abandonment of responsible judicial review, not only its disregard for the plain meaning of Scripture, the Confessions, and the Constitution, but also its profound indifference toward our agreed upon process. It inaugurated wholesale changes to our Constitution by Authoritative Interpretation without Presbytery ratification. It formally embraced heresy by passing an overture whose recommendations were based on heterodoxy (regarding Muslims and Jews) and by approving a study guide for an errant paper that was never adopted by our denomination. It further demonstrated this slide into separation from the Church Universal by recommending a change to our confessions that amounts to a change in the Scriptures themselves. As if that weren’t enough, it then removed all supporting precedent for the plain meaning of our Constitution. While we could argue about whether or not previous Assemblies crossed the line from Christianity into something else or whether or not previous Assemblies may have conducted themselves decently and in order, in our opinion, the evidence is clear with this Assembly. The 218th Assembly made decisions that violated our covenant concerning process and violated our covenant with the Church Universal by affirming heresy. In our estimation, this is the first time our General Assembly has demonstrably and brazenly crossed this line on both counts. Previous Assemblies have simply toyed with the idea while coming dangerously close to doing so, carefully covering their tracks in political legalese. The 218th took unprecedented actions, above and beyond all previous Assemblies. This is another reason why this declaration must be made now whereas it would not have been appropriate before.
Because we believe these to be clear violations of our covenant, whatever trust we may have had left is broken. What we are also finding out since we wrote this document and released it is that we are not alone in that assessment. Because the Assembly saw fit to disregard our judicial system and was supported by the immediate affirmation of its actions by the Office of our Stated Clerk with Advisory Opinion #22, whatever trust we may have had of judicial cases ruling properly according to the plain reading of the Constitution is pragmatically irrelevant. It no longer matters what how our courts rule on any cases that may come their way. There is no longer any precedent for their decisions because the cases that set these precedents have all been overturned. The Assembly has now learned that it can overturn any case it wishes with or without grounds or even without considering written minority reports and it has demonstrated the will to do so. The Constitution itself has been changed by fiat with complete disregard for Godly discernment and process. Further, we now are forced to live in this kind of environment until the next Assembly, a state which we believe we have rightly referred to as constitutional anarchy. Everyone may now do whatever is right in his/her own eyes with no consequence for there are no longer legitimate judicial, constitutional, confessional, or even biblical means to pursue discipline thanks to the actions of this Assembly. That is why this declaration is appropriate now and must be made immediately. Otherwise we become guilty of the very sin we decry by failing to act.
Because of the nature of these sweeping changes in process and belief, what we have is a horribly broken system. This Assembly was brazen in its defiance of our covenant. In the face of this kind of determined, calculated, intentional sin, we can only stand firm, name the sin, and insist that this is not how we will conduct ourselves even if our highest level governing body insists that we do so. With judicial review now irrelevant, it is incumbent upon us to act immediately. Correcting the actions of this Assembly has become almost constitutionally impossible because of the extremity of its actions. The horse has escaped the barn and is already down the street. While we do not claim perfection in any other form than the righteousness of Jesus Christ applied to His people, we refuse to embrace clearly sinful behavior whether foisted upon us by the world or by our own General Assembly. This is why this declaration MUST be made now. If we fail to do so, we risk failing in the Church’s role as watchman and tying a millstone around our own necks by leading the least of these astray. In our estimation, we must act definitively and graciously and we must act now.
3. Are the Presbyters aware of the potential consequences? Do we even know what the consequences are?
This is an excellent question. The potential consequences of this action are truly steep; among them could be the filing of ecclesiastical judicial charges against those who subscribe to the Declaration. Such a move against us would come because we have already announced our intention not to submit to either corrective counsel from a higher governing body or to cease what we are doing. The potential danger to individual sessions and or presbyteries could come in the form of Administrative Commissions appointed by presbyteries and synods of jurisdiction. Theoretically, these bodies would be free to assume original jurisdiction and to depose sessions or presbyteries they deem as having stepped outside of the boundaries of the Book of Order.
Some presbyters may be unaware of the full range of possible consequences, but I suspect that most of them who have read the document in its entirety at least suspect strongly that this is one of the possible end-scenarios that must be considered. Beyond that, all of us are more likely to see, believe and anticipate this course of action because of the action taken by the Episcopal Church House of Bishops against Pittsburgh's now-defrocked Bishop Robert Duncan. Duncan made a similar stand against the Episcopal Church (or more accurately, his diocese threatened to do so -- the vote on that matter will take place on Sat., 4 October), and the House of Bishops declared by majority vote that he had stepped outside of their communion and violated the discipline by even suggesting that the Diocese of Pittsburgh make a theological stand and consider re-aligning itself with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.
Our polity is definitely not the same as that of the Episcopal Church, but our means of addressing conflict have been similar for several decades and the concerns raised and enumerated are the same.
4. Are the potential gains worth the consequences?
While Rusty is writing on potential consequences, I know we have discussed them at length. We understand that in a declaration of this magnitude, a clear declaration of Status Confessionis, the consequences are potentially great. If we are going to weigh any gains against these consequences, we had best be clear on both sides of the ledger. What are the potential gains from such a declaration?
This declaration clearly aligns us with the Church Universal. It makes it clear to our brothers and sisters throughout the world that our allegiance is to Christ and His Church worldwide and that we will not suffer departure from her for the sake of compromise here in the US.
This declaration clearly defines a place for us to faithfully stand without leaving the PC USA. When the world has so crept into the life of the Church that one is now asked by the Church to sin, faithful living requires a clear stand in the midst of the storm. This provides a place for us to stand together faithfully while the storm rages around us. It also allows us to be true to our ordination vows in a time when to keep those vows is to deny them at the same time.
This declaration provides clarity of conscience. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We say that in this declaration and can live that out through the boundaries we draw in it. Without it, we would be forced to compromise on essential matters of the Christian faith either actively or passively.
This declaration can unify the Church in spite of this denomination’s current state of division brought upon us by the extreme actions of the 218th General Assembly. We would love to see the Church unify behind this declaration and pray for this end.
This declaration sends a clearer message than any thus far of the Church’s necessary commitment to her covenant and theology. As the violations of trust have escalated, so have the calls to account within our communion. All of us knew that someone would eventually have to say these things in one form or another. We believe this to be the most faithful form and we will not equivocate.
We believe these benefits to outweigh the potential consequences. We affirm the following:
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)
If this means what it appears to mean, nothing compares to the greatness of Christ, His truth, and His fellowship. As we see it, the greatest risk is to value anything else as greater than the privilege of standing with Him. If this means that we get a small glimpse of what the fellowship of His sufferings is all about because of our stand with Him, then praise God for having made us like Him (even in a small way) in His death. We rejoice to make this stand.
Some questions about the "Open Declaration" have been rolling around in my mind for a while and I woke up with it on my mind, so I decided it was time to ask them. I presume this will be a typical majority rules vote. But this seems to be an all or nothing document, right? If it passes, I guess my question is, how will this "Open Declaration" affect the minority who vote against it? It could be that 49% of pastors disagree and yet lose the vote; do you expect an exodus of pastors who do not want to be a part of BBP anymore? And for sessions that do not want to sign on to this--what is their course of action? Would they align themselves with another presbytery?If it passes and some sort of repercussions are handed down from the General Assembly, they will be handed down on the entire presbytery, right--even those who may have voted against it? How would the presbytery deal with that? I look forward to your response to these questions! Thanks
September 30, 2008 10:57 PM
Toby Brown said...
Anon,That is a great question. You have pointed out one of the flaws (?) of our system--majority rules.As I'm sure you are well aware, we could switch the question you pose onto a variety of other topics other than this Declaration: Local Option, Gay Ordination, Abortion, Per Capita, Property, etc. ANY issue can be foisted upon the minority in a simple majority vote of a GA, Synod, Presbytery or Session. In fact, our own history shows that denominations can split in just this way--as we did in 1861 as just one example.Majority rules is our rule, our blessing and our challenge.The alternative?I have yet to hear of a better one, but I know the flaws of our system, as I've lost many votes in my time!I will enjoy reading the responses of Pat and Rusty.
October 1, 2008 7:16 AM
Pat McElroy said...
As Toby said, you raise some important issues. Clearly these are concerns that need to be addressed. Rusty and I have discussed them and we have some thoughts to offer.You write: “I presume this will be a typical majority rules vote. But this seems to be an all or nothing document, right? If it passes, I guess my question is, how will this "Open Declaration" affect the minority who vote against it?” Your assumption of this being a “typical majority rules vote” is our assumption as well. Your assumption of this being an “all or nothing document”… we might contest your wording there. Regardless, we understand what you mean by that. It is a demonstrably clear statement where there is little room for compromise. That’s intentional. We understand that we are asking the Presbytery to make that statement and that some will be uncomfortable with its clarity and the potential consequences.
You ask: “How will this affect the minority who vote against it?” That is anyone’s guess as the answer depends upon how the denomination chooses to respond to our call. We have no idea, though we can list some possible outcomes, of what that response might be. As you rightly point out though, since we are asking that this be an action of the Presbytery, any consequences would be levied against the Presbytery as a whole. The Presbytery will have to prayerfully discern if the situation in which we find ourselves as a result of the 218th General Assembly is as grave as we believe it to be and if the benefits of addressing the issues by this means outweigh the potential consequences. We believe it to be so. Whether the Presbytery agrees or not remains to be seen. So, in one sense, the answer to your question is that the consequences will be the same for all of us, whether we voted in the majority or the minority, regardless of how large that minority may be. That is our polity.
You raise the possibility of the minority vote being as large as 49%. That is certainly possible though we hope and believe that the declaration has broader support in Beaver-Butler Presbytery than that. As you rightly point out, a possible significant minority raises some concerns. We would argue that even a small minority vote would raise some concerns. We have no intention of “pushing people out” nor do we expect an exodus. We will certainly not lead one. In fact, an exodus is exactly what we are trying to prevent by making this statement in the first place. It is our hope that through this proclamation the Church will recognize its folly and return to its Shepherd en masse. Our hope is to galvanize and unite the Church, not divide it.
That said, we recognize that with a statement of this magnitude there is potential for division in the body. We believe the potential benefit of unity in our confession outweighs the fear of the possibility of division. We hope for and stand in our ordination vows to promote the peace, unity and purity of the Church. We believe this to be the best means of restoring all three.
Perhaps the best way forward with your question, since we are advocating constitutional adherence, is to ask another question: What options does a minister or Session have in the case of disagreement with a majority vote? There is the constitutional option of registering formal dissent with the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery while still submitting to the will of the majority. If there is formal action from a higher governing body, perhaps that higher governing body would take into account the difference between the majority congregations, Sessions, and Pastors who favored this stand and could choose to embrace the minority who voted against it. We could speculate about what that might entail or how it might develop. Ultimately though, that is in the hands of the upper governing bodies as to whether or not they act and how they choose to do so. Regardless, the possibility remains that those who disagree could formally register themselves as having done so with the Stated Clerk and potentially avoid certain consequences.
Hopes, intentions, and aspirations aside, we do recognize that there is a possibility of division within the Presbytery. In an extreme case, where division is initiated by an upper governing body in a formal disciplinary action, it is our estimation that those who voted in the affirmative would be the group “facing the music” (so to speak), while those opposed would likely be labeled a “remnant” by the upper governing body and be reconstituted as “the Beaver-Butler Presbytery”. We have seen this scenario play out the Episcopal Church with the diocese of San Joaquin and will likely soon see in the diocese of Pittsburgh. The possibility also exists that the minority could be folded into a neighboring Presbytery. We believe the potential for the latter would increase as the size of the minority decreases. Obviously we hope for a better outcome than this but we recognize that this is a political possibility. In fact, we would call this a “worst case scenario”.
Let us be clear on this score though: we will NOT initiate division. We will stand. It has never been our intent to initiate division and we will not do so. If an upper governing body chooses to initiate division, we have little control over their actions. All we can do is stand as we have said we would do.
Just how bad is this potential “worst case scenario”? Certainly it would profoundly sadden us and others on both sides to have to endure this kind of an outcome. In our estimation, it is worth the risk and might actually be better for both sides of this argument if the upper governing bodies prove to be that aggressively divisive. Negotiations would likely commence over property in this scenario. We could speculate as to what form those negotiations might take but that would be fruitless at this point. What we do know is this: our stand is upon Christ Jesus for His Gospel. Anything else that we might count as gain is actually loss compared to this. We believe this worst case scenario to be a small price to pay compared to the rich blessings of standing for the truth of the Gospel in our time and place. We are convinced that this is a matter of eternal health for the body. This is our primary concern. We love people on both sides of this issue and want to see them healthy and secure. At the same time, we hope to avoid divisive scenarios and we will advocate against them. Regardless, God’s will be done and may He strengthen us for whatever may come.
Friday, September 26, 2008
The article is short and to the point yet it gives the historical background of the term, its present use, and its range of application today.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Why is this not in the form of an overture?
We grant that the normal form of communication between Governing Bodies is an overture. However, the 218th General Assembly pushed our entire communion into uncharted constitutional territory. How does a Presbytery call a General Assembly to account? What mechanism is there in our polity that would allow us to declare a council’s errors? The answer is that there are none. Apparently the framers of our Constitution did not envision a day where a General Assembly might eviscerate our covenant and the Presbyteries would be forced to tell her so through not complying with an Assembly’s rulings. The constitutional means do not exist.
Another reason for not putting this in the form of an overture is because the errors were committed by a previous Assembly. Everything that is said in that last sentence is in the past tense. It is already done. To ask for it to be undone would require the reconvening of the Assembly which we have already seen to be a fruitless waste of time when asked of other, even recent, Assemblies. What reasonably can be done now is to declare the Assembly out of bounds and carve out a place for us to stand that is constitutionally, confessionally, and biblically sound.
Are you saying that Christians, Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God?
Yes. Ask a Muslim or a Jew if they will worship Jesus as Divine and they will tell you that they cannot. Ask a Christian if they can worship as long as they are not willing to worship Jesus as Divine and they will tell you that they cannot. The same holds true for the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. Both Judaism and Islam may refer to God on occasion as the God of Abraham, but our understandings are fundamentally different and irreconcilable apart from the grace of God through His Son Jesus Christ.
Are you saying that the worship of Jews and Muslims is somehow incomplete?
Yes. They deny the full Divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We affirm with Jesus that a day is coming and is already here when those who worship the Father will do so in Spirit and in Truth. Anything less than worship of the triune God is incomplete.
You are concerned about us distancing ourselves from the Church Universal. Do you understand that there are several issues that divide the body of Christ such as communion, baptism, polity, etc.?
Of course we do. We would be fools to not recognize that there are hundreds of denominations of Christianity throughout the world, each with their own distinctives. However, what unite us all are some core beliefs which are never in question. Key among these doctrines is the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the authority of the Scriptures. This Assembly’s errors are not errors of tangential doctrines upon which we can agree to disagree. These errors are errors in core doctrines, basic beliefs for all Christians, those which our Book of Order calls the faith catholic. It is for this reason that we have declared Status Confessiones. These rulings are breaches of covenant standing in the Church Universal. Thus these errors do place our standing in the Church Universal at risk, something which at least one PC USA mission partner with Park United Presbyterian Church in Zelienople has already indicated to us in person.
I am afraid that you are asking us to not recognize the work of other Presbyteries in their ordinations. Can you comment on that?
Yes we are. There is a reason for that. Prior to this Assembly, there was a means for correction if another Presbytery chose to ordain someone outside the bounds of the Book of Order. Remedial cases could be and were filed by Presbyteries and Presbyters against the body in question. The actions of the 218th Assembly have effectively removed these options. According to this Assembly and our Stated Clerk’s office, Presbyteries may ordain whomever they wish, regardless of belief or practice, without any correction, so long as our process is followed. According to these bodies, scruples of behavior and core beliefs of Christianity are now permitted and all court cases that supported these former means of redress have now been overturned. While minister members of other Presbyteries like Baltimore, Hudson River, and Redwoods were ordained in defiance of the Book of Order, according to this new environment, they now serve in compliance with the Book of Order. Since the Assembly undertook to create this new environment on its own, without ratification by the Presbyteries and without following our process for constitutional revision, we cannot agree in word or practice with their decisions.
I am in favor of this. However, I am not sure what this will accomplish. You have a great big gun here. I am just not sure where the target is…
Part of this concern is related to the previous answer about the form of the declaration. It is not an overture. Our means of redress are our resolutions. These resolutions, while addressed to the General Assembly, have more to do with how we intend to conduct ourselves as a Presbytery in light of these errors and serve as information to the General Assembly. The options for how we live faithfully as Presbyteries in this new era of constitutional anarchy are few. We believe this declaration provides a place for Presbyteries to faithfully stand regardless of the errors of our most recent General Assembly.
I am concerned that this is the work of just two presbyters. How do we make this the Presbytery’s work?
This is largely the work of two Presbyters. However, these two Presbyters have sought broad input from others in the Presbytery and outside the Presbytery. This document has undergone a number of revisions. Several have contributed to this and the Presbytery now has the opportunity to make it its own through first and second readings. This process is appropriate, decent and in order.
What is the goal?
The goal is for our Presbytery and any who will join us to stand for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. That might not sound like much to some but given the current environment in our denomination it is critically important to us.
What is advisory opinion 22 and why is it opposed in here?
Advisory Opinion 22 was released by the new Stated Clerk, Grayde Parsons, and his office within a week following the Assembly. The Advisory Opinion, distributed to the whole denomination through each Presbytery’s Stated Clerk, tells us that indeed local option is our present reality. It tells us that the General Assembly’s Authoritative Interpretations did indeed change the plain meaning of G-6.0106b and did indeed eliminate any precedent which supported it. With this we cannot agree.
This document is full of hyperbole. I hope that you will remove some of the passion from it so that your points can be clearly made.
We do not consider this document to be hyperbolic. We admit that we are saddened, hurt, and even upset at the actions of this recent assembly. However, we believe their actions are accurately described and opposed. Further, while many Presbyterians tend to devalue passion, we would ask, “How is one to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength without passion?” If our passion for orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and the One Lord Jesus Christ is evident here, we celebrate that and urge others to join us in it.
Why the term “tactical” errors?
One will note that this declaration is progressive. The first category of error is diplomatic. The second is tactical. The third is constitutional, then judicial, then confessional, then Biblical. This progression is intentional. The categories of error become more and more severe as the document progresses. Hence, tactical errors are significantly more benign than Biblical errors. Originally we labeled these errors “procedural”. The problem with the term “procedural” is that “procedural” implies something actionable; which would have raised these errors to the level of constitutional errors. The term “procedural” implies an error in either the Book of Order or Robert’s Rules. The simple truth of these first two categories is that these were permissible acts. The General Assembly was well within its power to establish a legal defense fund for property cases, to leave the overture in question together rather than separate it, and to revise an authoritative interpretation that it had just ruled as having no further force or effect. All of those actions were permissible but they were far from helpful. We might equate them with punting on a first down or going for it on fourth down with twenty yards to go in the first quarter when the scoreboard reads 0-0. These plays are permissible but tactically silly and would be called “errors in judgment” by any knowledgeable commentator or even armchair quarterback. That is what we mean by tactical errors.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Beaver-Butler Presbytery approved this declaration on first reading tis evening in a unanimous voice vote. Now the fun will commence as we prepare for the mark-ups and debate that will come between now and November. Nonetheless, God is faithful!
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow! Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost!
Grace & Peace,
Tonight Beaver-Butler Presbytery will give a first reading to the Declaration. The floor will be open to questions of the authors and the merits of the Declaration can be discussed. Should the presbytery decide to do so in its meeting tonight, the Declaration can go on to a second reading at the next meeting and then be adopted or rejected.
Either way, the signatories of the Declaration--sessions and individuals--hold themselves to what they have already signed, regardless of what Beaver-Butler decides tonight or in the future.
By the grace and mercy of our sovereign Heavenly Father we will not recant or retract from our assertion that the General Assembly of the PC(USA) has erred and endorsed potentially schismatic acts by forcing them upon our denomination.
For the sake of the clarity of the Gospel, please pray for our presbytery tonight and all who will gather to do the work of our churches in this place. Pray for clarity, humility and truthful speech in our deliberations tonight.
The Lord bless you all.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
How did we develop this declaration?
The idea for it was born out of several conversations between Rusty and me. We then floated the idea at a gathering of evangelical Pastors from Beaver Butler Presbytery, our Executive Presbyter and an Elder in our Presbytery who happens to serve on COM. Rusty and I developed a draft and submitted it to our evangelical network within Beaver Butler Presbytery and received revisions from several of our brothers and sisters. Once the copy was finalized, I called a special meeting of our Session to have us submit it for consideration by the whole Presbytery. Rusty and I then gave the final copy to Hans Cornhelder for publication on Presbyweb and created this blog to receive feedback.
What is the process from here?
From here, it will be considered on the floor of our Presbytery at our September 23rd meeting at College Hill Presbyterian in Beaver Falls, PA as a first reading. Per our policies, at a first reading the Presbyters may ask clarifying questions about it but may not propose any revisions. They then vote to receive it as a first reading which moves us forward to a second reading. If it is not received as a first reading, we intend to bring it back to the next Presbytery meeting as a commissioner’s resolution. The second reading will take place at our November 18th meeting at New Bethlehem Presbyterian in Aliquippa, PA. Revisions may be proposed at the second reading and it will be voted up or down as a Presbytery declaration.
In the meantime, we are encouraging as many Pastors and Elders to place this declaration before their Sessions for endorsement and before their Presbyteries for a vote. We hope that you will join us in this effort.
What are the potential consequences of such a declaration?
Simply put, they are legion, some of which have already become a reality. I will try to take these in order of severity and I am sure the list will not be comprehensive. Basically, the declaration says that we will not be moved. Any action taken by anyone else is simply a reaction to our confessional, constitutional stand, which is one of its most endearing qualities. This is not reaction. This is pro-action. How governing bodies choose to respond to us is up to them. Those responses could and likely will include some of the following:
1. Demonizing the supporters. While we have not seen much of this in the blogosphere, I have been personally denigrated by posting this on my facebook page from friends outside and inside the Church. I am totally OK with taking those kinds of hits for the right reasons.
2. Ignoring the declaration altogether. That will be a difficult option for any governing body to sustain over the long term because we intend to be vocal.
3. Attempting to rebuke us for making such a statement.
4. Attempting to get us to participate in supervised rehabilitation.
5. Attempting to get us to renounce jurisdiction.
6. Attempting to remove credentials and/or seize property.
While upper governing bodies may and likely will attempt to overturn our declaration, it is our hope that we will sustain our convictions even in the face of pressure from the higher courts.
What motivated you to write this declaration?
Let us consider a few angles that have been suggested to us as motives. Rusty and I are not at all interested in personal gain. If we were, we never would have written or signed this document in the first place. We have no interest in angling for a larger congregation to serve. We love our respective congregations and cannot think of a better group of people with whom we would rather take our stand. We are not interested in being heroes. I only mention these because some have suggested these as possible motivations for us. We would both be more than content to serve in relative anonymity.
In short, by writing and signing this, we have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Our vows are first and foremost to the One Lord Jesus Christ. Our intent is to be faithful to Him at all cost. It is the least we can do given His sacrifice for us.
Each of us has been nurtured and raised within the bosom of the Church and have made our ordination vows to her (in Rusty’s case as Deacon and Elder as well as Minister of the Word and Sacrament and in mine as Deacon and Minister of the Word and Sacrament). We take these vows as seriously as marriage vows. We can neither renounce nor back away. We view this declaration as akin to confronting a spouse with adultery and refusing to respond with divorce. It is our call to her to come back to the faith once and for all handed down to the saints and to cease prostituting herself to other gods.
What do you hope to accomplish in writing this declaration?
Our hope is simple: we hope to stand together for Christ. Whatever else happens is in the Lord’s hands. Our intent is to confront our denomination with her deviation from orthodox Christian faith in all quarters by striving to act biblically. That fulfills our role as collective watchmen on the walls. The Israelites who remained in Jerusalem were still left to their own devises as to how they were to respond to Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry. Many of them perished because they did not listen. We hope this does not happen but recognize that it could and also recognize that we could become casualties ourselves. As we say in the declaration, our Defender is strong. We trust in His grace.
Is this some kind of combined renewal effort?
No. The genesis of this idea as described above came from two people. While we support the broad aims of the renewal effort, this declaration is not the property of anyone but the authors and those who subscribe it. We are not undertaking this effort as part of PFR, the Lay Committee or any other group under the Presbyterian Coalition banner though we would welcome their support should they choose to do so.
Our goal solely and constantly is to promote and defend biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We stand with Luther in this:
"If I profess Christ with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point."
Rusty will be responding as soon as his electricity is returned to him by Allegheny Power. Hurricane Ike did not just devastate the Gulf. It made it's way all the way up here as well!
Thursday, September 11, 2008
A STUDY OF THE INGESTION OF THE
UNITED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NORTH AMERICA
BY THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
THE REV. ALBERT RHODES STUART
PASTOR, HIGHLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
SLIPPERY ROCK, PENNSYLVANIA
PRESBYTERY OF BEAVER-BUTLER
INTRODUCTION & THESIS:
WHO WERE THE United Presbyterians of North America (UPCNA)? Where did they come from? What did they believe and how did they practice this belief? What happened to them, why did they disappear and how did they disappear as quickly as they did?
How did a classically conservative Presbyterian church go from being one of the three most theologically, socially and politically orthodox denominations in the country to a standing (many would contend) of being Reformed "only on paper" in just 38 years?
The study of these questions and their possible answers yields much insight into the understandings of and attempts to achieve Christian Unity in the early and mid 20th Century. These answers also help to explain the latent theological assumptions and tendencies of nearly 10 percent of communicants of a contemporary 2.2 million member denomination (the PC[USA]) that traditionally has far greater impact on formation of public social policy than their small numbers would seem to warrant. Such background shows us how a powerful, yet often silent, minority of present-day mainline Presbyterians think about theology and praxis issues (Nationally, Old United Presbyterians, or their spiritual progeny, number just under 10 percent of the total membership of most Presbyterian Church [USA] (PC[USA]) presbyteries. In certain geographical areas the concentrations of old UPCNA churches and members is higher than that. In fact, in some presbyteries, former UPCNA congregations outnumber former Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) churches. Sometimes these UP percentages can reach as high as 60 percent.)1
A study of this disappearance of traditional UP "faith and order" distinctives from the mainline church may also help to inform our perspectives about the growth, theological and practical disposition of the northern segments of the Presbyterian Church in America. Many of the congregations that have joined her ranks in the last 15 to 20 years were formerly disaffected United Presbyterian congregations who debarked the Northern mainline's ship between 1975 and the present because of a firm belief that the Reformed essentials of the faith once held by the old UPCNA have been dispatched by the PC[USA].
For anyone truly interested in the history of the current Presbyterian Church [USA], these are issues and questions seldom raised and only infrequently answered. Yet the answers to these questions would go a long way to explaining the corporate schizophrenia of one of the larger contemporary mainline denominations in the United States of America. Within the course of this study, the author has discovered that many of these answers are given though they appear hidden because they appear piecemeal within the framework of the study of other issues.
We find the questions and their answers cropping up in studies of denominational distinctives, polity, social concerns and positions, theology and biblical studies. But almost nowhere are all of these concerns addressed coherently together.
Further hindering such a sustained study -- and yet making its undertaking all the more urgent -- is the fact that there are few living participants in the events leading up to the 1958 merger that created the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). There are still some "second string" players alive, but most of them are now well into their 60s and 70s. The "first string" players like Theodolphus Mills Taylor and Addison Leitsch were all fairly well advanced in years in the mid- to late- 1950s and have long since gone to meet the Lord.
The working thesis of this exercise -- developed from the piecemeal sources mentioned above and some personal interviews and taped lectures -- holds that there were three principal factors at work in the disappearance of the distinctive practices and beliefs of the former UPCNA:The full dissipation of the seceder identity took about 10 to 15 years to accomplish, but by 1975 it was pretty much a fait accompli.
Due to the 10:1 ratio of communicant members, ministers and elders of the PCUSA v. the UPCNA the loss of corporate identity was inevitable. Despite the best of intentions by PCUSA leaders, figures as statistically skewed as these lead, inevitably, to wholesale ingestion of the antecedent body in all but name. The two antecedent denominations had radically different institutional policies and methodologies for the study, discussion and outworking of theological issues and their attendant Christian praxis. The sheer size of the Northern mainline church vis-a-vis the UPNA ensured that the Northern methodology took the day. The UPCNA had only one denominational seminary that trained roughly eight out of every nine denominational ministers. The PCUSA had 10 such seminaries. The mainline put forth far greater numbers of ministers trained in PCUSA "methods of operation" than did the UPCNA. This trend was further accentuated, and the stream of UPNA distinctives further diluted by the merger of Pittsburgh-Xenia [UPCNA] and Western [PCUSA] Theological Seminaries in 1958-1960.
This study attempts to trace a brief historical understanding of the UPCNA, its antecedents and essentials. It will then move to an equally brief study of the move toward, and accomplishment of, merger among these antecedents to form the UPCNA. From there, we will look to the first two decades of the 20th Century and the move toward the diminution of UPCNA distinctives that culminated in the 1925 Confessional Statement and Testimony. We will also look to the periodic move toward merger with other Reformed bodies (of both Scots-Irish and Dutch-Germanic strains) in the United States. We will pay particular attention to the proposed merger and Plan of Union with the Reformed Church in America in the 1940s and the participation of the General Assembly in merger discussions with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the PCUSA. Finally, we will look quite briefly at how these issues have, and may yet, work themselves out in the life of the PC[USA] today.
SECTION I: ANTECEDENTS:
THE HISTORY OF THE antecedents of the United Presbyterian Church of North America is the history of the Seceder movement from the 18th Century Church of Scotland. It is the history of men and women of strong Reformed theological conviction and principle who engaged in long and heated dispute with the Scots' General Assembly throughout almost the entire 43-year history of the re-established Scots Church from 1690 until 1733. The issues precipitating the rancor and eventual schism were theological, educational, practical and polity concerns that were seldom addressed and never settled.
The Seceders were not made of the same stern stuff as the Covenanters. As a body most of them had failed to stand on the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 through the persecutions of Presbyterians by Charles II and James II. All of the Seceders, however, seriously held to strong Calvinist theology and attempted (as best they were able) to maintain a position akin to that held by low church puritan Anglicans. They persevered the general persecutions of Presbyterians and re-emerged following the 1689 "Glorious Revolution" of Prince William of Orange and Princess Mary (the last viable scion of the Stuart Household). They, and their cause, came to full light again in the 1690 Settlement that firmly recognized and established Episcopacy as the official norm for England and Presbyterianism for Scotland. The Covenanters, still Covenant subscribers, refused to join the General Assembly because of refusal by Crown and Parliament to re-subscribe the Solemn League and Covenant. The Seceders accepted the Settlement.
What they found, however, when they joined with their state-church brethren was a dismal situation of low morality, poor preaching, muddled theology and lack of church discipline. They left behind the pain and suffering of "the Killing Times" to find that the re-franchising of Presbyterianism in Scotland left the General Assembly in desperate straits. The educational quality of the ministers serving pulpits were exceedingly low. So, too, were the general quality of preaching and the Christian character and praxis of many ministers and elders. There were still heavy traces of Anglican polity left over in the newly re-framed Presbyterian Church, particularly with regard to the lay-patronage system that went hand-in-hand with the way in which ministers were called as pastors. In this system, ministers gained the patronage of local barons or other important notables, thus ensuring that they were called to choice pulpits.
John Gerstner correctly assessed this as the trigger issue which prompted the Secession movement, though as he notes it was not the root of the disruption.2 That lay in the theology of the General Assembly -- or more accurately, the lack thereof.
The breach results largely from the labors of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, pastor at Portmoak village church. In 1723, Erskine and several of his contemporaries republished a 17th century English work of Reformed theology titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity as an effort to combat what they saw as a definitive slide away from the essential Calvinistic theology in the Scots' kirk. This slide was an accomplished fact noted throughout the universal church and commented upon by a Bishop Burnet who roundly trashed their theology, preaching, teachability and morality.3
In their attempts to renew and reinvigorate a flagging orthodoxy, the "Marrowmen" (the name for Erskine and the others who republished and subscribed to the theses of the book) antagonized and alienated the theological moderates who held sway at the General Assembly. The moderates fixed on one carelessly written section of the book that sounded like a defense of Arminian and Antinomian theology. With this stuck in their quivers, the moderates officially declared the Marrow of Divinity as heretical and proscribed its use and dissemination by anyone. Certain censure and or suspension awaited those found teaching from it.
The seceders loss of such a popular and well-understood pedagogical tool was a critical blow that all but silenced them for a decade until the lay-patronage issue emerged in 1732-33 as the proverbial straw.
Erskine preached a sermon on Psalm 118:22 ("The stone which the builders rejected has become head of the corner") at the October 1732 meeting of the Synod of Perth and Stirling in which he lambasted the theological moderates as the "builders." He was addressing were both theological and lay-patronage issues in the church and was met with a stony response. The synod censured him for "conduct unbecoming,"because of the "uncharitable" tone of the sermon. He appealed the synod's sentence to the General Assembly of 1733. A total of 14 ministers sided with Erskine -- three actually appending their names to Erskine's appeal. Erskine lost the appeal however, and then found that he and the three named associates were effectively banned from their ministries.4
They ignored the ban and were defrocked by the 1734 General Assembly. Upon this decision of the Assembly, the four handed to the moderator and clerk a declaration of their secession from it. They subsequently met and established the Associate Presbytery.
The situation continued thus for 11 years until 1745 when the now-larger and self-styled Associate Synod was ripped apart over the issue of subscription to the Burgess Oath. Those willing and unwilling to take the oath formed themselves into the Burgher and Anti-Burgher Synods.
The Burgher Synod sent its first missionaries to the American colonies in 1753 and they quickly took up their work among the Scots-Irish immigrants settled in the Susquehannah Valley of Pennsylvania. Anti-Burgher missionaries were also sent out in subsequent years and attempts were made to perpetuate the quarrel over the Burgess Oath on American Soil. Happily, these attempts were largely unsuccessful, mostly because there was no political reason for continuing it here. There were no Burgess Oaths in America and therefore no reason to do battle. The Burghers and anti-Burghers composed their differences and formed the Associate Church.
In June 1782 a merger was effected between large segments of the Associate Church and the still-covenanting Reformed Presbyterian Church which had also settled in America. The members, elders and ministers of the uniting factions saw themselves as standing outside of the effective range and scope of both the Solemn League and Covenant and the Burgess Oath controversies. Their polity, confessional, and testimonial standards were virtually identical in that all were firmly and irrevocably bound to the Westminster Standards. The only real issues of contention among them were the testimonial clauses surrounding the Covenant and the Burgher oaths, which, as we have said, were found to be uncompelling. There was then nothing to prevent their merging into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of America.
Small groups of Covenanters and of Anti-Burghers held themselves aloof from the merger and maintained the names, institutions and testimonies of the constituent denominations. The effect of this merger was to create two Seceder and one Covenanter denomination on American soil. The Covenanters who effected the merger were effectively transformed into Seceders and it is these two Seceder denominations that are of interest in the study of the United Presbyterian Church inasmuch as the surviving Covenanters remained separated if reasonably close "kissing cousins."
We should now consider the testimonial positions of the Associate Presbyterian and Associate Reformed Presbyterian General Synods from 1782 until they merged in 1858 to form the UPNA because it is these standards that remained the norm from this time until 1925-26 and the adoption of the Confessional Statement of 1925. The essential testimonial issues (Burgher and Anti-Burgher issues aside) for the Seceders were seen in their acceptance of public covenanting, their strict maintenance of the Westminster Standards and exclusive uninstrumented psalmody and their disavowal of any and all secret societies. These, no less for the UPs than for the Covenanters, were the norm until the teens of the 20th Century.5
SECTION II: FORMATION OF THE
UNITED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF NORTH AMERICA:
THE DISCUSSIONS THAT resulted in the merger between the Associate and the Reformed Presbyterian Synods were, as noted by W.E. McCulloch, designed to produce one Reformed and Presbyterian church composed of both Covenanter and Seceder communicants. Instead it produced three irritable and disaffected bodies leery of each other's motives and work.6
The work of both Seceder denominations proceeded remarkably well. Both sent out home and foreign missionaries and pursued the wave of westward immigration and expansion domestically. From the merger and split of 1782 until the formation of the UPCNA in 1858, the Associate Church grew from one "seceded" Seceder presbytery into one synod with four constituent presbyteries. The ARP synod grew from an initial one synod with three constituent presbyteries into one General Synod with four subordinate synods and eight constituent presbyteries by 1802. It would have grown larger in all probability except for the withdrawal of one New England Presbytery and the Synod of the Carolinas in the mid 1830s* .
During this time the Associate Presbyterians endeavored to establish a permanent mission to the island of Trinidad. The work was not tremendously successful, partly on account of native diffidence and/or indifference to the Scots theology and partly due to strained British-American political relations in the 1840s and 50s. The mission was transferred to the authority and supervision of the Free Church of Scotland. The far larger and more highly successful mission effort to the Sialkot region of India was inaugurated. This work fairly exploded with results and was a going concern of long duration within a few years (in fact, by the time of PCUSA-UPCNA merger in 1958 fully a third of the total membership of the UPCNA was located in the three UP synods in India. These synods were given self-determination and were never part of the three-way merger discussions between the UP General Assembly and the Northern and Southern mainline churches.).
The Associates also held the honor of having begun the Service Seminary in Cannonsburg, Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1794 and Westminster College in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania in 1852. Service Seminary was moved just prior to merger in 1858 to Xenia, Ohio to form the Xenia Theological Seminary.7
The Associate Reformed Presbyterians can hardly be considered inactive during this 75 year period. Numerically larger than their smaller and poorer cousins, the ARPs conducted mission work among Native Americans in the Midwest and Great Plains, as well as in Syria, Egypt and Northern India. Various presbyteries and synods determined the need for more plentiful educational and theological institutions to provide opportunity and lessen the financial strain on sponsoring congregations which sent ministerial candidates. In the course of this great 50 year-long educational development push the ARPs founded four theological seminaries at New York City; Newburgh, New York; Oxford, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and then Monmouth College.
Both antecedents were engaged heavily in the areas of abolition, temperance, human welfare and the Christianization of America.
Attempts, studies of and plans for merger between the two denominations were being discussed as early as 1820, though to minimal effect. So strong was the general sense of denominational identity and the desire to stand by minute points and disputes of difference between their articles of testimony that the discussions took two full decades to produce the United Presbyterian Church after the establishment of the first official conference of the two churches for such discussions in Pittsburgh in 1838.
The greatest impetus toward change and union seems to have come in Oregon and on the foreign mission fields of the Sialkot region of Northern India. The geographically and organically disassociated Associate and Associate Reformed synods in Oregon determined that they needed all of the internal support and communion they could muster and concluded that their geographical isolation from other seceders rendered thorny eastern testimonial issues a moot point. They merged in the 1840s and formed the United Presbyterian Church of Oregon.
American Seceder missionaries of both communions had been cooperating on projects of mutual concern for several years. This was a necessity for them because their numbers and resources were small in the midst of a vast population. Further the Indians among whom they worked had no appreciation whatsoever for essential Scots' controversies from which they were wholly disassociated and which, so far as they could tell, had little validity even in an American context.
The above-mentioned initial committee meeting of 1842 was actually the first of a long series of seven three-way merger meetings held among the ARP, AP and RP synods until 1848. The meetings yielded no real hope of organic healing between Covenanters and Seceders whose only real -- though substantial -- disagreements were over the nature, meaning and full extent of public covenanting. The RPCNA dropped out of the discussions in 1848 and dismissed their synod's committee. The AP and ARP synods, however had achieved a fair measure of success in hammering out differences during these discussions and continued to meet periodically thereafter.8
Harper, in His Church Memorial, gives long details of the merger movement and of the subsequent AP and ARP merger conventions held at Xenia in March 1857 and at Allegheny (now Northside, Pittsburgh) in May of 1858. The upshot of these two long conventions was that they had managed to smooth the way for their respective synods to dissolve themselves when they each met on May 26, 1858 at Pittsburgh and then consolidate them to form a merged General Assembly of a United Presbyterian Church of North America.9
Following the short meetings of the respective synods in Allegheny and Downtown Pittsburgh, the commissioners formed up in two processions at 10:00 A.M. on May 26th and marched to their designated meeting place at the corner of Seventh and Smithfield Streets (in what is now Mellon Square) they linked up and marched together in two-file line to the Old City Hall:The historic auditorium was literally filled to overflowing. Dr, Joseph T. Cooper led in prayer. Then Dr. D. C. McLaren announced the verses of the one hundredth Psalm. "These were by the vast assembly to the grand old tune of ~Old Hundred," and such a sublime volume of praise never before filled the walls of any building in this city." A number of addresses were delivered and a number of psalms were sung. . . . Then followed the formal ceremonies of union. Dr. James T. Pressley of Allegheny City was elected Moderator. Dr. Pressley said: "Suffer me to render thanks to God that my life has been spared to see the union consummated, for which I have labored for twenty-two years, and permit me to render thanks to you for the unexpected honor of presiding over the first meeting."The now united United Presbyterian Church was finally joined on the basis of Scripture, the Westminster Standards and "Articles of Testimony" which numbered 18 articles dealing with:
It was moved "that the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church do now adjourn to meet in Xenia, Ohio, on the third Wednesday of May, 1859, at 7 o'clock P.M. Carried."
"Dr. Pressley pronounced the benediction, and the Synod adjourned."10
This testimony served for 70 years as the basis for United Presbyterian theology and practice, and its remnants could be found in the United Presbyterian Church even up to and following its 1958 merger with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. It was the law for the praxis of its communicant members and officers and led it to take part in many early ecumenical social and political endeavors. The church as it was now constituted became heavily engaged with the work of the National Reform Association (twice joining in on the sponsoring of petitions for a Christian Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) as well as the formation of and participation in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Lord's Day Observance Society.11
- Plenary Inspiration of Scripture,
- The Eternal Sonship of Christ,
- The Covenant of Works,
- The Fall of Man and His Present Inability,
- The Nature and Extent of the Atonement,
- Imputed Righteousness,
- The Gospel Offer,
- Saving Faith,
- Evangelical Repentance,
- The Believer's Deliverance from the Law as a Covenant,
- The Work of the Holy Spirit,
- The Headship of Christ,
- The Supremacy of God's Law,
- Secret Societies,
- Covenanting, and
During this time church members were forbidden membership in any and all secret societies and organizations, or from membership and participation with any organization which -- even if not technically a secret society -- possessed any secret ceremonials. No member in good standing could belong to the Grand Army of the Republic or the Knights of Labor. Members were further enjoined from the public singing of any songs save the inspired psalms of the Bible during worship. Between 1880 and 1920 there were no fewer than six major judicial cases, major deliverances and discussions of exclusive psalmody to appear on the Assembly's annual docket. And no member in good standing could, or should even attempt, to observe communion ordinances with any other church body -- even the Northern and Southern mainline denominations -- because no one else save the Covenanters had a testimony that was so strict and well-spelled-out as the UPCNA. Without agreement to the Articles of Testimony -- fellowship of faith in Jesus Christ notwithstanding -- no true fellowship sufficient to warrant open communion was present.
All of this said, however, we should note that during these intervening 67 years between the consummation of the Seceder union and the adoption of the new Confessional Statement in 1925, there were various committees and commissions of the General Assembly examining ways in which to foster and prosecute greater Christian Unity among themselves and other particular churches of the Reformed faith. In the course of this quest the Assembly either helped to establish or joined the Alliance of Reformed Churches Holding the Presbyterian System (herein after referred to as the Reformed Alliance), The Federation of Evangelical Churches, the Council of Churches of Christ in America, the Federal Council of Churches and eventually the World Council of Churches.12
While such participation in federated and confederated organizations may set off alarm-bells among some on account of their reputations as being doctrinally lax, it should be noted that the Assembly did set strict guidelines for its commissioners to various fraternal organizations about what did and did not constitute good Reformed theology and/or Christian praxis. On at least two occasions the Assembly withdrew itself from further participation with these groups because of the declining state of their doctrine and on at least two other occasions it outright refused to consider membership in groups because it would have meant surrendering deeply held distinctive testimonial and confessional beliefs.
The overriding concerns on every occasion in which such issues arose was whether or not a given organization would foster and promote evangelical conversion and belief, and whether it would promote or denigrate the distinctive Reformed beliefs of the United Presbyterian Church.
Inevitably, the long move toward greater participation within the larger Christian Church did help to dilute the conviction of members regarding psalmody, the prohibition of secret societies and closed communion. Oddly enough, however, it seems that this came not so much from participation with non-Reformed Christians as it was from their increased participation with other Presbyterians and Reformed Christians. We will more closely examine the probable reason for this state of affairs in the next section.
This moves us then to the next emphasis of our study. We will now look to the rapid changes of the teens and twenties of the 20th Century to see what may have been lost and or gained in the move to add a confessional document to the United Presbyterian subordinate standards.
SECTION III: CONFESSIONAL CHANGES & MERGER DISCUSSIONS:
THERE ARE essentially two ways to view the progressive change in the praxis and testimony of the UPCNA in the early 20th Century. The former of the two is to look at the change as gradual progress toward a more unified and less tendentious and cantankerous United Body of Christ. The latter is to view the process as the gradual unravelling of the very fabric of the denomination leading into ever greater depths of compromise and depravity.
The former choice can honestly be asserted by the student of UP history as he or she sees the development in faith, life and witness at home and abroad that developed in the early years of the century among the traditionally orthodox and Reformed churches of America. Increased levels of cooperation and mutual assistance were seen in home and foreign missions among the United Presbyterian, Associate Reformed Presbyterian,* Reformed Church in America, PCUSA and PCUS. That the assertion can be made is due to the near unanimity of theological view among these participants. All of them subscribed to either the Westminster Standards or the Canons of Dordt, 2nd. Helvetic and Belgic Confessions and the Heidelberg Catechism. Without exception all of these ecclesiastical bodies subscribed to classical formulations of Reformed orthodoxy and hermeneutics.
Others holding the latter opinion can support their position by looking to the traceable slide in testimonial adherence among members of the UPNA. This is well illustrated in a study conducted by Frank E. Hare. He tracked the decline in the practice of public social covenanting among United Presbyterian in the 1880-1926 period.13 Hare notes a clear decline in the practice despite its continued presence as Article XVII of the Articles of Testimony. Over a roughly 50-year-period, the practice of covenanting was used on fewer than a half-dozen occasions -- and even then the actual process was watered down from classic Presbyterian patterns of social covenanting. The last time the covenant was truly used was in a call by the 1918 General Assembly for prayer, fasting, repentance and thanksgiving to implore God for an Allied Victory over the German Empire in the First World War. This particular covenant was never truly implemented because the agreed upon date for a national day of prayer and abasement came approximately a week after the conclusion of the Armistice.14 Similar trends can be discerned with regard to the Articles on closed communion and the prohibition of secret societies.
Gerstner, in his study, rightly chose to take the former rather than the latter view. As he does, however, it becomes clear that he was cautious in his approach and seems to have lamented the loss of UP distinctiveness even as he celebrated what he saw as the growth of Reformed Evangelical witness and potential for the church and nation.15 Gerstner could and did view the situation the way in which he did because he understood the intent of the Confessional Statement and correctly viewed the praxis issues in the Testimony as being adiaphora. The intent of the framers of the confession, and the mandate of the 1919 General Assembly which commissioned their efforts, was to translate the intent and meaning of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechism into a clear, concise and contemporary rendering that could be picked up by even the least educated layman, read and understood.
Gerstner says of the charges of theological drift and laxity,There have been considerable and serious claims that the adoption of the Confessional Statement in 1925 marked the abandonment of high Calvinism in favor of a considerably modified testimony. In this claim there is an ounce of truth and a pound of error. The ounce of truth is this: The Confessional Statement is less explicit than the Confession at some crucial points, is ambiguous at some others and downright inconsistent in at least one place, namely Article XIV. The pound of error is this: the Westminster Confession is still retained as our basic subordinate standard (though yielding to the Confessional Statement upon deviations) and our new statement is basically only an abbreviated and up-to-date declaration of that historic creed.16The lack of argument against the drift away from denominational distinctives is well explained by looking to the sister denominations with which the UPNA was allied in prayer, mission work, fraternal relations and social actions and programming. These denominations -- particularly the PCUSA and PCUS were allied in hermeneutics and doctrine. Both of the denominations were laboring under the strong and lasting influence of the Princeton Theology of the Hodges and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield -- none of whom could be even remotely accused of theological liberalism. The relations among the denominations were fairly harmonious and there was no cause for alarm as it was only with these Reformed denominations that the UP General Assembly and membership were willing to deal at truly deep and sharing levels. And, if these obviously Christian brothers were Masons and Oddfellows, then surely these organizations couldn't be so bad after all, could they?
The author's great-grandfather is a perfect example of what we are discussing here. William Morey Stuart was an orthodox PCUSA elder from Upstate - Southern Tier New York. Active in Canisteo Village, Steuben County and state Republican politics, Elder Stuart was a firm supporter of William Jennings Bryan's social and religious activism and was active in the Steuben-Elmira Presbytery, eventually becoming its moderator and a two-time commissioner to the General Assembly. Will Stuart was also Master of the local Lodge.
Any United Presbyterian friend or serious acquaintance of Will Stuart's would see his faith, character and lifestyle and could honestly conclude that perhaps the Lodge did not mean here what it had in Scotland where its historic theological implications were clearly Deist.
While this is only one situation, it is reflective of a far larger pattern and may be "blown-up" and viewed as being illustrative of a far larger situation present in the country and the denomination as a whole. This is particularly true when one considers the demographics of American Presbyterians in the Northern United States during the first two decades of this century. With the exceptions of Western Pennsylvania, Kansas and Iowa where United Presbyterianism was at its strongest, the ratio of UP to PCUSA communicants was roughly 1 in 10. Once the walls between them began to come down, these numbers helped to widen the breach and to reinforce the perception of mainline members as being solid God-fearing reformed Christians of an evangelical flavor.
Particularly in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky -- the heartland of conservative American Presbyterianism -- trends toward theological liberalism within the PCUSA General Assembly were overshadowed by the great scholastic Westminster orthodoxy of Princeton. It was, then, quite understandable that the theological issues of contention could be seen as reasonably small. Alexander Hodge, Warfield and eventually J. Gresham Machen held powerful influence in the Assembly and the UPs were relatively unconcerned with tendencies toward theological drift. Such a slide didn't become entirely apparent until 1929 and the "great reversal" and the shake-up at Princeton.
By this time, however, inter-Presbyterian cooperation was well entrenched as an established fact and most communicant members of the mainline still sounded quite orthodox.
The primary accomplishment of the PCUSA's theological dust-ups for the UPCNA was to convince the 1919 General Assembly that the Westminster Standards must be translated into a contemporary language and style that would be readily apprehendable by contemporary people in a fully modern society. The 61st General Assembly appointed a permanent committee of nine well-known church leaders and educators who were given the mandate to accomplish the task. The panel's chairman and prime-mover was the highly regarded United Presbyterian "pope" Dr. John McNaugher, the long-time professor and president of Pittsburgh and then Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological and the United Presbyterian answer to Warfield. What the committee returned, and the 1925 Assembly fully ratified was a concise statement of essential Westminster Calvinism phrased in the contemporary language and style of the 20th Century. 17
The statement officially dispatched the dying prohibitions against singing of hymns, secret society participation and membership and strictly closed communion -- though this now meant, essentially, that it was now possible to partake with other Presbyterian as well as Dutch and German Reformed communicants. Gone were the classic Seceder testimonial stands -- or almost. Even the new Statement made watered-down claims to past adherence. This can be seen in the preamble to the Confessional Statement which reads, in part:The United Presbyterian Church of North America declares afresh its adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, Larger and Shorter, as setting forth the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures, which are the only infallible and final rule of faith and practice. Along with this it affirms the right and duty of a living church to restate its faith from time to time so as to display any additional attainments in truth it may have made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, by constitutional action consummated June 2, 1925, it adopted the following Confessional Statement . This Statement contains the substance of the Westminster symbols, together with certain present-day convictions of the United Presbyterian Church. It takes the place of the Testimony of 1858, and wherever it deviates from the Westminster Standards its declarations are to prevail. . . .18And it becomes clear from a perusal of the form for the licensure of candidates for ordained ministry, that the General Assembly and the Presbyteries took seriously their stand with regard to high Calvinism. Licentiates were forced to do obeisance to an understanding of the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. The vow for probationers to become licentiates remained firm until the merger in 1958. It says:(1) Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice? (2) Do you believe and acknowledge the doctrines of the United Presbyterian Church, set forth in the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and the Confessional Statement, as agreeable to, and founded on, the Word of God, and do you promise to adhere to and maintain the same against all opposing errors?19Doubtless, as occurs in most denominations, there were probably some candidates who held mental qualifications or reservations with regard to their vows before their presbyteries during examination. However, if these folks did have such reservations, they kept their heads "low to the ground" and said nothing would have ever given them away. While the PCUSA may have decided in 1929 that it would no longer engage in heated theologizing, the same was decidedly not true of the UPCNA. Were a candidate for licensure, or even an ordained minister, to publicly disavow the confessional underpinnings of the church, he would have discovered himself before his presbytery of jurisdiction in short order for an official explanation, and more probably suspension or unfrocking.
And, as indicated briefly above, there was still -- even if only grudging and watered down -- a profound respect for the spirit of the old Testimony of 1858 found in the Confessional Statement. We can see this with regard to its renewed stands on Sabbatarian observance, public covenanting, psalmody and secret society participation. Article XXIX (of Sabbath Observance) enjoins members from partaking of any "worldly enjoyments and recreations" on the Sabbath. With regard to public covenanting, Article XXXI (Of Lawful Oaths and Vows) recommends the voluntary assumption of warranted Scriptural obligations by individuals and groups within the church when the need arises. Even though Article XXVIII (Of Praise) permits the practice of the singing of "meritorious evangelical hymns in which are expressed the experiences, privileges, and duties of the Christian Life" in worship, it still strongly and permanently recommends the singing of the "Psalms of the Bible, by reason of their Divine inspiration, their excellence and their evident design." And, of Secret Societies, Article XXXV (Of Church Fellowship) commends to all members the forsaking of "all associations, whether secret or open, that they find prejudicial to their church allegiance and a hindrance to the fulfillment of their Christian duties."20
In light of all of these enumerated factors, we can see that Gerstner's 1953 assessment of the theological climate of the denomination was essentially correct. The denomination had never abnegated its theological heritage and never intended to do so.
It would do well here to examine what the effect of such a change in standards may have been for the praxis of the congregations and communicants in the denomination at that time. We will use the family of Rev. Dr. Robert Kelly from the Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, Mt. Lebanon, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania as a case study of how the traditional distinctives worked themselves out in the context just described.
Kelly, now emeritus professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary of the PC[USA] and a minister in the UPCNA, the UPCUSA and the PC[USA] for 45 years, remembers "covenant childhood" akin to what most contemporary life-time Covenanters would describe today. He says he vividly remembers daily Family Altar conducted by his father every morning without fail. The standard pattern for Family Worship in the Kelly home was the reading of, and explanation of a Bible chapter, prayer concerns and at least "twenty minutes of sustained knee drills, led by my father."21 Kelly's father was a life elder on the session of the Mt. Lebanon Church and also served as an elder on the first session of the Bower Hill Community United Presbyterian Church, Mt. Lebanon when it was begun as a mission of Mt. Lebanon Church.I was born in 1927. I grew up on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon, and the story is told that my mother used to sit out in the sun in the front yard every day during the summer mornings doing her weeding when I was a baby. She would read whole bible chapters to me every morning -- I guess she just assumed that I would pick up and understand what she was reading by osmosis. As funny as that may sound, however, it goes to show that my family regraded me as a Covenant child.
I remember growing up in Twin Towers (the community nickname for Mt. Lebanon's twin-steepled large stone UP Church) and attending Rally Day every year. It was completely normal in the '30s and 40's to see older men wearing the long rows of pins and bars for 37 or 40 years of perfect Sunday School Attendance. I remember that we always sang at least one full psalm every Sunday in worship and that the hymns we sang really couldn't get any more radical in their departure from scripture texts than John Newton.
We got the United Presbyterian and the Christian Union Herald in the mail every week, and I remember growing up reading them faithfully every weekend.
In worship and in Sunday School -- except it was called Sabbath School then -- we got broad Calvinism hammered into us by use of the Shorter Catechism -- We had to memorize it. But mostly what I remember is having conservative Evangelical Christian distinctives taught to us. We had Decision Day at least once a year, we had regular mission speakers, and the New Wilmington Missionary Conference and Sabbath night service and Mid-week prayer service.
That's just the way it was.22
The Rev. Dr. Harold Scott, the late executive presbyter for Pittsburgh Presbytery and former professor of homiletics and pastoral theology at Pittsburgh-Xenia and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, describes much the same sort of life as a son of the UP manse from Sterling, Kansas. Scott recalled that his father's, and later on his own, churches always followed "pretty well established UP practices in worship and congregational life."23
The pages of the United Presbyterian for the years 1945 through 1957 are replete with examples of traditional orthodox Reformed instruction seen in article, feature, theological discussion of issues at General Assembly and the numerous synods and presbyteries. Every week there was a Sabbath School lesson contained as a regular feature of the magazine. The curriculum was written through various biblical books by quarter by senior ministers and leaders within the denomination. Nothing save the very occasional letter in the "Letters to the Editor" page ever hinted at any serious dissatisfaction with the UP Church's growing tendency toward discussion, cooperation and potential with other Reformed churches. If anything, the correspondent in such letters tended to support such policies by about seven-to-one.
All of the above -- positive, negative and just plain contradictory -- set the stage in the late 1930s through 1941 for merger discussions with the ARPC, the RCA the PCUS and the PCUSA. Committees on fraternal and ecumenical relation were kept rather busy with constant rounds of discussions and debates with representatives of other fraternal delegations.
Discussions with the ARPC were the first to begin in 1938 and -39. The committees set a fairly steady pace of about two to three meetings a year and were making good progress toward being able to actually draft a plan of union. Similar discussions were also engaged between the General Assembly and the General Synod of the RCA. All of these plans were set on hold by mutual agreement in the Winter and Spring of 1942 on account of the outbreak of America's entrance into World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Formal and informal cooperation among these Reformed churches continued with respect to pan-Reformed examination and review boards for military chaplains, Red Cross and inter-church cooperative relief work and at the local church level on any number of day-to-day war relief programs. In a sense these activities made the further discussion of unions and mergers all the more likely on account of the exceptionally high degree of cooperation exhibited across the board. Added to these activities was the impetus provided by the news of the war's increasing levels of brutality and its culmination with the beginning of the Atomic Age. Fear was rampant. -- fear of war, fear of communism, fear of fascism, fear of atomic holocaust, and then later of nuclear holocaust. Discussions of strengthened Christian presence, once-again influential churches and a united Christian voice concerning world affairs were seen as good and sufficient reasons of themselves for re-invigorated merger talks in the post-war era.
The first of the merger agreementsto be hammered out and voted upon was actually the one with the RCA. The Plan of Union for this proposed merger was submitted to the 91st General Assembly and the 1949 General Synod set to take place in June and July, respectively.
The enabling rationale for the merger is well summed up in its preamble which describes the perceived situation thusly: Since the Reformed Church and the United Presbyterian Church . . . hold the Reformed faith in doctrine and adhere to the Presbyterian form of church government; since any differences of faith or in order that exist between these two churches lie within the bounds of historic Calvinism and are readily reconcilable; . . we believe a union of these churches will in no wise subtract from the power of either but promises to release greater spiritual power in their witness and ministry. . .".24
The Basis for said Union producing the United Presbyterian Reformed Church would have been consummated on the basis of the Westminster Standards, the Confessional Statement, the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt and the Heidelberg Catechism. The union held great promise for a truly pan-Reformed Church that would have been achievable, would have bridged the Scots-Dutch chasm and greatly expanded the work of two roughly equivalent churches. The Assembly and Synod approved the merger and set it down to their constituent presbyteries and classes. The UP presbyteries returned positive votes. The RCA classes' votes yielded a net negative. It seems that the RCA classes were not happy at the possibility of loosing their distinctive Dutch Reformed identity. The merger died.25
The discussions with the ARP Synod likewise provided a solid plan of union that would have linked two geographically segregated presbyterian denominations of roughly equal size and almost identical theology. The Basis of Union was to be the Westminster Standards and the Confessional Statement. As with the RCA merger three years previous, the merger Plan of Union was approved by the Assembly and the General Synod and sent down to the presbyteries for their votes. Again, the UP presbyteries voted in the affirmative. Again, the prospective marriage partner queered the deal by effectively "jilting the bride at the altar," and moving on with its denominational life.26
About this time (July-August 1950 - July-August 1951) the push toward a three-way merger among the UPCNA, PCUSA and PCUS kicked into hyper-drive. It appeared likely that the merger would be accomplished with relative ease. The end-result seemed so assured based on the harmonious discussions of the respective merger committees that the constituent Assemblies had three identical sterling silver Celtic crosses cast; the intent was that at the time of the merger, the three crosses would be riveted together and would become part of the official regalia of office for each moderator (In 1983 this became a reality).
Rising tides of dissent on the part of the PCUS, and to a lesser extent the UPNA, began to make themselves heard and felt over the next three years. Finally the internal pressures within PCUS presbyteries killed their willingness to participate further so that its General Assembly eventually pulled out of the merger discussions entirely. Meanwhile the UPCNA and the PCUSA forged ahead.
SECTION IV: CONSUMMATION OF THE UPCUSA MERGER
& THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE UPCNA:
DESPITE OCCASIONAL RUMBLES of dissent from varying quarters with the denomination,27 the process toward full union between the UPCNA and the PCUSA was progressing full tilt. The essential impetus for the move was largely the same as it had been for the preceding 10 to 15 years. The hope was that the Church Universal would be strengthened for witness and service by such a merger and that there would be far greater resources for redoubling the already considerable evangelism and mission resources in the field for both of the remaining merger partners.
This sentiment is echoed in the comments of Scott who said he was fully in favor of the union when it was time to vote for it. He recalled that the elder commissioner from his congregation in Los Angeles who accompanied him to the 99th, and next-to-last, General Assembly of the UPNA in 1957 voted against the merger while he voted for it. "Essentially, from where I stood and what I could see at that time, we were joining into a really solid situation that had excellent potential to benefit ministry nationally and world-wide."28
This was a position also subscribed to by Kelly who said he voted for the merger because he saw it "ultimately, as a phenomenal opportunity for the advancement of the Kingdom of God here on earth."29 And even the estimable Gerstner, who came in time to proclaim the merged church apostate, allowed in 1953 that the merger, were it to go through had good potential.30
With such backing, then, how did the merged church turn out to be so much different from what its principal players foresaw?
Jack Rogers may well have provided the missing clue on that score with regard to the issue of theological subscription and deliberation at the General Assembly level. In a March 1988 lecture series at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,31 Rogers noted that a chief feature of the theological disagreement within the merged church (now PC[USA]) results from the different ways in which we are accustomed to approaching and discussing it. The old UPCNA and the PCUS had no difficulties hammering out their disagreements at the Assembly level and did so quite successfully until each merged with the northern church. The same cannot be said for PCUSA. In response to the bloody verbal punching fests of the teens and 20's, the General Assembly declared a moratorium on theological discussion to gain a measure of respite and give all parties time to "lick their wounds and heal." That moratorium was never rescinded with the inevitable result that the northern church was forced to utilize polity solutions in key theological debates whenever they arose.
"It was an absolutely understandable solution to an intolerably brutal situation within the life of that General Assembly. They were seeking unity and peace and the only way they saw to do it was to defer the theological discussions. Unfortunately, it was absolutely the wrong way to fix the situation."32
It is Rogers' contention that it was this pattern for not doing theology that created the space for the serious reinterpretations, mis-interpretations and misrepresentations of the Westminster Standards that occurred throughout the mid- to late- 1960s by many within the UPCUSA. He argues, cogently, that the Northern Mainline's willingness to force a subscription to Westminster that it was never willing or able to discuss created an incredible backlash of theological confusion that exploded into the eventual call for the drafting of the Confession of 1967.
Kelly agrees with this position and said he saw the tendency brewing at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and in the wider church for several years as "anti-Westminsterians" attempted to play off minute differences among Reformed confessions against each other. "When they -- I'll call them the `Young Turks' -- did this, they were preparing to call for the drafting of a new Confessional document that they hoped would supersede, rather than augment Westminster. In short, they highjacked Karl Barth's theology to do what they did to form C-67."33
Rogers said much the same and said that the framers of the Brief Statement of Reformed Faith were roundly attacked by proponents of C-67 because they feared that their own tactic was being played against them by a bunch of "arch-conservatives" who came along and wrote a creedal statement based upon the Apostolic Benediction. He further argued that this is not a problem -- or at least not an insurmountable one -- for those who interpret the entire sweep of the present PC[USA] Book of Confessions through itself from beginning to end and then compare the whole against Scripture. "When one does that one, will find an amazing amount of unanimity among them all -- they were all Reformed after all."34
This form of theologizing through polity came to infect the united denomination, Rogers argues and is part of the reason that the traditional UP and PCUS historic identity and epistemology have disappeared in the 38 and 13 years since those denominations merged with the old PCUSA to form the present PC[USA].
The other factor principally responsible for the loss of traditional UP distinctiveness and emphases in theology and hermeneutics was the merger of its only denominational seminary with one of 10 seminaries belonging to the PCUSA.
Kelly and Scott, in their interviews with the author, both noted that former Pittsburgh-Xenia President Addison Leitsch was firmly against the 1958 merger because he feared the loss of classic Reformed theology and exactly the type of seminary merger that eventually occurred with Western to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. "Dr. Leitsch said he was afraid of the loss for the church of our heritage because he was fairly certain that we'd [the Pittsburgh-Xenia faculty] get merged into Western. He said he feared two things -- the liberalism of Western and the dilution of UPs to the point of total ineffectiveness, Kelly recalled."35
Leitsch would seem to have been a prophet of sorts. The Pittsburgh-Xenia and Western Theological Seminaries were merged in 1959 - 60 to form the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. From that time onward there were never more former UP faculty member than 50 percent. Statistically, this meant that the old UP influence in theological education had dropped from one in 10 to one-half in 10.
SECTION V: CONCLUSIONS:
THE UNITED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH of North America disappeared, save in name, from the American scene because of three principle factors and one peripheral factor. The Church of the Seceders did not examine carefully enough the internal factors of the denomination into which it was merging itself. It failed to recognize the inherent dangers of merging into a denomination that statistically outnumbered it by a factor of 10 to 1. It allowed itself to lose its distinct theological contribution by merging its only seminary with one of ten PCUSA seminaries. And, finally the denomination was swallowed whole by a far larger denomination on the basis of its hope to achieve greater Reformed Christian unity and witness.
Things would certainly have turned out far differently had the UPCNA been successful in its merger attempts with either the ARP or the RCA synods, but they seem to have been either more skittish or else more cautious about the mergers they undertook.
Regardless, the result of the merger of the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America resulted chiefly in its having virtually disappeared save in the names and corporate memories of some of its former congregations.
Whether this disappearance will turn out to be permanent or not remains to be seen. Gerstner became convinced that it had become a permanent deal and that the PC[USA] had become apostate. Even so, he didn't come to this conclusion and make the jump to the PCA until six years ago in 1990. Many who share Gerstner's theological perspective have not been so convinced and still remain in the denomination.
Groups like Presbyterians for Renewal and the Presbyterian Lay Committee continue to lobby for, and gain support for their efforts to renew our subscription to our confessional heritage. These organizations have gone a long way in 10 to 15 years to alert people to the continuing theological drift within the PC[USA] and to attempt to reverse that trend through education and honest and straightforward theological discussion of issues at the General Assembly level.
If they truly achieve these goals, then we may be able to say that the witness of the Seceders has not disappeared entirely. In fact the PFR has reappropriated and employed the long neglected practice of public covenanting by insisting that its active members subscribe to its covenant of denominational renewal.
ENDNOTES:1. The United Presbyterian Churchof North America (UPCNA) had only 220,000 communicant members residing in the United States in 1958 (the last year of its history) as compared to the 2.2 million members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).
These numbers provide the 10 percent figure that will be used throughout this study. That said, however, in certain areas like Western Pennsylvania, Kansas and Iowa those numbers are far more highly concentrated than elsewhere in the country.
Thus, in Pittsburgh Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church [USA] (PC[USA]), roughly 55 to 60 percent of the churches in the presbytery have old UPCNA antecedents. Allegheny County, PA (the borders of Pittsburgh Presbytery) formerly contained two UPCNA presbyteries and one PCUSA presbytery of roughly equal size which were merged into one presbytery subsequent to the 1958 merger of the two denomination. Similar statistical groupings appear in other presbyteries as well.
2. Gerstner, John. "Origins and Later History of the United Presbyterian Church." unpublished paper (1953) 2.
3. Harper, R.D. The Church Memorial. (Cleveland, Flemming & Crawford, 1858) 13-4
4. Harper, 19-21.
5. Harper. 88-131.
6. McCulloch, W.E. The United Presbyterian Church and its work in America.
(Pittsburgh, Board of Home Missions of the UPCNA, 1925) 27.
7. Walther, James Arthur ed. Ever a Frontier: The Bicentennial History of the Pittsburgh
Theological Seminary. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994) 108-09.
8. McCulloch. 32-3.
9. Harper. 80-7.
10. Harper. 80-7.
11. The Digest of the Principle Deliverances of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian
Church of North America.
(Pittsburgh, United Presbyterian Board of Publication and Bible School Work, 1942).
12. Digest. 228-39.
13. Hare, Frank E. An Historical Study of Social Covenanting in the United Presbyterian Church
and Its Ancestors.
(Pittsburgh, Th.M. Thesis at Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, 1958).
14. Hare, 83-4.
15. Gerstner. 7-8.
*. The General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This is the descendent of the
ARP Synod of the Carolinas which separated itself from the ARP church in the early 1800s on account
of its great geographical separation from the rest of the denomination in the Northern United States.
That separation was accomplished amicably and without rancor on account of polity and geography --
not, as is sometimes asserted, because of theological disagreement.
16. Gerstner. 7.
17. McCulloch. 54-6.
18. Confessional Statement of the United Presbyterian Church of North America.
(Pittsburgh, Board of Christian Education of the United Presbyterian Church of North America, 1956). 7.
19. "The Book of Government and Worship," Chapter VII: Section 130 (1)-(2). Digest. 44.
20. Confessional Statement. 22-7.
21. Kelly, Robert. Personal Interview conducted by Albert Rhodes Stuart via telephone
22 April 1996 from 7:50 to 9:45 P.M.
22. Kelly Interview.
23. Scott, Harold. Personal Interview conducted by Albert Rhodes Stuart via telephone
19 April 1996 from 1:35 until 2:20 P.M.
24. Plan of Union: 1949. (Pittsburgh, Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, 1949) 7.
25. "Reformed, UP Merger Fails." The United Presbyterian. Monday, 8 May 1950. 12.
26. "ARP Church Turns Down Union Proposals" The United Presbyterian. Monday 18 June 1951. 12-3.
27. Blackwood, Rev. Robert. "Church Union Without `Forbearance in Love' -- Is it Workable?"
The United Presbyterian.
Monday, 16 January 1950. 8
(NOTE: Blackwood was Secretary General for the Sabbath School Association of Western
Evans, Hetty Graham. "Why Church Union?" The United Presbyterian. Monday, 13 March 1950. 2.
28. Scott Interview.
29. Kelly Interview
30. Gerstner. 17-8.
31. Rogers, Jack Bartlett. "What Do Presbyterians Believe?"
Taped Lecture Series at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. March 1988.
32. Rogers. "What Do Presbyterians Believe?"
33. Kelly Interview.
34. Rogers. "What Do Presbyterians Believe?"
35. Kelly Interview
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22 April 1996 from 7:50 to 9:45 P.M.
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(Pittsburgh, Board of Home Missions of the UPCNA, 1925).
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Taped Lecture Series.
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Volumes I & II, 1858 - 68.
Volume XIV, 1916 - 19.
ROGERS, Jack Bartlett.
What Do Presbyterians Believe?
Taped Lecture series at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. March 1988.
Evangelism: Its Forms and Functions.SCOTT, Harold. Personal Interview conducted by Albert Rhodes Stuart via telephone
Taped Lecture Series at Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, Va.) March 1973.
19 April 1996 from 1:35 to 2:20 P.M.
SCOULLER, James Brown. A Manual of the United Presbyterian Church of North America:
1751-1887. 2nd. Ed.
(Pittsburgh, UPCNA Board of Publications, 1887).
STUART, William Morey. Beckoning Clouds: A Half-Century in the Service of the People.
(Canisteo, N.Y., Unpublished Memoirs, 1952).
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Copyright © April 2000 by The Rev. Albert Rhodes Stuart
The Rev. Albert Rhodes Stuart
Rock Stream Presbyterian Church &
Lakemont Congregational Christian Church
Yates County, New York