The 217th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) occurs on June 15-22 in Birmingham, Alabama. Contention and schism are not new to this church. Since the 1920s churches have been leaving, arguments have been all too common, and new churches have been formed as a result. What makes this GA any different?

Debate over several (overtures) proposals will occur at this meeting. Many believe that the end results of these actions will shape the future of the PCUSA more than any previous action at any previous GA. Why? In short, the issues all come down to the church finding a way to approve homosexual ordination even though the church has time and again rejected it. On three earlier occasions the GA has sent decisions to the various presbyteries, seeking a positive acceptance of homosexual ordination, and three times the 170 or so presbyteries across the United States have rejected the GA’s proposals. This time the approach taken, and thus the results, will likely be different.

A few years ago a Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity was formed. If the proposal of the Task Force is accepted at GA, and most believe that it will be, presbyteries would be allowed to determine the matter of homosexual ordination case by case, within their own presbyteries. In short, this Task Force recommends that ordaining bodies (presbyteries) be allowed the “option” of considering the present prohibition against homosexual ordination non-essential. This, in effect, destroys the national church and its already tenuous unity by making each presbytery fully autonomous on the issue. By this ruling a minister ordained in one presbytery, and then moving into another, would likely be accepted (at least in the calling church). By this action a presbytery that clearly stands against ministers who are practicing homosexuals would be required to accept (de facto) what they do not wish to approve. The end result is a complete rejection of both biblical ethics and Presbyterian polity.

Is it not odd that this proposal comes from what is called a Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity? It pursues only one small part of its name, peace. And it pursues that at a high price and destroys the unity, and even more importantly, the purity of the PCUSA. (Granted the purity has been broken for decades so this is a final shot in a long struggle. But it will likely be the fatal shot and that is why this moment is momentous.)

What happens after the GA is anyone’s guess. Probably several thousand congregations, and maybe whole presbyteries (San Diego comes to mind), may leave the national church completely. We would then see endless court battles over property. A hope I personally entertain is that the national church will be forced, over the next year, to see the error of its judgment clearly enough to open a window of conscience for a few years, as they did when the Northern and Southern churches merged some years ago. This window would allow churches to leave without the bitter legal battles. Liberals are not known to be truly liberal when property and control are both at stake so we shall see how this works out. If this were to happen I then pray that several new national Presbyterian groups will not be the result. I support churches in their conclusion that they will have to leave the PCUSA. I question, however, forming several new church bodies. I hope these leaders, who have stood on the moral high ground, will resist all schismatic solutions and consider membership in an existing group. There are several options, including the oldest denomination in the United States, the Reformed Church in America, or the newer Presbyterian group, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. (No, the PCA will not work for most of these congreagtions for reasons I cannot go into at this point!) A second option would be that some new expression, formed out of real love for true unity, would unite all those churches of conscience that feel compelled to leave.

The old connections of the PCUSA are clearly being destroyed by the radical forces of modernity and unbiblical sexual expression. What happens next is unclear. You will read a great deal about the actions of this GA in the news next month. Pray for those who are involved in this struggle. Pray for the unity and purity of the church, not just for peace at this very high price. There are some things worse than disunity, as important as it is. We dare not treat this subject lightly when Jesus refers to porneia (sexual sins) as evil in Mark 7:22-23. But truth be known, most churches have treated certaian sexual sins far too lightly for decades, which is precisely why we have this huge battle now.

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  1. Todd Baucum May 10, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    I felt compelled by conscience to leave the PCUSA over a year ago, with much pain and tears. This was done before the mass exodus, of which I doubt will happen. I believe, rather a back door option will allow conservatives to not feel the urgency to make a radical break. My prayers is that they may, and as you say, join an existing Reformed body. The choice I made in the PCA is not an option for most, because primarily of the question of women’s ordination.
    I was always made to believe by evangelicals in the mainline, that the PCA was backward and sexist. Believe me, it is not at all monolithic and there is great latitude in its diversity under the banner of Scriptural authority and a commitment to the Westminster Standards.

  2. Jim Jordan May 16, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks for a detailed article. My church, First Presbyterian of Fort Lauderdale, is a PCUSA church and I would love to see us leave. If the congregation knew of PCUSA’s stands on the issues most would leave in a heartbeat. It also constrains the church from doing effective outreach as they can’t advise against abortion, pre-marital sex, et al. The pastors do their best but at some point it becomes a weak cup of tea. So what do you suggest for leaving PCUSA with the least amount of fuss?
    Take care.

  3. Larry May 17, 2006 at 7:35 am

    The 11,000 churches in the PCUSA need to start using the power of the purse strings to cut off all funding of the denominational bureaucracy from presbytery to synod to GA.
    The 11,000 churches will the PCUSA will survive and maybe some of them will even prosper if the denominational bureaucrats are removed from their jobs.
    Rhetorically I keep asking: “How does a GA Stated Clerk, or a Synod Executive, or a Presbytery Executive help your church grow?”

  4. Tara July 31, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    We are faced with leaving the PCUSA. We are not sure where to go. Could you tell me why you say the PCA is not an option for most? Thanks!

  5. John Armstrong August 1, 2006 at 8:11 am

    The reason the PCA does not fit conservative congregations leaving the PCUSA is quite simple. The PCA rejects both charismatic expressions and the ordination of women office holders. Most PCUSA congregations that would leave would more than likely not go back on these kinds of issues. This is why I suggest the RCA and the EPC are better fits for leaving PCUSA churches.

  6. Michelle Canning July 31, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Do you know the details of the PCUSA’s decision to ordain women? The reason for my question is that our pastor promised that homosexual ordination will not affect our church however isn’t there now a mandate to have at least one female pastor and female elders? Isn’t it logical that the same mandate would hold true for homosexual pastors and possibly elders?

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