I learned recently of yet another congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has voted to leave the denomination. This congregation is in nearby Thomasville, Georgia. First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville has a special place in my heart because it was one of two spiritual homes during a sabbatical several years ago.
On Sunday mornings during my sabbatical I’d drive 30 miles north to Thomasville. I’d join the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church for their early service and then meander over to First Presbyterian for their eleven o’clock service. I struck up a strong friendship with Bill Seel, who was pastor at First Presbyterian at the time.
Both graduates of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Bill and I were not always in agreement theologically, but we shared a love of books and ideas. Bill became a valued colleague and friend. We shared the Reformed commitment to “the life of the mind in service to God,” but more importantly, we broke bread together and we prayed together.
It saddens me to learn that 83% of Bill’s former congregation have voted to leave the PC(USA). I’ve always admired this congregation’s strong commitment to mission in far-away places. I am not privy to the conversations and meetings that led to the decision, but I’m guessing the issues were the same ones Presbyterians have been wrestling with for decades – the ordination of homosexuals, gay marriage, and the “lordship of Christ,” – all grouped under the category of “Biblical authority.”
Along with all of the “mainline” denominations, the PC(USA) is declining in membership and contributions. That decline has much more to do with cultural shifts, the loss of de facto establishment, and the failure of the church to retain and engage its own children than it has to do with squabbles over how to read Leviticus and Romans.
Despite the efforts of some brothers and sisters to frame the sexuality debate as one between those who accept “Biblical authority” and those who reject it, the issue is not, and has never been, “Biblical authority.” The struggle is over how to read and interpret the Scriptures as they bear witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. By and large, Reformed Christians have grounded the Scripture’s authority not in the words of the Bible per se, but in the Bible’s reliable witness to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.
So-called “liberals” do not reject the Bible’s authority. They simply read and interpret the Biblical texts differently from so-called “conservatives.” Just like conservatives, liberals seek to live under the Lord Jesus Christ whom they meet in the words of Scripture. Until Presbyterians are able to accept one another as sincere followers of the Living Word, they will continue to squander precious gifts of time, talent, and money on an unwinnable debate.
Schism is hardly ever the answer. The answer lies in loving one another, hearing one another, and working together in mission – and, of course, “in the breaking of bread and the prayers.”