Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”
"Social justice" is somewhat a euphemism for "concern for people who are NOK." Evangelism, defined as a rigid emphasis on salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and one a narrow concern with salvation alone, is both a cultural standard of churches in the South, and convenient cover for not paying too much attention to people who are NOK. The old phrase is "The preacher done stopped preaching and gone to meddlin'!" It is never applied to questions of personal salvation. It is always referring to questions of how we treat, and more importantly think about, others.
It is the latter that is the real flash point.
There is no on-line link, but the Pastor of FPC Houston was on the local NPR affiliate insisting the ordination of gays authorized by the PCUSA 3 years ago was not the driving force for this move. It is hard not to hear that in the context of all the public officials in Arizona urging Jan Brewer to undo what some of them just did. It could be the media is selecting quotes like this and making them seem more representative than they are:
In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes itself by its homophobia.”And let's be honest, this is about bragging rights, and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) is headhunting:
ECO, founded in 2012, is tiny by comparison, boasting just 112 member churches. But dozens of new congregations are in the process of joining the evangelical group, which has successfully recruited some of the largest and wealthiest Presbyterian churches in Texas to its ranks.There is more going on here than purity of theology or polity. "Evangelical" is also a cultural marker. The great distinction in my childhood between Presbyterians and Southern Baptists was that the latter were far more "evangelical" than the former, but at the time the term referred more to worship style and evangelizing, not to political/social ideology. On that subject there really wasn't much difference. That, too, is what some refer to when they complain about emphasis on "social issues."
First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million endowment. The church is 175 years old.
So some of this split in the church represents a replay of the division between generations I experienced 45 years ago:
Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s “theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield led church staff in a unanimous call for the denominational switch. In a January meeting before the congregation, he expressed concerns about First Presbyterian’s ability to attract younger members, who he said would respond to the church’s focus on orthodoxy.Which orthodoxy is the orthodoxy of the next generation?
Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to. They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision, and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further isolate young members from the church.
Dig a bit deeper, there were problems in FPC with PCUSA apart from the question of gays and lesbians. One was a Presbyterian church in Austin accepting an admitted atheist into membership. An odd bit of a one off, but an indicator that, once they started worrying, everything was on the table. The broader question was the theological issue of salvation, specifically the exclusionary doctrine of salvation which is going to promote more problems, not fewer, for Christianity in general going forward. And the clearest indication that the times they are a changin' is the perception PCUSA was withdrawing from missionary work, here understood as taking the light of the gospel to the benighted peoples of the world (an extension of the soteriological question). Which indicates both the age of the congregants concerned, and the fact that evangelism as a theological issue was behind some of the concerns of some of the congregation.
Interesting, too, that the Session of FPC insisted their concerns were with theology and especially Christology, and yet the "Statement of Faith" they produced in 2012 emphasizes the importance and inerrancy of Scripture. The "liberal" UCC Statements of Faith of 1959 is extremely Christological, and none of the three make any no statement of faith on, or in, Scripture at all. There is such a thing as idolatry of scripture.
On the other hand, the Session of FPC started questioning their relationship with PCUSA after the latter passed a resolution effectively allowing for the ordination of gays and lesbians. The Rev. Birchfield may want to insist that three years later this was not a driving cause of the process, but it was clearly the producing, if not even the proximate, cause. Again, I think of Arizona.
I think of Arizona because churches are creatures of their social location as much as any organization is, and even as FPC wants to reject the changing times and social mores, it is bound up in them and snubs them, or outright defies them, at its peril. Perhaps from the comforting association of ECO the Rev. Birchfield would proclaim equal treatment of gays and lesbians a sin and a violation of the gospels; but now he wants to erase the issue altogether. To do that, he needs to clean up his church's website. Their "Report from the Session's Task Force on Denominational Issues: Examining Changes in PCUSA Governance and Related Matters" is dominated by, and makes the catalyst of the concerns of FPC, the decision to allow ordination of gays and lesbians in the PCUSA.
Interestingly, the Rev. Birchfield signed a letter that put the question of who can be ordained in the PCUSA at the center of the reasons why PCUSA was going astray. In the first paragraph of that letter to address this issue, there is this sentiment: "There is no longer a common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.” " To which I would answer: this is what it means to be "Reformed":
Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.I realize I'm coming down hard on something that is a non-story outside the confines of the Presbyterian church in Texas, or maybe just in Houston; but there's a national story here, too. It's a cultural story, a story of how churches face pressures to conform with ideas that may well have lost their life, or have never had life. One of the primary concerns of the pastor of FPC, from the letters he wrote to this church, was the declining membership of young people. There are two universal solutions to that problem, and neither seems particularly effective: be more traditional, or be wholly untraditional. The church faced this problem 45 years ago, and it gave the same response then it gives now. Funny thing, "traditional" still means "conform to the moral and social standards of the immediate community," and even in small town Texas in the '60's, that was a appropriate only for highly localized communities, communities defined by the church as much as by the community around those churches.
And in seeking a solution to that problem, the pastor of FPC lead his church to a precipice, but the church refused to go over it with him. The question for him is: whom does he pastor now, and how does he pastor them? Because the real issues of pastoring involve pastoral care, and getting people to not only allow for our differences, but to think about those differences. It is one thing to speak of groups in the abstract: as gays or blacks or Hispanics. It is another matter to think of them as human beings, rather than people we cannot allow to be fully among us. How we treat others is not just a matter of thinking charitable thoughts, it is a matter of thinking of them as acceptable just as they are. Turning the other cheek is a mental as well as a physical action. Caring for the least among us is a spiritual, not just a charitable, act. Charity begins, not just at home, but in the heart.
It is not enough to just not mistreat people; you must treat them well. It is not enough just to not think ill of people; you must think of them as well, as being as good as you. And that, as I say, is the real flash point: hospitality.