Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Strangers: Why the Evangelical Church Needs the Liberal Church: A Presbyterian Split Would Be a Serious Setback for Reformed Orthodoxy

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Strangers: Why the Evangelical Church Needs the Liberal Church: A Presbyterian Split Would Be a Serious Setback for Reformed Orthodoxy

Article excerpt

The Presbyterian Church (USA)--like many Christian denominations--has been starkly divided over the role of gays and lesbians in the church. It feels to many, as author Richard Mouw puts it, that the church is getting ready for "divorce court." Should the church split or stay together? The authors of these two articles--both Presbyterian, one liberal and one conservative--differ on many things, but they are in accord about whether unity--or schism--is the best way forward.


There is so little room for genuine give-and-take in our Presbyterian discussions these days, while at the same time so much hangs on how our conversations go. The issues that we are discussing are not simply topics about which we happen to disagree. They are matters that are vitally connected to the question of whether we can stay' together as a denomination. In that sense, our present Presbyterian debates do not feel like friendly arguments over the breakfast table, or even the more heated kinds of exchanges that might take place in the presence of a marriage counselor. Bather, it often feels like we are already getting ready for the divorce court, under pressure to measure every word that we say with an eye toward the briefs that our lawyers will be presenting as we move toward a final settlement.

I hope with all my heart that we can avoid the divorce court. I want us to stay together. I do not have a clear sense of what it would take to avoid what many of our fellow Presbyterians apparently are convinced is an inevitable separation. I do sense, however, a strong need to keep talking.

The church, some insist, is not some mere voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us to the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with each other, even if that goes against our natural inclinations. I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether we are expected by God to hang in there at all costs. I think that this is an important question.

I genuinely believe that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely, the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish, for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices who are defending their understanding of orthodoxy. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern church. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to the denomination's liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them. The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion.

This meant that the quality of theological argumentation suffered for several decades--some would even say up to our present time--in mainline Presbyterianism.

THE SECOND WAY in which the cause of Reformed orthodoxy was diminished has to do with what happened to the conservatives themselves after they left the mainline denomination. They quickly began to argue among themselves, and it was not long before new splits occurred in their ranks. The result was that conservative Calvinism itself increasingly became a fractured movement.

I worry much about what would happen to Presbyterian evangelicals ourselves if we were to leave the PC(USA). …

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