PC(USA) – if we don’t divide, how do we stop fighting?

November 18, 2008 by
Filed under: Religion 

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about the pre-requisites for an orderly schism in the PC(USA).  I personally don’t favor dividing, but I’m just as weary as most others with the fighting that goes on because we don’t divide.

I got 5 comments in response.  Four of them were against dividing and one was in favor.

So the question for today is this – if we don’t divide, how do we stop the disagreements from tearing apart the church, and losing whole generations?

There are two hot-button issues today:  homosexuality and property rights.  A case can be made that the latter follows the former – that churches only care who has title to their property because they are considering breaking away from the denomination.  But both cases really boil down to one issue – rules and whether or not to follow them.

I believe in rules.  Rules make it possible for our society to function without decaying into a battle of the strongest and triumph of our basest emotions.  For the most part, I try to follow the rules most of the time.  This has occasionally confused people, particularly in the area of interpersonal communication where by following the rules and NOT having a hidden agenda I confuse them because they expect a hidden agenda.  Rules are generally a good thing.

Sometimes rules are a bad thing.  Sometimes rules are created or enforced in a way that gives one person or a group of people special power over others, without their consent.  This is when breaking the rules makes sense.  However, at all times you must be prepared to suffer the consequences of breaking the rule.  The privilege of being able to determine when to break the rules comes with the responsibility to accept the consequences of failing to prevail.  From a Reformed (and particularly Presbyterian) point of view – because our conception of the rules is determined by a consensus of what the Holy Spirit is telling us (through Scripture, Jesus and the working of the Spirit today) – there will be cases where faithful people will end up on the wrong side of the determination of consensus.  Some of us will believe that the Spirit is calling us to discern rule Z, and others to discern rule not-Z.  We decide by the quasi-democratic process whether Z or not-Z is right.  Those who are on the “losing” side are expected to follow the rule, or peacefully and individually separate from the communion.

Our troubles today come because people at the extremes are not following the rules.  It’s a problem on both sides.

On the progressive side, the failure to follow the rules comes when a person makes a public statement that they are or intend to have sex outside of a marriage of a man and a woman and still expect to be ordained.  That’s the rule (today, it may not be in a few months).  Ordination is limited to those who are determined by their local governing body to not be in a state of unrepentant sin.  The whole sex thing is codified specifically.  If you fail, by self-acknowledging that you are having sex with somebody other than your opposite-gender spouse, then you are not eligible.  It’s there in black and white.  I disagree, I hate the rule, and I’ll do all in my power to overturn it but it is there.  If you (progressives) are going to have any credibility with others in the church, you need to stick with the rules.  Besides, there are many ways for a gay or lesbian person to be ordained.  You can keep your mouth shut, and therefore not self-acknowledge.  You can not be asked the question in the first place.  What you can’t do is make a statement that “I’m gay, and I’m now or in the future going to act on it” and expect to be ordained.  And making statements that you have no intention of following the rules isn’t kosher either.  As I’ll say in a minute, you do have the option of going elsewhere.

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On the conservative side, the failure to follow the rules comes when a minister or session chooses to lead their church out of the PC(USA) without first following the proper procedure of working with the presbytery and being patient.  That’s the rule, and it has been since reunion.  (Note – those churches who have voted not to accept the Chapter 8 property restrictions by voting annually since reunion ARE exempt.)  Almost all of you have been ordained since reunion.  Others of you have chosen to remain in the PC(USA) since reunion – you’ve had 25 years to decide to leave.  I understand that you are concerned with the people who are not following the sex rules.  I disagree that it gives you the right to leave, but if you are that uncomfortable then so be it.  We have adequate scripture to back up your right to individually leave.  What isn’t in scripture, or the Book of Order, or the Book of Confessions is the right to expect to take your property with you.  Chapter 8 is there.  It’s the rule.  If you really can’t stand being in the PC(USA) and aren’t willing to negotiate with your presbytery and pay whatever penalty they come up with (and presbyteries – some of you aren’t playing nice either), then your recourse is to leave the church and walk down the road to whatever space you can rent/borrow/own and start a new church.  That’s the rule.  If you follow the procedure, history shows that you will eventually get to keep your building (though you might have to pay something for it).  Otherwise you have a way out – leave without the property.  But filing civil cases in order to assert property rights isn’t Christian, and it isn’t right.  And it’s not following the rules that you agreed to when you became a part of this community (the denomination) that makes its rules by communally discerning God’s will.  Don’t like it?  Overture General Assembly to remove Chapter 8.  Until now, you’ve won every vote in the presbyteries related to sex and ordination – why do you think you’d lose now?

So both sides aren’t following the rules, and they are pointing fingers at EACH OTHER yelling “He’s breaking the rules!  He’s breaking the rules!”  This in turn is attracting the attention of not just those involved in clearing up the playground fight, but the kids in the circle around them, and the kids not in the circle at all.  We’re losing people because we can’t play nice.  We’re losing people because we can’t fight respectfully and they don’t want to associate with us.  The perception is that Christians (and again – Presbyterians) spend all of their time fighting and arguing about the rules, and that Christians are judgmental and discriminatory (at least when it comes to gay people).  That’s keeping people out of the church, and a large part of a generation or two are calling themselves “spiritual but not religious”* and opting out of the church.

So the question is this:  What can we, who do not want a division, do to stop the voices that are calling for a division?  How do we stop the fighting that creates the appearance of a need for division?

I think the place to start is for those who are in the middle, those who do not want a split, to start holding those who ARE fighting to a higher standard.  We need to point out when people don’t fight fair.  We need to do the fact-checking that was done during our recent Presidential election, and counter arguments (most often from our own side) that are false.  We need to require respect for the opponent as a pre-requisite for debate.  In short – we need to make taking the high road an expectation in others.

And we also need to model humility.  When WE are called out by someone for behaving badly, we need to agree, apologize, and move on.  When OUR facts are wrong and we are correctly refuted, we need to admit that and move on (though sometimes we will be correct and defending that is the right thing to do).  In short, we need to take the high road even when others are taking the low road.

Can we do that?  I don’t know.  It’s a very high standard – one that I admit that I don’t meet 100% of the time.  But I believe that it’s what God expects us to do and what we need to do.

* I disagree with Mercadante’s conclusion that this problem is not the church’s fault.  Failure to recognize a shift and move with it is fault.  Our job is to preach the Gospel to all people in all times, and we have to be flexible about how we do that so that it (the Gospel) is received.  One key principle of communication is to use the style of the listener rather than the speaker in order for the message to be received successfully with regularity.  We in the church have too long insisted on OUR way, sometimes calling it God’s way.  I think we’ve been in the wrong on that.  Otherwise we’d be speaking Greek or Latin.


9 Comments on PC(USA) – if we don’t divide, how do we stop fighting?

  1. Alan on Thu, 20th Nov 2008 3:31 pm
  2. You make three assumptions. The first is that we’re fighting about sexuality. I’m not sure that’s true.

    If we take them at their word, the folks on the far right who want to split have made it abundantly clear that they believe the issue over which they want to split is *not* sexuality. Many of them have stated over and over in various venues that sexuality issues are only a symptom, not a cause, of their unhappiness. They believe the denomination (not just the far left, but they repeatedly state “the denomination” or “the PCUSA”) is apostate, that we (ie. the denomination as a whole) no longer follow Christ, that we (all of us) have abandoned Scripture, etc. I’m not trying to mischaracterize their position here; that’s what I’ve seen stated, and how I’ve seen it stated. And, since I try very hard (and often fail) not to make assumptions about someone else’s motives, then this isn’t really about sexuality for them (even though I don’t believe that’s true for one moment.) 😉

    So, if those of us who see sexuality issues as important issues backed off, would they suddenly stop fighting? I doubt it. They would find yet another symptom of our apostate-i-tude to fight about, and another after that, and another, and another.

    The second assumption you make is that people want to stop fighting. I’m not sure that is true either.

    You can’t make people happy when they are determined to be unhappy. Those in the far right who remain in the PCUSA score win after win after win. How many times has Delete-B been defeated, and at the last GA same-sex marriage, and reparative therapy overture several years ago, etc., etc., etc., and God knows how many other LGBT inclusive overtures? How about court cases? Is anyone on the left happy about the bizarre hair-splitting going on in PJC’s, that still refuses to acknowledge that same-sex marriages even exist? Of course not. So the far right continues to win on every front, and they just keep complaining.

    At the same time, as perhaps you’re aware, even folks who have *already left the PCUSA* spend all sorts of time on their blogs and elsewhere doing almost nothing but continuing to complain about the PCUSA. I honestly just don’t get that, but I think it does show the level of animosity that we’re talking about when people who have absolutely no stake anymore in what the PCUSA is doing still spend so much time obsessing about how heretical the PCUSA has become. These people have left the denomination and clearly do not want to stop the fighting. And they seem to enjoy juicing up the remaining far right in the denomination for continued fighting.

    So who, exactly, wants to stop the fighting?

    Third, you assume that fighting is bad. I’m not sure that’s true either, exactly.

    Well, as the fighting has gone, it is definitely true that it’s bad. The demonization of LGBT people by the far right is bad. The whatever is going on regarding property disputes thing is bad (though I still don’t think that has anything to do with liberal vs. conservative and it most certainly doesn’t have anything to do with sexuality issues.)

    But argument itself is good, I think. I don’t have a problem with people arguing about important issues. Justice is important enough, I think to argue about. And property, well, for better or worse, that’s pretty important too.

    The problem, as I see it is not that we’re arguing, it is that we’re not fighting fair, as you state. The far right wants to argue about sexuality while denying LGBT people a voice in the argument. They throw insults around like “heretic” and “apostate” and call GA commissioners “stupid.” And, when things don’t go their way, they want to cut and run (and then continue sniping from the sidelines). Perhaps someone on the other side could give a similarly unnuanced version of some way that the far left is not fighting fair as well, though I can’t think of one myself. 😉

    The question is not how to solve the argument, the question is how to get people to fight fair. Seems to me there are two options, either ignore the bad behavior, or call it out.

    For the first option, we’ve actually been trying that one for quite some time. Perhaps, not by design, but most of this bad behavior, it appears to me, has been completely ignored by what most people think is the majority in the church, the moderate middle. (I have heard about them for years, but as far as I can tell they’re like Yeti or something. Often talked about, rarely spotted.) Ignoring the far right doesn’t work, they just get more shrill.

    So, call out the bad behavior? Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. It has been 30 years, and the vast moderate middle hasn’t seen fit to wade into the sexuality debates, much. Where was the outcry of the moderates when their own GA commissioners were called apostate and stupid after our last GA? If they’re not even motivated to stand behind the people sitting next to them in their own pews, it seems unlikely that they’re going to care about some random property dispute in some church 800 miles away.

    See? I told you I don’t really have any answers. 🙂

    Personally, my solution about the whole splitting/property dispute stuff has been to not care, frankly, what the far right does regarding staying or leaving. They’re adults. I’m not stopping anyone from leaving. In the meantime I’ve got more important things to be concerned about, frankly, and no one has yet convinced me why I should care if some church of which I’ve never heard changes a few letters on its sign from PCUSA to EPC.

    Ugh. This all sounds like a bad divorce on a Lifetime Move of the Week, starring Meredith Baxter Birney.

  3. Mark on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 9:12 am
  4. Actually, there are 3 options to get people to fight fair.

    You’re right – the ignore option isn’t working. In fact, it’s letting the extremes from both ends dominate the conversation in the entire denomination.

    You’re also right that the calling out option isn’t working. To a certain extent, the calling out option IS fighting unfairly. It’s whiney. It seeks to invalidate the other’s words because of how they are spoken rather than their content. For example – stating that the right always wins votes invalidates their perception that they are losing. To them, that perception is very real, and this sounds like an attack on their ability to perceive reality. I don’t believe that it’s true the that the right always wins – Janet Edwards is still preaching, Janie Spahr is still preaching, and same-sex unions are still happening. I think a better way to put it is that the LGBT lobby hasn’t yet won completely – and that the incomplete win feels to a justice-minded person as half a victory which they define as no victory at all. (I will note that I have often called people out in the past. I’m going to try to avoid it in the future, but I make no promises. I’m just as fallen as any of us.)

    I’m coming to the realization that the 3rd option may be required – disciplinary action. Not by the right against the left or the left against the right. By the middle against both ends. It’s time to call people out for the sin of inciting division, and take concrete action (kick pastors out of pulpits, kick elders off of sessions). As dangerous a concept as it is, “conduct unbecoming a Christian” is a charge that could easily by laid to those at the extremes (and sometimes to me as well). We may need to start kicking butt and taking names.

    I feel that this is probably the WORST way to run a denomination, but then again I think we’re out of options. Our problems are caused by VERY vocal minorities at opposite ends taking over the conversation, the image, and the mission of the church. That’s what we need to stop.

  5. Alan on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 10:07 am
  6. It still isn’t clear to me what that discipline (if it worked. According to the far right, it doesn’t) is designed to accomplish. That is what problem is it a solution for? Perhaps your congregation is more effected by threats of split by the far right than mine. Frankly if I didn’t read about their complaints on blogs, I wouldn’t know about them. The fact that I do know about their complaints doesn’t mean I care.

    So is the effort of filing charges actually less than whatever hassle people perceive from the far right’s threat of a split? That seems like a tough case to make, especially to the frozen middle.

  7. Mark on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 2:17 pm
  8. My congregation. No.

    We have a core value (it was even in the last self-study) that we are accepting of people from all parts of the spectrum politically. That tends to produce theological diversity within limits as well. The homosexuality question only ever comes up when the pastor mentions it, and the congregation is very accepting of our gay and lesbian members. The property question never comes up – we’re not leaving and the congregation isn’t interested in national presby stuff all that much (except Bruce – we like Bruce!).

    Our presbytery is pretty progressive as well.

    If you want to learn more about them, check out http://pclawrenceville.org/ and the Facebook page and blog linked to that.

    The point that I was making is that it’s time for the middle to rein in the destructive behavior of the extremes. I would never go after a gay elder serving in a church that loves and accepts them. The people who are making the disturbance are the folks who intentionally try to manufacture publicity out of their situation. Those folks are creating noise and heat rather than light. On the other side, I would love to let churches go if they feel they must – particularly if they work with their presbytery to do so amicably. It’s the folks who create statements about apostasy and spread them all over the denomination, and who file civil suits to wrestle their property into their hands without talking to the presbytery first – these are the people who are trying to manufacture publicity out of their situation.

    On both sides, these people need to be recognized for the damage that they are doing to the church as a whole as well as to our denomination’s (and Christianity’s) reputation among our mission field – the unchurched. These folks are poisoning one bottle of Tylenol and nearly taking down the whole company.

    Put the pitchforks and torches down! Let’s stop the verbal lynchings and instead let the system work. The system has been working for a long time, and will continue if we let it.

  9. Mark on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 2:18 pm
  10. One more thought:

    When we say that we don’t care about the people on the opposite side, we’ve already lost. We are less Christian in that statement.

  11. Alan on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 3:52 pm
  12. “When we say that we don’t care about the people on the opposite side, we’ve already lost. We are less Christian in that statement.”

    To clarify, I specifically said I don’t care about their complaints. I care about them as much as I can care about people I’ve never met who think I’m a pervert and an abomination. I just don’t care about their complaining, particularly when they keep winning. Nor do I care about their arguments over property. I’m sure those issues are important to them. But they’re not important to me.

    You know of the story about the boy who cried wolf, right?

    So largely I just ignore them. I read their blogs to see what the far right is doing as far as strategy regarding issues I do care about. But their other complaints? Meh. Its impossible to tell what they really care about when they complain about literally everything, and I honestly have a very difficult time relating to people who continually suck the joy out of the Gospel at every opportunity.

    “The people who are making the disturbance are the folks who intentionally try to manufacture publicity out of their situation. Those folks are creating noise and heat rather than light.”

    Well, there are two ways of looking at that. Depending on which situations you are referring to, I might look at it as not hiding one’s light under a bushel.

    For example, several years ago, prior to our current pastor starting with us, our little church wrote an inclusive marriage policy. We did this because 1) we’d already had a couple same-sex marriage ceremonies in the church which were, from an administrative standpoint, not handled as well as possible, and 2) the federal government and many states had just passed Defense of Marriage Acts, backed largely by right wing Christian groups. We believed that, in an effort to evangelized to the largely de-churched LGBT community in our area, that it was important for our church to say clearly that “Not all Christians think that way.” So, we made our marriage policy public. We didn’t do it to tick off other local PCUSA congregations (though we did think it was good manners to tell the local churches that we were going to do this ahead of time.)

    However, the Presbytery immediately tried to spin this as our little church thumbing it’s nose as the Presbytery, which didn’t have anything to do with it at all.

    As you know, in order to get de-churched LGBT people in the doors, you have to just say more than that you’re “inclusive” or “welcoming.” Actions speak louder than words.

    Was that more noise than light or heat? Not to me. To me it was necessary, and we were fortunate enough to attract some new members, gay and straight, to Northside because of our *public* stand regarding marriage.

    “It’s the folks who create statements about apostasy and spread them all over the denomination, and who file civil suits to wrestle their property into their hands without talking to the presbytery first – these are the people who are trying to manufacture publicity out of their situation.”

    No question. And they reap what they sow.

    But I don’t believe that filing charges against them is going to do anything. There’s the “Declaration” or whatever they’re calling it, that has been floated by the far right that specifically says they will not abide by the denomination’s discipline. (Something which, I note with pride, no one has ever said regarding sexuality issues.)

    Again, I’m not saying I have any better ideas about how to deal with them. I’d prefer if they just left tomorrow, if that’s their wish. But for some reason, many of them just won’t pull the trigger. Unfortunately 1) I haven’t seen that even if they did leave they’d stop sniping at us, and 2) lots of these folks want to stay and have everyone else leave instead.

  13. Mark on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 4:18 pm
  14. To be clear:

    1. The “not caring” statement was not directed specifically at you alone. I’ve seen it from both sides in the form “I only care about my issues, I could care less about the other issues bothering person X”. That’s where I think we get off the track. If person X is concerned about property, then our job is to help him through it. That person is feeling real pain, and we can’t dismiss it. The pain may be based on fallacies or situations that aren’t real. Or maybe we just don’t see it completely. But either way – that person is in pain. It’s our job to minister to them as best we can, or find someone else where we can’t. Sometimes we really can’t help – but there’s a difference between “I wish I could help but if I try to get involved I’ll make things worse” and “It’s their problem, and I don’t care”. Now … I’ll grant that sometimes the complaints themselves are not genuine and are an attempt to generate attention/publicity. Then I lump them into not fighting fair.

    2. I don’t see a problem with what your church did. What I was addressing was things like the long-ago disruption of communion at General Assembly, or Janet Edwards’ decision to invite MANY people to her trial, or the highly publicized same-sex union performed during General Assembly. These were not pastoral actions – they were at best prophetic actions designed to generate publicity. At worst they were “thumb our noses at you” actions to show their opponents that they COULD do what they were doing without prosecution. This is nothing more than using “in your face” tactics. That is rarely productive. At most it galvanizes the community performing the action. At worst it galvanizes the opposition (see Prop 8 in California). Either way it’s designed to be an us vs. them activity. We don’t need that. We need “us and us” activities. That’s the whole point of this post – how do we stop fighting and dividing?

    3. I think you’re wrong that no one has ever said that they would not abide by the denomination’s discipline on sexuality. That’s the whole point of the More Light churches movement (trust me – I was there). It’s civil disobedience turned into ecclesiastical disobedience. The problem is that such disobedience is always a win/lose or lose/lose situation. We need win/win situations if we’re gonna stay together. We as Christians are called to love our opponents as much (or sometimes more) as our friends. Is it necessary to publish a document or statement that you will not discriminate based on sexuality? Or do you just do it and let folks find you. I’ll give you that it’s harder the latter way, but the gay community has literally hundreds or thousands of years experience in finding each other without a public face. Do we choose Joe Walker to be an elder in the Smith Memorial Church because he’s gay, or because he’s called by God? Does the latter need a statement? If actions speak louder than words, are the words necessary if the actions are present?

    You have a valid point about people who leave the denomination and then continue to snipe at it. I’ve written about that before, and I still feel that if you are gonna brush the dust off your feet and move on, you have to MOVE ON.

  15. Alan on Fri, 21st Nov 2008 5:21 pm
  16. 1. I mostly agree, though I’m more cynical than you, I suspect about which complaints are real, and which are just whining. Enabling that sort of behavior isn’t helpful, which I think we both agree on, perhaps just where the line is drawn.

    2. There are elements to a few things folks have done that I don’t much care for, too. No question. Bringing friends to your trial isn’t a problem, but given how much work a wedding is, I’ve never been a fan of those sorts of public ceremonies-as-statements. But almost all those actions get lumped together by some as “thumbing their noses at …” when that isn’t always the intent. Again, I think we mostly agree here.

    3. On this we disagree. To my knowledge, on sexual orientation issues, no person has ever refused to abide by the denomination’s discipline. As far as I am aware, every person who has violated the BoO on these issues, and has been charged, has stood trial and cooperated with the Investigating Committees and Prosecuting Committees, with the exception of one person who gave up his ordination (which is also “being governed by the discipline”.) That’s following the discipline. Breaking the rules and accepting the consequences is classic Gandhi-esque non-violent opposition.

    But what the far right is proposing with their “Declaration” is that they will refuse to follow the discipline, that’s very different. Break the rules all you want if you think they’re unjust and unBiblical, but you’re still responsible to your ordination vows and still need to accept punishment if it gets dished out.

    “Is it necessary to publish a document or statement that you will not discriminate based on sexuality? Or do you just do it and let folks find you. I’ll give you that it’s harder the latter way, but the gay community has literally hundreds or thousands of years experience in finding each other without a public face.”

    True. But in my experience, given the hatred and real spiritual violence that many (most?) LGBT people have suffered in churches and at the hands of Christians in general, if you don’t say the words out loud, they’re not going to believe you. You’ll notice I use the term de-churched, rather than un-churched. I do that for obvious reasons.

    We often get calls to our church office from folks saying, “So what does it mean that you’re “an inclusive community”? They’re always rather vague. Our church secretary used to just say, “Oh we welcome everyone.” and she’d get a polite thank you and a hang up. When I suggested that she say the words … all of ’em, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc… people would then ask where we were located. Often those people show up the next Sunday and quietly mention to me after church that they were surprised we welcomed LGBT people. Even after meeting us, and hearing what we’re about, it takes a while before they believe it. That has been our experience anyway, that you have to be as out as possible.

    As for things like ordination, we’ve never made statements about that because who runs the church is an internal church matter. Though I did always want to find a way to make a big deal about having at one time, what was I’m sure, the only session in the PCUSA with two transgender women, a lesbian, and a gay man on it.

    Our marriage policy was a different issue, even though almost no one who read those news stories could have come to Northside to get married because they’re not members or friends of the church, but that was a response to a broader societal issue. When our minister stopped signing marriage certificates for straight couples for whom he performs marriages, that made the paper, again because of the broader societal issue. It’s a line to walk, and the question we always ask is: is this real evangelism to the LGBT community, or is it just showing off?

  17. Beth Ross on Wed, 22nd Jul 2015 12:28 pm
  18. If you really think the issue is homosexuality, then you are deceived. The issue is that the PC USA is being taken over by atheist. See progressivechristians.org to find out what they teach and then search for PC USA churches, Progressive Christians. Do some research, you will find out all you need to know!!

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