A Shadow of Former Things: PCUSA General Assembly Post Mortem Analysis

Why did the biennial meeting of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country garner so little attention?

Why did the biennial meeting of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country garner so little attention? Well, news outlets like extremes and from a worldly perspective, nothing particularly explosive happened. Volatile items of business like that related to Israel and fossil fuels, were answered in measured ways. The so-called “apology overture” in which LGBTQQ advocates were demanding a public and comprehensive apology for harms done in the past, was amended down to a statement of deep regret. So, from the world’s perspective, little news was made during the eight day meeting that costs more than $33K/hour.

 

There seemed little reason to be meeting in a space as large as the Portland Convention Center as the exhibit hall was nearly empty as were the bleachers and most of the chairs in the section for observers of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Press row was a mere 11 chairs, four occupied by The Layman, four by The Presbyterian Outlook, one by the GAJunkie, and none by secular press.  So, if you were waiting for secular news media coverage of the PCUSA General Assembly (GA222), there wasn’t much. The Associated Press did seek to disperse one article entitled “Largest Presbyterian denomination picks 1st black leader,” in reference to the election of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as the fourth Stated Clerk of the PCUSA.

It’s not that Presbyterians didn’t garner big headlines last week, it just wasn’t the Presbyterians in the PCUSA. The PCA, Presbyterian Church in America, made plenty of headlines for its renewed conversation about the role of women in leadership, while the PCUSA’s election of a pair of female co-moderators in the 50th year of the ordination of women failed to make a media ripple.  Similarly, the PCA’s repentance of “racial sin” also made national headlines whilst the PCUSA’s many apologies issued to several native people groups, African Americans or victims of church sexual abuse did not.  The PCUSA’s own Presbyterian News Service, The Presbyterian Outlook and The Layman were joined in the press section by bloggers but no other Christian media outlets were physically present.

Why did the biennial meeting of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country garner so little attention? Well, news outlets like extremes and from a worldly perspective, nothing particularly explosive happened. Volatile items of business like that related to Israel and fossil fuels, were answered in measured ways.  The so-called “apology overture” in which LGBTQQ advocates were demanding a public and comprehensive apology for harms done in the past, was amended down to a statement of deep regret.

So, from the world’s perspective, little news was made during the eight day meeting that costs more than $33K/hour. But one must also consider the possibility that the lack of media coverage is an indicator of the world’s disinterest in the machinations of a declining denomination wherein the debates are now largely between varying degrees of liberalism.

 

The world has little interest in the fact that the PCUSA GA:

The second mark of the Church: the right administration of the sacraments

According to Reformed theology there are three marks of the true church: where the word is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and church discipline rightly applied.  The first and third marks have been at issue among American Presbyterians since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s. But to this point, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been maintained, at least in the denomination’s documents, with integrity. The new Directory for Worship adopted by the General Assembly effectively decouples baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table.

Efforts were made by commissioners to amend the proposal to restore the explicit requirement that those receiving communion be baptized.  Those efforts failed and the debate was illustrative of the reality that pastors are not currently administering the sacraments in keeping with the PCUSA’s constitution. They are not asking if those partaking are baptized and they are offering to baptize those they know are baptized into the Christian faith. This leads directly into the conversation about the assembly’s action on evangelism … but first, let’s talk evolutionary theory.

Embracing evolution and eschewing evangelism

In several separate items of business the PCUSA affirmed evolutionary theory and eschewed evangelism.

In 1969, the PCUSA started down an evolutionary path that resulted in the 2016 full endorsement of evolution. Evolution and climate change were not matters of serious debate but treated as foregone conclusions by a wide majority of commissioners.

A majority of commissioners also rejected calls for a commitment to evangelism.

I couple these two issues together because of the Gospel. If you do not accept the reality of Man’s unique creation in God’s image, you need not accept so-called binary ideas like the purposeful nature of male-female creation. Nor do you need to acknowledge that Creation, in God’s original design, was perfect, marred by sin and now subject to sin’s degradation.  So, if sin is not personal then redemption from sin need not be personal, effectively eliminating the need for a personal savior.  That changes the nature of the Gospel.

Evangelism becomes something radically different and the first Great End of the Church, “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind,” means a social-justice, progressive restoration of creation and not the seeking and saving of the spiritually lost.

When you change the gospel being proclaimed you redefine the mission of the church. That means that henceforth, when you see the word “evangelism” used in PCUSA literature related to local, national and international mission, you must now ask what is expressly meant by that term because this General Assembly made clear that it does not mean personal conversion to Jesus Christ alone as Savior and Lord, by faith alone, through grace alone, as defined by Scripture alone.

There can no longer be any question that Machen was right when he observed that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. The PCUSA has made abundantly clear which faith alone will be practiced under its denominational flag.

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