One of the most disappointing aspects of the video testimonies of Ruling Elders on the church’s website is the consistent but vague criticisms about the PC-USA denomination.
Not one of the elders’ claims points to any specific evidence in support of the criticisms. Instead of providing a valuable advancement of the conversation, the testimonies simply repeat falsehoods and half-truths that have been used to break apart churches all across America — specifically that PC-USA is no longer Christ-centered and focused on Scripture.
In all of the elders’ testimonies, the only critical evidence offered is the denomination’s declining number of churches. But nowhere are those two things linked in any kind of reasonable cause-and-effect explanation. (Indeed, many churches appear to have left the denomination because their members blindly believed the claims about PC-USA made by people motivated by the denomination’s allowances on same-sex marriages).
How and why has PC-USA’s devotion to the lordship of Jesus Christ been questioned and used to move churches away from PC-USA and into ECO?
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, Dr. Charles Wiley, Coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship In the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PC-USA), provided a factual backdrop for how and why those questions arose and were then fashioned into falsehoods. His presentation was delivered in the church sanctuary before an audience of fewer than 150 people.
Dr Wiley said that, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed-down its ruling on same-sex marriage, it put into motion a series of actions that ended with PC-USA’s altering its definition of marriage to acknowledge the position of some churches that believed God would bless such unions.
The denomination, he said, did not issue a blanket redefinition of marriage. It merely acknowledged the Scriptural interpretations of a few churches that, while a minority, were nonetheless faithful.
PC-USA continues to acknowledge that other churches have sharply different Scriptural interpretations on the matter, and the denomination honors and protects their faithful beliefs as well, he said.
Those that disagreed most strongly with PC-USA’s change began to seek ways to break away from the denomination but, Dr. Wiley noted, under Calvin’s Institutes, one of the founding documents of our faith, anyone who seeking to break the unity of a church would have to meet a stringent test:
“For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished.”
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, reprinted 1977), Book IV.1.10, pp. 1024-1025.
It became clear that any church that wanted to leave the denomination to join ECO or any other denomination would have to make the argument that PC-USA no longer “cherishes the true ministry of the Word and sacraments.”
Critics of PC-USA then began circulating critical notices about a 2000 conference presentation titled “What’s the big deal about Jesus?”made by a PC-USA leader who was seriously examining the question of the importance of Christ in the church.
Dr. Wiley said that, while they called attention to the controversy, the critics did not provide a full accounting of the actual point of the presentation: Jesus is, indeed, a very big deal! The title was meant to be ironic.
However and unfortunately, instead of responding directly and clearly to the unfounded criticism of the presentation, PC-USA responded in such a “muddled,” procedure-focused way that the 2001 Assembly deemed that a vote was necessary to clearly assess the denomination’s devotion to the lordship of Christ. In 2002, the vote was taken, and the result was crystal clear. Overwhelmingly, the Assembly voted 497-11-5 in support of the statement that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and trust in him” — 497 out of the 513 Commissioners.
But, instead of pointing to that overwhelming vote, critics of PC-USA instead ended their story by pointing to the results of a 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey that asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “Only followers of Christ can be saved.”
The critics noted that only 41 percent of PC-USA ministers answered “yes” to that statement, proving that the denomination was no longer Christ-centered.
What the critics didn’t add, however, is that many of the people who answered “no” to the question were simply pointing out that the question was narrowly worded. Many people –young children and mentally-deficient people not capable of consciously acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ, for example — are not necessarily damned to hell. That would mean that the statement “Only the followers of Christ can be saved” should thus be answered as false.
Instead of detailing the theological points that would influence the answers to that survey question, critics of PC-USA use it as definitive evidence that the denomination is no longer Christ-centered.
In answer to questions from the audience, Dr. Wiley said there should be no fear that legal challenges will eventually force PC-USA churches to allow same-sex marriage or the ordination of homosexuals.
He said no pastor has ever been legally forced to perform a marriage and that it is highly doubtful that one ever will. The only place where legal requirements would ever likely affect marriage eligibility rules would be at for-profit, non-denominational wedding chapels, such as those operated in Las Vegas or other resort cities.
A recording of Dr. Wiley’s presentation was made and, we hope, will be made available on the church’s website.
Click here to download Dr. Wiley’s presentation notes.