You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I’m Not Afraid of Schism)

It’s been a rough half-century for folks in the mainline Protestant denominations.  The numbers are undeniable.  We are smaller than we were in the 1950s and 60s.  Everybody seems to have a pet theory about why this is happening.

Extremists on one side are convinced that this decline in numbers is caused by fanatical adherence to superstitious dogmas that have been rendered irrelevant by philosophical, scientific, and technological advancement.  Extremists on the other side are convinced that the wrath of God is smiting our denominations with death because they have bowed down to the heresies of the modern world.  I want to say the same thing to extremists on both sides:

“Shut up and sit down.  This kind of talk isn’t helpful.”

While these voices tend to be the loudest, I find more often that they are in the minority.  Most folks in our churches identify themselves as moderates who tend to lean to one side of the spectrum or the other.

In spite of rampant conspiracy theories to the contrary, I find that most moderates on both sides are compassionate and intelligent believers who are essentially saying the same thing:

“I want to stay faithful to the core values of my faith, but I’m afraid that my denomination is becoming a place where I won’t be able to do that.”

We’ve all been through this before.  American mainline Protestant churches have split over the abolition of slavery, biblical literalism, the ordination of women, and (most recently) same-sex marriage.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which I will abbreviate as PC(USA), is currently wrestling with the recent creation of a group that calls itself the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  ECO is a group that has come together out of its founders’ desire to have a denominational community with shared theological values and a commitment to evangelical mission in the world outside the walls of the church.  They believe the PC(USA) has drifted from its core theological roots and become too inwardly and institutionally focused.  They see the PC(USA)’s recent decision to allow for the ordination of non-celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people and this summer’s upcoming vote on same-sex marriage as symptoms of the larger and deeper theological problem.

Just to be clear about where I stand, let me lay all of my cards out on the table.  Those who know me or follow this blog will already know this, but I’ll say it again for the sake of any newcomers and first-time readers.  I identify as a theologically liberal Presbyterian.  I am a vocal advocate for LGBT equality in church and society.  I am not a part of ECO.  In fact, I probably represent much of what they think is wrong with the PC(USA).

The PC(USA) itself does a fairly good job at holding the middle ground in this debate.  They follow the example of Karl Barth and other Neo-orthodox theologians of the 20th century.  How do I know the denomination does this?  Because it frustrates folks on both sides.  Liberals think it’s too conservative and conservatives think it’s too liberal.

Liberals and conservatives have their own unique ways of vying for greater power in the decision-making process.  Liberals tend to invest in taking hold of regional and national positions of authority in the councils (formerly known as governing bodies) of the denomination.  They, in the tradition and spirit of historic liberalism, tend to put their trust (too much trust, I would say) in the amendment of large-scale human institutions.  The heroes of this bunch tend to be Moderators of our General Assembly and professors at our denominational seminaries.  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek).

Conservatives, on the other hand, love to cast themselves in the role of the oppressed underdog.  They see themselves as heirs of the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation.  Their heroes tend to be the pastors of large and wealthy congregations.  They tend to idolize their pastors and demonize the denomination.  As one elder screamed (yes, screamed) during a recent meeting in our area, “The PC(USA) just wants more of our money so they can keep spreading their lies!”  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the Rebel Alliance, fighting the Sith-dominated Galactic Empire (Star Wars).

In reality, both sides are delusional.  The PC(USA) is not the United Federation of Planets and ECO is not the Rebel Alliance.  It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re essentially dealing with two different religious traditions under the roof of one denomination.  This leaves us with two options.  We can either: (A) Organize our denominational life together in such a way that leaves room for both parties to coexist, or (B) Peacefully part ways in a spirit that is consistent with our highest shared values.

As a liberal, I will primarily direct my critical comments toward the members of my own party.  But before I do that, I want to invite any conservatives and evangelicals to listen in and witness one liberal who is not a demon-possessed heretic that wants to invade your church, seize your building, fire your pastor, and force you into compliance with my wicked homosexual agenda.  Are you ready?  Let’s go.

I am a liberal who supports the creation of ECO.  My reasons for doing so are primarily biblical in nature.  I was reading Genesis 13 the other day, where the nomadic caravans of Abram and Lot are traveling together through the Promised Land, but have achieved critical mass in regard to the land’s ability to support both groups.  Conflict began to brew.  Abram then takes the moral high ground,

Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Abram even lets Lot have his first choice of the land.  There is a recognition that division is necessary, but a complete rejection of backbiting and contentiousness.  Here is an example of a person of faith who can declare “Separate yourself from me” and “we are kindred” in the same paragraph.

In the same way, our denominational landscape is being strained in the attempt to support both liberals and evangelicals.  It is clear that there are many among us who no longer wish for our caravans to sojourn together.  As heirs of Abram’s covenant, why can’t we do with each other what Abram did with Lot?  Who among us will take the moral (i.e. relational) high ground?

In this moment, I would call upon my fellow liberals to step up to the plate.  You have invested much energy in securing positions of power for yourself at the presbytery and General Assembly levels.  Use the power afforded you by those positions to walk like Jesus, who said,

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.

I would venture to say that we should support the creation of ECO, let these congregations and presbyteries go their own way, and find a way to send them off with a parting blessing: their buildings, investments, and pensions.  Let’s leave a legacy that will provide an open door for reconciliation in some future generation.

Institutional division is not necessarily a church schism.  We can part ways and remain true to each other on multiple levels.  After Abram and Lot part ways, the relationship between them continues to grow faithfully.  Abram fights for Lot, rescues him from danger, and prays earnestly for his well-being.  Let’s learn how to do the same for each other.  Enough of all this backbiting crap.

Listen, we don’t really need their numbers and their money.  Their presence will not hold back the tide of mainline decline.  We are still shrinking, no matter what.  This is a subject for another blog post, but I see mainline decline as a good thing.

My point is that we might best guard the “peace, unity, and purity of the church” by allowing people to go their own way, even if we happen to disagree with where they are going.  We made a vow to guard the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church, not necessarily the denomination.  We should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Liberal Presbyterians: be ye not afraid of ECO.  Support its creation.  Send them off with a blessing.  Like Abram and Lot, let there be no strife between them and us; for we are kindred.

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49 thoughts on “You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I’m Not Afraid of Schism)

  1. I have no problem with separation since it would allow us all to concentrate on the real purpose of the Church and not this political crap. However, I am not sure how individual churches would fair in a separation, since the division maybe deep in each congregation. There are several pastors in our Presbytery, that I greatly respect, that are involved in the ECO and I think you should send them this article and ask for comments.

    If needed I will give you their names privately.

    Ed

  2. I think this is fantastic. As one whose church is probably going to ECO within a couple of months I find your writings to be very helpful. I have often used Genesis 13 as a way to talk about going forward faithfully and blessing those with whom we disagree. I have said to those on the other side of the issue, “Listen we who are going ECO are not trying to change the PC(USA), we don’t want to fight, we don’t want to change you, we don’t want to call each other names, we just want to walk forward in how God is calling us to be.” I still want to partner together in ways that we both feel mutually benefit the Kingdom. We are building a place for 20 homeless families for transitional living. We hope some PC(USA) congregations will partner with us as we want to partner with them in mission in Haiti and Cuba. We are not mad, but like Abram and Lot we can’t co-exist peacefully in the same land. I think the more people like you than can push forward this type of message the more peaceably we can with draw and the more we can together in the future.

    • Dana, thank you so much! I was hoping that someone like you would read this and hear my heart. I don’t know you, but I want to.

      When I look at the history of liberal Christianity, one of our most-repeated mistakes is that we have put too much trust in our institutions. I want to issue a call for a much more radical liberalism that works from the ground up: acting locally, thinking globally, and trusting the Holy Spirit to bring about Christ’s vision of the reign of heaven-on-earth (with or without our cooperation). Evangelicals such as yourself have historically done a much better job at that than we have.

      If only more of us would get over our phobic aversions, pull our fingers out of our ears, and listen for the gifts that you bring. May it be so!

      If you don’t mind my asking, how did you come across this happy post?

  3. A guy in my Presbytery found it and forwarded it to me (I will see how he got it). The Presbytery asked us to write letters as why we were leaving and I used Genesis 13 and so this guy in our Presbytery forwarded it to me knowing that I was resonate with it. I also forwarded it to Jim Singleton who loved and hoped it would be circulated widely. So my guess is that you will see a lot of evangelicals repost this. I think coming from your position you can say this in a way that comes off more authentic to others than if I had said it. But I believe you have accurately captured the thinking and feeling of most of us on the “right middle”. Thank you!!!!

    The third way has always been how can we stay together in the PC(USA) despite our differences. My thought is that the new third way is how can we go in different directions and yet stay mutually connected (if that makes sense.) Ironically I think I will be doing more with many of my PC(USA) colleagues in the future than I did in the past. At least that is my hope. But if we demonize and vilify one another it won’t be helpful.

    I don’t know if you saw a letter from the GA to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church years ago acknowledging the difficulties of the past and the way they treated one another. But it reminded me that the way we handle this know can prevent us (or our grandchildren) from having to write this kind of letter in the future.

    • Bro, the fact that you and I are having this conversation right now is proof that the Spirit is still moving. I’m humbled at the thought that large groups of Evangelicals will find this encouraging. At some point in the near future (in a less public forum) I’d like to share more of my journey with you.

      In the meantime, be blessed in your journey and be a blessing to all the families of the earth!

  4. I enjoyed reading this post. I don’t know what our church will do, but I really sense the tension exactly the way you described it. I am on the “rebel alliance” side of things and definitely look forward to a day when that will not be our identity!

    You are the first person on the ‘other side’ I have read that has come across this gracious. Others have been much less understanding of our struggles and challenges. Thanks for writing this, it gives me hope!

    • Thanks pastormc,

      I can’t believe that I’m the first to think of this. Not to sound too self-deprecating, but I’m neither that smart nor that spiritual.

      To all those in the Rebel Alliance from this member of the Federation:
      “Live long and prosper!”

  5. Thank you for sharing, I have great respect for the tone of your thoughts. Like some others who have commented here, I also come from the “rebel alliance.” While my deep hope is still that we can find a way to live together in peace, if separation does come I hope that it will be with the sort of grace and trust in the Holy Spirit displayed here. Peace be with you.

  6. You really have hit it on the head – it is the only way forward. I am a conservative who does not necessarily feel called to leave the PCUSA, yet I’m finding the battles tiresome. The reality is that the only thing keeping the denomination together is the property clause – to our collective shame. What you have written offers a glimmer of hope that many in the denomination have not been able to see.

    Here’s a troubling thought. In the middle, left, and right camps are institutionalists. They are the ones fighting tooth and nail over property and the trust clause. They need to let let go. I have also proscribed that people in my camp need to be prepared to walk away from buildings. Don’t know what the institutionalists will do with all those empty, unsellable buildings…

    Maybe the day will come when Christ will hold us together, but we’re not there….

    • Chris, my father-in-law (a pastor participant in the Presbyterian Fellowship) and I have made that same observation together: what currently holds us together is neither confessional identity nor polity, but property. God calls us to a firmer ecclesiology than we can get from a property deed and a bolder pneumatology than we can get from an endowment.

      I’ve officially been in the PC(USA) only a short while, having transferred from another denomination last year, and I’m already sick of this battle. You keep appealing to the better part of folks on your side and I’ll do the same with folks on mine!

  7. Awesome post! Are you going to GA? You need to read this from the floor, or drop it in leaflets from a plane overhead.

    Thanks for sharing this. How many of your fellow liberals do you think share this point of view?

    • Thanks Dave, I’m not planning to attend GA, although I’d like to go some day.

      There are others like me out there. The first commenter on this post (Ed) happens to be a liberally-inclined ruling elder at my wife’s congregation who is also very active in our presbytery (Utica). As you can see from his comment, he’s been thinking the same thing.

      I’ve also spoken with liberal clergy from other denominations (e.g. Episcopal) who support the emergence of new ecclesiastical bodies (like the Anglican Church in North America) for those evangelicals who no longer feel they can journey with the mainline in integrity.

      What gets me about this backbiting and infighting in the PC(USA) is that we don’t have the same kind of ecclesiology that makes this fight so painful in the Anglican Communion. Presbyterians are long-accustomed to living in the “Split-P Soup” of multiple institutional incarnations of the Reformed Tradition. We are truly without excuse when it comes to our vicious clinging to power and money. I think we can do better than that.

      Finally, it is to our great shame as liberals that we are so hesitant to reform and re-vision our institutions in the name of creative freedom. We have historically stood for freedom of faith and conscience when it comes to the plurality of interpretations within church and society. When we liberals are at our best, we graciously leave room for those who would not do the same for us. It appears to me that we are not at our liberal best right now. Again, I think we can do better than that.

  8. Well played, bro. I am the pastor of a church in the process of going our own way to join the EPC. I think you hit the nail on the head.

    • All the best, Slicky.
      The congregation where my wife and I were married and who sponsored my wife as an Inquirer and Candidate for ordination (First Presbyterian, Baton Rouge, LA) has since left to join the EPC.

      May the road rise up to meet you and the rains fall soft upon your fields.
      And may we all continue to walk together in spirit.

  9. Wow. Many thanks to all who have read and commented today!

    I am truly humbled to be part of this moment of grace that reaches across the current theological divide in our denomination. I pray that this beautiful spirit will continue to bless us as we go into meetings at GA, presbyteries, ECO, and PF.

    Please feel free to share, tweet, repost, and reblog. It is a privilege for me to join this conversation with you. Thank you all.

    “Let there be no strife between you and me… for we are kindred.”

    Be blessed and be a blessing!

  10. Thanks Barrett. I see a similar thing happening in the ELCiC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) after a similar decision made at last year’s Synod. It is so tragic. Thoughful and gracefilled post. Blessings.

  11. Must say, I appreciate the gracious tone in the blog post and the comments. Perhaps we can do stronger mission together apart. When there is some sense that our core beliefs are not compromised or endangered, then maybe we come together on common mission concerns.

  12. Barrett,
    This is the best I have ever seen this expressed. I can’t believe no one has expressed the Abraham/Lot model before. Thanks for a great step forward in a painful debate. I will share this with my conservative and liberal friends.

    • Thanks Dad!

      Yes, for those who are paying attention, the man who made the above comment is my father-in-law. He is a participant in the Presbyterian Fellowship gatherings. I am a member of More Light. We coexist, not just in the same denomination, but also in the same family.

      And the best miracle of all is that we really do love each other.

  13. Grace, Grace God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin. Well put my brother. What you offer is radical hospitality. I feel that the UNited Methodist may be less united over the same topic. Our General Conference is going on right now and I have been receiving media from all sides. It is hard for me to sy this, Barrett thank you for being a voice of reason in the midst of chaos. Much love — see you round the kingdom

  14. Well stated, J. Barrett. God’s love is wider than the measures of our minds… What saddened me a great deal at GA in Minnesota was the fear and vitriol that was just beneath the surface of some observers during the committee meetings prior to the full assembly sessions. Folks were being extra cautious to be cordial and well-behaved (which frustrated the news media). But, fear and distrust was still visibly eating away at the core.
    God calls us to walk in love and hospitality wherever that takes us. I search for ways to set the fearful (including myself) at ease and focus again and again on the love of Christ in ourselves and others.
    Putting the cards on the table with trust and respect is a good start. Behind the scenes politicking just seems antithetical to God’s process. Even the disciples couldn’t effectively use that approach during Holy Week. The Spririt was moving in a very different direction then and, I sense, is doing so now, too.
    Blessings.

  15. Beautifully stated. I just wish there were more people who would consider this gracious middle path! Certainly that would draw me back into participation in a faith community … after transitioning to the Episcopal church myself, I became so disheartened with all the vitriol from one side or another, the excessive focus on things other than loving/honouring God and one’s neighbor (didn’t say anything about “as long as they do ___ and don’t ___” right?) and just the ugliness of it, that I’ve gotten away from church in the past couple years. This from the girl who hoped to become ordained *shaking my head* …

    So thank you for revealing that hint of a good, graceful, and honourable way forward. Greetings to your lovely and awesome wife.

  16. Pingback: Guest Post: You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I am not Afraid of Schism) « I Am with you always

  17. Dude,

    Dana just passed on this post to me. As someone intensely involved in this process in my Presbytery as one who is staying and who helped write the policy that gives a path for those called to go to do so. I found your words helpful. Keep up the good work, bro!

    • Thanks Kennedy. I want us all to weather this storm with our integrity intact.

      Just trying to raise the relational and theological bar on this whole conversation. It seems to be making its own way around the ECO folks. I’ve taken the initiative to send it to Bruce Reyes-Chow, Cynthia Bolbach, Gradye Parsons, and Michael Adee (Director of More Light). Let’s hope that these relational seeds can sprout some fruit!

  18. Pingback: Let there be no strife between you and me… | Two Tasks

  19. Interesting. Are there actually people on the left (or far left) who oppose formation of ECO and separation or is that just perception? I ask because I’ve never met a liberal who opposes a gracious separation, and yet I’m sure you’d characterize me as a liberal extremist, so if they’re out there, I think I would have heard of them. For myself, as long as reasonable accommodation can be made for those in a congregation who do not want to leave and/or their pastor (I know of several congregations that want to leave, but the pastor does not) then by all means let them go.

    Perhaps I am misreading or misunderstanding you (and please correct me if I am), but you seem to believe that the people who have championed inclusion are the same people opposed to some sort of gracious separation. (Another commenter above mentioned sending this to Michael Adee, for example.) This is certainly not the first time I’ve seen people somehow link the two issues and it always baffles me.

    I’ve been involved in the efforts to allow ordination and marriage since way before G-6.0106b came along and I’ve never met anyone who was working for full LGBT inclusion who cared a whit about property issues. I don’t remember any of the organizations (eg. MLP or CovNet) ever making any statements against gracious separation, nor have I ever heard anything like that from any individuals who have been on the front lines of these fights. It is possible I’ve missed that though, and if you know of evidence to the contrary, I’d appreciate being made aware of it.

    The people who I know personally who are opponents of separation are not people I would characterize as liberal, but are, to a person, moderate denominational bureaucrats.

  20. Thanks so much for a very reasoned and gracious approach that shows the best of who Christ has called us to be. I was ordained in the PCUSA about 11 years ago after serving 25 years in non-denominational charismatic churches. God pulled a lot of strings in my life to get me involved in the PCUSA and I know that at least until the Lord convinces me otherwise, I am hanging in.

    You have captured my heart in your exposition of the matter. As the exodus of my fellow evangelicals continues and the rancor continues to escalate on both sides, my heart is breaking, knowing that we are doing damage to the Church by not obeying Christ’s command to love one another and lay down our lives for each other. And so we prove our mutual brokenness as we fail to show the world that we are Christ’s disciples by loving one another. May God have mercy on us all!

    I pray that as we continue to work through all of this, saner heads and more loving hearts will prevail and that somehow the Spirit of God will turn us from our wickedness in trying to destroy those we disagree with and enslave one another’s conscience to doing things “my way”. Thanks again for your wise appraisal and your call for us to truly love one another.

  21. Pingback: A Matter of Conscience « The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor

  22. You can’t have it both ways; either “we’re still brothers and sisters in the faith” or “we have no choice but to leave the fellowship.” But it’s dishonest to say, “we’re still brothers, but we’re still leaving.” It’s even worse to say, “my conscience demands that I leave, but it’s your fault if you hold me here by holding me to the property rules.” People whose conscience is truly wounded are willing to die for their beliefs. The ECO people aren’t even willing to surrender some worldly possessions. I also don’t get it that people say we’re being too “denominational” when we try to preserve the integrity of the denomination, but somehow it’s not “denominational” to CREATE A NEW DENOMINATION! What about our ecumenical efforts? Conservatives have resisted them for years, but now it’s the LIBERALS who get accused of denominationalism? Ultimately, I can be reconciled to conservative schism, but let’s at least have an honest reckoning of what’s going on here. Future reconciliation will be less likely if today’s division is carried out without an honest account of the sins that led us to this point — and by sins, I mean hypocrisies.

    • I see your point, Britt, and I can understand your frustration.

      I’ve spoken with retired colleagues who are angry because they spent their entire careers without being able to exercise their own right of conscience regarding the equality of LGBT people. They suffered for the sake of conscience yet remained faithful to their denomination. Moreover, many of them, like Rev. Jane Spahr, were actively persecuted for their faith because it went against the Book of Order. Now that the tables have turned, the folks who want to leave are asking for the kind of exemption from the letter of the law that they have denied others. It’s not fair and it’s not right.

      However, I’m less interested in what’s right according to the Book of Order and more interested in what’s gracious according to Christ. One of the greatest strengths of theological liberals at our best is that we offer grace to those who would not do the same for us. The letter of the Book of Order has been used as a weapon against us; let’s not do the same to others.

      The ECO is asking for grace from the property rules, even though many of them denied us grace from the fidelity and chastity clause. It’s not fair, but I’m saying that we should give it to them in the name of Christian grace. After all, what are we going to do with a bunch of big, empty buildings that we can’t sell for a decent price? Let’s just let them go.

      Doing so will actually solidify the future of marriage and ordination equality in the PC(USA). By letting them have their own institutional space, we’re cutting the electrical cord to the internal power struggle in our denomination. We will prevent the possibility of future conservative takeovers like the one that seized the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. We can finally be who we are and they can be who they are.

      You’re right in saying that those with troubled consciences should be willing to die for their beliefs, but do we really want to cast ourselves in the role of persecutor? Let’s let the cycle of institutional violence end with us through this act of undeserved grace.

  23. Mainline Protestantism has delusions of relevance. You have all the vibrant diversity of skim milk. Truly tedious and boring ceremonies and expensive and pointless seminary educations.

    • Thanks for reading! All the best to you and your church during the discernment process. May the Spirit lead all of our hearts and minds toward greater compassion and reconciliation. Shalom

  24. I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your
    post’s to be just what I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on a few of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome website!

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