Over the last two decades, more than three-fourths of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, driven out by a combination of Muslim fanaticism and economic and social collapse. Iraq, however, isn’t the only place to experience a mass Christian exodus in recent years.
Look at the Presbyterian Church (USA), the 10th largest denomination in this country. But you’d better look fast. The PC(USA), which is the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination (at least for now), is driving out members through its own brand of leftist fanaticism.
From a high of more than 4 million members back in 1965, the Louisville-based PC(USA) has seen more than half of its members disappear through the back door, reaching the current level of 1.7 million people. This includes a nasty hemorrhage of 103,000 members between 2011 and 2012. All this despite a merger in 1983 that gave the denomination a temporary shot in the arm—but before current controversies that threaten to drive the PC(USA) into ecclesiastical extinction.
The death spiral appears to have everything to do with continuing church efforts that shun the denomination’s theological roots in favor of political and social “relevance.”
At last month’s 221st General Assembly, held in Detroit, PC(USA) delegates voted in favor of three controversial measures that fit quite nicely into current leftist politics.
More theologically conservative Presbyterians have seen the handwriting on the wall for some time. In 2010, the denomination voted to abandon its expectation of monogamy in marriage and celibacy in singleness for its clergy. This past March, the 3,400-member Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, pastored by John Ortberg in California’s Silicon Valley, overwhelmingly voted to leave the PC(USA), despite the $9 million price tag. MPPC cited differences over the authority of Scripture and in church-planting strategy.
Other observers have been blunter, including Mark Tooley, who is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. “In fact, the exodus from the PC(USA) after the marriage vote may increase for congregations and individuals,” Tooley says. “Many exiting PC(USA) churches have joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while others helped create a new denomination called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Despite the impact on denominational finances, PC(USA) elites, committed more to the Left than to the church’s health, seem mostly indifferent.”
Two earlier, more conservative denominations started by PC(USA) dissidents include the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The PC(USA)’s leftwing death wish not only disregards Scripture. It also contradicts the teaching of the spiritual founder of Presbyterianism, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Though known largely for his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the 16th-century theologian Calvin spoke of many matters.
While Calvin was a man of his times in saying some harsh things about Jewish people—“I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness–nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew”—he also affirmed that Jews and Christians have the possibility of equal access to God by faith. By contrast, the PC(USA) has singled out Israel (incidentally the Middle East’s only democracy) for special censure.
Regarding the sanctity of human life, the distinction between Calvin and the PC(USA) is even clearer. “If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house, than in a field,” Calvin wrote, “it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.” The denomination, however, has long held membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which opposes restrictions on abortion.
When it comes to marriage, of course, “marriage” between homosexuals was unknown in the 16th century and would have been considered an abomination. Calvin, according to one reviewer, “made sexual sin and crime, marital formation and dissolution, children's nurture and welfare, and family cohesion and support essential concerns for both church and state.” His philosophy can be summed up in this quote: Matrimony is “a good and holy ordinance from God.”
The theological and numerical decline of the PC(USA) is likely irreversible, according to Tooley. “Although church liberals love to insist their policies appeal to the rising generation, all of the available evidence indicates just the opposite,” Tooley says. “Essentially, the PC(USA) . . . resolved to become even smaller, older, and whiter, creating a future that depends more and more on endowments instead of live people.”
And when the endowments run out, can the PC(USA) be far behind?
Image copyright Presbyterian Church (USA).
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, blogs at http://stanguthrie.com. His next book, God's Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, is due out in January from Thomas Nelson.