United Presbyterians Divided

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 9, 2001

For its first 150 years Tenth belonged to the United Presbyterian Church, now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA). Although we have since joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), it is only natural for us to have an ongoing interest in what happens in our former denomination. From the standpoint of church government, members of the PCUSA are like our estranged cousins. However, many of them are also our brothers and sisters through faith in Christ, and with them our family connection is even stronger.

The PCUSA was in the news this summer because its General Assembly voted 317-208 to rescind its “fidelity and chastity rule” for ministers, and specifically to allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained as pastors. Formerly the denomination maintained the biblical position that the only proper context for sexual intimacy is in the marriage of one man to one woman for life (see Gen. 2:24; Matt. 5:31-32). To quote from the old policy, “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and… to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

Over the past decade the issue of gay clergy has become increasingly divisive in the PCUSA. Now the battleground shifts from the national level to the local church, because in order for the assembly’s decision to become part of the Book of Order, it must be ratified by a majority of regional presbyteries. The voting will take place in the winter, and already liberals and conservatives are jockeying for votes in each presbytery.

Although gay ordination has generated the most attention, the PCUSA took another vote this summer of even more far-reaching significance. A group of conservative Presbyterians asked the denomination to endorse a statement affirming salvation in Christ alone. To use the specific language of the proposal, Jesus is the “singular saving Lord.” Unfortunately, this motion was defeated, and a substitute was adopted. Delegates agreed to confess “the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord,” but they were unwilling to say that Jesus is the only way of salvation. In the words of a PCUSA minister from Chicago, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?”

This attitude is becoming increasingly common, even among Christians who call themselves evangelicals. Often the idea is that somehow God can save people through other religions. As the assembly said, “Although we do not know the limits of God’s grace and pray for the salvation of those who may never come to know Christ, for us the assurance of salvation is found in confessing Christ and trusting him alone” (emphasis added).

This leaves open the possibility that people can be saved in some other way. Jesus is our Savior, but maybe other people can be saved in some other way. However, the Bible says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Consider, too, how odd it is to pray for people to be saved without ever coming to know Christ. That is what salvation is: It is knowing Christ. Thus it would be much better to pray that those who do not know Christ would come to know him and in this way be saved.

In short, the General Assembly was unable to give an unequivocal answer to the question Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” This failure has finally moved evangelicals to action. The Presbyterian Layman decries what it views as “an apostate assembly,” and conservative churches in the PCUSA have formed what is called the Confessing Church Movement.

Together these churches urge Presbyteries, Sessions, and individual church members to join other faithful believers in confessing:

That Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation.

That holy Scripture is the triune God’s revealed Word, the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life.

That God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life; this includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is permitted by Scripture.

The doctrines that the Confessing Church Movement defends are cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith: the person and work of Jesus Christ, the way of salvation, the authority of the Bible. This may be the last chance for these doctrines in the PCUSA. Then again, it may be too late already. The Washington Times recently reported that a majority of PCUSA pastors now believe that a denominational breakup is inevitable, at least by the year 2050.

We empathize with the Confessing Church Movement because we faced a similar struggle twenty years ago, when Tenth was compelled to leave the same denomination. The issues then were somewhat different. The PCUSA had ordained a man who denied the deity of Jesus Christ, and we could not in good conscience encourage young men to enter the pastoral ministry in our own denomination. A more immediate concern was the Philadelphia Presbytery and its decision to force us to ordain women to the office of elder, which we believe is contrary to Scripture (see 1 Tim. 2:11—3:3).

In light of our struggle then, it is not surprising that the PCUSA now finds itself embroiled in what the current Moderator calls “Presbyterian civil war.” Many of those caught up in the fight are our friends. There are a number of solid, Bible-teaching PCUSA churches in the Philadelphia area. We should pray for them as they defend biblical ethics and an orthodox theology of salvation, and perhaps in some cases as they begin to consider a new denomination to call home.

[For further teaching on the uniqueness of Christ and his saving work, see the booklet from Crossway Books entitled Is Jesus the Only Way?]

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