Leading officials from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) say a report by a conservative group of Presbyterians "mischaracterizes" the denomination's positions on controversial matters.
The PC(USA)'s stated clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, and its General Assembly Council executive director, Linda Valentine, addressed a letter to leaders within the denomination clarifying the church's stance on biblical authority, the singular saving Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the Trinity among other issues. The letter, dated June 12, and an attached document deals with a February strategy report released by the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) – a network of dissident Presbyterians in the PC(USA).
"The New Wineskins Association of Churches has circulated material that mischaracterizes central convictions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s faith and life," the letter stated.
By the request of a number of presbytery executives and stated clerks – middle governing bodies – the Office of Theology and Worship developed a document titled "The Church's One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord" to clearly state the church's position on issues that have caused division and a small exodus of congregations.
Around debate that the General Assembly in 2001 did not clearly affirm that Jesus Christ is the "singular saving Lord" as understood through Scripture, the newly released document by the PC(USA) argues that the denomination has not abandoned a faithful confession of Jesus as Lord. During the 2001 decision, the PC(USA) did not use the "recent, novel expression" of the "singular saving Lordship" of Christ but instead used language of The Book of Confessions when it adopted the statement "the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord."
The document further pointed to the 2002 decision by the General Assembly to affirm the Saving Lordship of Jesus Christ "in unmistakable declarations."
While current public attention focuses on the controversy over the ordination of practicing homosexuals within the denomination, the Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver, co-moderator of the NWAC and whose Memorial Park Church in Pittsburgh recently voted to split, had said the catalyst for the exodus of churches has not all along been homosexuality.
"The issue all along has been who is Jesus and what the Church believes and what the Bible is – the real bedrock foundational issues of faith," he said after the NWAC winter convocation in February.
Addressing the argument that the PC(USA) has lost biblical authority, the new document by the denomination states that the current constitutional text "demonstrates full confidence in the authority of scripture." Recent confessionals state: "The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel."
Still, a major and public controversial issue that has wracked most mainline denominations is the ordination of active homosexuals.
More conservative Presbyterian congregations began splitting with the PC(USA) after the General Assembly in 2006 granted some leeway to churches for homosexual ordination. An "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard was adopted allowing local and regional governing bodies to have the option to decide that the ordination standard is "not essential."
The new PC(USA) document argues that the constitutional standard "requiring 'fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman' or 'chastity in singleness' remains in place."
Still, dissident Presbyterians state: "Denominational liberals – and some in the 'evangelical' camp who place a high priority on institutional preservation – claim that 'nothing has changed'" with the 2006 decision. "But deep in their hearts, increasing numbers of Presbyterians know that something very significant has occurred," states NWAC's "A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven" strategy report.
The General Assembly of the PC(USA) "eviscerated its Constitution," according to NWAC.
Another major controversy surrounds "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing" report which recommends feminine and other unconventional language for the Trinity. The General Assembly last year "received" the report, but the new clarification offered by the Office of Theology and Worship stresses "receive" is "the weakest action short of rejection" and that the General Assembly did not "adopt" the report. And the other Trinitarian images suggested by the report are not to be used as substitutes for "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" but are intended for "modest use."
The PC(USA)'s latest document states that the questions about faith and mission of the church that the NWAC has raised "must be dealt with seriously" and that "the whole church" cannot be held responsible for every departure from its standards voiced by individual leaders in the denomination.
This past year, six congregations were dismissed to other denominations and baptisms and churches have continued to decline in number in recent years. The total PC(USA) membership is now at 2.3 million.
The NWAC approved a proposal in February offering dissident congregations the option of continuing to remain within the PC(USA) and be a faithful witness there or to "realign" with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.