Responding to a recent document released by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that attempted to clarify the denomination's stance on debated issues, conservative Presbyterian leaders say the arguments are irrelevant.
"We think there is an unfortunate but clear distinction between what is on paper and what is the working theology of the denomination," said the Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver, senior pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and co-moderator of the New Wineskins Association of Churches – a network of dissident Presbyterians.
PC(USA)'s stated clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, and General Assembly Council executive director, Linda Valentine, addressed a letter to leaders within the denomination earlier this month to rebut a strategy report by the conservative New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) that "mischaracterizes" the denomination's positions on such matters as the singular saving Lordship of Jesus Christ, scriptural authority, and homosexual ordination.
The document, titled "The Church's One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord," cites the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order to argue that the PC(USA) affirms the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ, demonstrates full confidence in the authority of Scripture, and still upholds the constitutional standard requiring fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness for ordination, among other issues.
"The written standards of the denomination are precisely correct, but they are largely ignored," stated the Rev. Michael Neubert of the Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois, according to Presbyweb, a daily news source for Presbyterians. "And so, quoting the standard is pointless."
Controversy in the PC(USA) erupted when the 2001 General Assembly did not affirm the "singular" saving Lordship of Jesus Christ and instead adopted the language "the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord." Although the recently released document points to a 2002 General Assembly decision that affirmed the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ "in unmistakable declarations," Weaver points out that the document leaves out the rest of the 2001 adopted statement that stirred debate in the denomination.
The rest of the statement reads: "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 only in confessing Christ and trusting Him alone."
Although salvation through Jesus Christ is true for the Presbyterians, they can't say that it's true for everybody, Weaver summed up.
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While the main concern of congregations discontent with the PC(USA) is who the denomination believes Christ is, other concerns include gay ordination.
A 2006 General Assembly decision adopted an "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard that allows some leeway to churches for homosexual ordination. The new PC(USA) document, which was developed by the Office of Theology and Worship, states that the constitutional standard "requiring 'fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman' or 'chastity in singleness' remains in place."
However, William Beau Weston, associate professor of sociology at Centre College in Danvill, Ky., says there are practicing homosexuals in ordained ministry now.
"Can practicing homosexuals now be ordained in the PC(USA)?" posed Weston in The Presbyterian Outlook. "The short answer is 'No.' The more complicated answer is 'Maybe.'"
The "authoritative interpretation" allows local and regional governing bodies to have the option to decide that the ordination standard is "not essential."
Is it true the PC(USA) on paper believes in the Book of Confessions? Yes, Weaver answered. But functionally, some do not believe the denomination is consistent with the written theology, he added.
"Many people are waking up to realizing that the PC(USA) may not believe what it says it believes," said Weaver, noting a growing anxiety about what the denomination really believes.
Kirkpatrick and Valentine stated that the document is simply being made available for those who seek to "interpret accurately the positions of our church." Weaver, however, believes the latest document may be an attempt to stop the "bleeding" of churches out of the denomination.
The document was released a week ahead of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church's (EPC) General Assembly which last week created a new non-geographic transitional presbytery for New Wineskins churches seeking membership along with transitional presbyteries for congregations wanting to join EPC's already established geographic presbyteries. The New Wineskins presbytery launches publicly with its first official presbytery meeting in October. Weaver clarified that the New Wineskins is not yet fully integrated into the EPC but they are intentionally moving toward it.