How Presbyterians are Adapting in the New Era

A breakaway Presbyterian group has been asking themselves for the last six years what it means to follow Christ faithfully into the 21st century.

The New Wineskins Association of Churches has a growing number of Presbyterians discontent with the liberal direction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). As membership within the largest Presbyterian group in the nation continues to decline, the NWAC is looking to create a new type of missional and evangelical Presbyterianism.

Commonly held theology is crucial to the foundation for following in faith, noted NWAC co-moderator the Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver.

Out of nine Presbyterian denominations in the United States, only the PCUSA has a "trust clause" in its constitution, according to Weaver.

"It is my observation that much of the 'dialogue' that has taken place over the past few months has exposed how deeply a culture of distrust pervades the PCUSA," said Weaver, according to NWAC. "In fact, the issue that has caused this aspect of our culture to become so visible is the debate over a 'trust clause' in the PCUSA constitution. It is a tragic irony that a 'trust clause' exists because of clear lack of trust within our denomination."

In the PCUSA's Book of Order, a property trust clause states that all property held by or for a particular church or higher governing bodies of the denomination is "held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)."

Dissension within the PCUSA heightened when the General Assembly would not affirm the singularity of Jesus Christ for salvation and also recently granted greater leeway for the ordination of homosexuals. Some discontent congregations have already begun to leave the denomination and more are considering departure, including those who joined an NWAC convocation in February.

Weaver noted that "an agreed upon theology creates a culture of trust" and theology is part of the foundation for following Christ faithfully.

Following Christ faithfully into the next millennium also relates to a paradigm shift in polity, Weaver listed.

"The question is simple: 'Does our polity help or hinder the advance of the Great Ends of the Church?'" the co-moderator posed.

The NWAC proposed to create a new model for a presbytery that may run under the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The new polity recognizes the local congregation as the primary decision-making group.

Meanwhile, the PCUSA is currently making a significant move to reshape the polity of its denomination – a move that Weaver says is largely "under the radar screen." An appointed task force drafted a revision of PCUSA's Form of Government (FOG) that would allow more flexibility for the presbyteries (middle governing bodies) and congregations. The draft will be sent out to presbyteries and congregations for feedback in September and considered by the General Assembly next summer.

"For probably a decade, there have been suggestions that our Form of Government has become a regulatory manual rather than a guidebook for missions," said Mark Pammen, director of Constitutional Services for the General Assembly.

The PCUSA will also be making changes to its Book of Order to adapt to the postmodern era while preserving traditional principles. The current book arose nearly 25 years ago out of a more corporate understanding but in the postmodern era, that same corporate mentality does not exist anymore, Pammen commented.

Overall, Presbyterians have their focus on the Great Commission and are making the necessary changes to advance their mission.

Amid the changes, however, NWAC's Weaver clarifies that without the solid foundation of theology, polity will never serve the mission of the Church. "It is a commonly held theology that shapes and fuels us; polity only serves to organize the mission."

"Evangelicals - due to the culture of distrust - in the PCUSA spend more time, energy and money on the things we are against - including each other - than in genuine constructive dialogue," stated Weaver. "It is in this context that a vision has been articulated and a path offered for those who, for the purpose of the Great Commission, desire to connect with others in a biblically faithful, relevant expression of an evangelical and missional Presbyterian Church."

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