PCUSA Elders' Call to Unity Draws Mixed Reactions

Many conservative Presbyterians hold mixed feelings about a video released by eight elders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) calling for unity among Presbyterian churches.

On Wednesday, Ruling Elder Cynthia Bolbach and Teaching Elder Landon Whitsitt, the moderator and vice-moderator of PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly, posted a 34-minute video on YouTube stating that the denomination “has not turned its back on proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”

The video, as well as an accompanying letter, also called for Presbyterians belonging to congregations that are set to leave the PC(USA) to reconsider their plans.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas, told The Christian Post that his response to the video and letter “is still forming and mixed.”

“I understand where they are coming from, but I think they misunderstand the grave state of the denominational divide that exists and has for some time,” said Barnes.

“And I don't think their plea will affect the decisions of churches and pastors.”

The video and letter come the week before an estimated 2,100 Presbyterians will gather in Florida for the “Orlando Covenanting Conference,” an event sponsored by the recently created Fellowship of Presbyterians, of which Barnes is a member.

The fellowship was created in response to the controversy surrounding PC(USA)’s decision to allow presbyteries, or regional bodies, to approve noncelibate homosexuals for church positions.

This came as a result of a vote at the 219th General Assembly, held in 2010. The majority of the Presbyteries voted to approve Amendment 10-A, which amended the ordination rules to allow presbyteries to approve as clergy people who were in homosexual relationships.

“The precipitating issue driving the Fellowship of Presbyterians is their opposition to the change in ordination standards,” said Whitsitt in an interview with CP.

“It is now possible for GLBT persons to be ordained in the PC(USA), and I know that our group of eight elders held differing opinions on that topic.”

Whitsitt stressed that the point of the message of the elders was to “offer our testimony and belief that there is no biblical or confessional basis for encouraging schism.”

“Do not allow one-sided presentations to be all you consider as you seek to discern God’s call to you and your congregation,” reads the letter regarding those who wanted to leave the PC(USA).

Pastor Mark Patterson of Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura, Calif., said while he appreciated the elders’ intentions he found their message “problematic.”

“[I]t holds that those considering ‘disaffiliating’ or leaving have been blinded by ‘one-sided’ arguments while those choosing to stay have the full, clear, and accurate picture,” wrote Patterson in a Facebook post.

“I challenge this as crass reductionism, impossible to prove, and actually false. My congregation has studied these issues for years, reading, listening, wrestling, and praying as we seek to discern what the Lord is doing and how we are to participate.”

Patterson also believed the letter “ignores the real issues,” as many Presbyterians “feel that the passing of 10a puts us in a place wherein we are forced to approve and participate in something the Scriptures condemn.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul E. Detterman of the Fellowship of Presbyterians explained to CP that affiliation with his organization “is in no way synonymous with departure from the PC(USA).”

“Of the nearly 2,100 plus people coming to Orlando next week, only a small percentage have made that decision,” said Detterman.

Detterman said that other congregations coming to Orlando for the conference next week included those who intended to stay in the PC(USA) but will be “staying as an evangelical witness within the denomination,” and some who wanted joint membership with both the denomination and the “New Reformed Body” that the fellowship was planning to create.

Regarding the message of the PC(USA) elders, Detterman believes it “represents their sincere concern for the health and well-being of the PC(USA) as a denomination. ”

“This group of eight represents variety of theological perspectives, and each person is committed to the ministry to which they have been called,” said Detterman.

It remains to be seen if the letter and video by the elders will affect the ongoing efforts of churches to break away and join the more conservative Presbyterian groups.

PC(USA) membership has been in decline for decades. Currently, the denomination has just over 2 million members.

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