This Hurts

Another domino has fallen in the chain of churches marching out of the PC(USA) and into ECO, the new denomination formed by disaffected Presbyterians nearly two years ago. And this domino is big (actually, all of these dominoes tend big–and suburban). Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas voted to leave on Sunday. On Monday I spent some time reading the church’s statements about it, reading news stories, and even watching videos on the church’s Facebook page.

The past 12-18 months have been a circus of emotions for me as the most influential evangelical churches in this denomination have pronounced its impending death and saddled their wagons to ECO. Anger. The claims they’re making are often exaggerated (this pastor tells church members that they’ll have to fire staff if they don’t leave). Other times they’re just false and devoid of context (this pastor says that his “Reformed Theology” nearly prevented a presbytery from ordaining him). I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half angry about what’s happening.

But also hurt, and this is more to the point. I’m second guessing my own commitments, doubting what has felt like growth and discernment. And that’s painful. Necessary, perhaps, but painful. Because what felt like a growing experience of the richness of Scripture, a more adequate understanding of the complexity of human desire and affection, and a more faithful faith in the character of God–those things are now condemned by colleagues as “drift.”

If these men and women are right, then what felt to me like growth in faith and understanding is actually bankrupt accommodation to the spirit of the age. I would have done better to not seek out relationships with people I disagree with but fortified myself against them with like-minded bonds of accountability. I shouldn’t have prayed to understand the truth but for strength to persist in my present understanding. And reading Scripture as the inspired product of particular cultures with particular values was a waste of energy that would have been better spent memorizing verses to buttress theological debates.

The good news of the gospel is that God brings life out of death. That is my profound hope. But the death still hurts.

19 thoughts on “This Hurts

  1. Rocky, I share your feelings about this development. I have been helped in understanding why we have these differences from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The wrongness of homosexuality is a no-brainer for conservatives and it is easy to see the Bible as backing them up on their view. What else do you need? Those of us who have changed our view over time have to explain how it is that we are not just going along with the new spirit of our age. We think we have done this work, they think we are fooling ourselves. (And, we have to entertain the notion that we are.)

    I think the basic division is along the lines of seeing the Kingdom as inclusive or exclusive. What’s happening is like a divorce where one side wants reconciliation and the other side has “irreconcilable differences.” We inclusivists want a diverse church that finds common cause and “speaks the truth in love.” The exclusiveists want purity so that the bad apples don’t spoil the rest. But, they want the divorce. What we have to do is continue to associate ourselves with them and demonstrate our belief that we serve one God.

    In the short run the exclusivists will prosper as their churches are the ones showing strength. But, they will draw people who will be moving into greater and greater minority status. In the long run, I think, the open arms of Jesus will prevail.

  2. Rocky, thanks for the honesty in your reflection. I too have been challenged by this accusation of “drift”. Coming from a very conservative theological background, I have really come to love the challenges that have shaken my once strong convictions and my “settled” answers to every controversy. I cannot help but feel that what is often at stake for many congregations is the preservation of the institution. For me, this seems to have had a negative affect on the Ekklasia and has reinforced a misunderstanding of what the Kingdom should be about. I cannot help but see the challenges Jesus issues to the “institutions” all throughout the gospels,while staying adamant about the “kingdom”. People talk about their “church”, but last I checked, this kind of language and use of the word “church” is curiously missing from the scriptures.

    1. Thanks, Reece. I wonder if you’ve noticed as well that this concern for “our church” is tending to make it easier for communities to break covenantal bonds with those whose different views threaten the stability of the institution.

  3. That is exactly what I have noticed. In this whole process I have seen the PCUSA graciously allowing them to keep their “churches” rather than insist on retaining property as a control move to preserve the institution. Honestly, institutions have come and gone over the centuries, but the Kingdom steadily grows. So hold it all loosely.

    1. Those bonds extend into the past as well as the future. It feels like the challenge is to honor the commitments of those who came before us and bequeathed the church to us without allowing those commitments to hold hostage future disciples.

  4. Sonnie Swenston-Forbes posted a link to the First Pres Dallas website on FB
    They “birthed” Highland Park in the 1920s and so they felt compelled to reply to the “reasoning” of HPPC in leaving. I like their comments and appreciate all of your comments above. The preservation of the institution seems so strong. Like a fortress being built and “arms” being stockpiled. I didn’t know there was a war…I am too busy following the Prince of Peace. I am with you on the hurt, Rocko.

  5. Thanks, Rocky, for sharing your reflections with candor and love. My friend, Mike Cole, General Presbyter in New Covenant Presbytery (based in Houston), has compiled data on churches that have left the PC(USA) to go to other denomninations. We have posted his report here:
    The data indicate that churches who were declining when they left the PC(USA) did not experience growth after leaving, but rather continued to decline even in their “new” denomination. As he titles his article, “The Statistical Grass is Not Greener on the Other Side.”

  6. You know that I’ve spent a lot of time frustrated with our denomination. My impulse has always been to envision a way to “fix it”. But I guess I just don’t see that happening because we have staunchly refused—on both sides—to consider ways of truly living together with difference.

    It has been freeing for me to reorient my thinking toward acceptance of the fact that all North American Protestant denominations are dying a slow death that doesn’t seem reversible. The very nature of Protestantism tends toward division ratter than unity and our denominations as institutions are now hopelessly anachronistic relics from the mid-20th century.

    Freed from thinking that this can be changed, I can focus more intently on the local and wider contexts God has called me to serve. I can spend less time frustrated by the death of mainline Protestantism and more time amazed and energized by the new things being born in these post-Christendom times.

    Regarding the doubts you have expressed here, take comfort in the fact that there are MANY people like you answering God’s call to grow in faith and dream new ways of being church.

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