An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family

Today our national church is calling, once again, for conversation about the future of our denomination. Faced with ongoing, precipitous decline, many of us wonder about our viability. Our uncertainty heightens as congregations continue to leave and affiliate with other bodies, taking their mission dollars with them.

I love our Presbyterian family of faith. I love our connectional ties. I love our democratic polity, our rootedness in history, our balanced approach to the Bible. I love the way we have championed social justice, bravely speaking truth to the powers that be.

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

While ordination and marriage issues remain a flashpoint, I believe there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local Presbyterians-Reimagining-the-Church-min copyand national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine. Labels are counterproductive, but many of us (myself included) might be described as Universalists.

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus.

There has been a lot of talk about “claiming scruples” when taking ordination vows. Based on my conversations with Presbyterian sisters and brothers, many would now claim scruples about a question like this: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do?

We might say, “Sure, on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

Right now, in Mission Presbytery, one of our flagship churches is attempting to leave the PC(USA). Our Presbytery has appointed an Administrative Commission to enter the fray. Both sides claim they feel abandoned.

There will be a lot of pain. And though the conflict will eventually be resolved through ecclesiastical and secular courts, its resolution will only be on the surface.

The deeper rift is there, and it will not go away.

Grace and peace,
Dr. Krin Van Tatenhove
2016 Chair of the Mission Outreach and Justice Committee, Mission Presbytery

28 thoughts on “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family

  1. Thank you for your reflections. In all honesty, the reason that our congregation sought and received dismissal to the EPC was because we thought that the situation in the PCUSA was clearly as you state it above. I appreciate your honesty on the matter, that you have more in line with the UUA than with historic Reformed faith. While issues like same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and abortion are serious issues of disagreement, they are but the ethical and moral outworking of a theology that is very different than what one finds in the Westminster Confession, or even the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions taken as a whole.

    Differences on the person and work of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, and whether we see the Bible as the SOURCE of our message and faith, or as a RESOURCE for our message and faith–these differences are significant.

    Thank you for your posting.

  2. I came to PCUSA late, aged 28, from having been raised in a non-denom in Indiana that was a split off a Disciples church, which itself has Presbyterian roots. When I did my confirmation classes, a recurring theme was that one of the characteristics of modern Presbyterianism is “A certain comfort with theological ambiguity.” That phrase, uttered by my pastor produced a feeling as though I were released from decades of ecclesiastical bondage to a rigid interpretation of scripture. Admittedly, I now hold certain Universalitst ideas, but people should know that ideas are not always the same thing as beliefs. I think, if you can hold ideas that contrast, or even conflict with your beliefs, you stand a better chance at being able to have civilised conversations without getting angry when someone doesn’t share your presumptions. Asking myself if “I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” is an important test for me to make sure my God isn’t too small. My hope for PCUSA is that we can foster that “Certain comfort with ambiguity,” not so as to be wishy-washy, but to the point at which people with profound theological differences may feel comfortable, feel welcome, even feel at home under the same church roof. We may be shedding members now in alarming numbers, but if we remain dedicated to creating a culture of open discussion, welcoming questions that are beyond the pale in strict evangelical circles, where people can disagree without all the ad-hominem attacks and circulus-in-probando reasoning, we’ll have a more mature church, retaining the spirit of the reformation without the 16th-century theology. I hope that we may become a safe harbour for post-Y2K seekers and find ourselves growing the type of denomination that can withstand what I predict may be an age of dominance of scientific reasoning in the late 21st through 22nd centuries. At least I hope it will be, or Keith Richards may not see a 23rd century.

  3. Thank you for your honesty, Krin. I think your analysis is accurate, and it troubles me. I’ve always viewed myself as a moderate, as someone who tries to bridge traditional faith and a more (for want of a better word) “liberal” perspective. But in the current climate, it seems that expressing traditional beliefs about Jesus gets you branded as a hardline conservative.

    One other thing to note. We just celebrated Reformation Sunday this week, and that should remind us that the Protestant Church was founded on the primacy of Scripture in matters of faith. If we no longer believe in what Scripture tells us, we are living a lie as a church. This is not meant to be a statement of judgment, but of logical fact. If any organization abandons the precepts on which it was founded, how will it replace that foundation?

    The problem is that many folks don’t realize that this is what has happened or they don’t want to talk about it; they are naive or in denial. So thanks again for the honesty and may we (i.e., the larger Church) find peaceful ways of continuing this discussion.

  4. Thanks for your mutual honesty, Brian. Would you be willing to share this on the FB thread? Either way, blessings to you as we seek to promote Jesus’ love in a sorely fractured world!

  5. I totally agree with your analysis, Krin. My husband (ELCA pastor) and I (PCUSA) have been preaching and teaching about this for years as well. It is difficult to reconcile folks who literally believe in the truth of their religious metaphors–language based on a 2,000 year old cosmology, and folks who understand that religious consciousness evolves like everything else. Whatever happened to “Once Reformed, Always Reforming?”…Presbyterians in the south used Scripture to justify slavery, the issue is one of interpretation…

    1. Well spoken. It’s great to reconnect with you after so many years! I think of a couple quotes…

      “People wrap themselves in their beliefs. And they do it in such a way that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free.” – Michael Specter
      “Belief is a beautiful armor, but makes for the heaviest sword.” – John Mayer

      Blessings to you and your husband in your much needed ministries. Maybe both of your would “like” my FB page at Torch of Faith.
      https://www.facebook.com/torchoffaith/

    2. “Once Reformed, Always Reforming?”

      Yes .. but don’t leave off the second part. The entire Latin phrase is:
      “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei”
      The church reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God. This does mean that any reformation is to be in accordance with Scripture.

      Here’s an article from Presbyterians Today, that gives a succinct analysis of the motto:
      http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/reformed/

      1. Thanks for sharing. The word of God is not a paper Pope. Revelation is ongoing, especially by virtue of what we Christians call the “Holy Spirit.” And I agree that reformation should always be according to the Word of God (capital W), meaning the incarnate grace and love for our enemies embodied in Christ. However, there are many other religious traditions that emphasize these same qualities. More “love power” to all of us! Thanks for the link. Blessings to you!

  6. Confessions of a former church-goer
    By gregbentall on March 29, 2015 | Edit

    Troubled Church

    I have become disillusioned with the Church. The right-wing churches preach ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and fanaticism. Each right-wing sect seems to have its own version of religious supremacy, claiming that God belongs to them alone. The progressive churches seem not to oppose the religious bigotry of the right-wing churches. Perhaps they are too worried about being “nice.”

    Why is the progressive voice so silent? The progressive churches seem to have lost their message. They seem to have nothing worth preaching. I long for a progressive voice in the church that offers a faith worth living. I long for a progressive voice to match the great work of Rick Warren and his concept of a “Purpose Driven Life.”

    But I cannot find anything close. That is why I have decided to take a sabbatical from church attendance, but not from religious commitment or spiritual discipline.

    To my progressive colleagues in ministry I would ask, “What do you have that is worth preaching? How can you lead your congregation to a faith worth living? How do we share God’s love and the joy of the gospel with the world (Pope Francis’ Gaudete Evangelium)?” If I just want to spend an hour getting entertained and feeling good I can stay home and watch Animal Planet.

    I have attended church religiously from since I was a small child until I hit age 61. During that time I attended church on average at least 50 times per year. In 1977 I became an ordained minister (I still am), and served the church as a pastor and then sixteen years as a regional church administrator handling finances across multi-state regions of a major denomination. I say this to support what I am about to say regarding church finances.

    Most congregations are struggling financially just to keep the doors open. Please do not confuse the local congregations with the televangelists or the mega-churches that are mostly show businesses with salaries and expenses to match.

    Average church members give something like 2% of their income to support their churches. Let us not quibble with statistics. Some members do much better and others not as well.

    It is becoming harder and harder for congregations to survive. Membership and attendance has been falling since the 1950’s. There is no longer a vast army of stay-at-home-moms who can volunteer their time to run numerous church programs. Expenses keep rising for all purposes: utilities, maintenance, insurance, background checks to keep the children safe, computer systems and more. I would hate to see a church choir sing from photocopied sheet music violating copyright protection, or to see pirated software on the church computers. The two biggest costs of church operation are salaries and occupancy costs, leaving little for supplies and programming. Mission beyond the local congregation gets squeezed even more. This means that the churches have something like 2% of their budgets to feed the hungry, advocate for justice, empower the poor, and proclaim God’s love beyond their walls.

    Now let us do the math. Suppose a family has an income of $60,000 per year. And, suppose it gives 2% or $1,200 to its church. The church then gives 2% of that amount, or $24 dollars per family for mission beyond its walls.

    As I prepare my income tax return for 2014, I take stock of my annual giving. My wife and I gave a large amount given to our county’s food pantry network, Redwood Empire Food Bank. There was another large gift to Heifer International, a wonderful organization that combats global poverty through self-development programs. There was a large gift given to Planned Parenthood. This was done to support women’s health programs and family planning options. The right-wing of the church and the Republican Party have been waging war on women and families and their right to make their own reproductive choices. There was also a gift to our town’s transitional housing program, the Wallace House.

    So, for this year and most of last year, our “church” contributions went directly to the poor and downtrodden. Not 2% of 2%, but more like 5% of 100% given directly to those in need. And, I believe that God is happy with us for this effort.

    For more articles please go to gregbentall.com

    1. Thanks for sharing, and for your many years of serving the church universal. Honestly, I’m at the same point in my spiritual journey, searching for a community of faith that has a clear, loving, and progressive reality. Keep searching! I will also. I do believe that when we seek through our deepest intentions, we will find. Blessings to you!

  7. Thank you for your honesty in sharing this struggle. Moving from the deep South where I served a church after 21 years as an AF chaplain to Colorado, it has been a journey. The balance of being progressive yet Word (i.e. the Incarnate one) focused in preaching, leading, and teaching keeps me on my toes. Have been bashed over the head with the floppy KJV Bible too often and seen it abused through the years. If we spent less time playing God and more time serving God and loving neighbor (I think I read that somewhere!) the church might become relevant in a new and refreshing way. Thank you for the reminder that the second part of Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda is about the Word Incarnate!

    Blessings to you as you continue to serve!

      1. Thank you! We had a difficult meeting at Plains & Peaks Presbytery (my first) with the vote to release First, Boulder to ECO. It is never easy and I felt the pain of Seth or divorce really… I could see the toll it took on the Administrative Commission. These are indeed difficult times for the PCUSA family…

  8. How long did it take you to figure this out. I saw ample evidence at the Denver GA in 2006. Power and nothing but power. Our way or you will be gotten rid of. If we change our churches will fill full of people. You shall know them by their fruits. Must have been rotten fruit we were being marketed to and not good fruit.

  9. Krin, thank you for your thoughtful letter. I couldn’t agree more – except for one thing: the way you refer to the “essential tenets”. This is not the first time in Presbyterian history that we hear clamoring for being specific on what those tenets exactly are and your list of items is the one that caused all the trouble in the denomination 100 years ago (virgin birth, factual resurrection, etc.). So far, the PC(USA) and its predecessors, ever since the Adopting Act of 1729, have managed to adhere to the view that the question whether any one individual “receives and adopts the essential tenets of the reformed faith” is something that needs to be considered in relation to that individual alone, by the examining council. What it definitely is not, is a checklist. It is very instructive (and I encourage anyone) to read the 1926 and 1927 reports of the Commission of 1925 (“Swearingen Commission”). The tenets far exceed a simple list of standard questions and answers; they require responsible thinking. And regarding your reference to the Book of Confessions, I consider the most important (and probably the most overlooked) part of that Book its Preamble – which is very clear that the Confessions in that collection need to be understood in the context of the time and circumstances under which they were written.
    Where am I going with this long-winded introduction? I see in your writing no reason to assume that you have deviated from the essential tenets or that you have ceased to be informed and instructed by the Confessions. To be perfectly clear, I believe that your theological insights at this time and in our circumstances are fully consistent with those essential tenets. To me, your letter is the writing of a true Presbyterian – maybe also that of a Universalist, but that is not a relevant issue in the context of our beloved denomination.
    On another quote in one of the postings here: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda is commonly mistranslated (that’s what happens when ministers don’t need to know Latin anymore). “The church reformed and always (in need) to be reformed.” That continuous reforming doesn’t just happen; it requires hard work.

  10. Thank you for your post. I take exception to the “democratic” nature of the denomination. Over the years, it seems to have (d)evolved to something short of that. There is no way that the regular rank and file are properly represented when commissioners and clergy do not necessarily represent the congregations from which they come. Moreover, there is no way, with commissioners being appointed the way they are can have a full grasp of the issues. It seems as if the deck has become stacked to the benefit of the extreme left.

    I also have significant problems with a “leadership” that has been delving so deeply into political issues and constantly posts items that go totally against the grain of what many of us honestly believe. When they post, the implication is that they represent the entire denomination when nothing could be further from the truth.

    Finally, the leadership has taking to interpreting statistics, spinning stories to meet its own narrative. No where has then more apparent when the try to address the growing defections. One discussion noted that while 300 denominations had left, there were still 10,000 denominations out there. It was never mentioned that many of the lost denominations were huge and that the overall impact has been a loss of 40% of the membership in 10 years. That is the more telling statistic.

    Soul searching should not be “A” priority. It should be “THE” priority. Unfortunately, it seems that the direction is to just look the other way and perhaps even revel in the controversy because of its keeping with the church’s history.

    1. Sean, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Given what you say, I can understand your frustration. I, too, have often felt that national leaders did not speak for the church as a whole. I wish you peace in your spiritual journey.

      1. Thanks for your comments. I see where Heath Rada is calling for some sort of meeting of the minds to explore what might be done to right the ship. His initial suggestion seemed to be calling for a top-down approach, that is, an exploratory council initiated by those in leadership positions.

        That was immediately followed by comments from those who thought such an expedition might be a good idea but were rather emphatic that it needed to be a bottom-up approach. I tend to think that would be a better approach, too. As I stated earlier, the rank and file members are simply not represented at the GAs and other gatherings. They have no real voice other than to speak with their feet, so to speak.

        There seems to be a great deal of distrust for the leadership so the top-down approach would not have much of a chance of buy-in. I am afraid, however, that they may have waited too long as the mass exodus seems to have growing momentum. If whole congregations are not leaving then there individual members and their families looking elsewhere. I know that in my own church, attendance has dropped considerably.

        I think, too, that the trouble and disgust with much of the mainstream denominations has contributed to the growth of the “nones,” those who are religious but claim no real affiliation with any denomination. My own personal experience is that dissatisfaction with my own denomination and church has led to very limited attendance. But, the problem is that I have found no satisfactory alternative. I do not think that I am alone in this particular space. Other reasons have been cited for the growth in this category but I feel strongly that this is part of that phenomenon.

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