Jack Haberer has seen churches come and go in his years of association with the Presbyterian Church (USA), both as an ordained pastor and editor of The Presbyterian Outlook. He understands decisions of churches wanting to leave the denomination, but he also can make a case for wanting to stay.
Haberer outlined that case at the third annual Big Tent gathering during a Presbyterian Communicators Network national conference luncheon at the Kentucky International Convention Center on Aug. 2 in Louisville, Ky.
Haberer’s topic, “Reconnecting our Connectionalism: Making the Case for Staying Together,” explained why many congregations are departing the PCUSA but made an argument for a need to stay connected.
“We are in an age where churches are leaving the denomination or engaging in a discernment process to determine if they will remain in our fellowship or go somewhere else,” Haberer said. “We think, ‘What’s with these people? Are they just radical – (you fill in the blanks)?’ We are in a time and place where people are leaving us.”
And Haberer can understand where those individuals and congregations are coming from.
“I can relate closely to some of those folks saying it’s time to leave, time to relocate and find another place to worship,” he said. “When the buttons get pushed, and you hear talking around the church about discernment, it’s really time to go.
“That leads to a question. Is there anything at all you and I can do or say to get them to stay in the PCUSA, to re-engage, re-connect and live out life in the PCUSA?”
As he sees it, yes, there is a way. It’s a three-step process for reconnection that requires re-tuning, responding and re-presenting.
In re-tuning, Haberer noted various frequencies that need to interconnect in order for the church to function as it should. Those frequencies include:
- Confessional Godview: holding truth and understanding how it is to be;
- Devotionalist Godview: a closer walk with God;
- Ecclesial Godview: working in partnership as the Body of Christ;
- Altruist Godview: compassion and care for the needy; and
- Activist Godview: breaking down oppressions, bringing equality and justice.
“We have to learn from and challenge each other, be more of what God would have us be in the Body of Christ,” Haberer explained.
Haberer said many of those congregations leaving or thinking of departing the PCUSA are taking a Confessionalist Godview, the belief that if they know the truth they will be set free, that false teachings can lead to lives of unfaithfulness. They uphold standards of ethical and moral behavior.
“Our first appeal is to listen to them – on their terms,” Haberer said. “It’s better to befriend them and seek them out now instead of waiting until they have crossed that line and turned on to that exit path.”
Responding to the concerns of those seeking departure involves three major issues being debated by churches entering discernment: authority of Scripture, uniqueness of Jesus Christ and expression of sexuality. Most churches leaving the PCUSA cite one or more of those issues as their reason for seeking a new denominational home.
Haberer contends that the arguments about the inerrancy of the Bible occur because of what it is.
“You put a group of Presbyterians in a room with Bibles, and it will start an argument,” Haberer joked. “Why do we argue about it? Because we take it so seriously. It’s God’s Word. It proclaims the love of Jesus Christ, tells us how to live and how to tell others about Him.”
He referred to 2 Timothy 3:16 as a basis for that stance. The passage reads, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ….”
Haberer was succinct and to the point discussing the unique aspect of Jesus Christ.
“There is this concern that Jesus is not the unique way to salvation. That’s explained in John 14:6,” Haberer said. “I don’t think Jesus came to earth to make it easier to send people to hell. Everyone has their own God? That’s weak. Jesus Christ is the only savior.”
Again citing Scripture, Haberer referenced Ephesians 2:8 (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ….”) and 2 Timothy 2:4 (“…who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”) as his basis.
The PCUSA staff of Theology and Worship drafted a document called “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” that was adopted by the 214th General Assembly in 2002. That document, once discussed by Haberer and Jack Adams, former editor of The Layman, is an example of orthodoxy to follow, he said.
“I was talking about that with Jack Adams some years ago and asked what he thought about (the document). He said to me, ‘That’s Reformed. You can’t get any better than that.’ I stand there. That’s about as orthodox as you can get.”
As far as sexuality issues, Haberer said he understood the ordination of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer (LGBTQ) people to be a sticking point for many in the denomination and they felt it was unacceptable.
“But which church are you going to where you have leaders you would not have selected?” he asked pointedly.
He went on to say that the denomination is not doing much to change the opinions that have been formed about it in relation to decisions it has made through the years, many of them often controversial.
“We need to respond openly, responsibly and faithfully to people wanting to leave. An accusation met with silence is automatically interpreted as an admission of guilt,” Haberer said. “We’re doing an abysmal job at this in every part of the church. We’re not stepping up to say, ‘No, that’s not right about us.’”
Haberer’s final point was that the denomination needs to show what makes it special, why congregations and individuals should choose to be part of the PCUSA rather than in another Presbyterian denomination.
He used the metaphors of a university church (education); a hospital church (a place to heal from the wounds of sin and failure); a supermarket church (a church of minimal uniformity with open options); and an open book church (one that makes its information available to the public).
“I’d rather be in a church that’s open and publishes its stuff and makes it available to the public,” Haberer said. “It’s much better to be disclosing than concealing.”
While no one knows for sure what the face of the Presbyterian Church will look like in the future, Haberer is confident in one thing.
“I can’t predict what the church will look like 20, 30, 40 years from now, but I do know this: this church has been built on a rock, the rock that is Jesus Christ,” he said. “I have the basic confidence going back to the basic book of the Bible that the One who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”