Written by Jerry M. Roper, Ph.D. and John W. Daniel, D.Min., Crestwood Presbyterian Church
“Churches paying big bucks to get out of the PCUSA” was The Layman’s October 28, 2015 headline story. Crestwood Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia wasn’t mentioned in the article, because the dismissal terms of $1.5 million were not yet agreed to by Crestwood’s session and representatives of the Presbytery of the James (POJ) at the time of publication. Today the terms are finalized, having received approval by Crestwood’s congregation and the POJ. This million-plus settlement amount makes Crestwood, a congregation of about 800, one of the highest per capita settlements in the nation.
Crestwood’s dismissal from the POJ stretched over three years, and involved 19 months of contentious negotiation with two presbytery bodies; first an Administrative Commission (AC) and when those negotiations failed, the Board of Trustees. Crestwood detailed for these 18 POJ representatives the crushing impact a million dollar plus settlement would have on evangelism, missions, and ministry. Yet throughout the lengthy dismissal process not one of these POJ representatives stood up for Crestwood or advocated for the people served by our outreach and mission programs. How is it that teaching and ruling elders, who in some cases have known and worked with Crestwood elders for decades, can remain silent and participate in foisting such a crippling financial burden on those they call “brothers and sisters in Christ?” The answer is that the POJ representatives have a vision of God and humanity that is fundamentally different from the vision embraced by Crestwood’s session. The struggle between these two visions drove Crestwood’s dismissal process, and likewise is driving the ultimate demise of the PCUSA. Sessions contemplating dismissal or already in the dismissal process can benefit by understanding the nature of the competing visions and their ensuing spiritual and practical consequences.
Unconstrained vs. Constrained
Thomas Sowell in his book, A Conflict of Visions, observed that people are guided by one of two visions, and regardless of the issue, people are going to line up on sides based upon their vision. He termed the two visions “unconstrained” and “constrained.” People subscribing to an unconstrained vision of life generally believe that a goodness exists in human nature, and with the right policies, doctrine, and systems in place goodness can flourish. The unconstrained vision relies upon an ever increasing understanding of nature based on science, and therefore, developments in environmental science, genetics, and medicine (particularly neuroscience) that result in a deeper understanding of nature and the human make-up are in turn used to shape, influence, and design more informed policies, doctrines, and systems. These improved policies, doctrines, and systems, according to an unconstrained vision, bring enlightenment and can unlock the inherent goodness in humans. Thus, redefining marriage from the definition that is as old as civilization itself to a new definition is a great advancement to unconstrained individuals. They are simply relying upon the latest thinking to unlock human potential and happiness. Those who oppose them are simply unwilling to incorporate new knowledge and understanding, and therefore, they cling to outdated ideas of faith, piety, and order.
Individuals fitting Sowell’s constrained vision hold that human nature is inherently self-interested and motived by base intentions that seek advantage over others. People in the constrained camp believe that no amount of scientific information or understanding is going to alter human character. In fact, the constrained look at scientific findings cited by the unconstrained, but interpret those findings as having no new revelations about the inherent character, i.e., soul, of humans. The constrained subscribe to an understanding that the base motives of human nature must be controlled and guided by timeless policies, doctrines, and systems that do not change, i.e., scripture, because human nature does not change.
The true divide that separated the POJ representatives and the Crestwood session was therefore not single issues such revised ordination standards, redefining marriage, or the role and authority of scripture. These were merely symptoms of the deeper divide between the constrained and unconstrained visions, which goes right to the heart of our understanding of Creation that in turn defines who we are, what we are, and who God is. Therefore, the starting point for how unconstrained and constrained individuals view the world is fundamentally different and, not surprisingly, different starting points lead individuals down dramatically different paths. These differences produce colliding worldviews. These are not just different ways of looking at issues, but fundamentally different ways of viewing life and the world in which we live.
Enlightenment vs. judgment
The first question posed to anyone wishing to join a PCUSA congregation is – stating it roughly – are we hopeless sinners or not? Those in the constrained camp of the PCUSA immediately say yes, while those counted among the PCUSA’s unconstrained cannot fully in their hearts voice affirmation. This divide is huge, and it very much separates the two sides of the negotiating table in the way presbytery representatives view the departing congregation. The unconstrained individual believes those in the departing congregation are simply unenlightened. If they would just open their eyes, they would see that enlightenment happens all around them. And, God doesn’t have to be absent from this view, because God can provide enlightenment through a new, better interpretation of scripture based on the latest scientific findings.
John Shuck in an article entitled “A Call to the Entire Church” (see page 4) that appeared in the Presbyterian Voices for Justice [Fall 2015] brilliantly articulated the unconstrained vision, as illustrated by the following quote from his article:
I think our theology is still in the 17th century while we live in the 21st century. The dogmas of our religious heritage do not meet the challenges of the world presented to us by science and by social science. All of the beliefs we are supposed to affirm such as Creation, Virgin Birth, Resurrection of the body of Jesus, miracles, original sin, atonement, heaven and hell, and a supernatural interventionist god called God are metaphors.” [emphasis added]
Shuck’s candid explanation of the unconstrained vision points to the trap concealed inside the “Big Tent” argument used by PCUSA loyalists. The “Big Tent” is a way of saying, “Let’s live together until you’re better enlightened.” Therefore, during Crestwood’s dismissal negotiations when the POJ representatives referred to members of the session as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” they weren’t being disingenuous. They were simply saying, “We’re all unenlightened in some way so let’s live together as brothers and sisters and see what accommodations you can make to our ‘religious heritage’ in order to ‘meet the challenges of the world presented to us by science and social science.’”
Constrained individuals are of course horrified at this worldview. For the constrained, who believe in the depravity of human nature, one word comes to mind – judgment. The constrained read the Old Testament and see God’s judgment on Israel for accommodating pagan worship, and they say, “We cannot enter the ‘Big Tent’.” To enter the “Big Tent” would be sin, and sin, of course, implies a final judgment. To be clear, the unconstrained don’t necessarily discount a final judgment, but they believe that an enlightened God will not judge sin harshly, and certainly a God of love will condemn no one for eternity. Therefore, the starting points for the unconstrained vs. constrained individuals are far apart, and the roads traveled diverge even farther apart, as the next step of this journey illustrates.
Solutions vs. wisdom
Both the unconstrained and constrained read from the same scripture. The unconstrained, affirming that humankind is basically good, believe that interpretation of scripture, not only can be, but should be informed by enlightenment. When an enlightened mind turns toward the interpretation of scripture, they bring with them an immediacy based upon what the most prolific thinkers of the day identify as needing reform. Typically, these are social, moral, or political constructs, but the environment is also included. Thus, problems need to be solved – discrimination, income disparities, denial of rights such as marriage for homosexuals, climate change, and the list goes on. Problems require solutions and the unconstrained set about to find the right mix of policies, laws, persuasion, and ultimately force to implement their solutions. The constrained see the same issues and problems, but interpret them as manifestations of the same root problem – sinfulness in a fallen world. As a consequence, the constrained believe there is a single solution to all problems, and that solution is Christ’s salvation. Therefore, they seek wisdom on how to best apply “the solution,” i.e., Christ’s salvation, to the multitude of problems that beset humanity. In a nutshell here is the divide: those seeking solutions want to change the system in order to bring about salvation, while those seeking wisdom want to change the heart to bring about salvation which in turn changes the system. These two approaches result in very different outcomes.
Despair vs. hope
The fact that PCUSA is demanding ever increasing dollar amounts from departing churches is indicative of a despair settling in at PCUSA offices in Louisville. Using the power of the Trust Clause fortified by church court decisions in the Tom and McGee cases, Louisville is determined to make churches think twice about leaving, and if they do take a step toward the door, the departing churches must be prepared to write a very large check. But why is this the case? Shouldn’t enlightened individuals seeking solutions to many of humankind’s deepest problems be happy that after decades of fighting with the constrained faction of the denomination, those folks are leaving? In a new “pure” PCUSA, the unconstrained will be able to conceive and implement their solutions without constant naysaying from the constrained faction. Further as a bonus, the denomination will have a multimillion dollar war chest to implement their solutions. In spite of all these advantages, the PCUSA has a smell of desperation, while departing churches appear to have a sense of hope. Why? The answer lies at the very core of the unconstrained vs. constrained visions.
A.W. Tozer, the great 20th Century theologian in The Pursuit of God wrote of a void in the human heart that only God can fill. The constrained, knowing humankind’s sinfulness welcome God’s filling and that brings them hope; they have an eternal view of any problem that confronts them. Judgment and wisdom are encompassed in this eternal view. The unconstrained attempt to fill the void in their hearts by applying solutions to important problems; they have a temporal view of problems – things need to be fixed now, not later. For the unconstrained, enlightenment and solutions are like two very powerful searchlights shining within the PCUSA, and when that light hits the constrained faction, an immediate pushback and reaction occurs. The strong reaction affirms to the unconstrained that they are on the right track; their solutions are good, and they in turn are good themselves. Otherwise, why would the unenlightened be reacting so strongly? And so, the unconstrained heart is filled, but this filling comes with a very high price tag. If the searchlights of enlightenment and solutions illuminate a constrained faction that is so small and feeble as to be nonexistent, then no significant pushback or reaction occurs, and the unconstrained heart is left wanting.
Dismissal settlements in the PCUSA are of course about money and the exercise of power, but at a deep level, the unconstrained know that without the constrained, they are unimportant; no one will really care about their solutions and their hearts will be empty; hence their despair. For if a “pure” unconstrained PCUSA changes the definition of marriage or even advocates for say polygamy, who cares? They are merely one of dozens of organizations advocating for the same issues. Therefore, in the long run, departing churches may threaten PCUSA’s existence, but in the short run, they call into question the PCUSA’s self worth. Louisville is determined this must stop. Gracious dismissal – if it ever existed – is out the window and departing churches are tied to the rack of the Trust Clause and stretched until they recant or pay. These are the actions of desperate individuals.
Though being stretched, hope abounds at departing congregations. Certainly, Crestwood is hopeful. The $1.5 million settlement is an unwarranted, burdensome demand placed on us by the POJ, but it is also a demonstration of our congregation’s faith, and we believe a witness. How much is our faith and fidelity to Holy Scripture worth to us? A fortune – all we have!
A message to departing churches and their AC’s
The session of departing churches must have a clear understanding of why they are leaving, what they hope to accomplish by leaving, and most importantly, know the nature of the PCUSA. It is a denomination wedded to advancing an unconstrained vision, and this doesn’t mean they are “bad” people. It does, however, mean that they are deceived about the most fundamental aspects of Creation, most importantly the true nature of humankind, and that the PCUSA elites, like Eve when confronted by the serpent, are trying to figure out what did God really say – if there is a God? Ironically, the unconstrained believe that their endeavors to usher in a more enlightened society based on contemporary thinking is brand new, when in fact it is very old!
Visions have consequences
Early in King Josiah’s reign (ca. 600 BC) enlightened individuals following the contemporary thinking their time traveled outside Jerusalem to the Valley of Hinnom to seek solutions to their problems. In this valley that was also called Topheth, they sacrificed their sons and daughters to ensure climate change for better crops and bring about – in their eyes – a better society. Then during renovation of the Temple, King Josiah found the Book of the Law. The timeless revealed truth of the Book showed him that the “enlightened” killing of children in the Valley of Hinnom was actually a sin and he stopped it. The contest between evolving enlightenment and unchanging revealed truth is as old as the Bible. Let us pray that God will send a King Josiah to the PCUSA. In the meantime, departing churches should remain confident that they are on the right side of the competing visions driving them to a new denomination. But those who depart must also be cautious that they do not in the end seek to create a better version of what they departed. In this regard, the Exodus account provides a powerful illustration.
Having fled Pharaoh, the Children of Israel camped “at Etham, on the the edge of the wilderness.” [Exodus 13:20]. Behind them that night was Pharaoh’s army, and in front was a star-filled desert sky full of hope, but also danger. The danger on this spiritual journey lies not from without, but from within, and that danger is pride. Departing churches must truly repent and seek to be ever diligent in being constrained by the Lord of Lord’s and the word he has given.