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The Presbyterian Church (USA) & homosexuality

PCUSA schisms and mergers.
Church membership. Recent conflicts.
A survey. Paths forward.

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Schisms and mergers in the Presbyterian tradition in the U.S.:

Presbyterians are part of the Reform (a.k.a. Calvinist) tradition. The movement was first established in Scotland under John Knox.

The history of the Presbyterian movement in the United States contains many schisms based on moral questions, often followed by mergers:

  • 1861: The denomination split on north/south lines over the issue of the preservation or abolition of human slavery.

  • Circa 1925: The church was able to weathered a second serious crisis: the Fundamentalist - Modernist controversy. The denomination was divided whether to retain to traditional, historical beliefs, or to absorb modern beliefs concerning biblical inerrancy, inspiration of the authors of the Bible, the search for the historical Jesus, the existence and nature of Hell, etc. A commission, organized in 1925, successfully avoided a denominational schism. Some liberal ideas were accepted by the denomination.

  • 1972-3: 260 congregations totaling over 41,000 members left the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern) because of an internal liberal/conservative controversy. This conflict was largely caused by disagreements over the inerrancy of the Bible and the ordination of women. A number of presbyteries left, including: the Warrior Presbytery in Alabama, the Westminster Presbytery in Virginia and East Tennessee, and the Vanguard Presbytery at large. 1 Many high-profile conservative Presbyterian ministers left, including Dr. D. James Kennedy, of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Larry Roff of Knox Theological Seminary. They formed the National Presbyterian Church.

  • 1974: The National Presbyterian Church changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

  • 1982: The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, joined the PCA.

  • 1983: The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States merged to produce the The Presbyterian Church (USA) [a.k.a. PCUSA]. This healed the major split in the denomination that occurred at the start of the Civil War due to a disagreement over human slavery.

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Church membership:

The World Almanac for 2004 reported that the PCUSA had 3.4 million members and 11,142 congregations. The denomination was divided among 171 presbyteries -- a number that has remained relatively constant. The more conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] has about 307,000 members. There are also seven smaller Presbyterian denominations of which the largest has about 85,000 members. 2 Like many other mainline Protestant denominations, the PCUSA has been losing members for the past 40 years. 3 For example, their net recorded loss between 2002 and 2003 was 46,658 members:

  • Some conservative members believe that the loss is related to the church's continuing, three-decades long, discussion of equal rights for gays and lesbians, including both homosexual ordination, and the recognition of holy unions and marriages by same-sex couples

  • Others believe that the drop is caused by the denomination's inability to attract younger members. Youth may well be discouraged, in part, by the denomination's rejection of equal rights for gays and lesbians and its teachings on premarital sex, etc.

Membership loss appears to be a continuing problem:

  • 1992: The church had 2.78 million members.

  • 2009: Membership had dropped to 2.1 million members, with 13,462 ordained ministers in 10,657 congregations. 6

  • 2013: Membership had reached 1.76 million

This decrease of 37% in membership has occurred in spite of the overall growth of the American population by 24% over the same interval.

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Recent conflicts in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

During the late 1980's and continuing to the present time, internal conflict within the church over beliefs and practices has intensified. The main sticking points involved lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and transsexual members as well as salvation: specifically:

Currently, the denomination is seriously split at three levels:

  • Within each congregation, between religious liberal and conservative members.

  • Between urban and rural congregations.

  • Between "liberal" areas of the country, like the northeast, and "conservative" areas, like the southern states.

During 2010, Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service interviewed Rev. Jeffrey Krehbiel, a PC(USA) minister in Washington DC, and Mark Noll, a professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame and author of "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis." 9 Burke wrote:

" 'I think almost everybody who makes the liberal argument about homosexuality makes the connection with abolition and slavery,' said the Rev. Jeffrey Krehbiel, a Washington, D.C., pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who supports gay rights.

Abolitionists, he said, 'were the first to make the argument that the plain reading of the text maybe isn’t the most fruitful way to read the Bible.'

But while there are striking parallels between the slavery and homosexuality debates, historians caution that important differences emerge upon close examination.

In both eras, cultural trends forced Christians to question practices that had long been taken for granted, said Mark Noll. ... Likewise, the Bible, and how to interpret it, has played a central role both then and now, Noll said.

In the 19th century, even some Northern abolitionists admitted that the Bible clearly condones slavery. Many, therefore, sought other sources of morality and methods of biblical interpretation; conservatives countered that such appeals undermine the power of the sacred text.

As conflict heated up, Noll writes in his book, slavery’s defenders increasingly saw “doubts about biblical defense of slavery as doubts about the authority of the Bible itself." 5

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Results of a survey of members, elders and ministers about ordination of "non-celibate gays and lesbians:"

Survey results indicate the degree of conflict within the denomination. Results were reported during 2009-OCT. They found that ministers formed the group most open to ordination, followed by the general membership, with the elders least receptive to the idea. Some of the findings:

  • 53% of the membership and 59% of the elders oppose ordination to the ministry.

  • About 51% of the existing ministers favor such ordination.

  • About 54% of ministers favor ordination of sexually active gays and lesbian to the office of deacon. 4

The author of the report, Jack Marcum, comments:

"Responses by age group, however, suggest the opinion gap may narrow in future years. While 30 percent of both members and elders aged 60 or older would permit ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians as ministers, 44 percent of those younger than 40 would do so. Among ministers, the corresponding numbers are 53 percent and 55 percent. It remains to be seen whether the next generation of  Presbyterians will be as open to ordaining gays and lesbians as younger Presbyterians are today. While American society seems to be liberalizing on gay issues, there is nothing inevitable about this trend, as the 2008 vote to ban same-sex marriage in California made clear.

Presbyterians have been divided on the topic of homosexuality and ordination for more than 30 years, and I would not be surprised to see us remain so many years hence." 4

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The paths forward:

There appear to be only four possible future scenarios:

  1. The denomination might persist as it has in the past, with continuing debates causing dissension in the church for many years into the future. This would be a solid win for the conservative faction.

  2. The church might split into two denominations as it did in the past over the morality of human slavery. Eventually, as the culture reaches a consensus on equal rights for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (LGBs) the two denominations might merge.

  3. The church might develop some form of local option in which individual presbyteries or even individual congregations would decide matters of procedure for themselves.

  4. The church may accept a change to their formal definition of marriage and also allow its clergy to marry loving, committed same-sex couples. This would be a solid win for the liberal side and would bring the denomination into harmony with the beliefs of most Americans.

The denomination seems to have taken path #4 at its 2014 General Assembly when it overwhelmingly voted to change its definition of marriage and to extend to individual congregations the option to allow its minister(s) to marry same-sex couples where such marriages are legal. However, the former decision must be ratified by a majority of presbyteries during 2015.

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Internet and media references:

  1. Krista Ramsey, "Doug is calm at center of church storm", Cincinnati Enquirer, 1997-NOV-1
  2. "The World Almanac and Book of Facts," World Almanac Books, (2004), Page 610.
  3. "The Church and Homosexuality," (1978). Publication #OGA-88-042. It can be ordered for $1.50 + S&H by phoning 1-800-524-2612. It is important to realize that this document is partly based on scientific knowledge of human sexuality as it existed in 1978. Much has been learned since.
  4. Jack Marcum, "Go Figure: Homosexuality and ordination," PC(USA), 2009-OCT, at: http://www.pcusa.org/  This is a PDF file.
  5. Daniel Burke, "," Religion News Service, 2010-AUG, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  6. Jack Marcum, "Go Figure: Fewer members = smaller congregations," PC(USA), 2010-DEC, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  7. "Presbyterians set vote on same-sex marriage at convention in Detroit." Detroit Free Press, 2014-JUN-19, at: http://www.freep.com/
  8. Josh Staiger, "U.S. Population by Year," 2014, at: http://www.multpl.com/
  9. book cover image Mark A. Noll, "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis," (2006). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

    Some reviews:
    • "Mark Noll has for several decades been leading an effort to take seriously the religious and theological complexities of America's antebellum and Civil War experience. This concise book . . . both summarizes this scholarship and, in several important respects, advances the conversation."
      --The Journal of Religion

    • "In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark A. Noll breaks new ground on pre-war theological disputes over slavery in scripture and on contemporary discussions of the providential character of the war."
      -Southern Partisan

    • "[The Civil War as a Theological Crisis] was deeply satisfying and profoundly disturbing at the same time. It is to his credit that Noll's evangelical scholarship could raise such intellectual complexities and question such moral scandals."
      -Presbyterion

    • "[A] well-written and insightful work. . . . Noll makes every word count."
      -BYU Studies
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Copyright © 1996 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Latest update 2014-JUN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson
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