Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), long the dominant denomination among Presbyterian churches, has voted to permit actively practicing homosexuals to be ordained and serve as pastors, following similar actions by the Evangelical Lutheran Church (last year) and by other “mainline” Protestant denominations in recent years.
It was only a matter of time. PCUSA has become very liberal and now faces yet another schism because of that liberalism. Presbyterians are already known as the “split Ps,” such are their tendency to divide into balkanized factions. You’re not likely to find many five-point Calvinists in a PCUSA church, though you would in a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) or OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). Presbyterians who are more orthodox in their faith have been migrating out of PCUSA for quite a while now. (I myself, before I converted to Catholicism, was a member of a PCUSA church.)
PCUSA is also flying off the hinges on abortion. That’s predictable, as issues like homosexual pastors and legal abortion seem to go hand-in-hand in these churches. PCUSA is a member of the hideous Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a tragically confused organization of “pro-choice” Protestants. There, it is joined by the likes of (among other mainline denominations), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church.
This brings me to my central question and focus here:
How do these churches arrive at these “truths?” The answer isn’t complicated, even as it will bewilder cradle Catholics. Here it goes:
Typically, these denominations determine these core beliefs by a majority vote of delegates at their conventions. Yes, it’s that simple.
In these churches, truth isn’t discerned via anything akin to an ancient magisterium infused by the Holy Spirit through a divine process of apostolic succession literally linked to Jesus Christ himself. No, “truth” is as recent as the last vote tally at the last general assembly.
As an illustration, consider the United Methodist Church (UMC) and its position on abortion.
The UMC’s Book of Discipline advocates abortion as a “legal option.” I’ll never forget when I was researching the faith of Hillary Clinton, a lifelong enthusiastic Methodist, and trying to a get handle on her fanaticism on the abortion issue. For insight, I interviewed Mrs. Clinton’s longtime friend and Arkansas obstetrician-gynecologist William F. Harrison, who just happened to be the leading abortion doctor in the state of Arkansas over three decades, proudly doing thousands of abortions. When I asked Harrison how a committed Methodist like Hillary could be so staunchly “pro-choice,” he was offended, informing me flatly: “Hillary [is] a Methodist, and I was raised a Methodist. The Methodist church [is] very strongly pro-choice.”
Harrison, like Mrs. Clinton, saw no contradiction between his personal view on abortion and that of his church. For decades, the UMC has led the flock on these moral issues, and certain members of the flock — from Harrison to Hillary Clinton — have responded appreciatively.
Can the UMC’s position change? Sure. Anything is possible every four years when the UMC general assembly meets.
The UMC’s “truth” on abortion began taking yet another manifestation during its 2008 conference, where, among the steps taken, there was a statement affirming and encouraging the church to “assist the ministry of crisis-pregnancy centers and pregnancy-resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” The conference made some important changes in language, deleting a previous assertion that advocating legalized abortion was somehow in “continuity with past Christian teaching,” and even adding a sentence informing Methodists that they are “bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and unborn child.”
In another positive change, pro-life Methodists shrewdly raised a form of abortion that even feminist Methodists could condemn: gender-selective abortions. Translation: For “pro-choice” Methodists, abortion is acceptable for, say, general reasons of birth control — but not for reasons like, say, the baby is a girl. How’s that for truth?
The one serious disappointment at UMC’s 2008 conference was the decision to remain a part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
So, what to make of these more recent abortion actions by the UMC? Had the Holy Spirit changed its mind? Or maybe Scripture spoke differently to someone’s heart?
No, what changed was the mere makeup of the delegates. As one of the delegates told me, it was “the closest margin ever.” In fact, in a really shameless move by the liberal Methodists, the vote on whether UMC should remain in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was held prior to the arrival of the 100 conservative, pro-life African delegates; otherwise, said my friend, the resolution to leave the coalition “would have passed.” He told me confidently, “We’ll win next time.” The next time is 2012.
What I’ve described with the UMC is not much different from what just happened with PCUSA on the matter of active homosexual pastors.
Think about all of this. Let it sink in. And ask yourself: How would you like this as a Catholic? Can you imagine if the Roman Catholic Church’s core teachings — on matters like sin, life and death, and the very nature of man and human relations — were as fickle as a majority vote cast by whichever group of people were sent or present at a meeting? I would feel extremely insecure about that church and its teachings.
By what authority — and I mean real authority — could one feel that those teachings had any legitimacy? What could be more lacking in substance than such a process? How could one place stock in this? My heart and soul would be restless.
Yet, it’s by such spiritual/moral processes that millions of our Protestant brothers and sisters govern their religious lives or submit their beliefs — often with great unease. And when one denomination becomes uninhabitable, they leave for another home — i.e., another church, or another denomination, or another “nondenominational church,” which, of course, is simply its own nondenominational denomination. When then that nondenominational church becomes problematic — because it, too, lacks the Catholic magisterium — the individual simply moves to another.
At its most fundamental level, Protestantism is each and every man and woman and his or her Bible, with every person a magisterium, with endless people “led by the Holy Spirit” into contradictory directions. And that, my friends, is a train wreck for truth.
Paul Kengor is a frequent
contributor to the Register.
His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald
Reagan’s Top Hand
and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.