There was a time when the Presbyterian Church’s voice mattered, when its witness informed and transformed American culture. That time is rapidly receding into the mists of civic and cultural disestablishment. As its influence has waned, the church has failed to recognize the ways in which an institution that had previously transformed the culture is now being transformed by the culture.
Social historians identify three distinct disestablishments of the church in North America: legal disestablishment in the eighteenth century, civic disestablishment in the nineteenth century, and cultural disestablishment in the twentieth century. It is the cultural disestablishment of American churches that has been especially painful and bewildering to Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants. Christianity is no longer integral to American society and its churches no longer shape American culture. Christianity is now but one of many religious communities in America, and its churches no longer enjoy the social status and power that society once bestowed on them. Christian churches have become only one choice in a profusion of religious options; increasingly, American piety is “spiritual but not religious.” What theologian Ingolf Dalferth has written about Europe is becoming evident in the United States:
Both inside and outside the various churches, the ever more pervasive mood is that of living in an age of epilogue, of fading memories, of a futile clinging to yesterday. . . . The influence of the churches is unmistakably diminishing, and the objections of Christians increasingly fade away unheard. One no longer expects much of Christians, at least not regarding anything determinative for today.
While cultural disestablishment affects all Christian churches, its impact on the old mainline—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Methodists—is dramatic, for mainline Protestantism was particularly ill prepared for the loss of a central place in American life. Evangelical, holiness, and pentecostal churches were never legally or civically established. Ethnically cohesive bodies such as the various Lutheran churches were not fully engaged in the civic life of the society. Catholics experienced prejudice and discrimination in Protestant America and had to swim against the cultural stream. Since these groups always understood themselves to be living in various degrees of separation from mainstream American society, the culture’s movement away from the churches has not affected them as deeply as it has the once “established” churches.
In the midst of their civic and cultural disestablishment, the churches have failed to understand the extent to which they have been transformed by political and economic features of American society. For instance, my own denomination’s commitment to “justice” is grounded in Western democracy’s assertion of personal and group rights that must be guaranteed by legislative and judicial procedures. The PCUSA’s justice statements and programs assume that this meaning of “justice” is self-evident to everyone, but justice is not a simple, self-evident concept. Scripture and Christian tradition have much to say about justice, of course, but they speak more about relationships than rights, covenants than legislation, peace than verdicts, communion than adversarial conflict. The church’s acceptance of prevailing American assumptions about justice blocks its capacity to discern and live out the distinctively Christian contours of justice. Other instances of cultural accommodation include denominational adoption of bureaucratic business models and the marketing of the church as a consumer product in the American arcade.
Perhaps the most harmful transformation, though, has been the PCUSA’s adoption of decision-making procedures that mimic American-style liberal democracy rather than expressing the character and quality of ecclesial community. Because the PCUSA suffers from an ecclesiological deficit—the absence of a shared understanding of the nature and purpose and mission of the church—it has come to interpret its life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and associations.
The bipolarity of democracy American style has strengthened the growth of a two-party Presbyterian system that openly conducts political campaigns in the church’s electoral, legislative, and judicial contests. Presbyterian organizational life verifies sociologist James Davison Hunter’s observation that American culture has come to be characterized by “the politicization of nearly everything . . . the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems.”
My church was made especially susceptible to politicization by one of its foundational myths. Once celebrated openly but now residing in the church’s collective subconscious is the belief that American representative democracy was patterned after Presbyterian polity. It was claimed that church sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the general assembly provided the template for representative town councils, municipal and county boards, state legislatures, and the national Congress. It was all a pleasant fiction, of course, both historically and conceptually inaccurate, and it concealed the extent to which the church’s current polity has been shaped by the assumptions and practices of the American political system.
Presbyterian polity has been understood historically and philosophically as the means to secure, if not full agreement, at least a willingness to live with the outcome of the polity’s operations. But the current capacity of Presbyterian procedures to reach meaningful consensus or amicable acquiescence on issues before the church has been diminished. In 2010 and 2011, PCUSA voted on three dramatic proposals to amend its constitution: It removed the prohibition against ordaining persons not living “either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness”; it disapproved the inclusion of the Confession of Belhar, a statement on the unity of the church emerging from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in its theological standards; and it adopted an entirely new Form of Government. Each of these matters was decided by margins that might be comfortable in politics but were disturbingly narrow when matters of the church’s faith and order were at issue. Tellingly, the votes did more to exacerbate disagreement in the church than to resolve it.
The church’s captivity to American society’s legislative and regulatory procedures is reflected by novel terminology adopted in the 1980s to describe the church’s structures. For centuries, sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the general assembly had been called “judicatories.” The term did not denote a judicial court in a legal system but rather an assembly whose task was to inquire into significant matters and reach considered conclusions. The PCUSA replaced the term with “governing bodies.” Quite apart from the gracelessness of the expression, it conveyed the increasingly accepted notion that the purpose of polity is to govern the church: to direct, regulate, and manage the affairs of an institution.
Although the democratic captivity of the church pervades the entire exercise of Presbyterian polity, it is most evident in the way polity operates when critical issues are in play at the national level of the general assembly. The PCUSA has made it clear that the primary responsibility of general assemblies is to do the business of voting on legislative and procedural proposals placed before it by both grassroots initiatives and bureaucratic recommendations. Meetings of general assemblies are conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order, a widely used organizational guide to “constructive and democratic” parliamentary procedure designed to ensure “fair and orderly meetings and conventions.” The premium placed on legislative procedure is evident in the pre-assembly briefing for committee leaders and staff: It is devoted almost exclusively to days of training in matters of procedure while paying virtually no attention to the substance of proposals before the assembly.
Inattention to substance and reliance on procedure has led general assemblies to be dominated by parliamentary maneuvers that have sometimes resulted in the adoption of hastily composed, confusing, and inadequate statements on matters as basic as Christology, Scripture, and salvation. The ensuing controversies have occasionally necessitated the submission of carefully crafted “corrections” at a subsequent general assembly, but even then the reliance on legislative procedure prevails.
Instead of working to achieve consensus on contested theological and moral issues, legislatively driven agendas are designed to end debates by reducing the issue to two sides and then enacting one side into church policy and ecclesiastical law. Democratic voting procedures always reduce an issue to this or that, yes or no, up or down, in or out. British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow warned that “the number two is a very dangerous number. Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion.” Dividing complex theological, moral, and ecclesial matters into two trivializes them and renders them substantively unresolvable. Even the best-intentioned church discussions reinforce polar divisions by guaranteeing a voice to “both sides of the issue,” as if any issue worth discussing has only two sides.
To make matters worse, having been reduced to two sides, issues are further diminished by reliance on slogans to argue them, often “rights” and “justice” at one pole and “biblical authority” and “Christian morality” at the other, or, negatively, “racism” and “homophobia” at one pole, “liberation theology” and “relativism” at the other. Contending sides understand that slogans and epithets are useful because governing bodies do not have time to learn about and consider the issues before them. All complexity and nuance is lost as church assemblies debate “justice” or “the Bible,” without ever asking, Whose justice? Which interpretation of the Bible? General assemblies do not ask these crucial questions because they have been called into session to do legislative business, not theology.
The ability of general assemblies to explore faith and faithfulness is further weakened by their composition: They are little more than biennial gatherings of strangers. PCUSA general assemblies consist of more than seven hundred “commissioners,” half of whom are ministers and half elders (ordered ministers that most churches would consider laity), and 90 percent of whom have never before been to a general assembly. Two hours of mandated “group building exercises” do not create mutual understanding and responsibility, and the compacted assembly schedule does not create the opportunity for deep discernment and careful consideration of substantive theological, ethical, moral, and ecclesiological matters. The assembly meets for one week, spending two days on preliminary procedural matters, two and a half days on committee meetings (to which commissioners are randomly assigned by computer), and two and a half days on plenary voting on hundreds of proposals, only a fraction of which commissioners have read, let alone studied. Commissioners vote, adopt legislation, make rules, and then return home with no continuing responsibility for the actions they have taken.
The American democratic procedures that have shaped the practice of Presbyterian polity were developed for ongoing legislative and judicial bodies, not for a one-week-and-done meeting of persons unfamiliar with both the matters at hand and each other. In political life, legislators and judges work together over time, becoming familiar with one another and the issues before them. While this does not guarantee good results, democratic procedures assume both familiarity with issues and the time necessary to consider them. Neither assumption applies to the PCUSA general assembly.
The simplified division of substantial concerns into two opposed alternatives is further degraded by the expectation that the way to choose between them is by majority vote. Voting can work reasonably well in political arenas where winning and losing is the assumed outcome, even the name of the game. It works best, however, in situations where differences are encompassed within broad consensus regarding aims, so that balloting is about the best means to achieve those aims. Voting does not work well in situations of intractable polarity (witness the United States Congress) or when fundamental issues of faith and life are at stake.
All too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed. Presbyterian votes on contentious theological and moral issues often fall within the range of 55 percent to 45 percent, the equivalent of a vote of eleven to nine in a local church. Can it be said that the church has decided anything when nearly half of the church dissents? The aftermath of these votes is the absence of reception by the church’s ministers and members, and an ecclesial landscape littered with continuing legislative maneuvers, invocation of parliamentary rules, judicial appeals, trials in church courts, and the departures of congregations and ministers.
The 2010–2011 vote on the status of gay and lesbian persons in the ministries of the church was the fifth vote on ordination standards in the last fifteen years. The 55–45 percent margin removing the prohibition on ordination amended the church’s constitution, but it did not resolve the issue. For many in the minority, the action exacerbated dissatisfaction with the church’s perceived theological and moral direction. The result has been the departure of congregations and ministers to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a more conservative denomination; the formation of a new Presbyterian denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians; and the establishment of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, a differentiated congregational and pastoral “order” within the PCUSA.
No trouble-free resolution is in sight in any of the mainline churches to the difficult, contentious, and divisive issues of human sexuality, but the PCUSA is making resolution even less likely. Its reliance on legislative and judicial procedures to decide a complex theological, moral, and ecclesial matter has only heightened even more the disagreement while minimizing the possibility of serious, sustained engagement on basic issues such as theological anthropology, justification and sanctification, the nature of sin, repentance and forgiveness, Scriptural authority, and the nature and purpose of ordained ministry.
What would decision making in the Presbyterian Church look like if it were freed from captivity to democratic procedures? I suggest two possibilities.
Most importantly, church assemblies should reclaim their role as representative assemblies chosen to deliberate thoughtfully on significant matters of Christian faith and life, rather than continuing to act as legislatures that reduce everything to stark alternatives and then make hurried decisions by forced choice majority voting.
The PCUSA has an opportunity to move in this direction. The new Form of Government, adopted by the 2010 general assembly, makes a number of important and suggestive polity changes. One of the most promising is the abandonment of “governing body” terminology for sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the general assembly, replacing it with the term council. The new (actually, quite old) term is evocative, suggesting a shift in emphasis away from directing and regulating an institution toward the possibility of thoughtful deliberation on matters of the church’s faith and faithfulness. Councils are not hurried when deciding something; they take time for study, discussion, and prayer so that they may discern the leading of the Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ, the will of God. Council evokes images of Nicaea, Westminster, and Barmen rather than the United States Senate.
The new Form of Government makes a second important change that reinforces the possibilities suggested by council. The traditional Presbyterian terminology for ministers (teaching elders) and for elders (ruling elders) has been restored. This language indicates both the essential partnership of these two kinds of presbyters and their complementary callings. At the core of their vocation, teaching elders are called to teach the faith and ruling elders are called to rule out, to measure out, fidelity to the gospel in the life of the church. When teaching and ruling elders come together in councils they do not leave behind their essential calling; they are still ordered ministers with responsibility for teaching the faith and for discerning faithfulness. This suggests a general assembly that is primarily an ecclesial space for proclamation and prayer, teaching and learning, discernment and mutual accountability, rather than a vehicle for voting and legislating.
There are no simple solutions to the question of how decision making beyond forced-choice majority voting might occur in the church, but a brief account in Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child is suggestive. Hauerwas was once a member of a Methodist church whose pastor wanted to move the congregation to weekly celebration of the Eucharist. After considerable study, the church board met to discuss the matter. The board seemed supportive of the measure, so Hauerwas moved that it be put to a vote. The pastor, who had been quiet up till then, suddenly declared, “You will not vote on this issue.” Hauerwas was startled; wasn’t this just what the pastor had worked for? But the pastor reminded the board that the Eucharist is about the unity of the church. If the celebration of the Eucharist were determined by a majority vote, unity would be betrayed. Anyone in the congregation who had reservations needed to be heard first, and if there were strong dissent, the church would have to wait.
While unanimity on central matters of faith is rarely possible, they are not faithfully dealt with by forced-choice majority voting. The alternative to decision by majority voting does not lie in “consensus methods of decision making” or in “super majorities,” for these only perpetuate the notion that legislation is the appropriate means of determining issues of faith and order in the church and that the church must always make a decision when a proposal for change is made. Hauerwas’ pastor understood that when there is significant dissent on a theological or moral question before the church, the church must continue to study, discuss, and pray until the whole church can affirm a decision.
A dramatic instance of just such study, discussion, and prayer can be found in the Presbyterian Church’s not-too-distant past. The decision to ordain women to the church’s ministries took place over the course of a generation. Presbyterians have a three-fold ordained ministry: deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders (ministers). The church authorized the ordination of women as deacons in 1910, as ruling elders in 1930, and as ministers in 1956.
The decision to ordain women as ministers was made after years of study and discussion, and decades of experience with women deacons and elders. Although it was not without opposition, it was approved by an overwhelming voice vote at the general assembly and, perhaps more significant, received the required ratification from the presbyteries by a count of 205 to 35. The ordination of women to all of the church’s ordered ministries was received by the whole church, although congregational acceptance of women pastors moved slowly but steadily. It did not become a divisive issue until the 1970s when the church’s legislative and judicial procedures produced a regulation that prohibited the ordination of a man who would not participate in the ordination of a woman.
Decisions to change or not to change significant elements of the church’s faith and life take time—an un-American concept. Time is a problem for general assemblies, however. They do not meet for years (as did the Westminster Assembly and the Second Vatican Council) or even months (as did the first Council of Nicaea), and their composition is different at each biennial meeting. However, the PCUSA’s general assembly (national council) could forgo the compulsion to decide matters by itself, instead engaging presbyteries (regional councils) and church sessions (congregational councils) in protracted consideration of fundamental matters. Organs of Presbyterian polity would then work in concert, over time, to engage the whole people of God in substantive matters of faith and morals before the church.
When the general assembly has before it an issue upon which it cannot reach a unified decision—perhaps interfaith problems, end-of-life questions, or positions on public policy—ruling and teaching elders could return to their presbyteries to initiate discussion of the matter, and members of the presbyteries could then return to their individual congregations to discuss the matter further with the church session and the rest of the congregation. Pastors could address some of these matters in sermons or congregational studies. The fruits of these discussions would then be brought back to the presbyteries and through them to the general assembly. The process would be repeated as many times as needed to develop a consensus among the faithful.
But it is also possible that consensus will remain elusive and that consideration might continue—perhaps for weeks or months or even years—without resolution. Even so, evident lack of consensus in the church cannot be swept aside by the majority vote of one general assembly meeting. The possibility of multi-level study, discussion, and consultation does nothing more than take seriously the traditional Reformed conviction that the ministry of the whole people of God is the basic form of the church’s ministry. Ministers and elders are not a class apart from the church’s members, and church councils do not function apart from the consent of the people.
The second possibility for a new way of determining issues of faith and life emerges from recognition of an odd feature of the PCUSA’s hyper-democratic method of decision making: The Presbyterian Church always acts in isolation from other churches. The PCUSA presses forward on deciding significant theological, moral, and ecclesiological matters without consulting other churches, including its international partners and those in the United States with which it is in “full communion.” The denomination assumes its own self-sufficiency, expressing no interest in the wisdom of others. The church’s formal commitment to ecumenical engagement would be deepened by attending to theological and moral matters in meaningful consultation with other churches. Ecumenical consultation would recognize that no denomination is an independent operator; each shapes faith and life within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Presbyterian general assemblies are not universal councils of the church, and setting agendas and shaping deliberations in concert with other churches and their councils would help to avoid the conceit that authority in the church belongs to a voting majority of seven hundred commissioners.
As the Protestant–Catholic Groupe des Dombes’ latest contribution to ecumenical thought, “One Teacher”: Doctrinal Authority in the Church, affirms, authority in the church belongs to the whole people of God. While recognizing the difficulty of according an appropriate place for the exercise of this authority in actual church polity, Groupe des Dombes asks in “One Teacher” that “all churches agree to share in the debate regarding problems of faith and morals which are raised in a new way, acting together to take decisions in common whenever possible, and accepting the gospel principle of mutual correction.”
Neither of these possibilities, of themselves, deal comprehensively with the democratic captivity of the church. Indeed, it would require far more than a few changes in terminology and procedure for significant shifts to occur. The precondition for the church’s release from its bondage to democratic legislative procedures is to say no to the current reductionism and division that have characterized the politicized church. Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves expresses the seemingly counterintuitive reality that the word leading to hope is No! “To negate means to reject the ultimate validity of the current state of affairs,” Alves writes. “The consciousness then projects itself in the direction of the future, giving birth to hope.”
There is good reason for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—and other churches as well—to say “no.” The PCUSA is currently experiencing its fourth schism in less than a hundred years. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Southern Baptist Convention are also in schism. While the roots of these splits are deep, the precipitating cause in each case has resulted from majority voting on procedural, legislative, and regulatory matters in democratically constituted governing bodies. Fatefully, it has been reliance on democratic procedures to decide the matters that has enabled the churches to avoid the root causes themselves.
Liberation from democratic captivity does not lie in churches’ total abandonment of democracy. Democratic procedures were instituted and employed by churches for good and faithful reasons, opening matters of faith and life to the whole membership. However, they have developed in concert with American political and legal culture so that they now play out the least attractive and most unhelpful features of legislative partition, partisan politics, litigious interaction, and perpetual discord.
Liberation from democratic captivity requires the restoration of the ministry of the whole people of God. Expanded and extended attention to matters of Christian faith and life is needed throughout the churches to broaden and deepen the sensus fidei, the individual Christian’s understanding of the faith. This can then lead to a genuine sensus fidelium, the harmony of the faithful on theological and moral issues that is genuinely inclusive and that strengthens the unity of the church rather than settling for the victory cry of momentary majority.
Joseph D. Small served as director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship from 1989 to 2011.