A Snapshot of the Presbyterians

Recently a post about types of Calvinists went viral, so I figure we need a slightly cynical, admittedly unscientific analysis of Presbyterianism that I hope will be somewhat constructive (vague enough to remain above suspicion?). Those who know me know that I deeply desire  Reformed catholicity and, accordingly, for these groups to find some common ground and demonstrate some unity in the kingdom

So, in case you missed it, here’s whats going on in the presboverse, at least re: the “big three”

First of all, be sure to memorize this:

Mainliners are still fighting over scripture, ecclesiology, sex, and whether or not phrases like “live into it” and “god’s self” actually mean anything - but mostly sex.  Underlying all the culturally-captive debates over gay marriage and ordination standards, the various factions in the PCUSA are at an impasse concerning the sources and methods of theology. Whats more, folks are slowly realizing that notions like “unity for the sake of mission” is a pipe dream when you aren’t sure if you’re practicing the same religion anymore (and yes, in some cases, it is that bad). Truth be told, the mission might be more effective if it was finally admitted that confessionalism – assuming status confessionis is not synonymous with political correctness – is really just a relic that has more form than function, more seemliness than substance (as much was basically declared at the most recent G.A.). Not my preference, but the honesty would help.

Interestingly, many of the baby boomer hippies of the mainline (who kept the faith through the tumultuous 70s and 80s… and 90s.. and… ) have reconnected with their hipster postmodern grandkids via modern liberalism (which, yes, we all thought was dead by now). These folks have basically said “I see your Jesus of history, and I raise you the Christ of faith,” “I see your ‘truth,’ and I raise you a story,” to which others have responded, “huh?” But what of the traditionalists/doctrinalists? Well, some traditionalists have remedied the problem of disunity by starting yet another denomination, ECOP. Whether this is a faithful course of action is TBD, but I’m guessing Bonhoeffer would post “smh.”

So, if we’re using the Marsden via Keller taxonomy, we might say that the PCUSA has an incredibly strong culturalist impulse (and I suppose a pietist one as well, given the ironic “progressiveness” of camp meeting revivalism that persists), but frankly sometimes the impulse isn’t really Reformed as much as it is borne of a glorified social agenda. When the dust settles in a decade or so (maybe sooner?), I’m guessing the mainline will have leveled off by essentially splitting in half since 1982 (it is already way less than half of what it was in 1965, when the two groups to be combined had a total of 4,254,597 members).

What the PCUSA has going for it is an honest engagement with real-world issues, not all that different than what the apostles dealt with around the Mediterranean. As such, the denomination is necessarily home to many incredibly faithful servants, who major on the majors rather than the minors, who don’t get hung up on every iota subscript, and who are discerning the most effective avenues for embracing and embodying the gospel.

As a recently publicized survey demonstrates, the PCA has a bit of an inter-generational rift on its hands, but this isn’t really news. The PCA has for a long time had quite a generational and cultural/regional divide, indicated, for example, by the fact that a handful of folks in the south think that Tim Keller is a liberal. Go figure. Truth be told, the PCA has  always been a very “southern” denomination, and most PCA’ers in the south are still Baptists. Sure, they’re baptizing infants, but these wet dedications don’t hold a candle to the baptism by immersion into southern Baptist culture. It seems like every other pastor “converted” from being a Baptist at one point. Some belong to Paul, others Apollos, but most John McArthur. So be it – I love me some 5 point Baptists. At any rate, most folks within these ranks assume you’re Roman Catholic if you use the word “liturgy” or dare to wear anything resembling clerical garb. It is assumed that John Piper is still “da man,” but some of the younger rebels will spitefully go off and read N.T. Wright when they’re feeling particularly naughty (but not within six months prior to an ordination exam). TULIP is still the sine qua non, which is convenient if you want to be soft on Reformed ecclesiology, sacraments, liturgics, and political theology (did I mention the whole Baptist thing?). Many have rightly criticized the doctrinaire veneer of the PCA, the result of some PCA folks elevating the Westminster Confession over scripture and the creeds (lets sing: “one of these is not like the other”).

That being said, the PCA still maintains a certain theological diversity (albeit within a narrow stream). Not all are “guilty” of the predictable insularity,  PCA courts have been doing their homework, witch-hunts have calmed (and some of the hunters have left for Rome, actually), and that there is reason to be optimistic about the future of these folks (although they are considering banning intinction, which is just bizarre).

These folks are an interesting breed. The recent proselytes are a cross section of fundamentalist mainliners who didn’t get the memo 40 years ago and hipster fundamentalists who are now too cool for RC Sproul. The result is a game of red rover called the EPC. As yet another hopeful via-media via schism, why the EPC couldn’t join the PCA back in the early 80′s is a mystery to me (can anyone provide a reasonable answer? - maybe just geographic?) At any rate, I’m not so sure the EPC can withstand the ongoing influx of disgruntled PCUSA folks, many of whom can’t wait to make sure every EPC church has an ordained female on staff. There will be a culture war, and I have it on good authority that this is already taking place.

Nevertheless, it may well be the case that the EPC is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country by 2025. Their growth rate is staggering, and as long as some of those PCA and PCUSA defectors don’t run right past each other, they might find that they have common ground in the EPC (barring any red-rover close lining incidents)

Maybe some CRCNA, OPC, CREC, ADSFASFIEFD, folks can fill in the gaps for me?

So What?!?!
There is a silver lining in all of this, for there is a significant cross-section of folks across all of these camps (from the fundies to the progressives) that care about the good news of God’s kingdom, who care about truth, and who care about displaying glimpses of new creation by serving the world with the love of Christ. I remain hopeful for unity, catholicity, and wholeness that is substantive, charitable, and with a view for the unity of Christs body.  To this end, Presbyterians of all flavors might need to start wrestling with the reality of a post-denominational “christendom,” a reality which is becoming increasingly apparent, but which does not have to be feared. It presents a new set of questions, sure, but such is life, and such is faith. We see in a mirror dimly, but not without hope.

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  1. #1 by Robbie on August 14, 2012 - 8:08 pm


    This is awesome. You’re spot on. I thought I’d pass along my observations from being at Wheaton College. Since Wheaton is the academic epicenter of evangelicalism (whatever that is…), getting its pulse might say something about the movement as a whole (so this isn’t strictly a presbyterian analysis). I was surprised to find how many professors and students attend mainline churches. If you think about Wheaton’s founding and even its old policies like no dancing or movies, it’s pretty amazing. We have several women faculty who are ordained in mainline denomination. I was surprised to find that on the women’s issue, it is pretty one-sided. The one faculty member I know who still argues for male-only ordination is viewed as a fuddy-duddy.

    Two of the most popular churches at Wheaton are a nearby EPC church and an AMiA church. Liturgy is all the rage at Wheaton, but very few people have a real method or rationale for its use. Anglicanism is pretty big here, but they are Anglican baptists. Seriously. Several Anglicans have told me they don’t believe in infant baptism. They wear clerical vestments, burn incense, and sing “Shine Jesus Shine.” Although there are a lot of Piper-lovers here, there is a pretty big contingent of N.T. Wright lovers. I’ve also been amazed at how huge Karl Barth is here (for the more academic leaning).

    Not sure how all that fits together, but I thought I would affirm your guess that the EPC is a fast-growing denomination. Even if Wheatonites aren’t denominationally committed to the EPC, they often fit the profiles. They are Calvinist-lite, culturally savvy, pumped about “liturgy,” and love seeing women in ministry.

    • #2 by borno on August 15, 2012 - 9:00 pm

      Very interesting comments Robbie. Looks like I had Wheaton all wrong! The Anglicans you mention don’t surprise me. Sorta sounds AMIAish. I fact, I almost included the AMIA in the original post since so many would-be presbos have gone that route.

  2. #3 by Rob Harbison on August 15, 2012 - 8:50 pm

    another great post; keep it up, we are reading. What is post-denominational Christendom? Second time I’ve heard you use that term. A time when denominations matter less than they used to? More cross-denominational cooperation in mission? Leveraging technology for information sharing sideways and less reliance on a stove pipe communication channels? I used to think that because my national church had a constitution, and our officers take an oath saying we will be informed by confessions and abide by polity, that we are very homogenous theologically. That was naive. In looking for curriculum for the 2012-2013 academic year, I heard several comments/questions like, “Is it Presbyterian?” I think what they mean is it for sale on the PC(USA) website, but if the test of “Presbyterian” curriculum is does it align with scripture and our constitution, then some of the material for sale by PC(USA) may not meet that criteria, especially if omission of obvious content or gross generalization are in opposition to the truth, and some material for sale by non-denom outlets are “Presbyterian”.

    Peace and grace

    • #4 by borno on August 15, 2012 - 9:26 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement.
      In short, denominations are no longer relevant to the lives of people in the pews. It is abundantly clear in my congregation that while some of the older folks are still concerned with supporting the denomination, folks under 35ish just don’t care. One reason for this, I think, is that younger generations, by virture of the technology explosion, have been exposed to an unbelivable amount of Christian traditions and perspectives, and have realized that being presbyterian is great, but that it is not synonymous with the being a Christian. In years past, it was common for someone to spend their entire life in one protestant tradition, but that is a rareity these days.

      True, the shortcoming in all of this is the lack of connectionalism, polity, and discipline, which are all very important, but which are valued less and less (not least within denominations! c.f. nFoG!). We need to figure out ways of putting those pieces back together, but not necesarily in the way they were before.
      What would it look like, for instance, for a group of baptists, presbyterians, and non-denoms to be in a network where there was discipline, mutual support, and unity for local mission? Its an important question to ask. I’ll be the first to admit that my closest relationships in Birmingham are mostly outside the pcusa, and this has generally happened by accident, by virtue of the folks I work with in my local community. The appeals for support from the denominational level are less and less relevant, and often a distraction from local ministry here.

      Oh, and folks who ask about a curriculum “is it presbyterian?” are out of touch.


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