Just about every Protestant congregation is filled with members who have belonged to another denomination at one time or another. Many people join a congregation more for the pastoral leadership and programs than the denominational title over the front door. And that’s ok.
But denominations are distinct and problems arise when those distinctions are blurred and members expect one denomination to function like another.
For example, the notion that members of a congregation would vote to determine their congregation’s relationship with the denomination is a more Baptist or Assemblies of God way of thinking than it is Presbyterian.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a connectional denomination, congregations are not autonomous, and individual members do not make decisions for the congregation. We have successive higher bodies of church government (sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly) that have authority over the lower bodies. Each of these bodies are comprised of elders who are chosen by God and elected by the members of the lower bodies to make decisions for the entire church.
Baptists on the other hand prize the autonomy of the local church, so much so that every local church is understood and affirmed to be complete in its ministry and free to determine its own membership, convictions, and principles. No person or group outside of a Baptist congregation is to have any authority over the congregation in regard to beliefs and religious practices. Furthermore, all of the members within the church fellowship are to have equal voice in the governance of the church. No individual or group of persons is in control.
General Council Assemblies of God congregations, similar to the Baptists, also enjoy full autonomy and self government. The Assemblies of God in fact is not a denomination but a cooperative fellowship.
These summaries may be a bit of an over simplification but they help illustrate the differences.
Presbyterians: elect elders to governing bodies that make decisions for the church and the successively higher governing bodies have authority over the lower governing bodies.
Baptist: all members of the congregation have equal voice in decisions for the church and each congregation is autonomous of a higher governing body.
Assemblies of God: a cooperative fellowship of self governing, autonomous congregations.
Members in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who come from Baptists, Assemblies of God, or other similar backgrounds probably have a very hard time understanding how the denomination can make decisions regarding ordination standards and same-sex marriage that apply to the local congregation.
And so the question for these members whose conscience does not allow them to remain a part of the denomination now that these decisions have been made is how do they respond?
Asking the congregation to vote whether to remain a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not the Presbyterian answer. It may be the Baptist answer, it may be the Assemblies of God answer, but it is not the Presbyterian answer.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA) the relationship of a congregation can only be severed by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery, an action that can come only after following a joint period of discernment according to the presbytery’s discernment and dismissal policy.
Leaders in Presbyterians congregations, particularly those who come from other denominational backgrounds, need to be very mindful of where they are today and not confuse the polity they want from their past with the polity their ordination vows require them to uphold in the present.
And members of Presbyterian congregations should resist any vote that would determine their congregation’s relationship with the denomination; not because they agree or disagree with the decisions of the denomination, but because it is not who we are Presbyterians.
Let’s #StayPCUSA together.