Go therefore and make disciples of all nations
– Matthew 28:19
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a long and rich tradition of going and making disciples of all nations. Hunter Farrell, Director of World Missions for the PC(USA) says, “The year 2012 marked the 175th anniversary of international mission by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Over the years, Presbyterian missionaries have planted churches, built hospitals, and started schools on every continent. The seeds sown by those missionaries have, in many places, developed into self-sustaining churches and institutions now led by local Christians. In fact, more than 94 million Christians around the world now belong to churches that were founded or co-founded by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) mission workers.”
As the gospel spread throughout the world the form of our denomination’s engagement evolved. Hunter Farrell describes our engagement in three chapters. Initially we planted churches around globe. Then, in the 1950s and ’60s we turned the church leadership over to the indigenous leaders. In 1960 Presbyterians worked primarily through one centralized international mission agency. Today our denomination is engaged in a decentralized structure with literally thousands of Presbyterian “mission agencies.” We work with partner churches and organizations in more than 100 countries and have appointed mission personnel to serve in more than 50 countries. Here is a fantastic interactive map detailing the work of the PC(USA) around the globe.
Recent decisions by the General Assembly regarding ordination and marriage of self-avowed homosexuals however have created tension with some of our global mission partners.
In an honest assessment before last summer’s decision at the 221st General Assembly (2014) Hunter Farrell told the GA Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues that “preliminary conversations indicate that perhaps 17 of the denomination’s 54 global partners may break relations with the PC(USA) if Presbyterians define Christian marriage as being between ‘two persons’ rather than ‘a man and a woman.’”
Critics leaving the PC(USA) bemoan this tension. I believe we all do. The benefits and blessings of these global partner relationships strengthen everyone involved and provide a vibrant global witness to the living presence of Jesus Christ throughout the world.
The difference is those who are leaving the denomination believe the tension is evidence of the apostasy of the PC(USA) and use it to justify their own decision to break from the denomination.
For example, a publication by St Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA being widely circulated by congregations considering dismissal says,
“On August 22, 2011, citing incompatible theological differences, the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico (INPM) voted to end its 139-year partnership with the PC(USA). Similar declarations have come from others who have had strong affiliation with the PC(USA), such as the Presbyterian Church of Brazil.”
Such breaks are truly sad and regrettable but what this publication doesn’t say is that at the same assembly where the Mexican Presbyterian Church voted to end its 139-year-old relationship with PC(USA) it also voted against the ordination of women https://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/8/23/mexican-presbyterian-church-votes-end-139-year-old/.
“The Mexican church, with close to two million members, held a special assembly Aug. 17-19 specifically to discuss the ordination of women ― voting overwhelmingly, by a margin of 158 to 14, to sustain its policy of not ordaining women.
The assembly also voted 103 to 55 not to allow any sort of grace period for presbyteries that had, on their own, already begun ordaining women. That vote means that any presbytery which has already ordained women must immediately revoke those ordinations.”
The same publication from St Andrews is also silent about the fact that the Presbyterian Church of Brazil also does not ordain women, that they are not a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and that they broke their relationship with the PC(USA) over thirty years ago in 1983.
My point is not that these differences make their breaks any more acceptable, only that these two churches in particular, and many of our foreign mission partners in general, hold a more conservative, fundamental approach to scripture than many of even the most ardent conservatives in our denomination.
Furthermore, publications like St Andrew’s completely silence the voices of our global mission partners who despite their disagreement with recent decisions of our denomination are committed to staying in relationship.
Below are statements from two of our global mission partners following the passage of amendment 10-A at the 219th General Assembly in 2010.
Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil
“Another opponent to the report suggested that for the IPIB to relate with those with whom they disagree would undermine the legitimacy of their public witness in Brazil. In response, Task Force member and former IPIB moderator Rev. Leontino Farias dos Santos suggested that partnerships have little value if they are only among the like-minded. The richness and challenge of partnerships among churches is precisely to experience difference, confident that God’s Spirit leads us, through the other, to a broader understanding of how and where God is at work in the world.”
Presbyterian Church of Colombia, Reformed Synod
“With reference to this issue (amendment 10-A), we have different points of view, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, we will continue the commitment of brotherhood to keep working for the benefit of the people of God.”
These global mission partner voices are as important to hear and learn from as those who are leaving.
The truth is 17 of our 54 global mission partners may still break relations with the PC(USA) over recent decisions we have made regarding ordination and marriage but those in our denomination who are leaving the PC(USA) are breaking relations with 54 of 54 of the same global mission partners.
Those who are leaving the PC(USA) should not expect to find those global partnerships re-established with ECO, at least not initially, and I can’t find any indication ECO will be seeking to establish such relationships in the future.
ECO’s current approach to global missions is to direct individual congregations to three global mission agencies. These are well respected agencies, supported by PC(USA) congregations as well, but they do not create formal relationships with partner churches around the globe. There is such an aversion to anything “top-down” in ECO that it is unclear if the denomination will ever want to create these kinds of relationships.
The loss of any global mission partner is an un-measurable loss. I also happen to believe the loss of those who are leaving the PC(USA) is an un-measurable loss. But I’m choosing to stay PC(USA) because despite the tensions that come from being in relationship I believe relationships are at the core of our faith and part of our call to faithful to the gospel.
Let’s #StayPCUSA together.