The congregation of historic, 150-year-old Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from its denomination, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA). Two days later, pastor James Boice worked in relative seclusion in a cramped, book-lined study upstairs at the rear of the sanctuary. An organist was practicing for the following Sunday’s service, and coffee water was heating in the church lounge. “We’ll go on as we did before—things won’t change,” said Boice, from behind a desk topped by a stack of letters supporting the church’s secession.
While business was running smoothly last month at Tenth Church, the United Presbyterian Church continued bouncing from one controversy to the next. Presbyterian watchers had trouble keeping tabs on the fast-breaking events that could result in major realignments within the 2.6-million-member denomination and for American Presbyterianism in general.
Some conservative pastors, such as Boice, feel the UPCUSA is pushing them to a “must leave” situation by requiring that pastoral candidates agree to ordain women and by ordering local churches to elect women elders. The conservatives allege that UPCUSA leaders have abandoned biblical authority, as well as traditional Presbyterian beliefs, and have exercised heavy-handed treatment of local churches. Departing conservatives most likely would join one of the smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denominations. Observers doubt that conservatives would form an entirely new denomination.
At the same time, some moderate evangelicals are advising patience. They say the UPCUSA hierarchy is showing increased openness to conservatives and evangelicals. These “churchly” Presbyterians believe differences should be resolved from within, rather than through separation.
Watching developments with no less concern has been the UPCUSA bureaucracy. The denomination has dipped in membership by 14.6 percent, from 3 million in 1974 to 2.6 million in 1979, and leaders don’t relish the thought of widespread defections now. Anticipating possible defections, the UPCUSA property committee has drafted proposed constitutional changes, which would close loopholes that have allowed some congregations to withdraw with their property. At the same time, stated clerk William Thompson and moderator Howard Rice (a San Francisco seminary professor regarded by some conservatives as an evangelical and an ally) have met frequently with unhappy groups, and have been praised for their willingness to listen.
Some observers expected a number of conservative churches would pull out in sympathy with Boice. The popular, 41-year-old pastor has national influence, through his weekly “Bible Study Hour” radio program, books and Bible commentaries, and leadership in such evangelical think tanks as the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy. (Tenth Church leaders last month leaned toward uniting with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. The presbytery had not taken legal action to gain control of Tenth Church property, although such action was discussed.)
To the relief of denominational officials, however, no schism so far has resulted. Whether the denomination escapes widespread defections may depend on what happens next month in Detroit at the 1980 General Assembly.
The most pressing issues before the church:
• Overture L: Adopted a year ago by the 1979 General Assembly, this constitutional amendment requires the election of women elders. Anywhere from 150 to 250 churches identify with Concerned United Presbyterians, a group of pastors and laymen who organized out of opposition to Overture L in a meeting last fall in Boice’s Tenth Church. At the time, the fledgling group pledged to remain in the UPCUSA until the May General Assembly, but vowed to leave if they got no relief from Overture L.
• Deity of Christ: Over the protests of conservatives, the National Capital Union Presbytery reaffirmed last month its earlier approval of the transfer of United Church of Christ pastor Mansfield Kaseman to a Rockville, Maryland, UPCUSA church. The denomination’s Permanent Judicial Commission had ordered Kaseman’s reexamination after an appeal that Kaseman had denied the deity of Christ during his previous examination. Pastor Glen Knecht of Hyattsville, Maryland, who led the first appeal, still wasn’t satisfied with Kaseman’s answers and three-page “Pilgrimage of Faith” presented at the second Presbytery examination. Knecht said Kaseman was ambiguous regarding the deity of Christ, and claimed the pastor had indicated disbelief in Christ’s bodily resurrection, vicarious atonement, and sinlessness.
• Property disputes: Recent Supreme Court decisions have awarded church property to the withdrawing majority of the congregation over the protests of denominations with traditional claims that all local church property belongs to the denomination. The General Assembly will consider a proposed amendment, which would state clearly in the constitution that local churches hold their property “in trust” for the entire denomination. Some UPCUSA churches, such as Mayfair in Chicago and First Presbyterian in Waukegan, Illinois, have responded in advance by passing resolutions stating their property is their own and not held in trust for the entire denomination.
Can a crisis be avoided? Steering committee chairman David Williams of Concerned United Presbyterians said there is still hope that Overture L may be changed. However. Williams said like-minded pastors would not be satisfied with a proposed overture (constitutional amendment) requiring the nomination, rather than the election, of women elders to church boards: “We cannot nominate someone whom we cannot elect.”
The Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, pastor is part of the influential bloc of Pittsburgh-area conservatives, many of them former students of Pittsburgh seminary professor and noted Reformed theologian John Gerstner. The CUP steering committee includes Gerstner, Boice, and prominent radio pastors Bruce Dunn of Peoria, Illinois, and Albert Lindsay, of Tacoma, Washington.
An estimated 1,300 local churches presently do not have women elders, but Williams said presbyteries generally have declined enforcement of Overture L.
Seceding churches in most cases have acted only after much deliberation and a prayerful search for alternatives. When the members of Tenth Church voted 362 to 7 in favor of withdrawal, elder Linward Crowe exemplified the emotional intensity of the meeting when he asked that members “not create hostilities among themselves which can’t be healed,” and then broke down in tears and was unable to continue.
Among those speaking in favor of withdrawal was Margaret F. Barnhouse, widow of Donald Grey Barnhouse, probably Tenth’s most famous pastor (1927–1960) through his radio preaching, Bible commentaries, and Eternity magazine, which he founded. Mrs. Barnhouse said her husband would have approved withdrawal, and quoted him as once saying the UPCUSA had “spiritual smallpox.” (Other observers criticized the withdrawal in the name of Barnhouse—saying the late pastor would have wanted to keep his evangelical witness within the denomination.)
Boice said his church had sought renewal primarily by sponsoring evangelical men at the seminaries. That avenue has been largely shut off since 1974, he said, when the Permanent Judicial Commission made willingness to ordain women pastors a prerequisite for ordination. Boice said that ministerial candidates sponsored by Tenth Church, who, like himself, cannot in conscience ordain women, have been barred from the ministry.
Executive director Matthew Welde of the Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns (PUBC), a 15-year-old evangelical renewal movement within the UPCUSA, asked Boice, a personal friend, not to withdraw from the denomination. Welde believed Boice’s action was premature and mistaken. The denomination is showing “theological, social, and spiritual renewal,” Welde told correspondent William Shuster. Welde and like-minded moderates believe that withdrawals of conservative churches will only further divisions between liberals and conservatives, and alienate the church bureaucracy, which, they say, is showing increased openness to evangelicals.
Welde agrees with Harry Hassall of the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians (CFP), an influential, conservative movement within the 830,000-member Presbyterian Church U.S., that Hassall the best hope for Presbyterian renewal may be the long-anticipated merger of the two churches.
Because of pressure from conservatives, the 11-year-old Joint Committee on Reunion recently added four evangelicals: Bartlett Hess of the PUBC, Douglas Harper and Andrew Jumper of the CFP, and Helen Webster of the Presbyterian Lay Committee (an UPCUSA renewal group). Provided certain conditions are met, such as a mutually agreed upon evangelical confession or faith statement, Hassall has estimated that a satisfactory plan of union could be accomplished by 1982.
In an interview, Boice discounted claims that evangelicals are gaining influence in the UPCUSA. Any concessions that have been made are due to church leaders’ fears of widespread pullouts, he said. Saying the UPCUSA is “far more secular now” than in the past, Boice claimed that “not since the early 1970s has the General Assembly made any real attempt to see what the Bible says” in its resolutions, and actions.
Other UPCUSA conservatives might agree, but so far most have been restrained from bolting by their denominational loyalties and hopes for better days ahead. The outcome for the UPCUSA may depend on how many churches and pastors decide like Boice, “We would rather not go, but we have lost the battle from within.”
The Pca Magnet Tugs At The Disenchanted
The rapidly growing Presbyterian Church in America may soon grow a little larger.
Formed in 1973 by conservatives separating from the Presbyterian Church U.S., the 75,000-member PCA presently is exploring merger with three smaller conservative Presbyterian bodies. Interchurch relations committees of the PCA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, plan to recommend to their judicatories that the three church bodies come together under the PCA. The 1980 PCA General Assembly will consider a proposal for inviting the 4,000-member Reformed Presbyterian Church in America as well into the merger.
The combined church would have a membership approaching 110,000, with its 900 congregations scattered across 45 states and four Canadian provinces.
The PCA also may receive on the rebound disgruntled United Presbyterian conservatives. A number of UPCUSA pastors have expressed interest in joining the PCA, said J. Philip Clark of the PCA Mission to the United States Committee. Clark’s committee invited many of these inquirers to a Presbyterian Consultation on Presbyterian Alternatives, a two-day session last month in Pittsburgh. The 150 pastors and laymen (about three-fourths of them United Presbyterians) listened with interest to such conference speakers as Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul.
L’Abri Fellowship founder Francis Schaeffer cautioned against hasty separation, but said separation sometimes is necessary. Now a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, Schaeffer left his former denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., in 1936, when Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen led conservatives into what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Schaeffer said he could not personally stay in a church that did not practice discipline in the theological realm—asserting that in the UPCUSA it is not possible to try a minister for heresy. (Schaeffer reportedly tried without success to persuade noted pediatrician C. Everett Koop, coauthor with him of Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and member of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, to support the church’s withdrawal from the UPCUSA.)
Some UPCUSA leaders saw the conference as “sheepstealing,” but Clark denied any “hidden agenda” during a final session. He said the conference had been staged to provide answers to questions about the PCA and to provide a forum for discussion of larger issues about denominational connections. Several speakers, although not scheduled on the program, were allowed to present their cases against conservatives bolting immediately from the denomination.
Renewal Advocates in the Mainstream
‘We’d Rather Fight than Switch,’ They Insist
Many left-of-center Protestant leaders shouldn’t be called liberals. By definition, a liberal is tolerant and broad-minded; but these denominational leaders have preached narrow liberalism, while squelching conflicting views—particularly those held by theological conservatives.
Such was the consensus during a recent meeting of self-styled “renewalist” leaders. These leaders of theologically conservative movements within mainstream Protestantism affirmed their desire to renew their respective denominations from within by impressing upon liberal leaders the need for evangelism and full biblical authority.
Many Protestant bodies now have such renewal groups; most of them grew during the 1960s, when conservatives banded together against what they saw as the mainstream church’s neglect of Scripture in favor of liberal and social action causes.
The Episcopal church has at least 20 renewal groups—14 of which have organized into the coalition, PEWSACTION. Within American Lutheranism are an estimated 200 renewal movements devoted to youth work, missions, social ministry, and evangelism.
Spreading the word
Perhaps the best known renewal group has been Good News, of the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1966 by former news reporter Charles Keysor—converted at age 35 during a Billy Graham crusade—Good News publishes a monthly magazine (15,000 circulation) and has become increasingly active in lobbying for evangelical causes within the 9.6-million-member denomination.
Keysor, a United Methodist pastor in Elgin, Illinois, for nine years before starting Good News in Wilmore, Kentucky, convened a small, first meeting of renewal group leaders in 1977. Since then, as word spread and renewal groups flourished, the interdenominational gatherings have grown. At the fifth such meeting last month in Philadelphia, nine renewal movements and 10 denominations (16 persons total) were represented.
Following the pattern of previous meetings, the Philadelphia group took turns sharing both the good and the bad trends affecting conservatives in their respective denominations. Several indicated a new receptivity to evangelical concerns. But all was not positive:
• Some United Methodist seminaries discriminate against evangelicals: Keysor said that Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, recently forbade Good News officials from meeting on campus with students, and that some United Methodist seminaries have shown an unwillingness to hire evangelical faculty members.
• Indications are that charismatics are being denied leadership posts and local pastorates in the Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern), even though since 1971 the denomination officially has recognized the charismatic experience as scripturally valid, said French O’Shields of the Presbyterian Charismatic Communion, a 20-year-old pan-Presbyterian group of laity and clergy.
• The majority of a new, 10-member, human Weller sexuality study panel in the United Church of Christ have expressed sympathy with the ordination of practicing homosexuals, said Barbara Weller of the United Church People for Biblical Witness, a UCC renewal group organized three years ago against such ordination.
• One-third of the Church of the Brethren pastors surveyed at the denomination’s annual meeting last summer believed in biblical inerrancy; in contrast, none of the 30 or so national Brethren staff members have supported biblical inerrancy, asserted James F. Myer of the 21-year-old Brethren Revival Fellowship.
Other participants criticized feminist groups, which increasingly are pushing to remove all sexist language in worship; for example, deleting references to God as father and Christ as son in favor of neuter terms. Some complained that liberation theologians in the seminaries are teaching there is no difference between Marxism and Christianity. (One person declined to name liberal seminaries and theologians—fearing publication of such would result in negative treatment of evangelicals at those schools.)
Despite their complaints, the renewalists deny being schismatic. Their goal is to bring renewal while working within their respective church bodies. Gordon-Conwell Seminary church historian Richard Lovelace, who convened the Philadelphia meeting, believes evangelicals can unite across denominational lines to effect a spiritual awakening similar to those in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Ironically, the group met upstairs at prominent evangelical pastor James Boice’s Tenth Presbyterian Church. Less than 24 hours prior to the two-day meeting, the Tenth Presbyterian congregation had voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the United Presbyterian Church.
Lovelace said the withdrawal introduced a “note of sadness” to the meeting. He and fellow Presbyterian evangelicals Matthew Welde and Harry Hassall feared this kind of withdrawal and similar acts of separation would further polarize liberals and evangelicals, and negate gains presently being made by evangelicals in their denominations.
However, several renewalists expressed sympathy with Boice, and said that patience is wearing thin for many of their own constituents.
“Charismatics are leaving the church [PCUS] in droves,” said O’Shields of the Presbyterian Charismatic Communion. He asked the group for suggestions on how to bring relief to charismatics. Regarding those charismatics not getting fair treatment, he said, “I’ve known some kooky charismatics, but I’m not talking about kooks—these are strong men of God and faithful to Presbyterian polity.”
If they see no progress this month at the UMC quadrennial meetings, many United Methodist conservatives will leave the denomination, Keysor predicted. His soundings of United Methodists around the country have indicated to him that conservatives are asking for (1) an end “once and for all” to the question of ordination of practicing homosexuals; (2) restoration of bureaucratic accountability; (3) freedom for local churches to determine how their denominational apportionments are spent; and (4) resolution of the “spiritual crisis” in the church.
Working with the system
Hearing some of the frustrations of the group, program speaker Wayne Schwab spent time discussing the principles of change agentry. “We need to work with the structure of the church,” said Schwab, since 1975 the first evangelism and renewal officer of the Episcopal church. The renewal leaders were pleasantly surprised at the apparent freedom and financial support being given Schwab for renewal and evangelistic programs by his denomination, assumed to be liberal.
Raymond S. Rosales of the Affiliation of Lutheran Movements, which represents 10 renewal groups within the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, said establishment Lutherans have been invited to his group’s series of theological conferences. Many have responded favorably, he said. American Baptist Fellowship representative Guy Gabelman expressed pleasure that several conservatives, such as general secretary Robert Campbell, occupy leadership posts in his denomination.
Regarding the value of renewal movement leaders meeting together, Mrs. Weller of the United Church People said insights gained at the previous meeting had saved her group “about five years of trial and error” in setting up group programs. Her group formed three years ago, after the denomination rejected requests to publish alternative human sexuality study materials that would be acceptable to conservatives: “We had to incorporate to publish our own,” she said.
George Booker of the Philadelphia-based Presbyterian Lay Committee expressed satisfaction over what can be done even within one denomination: “What makes our work worthwhile is the people who say, ‘If it weren’t for you, we would have left the denomination a long time ago.’ ”
Molebatsi of Soweto
South African Caesar’s Trials in Rendering to God …
Caesar Molebatsi, a black evangelical leader in Soweto, was imprisoned by South African authorities for seven days in late February and early March. Journalist Lorry Lutz was in South Africa at the time and interviewed him upon his release.
For the last three years the South African security forces have periodically harassed Caesar Molebatsi with midnight searches, interrogations, and warnings. Then in February, Molebatsi, who directs Youth Alive, a growing youth ministry in the heart of Soweto, was detained by police for questioning about his brother’s alleged terrorist activities. He was held in solitary confinement for seven days.
Molebatsi has used his influence to promote racial reconciliation ever since returning to South Africa from studies in the United States in August 1976, in the midst of the country’s worst racial riots. He has challenged Soweto’s youth with an alternative approach—one that avoids compromising one’s principles in mindless submission, and rejects resorting to violence Molebatsi and hate.
Molebatsi was chosen to deliver the closing evangelistic message at the South African Christian Leadership Assembly last July, where 5,000 Christians of all races met to consider the role of the church in South Africa’s racially segregated society. Many believe SACLA marked a turning point in bringing together white and black churches desiring reconciliation in Christ.
In an interview after his release, Molebatsi explained that he was held under Section 22 of the Security Laws, which allows for questioning for up to 14 days. Had his interrogators been dissatisfied he could have been held incommunicado indefinitely under another law. “The charge,” Molebatsi explained, “was ‘assisting and harboring a terrorist.’ My brother had come to my house after midnight one night last October at the time my mother was dying of cancer. I had not seen nor heard from him for over two and a half years. I was questioned about his activities and face possible indictment for not reporting his presence to the police.”
Although his interrogators often resorted to abusive language, Molebatsi said, they did not threaten him physically. He said he was interrogated three times for several hours at a stretch.
“The security police know my feelings about violence—by the state or by the Africans. I’m committed to a scriptural position. They also know,” Molebatsi candidly acknowledges, “that I’m not happy with the South African government.”
Molebatsi said he was able to share his testimony with the police: “But, though they seemed to be religious men, they wouldn’t believe what I said. They can’t believe that a youth organization reaching almost 1,000 young people in Soweto could be simply a Christian ministry, standing for truth and against violence.”
The police told Molebatsi to stop discussing anything political with the young people. But Molebatsi says he responded, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will, and it won’t be from a biblical perspective. Youth constantly hear other positions in the schools and in the community.”
Molebatsi admitted to becoming angry when questioned about the loss of his leg. “What happened to your leg?—you were probably drunk,” they taunted him, he said. “I told them I’d never taken a drink of hard liquor in my life. After the truck, driven by a white, struck me and mangled my leg, I felt that I could have killed that man. But I told my interrogators that the Lord saved me and dealt with my hatred toward white people.”
Regarding his unexpected release after only seven days of confinement, Molebatsi said he was sure many Christians of all races had been praying for him. The very next Sunday Molebatsi was preaching the message of reconciliation to a large, white congregation.
But observers fear that Molebatsi’s future is in danger. Though he knew nothing of his brother’s alleged involvement in terrorism, he was asked to turn state’s witness against him. He has refused, not only because he feels he cannot testify against his own brother, but because it would destroy his ministry among Soweto youth. He could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for this refusal.
Molebatsi’s imprisonment has made him a hero among Soweto’s youth, but even a hero cannot minister from a prison.
The chief of security forces in Soweto told a mission leader, “You may as well know that Caesar will never stay out of politics,” and implied that they would be picking him up again. The final warning of the security police before releasing him was, “You can be sure we will be watching you and your Christianity.”
Religious Corporation Law 9230
Californians Protest Law as Church Intrusion
A new California law that gives the state attorney general investigative authority over nonprofit charitable religious organizations hadn’t been in effect even 60 days before it was challenged in the state legislature. State Senator Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland) in February introduced a bill in the senate judiciary committee that would substitute a provision for the controversial Religious Corporation Law 9230, which went into effect January 1, 1980. Petris’s bill would bar altogether the attorney general from looking into the affairs of religious organizations, except for criminal matters and a few narrowly defined civil complaints.
Opposition to the existing new law from most religious leaders has been heightened by publicity surrounding the Worldwide Church of God case, in which the California attorney general is investigating alleged misuse of church funds by church founder Herbert W. Armstrong, 87, and Stanley Rader, treasurer and second in command.
Last month, a coalition of 18 civil rights and religious groups, ranging from mainstream denominations and the National Council of Churches to the National Association of Evangelicals and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to file friend of the court briefs on behalf of the Worldwide Church. The briefs say that such intrusion by the state into the affairs of one church threatens First and Fourth Amendment rights and freedom of worship for all religious groups.
Under California’s new Religious Corporation Law (9230), the attorney general is allowed to examine a religious group in these areas: (1) whether it fails to qualify as a religious corporation; (2) whether there has been any fraudulent activity in connection with its property; (3) whether corporate property has been improperly diverted to personal benefit; and (4) whether property solicited from the general public by the group for one purpose has been used in a “manner inconsistent” with that purpose. The law also authorizes examination to see if corporate assets have been diverted. In all the above cases, the attorney general is empowered to correct any “wrongful activity” discovered.
The California attorney general began his probe of the Worldwide Church of God a year before the new Religious Corporation Law went into effect. He relied instead on Section 9505 of the California Corporation Code, which state government lawyers have interpreted as requiring the state to oversee incorporated, nonprofit religious organizations in the same way it watches over other nonprofit charitable trusts. The new law, opposed by Petris and most religious leaders, protects the confidential nature of church membership lists and says examinations “shall not unnecessarily interfere with normal operations and religious observances of the corporation.”
The sticky issue in all such investigations continues to be how to separate the financial from the ecclesiastical.
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