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Should I Stay Or Go? Panel on Mainline Denominations

Should I Stay or Go? Panel on the Problems Facing Mainline Denominations Today

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

September 27th, 2012

Five prominent leaders at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary gathered to discuss the problems facing mainline denominations in America today. In particular they joined together to share a bit of their own journey and their decision to either stay or go in their mainline denomination. The room was filled wall to wall with people eager to hear leaders they admire speak on such a pressing subject. Each leader spoke for about 10 minutes on their own situation facing the dilemma, “should I stay or go?” I share with you their wisdom on the topic. (disclaimer: my intention is not to misquote, and if I did please hold that against me and not the panel members).

Jim Singleton (Associate Professor of Pastoral Leadership and Evangelism): Presbyterian. Singleton believes our topic is a very complicated issue. Looking at where God is calling us as seminarians is an enormous issue. He is an ordained minister in the PCUSA. With all denominational decisions, what exactly are we leaving if we leave a denomination? Denominations are an expression of the body of Christ. All of us are part of a tradition that has already left once, if not twice. Many church splits cause people to leave each other, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is a rich blessing to be at a multi-denominational seminary like Gordon-Conwell. If you are going to leave, how far do you leave? Do you stay and be a subset, or do you leave and then curse those who have stayed. It’s the how we do it that makes a difference: are we self righteous, do we call them heretics, or can we have a bit of graciousness, in relationship at some level with one another. The way you walk out the back door determines whether you can come back in the front door to have a conversation. We need to learn how to disagree in a civil way. He led his former church out of the PCUSA into the new Presbyterian denomination, the ECO. He led them, he helped to form the denomination. It’s obvious he has understandings of how leaving a denomination works. He also designed an organization to stay within the PCUSA, the Fellowship of Presbyterians. Some churches need to leave, because if they don’t they would lose most of their members. He believes you can stay and leave and still be faithful to the call as a pastor. “Let’s be mature Christians, making the best decisions we can without needing to resort to real divisive name-calling.  Have a graciousness in your spirit, when that is present, all things are possible.” Mainline denominations are dying, there is a virus all over the church. But other things are growing. Where is the Spirit moving and how can we join the Spirit there? Be pragmatic. “But we don’t need to beat up on an already dying corpse.”

Dean Borgman (Professor of Youth Ministries): Episcopalian. Dean shared his testimony, looking particularly at the many theological issues he wrestled with on his journey into, and in, the Episcopal church. Borgman shared that he is troubled and disturbed by the 40,000 denominations in this world and that the greatest denominational affiliation among students at Gordon-Conwell is non-denominational. Borgman believes both the Anglican and Episcopal church claim to be the true church (his heart is torn at these statements). The fracture of the universal church of Christ pains him. When discussing church splits Borgman had this to say, “I see schism as worse than heresy.” With reference to our panel topic he said “I choose to remain in the episcopal church, to stand by the door, knowing I don’t have all the answers, and catch those who are disappointed by the whole church venture.”

Scott Gibson (Professor of Preaching/Th.M. Director in Preaching): American Baptist. “I’m the token Baptist here.” Gibson grew up in a rural baptist church in Pennsylvania. Ordained in the American Baptist Church in the USA. Regarding his denomination: every church is on it’s own, choosing to relate to each other as fellow congregations, Baptists do that through state and regional organizations. The issue of homosexual ordination has plagued the American Baptist Church since 1970. Out of this desire for fidelity to the Biblical roots, the American Baptist Evangelicals arose, a biblical and theological position within the ABC. For fifteen years, the ABE has been promoted as a call to adhere to a theological and biblical center for American Baptist Churches. It has since been dissolved because of various difficulties. He shared his sorrow for the theological lack of commitment in the ABC; this lack of a biblical center troubles him. With regards our topic, he has not left the denomination. He is still ordained in the ABC, he has remained faithful within, trying to reorient to the centrality of the Bible. “I’m a dissapointed person with the ABC, I’m a Bible person, I’m a theologically driven person, and this is what I long for the ABC to be.”

John Davis (Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics): Presbyterian. With regards our topic, Davis mentioned that this is a very complicated set of issues, there is no one size fits all answer. The church historically has valued unity and doctrinal purity. He urged students to take great care before you take pastoral leadership, be clear about your ecclesiology. Ordained in the PCUS originally. Then in 1982 joined the PCUSA after the merger and is still ordained in the denomination. Currently worshiping at an Episcopal church. He lamented over the ordination of homosexuals in our era as unbiblical. He shared a paper he wrote titled: “Could John Calvin remain in the Episcopal Church or PCUSA?” We need to be careful to talk about a heretical person and a heretical church.

John Huffman (Board Member/Minister): Presbyterian. Comes from Mennonite roots. He desired to go into politics but wanted some Biblical background. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary. God called him into pastoral ministry while studying there. It was here he felt a call to bring renewal to a mainline liberal denomination (PCUSA). His call was to the local parish as a Presbyterian pastor. As long as the confessions were orthodox, the denomination was orthodox. On our topic, he is in a dilemma with the hemmhorage of the PCUSA churches. Huffman still feels called into the mainline denomination to bring renewal. He does not pretend to tell us what to do. He agrees we need to choose carefully. Search your heart very very carefully, you have to love the people of that denomination. Our job is to lead people to Christ. Stay, serve, be faithful.

The Panel Entertained Questions and Answered them:

What is the future of denominationalism?

Huffman: Denominations, sociologically, are on a major decline. But this doesn’t mean there won’t be denominations or places where God will be at work. Independent churches by their very nature however have a lack of accountability.

Singleton: Associations (such as The Gospel Coalition) are as important and essential as denominations once were. In the West, independent churches outnumber denominational churches. Denominations have the blessing of procedure when things blow up, independents have to figure this out without help. It can be brutal in an independent church.

What are the criteria for deciding which denomination to join, what factors?

Gibson: It has everything to do with ecclesiology. One of the issues in evangelicalism is a weak ecclesiology. Independent circles are often where ecclesiology is the weakest. The issue for us as seminarians is doing a good job of discerning where God is calling us by talking to fellow students and professors.

Davis: Some theological issues that help you clarify your denominational distinctives: reformed or arminian, infant baptism or believer baptism, what is the role of women in ordained ministry, how does the Holy Spirit manifest in worship and the church today. You have to know yourself, both temperamentally and theologically. Need is important too, small denominations might not have opportunities to be employed, versus a larger denomination. Needs should not be downplayed.

Borgman: We need to look at the 5 functions of the church: 1) teaching the world, 2) evangelism, 3) fellowship, 4) diaconate, service, 5) breaking of the bread. These are theological distinctives that would help you figure out which denomination fits you. Some churches hold some of these as more central and others hold others as central. What has God called you to be and hold as central to your call as a minister.

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