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The Suicide of a Denomination

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
It was a long, slow, painful death. In the end, the patient pulled strongly on the plug and what little life was left exited the body with a tragic gasp. May the Presbyterian Church, USA rest in peace. But there will be very little peace in this pathetic death. Ratified by a majority of presbyteries one month ago and effective one month from today (July 10), the church has abandoned its denominational commitment to traditional marriage. Gone is the standard for ordination that requires pastors, “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman …, or chastity in singleness.”

Conservatives within the denomination had narrowly, but successfully resisted similar efforts over the past 15 years, but the diminished and beleaguered traditionalists lost the 87th and 88th presbyteries in last month’s effort to change the constitution. “Progressives” had reached the needed majority and the constitution has been amended to allow for ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.

For centuries, the Presbyterian Church stood on the proud heritage and legacy of men like John Knox who fearlessly and valiantly stood for the truth of scripture. Today, the modern Presbyterian Church (USA) (also “PCUSA”) bears little resemblance to its noble ancestry. While some in the movement had worked hard for and held out hope for some kind of spiritual awakening, a renewed commitment to orthodoxy, it seems that hope is now gone. Let this be clear: The issue here is not homosexuality. The core of the matter is the authority of scripture.

It was indeed a long and arduous death. The real beginning of the death spiral began with what has been called the “Auburn Affirmation” in 1924. A controversy had arisen between the forces of “fundamentalism” and “modernism.” Once again, the issue was the authority of scripture. Among other things, the infamous affirmation denied the Bible’s inerrancy. The document was quickly signed by 1,274 of the denomination’s leaders and contributed to a decline in membership along with a decline in the number of churches and influence that—with a few exceptional years and a few exceptional churches—has continued to the present. The PCUSA has showed a constant, measurable decline for at least 40 continuous years. At the current rate, the PCUSA will be extinct in another 40 years. One could make the argument that they have been “dead” for years. The recent decision by the majority of the presbyteries simply made the death official.

What we have witnessed is a “Christian” denomination making a complete 180 degree turn from their founding principles and reaping the consequences. The PCUSA has denied what their spiritual founding fathers fought for and willingly died for. In its place, they have substituted a pathetic forgery. John Knox and others proclaimed that Christ died to set people free from their sins. The PCUSA decision provides space in the presbytery for affirmation of sin—even ordination as minister for those who chose to remain in sin.

From the Auburn Affirmation onward, the denomination has showed signs of death. Year after year, as their attendance numbers declined, they have held their annual gathering to try to diagnose the disease. A prescription that included a return to the simple teaching of scripture was desperately needed—a return to founding principles. What we have witnessed instead is more liberalism, in larger doses. The more liberal the denomination has become, the faster it has declined. And yet every year the cry is the same: “Let’s become more liberal and (in effect) deny more scripture!” Didn’t someone say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

One of the proclamations in the Auburn Affirmation was, “Division is deplored, unity and freedom are commended.” In other words, unity was far more important than truth. What they did not understand is that there is no true unity without truth! They turned Christ’s teaching concerning freedom on its head: He taught that His death would bring freedom from sin, denominational liberalism like what we’re witnessing in the PCUSA offers freedom in sin.

On May 10, 2011 the PCUSA made clear to the world that, for them, an orthodox view of scripture, man’s sin and the salvation offered through Christ alone are now irrelevant and even divisive. They have again rejected the authority of scripture. The denomination has left its proud heritage and has signed its own death certificate. Following in the footsteps of the liberals of 1924, the modern PCUSA has divided in the name of unity. Schism is the likely result of the presbyteries’ recent decision. Perhaps in dividing, conservative elements of the domination will rise again: Presbyterians that genuinely believe the Bible.

Bob Burney is Salem Communications’ award-winning host of “Bob Burney Live,” heard weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio. Contact Bob at

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