Friday, April 03, 2009

Ecclesiastical Isolationism

I wonder if a form of church isolationism isn't taking place.

When a country thinks it can be isolationist--all safe and protected by borders and the open seas--it soon learns that wars and oppression gain strength and end up on the attack. An isolationist country soon loses its isolation and becomes the focus of invasion.

It seems to me that the same effect can overtake Presbyterian congregations that grow weary of defending the faith, grow excited about "just being missional," grow distant from the very real ideological disputes in the denomination, and thus grow vulnerable to invasion and ruin by the very entities these congregations had decided to benignly ignore.

It would be a wonderful respite not to have to defend orthodox doctrine, not to have to fight the gross secularization of the church, not to have to muster the troops once again to retain biblical standards. Oh the leisure of just forgetting such unpleasantness!

But oh the danger!

Kelly Kannwischer, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, is a fine person performing a great ministry. Recently she has written about what PGF is going to do. What she says makes good sense in many ways. It is definitely valuable and needed.

However, I fear that the PGF agenda is inadequate, given the Presbyterian world in which congregations operate. PGF reminds me of a colony joyfully planting fields and cultivating crops--and talking cutting-edge agriculture--while all around the colony destructive forces collect to overrun the prosperous band. This colony also needs to urgently take up defense, as distasteful as it may seem to the farmers who aren't soldiers.

I left a comment to Kelly on the article. Here is what I wrote:


That's great, but...

What are you going to do about a denomination that is going astray and in doing so can greatly harm if not destroy the missional work of all your churches?

Every Presbyterian church is connected. If the denomination completely falls apart or abandons the majority of Reformed theology or plays the harlot with non-Christian beliefs and practices, every single Presbyterian church will feel the consequences. The stink raised by the denomination will be attributed to every congregation that bears the Presbyterian name!

What's more, no church is invulnerable to attack and perhaps even confiscation of property and deposition of leaders. The 500-pound-gorilla churches like Peachtree may feel immune, but in no time, even such a church could be hurt badly and even destroyed by a presbytery that so chose to oppose it.

Most churches aren't the mini-denominations like the tallest-steeple churches, and they are completely vulnerable to who is running presbytery. Property can be taken, sessions can be declared dissolved, and pastors can be removed. And then what? How is missional work to continue in such a toxic or devastated

Just what does PGF plan to do about a denomination teetering on the brink of disaster? You're good people, but all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to be merrily involved in other things deemed more important. Then Presbyterian power politics can turn on you and bite you where it hurts.

I've waited for a PGF answer about this problem, and I haven't heard much, except that such protective and restorative work seems rather yesterday and is pretty much being left to those who apparently must not get the missional message and must still like to fight instead.

That's not much help.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA


Blogger robert austell said...


I don't think it's necessary for every entity in the "renewal group" arena to have a focus on denominational issues. For one, PGF leaders do comment on major events (e.g. Pentz after GA). But more importantly, I see PGF as one part of a renewal 'body' and one that I highly value as my own church and I try to be more missional in focus. Certainly a local Session or pastor can become to singularly focused on denominational issues and forget ministry priorities.

With the plethora of groups in the renewal network, I don't need PGF giving me 50% issues and 50% missional... rather I'm interested in PGF as a resource giving focused and energetic attention to a ministry/mission deficit in most of our churches.

I think your critique is better directed towards pastors or sessions that get 100% focused on PGF or "being missional" or any other part of a comprehensive vision and "duck and cover" when it comes to denominational issues. That congregation will face the dangers you describe.

In Christ,

Robert Austell
Good Shepherd PC
Charlotte, NC

3:00 PM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...


Always good to hear from you! What you say makes great sense. There is the need to focus attention, and different groups can and should focus on what in particular they do best. If everything is important, nothing is important. Granted.

However ...

From the start, PGF has tended to paint the denominational disputes as something irrelevant, old, tired, not really very important, and definitely to be left behind for a more perfect ministry. Oh, and by the way, take your efforts and your leadership and your money with you as you leave these battered old relics of a cause, and bring them to PGF, a fresh new model.

The results have been dramatic: reduced will to resist progressive theology, diminished cadres of voters on key issues, funding difficulties for those groups that HAVE remained to engage the Enemy to keep it feasible for PGF to do its work in the PCUSA, and so on.

PGF needs to be free and unobstructed in doing what it does well. At the same time, two realities remain:
First, PGF will NOT remain free to concentrate on missional work if opposing forces get their way and despoil the denomination, and second, PGF can do more to support rather than to benignly ignore the cause for biblical integrity.

How would PGF do the latter: Say often and clearly, "What we do is only ONE part of a very necessary two-pronged approach. Being missional can only happen if we also remain orthodox. Do not, we repeat, do not abandon your work to hold our denomination accountable for its message and polity!"

PGF could include as one part of its work at least a track on engaging the denomination for faithfulness. It needn't and shouldn't be the main focus of PGF, but if it is ignored altogether, it will be to PGF's own peril in the long run and will do injury to the other renewal groups in the short term. If PGF appears to scorn or discount the other renewal work, then so will its followers.

PGF could speak highly of those who have picked up the denominational-righteousness ball to run with it. PGF could lend them some of the accord normally given to esteemed colleagues. At this point, the other renewal groups can feel pretty much discounted by PGF as the last millennium's curmudgeons, rather than today's fellow stalwarts. The feeling is subtle and I'm sure quite unintended, but it's there.

PGF is GREAT! It is doing good things. But it needn't do them in spite of or at the expense of a task that yet remains worth doing: curtailing the disintegration of the PCUSA. A little more "both ... and" would be greatly appreciated. That's what I'm trying to say.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

3:52 PM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Zagreb Will said...

Greetings Jim,

I may not sound very articulate right now due to some present events in my life, but your column touched a very important issue I've been considering lately. So please bear with me.

While this is not what you are intending, your points regarding PGF are also points for leaving the PCUSA. You are definitely right that malevolent forces in our denominational structures are definitely going to move to oppose and even destroy any church or alignment of churches that seek to be faithful to Christ and Christ's mission. (I've experienced this personally in most recent church and present presbytery.) I agree that eventually even the big dogs like Peachtree and Menlo Park will become vunerable to attack as the anti-Christian elements of our culture join with the activist liberals in the hierarchy of the PCUSA. So, while it may be medievally noble to remain and fight the good fight despite the present odds (which is my present course as a minister member), might it be wiser and more prudent to not just disengage from the PCUSA but to separate completely and officially NOW! It is now that the tall steeple churches could leave and succeed, especially if they did this together. And as they left the PCUSA, they could provide some cover for smaller churches who would want to follow their lead. Personally, I don't believe this will happen, and we will end up finding out just how much of the PGF, PFR, and all the other initialled orthodox groups can be destroyed by their oppositions. Anyway, I guess your points make me think leaving now is wiser than staying.

Also, regarding a slightly different issue, your points make it clear that it is a very difficult climate in the PCUSA for growing new churches. I've been thinking and praying about whether or not God wants me to start a new congregation, but the whole PCUSA factor makes this almost untenable. First of all, most (with notable exceptions) PCUSA presbyteries are notorious for all their polity roadblocks to starting a new church. But I've been considering the sticky problem of having a whole group of people who have just recently given their lives to Jesus Christ, are engaged in being discipled so they may live out Christ's life faithfully, and who are becoming energized in their calls to mission service, and then introducing them to the spiritual conflict of and within the PCUSA. Is that really something a want to burden new Christians with? Is that something new Christians should be dragged into? Plus there are all the points you made about how the Presbytery could make moves against such a church to destroy it? I've been thinking that if I start a new church, it must be done outside the PCUSA.
Such are my thoughts here. I'm not really trying to pronounce anything, but your column connected with a running conversation I've been having with myself. Any insights or corrections you may have are very welcomed.

In Christ's Peace,


Will Jackson
Cedar Rapids, IA

8:48 AM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Nav said...


I have attended PGF events and try to keep up on what they send out and I think you are spot on here. I wonder how much of the lower vote turnout in presbytery voting on "B" by orthodox folks can be attributed to PGF-type thinking people.

And tall steeplers shouldn't think they are all that far out of reach of their presbytery---remember what happened to Hollywood Pres.

God's blessings to you,
Matt Ferguson
Hillsboro, IL

10:57 AM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Viola Larson said...

In my Presbytery it has been the big Churches who have suffered as they tried to leave, not the small ones. For some people, not all, it is about property.

Jim I think you are right to a certain extent. One of the things that is bothering me has to do with the many interpretations of the word missional. As I noted in my review of Paul Hooker’s “What is Missional Ecclesiology?” a new study guide for the new FOG he has it interpreted in an unhelpful way. According to that It isn’t Christ’s life, death and resurrection but the new thing God is doing. When such groups as PGF are working with others in the PCUSA they are like two different religions who speak the same language but don’t mean the same thing. There is always a need for both an apologist and an evangelist. I think all of our groups need to keep that in mind.

Viola Larson
Sacramento, Ca

12:10 PM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks for commenting. You sounded cogent enough to me. You must be super-cogent on a good day! :-)

There is no good time to start a church. There is no good and easy time to do evangelism. There is no safe place to do ministry. We live in a fallen world, and total depravity pretty much sees to it that all good intentions and activities are thoroughly hindered.

That's the case not only within the PCUSA but also in any other denomination (total depravity is not a disease confined to the PCUSA!) and especially so within our society as a whole. This is a difficult time to be a believing Christian, and my guess is that it's going to get a whol lot more difficult if not excruciating to profess solid faith.

Being a believing, orthodox Christian is being made all the more difficult because of the pliable, compliant religionists who kiss up to society and make the rest of us look all the more obstreperous. They are the "good" "Christians," and then we get painted as the dangerous, mean-spirited, unable-to-get-with-the-times obstructionists and bigots. The more they conform to a sell-out society, the more we look bad. And since they're selling out big-time, we're looking evil big-time in comparison.

It's going to happen.

So is it a simple solution to just leave this denomination? Not in my mind, although I will not fault those who do. I simply cannot abandon the vulnerable in order to try to find more ease for my personal walk and ministry. And I think that the major battle in our society is exactly along the lines of the fight within the PCUSA, so if we're going to need to engage it, we might as well choose this denomination to be the place in which we do so.

So I can't suggest either not developing new congregations because of the times or trying to shelter new believers from the stark realities of discipleship (as if we could shelter the) or dropping out of the PCUSA because of the bother. We have the times and the struggles around us because this is precisely where God has placed us.

May we man up (excuse the male chauvinism) and do our part in a crucial contest between the wiles of Satan and the will of God!

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

2:12 PM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks. I wonder sometimes, too, along the same lines.


Your thoughts, as usual, add much to the discussion. I think every movement has its true disciples, and then it gains a sloppier and then more cunning following. The sloppy ones don't truly understand what the true disciples intend, but sort of stumble along after the thoughts, somewhat aware and marginally effective.

The cunning followers may actually understand the original thought, but they don't buy it. HOWEVER, they sure do like the following that the original thought has amassed, and so the cunning ones try to siphon off some of the popularity and much of the following that the original thinkers and the true disciples have gathered.

It happens on a grand (and disgusting) scale with Christianity as a whole. Jesus started something amazingly different and good. The true disciples kept it going and built on Jesus' base. But after that, some followers have become succeedingly more sloppy, until the original is almost obscured in some places (such as in progressive "theology" which seems to be more like liberal "ME-ology"). The cunning followers then try to hijack the Church to whatever causes interest them, forgetting altogether the original seed of truth.

On a smaller scale, I remember Church Growth theory, started by Donald McGavran and added to and popularized by disciples like Peter Wagner and Win Arn. Pretty soon it had quite a following, and it seemed that EVERYBODY was a church growth "expert" and had church growth books and seminars. But the problem was that much of the "church growth" was bogus and missed the original point altogether. Pretty soon the Church Growth "branding" was nearly lost altogether in junk church growth.

I think the same could happen with the thinking behind the missional church. People like Darrell Guder and the Gospel and Our Culture network have done some excellent thinking and writing about the missional church. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship is likewise quite attached to the original object.

But others, loving the popularity of the term "missional" now hop on the band wagon with the hopes of using missional's popularity to promote whatever it is they want to tout. I imagine the true utility of "missional" will be lost before long. From what I remember, Hooker's misuse of "missional" is a good example of the diminution if not derailment of a concept.

Just as the descendants of geniuses often evidence "faded genes" in what is termed "regression to the mean" in statistics, so too do great concepts get washed out and even perverted in the hands of successive users.

Just kind of thinking out loud here, Viola. I hope it's helpful.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

3:04 PM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Viola Larson said...

Very helpful Jim!

Sacramento, Ca

3:57 PM, April 04, 2009  
Blogger Red_Cleric said...

Your arguments are the exact ones I put to a couple of "tall-steeple" pastors several years ago. They seemed content with the ministry they were doing. My concern probably isn't for any dissolution of Sessions and the like but what happens when these PGF churches come up for a pastoral change and the Presbytery gets to work with the Pastor search committees.

This is why we left the PC(USA). My concern for my sisters and brothers in such congregations is that now, while they have strong leadership, they aren't making any attempt to deal with the issue. Once the current leadership is gone and new leadership takes over there is the whole rebuilding time again.

Personally I think this plays into the hands of the powers-that-be.

Portland OR

8:23 AM, April 05, 2009  
Blogger Walter L. Taylor said...

I think your critique of the PGF is spot on. In fact, I tried to get some discussion on this some time ago.

What will the folks who think that old denominational fights are a waste of time do when Presbytery COMs begin blocking their candidates from accepting a call, or denying ordination to their candidates, because of their "conservative" theology? I firmly believe that those days are coming.

7:56 PM, April 05, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Those days are already upon us. I've seen it in action myself.

Toby Brown
Butler, PA

4:59 PM, April 06, 2009  
Blogger Renee said...

A handful of congregations have left the PCUSA because they found themselves in presbyteries that blocked or would block their PNCs nominations for a pastor. In our discussion about leaving and staying, this reality has received little press, in part, because it a huge problem for the congregations themselves and not for pastors in general.

There are congregations for whom I had no doubt that the Lord was calling them out of the PCUSA. If the congregations had stayed, their pulpits would no longer be used for gospel ministry or they would remain "vacant" indefinitely.

9:10 AM, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks for commenting, but please give us your full name and town/state. I'm a stickler on full identity for commenters, myself included.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

2:18 PM, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Renee said...

Renee Guth
Pittsburgh, PA

10:56 PM, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Rob Harrison said...

Jim, I'm with you on this one. I think the crux point here is that, as I learned from Ben Patterson years ago, it's not enough to tell people what to say "yes" to--it's also necessary to tell them what that means they have to say "no" to. PGF needs to engage with the things in the denomination to which we need to say "no" not only for the reasons you lay out, but also to keep themselves from being corrupted from within by those same arguments and forces.

I can't help thinking of this as an aspect of the conversion of the church to the gospel (to borrow a phrase); we simply can't assume that people have the gospel figured out and therefore we can move on to other things. We always have to keep preaching and hearing the gospel--which means, again, clarifying what the gospel is not as a necessary part of defining what it is or else we will, inevitably, drift away from it.

Neuhaus' Law: "Where orthodoxy is optional, it will eventually be proscribed."

Rob Harrison
Warsaw/Winona Lake, IN

4:59 PM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Excellent thoughts, Rob.

As usual.


Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

9:56 PM, April 13, 2009  

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