Floor debate on the issue of same-sex marriage at last week’s PCUSA General Assembly in Detroit.
Associated Press/Photo by David Guralnick/The Detroit News
Floor debate on the issue of same-sex marriage at last week’s PCUSA General Assembly in Detroit.

The PCUSA’s move from mainline to flatline


The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the news again. The mainline denomination’s General Assembly last week voted by a 61 percent majority to allow clergy to celebrate gay weddings in the 19 states where same-sex marriage is legal. How bold! How courageous! What pioneering moral leadership!

Oh, but it’s not. What is breathtaking is that it took the PCUSA this long. It voted to allow the ordination of openly homosexual clergy back in 2011. And while it believes that by affirming these things it is standing for the heart of God, the PCUSA is always dragging behind secular society in doing so, always late to the revolution. Despite their boast of enlightened thinking, these religious progressives are never in the vanguard, never on the cutting edge. It would seem that God reveals His heart through those who either hate Him or don’t give Him any thought at all, so that His church may know what love requires lately.

What is equally surprising is how surprised the more conservative PCUSA members and congregations are when these votes succeed. A union of the old Southern and Northern Presbyterian churches formed the PCUSA in 1983, but this was after the Orthodox Presbyterians left the Northern church in 1936 over its liberalism, followed by the Presbyterian Church in America’s withdrawal from the Southern church in 1973 for the same reason. The issue for many years in the PCUSA has been the authority of the Bible in its decision-making. When a church rejects this divine standard of belief it has nowhere else to turn but to political ideology, current cultural trends, and the fashionable thinking of the day. Nothing then stands in the way of its slide into “the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 3:19, ESV) except stubborn cultural conservatism, which is a weak foundation and has limited power of resistance.

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Such a church becomes little more than politics gilded with prayer, earning the indifference of the secular and the spiritual alike. And the fig tree withers (Matthew 21:18-19). Since 1980, when the evangelical-fueled Moral Majority helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House, the PCUSA has declined in membership from 3.3 million to its present 1.8 million. The broader population, meanwhile, has climbed from 226 million to 314 million. In other words, the PCUSA has declined from 1.5 percent of the population to about 0.5 percent.

After the gay clergy vote in 2011, the PCUSA hemorrhaged entire congregations to more faithful denominations. And progressive-minded young people have not been sticking around, much less flooding through its doors. The median age in the pew is now 63. With such a heavily graying flock, one can say that this once great denomination—the mother of Founding Fathers, presidents, and Supreme Court justices—is literally dying. What was once known as “mainline” Protestantism has come to be ridiculed as the “sideline,” but will soon be the “flatline” churches.

What is most breathtaking of all is that after 2,000 years of betrayal, strife, and ambition alongside faithful following and humble shepherding, the church Jesus said He would build despite all powers of hell (Matthew 16:18) perseveres and is covering the globe. That’s the rest of the story. 

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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