Controversial Decisions of the PCUSA Lead to Decline of Churches and Members
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been looked upon with especially critical eyes from conservative groups over the past few years, as it has continuously been taking controversial steps regarding individuals with same-sex attractions (SSA) and same-sex marriages, including allowing those with SSA to become ordained as ministers in 2011 and its recent decision in mid-March to redefine marriage in the denomination's constitution to include same-sex marriages.
As such, hundreds of American churches have been choosing to leave the PCUSA for other denominations, or many churches have even been dissolved altogether. In 2006, the PCUSA had 2.26 million members, but after the denomination approved the ordaining individuals with SSA by a majority vote in 2011, the membership dropped to 1.95 million. Several Korean churches have also opted to leave the PCUSA, such as Charlotte First Korean Presbyterian Church, and Bethany Presbyterian Church of Dallas.
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (GSPC)—one of the largest Korean PCUSA congregations in California—is one such congregation that has also decided to leave the denomination. In the presence of representatives from the San Gabriel Presbytery, the presbytery under which the church belongs, the members of the congregation voted on March 23, 2014 whether they would like to leave the denomination, and 91 percent of the congregation voted in approval of leaving PCUSA and giving $635,000 to the presbytery to keep the church property. (Under the ‘Trust Clause’ in the constitution of the PCUSA, any congregation’s property is “held in trust” for the PCUSA, and a church cannot leave the denomination with the property unless the denomination releases it to them. In many recent cases, churches that have chosen to leave the PCUSA due to its changes regarding same sex marriages have had to give payment to maintain its property.)
However, over a year later, the church has yet to be completely dismissed from the PCUSA.
“It’s the presbytery that has offered the Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP) to allow churches to leave the denomination in the first place, and we’ve simply been following the guidelines set out for us in the GDP,” Reverend Tae Hyung Ko, the senior pastor of GSPC, stated. “But they've been delaying the process, and now all of a sudden they’re saying there’s a conflict in our church.”
From ‘Gracious Dismissal’ to 'Administrative Commission'
In 2008, the PCUSA began offering various methods for church dismissal from the denomination in order to protect the conscience of individuals, including the Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP), Policy for Gracious Separation, and Peaceful Dismissal. These various policies, which differ depending on the presbytery, establish the process by which the church would be dismissed from the denomination, and the details regarding maintaining or giving up the church property.
Based on the San Gabriel Presbytery's GDP, if 75 percent or more of a church congregation votes to be dismissed from the presbytery to join another body, the presbytery would then vote regarding the congregation’s dismissal in its next meeting. However, since the church’s vote in March 2014, the presbytery has never voted specifically on the status of GSPC’s dismissal.
Due to a group of some 70 members of the GSPC who have been consistently opposed to leaving the PCUSA and expressing opposition to the results of the congregation's vote, the San Gabriel Presbytery determined there is a "conflict" within the church, and warned the church in fall of 2014 that if a negotiation agreement is not reached between the two parties—those in favor of and those against leaving the PCUSA—it would recommend forming an Administrative Commission (AC), which would assume jurisdiction over the church.
Hence, since January of 2015, representatives of the Presbytery have been visiting the church regularly and reporting that the church had been using “the power of the pulpit and the Word of God to intimidate and demean members of the congregation and the Presbytery, to manipulate the congregation members to support the dismissal, and to divert church resources away from the ministry of the church as a member of the PC(USA)," according to a March letter the presbytery wrote to the church.
If the presbytery does indeed form an AC, the church would technically lose jurisdiction over the church, and the church leadership would be at risk of being dismissed by the presbytery as it determines. However, Reverend Ko said, “Our church doesn’t consider ourselves a part of the PCUSA anymore—we’ve already followed the GDP and voted, and more than 90 percent of us voted to leave. So even if the AC were to be formed, our church would not really be affected by it.”
Leaving the PCUSA Because ‘Biblical Authority Is Being Shaken’ and ‘Little Hope for Reformation’
Though the PCUSA’s recent decisions regarding homosexuality have indeed wrought controversy and became the main point at which many churches decided to leave the denomination, Ko stated that that is not necessarily the only point of disagreement the church has with the PCUSA, and that it “is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Ko cited a study released in 2011 from the Presbyterian Panel, in which 5,000 pastors, elders, and laypeople were randomly invited for a study in order to understand and profile PCUSA members. In the study, only 41 percent of pastors strongly agreed or agreed to the statement that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved,” and 45 percent of ruler elders strongly agreed or agreed.
“The foundational, base root of Biblical authority is being shaken,” Ko said. “That’s why we’re leaving the PCUSA. If Biblical authority and the lordship of Jesus Christ is shaken, then everything else is being shaken as well.”
Some conservative pastors and churches voiced that they chose to stay in the PCUSA in hopes that their remaining in it would help to reform its theology more conservatively, mainly through the voting process within the denomination. Others argue that they can simply choose not to preside over same-sex weddings or act on certain things against their conscience.
However, Ko argued that there is little chance for the few remaining conservative congregations to make a lasting impact on the denomination as a whole, especially due to the hierarchical structure in the PCUSA known as “connectionalism.” In the structure of the PCUSA, the General Assembly presides as the highest form of authority in the denomination, under which follows the synod, the presbytery, and the church, otherwise known as a session.
“So Korean churches may say that we can stay in the PCUSA and it’s okay, but based on connectionalism, we are affected and influenced by hierarchical structures in the denomination,” Ko said.
For example, Ko said, “Pastors in the PCUSA are not only part of their own church, but a part of the presbytery over the church, and the pastor must attend presbytery meetings. In the presbytery meetings, there will be shared worship and communion. Will conservative leaders be willing to join communion when active homosexual pastors lead communion service?”
For those who are considering leaving the PCUSA but are unaware of how to go about the process, Ko advised them to first consult with their presbytery leader, such as the executive presbyter, and tell them that the church “would like to start discerning whether to leave the denomination or not.”
Ko said the presbytery leaders would likely point them to the GDP or any equivalent process of dismissal, and the church would simply have to follow that process. If the presbytery does not already have a GDP or dismissal process, the church could work together with other like-minded churches to ask to form a dismissal process in that presbytery. However, a presbytery does “have the right to refuse to form a GDP,” and if the presbytery does reject it, “the process would be very difficult,” Ko said. Most presbyteries are likely to have a dismissal process already set, he added.