Earlier this week I saw this story about a small PC(USA) congregation in Los Angeles with a gay pastor that decided to leave the denomination to join the more progressive United Church of Christ. It is an interesting counterpoint to the more typical narrative: conservative churches leaving the denomination because of the church’s growing acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people into the full life of the church.

I wonder if this will become more and more common in the years to come. I wonder if churches on both the far right and the far left will slowly move to other denominations (or no denomination), leaving those in the middle to dwindle away. I wonder if the costs of our robust connectionalism will eventually outweigh the benefits.

Thinking about a progressive church leaving the PC(USA) for the UCC—a scenario with which I can more easily identify than the more typical conservative departures—made me think once again: what is it that makes us Presbyterian?

This was a question that I thought about a lot during my time on the Mid Councils Commission. As we discussed what kinds of changes we could recommend to help our denomination better meet the challenges and needs of our rapidly changing world, I often wondered: what are the essential elements of Presbyterianism that we cannot change if we want to remain Presbyterian? In other words, at what point of change do we stop being Presbyterian?

As I tried to empathize with a congregation leaving the PC(USA) for a denomination with a congregationalist polity, these questions surfaced once again. What would it be like to show up to church one Sunday and suddenly be UCC?

There are at least four categories of church identity that are pertinent to this discussion.

There are enough books out there on Reformed theology to suggest that there are some theological convictions that are uniquely Presbyterian. However, it is obvious that we do not in fact have theological consensus on some major issues like christology and the authority of scripture. Moreover, in our post-denominational reality, I don’t think you’ll find that many people in the pews of a typical Presbyterian church that are really that committed to total depravity, double predestination, or even providence and the sovereignty of God. Given the general flattening of Protestant theological discourse in North America, I’m not sure we can say that there is still a particularly Presbyterian theology.

If anything, I would say that the ideals and realities of Presbyterian polity makes us unique, or at least significantly different from denominations with episcopal or congregationalist polities. However, an argument could be made that many Presbyterian churches effectively function in a congregationalist way, with a relatively small portion of the congregation engaging in or even understanding presbyterian polity. Congregations jump through the hoops and check the boxes they need to, but they mostly function independently of their presbytery, synod, or the General Assembly. We value the ideal of connectionalism, but we don’t really know what it means anymore and the bureaucratic ways we have done it in the past seen anachronistic and ineffective today.

There are a lot of people who have been Presbyterian their entire lives and come from long lines of Presbyterians. As I’ve learned more about Presbyterianism around the country, I’ve found this to be especially true in the South and East. For these people, there is a connection to history that cannot be recovered if it is lost. But there are also a lot of people like me who are adult converts to Presbyterianism. Again, in our post-denominational reality, I wonder if the balance is tipping in most congregations away from life-long members of any particular denomination toward people that switch denominational affiliations (sometimes more than once) or participate in a particular church for reasons other than denominational connection.

In his classic textbook, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, John Leith has a chapter on the “ethos” of the Reformed tradition. Some of what he discusses is more about theology, like providence and the polemic against idolatry. But when it comes to things like ethics, the life of the mind as the service of God, preaching, church order, and a disciplined life, I think he has identified some of the elements of Presbyterianism that people really gravitate toward. When I ask people to describe what Presbyterianism means to them, things like this is what I often hear. My hunch is that a particular ethos is more important to most people in Presbyterian pews than particular theologies, the ins and outs of our polity, or historic connections to Presbyterianism.

If I take my church as an example, as long as our worship style, quality of preaching, and general theological inclinations did not change, we could in fact become a UCC congregation and 99% of the congregation wouldn’t even notice. I bet that is true of many Presbyterian congregations.

So it seems to me, as we try to be an effective, relevant, and faithful church in the 21st century, the PC(USA) ought to flatten our structures, deregulate our polity, and discover a new kind of connectionalism that unites us as Christians who share a common ethos and way of living into God’s transformation of the world. In a post-denominational, post-Christendom, postmodern world, theological unity is no longer realistic and regulatory and bureaucratic forms of organization are no longer effective. But there must be a kind of connectionalism that transcends these limitations.

I believe that the recommendations of the Mid Council Commission might help us move in that direction. What do you think?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. I’ve grown almost despondent these past several weeks as I’ve sat with people who are leaving the denomination, because it has seemed to me that they have far more in common with the “ethos” of evangelicalism than with the rest of our denomination. And, as you say, much of our denomination bears more resemblance to the cultural ethos of progressivism embodied by a church like the UCC than anything that is Presbyterian in a thoroughgoing way. I wonder if what will happen is that distinct new networks will emerge out of this moment that have their own ethos, each of which will owe something to the Presbyterian ethos they have left, but also distinct. The NEXT conversation, for example, seems to be trying to cultivate a new ethos of openness, experimentation, and diversity, while The Fellowship ethos appears to be more about thorough Biblical fidelity and behavioral accountability. I’m losing faith that those things complement one another.
    Thanks for this.

  2. The tiller is unmanned, the sails are luff, and the winds are swirling.

    I think you’re onto something here in describing the PCUSA as theologically divided against itself. Politically (in the polity sense), members are frustrated by either the slow pace of change, the focus on subtleties of wordings of amendments and legalisms of authoritative interpretations, or — if you’re on the conservative, orthodox side of the frustration — the over-representation of liberals in the influential areas of the church’s decision-making.

    As to history, though, it’s undeniable that some stay Presbyterian because they connect it to their own Scottish or early American history, or see its heritage as less wind-blown than other reformed bodies. However, in studying the history of Presbyterianism in the US, it jumps out at you how often the church has diverged, splintered, re-formed or merged, only to split again. Reading Machen for the first time, I was struck by how similar the divide was in the 1920s, even if the issues then were different.

    Finally as to a shared ethos, I disagree with your analysis even as I agree with some of your prescriptions. In the same way that the PCUSA has come to represent vastly different theological understandings, other denominations have similar heterodoxy within them. The “brand” of many denominations has ceased to represent a chain of consistency, town to town. It’s little more than a letterhead or an icon in the footer of your church website.

    It is still possible for a church to constitute itself on theological standards — what we believe. The ECO and the EPC both represent that to different extents. The lack of firm convictions in the PCUSA now is accompanied by a corresponding lack of courage in its convictions (whatever they might be!). It’s a safe bet that the Redwoods Presbytery will suffer no sanction whatsoever for deliberately disobeying the church’s highest court. Some will even celebrate it. There are ministers in good standing in this denomination who do not preach a Gospel recognizable to Paul or even to the Book of Confessions. No one calls them on it. No one questions their continued fitness to remain in a Presbyterian pulpit. No accountability.

  3. the paralysis of analysis……………..a church that doesnt start and end with Truth doesnt need to worry about the details.


  1. […] Well, I keep seeking out or agreeing to participate in opportunities at Presbyterian reform because I really do value Presbyterianism as a way of living out our Christian faith in today’s world. It’s not perfect and sometimes it frustrates the hell out of me. I often find myself at odds with the very notion of institutional religion. But the Presbyterian way of mutual accountability and democratic governance is very compelling to me, not to mention what I think of as the Presbyterian ethos. […]

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