Picture of chains
Photo by Trevor Leyenhorst

Yesterday I outlined a vision of non-competitive Christianity that primarily focuses on articulating and living out the gospel as we each understand it rather than engaging in endless polemics with Christians who understand the gospel differently. In a helpful comment, Michael Kruse adds insight and clarity to the marketplace metaphor I evoked.

Today I want to point out some challenges to this vision, especially for those of us in a connectional denomination like the PC(USA).

As I already mentioned yesterday, being non-competitive is difficult in our polarized culture. We are thoroughly immersed in the polemics of politics, a way of being that has influenced many aspects of public life.

It is also the case that discovering one’s self-understanding and identity often happens through processes of differentiation. We are this and not that. For years my evolving sense of Christian identity was as much about what I no longer was—a conservative and fundamentalist evangelical—as it was about the progressive I had become.

But these are attitudes that can be changed. For those of us in non-congregationalist denominations, what poses a more difficult challenge to this “live and let live” approach to Christianity is the nature of our connectionalism. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), regardless of our ideals, our polity is essentially about regulation. We are not so much bound together by common heritage, theology, worship style, ethos, or sense of mission as we are bound together by a common rule book. Most of our conflicts—even when they are really about theology or mission—are waged in the arena of regulatory polity. The most obvious example of this: instead of having foundational conversations about biblical hermeneutics and theology, we fight for decades about who can or cannot be ordained.

The practice of our polity is essentially competitive. Through our reliance on parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order, we have reduced communal discernment to a process of polarizing debates and winners-take-all votes. Judging by pretty much every metric of denominational vitality we can measure, this has not served us well.

A regulatory polity that insists on expecting everyone to abide by a single set of beliefs, practices, and rules will never be non-competitive because everyone wants to be the one who defines what is right belief and practice. This kind of connectionalism cannot tolerate churches that believe and practice significantly different things if the goal is some meaningful degree of uniformity.

It seems to me that if we want to practice non-competitive Christianity in a denomination like the PC(USA) we need to make some substantial changes:

  • We need to deregulate our polity. Presbyterians consistently say that they value the connectionalism of our church, but there must be a better expression of connectionalism than regulation. As an alternative, I suggest exploring relational connectionalism (like that of a social network) as a more sustainable approach.
  • We also need to recognize that unity and uniformity are not the same thing. We can be united as a church without imposing uniformity across the denomination. There are many things—like a shared sense of mission or a common ethos—that can form the basis of unity within a relational and connectional Presbyterian polity.

I believe that the Spirit is already moving the PC(USA) in these directions. Both the new Form of Government and the report of the Mid Councils Commission (and the missional ecclesiology that has informed them both) are part of this trajectory. In fact, with the passing of the new Form of Government and Amendment 10-A, the new status quo of the PC(USA) allows for much more diversity of belief and practice among congregations and presbyteries. (Of course, there is still that Book of Order concept that the act of one council is the act of the whole church, but I think this is an element of our ecclesiology that needs to be reconsidered.)

Is it possible for a denomination like the PC(USA) to be non-competitive as I have defined it? Is it possible for churches with significantly different beliefs and practices to be part of a connectional denomination that somehow holds unity and diversity together in creative tension?

I believe it is possible if we are willing to rethink what we mean by connectionalism and unity.

Of course, as the comments on my recent post on polydoxy reminded me, there will always be Christians for whom apologetics and polemics is an act of faith. I’m not sure how such expressions of faith fit within the kind of church I’m envisioning here—maybe it doesn’t.

But I am encouraged by Presbyterians like my good friend Tod Bolsinger, who has eloquently articulated a vision of the PC(USA) in which progressives like me and evangelicals like him can serve significantly different congregations within a single denomination that bears witness to the fullness and diversity of God’s kingdom while diligently engaging in the mission of God in the world.

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. So John the debates (and they are that) that we have had have been over theological issues. The meaning and importance of the cross-http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-thoughts-on-john-vests-posting-about.html. (the resurrection got in there too) History and the being of God, (http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2011/03/john-vest-and-dynamic-history.html) The authority of Scripture, (http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2012/05/authority-of-scripture-or-whatever.html) And very important Christolgy, (http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2010/07/my-thoughts-on-john-vests-thoughts.html)

    In that last one which would be for you, (https://johnvest.com/2010/07/28/further-thoughts-and-clarifications/) You wrote:
    ■I am not questioning the divinity of Jesus. There is something undeniably divine about the mystery of the incarnation and the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. But, I don’t believe that the incarnation is as simple as YHWH, the God of Israel, taking on human flesh and walking among us.”
    So why am I saying all of this? Because you wrote that most of the debate has been over homosexuality-or ordination and polity. At least between me and you that isn’t true.
    And those understandings are so very important to the life of the Church. How can we do the first mission of the Church which is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ when we don’t even agree on who Jesus is or what he did. And I am not asking this just for you I am asking for myself also. We are not diverse we are two different faiths.

    • Right. We have have different understandings of what the good news of/about Jesus is. That means that our understanding of mission will be different too.

      Does “two different faiths” mean two different religions? Do you think that I’m not a Christian? Do you not think that there is a place in the PC(USA) for both of us? I obviously think there is. I think we’re both Christians and I can conceive of a Protestant denomination in which we can both coexist. But, perhaps the PC(USA) is not that denomination. In your understanding, does one of us need to either change or leave?

      As for debates, I don’t deny that they are about theology, but they tend to take place in the context of fighting over rules. And, I’m really talking about the denomination as a whole, not debates between individuals.

  2. This is one thing that has changed dramatically for me now that I’m in a ministry that is not congregationally based. Although my training is from the Lutheran tradition, and I was consecrated into this ministry in a Lutheran seminary, we (that is, PEPartnership, Inc., and the Zion Personal Essentials Pantry) no longer have any formal connection or sponsorship with any denominational authority, which gives me the privilege of more openness in communications with Pantry staff and guests. I’m beginning to realize what a privileged position that puts me in. Thanks for raising this question, and opening up the topic for discussion.

  3. John,
    good questions. I’ve thought about them all day. Are you a Christian? I can’t answer that. God can. But to be totally honest, I feel sad that you are a minister to young people- yes I know- you are a very nice guy, probably nobody could be a better friend to young people-except you are teaching them away from the faith and that is not being a friend. And really you usually only write on what you don’t believe so I don’t really know what you do believe. And can we exist in the same denomination?-that is the burning question of the day. Each must obey the Lord and follow where he leads.

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