The Death Throes of Fundamentalism in a Thinking Church

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“It’s been a long, slow, painful death.” So, begins a widely distributed article by Bob Burney. In it, he predicts/acknowledges the death of a denomination, specifically the PCUSA. Why is it dead? Well, clearly you’ve not be following the religious news. It is dead because it loves homosexuals. Admittedly, even though Mr. Burney opens the article saying “the church has abandoned its denominational commitment to traditional marriage,” he does say that, “The issue here is not homosexuality. The core of the matter is the authority of scripture.”

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It’s a great fit for this situation; it’s also not the original quote. The original quote is an even better fit: “The reports of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Mr. Burney’s article is riddled with inconsistencies, presumptions and poor logic. It also exhibits an argumentative style of a person who has little to no ground upon which to stand. It would seem that his fundamentalist point of view is going under in the PCUSA and he, and those for whom he is presumably a representative voice, are grasping at straws in the death throes of their position.

They have resorted not only to thinly veiled ad hominem attacks on anyone who doesn’t believe what they do, but also to thinly veiled threats as they hold membership numbers hostage with the argument of “play by our rules or we will take our ball and go home.” (It’s what I call “the playground mentality of the frozen chosen”).

This thinly veiled threat, the playground mentality, can be seen in “The Laymen’s” (a fundamentalist publication associated with the PCUSA) response to the recent vote on Amendment 10A (read about it here and here). In a few large cities, they’ve taken out ads in newspaper in which they encourage congregations to consider their “relationship to the denomination.”  Mr. Burney handles this issue saying, “Schism is the likely result of the presbyteries’ recent decision. Perhaps in dividing, conservative elements of the domination will rise again…”

Like most of the article, that statement is a beautifully crafted argument – fallacious, but beautifully crafted. Think about it, he starts by blaming the “liberals” for causing this “schism” (which, I might point out, hasn’t actually happened yet) and then encourages “conservative elements of the denomination” to rise up by dividing the denomination.

Brilliant. Seriously. Altogether false, but c’mon, that’s a freaking brilliant distortion of reality. You’ve got to give it some respect. So, let’s pause in silence for a moment…. OK, that’s enough.

“The reports of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.” As Mr. Burney points out in his own article, fundamentalism in the PCUSA is a dying breed. He is incorrect, however, in pointing to liberalism as the reason for what looks to be “a long, slow, painful death” of the PCUSA.  It’s quite the opposite really.

Up until this point, what has been slowly killing the PCUSA is the admirable (but ultimately incorrect) tenacity of our more conservative brothers and sisters. Their actions clearly indicate that they are more interested in God’s judgment than God’s love, that they have no problem enforcing a literal interpretation of the Bible in some places while altogether ignoring it in others. They want to have their cake and eat it too; they want to claim to be, as Mr. Burney puts it, “Presbyterians that genuinely believe the Bible,” but only in the places that enforce their already held biases.

I get it. It’s a comfortable place to live. That place, while having been threaten for years by “liberals” who insist on more consistency in how we all use and apply biblical hermeneutics, is now more than just threatened. We have made a turn in the PCUSA. We now posses a majority who stand proudly in the tradition and understanding of John Calvin. We are “reformed and always reforming.” In his article, Mr. Burney makes the assertion that clinging to “noble ancestry” should be a key measurement of our health as a denomination. It is an assertion that many of the very ancestors to which he appeals would find appalling.

From Martin Luther to John Calvin we stand in a long line of Christian leadership which challenged the status quo, recognized that what we were in the past frequently isn’t everything God is calling us to be, and saw that staying rooted in the past is a poor attempt at denying the God we find in the Bible who is always about to do a new thing.  Our heritage is full of ancestral leaders who saw clearly that the dominate and overriding biblical theology is one of love, forgiveness, acceptance and grace. It is why progressive Christians have so frequently stood with others on the front lines of the battles for civil rights.

We still do. And despite Mr. Burney’s excessive protesting that this is not about homosexuality, it is. It is also, as he suggests, about the authority of scripture. The hard-fast, literal interpretation for which he argues leaves us stoning disobedient childrenmarrying our brother’s widow if she has had no children, and insuring that our slaves are obedient with “fear and trembling.” This is about the authority of scripture and this is, by extension, about homosexuality. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Likewise, it is disingenuous for those who have a problem with homosexual sex (and let’s not pretend that this is about something other than that) to suggest that you are the ones in this debate who are actually concerned about what the Bible tells us. None of us get it right. So, stop pretending and assuming that you do and we don’t. The Bible is too complex of a compilation stemming from far too many sources set within the contextualities of far too many ages and heritages to believe that any one group of people (or person for that matter) are capable of owning a definitive understanding of it.

It’s part of the brilliance of the centrality of love, forgiveness, acceptance and grace within the texts themselves. Without those four pieces the Bible becomes a weapon rather than a balm as those who wish to marginalize and judge a specific segment of society (be they women, slaves, or homosexuals) cherry pick the texts without consideration of larger contexts with the sole purpose of Bible-thumping a specific group into soul-sapping submission.

The playground attitude that we see exhibited in the ads from “The Layman” and articles like the one from Mr. Burney do not even attempt to actually engage the real issues at hand – biblical authority and, by extension, a Christian response to homosexuality. Mr. Burney is both right and wrong in his opening salvo, “It was a long, slow, painful death.” The death is greatly exaggerated, but the illness is painful. The illness, however, is that of fundamentalism in a increasingly thinking church. Now that the biblically driven direction of the Church has been defined, some of the more “conservative elements of the denomination,” with little ground upon which to stand, have decided to take their ball and go play somewhere else. It is the death throws of fundamentalism in the PCUSA, not the death of PCUSA itself.

It is clear from their positioning and trajectory that many will leave the PCUSA and that will cull the membership of the denomination. The long term effect will be the closing of some churches and, along with that, many ordained ministers will be out of work. The denomination itself, however, will not die. It will grow leaner, more focused, more prophetic. Perhaps as some of the more “conservative elements of the denomination” choose to leave, the denomination will stop with its unnecessary infighting and rise again, living into the biblical realities of  love, forgiveness, acceptance and grace.

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