You Keep Using That Word…

[Prefatory note: Yes, it has indeed been almost two months since I last posted here, a full month beyond my planned quiet period. While I have several articles in draft form that I want to complete I have been busy on a couple of other fronts that has taken time away from my writing. I am hoping to be a bit more regular for the next few months. In addition, I have a large data acquisition and analysis project related to my Big Tent series that has been where I have dedicated my blogging hours. We will see where that goes.]

Today was one of those days where I ran across something that hit one of my sensitive nerves, raised my blood pressure and sent me to the keyboard to vent. It was an online article from the Presbyterian Outlook titled “Distance education: Seminary comes to you.” It is overall an interesting article from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary – and not from the Outlook staff – that talks about distance learning, particularly for those that don’t traditionally attend seminary. The lede begins with a quote from back in May from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), RE Heath Rada:

Recently Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked, “How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? . . . Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries’ oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?” The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) has been asking just these sorts of questions for the last 15 years and has answered with the development of a wide variety of online educational options for the theological education of laity and clergy.

Did you catch the wording? I did a quick check on the PC(USA) Book of Order and the words “clergy” and “laity” are not to be found. Even worse, this quote, and in places in the rest of the article, seem to use “laity” interchangeably with “ruling elder.” (The term is also used in places where they talk about other educational tracks that could include students from non-Reformed traditions so it may be awkward for the Presbyterians but technically acceptable.)

To be fair, this is not the only place in discussions of Presbyterian polity that you will find these terms used. But in a strict sense as I understand it Presbyterians know nothing of the laity in its traditional sense. To quote that bastion of knowledge, the Wikipedia article for laity,


Presbyterians do not use the term “lay”. Thus the Church of Scotland has “Readers”, men and women set apart by presbyteries to conduct public worship. This arises out of the belief in the priesthood of all believers. Ministers are officially ‘teaching elders’ alongside the ‘ruling elders’ of the Kirk Session and have equivalent status, regardless of any other office. In the Church of Scotland, as the Established church in Scotland, this gives ruling elders in congregations the same status as Queen’s chaplains, professors of theology and other highly qualified ministers. All are humble servants of the people in the congregation and parish. Ministers are simply men and women whose gift is for their role in teaching and possibly pastoral work. They are thus selected for advanced theological education. All elders (teaching and ruling) in meetings of Session, Presbytery, or Assembly are subject to the Moderator, who may or may not be a minister but is always an elder.

OK, Wikipedia is not my first choice for a credible argument, and in this case I disagree with a couple other details in the article and the emphasis is on the Church of Scotland, but I think it correctly makes the point that there is a priesthood of all believers and some are set aside for ordered ministry. Furthermore, teaching and ruling elders rule jointly and in the administration of the church generally either flavor of elder may hold any given leadership position.

Now, if you want the argument from a credible Presbyterian source, you can do no better than Teaching Elder Joe Small, the previous head of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In a talk he gave in 2010 before he retired he is quoted as saying “Clergy and laity are two words that should never escape the lips of Presbyterians.” He expands more fully on the historical development of the ordered ministry in the Reformed tradition in a chapter he contributed to a book on church governance.

If you want corroboration of this thought, two other giants of Presbyterian polity, John Bolt and Jan Edmiston have also spoken or written about the distinction and its importance. And yes, I have ranted about this before – as I said it touched a sensitive nerve with me.

So as I close this discussion, or a sequel rant if you will, I want to be clear that this is not just a semantic distinction. In my thinking about Reformed theology this is at the heart of how we view ourselves as the Body of Christ. Traditionally the use of the terms clergy and laity imply a difference in function and standing between the two groups. If we accept the concept of the priesthood of all believers this distinction does not exist. Yes, there is an ordered ministry for proclamation, one for spiritual guides and a third for mercy ministry. But these are always exercised within the context of the covenant community. It is everyone working together with some set aside (not elevated) for particular tasks.

OK, rant over. We now return you to your regular programming.

[And it is nice to be back. More about my summer later.]

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 2: He’s In My Church?

I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”

In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.

But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.

So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.

Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.

And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.

It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.

But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…

[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]

A Closer Look At Denominations And Twitter

My musing about Twitter accounts that I posted a week ago started a bunch of conversations and got me looking at it a bit more closely. Now fair warning – that post was the beginning of a look at the diversity of a denomination by thinking about how many different “voices” there are coming from that branch. Ultimately I want to find a way to categorize those voices on a diversity spectrum but a  couple of metrics I have tried already did not pan out. However, in casting the net a bit wider, that is in bringing more denominations into the data set, an interesting relationship appeared.

As we drill into that data a brief reminder about the data set. I was looking for official Twitter accounts from a denomination. My original list from the PC(USA) included the primary account, agencies, committees, periodicals and news sources. It did not include what I characterized as commercial project-specific accounts – like the Glory to God Hymnal and the Feasting on the Word series – as well as not counting seminaries and conference centers. As I move on to other denominations I will stick to these same parameters even though some have seminaries and conference centers with much closer oversight by their highest governing bodies. In addition, I am choosing at the onset of this analysis to include the inactive, duplicate and periodical accounts.

In this search for denominational Twitter accounts I found one more for the PC(USA) and have added that to the list in the original post and annotated it as an update. For the rest of the usual American Presbyterian branches I have these that I found:

ARPC – 32,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

RPCNA – 7,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

OPC – 31,122 (from Statistician’s report to 2015 GA)

No official Twitter accounts found

PCA – 358,516 members (from Clerk’s summary of 2015 GA)

EPC – 149,527 reported (from statistical report to 2015 GA)

BPC – 3500 members (Wikipedia)

No official Twitter accounts found

ECO – 60,000 members (report from 2014 Synod meeting)

Cumberland – 72,370 members (2015 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2014)

CPCA – 7676 members (2014 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2013)

No official Twitter accounts found

So if we take these and plot Twitter accounts versus membership what do we get? Here is the graph.


That’s a pretty nice trend line there — all the data give a correlation of 0.990. Tough to beat that. But those who regularly deal with statistics will notice a couple of issues.

First and foremost the trend line is highly leveraged. That is to say that you have a lot of data on the left and then a really, really long space until you get to the PC(USA) on the right. When calculating the trend that isolated data point can dominate and pull the trend line to itself. Compared to the actual number of 39 Twitter accounts the trend line predicts 39.06 accounts. Yes, there is the clear possibility of leveraging.

Second, even the data point for the PCA is a bit isolated there away from the cluster. In a sense, we have the statistics of small numbers with three meaningful populations: the PC(USA) point on the right, the PCA point in the middle and the cluster containing everyone else on the left.

However, looking at the data and the trend line it still seems to be a decent fit. Yes, the PC(USA) has leveraged it but the predicted 9.11 accounts for the PCA is still reasonably close to the actual 10 accounts. So let’s test the leveraging.

Dropping the PC(USA) point from the linear regression and fitting only on the lower nine points, including the PCA, the correlation drops to 0.827. So there is a correlation drop indicating some leveraging but that is still a respectably strong number. But have a look at the plot…


So if the trend line is only based on the lower nine data points and then extrapolated out four times that distance to predict the PC(USA) value, it only over-estimates by 1.54. This is starting to look like a more robust relationship.

Having now had a look at the data let me tell you that what I found is significantly different than my expected outcome. You might have noticed that a bit of my bias crept into the last post regarding the PC(USA) having a high number of Twitter accounts. As I was compiling that list it seemed to me that the church had gone wild in creating accounts.  Well, when viewed from the perspective of number of accounts per thousand members (that would be 0.024 accounts/member for the trend line if you care) the number is right in line with everyone else. They just happen to be four times larger than the next largest branch so the number of accounts is four times larger.

From a statistical point of view I went into this expecting that I would never be able to plot this on a linear line. I was expecting to have to fit it to a log scale on the number of accounts axis. Furthermore, from past experience I also expected the leveraging to be more dramatic and the extrapolated line to miss by a wider margin. So I share this little experiment to document something that truly surprised me when I took a close look at it. And furthermore, the decision of which accounts to include and which to exclude from the count was made at the beginning and carried through the analysis. It would of course be interesting to try this again with other subsets but I have not tried those and will leave that for another day.

Now, what we can say is that the number of accounts that the PCA and the PC(USA) have are completely in line with each other and generally with the smaller churches as well. While the smaller branches scatter a bit more around the line the trend is generally evident in that cluster.

What we can not say is whether, from an administrative and social media point of view, the PC(USA) and maybe the PCA have too many Twitter accounts. There is a statistical relationship here but that does not tell us whether the number of accounts per member helps or does not help get the message out. Furthermore, this relationship does not answer any questions about the consistency or coherence of the message in social media or the diversity of the branch as a whole.

Some of my preliminary thoughts are what this might mean for scaling relationships of institutional structure and self-similarity as a means of probing institutional development. In particular, it might be an interesting on-going study to see how accounts might be added as ECO becomes larger and how accounts might go dormant as the PC(USA) scales back its operations.

But it is a very interesting relationship and I put it out there for any social media theorists or practitioners who might be interested in this sort of thing. As I said, I was surprised by the proportionality, robustness and consistency of the relationship. I welcome any of you that are interested to continue pondering with me what possible implications there might be.

A Brief, Preliminary Comment On An Interesting Church Property Decision

As regular readers know I tend to wait until I have a full court decision to break down a court ruling. In this case, This is a preliminary ruling, technically a memorandum decision, and both sides have 10 days to file responses before it is final, so I am going to trust a news article. Risky thing to do but 1) the ruling as reported seems straight forward and logical even if a bit different than usual, and 2) from the full reading the article seems fair and balanced so it seems reasonable.

From the Kansas City area KCTV 5 News reports that Judge Kevin Moriarty has reached a preliminary decision in the case of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley and Heartland Presbytery. I have discussed this church before concerning some of the nuances with the divided congregation with the two groups, an ECO group and a PC(USA) group, sharing a building until this gets straightened out.

The article begins with a very nice discussion of the situation with quotes from all sides in the matter. Good on-the-ground reporting. It is not until towards the end that it mentions the court ruling late yesterday and how Judge Moriarty diverged from the traditional legal approach in Kansas, that of hierarchical deference, and instead used neutral principles in rendering his decision. To quote the article:

Moriarty said in his ruling that church law claiming the property was held “in trust” for the regional branch wasn’t relevant. The deed names the local church, not the Presbytery. The mortgages name the local church, not the Presbytery. If the presbytery wanted a claim, the judge said, they could have placed a provision on those legal documents when they signed over the deed to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley decades ago.

The building and property, he said, belonged to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, not Heartland Presbytery, which had filed the suit.

Now, in a “be careful what you wish for” twist, the decision continues. The property may belong to the church and not the presbytery, but with two groups claiming ownership to which does the property belong? To this the judge invoked ecclesiastical deference and said it was a church doctrine dispute and the civil courts should not get involved. Therefore, since the property was established by the PC(USA) and one group was recognized by the PC(USA) as the True Church then it gets the property.

A most interesting twist where the property does not belong to the PC(USA) in spite of the Trust Clause, but belongs to the PC(USA) congregation because of history.

As stated, this is the draft trial decision and it may change on final and is subject to possible appeal. When I have more details, and if worth another post at this time, I will probably just note at the top that this post has been superseded and point you at a new one.

In my reading of these property cases this is new legal ground. We shall see where this goes…

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Second Half Of June 2015

Having gotten behind on news headlines I am just going to push the reset button and post a current one. And yes, a bunch of other stuff is sitting as drafts or in research right now.

There was a lot of news the in this time period so here are some headlines on select topics from the second half of June. (Not counting some GA stuff I plan to post on separately.)

In a still developing situation, two Presbyterian pastors from South Sudan have gone on trial in Sudan for preaching there (including some more recent information):

In Sudan: Imprisoned pastors facing possible death penalty barred from seeing families, lawyers – from Pulse Nigeria

Are Christians in Sudan facing persecution? – from BBC News

Sudan: South Sudanese Priests Defend Themselves During Trial Session – from allAfrica

PCUSA Writes to President Obama with Concern Regarding Imprisoned Sudanese Pastors – from Christianity Daily


The shootings and grieving at and for Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston had some Presbyterian connections:

‘All Shall Be Well’: Hear the Touching Voicemail from Charleston Massacre Victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton – from People (and a bit more from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos)

Denmark Vesey and Clementa Pinckney – from Cheraw Chronical; The freed slave Denmark Vesey who founded Emmanuel AME was before that a member of Second Presbyterian Church next door

Salisbury native leads vigil in Charleston after mass shooting – from Salisbury Post; And while Emmanuel AME was closed Second Presbyterian next door provided space for prayer services

Cynthia Hurd funeral delivers a message of hope and mark on history – from The Charlotte Observer; Second Presbyterian also providing overflow seating for funerals

Delaware Pastor Writes Hymn for Charleston Victims ‘They Met to Read the Bible;’ Song Goes Global – from The Christian Post


A terrorist attack in Tunisia took 38 lives, most of them tourists from Britain on holiday. It included two from Scotland praised for their faith and work in the Church of Scotland. Their funeral was just held.

Tunisia attack: Prayers at Cumbernauld church for couple – from BBC News

Tributes paid to Scottish Christian couple killed in Tunisia terrorist attack – from Christian Today

Tunisia beach attack: funeral held in Scotland for Jim and Anne McGuire – from The Guardian


Digging back a little bit, in the various meetings this spring a number of Reformed branches have voted to become more inclusive, with some reactions from more traditional denominations:

French Protestant church allows gay marriage blessing – from Reuters UK

Largest Protestant denomination in Belgium allows gay and lesbian clergy – from Gay Star News; “The Synod of the United Protestant Church of Belgium has voted to decide that being gay should not be a barrier to being a minister in the church which already performs blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.”

Russian Church severs ties with Scotland & France churches; warns a blessing of LGBT clergy paves the way for the Antichrist – from Christian Examiner


And looking at it more broadly:

Free Presbyterians slam supporters of ‘yes’ vote – from Portadown Times; a reaction to the Ireland referendum

Minister faces Presbytery probe over same-sex views – from Portadown Times; the only Presbyterian Church in Ireland minister to openly support the “Yes” vote was examined over her beliefs

How humanists changed Scottish marriage – from BBC News; “The first humanist wedding in Scotland took place exactly 10 years ago. Over the past decade the number of ceremonies conducted by humanist celebrants has grown massively, already overtaking Catholic weddings and threatening to replace Church of Scotland as the most popular belief service.”


A publicity campaign by the Church of Scotland to recruit new, and younger, ministers appears to be working:

Church of Scotland hails recruitment drive success – from The Scotsman


And in Zimbabwe, the Health Minister thanks the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for working with the local residents to build a clinic, but more are needed:

Health Minister Says More Clinics Needed in Nkayi – from Voice of America Zimbabwe


From the PC(USA)

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missions chief resigns – from WDRB; Linda Valentine steps down as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency


A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court goes in favor of a small Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and its temporary signage in Gilbert, Arizona:

Supreme Court rules for church in case against Arizona town’s sign law – from The Washington Post


In the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) a battle over property between the Livingstonia Synod and a break-away church as well as a dispute involving an out-spoken cleric in Blantyre Synod.

CCAP Controversies Rage On: Livingstonia battle and Blantyre Synod Infighting – from Nyasa Times


High-profile PCA pastor, TE Tullian Tchividjian, resigns admitting infidelity

Renowned South Florida pastor steps down amid marital affair – from Local 10

After affair leads to pastor’s exit, Coral Ridge worshippers urged to keep the faith – from The Sun Sentinel


A proud adherent, if not member, of the PC(USA) declares his candidacy for President of the United States. Worth noting that his church, First Presbyterian of Jamaica, Queens, is the oldest continually serving Presbyterian church in the U.S.

5 faith facts about Donald Trump: a Presbyterian who collects Bibles – from Religion News Service

Donald Trump Is A Proud Presbyterian – from World Religion News

And finally, it may not be continuously serving, but a neighbor of First Presbyterian, Jamaica, was founded a bit earlier and is celebrating a milestone anniversary.

First Presbyterian Church of Southold to Celebrate 375th Year Anniversary – from Long Island Exchange

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 1: Herding Cats?

So I got this research idea over lunch today: I have been considering ways to quantify how big the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tent really is and I thought that maybe Twitter accounts might be one metric. I am not sure how well this actually does what I want but it was an interesting experiment and so I thought I would share it as a musing.

The idea started when I was thinking about the articles I write as previews for various general assemblies and including the official social media links in the article. There is usually an official Twitter account for the denomination, maybe one for the GA itself, sometimes a news account, a couple of official individuals and typically a ministry agency or two. Check out the Presbyterian Church in Ireland post if you want a good example and one I consider typical.

But thinking about the PC(USA) I knew that it had a bunch more accounts so I started compiling a list. Here is the list of what I found in about an hour of searching. I was surprised at how many different official Twitter accounts the PC(USA) has. Besides the general official one (@Presbyterian) I found the following 37 (in no particular order):

[Update: The above list was one lunch-hours work. As I find more I am adding them here:

These additions are not reflected in the numbers discussed below. /Update]

Please note that this does not include churches, presbyteries or synods. I did not include accounts for wrapped-up special projects like the MC Commission or the Glory to God Hymnal. It does not include any seminaries or conference centers like Stony Point or Montreat. No affinity groups like APCE or alumni groups like YAV Alumni are in the list. And no individual accounts for officers of the denomination’s entities. It does include both the old and new Presbyterian Foundation accounts as well as two inactive Presbyterian News accounts of different vintages. It also has some periodical publications like Call to Worship, Presbyterians Today and the Mission Year Book for Prayer (which appears to have gone inactive). As I was compiling the list my criteria for inclusion if I did not recognize the entity was whether it had a web page URL that began with or But to be clear, some that I know are PC(USA) entities have their own branded web URL’s like 1001 New Worshiping Communities with You are welcome to argue with my include/cut line but the list is massive enough that one or two inclusions or deletions won’t change my musing about it.

Big tent? You have to admit that there is certainly something for everyone in those 38 Twitter accounts – although I am a bit disappointed to see the Evangelism account has not been active for almost four years so that pulls one edge of the tent in a bit. The list can be reduced a bit by removing the six inactive accounts and the three that I see as direct sales accounts (Store, WJK Books, ThoughtfulChristian, but not Giving Catalog). That still leaves 29 active Twitter accounts that cover the wide range of areas the PC(USA) is in. And it should be remembered that some of these represent multiple accounts in the same entity, such as Theology and Worship having a Twitter account for both general items as well as one dedicated to their periodical “Call to Worship.” It is also interesting to observe that neither of the two big top divisions, the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, have stand-alone accounts but both tweet under the most general @Presbyterian account.

Some thoughts…

With so many sub-areas it does raise questions about the church. There is so much going on has the PC(USA) spread itself too thin, especially in light of declining membership? Do each of these areas end up as its own constituency and so the Big Tent ends up covering a multitude of separate groups with little mixing between them? With limited resources do these different areas compete for scarce resources or does their social media outreach provide the means of providing resources for their ministry?

As the title of this piece implies, when I looked at this list and from my knowledge of the activity on social media, I had to wonder if managing this large assemblage was akin to herding cats. How much does each area define its own mission, goals and objectives versus how much do they work together on a set of well-defined goals and objectives that are related to the mission of the body as a whole? Is there coordination of these accounts around common themes and events or does each sort of work its own themes out and focus on its own activities?

A quick test of this: The next churchwide event is the Big Tent event at the end of the month. I went through the 29 active Twitter feeds and looked to see how many had some reference to Big Tent since May 1. Some had numerous references, some had only one and sometimes that was a retweet. But in total I found 13 of the 29, almost half, had at least one mention of this summer’s churchwide event. I am not sure if that is good or bad but it does suggest there is not strong coordination across the entities regarding churchwide priorities.

OK, I will leave it at that for today. I saw a bunch of other points on which I could collect future data that might make interesting metrics of the big tent nature of the denomination. Maybe I will have time to chase some of those further at a later date. But for now, on to other things.

The Presbyterian Pastor Who Did Not Sign

Typically on this Fourth day of July we American Presbyterians tend to gravitate to the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the 11 other signers that were Presbyterian.

But near the start of the Second Continental Congress there was a second Presbyterian pastor present, the Rev. Dr. John Joachim Zubly. In the end he found himself “on the wrong side of history” as we might say today. But while branded as a loyalist and traitor, and even today not always viewed kindly, taking a closer look at his complicated position and the theology behind it is worth a few minutes of our time.

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Hans Joachim Zublin was born in St. Gallen (or St. Gall), Switzerland, on August 27, 1724. (That is in the very northeast corner of Switzerland is you are curious.) His family immigrated to South Carolina in 1736 but he remained behind to complete his education. He was ordained in the German Reformed Church in London in 1744 and moved to the colonies to minister to other German and Swiss immigrants. He went first to South Carolina and then in 1760 moved to the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savanna, Georgia. His early life is well documented by Roger A. Martin in his 1977 paper “John J. Zubly Comes To America.”

In his ministry he was well regarded, the church in Savanna grew and by the end of his first decade there Nichols (2001) describes him as “the most influential minister in Georgia in pre-revolutionary America.” He later says that the congregation became “the largest and most popular in Georgia.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia tell us:

Zubly was known as a man of “lively cheerfulness” whose sermons were described as being “full, clear, concise, searching, and comfortable,” lighting the hearers’ souls, warming their hearts, and raising their affections. Zubly was known to preach in the morning in English, in the afternoon in French, and in the evening in German. His strict Calvinist theology was very suitable to life in the multicultural environment of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

Zubly also became known for his criticism of the British government and how it was governing the colonies. He preached a sermon in 1766 in response to the then repealed 1765 Stamp Act arguing that the imposed restrictions were ill-conceived and against the natural rights of the colonists. New restrictions in 1769, including the Dependency Act, caused him to write a political tract called An Humble Inquiry.

His expressed opinions and respected position got him elected to the Georgia Provincial Congress. Perkins (1931) describes the opening of the Congress:

A Provincial Congress was organized at Tondee’s Long Room in Savannah on July 4, 1775. Every district was represented, and Dr. Zubly was one of the twenty- five from Christ’s Church Parish. After electing officers, the Congress proceeded in a body to the meet- ing-house of Dr. Zubly, who preached a sermon on “the alarming condition of American affairs,” using as his text the twelfth verse of the second chapter of James’ gospel : “So speak ye and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” His sermon made a profound impression, and he was later to be publicly thanked for it. How differently was he to be judged just one year later! How his fellow-men were to forget the judgement of any law of liberty save their own!

The Congress also declared a day of fasting and elected five representatives to the Second Continental Congress, including John Zubly. The Continental Congress had began on June 14, 1775 and Zubly arrived, presented his credentials and was seated on September 13.

However, his tenure was short-lived. As Nichols writes:

As a delegate to the Continental Congress the following month, Zubly initially cooperated fully with the Congress. However, as it became clear that the tenor of the gathering was shifting toward preparation for military offensives and ultimate separation from England, Zubly became increasingly uncomfortable. He was prepared to go along with defensive military preparation, but never entertained the idea of separation. Although Zubly never stated why he was unwilling to separate, it seems clear from his sermons and pamphlets that he believed that the rule of law dictated obedience to England even during times of oppression and that the king was the agent of God even if the king was unsympathetic to the colonists’ pleas. Zubly left the Continental Congress less than two months after its inception, although the circumstances of his departure are somewhat unclear.

To put this in perspective consider the lines from Perkins:

[Zubly] seems to have had no slightest thought of independence. Nor was this astonishing. Every school boy should know that the Revolution was not begun for independence. Witness Franklin’s statement to Pitt in 1774, “I have never heard from any person, drunk or sober, the wish for separation.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britian than I do.” Washington was not an advocate of independence when he took command of the Continental Army. Virginia had sent her delegates to the Congress instructed to uphold the rights of Englishmen, but not to break with Britian. Only Paine, the firebrand, had first preached the doctrine of separation. No human trait is queerer than this; we change our course and then condemn all who do not change with us. Dr. Zubly was in good company when he strove for justice, not separation.

Yet Zubly was remembered by the members of the Continental Congress. In a letter John Adams wrote on July 1, 1776 to another delegate from Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, he regrets that Bulloch could not be present due to other matters but informs him:

This Morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all. A Declaration that these Colonies are free and independent States, has been reported by a Committee appointed Some Weeks ago for that Purpose, and this day or Tomorrow is to determine its Fate. May Heaven prosper, the new born Republic,—and make it more glorious than any former Republic has been.

But at the beginning of the letter he refers to an atmosphere “enjoying the Satisfaction of Seeing a Temper and Conduct here, Somewhat more agreable to your Wishes, than those which prevailed when you was here before.” (A possible reference to Zubly’s dissent early in the term of the Congress.) Adams concludes the letter with “Tell [Mr. Houstoun] the Colonies will have Republics, for their Government, let us Lawyers and your Divine Say what We will.” The reference to “your Divine” being understood as a comment about Zubly and his non-separation arguments.

On his return to Georgia things did not go well for him. Branded a traitor he was briefly arrested and later fled to South Carolina. His house was plundered and his library thrown in the river. He was able to return when the British took control of Georgia and died there on July 23, 1781, almost two years before the end of the war. As all accounts agree, to use the words of William Pauly (1976):

Tragically, he could not or would not, alter his principles to include the possibility of political separation from the mother country. He was consistent to the end and died a broken and rejected man.

In looking at his consistent position it is important to consider his theology. Nichols considers this in detail and begins with this summary:

Zubly’s sermons and pamphlets often reveal his close theological ties to Calvin’s conceptions of the sovereignty of God, natural law, and human nature. To be sure, Zubly’s political writings clearly bear the marks of Enlightenment writers, social contract theorists, legal thinkers, and historians. But we miss the depth of the man if we overlook the role theology played in informing his political ideas concerning the democratic process and the rule of law.

Nichols goes on to show how Zubly’s arguments regarding Democracy and the Rule of Law can be traced back to Calvin’s thinking. Regarding the Rule of Law Nichols writes, in part:

For Zubly, as for Calvin, the rule of law had its foundation in the duties of rulers and subjects. Zubly’s greatest complaint against the British was that they were not acting in accordance with the British constitution-that they were not fulfilling their duties as rulers. Like many Americans, he was very critical of England’s treatment of the rights of the colonists, whether through the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Boston massacre, continued increases in taxation without representation, or other actions. Zubly proffered both theological and legal arguments in protest of British oppression.

The journey to revolution took different paths for different people and the two Presbyterian pastors, John Zubly and John Witherspoon, ultimately come to different conclusions. The two gentlemen knew each other and had met at least twice before the Continental Congress when the College of New Jersey had conferred honorary degrees on Rev. Zubly in 1770 and 1774. Nichols concludes with a section comparing and contrasting the two of them using their sermons. For Witherspoon it is his sermon preached in May 1776 titled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. Nichols says this about the two sermons:

The two sermons share many similarities. They both focus on a single passage of biblical text. They both call each listener to look inwardly to ensure “his own soul’s salvation.” They both ask their listeners to confess their sins and turn humbly to God. They both speak of the need for good government and seek freedom from oppression. They both advocate looking to God for assistance and approbation. Yet they part company on how the listeners should respond.

Zubly reminded his listeners that “our interest lies in a perpetual connection with our mother country.” He advised his listeners to “think cooly, and act deliberately,” for rash counsel and decisions are rarely good ones.” Zubly continued to advocate obeying the laws of the land; this would bear witness to the colonists’ faithfulness to Britain. “Every government must be supported, and what is necessary for the support of government, is also justly due, and ought to be given with readiness and willingly.” Zubly’s main concern still seemed to be the protection of property-which had been taken away through improper taxation without representation-and he did not at all discount the necessity of continual obedience to the magistrate by the subjects.” Thus, although Zubly did not direct his hearers how to act in response to British oppression, he fell on the side of deliberate action in response to improper taxation and remained committed to submission to the magistrate. His purpose was to call the magistrate (the Parliament) to look to the public welfare of the subjects and abide by the rule of law. Put differently, the duty of the magistrate to govern had been translated into the right of the subject to good government but Zubly did not advocate enforcing that right through force, but only through petition.

Witherspoon was more willing than Zubly to see God’s design and plan in the circumstances of the colonies. Rather than focusing only on the duty of the subject to submit to the magistrate, he juxtaposed that duty with a concomitant duty of every Christian: “In many cases it is the duty of a good man, by open reproof and opposition, to wage war with profaneness.” Witherspoon equated the current state of affairs in Britain with this “profaneness,” and his logic thus led to the need to exercise one’s duty to oppose Britain. Witherspoon rationalized that the cause of America was a cause of religion, thereby implicitly (though weakly) invoking Calvin’s “exception” to the rule against rebellion. He was thus willing to make the bold proclamation that “the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”

Not surprisingly it is Nichols’ conclusion:

A strict reading of Calvin’s Institutes seems to support Zubly’s stance rather than Witherspoon’s. From the perspective of history, however, Witherspoon’s stance looks to be the correct one.

So what is the place of a conscientious objector, of someone with a principled, consistent and reasoned dissent? Consideration of this in the long view of history or in light of current developments – governmental and ecclesiastical – is left as an exercise for the reader or for another time. As for me, I and my family are off to a parade, barbeque and fireworks.

And may you all enjoy this fourth day of July, whether you think there is something to celebrate today or not.


Martin, Roger A., 1977, John J. Zubly Comes To America, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 125-139.

Nichols, Joel A., 2001, Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317.

Pauly, William E., Jr.,1976, Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 54, No. 1, in PRESBYTERIANS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: AN INTERPRETIVE ACCOUNT (SPRING 1976), pp. 61-71, 73-81.

Perkins, Eunice Ross, 1931, John Joachim Zubly: Georgia’s Conscientious Objector, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1931), pp. 313-323.

35th General Assembly Of The Evangelical Presbyterian Church

EvangelicalPresbyterianChurchLogoAfter a short respite we now turn to the 35th General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church which will be meeting in Disney World Orlando, Florida. The host church is First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. The meeting began today (23 June) with a Leadership Institute which will continue tomorrow morning and again Thursday morning. The Assembly will convene with worship after lunch tomorrow (24 June). The meeting concludes with lunch on Saturday 27 June.

The Assembly meeting will be live streamed through the host church. There is a lot of information online to help you follow along:

  • There is the Schedule and the Docket (being issued in daily segments) so you know when the business sessions are and what is being covered.
  • Almost all of what you need will be on the Documents page which also has another embedded webcast window. This includes the Commissioners Handbook by parts or as a full download. Also note that there are additional and replacement pages available on the page or by download. There are also two interesting appendices – the statistical report for us data geeks (and also check out the Stated Clerk’s report) and the proposed Revised Book of Worship.
  • At some point we can expect daily summaries to be posted and I will link here. Also keep an eye on the EP News Blog.
  • And yes, there is an app for that – The church has made available a Smartphone App for both Android and Apple iOS. (But at least the Android version does not seem a best seller as it is listed 10-50 downloads when I installed it on my phone.)
  • And don’t forget the current Book of Order from the web site.

As for social media, there is a bit of that out there. There is a Facebook page for the EPC that is currently being updated regularly with Leadership Institute items. The official EPC Twitter feed is @EPChurch and the declared official hashtag (#epc2015ga) has sprung to life. There is also a feed for EPC Student Ministries (@EPCStudentMin) and the Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah (@Jeff_Jeremiah). I would add to this the host church, @fpcorlando.

As I look at individuals to follow the first two I would suggest are individuals who will be speaking at the GA. Thom Rainer of Life@ay (@ThomRainer) will be giving two keynotes as part of the Leadership Institute. Carmen Fowler LaBerge of the Presbyterian Lay Committee (@CarmenLaBerge) will be bringing the word at Friday evening’s worship service. I am seeing a few other familiar faces on Twitter but will update my list here are the meeting gets rolling.

gaidentity1Regarding the business before the Assembly, I had mentioned above the revision of the Book of Worship. This revision was approved by the 34th General Assembly and received the concurrance of all the presbyteries. It is now before this Assembly to give it the final ratification. There is an ascending overture to this Assembly (15-B) “to erect a study committee to examine and report on the Evangelical Presbyterian Church’s understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship in our Reformed and Confessional heritage, and its application thereunto.” It is helpful to note that the Book of Worship is structured around the Westminster Standards and this overture seeks to tie that understanding with the Regulative Principle of Worship. It is interesting to note that in the recommendations section of the Commissioner Handbook, Recommendation #56 from the Committee on Theology (on page 52) deals with the Book of Worship and what is allowed in the Westminster Confession 21-8. This is in response to the issue being brought before the Assembly last year. The recommendation is that the Book of Worship is sufficient and deals with primarily with worship and that regarding the WCF on sabbath keeping:

What the Book of Worship 2-2 does not do is further embrace nor deny the Westminster
Confession 21-8, which further regulates actions, “rest the whole day from their own works
and words, and from thoughts about their worldly activities and recreations; and take up the whole time in public and private worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” The
Book of Worship 2-2, in effect, creates allowances for exceptions of the Westminster
Confession 21-8.

This is of interest because a similar matter was before the PCA General Assembly and they chose to not study it further.

The other recommendation to the GA from the Committee on Theology is to erect a study committee to consider the expansion of the church’s position papers on Homosexuality and The Sanctity of Marriage.

It is instructive to note that there are a grand total of two ascending overtures, the other one (15-A) is related to presbytery boundaries and extending Florida to include Puerto Rico now that a church on that island has joined the EPC.

With that, I will wish the EPC commissioners well and we will be lifting them up in our prayers as they meet.

185th General Assembly Of The Cumberland Presbyterian Church

cplogosmallwithtext200x200A few of the meetings this year offer an interesting twist and the 185th General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church is one of those. This is a denomination which does not feel limited by geography and following a successful 178th General Assembly (2008) in Tokyo they are once again meeting overseas, this time in Cali, Colombia, in celebration of 90 years of ministry there. The meeting begins tomorrow morning, Saturday 20 June, and concludes on Thursday 25 June.

In preparation for the meeting, a few things you might be interested in:

  • The CPC does their reports by producing a preliminary set of minutes with what is expected and then it is fill in the blanks and adjust the language as they go along.
  • The meeting schedule – which has plenty of time built in for local visits and cultural experiences – is in the preliminary minutes as well as on a stand-alone web page.
  • For polity documents, the CPC has a streamlined set of Rules of Order that can be found online.

For following along, I am not sure where to point you right now. I am still looking for traffic on Twitter and a Facebook page advertised on the meeting brochure does not appear to exist. Similarly, I am not aware of any live streaming. So, hang on and we will see if anything develops. (Or let me know what you find.)

In terms of business, this meeting will clearly have a mission flavor with all the opportunities to shapeimage_1interact with the local area. But I would remind you that the CPC is currently working with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America on a reunion and the Unification Task Force reports (Pg. 123 in the Preliminary Minutes) that they are actively meeting with congregations and presbyteries in both branches and the work will go on in the coming year. This group has an active Facebook page where you can see the types of things being discussed and worked on.

So our best wishes for the meeting and we look forward to the stories and pictures that will come out of this important international meeting.


43rd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In America

01645A81-A5D8-4EB1-9E4C30D14028D307The 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America will convene their plenary sessions tomorrow evening, 9 June, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Committees of Commissioners began meeting today. The Assembly will continue through noon on Friday. The theme of the Assembly is “Anchored in Christ. Active in Culture.” The meeting will be live streamed and they have their GA app available for several platforms to follow along. There is also a ShareFile! app there for registered commissioners to download reports and other documents.

While the full volume of reports is available only to commissioners, the docket and overtures are available on line. [Tech note to the GA organizers – you might want to change the title in the GA docket PDF properties so it no longer says 40th General Assembly.] To track the polity of the PCA you can access the Book of Church Order online.

News updates will be posted through the official news website and online publication byFaith.

Turning to social media, you will probably want to keep an eye on the byFaith Magazine Facebook page. There are numerous opportunities to follow the meeting on Twitter including the official feed from byFaith (@PCAbyFaith). There is also a feed for the Reasoning_Together (@PCA_Elders) program. The hashtag for the Assembly is #pcaga.

Other related Twitter accounts include Reformed University Fellowship (@RUFnational) and the Mission to North America (@pcamna) (There is also PCA Christian Ed (@pcacep) but it appears pretty inactive.) I would also include in this group Covenant College (@CovenantCollege) which is hosting an event during the Assembly.

Individuals who will be at the meeting and are, or will probably be tweeting include Fred Greco (@fredgreco), Ligon Duncan (@LigonDuncan), Sean Michael Lucas (@SeanMLucas) and Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) and his Reformed African American Network (@RAANetwork). Having included one organization there I will also mention Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (@prpbooks) and Reformed Theological Seminary (@ReformTheoSem). Let me also include Allan Edwards (@edwardsae1) who, after last year’s success with the Bingo Card, has offered the Selfie Scavenger Hunt this year using the hashtag #PCAGAselfie. And finally, I have previously been advised by @PCAPresbyter himself that all you really need to do is follow him. He will certainly enlighten your tracking of PCA GA in his own inimitable way. :)

Concerning the overtures to this GA, byFaith Online has an article that covers the “most substantive” of the ten overtures before the Assembly. In addition, Benjamin Shaw, who blogs as the gptsrabbi, has done good rundowns of these overtures as well:

  • Overture 1 – At the present time the decisions of judicial commissions must be affirmed by the governing body it is a commission of. This overture provides the option for a judicial commission to have the final decision on a case as is the case in some other Presbyterian branches.
  • Overtures 2 and 9 – One of the overtures that caught my attention as they ask for a study committee to consider the meaning and scriptural precedent for the Westminster Standards’ prohibition of “recreations” on the Sabbath.
  • Overture 3 – Proposes changes to the parental promises in the baptismal vows. There is another thoughtful discussion of this overture at Green Baggins.
  • Overtures 4, 5, and 6 – Changes to presbytery boundaries and creating two new presbyteries
  • Overture 7 – Would change the rules of ecclesiastical trials so that the defendant could be forced to testify. That is, they could not “take the fifth.”
  • Overture 8 – Would change the BCO regarding giving up ordained office if an officer does not have a call. Currently, for teaching elders, they may be removed from the office by a 2/3 vote of presbytery if they have been without a call for an extended period. The overture would make it automatic if they have been without a call for three years although the presbytery may continue them in the office for a year by a majority vote. Similar terms would apply to ruling elders and deacons.
  • Overture 10 – Memorial to Teaching Elder John Wayne King

pca_new_2014And we also wait to see the recommendation from the referral of the new logo that was proposed in an overture last year.

So our best wishes to the commissioners and leaders of the PCA General Assembly and prayers for your discernment the next few days. I will be interested to see how several of these business items are decided.


In a programming note – This will be the busiest week of the year for Assemblies with six that I know of convening in the next few days. Please bear with me as I try to get summaries of each of them posted.