Unity or Heresy, Part 9: Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United Methodist
2 Thessalonians 2:15 – So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken work or by our letter.
As this series begins to draw to a close, I wanted to look at some of the “legacy” organizations. These are churches that people conceive as being around for a very long time. In actuality, some of these have been around for a long time and some didn’t start until fairly recently. Perhaps it is because of the area of the country in which I live, people in this area know of these three organizations and have for a long time now.
Acts 1:23-26 – So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
Presbyterian, in its widest scope of the definition, is a form of church government that uses representative assemblies instead of bishops (which would be Episcopalian) or by individual congregation (which is Congregationalism). But if we narrow the scope a little, we see that Presbyterian is also a denomination of Protestant faith. They follow the distinct pattern of Presbyterian church government, hold a Calvinistic theology, and do not ascribe to certain rituals of worship. In the United States, the PCUSA was created in 1788 in Philadelphia. The 1800s brought much of the growth of the PCUSA but also a schism that resulted in numerous Presbyterian denominations throughout the United States. Currently, there are 8 recognized divisions inside the Presbyterian Church that are seen as their own denomination. Some are very conservative, others quite liberal. The largest of these groups, however, are the PCUSA and the PCA. They are both vastly different in practice and on paper, so I will challenge you to follow along.
As of 2012, the PCA had 1,450 churches with 306,000 attenders and is growing by small amount every year. PCUSA, significantly larger, has 10,262 churches and 2.7 million attenders. PCUSA, however, is showing a net loss of 5.3% between 2011 and 2012 of attenders and a loss of 204 churches. These churches may have very similar names, but are very different doctrinally. Typically what makes a Presbyterian Church its namesake goes beyond the style of church government. It includes a Calvinist approach that is very similar to Lutheran. The differences between Calvinist view and Lutheran view is the theologies of predestination and eternal security.
Here is where things change a little. PCA believes the basic tenets of the Trinity, that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, and that salvation is a gift from God. They see salvation as a journey, not a destination. Using Paul’s fruit of the Spirit, they look to growth and maturity as evidence of salvation in a person. If you would like to know more, you can find their beliefs on this website:
The PCA is also a very conservative arm of the Presbyterian Church. For example they will not ordain women beyond the role of deacon, they have a very aggressive stance about homosexuality, and they even have written position papers disallowing their members of leadership to join organizations such as the Freemasons. This is a great example of why this church continues to grow, even if slowly. The PCA is an organization that is seen as a grass roots type denomination. While more centralization of power is occurring in the PCA, the majority of the power is still held within the individual presbyteries. If you would like to see some of the denomination’s position papers, I suggest you go to this website:
Let’s switch gears to the PCUSA. The PCUSA is a much more liberal organization. While the basic tenets of faith exist on paper for the PCUSA, the difference in practice is pretty substantial. The example I would like to use is that of the Bible. When reviewing the PCUSA view on the Bible, I find that nowhere in there does it state that it is inerrant or infallible or even inspired. The word authoritative does show up and can be used to mean those things, but one needs to be very specific on what the Bible is and is not in order for us the world to truly understand our faith. If we simply call it authoritative then the world gets a very negative view of the Bible. It could be authoritative but not inspired. It could be authoritative and not inerrant. But if it is inerrant, infallible, and inspired it must be authoritative. You can find the PCUSA view of the Bible here:
To go along with this idea of the Bible only being authoritative and not inerrant, infallible or inspired, this has led to confusion in the position papers of the organization. For example, women are allowed to hold any office in the church, including senior elder. While I, myself, admit to heretical view on my own beliefs on ordination of women, I still need to claim a heretical view based solely on Scripture as the guide. To continue, the PCUSA, in 2011 has removed the language of requiring church leadership to live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” A statement released by PCUSA in 2011 claims that this decision will allow “persons in a same-gender relationship…be considered for ordination and/or installation as deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” I find this interesting. According to the PCUSA website on SOCIAL ISSUES, they preface their positional papers with the statement, “The General Assembly “Affirms its conviction that neither the Church as the body of Christ, nor Christians as individuals, can be neutral or indifferent toward evil in the world.” You can find that website here.
The more that I consider each of these denominations, the more I need to give a split decision. The PCA is a very strong denomination. They are going through the same struggles and debate as any other church out there, but they are using the inerrant and infallible and inspired Word of God as their light in this dark world. The PCUSA, while still holding on to some of the basic tenets of Christianity, have slid into cult status because of their view of the Bible. If the Bible was truly authoritative to them, they would not have taken the stance on ordaining homosexual ministers that they have done. If the Bible were truly authoritative to them, they would be convicted by their states of not being neutral or indifferent toward evil in the world. The Bible is so very impactful, just look at Psalm 138:2
Psalm 138:2 – I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.
The Lutheran Church, similar to the Presbyterian Church, has two major denominations inside their organization: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). Again, both are very different in practice and on paper and both are fairly large. The ELCA is the largest of the two groups with 4.8 million members and officially got its start in 1988, although the roots go much farther back than the 80s. The LCMS has 2.4 million members and is the 2nd largest Lutheran group. Both groups are in the top 15 in America (ELCA is ranked 5th and LCMS is ranked 11th) but both groups have shown a loss of members year over year.
Lutheranism got its start in Germany and most everyone reading this I’m sure knows about the 95 Theses. There are some interesting myths and legends that go along with any major character in history, and Luther was no different. For example, legend has it that Martin Luther was inspired to launch the Protestant Reformation while seated on his toilet going to the bathroom (all great men have to think somewhere, right?). Luther’s toilet, just as a side note, was the Rolls Royce of toilets for his day and age. As a Catholic monk, he lived in pretty nice surroundings. Archaeologists discovered his toilet which included a heated floor in the bathroom and a primitive drainage system. But I digress. He got so upset with the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin that he penned the 95 Theses. The two central beliefs of this document is that the Bible is the sole religious authority and that humans may only reach salvation by their faith, not their deeds. As time went by, he fought to not have his name associated with the movement that he caused. He felt that he did not want to bring notoriety to himself, only to God.
The ELCA traces its roots back to the same reformation. While the denomination officially formed in 1988, it was a conglomerate of three other Lutheran organizations: The American Lutheran Church, The Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The LCMS came together in 1847 when 14 congregations made up of German immigrants banded together with a really long church name. In 1947, to celebrate their 100th year, they shortened their name to Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Lutheranism is one of the oldest Protestant beliefs in the world. The basics of the faith revolve around Scripture being the one necessary guide to truth, salvation comes from grace through faith alone, and that salvation is available to all who desire it. Similar to Roman Catholicism, history and tradition do play a big role in the Lutheran life. While not seen by many of the laity, the church continued to build its foundation throughout history by claiming the Nicene Creed, The Apostle’s Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
The differences between the two organizations are very significant. While both claim Lutheranism and wear the same colors of robes, sing the same hymns, and have similar layouts to their churches, they have significant differences when it comes to faith and practice. With the ELCA, they ordain women into office while the LCMS does not. The LCMS is also exclusive when it comes to their churches in that non-LCMS/Lutheran pastors may not serve at an LCMS church while other Protestant faiths are welcome at ELCA.
With regard to homosexuality, ELCA does not view it as a sin and has ordained openly gay clergy while LCMS will not ordain a homosexual pastor. Abortion is also a point of difference in that LCMS sees it as a sin against the 5th Commandment while the ELCA allows abortion in various situations. One major concern that I have is specific to the ELCA. It is no secret that we, as Christians, need to be building relationships with Muslims. We are NOT called to be Islamophobic. We need to have relationships, friendships, and meetings with others of non-Christian faith. But our goal always, first and foremost, is to present the Gospel. Whether that is with a Muslim, an atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc… our goal is always to open the way for the Holy Spirit to work. The ELCA has claimed in two separate statements that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity is one in the same.
John 14:6 – Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Here are the statements that the ELCA has posted to their website:
“Most pertinent to this discourse, there are differences as to how Muslims and Christians each understand the realities that make up the common ground upon which we stand. Oneness of God compels a discussion about how the revelation of God has been differently understood by the communities that call upon God’s name.”
“There are many questions for Christians and Muslims to ask together as we explore the common ground on which we stand. We acknowledge God’s oneness, but how do we understand this as communities that call upon God’s name? Can we understand each other’s affirmations of the oneness of God?”
The website can be found here and all the links you need to research their views are here as well:
The LCMS has called for unity among those of the same beliefs. ELCA has called for unity among Christians and all peoples regardless of race, sexual preference, or repentance of sin. While the LCMS has taken hard stances on non-salvation items (such as rejecting Anabaptists for claiming that children are saved without baptism if they die before getting a chance to understand the Gospel), they have also taken the hard stances on areas where heresy can creep into a denomination. The ELCA has allowed the world to define their church. Heresy is out of control in the ELCA.
To that end, the LCMS is a very strong denomination, while a little exclusivist, and the ELCA is a cult.
Claiming both PCUSA and ELCA as cults in this is very painful. I actually found myself in tears knowing that a combined 7.6 million people are being fed lies by a church leadership organization. It is not that those who go to those churches are all lost. I am sure there are very strong Christians in both organizations. I am just concerned that those organizations are being led by the world using the name of Christ as only a means of social reform rather than the spiritual reform that Christ called us all to lead.
Matthew 7:13 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it….”
The United Methodist Church (UMC) officially became a denomination in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church came together. John and Charles Wesley, Anglican Church leaders, started what they called the Methodist Movement inside the Anglican Church. This was meant to be the evangelical arm of the Anglican Church. Wesley, because of his views, was actually barred from speaking at most Church of England pulpits. He took to the streets, homes, farms, and wherever he could find a crowd.
Interestingly, John Wesley was a Tory in the American Revolution. This simple fact led to very few Methodist ministers aiding the patriots in the war. After independence was won, Wesley realized a need for change and, while still an Anglican leader, he set the groundwork in place for Methodism to become a full denomination. In 1784, in Baltimore MD, the Methodist Episcopal Church officially became a recognized denomination. At this time, the church was very hard core as to their spiritual beliefs and directions. They believed that church was no place for those whom Wesley called “almost Christians.” During this initial timeframe, there were growth pains as the Methodist Church grew to one of the largest churches in America. One such split came from Richard Allen, an emancipated slave and Methodist preacher, who was mistreated because of his race and left to start the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
As the church entered into the 1900s and toward the creation of the UMC in the latter half, many of the organizations that created the UMC started dialogues to begin hashing out their beliefs. One example of this is ordination of women. When the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren Church combined in 1939, they had to come to an understanding of women in ministry. The Evangelical Church never ordained women while the United Brethren Church ordained their first woman pastor in 1889. It wasn’t until 1956 with Methodists that full clergy rights were given to women.
In 1968 when the UMC was officially formed between the groups, they had 11 million members. Since 1968, the U.S. arm of the church has lost 4.5 million members. In Africa, however, the UMC continues to grow by almost 200,000 members a year.
The overall precepts that the UMC is built from are threefold:
1) Shun evil and avoid partaking in wicked deeds at all costs
2) Perform kind acts as much as possible
3) Abide by the edicts of God the Almighty Father
1 Thessalonians 5:22 – …reject every kind of evil.
While the UMC holds the basic tenets of Protestant Christian belief, there are a couple of distinctions to be made. First, Methodists believe that one must use logic and reason in all matters of faith. This can be found here on their website:
The next point of differentiation is their view of grace. To the Methodist, there are three distinct types of grace:
1) Prevenient – This is present before they are saved from the error of their ways. Simply put, this is the grace that convicts the person of their evil ways and gives them the choice to accept Christ. It is at this point, the person has the ability to say yes or no to God. This is in direct contrast to Calvin’s irresistible grace in which when we see God’s grace, we can’t help but turn to Him. Another name for this throughout history is called resistible grace as it is in direct contrast to Calvin.
2) Justifying – This is the grace given at the time of the person’s repentance and forgiveness by God.
3) Sanctifying – This is the grace given when the person has finally been saved from their sins and the sins of the world.
The Methodist Church, while Arminian in view, has still remained true to their stances since their inception. While not as rejecting as Wesley was by calling out “almost Christians,” the church has tried to maintain control during a life when this world is out of control. Simply because of their size, the church has been more and more affected by liberal teaching coming from the laity and outside world.
I would challenge you to read more on the UMC’s stance on Social Community here:
With all of this being said, the UMC is a strong denomination. With any large denomination, I would like to challenge them to continue to make the choices necessary to proclaiming Scripture to be infallible, inerrant, and inspired. If we change our churches to become worldly and bypass Scripture in its fullness, then we become irrelevant and unnecessary. Stay true to Scripture, UMC.
Judges 2:10 – After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what He had done for Israel.
Next week, I will look at the Baptist and Evangelical/Non-Denominational Churches