Cosmetic Rhetoric: The Language of Presbyterian Liberalism


If rhetoric is the art of using language to persuade hearers of your position, then our liberal leaders have mastered this art on the question of gay ordination. Unfortunately, their mastery hides or twists truth in order to win the day. Let me illustrate from the More Light Presbyterian letter issued in response to the vote allowing LGBT ordination.

It begins with the declaration that the passage of these new ordination standards has “…eliminated official barriers to full membership, leadership and service for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.”  The first key word here is “official,” as if the only reason the church has stood in opposition has been some pesky, outdated laws in dusty old polity books that now finally have been “officially” obliterated.  Because of this, LGBTs can now experience “full” (the second key word) membership, leadership and service in the church.  To frame the issue in these terms is to avoid naming the truth that this decision has eliminated the biblical, moral, and catholic barriers which have stood among God’s people from the beginning.  It further hides the fact that “full” inclusion for LGBTs has always been the ideal for Christian community (though I certainly acknowledge that we have wrongly singled out this sin as more abhorrent than others), since God calls us to welcome all repentant sinners.  But in the minds of liberal Christians, “full inclusion” means that we confess homosexual behavior to be a God-given blessing which we must celebrate.  Anything less is an affront to the Spirit of God.  Yet the church universal, following the Bible, has always held such behavior to be sinful, and so (as for any sinner) full inclusion in the life of the church is extended to repentant sinners.  Repentant gays have always been welcome to full inclusion in membership, leadership and service according to our denomination’s polity.  You wouldn’t know that, however, from liberal rhetoric.

Concerning this new direction, Janet Edwards writes in the letter that she is so grateful for the sacrificial effort of so many “…to bring this deeply Reformed correction to an error made by the Church.”  The fact that the former standards of our church have reflected the norms of biblical sexual ethic characteristic of the universal church throughout history apparently means nothing to Edwards, and is instead dismissed as an “error” made by ill-guided Presbyterians back in 1996 (when the fidelity and chastity clause became part of our ordination standards).  The passage of 10-A is a correction of this misguided, biblical standard.  Note though: not just a correction, but a deeply Reformed corrrection.  Whenever you want to sway Presbyterians concerning something, it’s always good protocol to claim the cover of Reformed theology, even if you never provide proof for your claim.  How much better when the correction is deeply Reformed!  Perhaps that means the claimant is free from any need to offer proof, as it should be obvious to all….

Trice Gibbons rather ebulliently declares that the PCUSA will now “…truly reflect the wildly inclusive love of Jesus Christ.”  I’m not exactly sure how “wildly” is meant to modify “inclusive”, but here’s my guess.  It’s not enough to declare that Jesus’ love is inclusive — even evangelicals would claim that.  But our understanding is that such inclusivity is experienced only as fallen human beings submit to Jesus’ assessment and repent of our rebellion against God’s ways.  For liberal Presbyterians, the love of Jesus must be “wildly” inclusive; that is, making no demands on us, welcoming and blessing us as we are.  It sounds so wonderful to human ears — God loves us and blesses us no matter how we choose to live, no matter what we wish to believe.  Indeed, that’s wild.  But what do we do with the biblical evidence: the rich, young ruler unwilling to meet Jesus’ demands, who goes away sad; those who refuse the message of the Kingdom, concerning whom Jesus commands his disciples to shake the dust off their feet; the scribes and Pharisees who become the target of Jesus’ condemnations; the chief priests, Herod, Pilate?  To imagine Jesus’ inclusiveness enfolding all these despite a total lack of evidence is to be wildly eisegetical in search of wild inclusiveness.

Lastly, Michael Adee trumpets that the new standards mean “…the end of categorical discrimination against God’s LGBT children.”  The unaware reader would assume by this rhetoric that the PCUSA had until now singled out all non-heterosexuals as categorically forbidden to participate as equals in church life.  But such has never been the case.  It is only those who wish to participate on their terms (i.e., without repenting of behavior revealed in Scripture to be sinful) who are forbidden leadership roles among God’s people.  This applies as much to heterosexual, unrepentant sinners as it does to homosexual ones.  Stacking the deck further is the phrase “God’s LGBT children,”  reflecting the liberal view that all human beings are God’s children by nature.  The argument is that since God created us all with the various natures we have, He must approve of them, and we are all His children.  How terrible then when some of God’s children discriminate against others of His children.  Toward the end of this letter, we find that “the Gospel message [is] that God in Christ creates and loves us all.”  Notice there is no verb of redemption here, for that would require the need for atonement and the acknowledgement that we are by nature sinners.  How utterly different from Paul’s analysis in Ephesians that we (like the rest of mankind) “are by nature children of wrath” (2:3), and only become children of God through the saving grace of God when we are joined to the resurrection life of Jesus.

The rhetoric of Presbyterian liberalism is cosmetically beautiful, tailored to libertine sensibilities.  It paints a lovely picture of a false gospel, all the while using traditional Christian terms: inclusiveness, love of God, God’s children, Reformed, justice, equality, respect.  In the process, it seeks to shift the ground of the debate from the question of the suitabililty of those refusing to repent of sin to that of discrimination by the orthodox against fellow children of God.

We evangelical Presbyterians can no longer allow such deceptive rhetoric to go unchallenged, if we love those in the pews and in the world who naively listen to this stuff.  Nor can we remain unengaged and isolated from one another any longer, if we intend to reclaim the PCUSA for Christ and his gospel.  Let us together contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints!

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11 Responses to Cosmetic Rhetoric: The Language of Presbyterian Liberalism

  1. Nice post, Mateen. Not sure that I intend to reclaim the PCUSA, but as long as it leaves me be, I’m happy to stay, too. Glad to discover you!

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    • mateenelass says:

      David,

      Thanks for making me aware of your presence, and for your your encouragement. I wish my conscience could find a way to feel comfortable remaining in this denomination after this fundamental shift, but for me the only two foreseeable options are reclaiming the denomination for what we originally stood for, or leaving peaceably. I’m willing to investigate if there may be any other conscience-salving options.

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  2. Pingback: Around the Web | Denominational Updates from First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen

  3. You’re right Mateen, what is true requires our defense. The problem is that all rational discourse seems dead in our blessed PCUSA. When liberals push their agenda, they are called “progressive.” When evangelicals “contend,” they are called “divisive and angry.” When it is seen as right and good that evangelicals should be angry, then dialogue may be possible. Until then, we labor in a denomination whose trust has been almost completely destroyed, as has been our confidence in their leadership.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Noel, you may be entirely right. If that’s the case, then reclaiming the denomination will have to be done wholly by redirecting our resources to the mission priorities that we evangelicals consider of first importance, and damming the flow that we’ve traditionally sent to sustain the culpable bureaucrats. But, I’m hopeful that we can make clear that the “digressives” are the ones who have been divisive and annoying, trying to move the church off its orthodox pillars, and that we who remain in the center of essential Reformed faith are not going to allow that to continue. It’s time to reframe the playing field.

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  4. Jake says:

    Mateen,

    I recommend the book “God is the Issue” by Brad Bright. It was very helpful to me in my thinking about how to answer Presbyterian liberalism.

    JH

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  5. Jeannie says:

    The paragraph on “wildly inclusive” reminded me of this:
    “God loves me just the way I am…
    And too much to let me stay that way.”

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    • mateenelass says:

      That echoes what C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity about God accepting us where we are but being unwilling to leave us there. Thanks for the reminder of this deep truth.

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  6. Mateen, I’m grateful to discover your blog and to know someone of your intellect and passion is ‘out there’. I’ve retired after 45 years as a pastor (PCUS/PCUSA) and am terribly saddened and angry about the direction of our once great, beloved denomination. Blessings, Larry

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    • mateenelass says:

      Larry, thanks for connecting, and thanks for your ordained service of 45 years to our Lord. Please keep us in your prayers as we seek to discern God’s redemptive will for our hijacked denomination. Warmly, Mateen

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