250 attend forum on Confessing Church
"Scripture is our authority ... and we're not
willing to compromise"
by John Filiatreau, Presbyterian News Service
MONTREAT, NC - 13-September-2001 - More than 250
earnest Presbyterians strolled through rain-washed rhododendrons Sept. 9
to Gaither Chapel of Montreat Presbyterian Church for a Sunday-afternoon
forum on the Confessing Church Movement (CCM).
Most participants seemed already committed to the
movement, a fast-growing Presbyterian renewal campaign that in six
months has won the endorsements of 867 Presbyterian Church (USA)
sessions in 45 states and Puerto Rico. The atmosphere was vaguely
subversive, celebratory if not triumphal.
An announcement from the host pastor, the Rev. Richard
White, that "this is not a presbytery-sponsored event" brought
laughter and applause. Most of those on hand were aware of the pre-forum
squabble that ensued after pastors and clerks of session of the
Presbytery of Western North Carolina received letters of invitation
printed on the letterhead of the presbytery's Evangelism Division,
suggesting that the event was organized and supported by the presbytery.
That letter was written and dispatched by two members
of the Evangelism Division who also are supporters of the movement. They
said any confusion they may have caused about the sponsorship of the
event was inadvertent.
A presbytery source who asked not to be identified
said there was "no doubt whatsoever" that organizers of the
forum intentionally misled people about whether it had presbytery
The presbytery responded with a letter of its own, in
which Executive Presbyter/Stated Clerk J. William Taber III pointed out
in headline type that the forum "is NOT a Presbytery sponsored
event," and went on to specify that it was "not sponsored by,
designed by, supervised by, or financially supported by any division or
committee" of the presbytery. Taber wrote that the presbytery is
planning "a future event ... designed to offer different points of
view and a time for questions and answers."
During the Sept. 9 forum, White was straightforward,
telling his audience: "(The forum) is sponsored by pastors of our
presbytery, representatives of the movement we've come to know as the
Confessing Church Movement. We're part of this movement; we're not
unbiased. ... (But) we're not here to sign you up today. This is not a
White said organizers of the event "did not want
the intensity of a debate."
This "dueling letters" exchange - which
dramatizes the mutual suspicions of supporters of the campaign (don't
call them leaders; they say their movement has none, except the Holy
Spirit) and non-supporters (don't call them opponents; they say they
aren't against the movement, but have concerns about how it may affect
the denomination) - relates to one ambiguity among many:
The panelists in Montreat talked about the risk and
fear of a schism in the PC(USA), but called their movement a
"positive" grass-roots campaign whose supporters are loyal to
the denomination and determined to "call the church back
They said the movement has no "political"
aims, but acknowledged that it would be "naïve" to think it
isn't political in some respects, or that it won't play a role in
deciding "who controls the money" in the PC(USA).
They said there is no consensus among member churches
about withholding per-capita and mission funds from the denomination,
but some congregations are very likely to do so.
They said they don't presume to judge other people's
morality or accuse them of sin, but do believe that Scripture makes
clear that homosexual behavior and other forms of sexual activity
outside of marriage are sinful.
They said their movement is not "organized"
- "not yet," in any case - although "leadership is
And they denied that their movement has been
"shanghaied" by the Presbyterian Lay Committee and its
publication, The Presbyterian Layman, while admitting that that
stridently conservative group has become the CCM's principal supporter
and operates "the best (online) site for getting up-to-date
information on the movement."
One panelist said: "I don't see any way the Layman
can not be behind this movement. Of course the Layman is going
to support this."
Jack Adams, a writer/editor at The Presbyterian
Layman, rose to say that the Lay Committee and its publications
support the movement because "we love the Lord and we love his
church." He quoted Lay Committee Chairman Bob Howard as having said
of the nascent movement, "I wish I'd thought of that!" Adams
said The Layman isn't leading the movement, and added,
"We'd like to know where it's going, too."
"We are not saluting any renewal
organization," White said. "We are not getting our marching
orders from any renewal group right now."
White said the computerized slide presentation used
during the forum was taken from the Internet, and "may have
been" a creation of Parker Williamson, chief executive officer of
the Presbyterian Lay Committee and editor in chief of its publications.
(He said he left out about 20 of the original 73 slides that were
"inappropriate" and may have offended some viewers.)
"This is not a power grab," White said in a
The Confessing Church Movement began in April, when
the session of Summit Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania's
Beaver-Butler Presbytery adopted a three-fold statement - a
"confession," in historic Presbyterian parlance - affirming:
- the lordship of Jesus
- the authority of the Bible and
- the sinfulness of same-gender sex and other sexual
behavior outside of marriage.
While presenting the slide presentation, White said confessions of faith
historically "do not appear in a vacuum, but in response to
cultural accommodation." This one, he said, appeared after the
PC(USA)'s General Assembly "called for the repeal of our ordination
Sam Hale, the pastor of Cullowhee Presbyterian Church,
said his church didn't join the movement in reaction to anything done by
the GA: "Our session signed on in May, before the GA met. I thought
of it as something exciting and positive I can confirm, and the session
passed it almost immediately. Our problem is here today because we have
not believed in Jesus. ... I have heard Presbyterians say that Jesus was
the Christ 2,000 years ago, but we're not sure who is Christ now."
Hale said Presbyterian ministers and lay people must
devote themselves to "greater work, including bringing healing to
people, significant emotional healing." He said homosexuals must be
helped to repent of their sin and to change their behavior. "We see
students all the time who are confused about their sexual identity, but
we can't tell them, 'Jesus has blessed your neurosis,'" he said.
"We must not bless what the Scriptures call sin."
Tim Meredith, the pastor of Oak Forest Presbyterian
Church in Asheville, NC, said he supports the CCM because "I want
to hold up the cross of Jesus Christ." Laura Long, interim pastor
at Clinchfield Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, NC, said the
movement is "a way to express the depth and the joy of our faith,
an easy and natural thing to do. ... I don't see it as divisive. I
choose to see it as a positive thing."
Bill Campbell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of
Hendersonville, NC, said: "The real issue, the deeper crisis in our
denomination, is not about the ordination of homosexuals (but) ... the
standard and norm of our talk about God. It's also an issue about
salvation." He said "sexual anarchy" is alienation from
God, and by tolerating it, "the church comes under the judgment of
Lee Kruse, a pulpit supply pastor in the presbytery,
said people at churches she visits "are surprised (that) I preach
the Word of God; I preach from the Bible. People often tell me, 'We have
not heard the truth preached from the pulpit for years.' ... Scripture
on many of these issues is very, very clear."
During a question-and-answer session that followed the
panel discussion, a woman asked: "Why is it that you had to pick
sex as the litmus test for what is a holy life?" Directly
addressing her own pastor, the Rev. Richard Burnett, interim pastor of
First Presbyterian Church of Waynesville, NC, she added: "I have
just recently gotten divorced. I wonder if I meet your litmus test,
Richard? Will you ignore whatever I did Friday night?"
"I do want to know about the life that every
elder leads," Burnett replied. "... I have to stick to the
Meredith responded that sex is "just the issue
that we've decided to take a stand on. … This issue has been forced
upon us. I'd prefer not to be talking about sex so much, but others in
our denomination have been attacking Christian standards about
"I hate talking about sex," said White.
"It's embarrassing." He agreed with the questioner that
"greed is just as wrong as homosexuality; Jesus said far more about
Another questioner noted that the Presbyterian Lay
Committee has denounced this year's GA as "an apostate
gathering," and added: "If that's not divisive, I don't know
what is." He said he doesn't want to be used as "a pawn in a
political movement, and concluded: "I'm against this. I don't want
my church saying, 'We know what it is to have a holy life.'"
Gerrit Dawson, who succeeded Williamson as pastor of
First Presbyterian Church of Lenoir, NC, responded: "I certainly
agree with you that we're all sinners. ... The sins in my heart are
enough to stop any 10 trains." Similarly, Kruse identified herself
as a former atheist and "chief of sinners."
In a later interview, White called himself "a
recovering Pharisee" and said of any CCM supporters' inclination to
a adopt a "holier-than-thou" attitude: "I think this is
something we've got to be on our faces before God about. .... If we
understand grace, who are we to point a finger?" On the other hand,
he said, the faithful are called by God to take "a hard line"
and point out "with brutal honesty that God has standards that we
"Who are we to know what the mind of God
is?" Kruse asked hypothetically, adding: "Thank God, he has
made some things clear to us."
One of those things made clear in Scripture, Dawson
said, is that the church can't go along with homosexuals who demand,
"Bless me in this; tell me it's a gift from God."
"We're trying to bring us back to the only real
basis on which we're unified," said Campbell. "In love we wish
to take a stand. I want to be part of the church. Let's also be willing
to take a stand on the truth."
"To stay silent," said Hale, "is to
watch the church go down the tubes."
In response to an audience member who asked,
"What happens if these amendments pass (referring to Amendment A,
which would remove a requirement from the Book of Order that candidates
for ministry be "faithful in marriage or chaste in
singleness"), Burnett gave his opinion that "it's a real
possibility that Amendment A will pass," and Hale said:
"If 285,000 people (a rough estimate of the
number of Presbyterians who belong to confessing churches) took prayer
seriously, I suspect we could keep this amendment from passing."
One member of the audience identified himself as a
retired (Presbyterian) pastor from Gainesville, GA, who "drove up
just to be encouraged by this meeting." He added: "I am
encouraged to see these young ministers on the platform, young ministers
standing tall for Jesus." (White guessed that the panelists'
average age was about 40.)
Asked what lay people can do in support of the
movement, Burnett advised: "Study the issues. ... Become articulate
about these matters. Stand by your pastors because some of them may be
targets. ... Also, come to Atlanta."
He was referring to the first national meeting of the
confessing churches, scheduled for next February. He said organizers
have lined up "a wonderful range of scholars and pastors, including
Theresa Latini, a former lesbian." Latini represents an
organization called One by One that helps "repentant"
homosexuals turn away from sexual sin and become heterosexuals.
Several of the panelists expressed pastoral concern
for homosexuals, and nodded in agreement when an audience member said:
"This (movement) doesn't have anything to do with hating anybody.
... If Jesus Christ came back today, he would be in the AIDS
Each participant in the forum received a packet of
printed materials that included essays by a number of CCM supporters;
directions for joining the movement; a copy of Summit Presbyterian's
confessional statement; and a simpler model resolution for sessions to
Asked about the possibility that the CCM will lead to
a split of the PC(USA), White said: "I've had more conversations in
the last six months than in the 12 years I've been here with people who
want us to resign our membership. They say, 'Richard, when are we
pulling out?' But we can't just willy-nilly say we're out. We have to
ask ourselves, What is God's call in our life."
"Far from being schismatics," he said,
"the Confessing Church Movement is what is enabling us to remain in
the denomination. ... Scripture is not the on-ramp of Christian life,
it's the whole highway. … Scripture is our rule of authority, and
we're not willing to compromise. ...
"Is that going to split the church? I hope not. I
don't know what the Lord's going to do. My heart just breaks when I
think about a schism ... (but) sometimes I'm afraid that two polar
opposites are not going to be able to come together on common
White said he was pleased with the turnout for the
forum, but would have been happy "even if just five had turned