Major Presbyterian Church May Consider Leaving Its Denomination

images provided by First Presbyterian, Houston
One of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country, located here in Houston, is voting this Sunday on whether or not to enter into a discussion of what its ultimate affiliation should be with its denomination — the Presbyterian Church USA. KUHF's Shomial Ahmad looked into why the church is considering such a move.

The long, brick church, First Presbyterian Church, Houston, sits in the heart of the museum district. It's a historic church with around 3,600 members. Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield says one reason the church is considering having a larger conversation is a theological drift between his church's mission and the larger body.

"The issues that are being debated in the church have to do with such things as how is scripture to be interpreted, what is the role of Jesus Christ in salvation, what is the nature of Jesus Christ."

Birchfield says his church has reaffirmed the traditional, historical view of theology for the past 25 years, rather than a progressive view.  Sometimes, churches agree to disagree with their larger institution.  That's what William Lawrence the Dean of Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology says.  But Lawrence says there's usually a dramatic issue that pushes a congregation to take some type of action.

"More cases it's the question of how do we approach, whether gay or lesbian persons can be ordained, whether gay and lesbian people can be married in our churches."

In May of 2011, The Presbyterian Church USA, or PC USA, voted to allow openly gay clergy.  Just this past summer, PC USA narrowly defeated a motion that would create a path to same-sex marriages. First Presbyterian Church senior pastor Birchfield says issues over homosexuality and the church aren't what's pushing them into having a vote.

"No, at this point it's really not about gay marriage. It's really more about the fundamental differences in how we interpret scripture and how we view the nature and work of Christ."

A church document posted on its website lists the theological drifts from PC USA.  Bullet points include defeated motions on the "singular saving of Jesus Christ," encouragement to not use words like "Lord" and phrases like "spiritual blindness" and only a narrow defeat on the redefinition of marriage.

Birchfield says he has no end game in mind.  But he does hope that the church body this Sunday votes to have a discussion.

"My biggest hope is that should we go into the process that we will allow the process to lead us to the conclusion about what our options are at the end."

The outcome of Sunday's vote will be posted on the church's website.  If the church body decides to have a discussion that conversation can possibly go on for about a year.