(Sixth in a series.)
Back in 1983, I received the MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where Billy Graham was the board member of note and a couple of the most prominent Evangelical feminist scholars were faculty members.1 Recently repenting of feminism, our Heavenly Father protected me from getting misled by these scholars. Meanwhile, Mary Lee was trying to get on board with my repentance. She didn’t disagree, but it was hard work.
As graduation approached, what denomination did I chose?
In terms of Presbyterian denominations, the options were the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), the recently-formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the also-recently-formed Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The mainline PC(USA) required women elders, constitutionally, and would not ordain men who refused to participate. The EPC split the difference, allowing the ordination of women to the office of pastor and elder while not requiring pastors to endorse it. The newly-formed PCA did not allow women to be ordained.
There were a couple other Presbyterian denominations, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) which did not allow the ordination of women. The local OPC congregation’s church-house was a couple miles from the seminary, and we worshipped and I did my pastoral internship there. Still, although we loved our local OPC congregation, for reasons I won’t go into here, we had no inclination to enter that denomination.
Concerning the EPC, it struck me as a broadly Evangelical denomination lacking convictions, and I’d seen enough of this growing up in Wheaton’s Evangelicalism, so the EPC was out.
It would have been possible to go into a non-Presbyterian denomination or independent church, but I was fearful of this option and didn’t pursue it. I was afraid to cast my lot in with independency or congregationalism. Obviously, Presbyterian polity wasn’t a matter of deep Biblical conviction at the time.
We were left with two options: the newly reunited PC(USA) and the newly formed PCA.
Despite it being feminist, mainline, and liberal, we chose the PC(USA) which, at the time, had many exceedingly wealthy Evangelical tall-steeple churches served by Evangelical stars like Earl Palmer (First Pres in Berkley), Bruce Larson (University Pres in Seattle), Lloyd John Ogilvie (Hollywood Pres in LA), Frank Kik (Eastminster Pres in Wichita), Jim Boice (Tenth Pres in Philly), John Huffman (St. Andrews in Newport Beach), and Clayton Bell (Billy Graham’s brother-in-law at Highland Park in Dallas).
Why the PC(USA)?
Dad had grown up in this denomination, attending Tenth back under Donald Grey Barnhouse, then another congregation of the denomination up in New York City before heading off to college at Wheaton. As we weighed our denominational affiliation, Dad’s constant speaking engagements were heavily weighted toward these tall-steeple churches and pastors, so family heritage influenced my decision.
More significant, though, was First Pres in Boulder where I had been an intern and gone under care of Boulder Presbytery prior to matriculating at Gordon-Conwell. All the pastoral staff of First Pres had been kind to me, particularly the Sr. Pastor, Bob Oerter, and his First Associate, Gene Allen.
They had offered me a job and given me a small group to lead, an adult Sunday school class to teach, full participation in pastors meetings, a key leadership and teaching position on a team training their lay counselors, so their session’s commendation of my coming under care of Boulder Presbytery was natural, as was also their provision of financial support all through seminary (which they offered and gave without any request on my part). In other words, from the moment of Mary Lee’s and my arrival, they confirmed our call to pastoral ministry in every way possible. This is no small thing for a young man of 26 with a wife and child.
Yes, they’d toed the denominational line and had a few women elders on their session (although no women pastors, of course), but the underlying culture was Biblical and the woman elder Mary Lee and I got to know and grew close to was the very picture of godly womanhood.
The reader sees how I rationalized going into the PC(USA). It just seemed the natural thing to do given the care we had received the previous four years from the pastors, elders, and congregation of Boulder’s First Pres, so my third year I flew out there for an examination by the psychiatrist paid by the presbytery to evaluate all candidates for ordination. After all, it was on their dime. As the end of seminary approached, I took the PC(USA)’s ordination exams and was greatly relieved to pass all of them. (At the time, there was something like a 50% failure rate of those exams, so this was no small hurdle.)
It should be noted that I sent my Personal Information Form (PIF) only to small and poor churches in rural Appalachia, Chicago’s inner city, a small town of 1,500 in the middle of dairy farms in Wisconsin, and a small church out in Coal City, Montana. None of the vacant pulpits in Appalachia and Chicago responded to my inquiries, and I found out a few months later from a member of the Committee on Ministry of Chicago Presbytery that they had rejected me because I had gone to Gordon-Conwell. (I never found out why the rural Appalachian churches didn’t respond.)
In time I was called by that yoked parish of two churches in Cambria (R0sedale Presbyterian Church) and Pardeeville, Wisconsin (First Presbyterian Church), where I had sent my PIF. After an ordination examination by John Knox Presbytery, I was ordained and installed to serve as their parish pastor on October 23, 1983. We were happy to be there and loved the congregations and ministry.
Still, let the reader understand that as we arrived, the majority of the elders comprising the sessions of these two congregations were women. Also, that one of the first disciplinary actions we undertook was calling a young women of nineteen off at college in another state to move out of the apartment she was sharing with her boyfriend. We asked her to meet with the session when she came home for fall break, but she refused and later was granted by that same session the privilege of being married to that man by my predecessor in the church-house next door to our manse.
This was my call and it was very difficult from the start, and God gave us grace and faith so that we dove in to our work of reform inside and outside the pulpit. One thing that might help explain the difficulty of the work is the fact that this young woman we had sought to call to repentance for her fornication was an inactive elder of the church. She was only inactive because she was out of town, at college. She had been nominated and elected as an elder, serving the church during high school after being ordained at sixteen years of age.
Things like that…
(Sixth in a series.)
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|↑1||Also the seminary where Dad taught a summer term, and my brothers David and Nathan (as well as Tim Keller and Scott Hahn) got their MDivs.|