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“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

Whether Christian Liberty Survives in the PCUSA

On May 21, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered the most famous sermon preached from a Presbyterian pulpit in the twentieth century, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick, a Baptist supply preacher serving First Presbyterian Church, New York City, was disturbed by efforts of “Fundamentalists” to impose new ordination standards on the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Fosdick described “the Fundamentalist program” as “essentially illiberal and intolerant” and pled for “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving Church.” Decrying the effort “to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions” about the Bible’s miracles, the virgin birth, the atonement, the inspiration of Scripture, and the second coming of Christ, he implored: 

Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not. They say that the liberals must go. Well, if the Fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation––multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the Church and whom the Church needs.[1]

Today, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is threatened by a new Orthodoxy, a new brand of Fundamentalism, and a new breed of Fundamentalists who seek to impose new ordination standards. In addition to the Church’s current policy that “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction,” Olympia Presbytery has proposed an amendment “to Include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Among the Categories Against Which This Church Does Not Discriminate.” Specifically, it requires:

The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003) [and in the principles of participation, representation and non-discrimination found in F-1.0403].[2]

The upshot of this amendment is that every ordination and installation of an officer in the PCUSA, whether teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon, “shall include,” henceforth, an examination of the candidate’s willingness to affirm an unlimited number of sexual orientations, identities, and practices. Candidates would also have to “guarantee full participation and representation” of “our LGBTQIA+ siblings” in the church’s “worship, governance, and emerging life.”

This amendment violates not only the Book of Order’s policy of non-discrimination by nullifying and vacating “theological conviction” as one category among others that must be protected. It violates the conscience of those who believe that what the Bible teaches, our Book of Confessions teaches, and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has taught for two millennia, is that God created human beings male and female; this is a blessing; and to live in gratitude for this blessing and in accord with our Lord Jesus Christ’s own teaching, Christians are to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Therefore, if this amendment passes, it will destroy Christian liberty in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

How Did We Get Here?

For more than two centuries, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) bore consistent witness to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and human sexuality. In 1967, Presbyterians confessed: “The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself.” Moreover, the Confession of 1967 strongly warns: “The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the mantra of many liberals in the PCUSA was “Can’t we just talk about it?” The “it” was about the Bible’s prohibition against specific sexual practices, especially homosexual practice. So, we talked about it. We talked about it and almost nothing else, ad nauseum, for three decades at every General Assembly and at more presbytery meetings than many of us care to remember. Grinding away, year after year, opponents of “fidelity–chastity” language finally prevailed at the 218th General Assembly in 2010 and voted to remove such language from the Book of Order. Two years later, the triumph of radical inclusivism seemed to be complete:

The 220th General Assembly (2012) acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships. Therefore, while holding persons in ordered ministry to high standards of covenant fidelity in the exercise of their sexuality, as in all aspects of life, we acknowledge that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter. We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error. We call on all Presbyterians to join us in this commitment.

Now––Agree with Us or Else 

While the 220th General Assembly’s statement marked the triumph of radical inclusivism in the PCUSA, many of us feared it was not the last word. According to precedent and the principle that what becomes permissible eventually becomes required (shall not becomes could, could becomes should, and should becomes shall), we feared that we would eventually be compelled to affirm what we cannot in good faith or with a clear conscience affirm. This is precisely what this new amendment requires.

The Olympia Presbytery amendment contradicts the “commitment” stated above at every point. It contends that the PCUSA now has only “one interpretation of Scripture in this matter”; the day of “respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions” is over; the day “to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error” has come; and the time to deny––if not to depose and defrock––those whose convictions we believe to be in error from holding any office in the church is now. In sum, in the 1980s we were asked, “Can’t we just talk about it?” Now we are told we cannot talk about it, or if we do talk about it, we must either agree or else.

Rationale

Olympia Presbytery’s Rationale contains six paragraphs. Three phrases from the following paragraph are worth considering:

As the PC(USA) continues to celebrate the gifts of our LGBTQIA+ siblings, we must amend our Book of Order to prevent discrimination against those same siblings. We further feel that justice will be served, and the children of God will be supported by this Amendment. Studies show that LGBTQIA+ youth who have religious parents that share negative views on being LGBTQIA+ have higher rates of suicide attempts.

“To prevent discrimination …”

Popular political slogans today are: “We must be intolerant to be tolerant”; “We must be exclusive to be inclusive”; “We must destroy democracy to save democracy,” etc. Thus, it should come as no surprise to hear some in the church claim that we must discriminate “to prevent discrimination.”

We should be clear about what this means. It means coercion. It means willingness to censor or suppress free speech or freedom of conscience. It is the all-or-nothing, take-no-prisoners language of cancel culture, totalitarian control, and tyrannical rule. It means: No dialogue. No discussion. No debate. No dissent. No questions. No rebuttals. Strict compliance. Total obedience. Absolute conformity. Full and complete submission.  

Olympia Presbytery’s amendment does more than establish the right of every “council responsible for ordination and/or installation” to examine candidates on their views on human sexuality. It requires it. Moreover, it obliges every council to determine whether a candidate approves of any number of sexual orientations, identities, and practices of “our LGBTQIA+ siblings.” Should any council of inquisitors determine in the process of interrogation that a candidate does not approve, they are required to deny the candidate ordination or installation.

If anyone doubts this is the intention of the amendment, consider the actions of Olympia Presbytery. It recently denied ordination to two candidates who refused to affirm that Christian marriage is anything other than a covenant between one man and one woman. In short, this amendment removes any ground on which a candidate might stand on the basis of what Scripture and our confessions teach about human sexuality. It denies any possibility of holding the sexual ethic that the PCUSA held for more than two hundred years and the one, holy, catholic church has held for more than two thousand years. Indeed, it appears to deny any sexual ethic, prohibition, restriction, or standard at all.     

“We feel that the Spirit …”

“We feel that the Spirit is working in the churches concerning this matter,” asserts Olympia Presbytery’s rationale. “We further feel that justice will be served, and the children of God will be supported by this Amendment.” It once went without saying among Christians, not least Presbyterians, that as grateful as we are to be created sentient beings and for many of our feelings, we live by faith, not by feelings. Faith and feelings are not the same. Feelings are not a source of revelation. They are not an authority or standard in the church of Jesus Christ. The Bible and our confessions are, respectively, our ultimate and subordinate standards of authority. Many of us agree that “the Spirit is working in the church concerning this matter” and many others. But we believe that we are commanded “not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (I John 4:1). This also applies to feelings.

“Studies show …”

Olympia Presbytery’s rationale claims: “Studies show that LGBTQIA+ youth who have religious parents that share negative views on being LGBTQIA+ have higher rates of suicide attempts.” There are such studies. But other studies contradict them. Some studies suggest that the positive views on being LGBTQIA+ of religious and non-religious parents have more deleterious effects on the mental health of youth. Most studies show that teen suicide and mental health are more complicated. Yet more and more studies show that the effects of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and gender reassignment surgeries play a much larger role in teen depression and suicide than previously thought, which is why Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, Great Britain, and other countries have recently banned or placed severe restrictions on such treatments for young people.[3]

The recent exposure of the massive pseudoscientific work of the highly influential World Professional Association for Transgender Health [WPATH] demonstrates that when it comes to “gender medicine” there is no limit to what “studies show.”[4] Thus, the church would do well to wait for the more settled results of scientific research. In the meantime, the church should dare to think about these matters theologically, that is, according to its own standards; and rather than blackmailing “religious parents” to hand over their children or blaming them for their suicide, the church should stand for and with religious and non-religious parents who want to protect their children from those who––out of greed, confusion, ideological captivity, or false compassion––would mutilate their bodies and sacrifice their futures on the altar of Transgenderism.

A Lesson from the Past?

Fundamentalists in the 1920s were worried about unbelief in the PCUSA. They had good reason to be. But in seeking to address unbelief––specifically regarding the Bible’s miracles, the virgin birth, the atonement, the inspiration of Scripture, and the second coming of Christ ––they made a mistake. They overreached. Rather than settle on simple assent to these doctrines, they insisted on assent to special theories about them. For example, Fosdick and other liberals recoiled “that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration––that the original documents of the Scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men.”[5] Since belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in its original documents is not taught in the Bible, the Westminster Confession, or any Reformed confession, Fundamentalists were seen as overplaying their hand. They made it easy for liberals, moderates, and even conscientious conservatives to reject their calls to impose new ordination standards.[6]

Perhaps there is a lesson here. Even if some or many in the church today think strong cultural winds are at their back, they are “on the right side of history,” or they have discovered truths about the Bible and its teachings on human sexuality that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church missed for two millennia, should the PCUSA not exercise caution, modesty, and restraint before creating new doctrinal tests? Should the PCUSA not seek to articulate what these new discoveries and teachings from the Bible are before imposing new ordination standards based on them? Should its leaders not exercise patience, forbearance, and charity with those who do not understand how such discoveries and teachings could be raised to the level of and be defended as dogma? 

Whereas Fundamentalists in the 1920s risked going beyond what the Scriptures clearly teach, Fundamenta-lists today go against what the Scriptures clearly appear to teach about Christian marriage and human sexuality. They, too, are making it easy for many of us to reject their calls to impose new ordination standards. They insist upon steps we cannot take, lines we cannot cross, rules we cannot obey. And we are not alone. Among the 2.6 billion Christians living today less than one percent belong to churches that believe that Christian marriage is anything other than a covenant between one man and one woman. Fewer still believe that a man can become a woman or a woman can become a man simply by surgery or by willing it to be so. The PCUSA should resist imposing such views on its members. Otherwise, it risks becoming a sect.  

Fosdick deplored the “bitter intolerance” of Fundamentalists. He said, “If they had their way, within the Church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the Pope’s.” Yet Fosdick acknowledged that tolerance “is not a lesson which the Fundamentalists alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it.” One may be “tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them.” Young liberals should, he said, “remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and most remarkable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts.” Perhaps there is a lesson here, too.[7]

Christian Liberty

The amendment proposed by Olympia Presbytery stands in stark contrast to “the cause of magnanimity and liberality and tolerance of spirit” that Fosdick championed in the 1920s. It also stands in alarming contrast to the doctrine of Christian liberty that has always stood at the heart of Presbyterianism as articulated in the Westminster Confession:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

We pray this basic principle and tenet of our faith will be upheld and honored in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Our Commitment

We remain committed not merely to protecting the civil rights and dignity of all people. We remain committed to loving and respecting all individuals, no matter who or what they think they are. We cannot bless or sanction what God has not blessed or sanctioned in his Word, but we are committed to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ for all people. Many of us have taken vows to live “under the authority of Scripture” and to be “guided by our confessions.” We promised “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.” We aim to keep our vows, even if others do not.


[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, ed. William R. Hutchinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 175.

[2] OVT-001, “On Amending the Book of Order to Include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Among the Categories Against Which This Church Does Not Discriminate”, available on PC-Biz at https://www.pc-biz.org/search/3001122.

[3] For an introduction to literature on transgender therapy, see Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing: 2021). See also Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up (New York: Sentinel at Penguin, 2024).

[4] See Mia Hughes, The WPATH Files: Pseudoscientific Surgical and Hormonal Experiments on Children, Adolescents, and Vulnerable Adults. https://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/wpath-files. For a non-religious discussion of this report, see Michael Shellenberger, “Worst Medical Scandal In History!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nulK60b1lnA.

[5] Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” 173.

[6] For a fuller discussion of this topic, see Richard E. Burnett, Machen’s Hope: The Transformation of a Modernist in the New Princeton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2024), 236–247.

[7] Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” 179. Though he never ‘de-converted’ from liberalism, Fosdick became increasingly critical of “modernism’s tendency toward shallowness” and its belief “in inevitable progress.” Preaching on “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism” in 1935, he said, “We have adapted and adjusted and accommodated and conceded long enough.” In the future, he said, “the watchword will not be, Accommodate yourself to the prevailing culture! but, Stand out from it and challenge it!” He worried about the rise of “undisciplined paganism” in America. For an excellent analysis of Fosdick’s most famous sermon and theological trajectory, see Bradley J. Longfield, “‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’ A Centennial Retrospective” in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of the Journal of Presbyterian History.

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.

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