The Rise of Southern Presbyterianism, and Why You Should Care

by | Jul 30, 2015 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments


“The Magnolia” – Photography by Curtis and Norma Beaird

Recently I spoke with an executive presbyter from South Carolina. He observed that the traditional language of marriage in the Southern church prior to reunion was not “between a man and a woman.” It was, rather,between two parties.”

What if the “new” language for marriage in our Directory for Worship is not a 21st century invention? What if, instead, it hearkens back to traditional language in the Southern Book of Order?

If you’ll come with me, I want to explore a narrative that addresses recent changes in the denomination: The South is on the rise. I think the polity of Southern Presbyterians better explains what is happening in the PC(USA) than does the oft-cited influence of secular culture.

Bolsinger’s Model

The narrative begins with a talk Tod Bolsinger gave a few years ago. Bolsinger identified three major streams of Presbyterianism in the United States, generally identified with the traditional geographies of the North, the South, and the West. If you already know Bolsinger’s model, you can jump past the bulleted paragraphs:

Northern Presbyterianism was a culture of national practices, policies and positions. In its soil, the PC(USA)’s Book of Order grew large and detailed. Its Stated Clerk made the cover of Time magazine in the 1960s. Its National Board of Missions, headquartered in New York City, directly supervised ministry as far away as Southeast Alaska. In broad stereotypes, it was socially progressive.

Southern Presbyterian, by contrast, was a culture of regional authorities. Presbyteries wielded substantial power over their local congregations. A single individual often served as Stated Clerk and Executive Presbyter; such a person could change the lives of his[1] presbytery’s pastors with a phone call. Presbyteries ordinarily did not interfere with each other’s work. Its General Assembly was less interested in statements on American policy. I would call it socially moderate.[2]

Western Presbyterianism, finally, was the most congregation-centered of the three. Pastors regularly considered “Presbyterian” as a brand and their local congregation as a franchise. Presbyteries worked to resource the local franchise, to make sure that its innovations didn’t stray too far from the brand identity, and to communicate any changes from the corporate headquarters that might affect local perceptions. Whether it was socially progressive or conservative depended heavily on the locality.

Applying the Model


Azaleas surrounding the pond at Christ PC in Tallahassee Photo by Pat Williams

What does Bolsinger’s model have to do with changes in the PC(USA)? It opens the door to seeing in recent votes a rise in Southern polity.

The new Form of Government (10-1)[3] and the ordination of homosexuals (10-A)[4] fit well with the Southern stream. 10-A did not exhort us to ordain active homosexuals; it simply declared that the decision no longer belonged to the national church. Sessions and presbyteries must decide.

Similarly, 10-1 removed many “shall” and “shall not” passages from the older Form of Government and put in their place phrases such as “presbyteries by their own rule shall decide…” Both amendments, in other words, moved interpretation and implementation of Biblical and confessional standards from the national level to the regional or local level.

What I’ve said above fits with what the executive from South Carolina told me. Not only does Amendment 14-F[5] recapture old language from the Southern Book of Order. It also puts decision-making definitively in the hands of Sessions and pastors, an approach that fits with the decline of the Northern stream and the rise of the South.

Thus, the changes we are seeing in the national church are ones of polity. Execution and enforcement of the Biblical and confessional standards belongs to Sessions and presbyteries, not to the national church.


Why the history lesson? Many churchgoers, whether delighted or dismayed, seem to assume that the denomination’s recent votes are about morality. Some argue that we are on the right side of history. Others fear that we have slipped our Scriptural moorings. But both positions, loudly-stated as they are, fail to notice the underlying dynamics. Morality does not effectively explain what is happening in the national church. Polity does.

And polity is central to our distinctive brand of faith. Remember, even Paul the Apostle urged that “all things should be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40).

Somewhere along the Way—



[1] Pronoun gender used deliberately.

[2] Southern Presbyterians are, by definition, (a) in the Bible belt and (b) not Southern Baptists. They are much less shaped by the forces of secularism, by way of either accommodation or opposition, than the North and West are.

[3] 10-1 radically restructured the denomination’s Form of Government. Many procedural steps that the denomination had previously mandated or forbidden are now left to the discretion of local Sessions or presbyteries.

[4] 10-A changed language in the Form of Government pertaining to ordination requirements. The highest-profile impact of this amendment was its removal of language that had previously barred practicing homosexuals from ordination.

[5] 14-F changed language in the Directory of Worship pertaining to marriage. The highest-profile impact of this amendment was constitutional authorization for pastors to conduct, and Sessions to host, same-sex marriages.