Though racial extremists had previously caused rifts in PCA churches, the recent tumult at Friendship Presbyterian Church near Asheville, N.C., was perhaps unprecedented in that it led to church litigation regarding racism. "I can find no record of formal church discipline being exercised on the issue of racism in any Presbyterian circles," said Joel Belz, the founder of World, a conservative Christian magazine. "Race has been the defining social issue of my whole lifetime, and to think no one has ever exercised church discipline on the matter is astonishing to me. It's easy to talk in generalities about race; it's harder to hold individuals accountable."

The PCA, or Presbyterian Church in America, has been talking about race for a while. In 2004, it issued a position paper that not only denounced racism, but also took responsibility for its past role in promoting it. The paper acknowledged that, historically, the Presbyterian Church -- from which the PCA later emerged -- had wrongly stated that some races are inferior, that slavery is acceptable, and that racial segregation is justified. The paper went further: It recognized that racism has not been completely eradicated from the 340,000-member PCA, which in 1973 split from the larger, mainline Presbyterian church. "For years we have left unattended in our midst the vestiges of racism, and the reality of its raw presence within corners of our denomination," it said.

The paper specifically cited the existence of hate groups and their adherents: "Today, in the United States, there are many proponents, and even entire organizations, devoted to the acceptance of slavery, segregation, and the belief that one race is superior to another. Such views have an impact even within our own church community."

In the past decade, neo-Confederates -- who celebrate Southern culture but in many cases also embrace racist attitudes toward blacks -- have sought control of at least two PCA churches; the churches, in Alabama and Louisiana, ultimately left the PCA for other denominations.

The controversy at Friendship went to the heart of its members' Bible-centered faith, said the Rev. Jeff Hutchinson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C. The idea that some races are inherently superior to others runs counter to the Bible's statement that humans were created in God's image. "Any form of racism is a cancer that destroys the Biblical understanding of who human beings are," said Hutchinson, the former presbytery moderator. "If we as Christians can't agree on the Biblical understanding of man, then why even bother having church?"

But the reasons for denouncing racism extend beyond the theological. "Our Church -- Friendship, the presbytery and the denomination -- cannot afford to allow the public to wonder what we believe on this topic," Belz said. "We have to be explicit. There are those in the mainline Presbyterian Church who would love to characterize the Presbyterian Church in America as racist. I don't think that's true, but I understand their misconception. It's against that backdrop, too, that we have to be explicit."