Thursday, June 27, 2013

The PCA General Assembly, Cul De Sacs, and False Dilemmas

The coolest thing in shockingly cool Greenville.
Statue of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

During an online discussion of the recent PCA General Assembly, Kenneth Pierce referred to "certain facets of our polity...creating procedural cul de sacs that are making issues impossible to resolve." He put into words something that was a vague but persistent notion as I left Greenville last week. Often GA's are measured by who "won" or "lost". We vote on issues so in a hairline understanding there is winning and losing, but that is scarcely an adequate metric of what defines these gatherings.

If nothing else this GA revealed how we can paint ourselves into a parliamentary corner. Particular issues that hover around core theological principles were at this gathering behind a constitutional deflector shield and (correctly it turns out) impervious to any scrutiny or even discussion. This not only creates procedural inertia, it has the added kinetic of creating a kind of ambient white board on to which can be scrawled various group fears and anxieties. Getting stuck on the BCO hamster wheel (which we did more than once last week) spawns a Kafkaesque frustration. What the hey his going on? How did we get to this place? Why can't we move? And in those moments quoting the BCO is correct but seems bloodlessly clinical. And sort of wrong. A de jure solution but a de facto rabbit hole that we need to work out of.

Front and center last week were the Overtures surrounding Pacific Northwest Presbytery, Peter Leithart and the Federal Vision movement. I'm not going to rehash the details except to say it has more than a tangental connection to the actions of the GA in 2008 when a statement rejecting FV was overwhelmingly adopted. I was in the back of the hall when that vote was taken. There couldn't have been more than ten votes out of nearly 1000 opposed. If there was ever an issue that crossed theological and dispositional boundaries, it was this. But because of a process that was also overwhelmingly adopted what seems (is) obvious is, well, not. Still with me?

The overtures seeking redress over the Standing Judicial Commission's ruling on PCNW Presbytery's acquittal of Leithart were ruled out order. The case for doing that was airtight. It was a constitutional slam dunk. It also played right into our deeply ingrained in-or-out family system. The white board? Some rushed to write, "Federal Vision has been ratified by the PCA! We're doomed!" A much smaller group, "Woo hoo! Leithart has been vindicated!" The fallacy of the false dilemma makes for a tidy worldview but here it does nothing but inflame, indulge and distort. The plain truth is that both views are wrong. But Josh Walker points out the lingering conundrum: 
Of course, this is nothing close to an exoneration in any meaningful sense. This would be a curious form of exoneration; to have the case never brought before the GA on a few technicalities is hardly what most people would consider exonerated. The General Assembly, to our imperfect memories, never even mentioned the name "Leithart." Nobody at GA heard the complaints or even had an opportunity to publicly discuss the merits of the case. And as it stands, it looks like that may never happen. 
It may never happen because in 1996 the PCA (again, overwhelmingly) adopted an SJC process which needs some tweaking. Unless a member of the SJC objects to one of its own rulings there can be no other objections. Full stop.

Mea culpa: I voted for this system. I remember the days when review of judicial decisions took up huge sections of GA time. It was exhausting and, frankly, hard to navigate as we tried to shoehorn dense and emotional issues before we had to leave on Friday afternoon. The present system appeared to be a reasonable and welcome alternative. And for the most part it has been. But there has to be a means by which SJC decisions can face scrutiny while still maintaining a more streamlined process. Reluctance to consider this is once again remaining captive to the excluded middle. (See polity, cul de sacs.)

An adjunct issue is the role of the Committee On Review Of Presbytery Records. When a doctrinal issue is raised by this committee we get the understandable objection that theological disputes should not be generated by RPR. We have better, more thorough avenues to do that. I've made that objection. But our agreed polity clearly gives the RPR that brief. They are charged, among other things, with making sure presbytery records adhere to our Constitution which includes the Scriptures and the "doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order". We live with that. Or we adjust that. (Again, polity, cul de sacs.)

We also got tripped up when considering the report of the Ad Interim Study Committee on Insider Movements. This was a case where a majority of commissioners judged arguments to be reasonable (and voted to consider both the majority and minority report) then as the debate evolved things got more complicated. It also got overheated as some intemperate and, bluntly, manipulative language put us close to an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I standoff. It was obvious we needed an exit strategy but parliamentary rulings appeared to make it difficult to recommit the report. Add to that the committee chairman's unfortunate position the majority would have nothing more to say on the issue and we were stuck in a form of deliberative purgatory. By less than 30 votes we eventually recommitted the report. Recommitting was not a sign of waffling but wisdom on the fly. Getting it right is important even if it takes time.

I also came away convinced we need to make some allowances at GA for our family system of suspicion. We can regret that all we want but it seems pointless to ignore it. One way is to consider a policy the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted. This grew out of a culture of suspicion which eclipsed ours. In 1985 a couple sued the SBC because they didn't agree with the rulings from the chair at their annual meeting that year. The court ruled in favor of the SBC but since then their annual meetings use a trained, certified parliamentarian from outside their denomination to ensure full confidence in rulings from the chair. We should trust the men on the dias to conduct business fairly. I am fully persuaded they do exactly that. But not everyone does. 

This could be a fairly straightforward way to address that and help avoid those, you know, polity, cul de sacs.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

This is the PCA - Are you in, or are you out?

"You're either in or you're out. Right now."

In a normal state the human brain operates with a relatively stable level of neurons "firing" in the brain stem. With the introduction of a threat-stimulus that changes. It's not just that brain activity increases, it's how it increases. There is a release of noradrenaline that immediately acts on the heart, blood vessels and respiratory system. This produces immediate and distinctive physiological changes which together are called Acute Stress Response. A pioneer in this field was Harvard Medical School psychologist Walter Cannon (no relation). His research found this was hardwired into everyone. With it, people are better equipped to survive a threat. University of Rochester professor Jeremy Jamieson puts it a bit clinically when he says these produce tools "that help maximize performance." 

One of these tools is myopia. An intense focus on what's in front of you. To be distracted or equivocal threatens survival. In the fact-based HBO miniseries Band of Brothers there is an episode where a military officer loses focus in the midst of fierce enemy fire. His men are endangered and he's quickly replaced by the legendary Captain Ronald Speirs who in one of the most memorable scenes demonstrates extraordinary battlefield leadership. When the bullets fly, you're all in. Or you're all dead.

When it comes to describing the PCA the conventional wisdom is we are hobbled by our contentious nature. We were started by men who like to fight and we just can't stop. Staying in perpetual conflict is part of the warp and woof of our church.

The conventional wisdom is at best simplistic and likely just wrong. The PCA is not, and never has been, any more dispositionally fractious than any other denomination. I was living in Australia when apartheid collapsed in South Africa. Australians (like Americans) have a deeply ingrained sense of their national virtue and the country was basking in the smug satisfaction that their valiant opposition to that system was vital to its undoing. One of their commentators had a different view: "Don't kid yourself. If given half the chance, Australians would have invented apartheid first." They didn't because the particular circumstances of their founding made their form of racism different.1 I have enough friends in other Christian traditions to know their denomination's capacity for anger, control, turf-protecting, agenda-pushing and pettiness is the equal of ours. It's a different arena with different rules and implied social contracts so it just looks different.

1 Our almost ten years living in Australia were life-changing. I still consider it home. I carry an Australian passport. Yes, Elizabeth is my Queen. It pains me to say it but Australia's racial history is arguably worse than America's.

And here we circle back to the brain stem.

That series of articles surrounding the founding of the PCA is a picture of a large group of people in threat-stimulus mode. The Presbyterian Journal started in 1942 which tells you the conservative movement in the then PCUS was at it for some time. For years the perceived threat level from theological liberalism was considered manageable. When these articles pick up it's 1971 and that's changed. A sizable and relatively well-organized group of PCUS members are on war footing and they're about to cross the Rubicon. And it's all in. Noradrenaline is at full capacity and equivocation or distraction is simply not in play.2

A person's view of the PCA largely depends on judging how legitimate the threat was to the gospel during that place and time. I remain convinced it was.

For those, like me, not directly connected to these events and the history that preceded them the tone and timbre of these articles can be a little disorienting. ("They Cannot Be Trusted", "If Ever-Now!"). Circumstances have no bearing on the obligation to be Christ-like and with the detachment of passing years it's clear that this standard was not uniformly kept by our founders. (That may strike some as disrespectful and others as understatement. I don't believe it's either.) But circumstances do matter when it comes to seeing this without unguarded self-righteousness. And being able to learn from it.

For whatever reason the PCA stayed in a state of Acute Stress Response and we've never completely left it. I do not fully understand why but it's certainly more than "we just like to fight" or fusing us with "Machen's Warrior Children". There's likely some truth to both but the omnium-gatherum of the PCA suggests there's a lot more to it than that. My gossamer thin and very tentative theory is perpetual-threat-response (which was avoidable) was set early by a relatively few influential institutions and individuals on varying sides. Since then it's created a particular microenvironment in our denomination which makes the standard posture of debate include the bulk of reasonable men lining up behind those on the ideological edges. That's my theory. I won't die on that hill. I could be wrong.

The Second General Assembly convened just nine months after the first and the Presbyterian Journal (on page 112) has already begun to shift its threat response from the PCUS to "the denomination's right wing". The tone appears understated but it has the feel of spiking the football when calling their parliamentary defeat a "watershed moment". For over 30 years the Journal was the most important unifying institution among conservatives in the PCUS. The ink had barely dried on the PCA's Message to All Churches when it began to bifurcate the denomination. At the Fifth General Assembly, it appears that watershed momement may not have happened. A position paper from the Permanent Committee on Mission to the US (now MNA) to yield campus ministry to para-church organizations was presented and, for the most part, roundly rejected. This was described by the Banner of Truth as showing, "The cleavage between thoroughly Reformed and general evangelical opinions within the PCA...".

This "in or out" cleavage is playing out currently in the grace-works debate in the PCA. Unlike some, I don't see this discussion as evidence of our impending collapse. It is necessary and healthy. There's a reason why this question dominates so much of the New Testament. It's hard to get right. What isn't so healthy is how our threat-response culture means the bulk of reasonable men seem compelled to let the ideological wings completely control the debate. These wings are important voices to hear. That's not faint praise. They could be right. But our church culture means they get little scrutiny and a movement unexamined is a movement with too much elbow room for abuse.

Those on the holiness side of this debate include those whose Theological GPS is guided as much by American Fundamentalism as anything else. And if you're wondering, I think American Fundamentalism is a really, really bad thing for the PCA. Resisting it is a line-in-the-sand issue for me. It's also just one more piece of what Udo Middelmann calls "The Islamization of Christianity". There are men I respect and admire in this camp but some of them have been reckless and shrill. And they're not getting the scrutiny they need because our church culture instead gives them oxygen.

Less obvious to some but just as insidious are some "protecting" the grace end of the continuum. I am, on balance, more likely to hang out with these folks but some of them are genuinely scary and becoming what Larry Osborne calls "Accidental Pharisees" as they absolutize a view of grace the Bible patently doesn't. And they make no secret that their view of grace is the gospel. It would shock them to be called Pharisees but that is where they are landing. Any attempt to cull the herd of the church with an extra-biblical standard is an attempt at spiritual tyranny. And they too seem to be doing this with impunity because, well, that's how we roll.

The most biblical position doesn't have to be in the middle between these movements. It could be much closer to one than the other. That's not the point. And it's not just the squeaky wheel getting the grease. It's allowing the dysfunctional define and, in a way, control us. I'm getting tired of that.

Osborn notes that a common characteristic of groups like those on the extreme ends of the grace-holiness debate is a tendency to "catastrophize the future". Their identity and behavior depend on it. It's one more reason why I don't engage in PCA Doomsday Talk. 

We're just feeding the Monster. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

This is the PCA - We want to be players.

"We're good enough. We're smart enough.
And doggone it, people like us"

There is a simple way to end any genuine conversation about the brief institutional history and present state of the PCA. 

Actually, there are at least two. 

Just say, "The founders of the PCA fought to establish it because they believed the Bible and now it's under threat by men who do not believe the Bibe sufficiently enough." Or say, "The PCA was started by men who were racist, parochial and contentious, now it's under threat because these things continue to haunt us."

It's not as if those two statements do not carry important issues and ones that may, in fact, be in play. But they (or at least a close approximation of them) are repeated so often, by so many in ways that suggest a comprehensive understanding of our denomination. They don't come close to doing that. Noam Chomsky contends that American history is taught not to arrive at truth but is simplified to teach a "secular theology". Now when Chomsky says that he's trying to preach his own secular theology. But he is correct that over-simplifying history is usually done to protect an agenda. Throwing out either of those statements is more like marking territory than an honest look at who we are.

So as I make some observations about that series of articles surrounding the emergence of the PCA I will not (for now) encourage that. I will get to those issues later. And what I'm raising now is not in strict order of importance, but instead ones that I think are easy to miss.

Observation Number One: We want to be players. We're not a Main Line denomination but we desperately want to be.

Mind you, this is not universally shared in the PCA but it's still a constituent part of who we are. And this is more important than you think. As these articles make plain (and which a growing number of young pastors appear not to know) we didn't start ex nihilo. We gestated in the womb of a large and (at least for a time) culturally influential denomination. By the early 70's the cultural influence of all Main Line denominations had evaporated but the illusion persisted, abetted by still large memberships. And those fingerprints are all over us despite the incontrovertible evidence we are small time.1 For several years we were "North America's fastest growing denomination." For many that was distraction enough from the statistics and provided some reason to think we were headed to Big Church status. Now our numbers have flatlined or teetered on decline. There may be some schadenfreude in seeing Main Line denominations bleed membership but our numbers and trajectory suggest we'll never be in that club. But our big-church-wannabee DNA encoding remains stout. And it shows up in more places than you'd expect.

1 Yes, Tim Keller is a New York Times bestselling author. And doesn't Buster from Arrested Development go to a PCA church? (He did but I'm not sure he does now.) And what about that guy from Missouri who ran for the U.S. Senate? (Never mind, let's move on.) Some argue we had some "mojo" a few years back but lost it to the likes of Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Not so sure about that. What I'm sure about is with 350,000 communicant members we're not in shouting distance of this.

Don't get sidetracked here. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't work to spread the gospel as widely as we can and expect God "to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us." Nor am I saying it's necessarily a good idea to aspire to big-denomination world. And we're nowhere near the discussion on the assumptions of why denominations even matter.

From the beginning and to the present this has contributed to a conflict of identity and cross purpose in moving forward. The planets that lined up at the birth of the PCA included an odd mélange of groups (more than just two as many think) that wanted a "Continuing Presbyterian Church" but couldn't or wouldn't take the time to agree on some basic identity issues beyond wanting out of the PCUS. Just to be clear, I am dead certain I would have not taken the time either. But just gliding past this issue now and instead only rallying around red-meat theological or missiological issues doesn't help.

Here's one way we see this lack of awareness today. There is a large swath of young pastors whose ministry sensibilities have been informed by older men very set in we-should-be-players. They've also cut their teeth on watching and learning from Tim Keller who is indeed (I think for all the right reasons) an influence in and outside the church. Then they show up at General Assembly for the first time and go into an ecclesiastical version of psychogenic shock. As a friend of mine put it, "They canʼt believe they are stuck in this bag of a denomination that keeps them from doing what needs to get done.2 Yes, there are other things that frustrate them. But this is a big one.

A view that Tim Keller has demonstrated he does not share.

Efforts to reshape the PCA very often are part of a code language that's also saying, "We need to be heard and, doggone it, these people over here are preventing it. They need to go or at least sent to the margins." And the impulse for that is part of our history.

I was on sabbatical from Red Mountain Church for the first three months of this year. My wife was providentially needed in South Carolina to care for ailing parents during the same months. I remained in Birmingham for most of that time and needed to find a place to worship and for a lot reasons wanted one where I wouldn't run into people I know. I settled on a Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). It was a good-sized, active church. The pastor was a young man who was an excellent preacher and a caring shepherd of his flock. As I got to know the church better I noticed something else. Something that he picked up from his church culture. He was moved by doing his job. Word, sacrament and the cure of souls. He was not moved by much else. And he was especially not moved by any need for him or his denomination to be an influential voice in culture or the wider church. I'm not sure it was a category he was even familiar with.

The LCMS has their horror stories too.3 I get that. But I can't tell you how refreshing it was to be around a pastor who grew up and was trained in an environment that really doesn't give two hoots about being considered important in any way. The irony? They have 2.3 million members and serve in a way that is genuinely impressive. They just don't seem to care if you think so or not. It's just a theory, but I can't help think that culture helps them minister the gospel in ways that really are (in the best sense) more important.

3I’ve gotten some feedback from people in other Presbyterian traditions who are taking some pleasure in what may be considered my unsparing look at the PCA. They shouldn’t get too smug. I know the horror stories in their denominations. I still prefer mine.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

This is the PCA

(I'm waving the white flag. This blog has, at least for now, morphed into one concerned mostly about the denomination I serve. For my tens of readers who look here for other things I understand the glazed look in your eyes.)

Al Baker gets high marks for entering the discussion about the state of the Presbyterian Church in America. His recent assessment of where the denomination is and what to do about it identifies genuine issues. The effort is game and solutions offered are sincere. I think it misses the mark with both its overstatement (“saving” the PCA?) and slight generational bias. Bill Smith’s take on it is, I think, fair. I confess to being increasingly pessimistic that the conversation we need about the PCA will take place. Mind you, there will be endless talk about it. But not much conversation. At least not the kind we need. And I’m increasingly convinced the reason is because we’re starting at the wrong point. A few months back I was at a gathering of denominational leadership. Not the secret kind. A regular meeting of Permanent Committee chairmen and Coordinators. My role as chair of the Permanent Committee on Reformed University Ministries got me in the room. The time was encouraging and thoughtful. There was much to be thankful for. Near the end of the meeting discussion turned to increasing the interest of “young pastors” in the work of General Assembly. It’s important to note that in my mid 50’s I was one of the youngest men in the room. Most of the talk centered on the need to retool the schedule of General Assembly to provide the kind of experience young pastors would prefer. Up to that point I had not said much. I started talking. My point? It is a mistake to think changes to the General Assembly schedule would have any bearing at all on how it is perceived. A better approach would be a brutally honest awareness of deeply entrenched patterns of denominational habits that were established during our formative years. I think I came off (now here’s a shock) a bit, well, forward. But even counting that it was clear the people I was addressing had little interest in what I was talking about. Young pastors? I’m on record as being, on balance, a fan. But as much as I like them evidence indicates they have little avidity in taking a serious look at the context of the PCA’s formation and how that has made us, in so many ways, what we are. I can’t be too harsh on them. I doubt I would have any interest in it at their age either. So we have one generation where it’s hard to take a detached look at how the PCA came into existence. And one that for a lot of reasons can’t be bothered. And that is a pity. Historian Shelby Foote insisted that a clear understanding of the Civil War was the basis for understanding the United States. "The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we have become, good and bad things." Invoking the Civil War in any talk about the PCA is, in so many ways, leading with the chin, but Foote's point is a larger one. Understanding ourselves is tricky when events that really do define us are unexamined or misunderstood. With the PCA it is especially difficult due to our (really) short institutional history. A certain clarity is gained with the passing of time. The emotional complexity of struggles still in living memory of so many tend to muddle the process of self-awareness. I don’t think it’s even possible at this point to construct a reliable historical narrative of the PCA that’s not enmeshed with the soft-focus of hagiography or the reductionism of shilling for a current ecclesial agenda (“We stand for what our founding fathers stood for!”). This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s just harder and we have to go about it differently. 

I think there is a good place to start. I'm not sure how many will care or take the effort needed. But here goes. In 1977 Roland Barnes compiled a series of articles as part of a denominational history class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Roland is Senior (and organizing) Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia where he has served for 32 years. They were taken from the Presbyterian Journal (more about the Journal later). Two were added later. One each from the Presbyterian Guardian and The Banner of Truth. Several years ago he made copies and gave one to me while I was serving as RUF Campus Minister just down the road at Savannah College of Art & Design. When I read them I knew it was a unique snapshot of the Presbyterian Church in America and its beginnings. And, given more than a cursory look, a vital clue to so much of what we are now, and what we struggle with. Events that “defined us as what we are and..opened us to being what we became, good and bad things."

Roland has kindly given me permission to reproduce and share them. There are two links below this post. One is an online flipbook of this collection. The other to download a pdf copy. Before you click on them, please consider the following.

The articles date from February 17, 1971 to January 20, 1978 and record events from about three years before the PCA was established up to the fifth General Assembly. The Presbyterian Journal was founded in 1942 as the Southern Presbyterian Journal to be an independent voice "to challenge the assumptions and activities of the liberals and to return the [Southern Presbyterian] denomination to its biblical moorings.” It ceased publication in 1987. By 1971 the Journal was one of the principle voices calling for a “Continuing Presbyterian Church” out of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). There were others but none matched the Journal for its reach and influence.

So this is not a dispassionate account of events. It is not an historical narrative. To those far removed from these events it may seem demoded, strange and perhaps a little embarrassing. To some who lived through it, this may seem like replaying the best years of their lives. And that is our problem. And why it will take some work to see how these documents reveal so much about us. Good and bad.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be posting some thoughts about how these events and even the way they’re described are essential in understanding where we are as a church.

If you look at these pages and begin to smirk, wipe it off your face. If you look at these and just see the glory days, you're not seeing it honestly enough. Try again. If we can manage to arrive at some shared agreement of how God worked through men, to paraphrase John Newton, who were men of great faith to a great Savior who where themselves great sinners...maybe we can have the conversation we need.



PDF Download (100 mb)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spinal Tap, Rodney King and the National Partnership

"On the bass, Derek Smalls - he wrote this."

I am a pastor in the PCA. I believe the gospel. I also believe our view of the diaconate as an authoritative office needs to be reexamined. Though I hold a conservative view of Genesis 1-3, I strongly believe we should be inclusive of a wide berth of views. I vigorously opposed the recent overture to ban intinction in the PCA. As a pastor I am committed to the practice of weekly communion. In the church I serve, people with two X chromosomes help serve communion elements and read the Bible in worship. And we use a drum kit. I believe all those convictions to be consistent with the highest view of the Bible and the Westminster Standards. And I think bow ties and seersucker suits look ridiculous.

I also met the news of the “National Partnership” with a despair I’ve rarely known in my 31 years ministering in the PCA, 25 as an ordained teaching elder. It could be a low-water mark for our denomination. If there is a bellwether moment that points to the PCA becoming like Spinal Tap playing at an amusement park this could be it. OK, I may be laying it on a bit thick.

Just to be clear, I’m not going all Rodney King here. This is not a plea for “just getting along.” There is biblical precedent for faithful Christians to sharply disagree. Trust me, I’m fine with that. What has me banging my head against the wall is how we have managed in a short history to come up with so much Orwellian Doublespeak and pass it off as loving the church. By people who should know better, who should have learned. 

(Full disclosure. Late last year I was given privy to what is now called the National Partnership. I was asked to be part of it. I politely but firmly declined, citing my aversion to organized affinity groups and my perhaps Pollyanna intention to see my presbytery as the only exception. The whole “confidential” thing was not mentioned. Had it, I would have been less polite.)

Reading the email that went out recently to solicit NP members was like being forced in group therapy to relive bad family history. The roll of pan-presbytery groups out to recover, save, reclaim or otherwise influence the PCA is so long it would be tedious to go into any real detail. Some had the kahunas to lay out exactly who they are. Others attempted to operate in the shadows (like the Pentaverate.) I remember the malaise of the first G.A. I attended after my ordination. Every significant issue had already been decided by one of these covert organizations that had met earlier at one of our largest churches. All of these let’s-save-the-PCA groups have two things in common. The attempt to overcome the charge of disunity and/or subterfuge with the fog of virtue-speak. And the straight face they steadfastly maintain as they try to sell it.

One of the stated goals of this latest group is, “Greater love for the Brethren through resourcing and communication.” The reference to “resourcing and communication” sounds like middle-management PowerPoint babble. I have no clue what’s going on there. But I’m getting snagged a bit on “Greater love for the Brethren”. Why? I’m one of them. I drink beer and single malt with them after G.A. business sessions. I sit with them and hear them talk. I huddle in the hallways with them. I read their blogs. I go to conferences with them. We believe the same things. And there’s something they’re leaving out. 

They want their way.

And that’s OK. The people they see as the problem want their way too. That’s fine. When I say that I am leaning on a basic, undisputed part of our polity. At the core of presbyterianism is rule by plurality of elders meeting in the courts of the church. Which means, barring a vote without dissent, on disputed matters the minority gets the rough end of the stick. Every time. We believe God speaks through the courts of the church, “ministerially to determine” the ecclesiastical issues of the church (WCF 31.2). On disputed matters we participate in this with different views and convictions. We enter into this with prayer and an agreed process. Then we vote. We go with the plurality.

It’s hard enough to do this well under the best of circumstances. It’s impossible when we bob and weave around the idea of “ministerially determining through church courts.” Despite what the stated intentions are, these groups operate to determine issues outside the process, outside the courts. The NP tips its hand with this: “We seek to staff committees for healthy and effective denominational business.” I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet the ranch and the dog this means: “We seek to staff committees with people who share our convictions on disputed matters.” And that would mean people like me. And this would be done through select membership and anonymous discussion. If I’m right, no amount of word-fog changes it.

Do people on the more conservative side do this? Perhaps. But I’ve not seen any evidence they do it with the same amount of regularity, zeal and apparent blindness to our very short history. What have these movements achieved except bruised feelings, suspicion and short organizational shelf-lives? They all eventually collapse under the weight of short attention spans and (this is important) the lack of any real progress in what they set out to achieve.

Is the PCA big enough for Tim Keller and Joey Pipa? Is it big enough for me and (my new Facebook friend) Andy Webb? 

My answer:

1. I honestly hope so.

2. I honestly don’t know.

You can make a case that groups like the NP could maybe extend the structural life of the PCA as people get tired of the hassle and go somewhere else, leaving behind only the similarly convinced.

You can also make the case that diversity in the PCA will be too hard to maintain. And let’s be honest. If that happens and we go belly-up it will not, in the big picture, be much more than a blip on the screen.

Can we ministerially determine things without bloated self-importance, with a little more integrity and the commitment to talk to one another? Can we be OK with the oddball and culturally marginal group we are? And can we lay to rest the nonsense that any group has dibs on what the PCA forefathers "envisioned." 

Maybe that’s Pollyanna thinking. Who knows, we may end up like Spinal Tap. I honestly hope not.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The PCA, seminaries and the future really ain't what it used to be.

(I did it again. To anyone outside my reformed evangelical subculture this will be as coherent as a Windows 95 user manual. Look for these kinds of posts to find a home on a more appropriate blog.)

During my third year in seminary a denominational official came to speak in chapel and interview several "key" students. I was anointed one of those students. The criteria for making the key student cut was never made clear. I think it may have something to do with me being the accidental cover boy for the seminary that year. I knew how I made that cut. One morning during the first week of the semester a photographer set up outside the library. I was the first student to walk by and when he saw me he asked me to stop, look at the camera, smile and imagine "you see a group of good friends in the distance." It seemed as bizarre then as it sounds now. I obliged and went on to class. This was the result. In my defense, this was taken during the two weeks in 1986 when a mullet was considered fashionable.

I received a note in my mailbox when I was to sit for the interview. I was flattered but puzzled about the purpose. The official in question was a warm, friendly man who had earned his ecclesial stripes with some well-known struggles in the denomination most of our churches had come out of. He began by keeping the conversation to general questions about my family and background. Soon the direction became more diagnostic. He quizzed me on my attitude toward specific issues that were hovering around our church. At some point he decided I passed as the tone once again changed, this time to a sort of collegial "we're in the same club" feel. He told me we needed to stay in touch and there was an "important place" for me in our denomination. Just as I was about to swoon from this inner-ring imprimatur, I was jarred with how he ended the interview, "You know Tom, it's important for me to meet sharp seminarians because, I'll be honest, men going into ministry now are just not as high calibre as they were in my day."

It took considerable effort for me to hide my astonishment. By then I had spent a good bit of time around men "from his day" and I had come to the opposite conclusion. A conclusion I had shared with my peers. Often. As it turned out, that man and I never kept up with each other.

My attitude was, of course, full-boil arrogance. I was too young, stupid and full of crap to make that judgement. But looking back on that day I'm not prepared to give my interviewer a pass either. His pronouncement was every bit as facile and uninformed as mine. And all things being equal you'd expect a man at that age-stage-experience to avoid that. But all things are not equal and as I reluctantly perambulate beyond "middle-age" I've noticed this the-older-we-get-the-better-we-were thinking lives on.1 But this time it comes in stealth form as different tribes in the Reformed world use our litter of seminaries as a way to project insecurities and circle the wagons around our largely sociological and dispositional land claims.

1 As for middle-age. I just turned 55. I don't know anyone 110 years old.

The current discussion about the role of grace and obedience is an important one. As is confessionalism and ecclesiology. But we trivialize these when particular institutions are viewed as either the font of error or the lone sentinels of right thinking. It's just way too easy and lazy. 

And it operates with the working assumption that seminary students are morons.

My vantage point here is, I think, more direct than most. For the past seven years I have been part of a yearly process to assess people who have interest in doing campus ministry with Reformed University Fellowship. The great majority of these have been students from the full roster of "our" seminaries and beyond.2  There is the expected reading of resumés and letters of recommendation (of some use). We listen to sermons (marginally more use). The most useful part is spending a week with students and their wives in directed but informal settings.

2 There is a view held by some that RUF is largely an extension of Covenant Theological Seminary. This is simply, and demonstrably, untrue.

This experience has left me with two distinct impressions.

First, seminary students these days are, on balance, way ahead of the curve in just about every area I can think of compared to "my day". I'm not feigning humility and I have no explanation for it. They have more self-awareness, less spiritual/theological bravado (as in "I'm more reformed" or "I really understand grace"), considerably less parochial in their thinking, and much, much clearer in their sense of call to ministry. This is across the board from theology nerds to former frat boys, those who skew conservative or progressive, the socially skilled and the introverts. Yes, there are exceptions. And because these are men interested in RUF that may tilt the sample a bit. But the sheer number of students we've seen corrects that.

The second impression is they are very clear-eyed about the limitations and peculiarities of the schools they attend. The ones most guilty of positioning seminaries as specialized movement leaders are the seminaries themselves (the most concise explanation for that is given here.) Of course, many choose their seminary for that reason. But by the time I get to see them most have either gotten past that or at least seen the man behind the curtain. No seminary could live up to the claims on their brochures or ideological cheerleaders. Yet most aren't cynical about it. Just realistic.

So the idea that seminaries are churning out foot soldiers for what-is-threatening-the-church may fill up space on message boards but it will not stand up under scrutiny. I continually meet young men who completely confound the carefully crafted image of their theological institutions. In a good way. I used to think that after a five-minute conversation or five-minutes listening to a sermon I could tell where a man was trained. And often I could. Not any more.

I'm not suggesting seminaries are all the same or they have no issues. Just not the ones many think they do.

This also runs counter to the increasing and near hysterical howls about the alleged young generation of narcissists. I started college in the still choppy wake of the Watergate era. With my work in ministry I stayed in the campus environment almost continuously up until a few years ago. There's a reason why in all that time I never (not once) noticed any significant difference in the level of college-age egotism. There wasn't any difference. But just google the words "narcissist" and "college student" and you'd think otherwise. 

In 1979 Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Since then, calling out a generation as self-absorbed has become a publishing cottage industry. Following Lasch, the general claim is that a generation so steeped with ideas of self-esteem and entitlement disables them from living realistically, being happy and meaningfully contributing to society (or worse.) The latest merchant of doom is Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor and author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Twenge has become a media darling and summaries and snippets of her writing and sound bites are on endless loop via Facebook and Twitter sharing. Especially among Christians, who love her stuff (well, those over 35 do).

Less known is the significant body of work which calls into question (actually pretty much eviscerates) the premise, research methods, language and conclusions of this movement. A good, comprehensive example of that is found here. It's got some techno-babble but well worth the read. This piece is a good shorter summation. I'll only point out one fatal flaw in Twenge's work. The research sampling. Which is, wait, college students.

Seriously? You ask a sample of college students about their attitudes and you're shocked to find they're self-obsessed? And then you project that to mean Big Trouble For Society. Really? The American university has not been an adult world since the early 20th century (and designed by adults to be and stay that way, see the second chapter of Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media by Quentin James Schultze). It has for over a hundred years been a carefully crafted petri dish of late adolescence. Which means late childhood. Which means if Solomon is right, foolishness is "bound up" in that world. And it's been that way for a long, long time.

The form and language of their foolishness may be unfamiliar. And as Twenge skeptic Brent Donnellan says, "It might simply be that older adults...overlook the personality changes that they themselves experienced as they matured into full-fledged adults." You're being polite Professor Donnellan. There's no "might" about it.

But they do grow up. A few weeks ago the New York Times noted how even hipsters (the despised poster children of extended adolescence) eventually become adults...and move to the suburbs. And every year I see how young men come out of that petri dish and now they're all grown up, their hearts warmed by the gospel and called to serve Jesus. I don't look at them and think they don't measure up. I'm fairly certain they'll be more faithful and effective at this than I am.

So relax. The kids are alright.

27 years later. Even beter: