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.


  1. I'm a PCA TE that's been serving Soldiers and Family members since about the beginning of the war in Iraq. I didn't get invited to the NP. I feel like a kid in 1983 with no Member's Only jacket.

  2. I love seersuckers and bow ties. Plus, it is completely counter-cultural to wear them in church in PDX (as opposed to a black t-shirt and a smirk). So, I get down like that most every Sunday.

    Honestly, this group of folks is the most ineffective Fifth Column EVER. The same gin-swillers have been having conferences, forums, communions, visions, and now partnerships for all of the 14 or so years I have ministered in the PCA. If I wanted to make sure and not get ANYTHING done I would circle the same names who keep popping up on these same lists and get after it. (Aside: I quit getting asked to be a part of these Presbyterian Pentaverates several years ago b/c of my "candor." I honestly don't feel like I am missing out when I don't go to these eyebrow crunching sessions.)

    I genuinely love and care for many of the folks involved, and some have preached at Hope, etc. Theologically and regarding different issues in the PCA, I am probably more in "their camp." But they (probably to their surprise) have not read and understood Bonhoeffer. They love the communion of their imagination and not the one that exists. Otherwise, as you point out, Thomas, presbyterian polity and participation in our courts would suffice.

  3. If the PCA is a representational democracy, (members elect elders, elders rule and vote), then, I imagine like any democracy, the rise of political parties, party bosses, patronage and lobby groups is inevitable. The more diverse the body politic, the more salient the differences and, perhaps, the more high-pitched the political posturing.

    Of course, like politics, one must wonder how much the elected officials (ruling, and, more notably, teaching elders), are in touch with their constituencies. I imagine teaching elders feel they must only represent, but lead, teach and instruct their congregations. Sometimes the political process takes a life of its own and is greater than the sum of it's parts. Perhaps these special interest groups, political parties (Partnerships) lobbyists, and proto-party bosses who stack committees have taken a life of their own, well beyond the call to gather and perfect the church.

    And, as Tom says, perhaps, like in any democracy, we need to learn to accept that the majority rule moves the courts, and, consequently, the church forward. Hopefully, we can see that the shared beliefs in the PCA are far greater than the disagreements over theological vision.

  4. Tom, there are whole presbyteries where people are kept out simply for believing communion should be given to children. You're not seeing the very real need for people of good will to get together and show some leadership to keep the PCA from turning in on itself.

    1. Hello Jonathan. What do you mean by "people of good will"? Who are they? How do we know who they are? Not a trick, "gotcha!" question.

  5. The people of good will are those who believe and live as if they believe we are a good-faith subscription denomination.

  6. In other words, it isn't that they are saying "We seek to staff committees with people who share our convictions on disputed matters." They are saying "We seek to staff committees with people who believe in good-faith subscription and not strict subscription."

  7. A good faith subscription to the constitutional standards is wise and in fact what the BCO states: "The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion." (21-4-f) However, it is "in the court's judgment." If it there were a consensus on what it means for an exception to be "neither hostile to the system nor strike at the vitals of religion," then there would in fact be no exceptions and whatever was agree upon would be the standards.
    I was kept out of a church by a presbytery because of my views on the length of the creation days. Even though my view falls within the PCA creation report guidelines, a presbytery still reserves the right to say that exception is not acceptable. I did not like it, but it is their right to do so. Some would say that paedocommunion is not a simple matter at all but is in fact hostile to the system (and I would agree with them), but whether or not one agrees, a presbytery has the right to deny ordination if they think the exception is "hostile to the system." It is not contrary to good will for a presbytery to be predominantly on the left or right of the PCA and ordain in that direction. They are simply acting on what they think is biblical.
    I have to agree with Tom. I am very skeptical of a secret society that seeks to staff committees. It sounds like an attempt to hijack control of the PCA. I think if that happens the PCA would in fact turn in on itself. We can only grow when we can broadly cooperate, not form "confidential" factions.

  8. I would point out, Pastor Rollo, that men from presbyteries that do not accept X as a valid exception began serving on the Review of Presbytery Records committee in which roles they imposed their view of X on the presbyteries who did not share their view of the allowability of X. Perhaps you disagree, but it seems absurd to me that a presbytery could deny ordination to a man on the basis of an exception that he learned at the denominational seminary and which was held by a professor of the seminary. We cannot broadly cooperate when we can't even agree on who "we" are. Otherwise, we put congregations in serious jeopardy whenever they call a minister. They can't be assured that a man successfully ordained in one presbytery will be accepted in their own presbytery!

  9. I think you are probably right that some men do begin to serve on review of presbytery records committee in attempt to influence exceptions, but since it is a committee (and not a commission) they cannot force anything on a presbytery but simply make recommendations to the General Assembly. If the General Assembly chooses to act, then that is the decision of the denomination as a whole, which probably would involve invoking the process of changing the Standards.

    I would say I disagree with your second statement. Professors are as diverse as the rest of the denomination. And, I would say the allowance of exceptions must also be diverse because that is part of what it means to have unity mid diversity. We are united around the core doctrinal statements of the Standards but there is wiggle room in there on which we can diversify. If all presbyteries must accept a certain set of exceptions to the Standards, then that set becomes a de facto standard. And, if presbyteries (and church sessions) must accept it, then it should be in our Standards themselves either by positively tightening the Standards or negatively loosening them. In which case, we all become strict subscriptionists to that standard (looser or tighter). Now, there are limits to the wiggle room and exceptions, and one of the purposes of courts is to keep an eye on that at each level.

    I do think it is slightly overstating the matter to say that churches would be in serious jeopardy when they call a minister. They are products of the presbyteries in which they minister and should know their presbyteries. Most churches ask a candidate's exceptions to make sure 1) they can accept them and 2) their presbytery will accept them. I have never heard of a case in the PCA where a candidate was called and made it to the floor of presbytery only to be turned away. That does not mean it has not happened but I think it is rare. Generally those things will get caught early on in the process.

    By the way, I appreciate the formality but you can call me Taylor. No need to be formal in a comments discussion. :)

  10. By the way, Tom, I wanted to say props on the Spinal Tap references! I do indeed hope and pray we do not go in that direction.

    Turn your speakers up to 11 and keep blogging.

  11. Jonathan - the strict bifurcation of "men of good will" vs. (let's face it) "everyone else" is just hard to take. And just wrong. The *way* you invoke the categories of strict vs good faith subscription are self-attesting. Where have we ever codified where one ends and the other begins? We haven't. We work that out with, yes, disputable matters...through the courts of the church. How those categories are settled in the minds of me, you or even the professors at Covenant Seminary don't settle the matter.

    Taylor - As far as my blogging, I often stray from the wisdom of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel: "There's a fine line between stupid and clever."

  12. I'm on the NP mailing list. You give it too much credit, Tom. It is basically an email. Confidentiality can be as much a practical way to focus on a task without distraction as a failure to man-up or evidence of a cabal. No one is trying to hijack the polity of the PCA which requires a good amount of attention and team work to do well. To actually engage in GA floor and committee work everyone consults the wisdom of others, works in teams, trusts the experience of friends etc. There's nothing shady or wrong with that, it is actually an essential. Who really reads through every page of the commissioner handbook and votes their pure individual conscience on every ballot? Nobody. We listen to committees, and committees listen to each other before we vote. The NP is a way that GA committee members can actually do that in a more informed way than if you cut yourself off from other presbyters.

    1. Jedidiah,

      Does the National Partnership suggest specific names for specific committees? Are specific folks encouraged to put their names forward? I am not asking for names, just what you guys do or not.

      Thanks for your openness,
      Chris Hutchinson
      Blacksburg, VA

    2. I think the answer to your question is 'no' if I understand you right There was no NP effort to get specific guys elected by their Presbyteries to serve on committees.

      Because I am on the nominating committee this year for Susquehanna Valley I talked on the phone, through email and in person with NP guys and many other friends in the PCA who aren't on the NP list as I considered the nominees. I talked to anyone who wanted to talk about it with me. I talked about who they knew, who I was going to vote for etc. But the NP didn't hand down a slate from on high or even make recommendations in the way that our permanent committees often do. For the NP guys who were also on the nominating committee we just talked about who we thought was best and even argued with each other about why we thought about it the way we did.

      By the way, I enjoyed that paper you sent me awhile back!

    3. Jedidiah, your response to this greatly concerns me. It does sound like the folks from the "NP" did talk about, email, suggest whatever folks for the nominating committee to put forth. Especially in light of the recent news about 3 current members of the SJC (I served on the SJC for 2 terms, eight years) being replaced through the nominating committee it seems that though unofficial the "NP" does have a list to support and a list to oppose. Sad day.

    4. Jedidiah,

      Thank you. That's helpful. I realize informal discussions are going to take place and would be surprised if they did not. And I am comforted that a list of names is not sent out via email to the NP group, to support or oppose.

      It's a little disconcerting that you know who the NP guys were on the committee, while other Nominating Committee members will not have known who is and who isn't NP, since it's a secret society. That alone makes it a clear party within the church, right? Have you guys discussed I Corinthians 1 and 3 at all? You're pretty thoughtful folks, so I assume you have.

      Glad you liked my paper. I forgot I even sent it, or which one it was. I'm getting old. But thank you.

    5. Lee and Chris, to be clear, the NP did not send recommendations to Presbyteries on who to nominate. Lee, of course I knew there were some guys who get the NP emails and participated in online conversation about our task as commissioners who were in the room. Should we have all gone around the room before the meeting began and disclosed how each member arrived at his decisions? I honestly can't see how this is problematic unless you assume that all organized political work in a polity such as ours is morally suspect. It seems to assume that a. there aren't competing visions of mission and even theology in the PCA when we all know that there are (I'm fine with that) or. b. that there is something sinful about these conflicting visions (when, if that were the case, we would have to scrap our parliamentary based system of govt., which assumes disagreement) and that c. a defined (confidential, secret, whatever) group of presbyters working together for shared goals should be judged as de facto devious when all they may be doing is having a conversation that is not public. Privacy is not a sin. Cunning, deceit, sectarianism, divisiveness are. I don't think that the NP is any of these things, but has been an encouragement to avoid many of these sins in my own life. FWIW, I wouldn't mind if the conversation were public record other than the fact that I think it would unnecessarily force us to respond to questions we aren't asking. Like if I got on Andy Webb's private group (I tried and was turned down inexplicabbly, as I am conservative, Presbyterian and interested in hearing about how others are processing conflicts in the PCA) and started asking strict confessionalists to defend their admiration for Joey Pipa's vision for the PCA. That would be rude and counter-productive.

  13. AS a TE, I find it odd that so many have so much time and money to spend on so much junk. Perhaps they should send some of their extra cash that they spend in these meetings to some of the churches in the denomination that are struggling to survive. But then again, I guess the struggling churches would have to fit the ubber-standards these men have in seeking out men of like faith within the faith. Is the denomination really coming to this?

    1. Nobody is spending money on this, as far as I know.

  14. I agree that "men of good will" is a code word that attempts to paint people who agree with good-faith subscription as good and those who disagree as bad. Probably unhelpful language, and I admit that my use of such language is calculated to irritate those who want to keep people from being ordained simply for having this or that exception. I probably shouldn't be trying to deliberately irritate the strict guys, but I am irritated. I am using this language at the end of a long, tiring process, not at the beginning. But I will try my best to stop using it.

    Here is a post where I try to explain in a more reasoned way what I'm talking about:

  15. Jonathan, I like several who have commented am a minister would could not make it into some presbyteries in our denomination because of my views on creation. My friendship and discipleship by Jack Miller also makes me unwanted by many in the PCA. I understand that there are churches in certain presbyteries that I just don't need to talk with. I am wondering what your solution would be. Would you require presbyteries to accept men who have exceptions that they do not agree with? Would General Assembly then be given the power to place men regardless with what local presbyteries think?

    I also have some questions about "strict" and "good faith" subscription. Strict seems to be impossible in our day because theology has developed greatly since the time of Westminster. I have found that at times "good faith" subscription amounts almost to having someone say "Trust me I believe this". I think the better solution (but clearly more timely to deal with) is what some call "honest" subscription. I have felt bound by our denominations position on subscription to tell each presbytery every place I think my views may (the important word is may) be contrary to the Confession and allow the presbytery decide if the "strike at the vitals". I believe that I only have one (and perhaps two) true exceptions to the confession. I have several pages of "scruples" that I give to presbytery credential committees and let them decide. I think this is what the PCA requires but not all agree with me. I am very suspect with anyone (strict or honest subscriptionist) who on the floor of presbytery days (I have no exceptions with the Confession at all). If that happens (depending on how I am feeling that day) I am likely to ask about the prohibition in Larger Catechism question 139 of "keeping of stews"

  16. One solution would be to allow churches to affiliate with whatever presbytery they choose. It destroys the geographical relatedness of presbyteries but it recognizes the very real fact that we are fragmented as a denomination; our structure may as well reflect that fragmentation. No one is saying to hide your convictions - 'honest' subscription is just as much a code word as anything. Bottom line - some churches in our denomination cannot call the pastor who suits them simply because the presbytery they are in won't accept his honest subscription. Should their only recourse really be to leave the denomination? Why not allow them to simply leave the presbytery? The larger issue, as I discuss in my reflection on what it means to have a confession:

    is that a 17th century document that served as a good snapshot of who the "insiders" were in 1646 can't really be counted on to serve as a snapshot of who the insiders are now. Lutheran churches have the advantage of their confession's being written in German so every so often they can retranslate it and take that opportunity to update it. In our denomination, we're trying to 'do church' on the basis of a nearly 300 year old snapshot. That's very hard to do.

    Now, I'm not saying I prefer the ideological presbytery idea over some other possible solution, but you need to be a little madder than you are about the fact that there are entire presbyteries where you couldn't be ordained. That's just weird.

    I was born and raised in Mississippi and I attended the denominational seminary, yet I could not be a minister in the entire southern half of the state simply for taking a view of an issue that G.I.Williamson also took and he was the guy who wrote the commentary on the confession that was used in my communicant's class a child. Is this not a comedy of errors?

  17. Tom I think I'm going to start something called "Vintage 82/83" in the pcusa if you're interested. I promise its not an affinity group. Its sorta like a via media w/ respect to NPP, FV, AAT, ECO, FOP, FPC Jackson, the EPC, and Obamacare. Its a perfect fit for you.

  18. It might help if Presbyterian brothers had a statement of doctrinal and ethical standards that was a lot shorter than the WCF (though informed by it), but definitely a lot longer than the IVCF's. Then as controversies arose, appoint study groups that would issue authoritative statements.

    You will still never please everyone, though. The Evangelical Free Church lost an entire district over the fact that we even considered dropping pre-millennialism as a required standard.