Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stumbling Blocks

Stumbling Blocks

At last week’s Belmont Stakes, Animal Kingdom stumbled when he ran into another horse which had been forced into his lane. He almost threw his jockey but recovered and continued the race. However, his jockey said that he knew from that very early moment that his horse had no chance to win.

I feel that my church made some stumbling decisions early in its race and that these decisions have had a major negative impact on all our subsequent life.

I graduated from seminary in 1972 and was ordained in the PCUS. When I was ordained I had no intentions of leaving the PCUS, but a year’s experience changed my mind. I ended up attending the Convocation of Sessions and the Advisory Convention. I left the PCUS and awaited an opportunity for service among the continuing Presbyterians which came in a couple of months. I attended almost all the meetings of the General Assembly up till 2004. At the GA level, I have chaired committees of commissioners and a judicial commission and served on a Permanent Committee and on a special Study Committee, but have not otherwise been much of a player at the GA level. And to be fair to my church, I do not believe it is alone in stumbling. I have made my share of missteps as one of her ministers. With this providing perspective I write.

Here are two of those stumbling block decisions I think have had a deleterious effect.

Grassroots Assembly. From the beginning we chose that commissioners to General Assembly would be chosen on this basis: All Sessions would elect ruling elder commissioners to General Assembly as they do to Presbytery. As with Presbytery all teaching elders on the rolls would be eligible to attend. It was expected the ministers serving churches and ruling elders would be funded by the local Sessions. The idea was that we wanted to keep the power at the grassroots level, with the local sessions and ruling elders having much more influence and control than in the old PCUS.

It has not worked. (1) There is very little real deliberation at General Assembly. How could there be? It is not a deliberative assembly but a convention of 1000+ men. (2) General Assembly has relatively little control. The Permanent Committee staffs have far more control over what happens than the Permanent Committees themselves and the Permanent Committees far more than the General Assembly. (3) It is not representative. Far from increasing ruling elder participation, we have decreased it. At the just concluded Assembly, teaching elders outnumbered ruling elders about 4 to 1 (despite past decisions to increase ruling elder participation by increasing the number of elders a Session is entitled to elect as commissioners).

What would happen if the General Assembly were delegated, that is, if Presbyteries elected commissioners to General Assembly? Immediately the imbalance between ruling elder and teaching elder participation would go away. A Presbytery would elect the same number of ruling elders and teaching elders and pay for them to attend. More deliberation would be possible, as the “organizational dynamics” of the gathering would change from convention to church assembly of elders met to govern the church. With those changes, over time the Assembly would do more business and have more practical oversight and control of the work of the church. The Assembly would look and work a lot more like its Acts 15 counterpart.

No Directory for Worship. The decision to make the Directory of Worship temporary and non-binding except three chapters was made to get us out of a tight spot at the third Assembly. 

My take on this is that at least one significant reason for this decision was to avoid a fight over the invitation system. It may be difficult for those who were not around in those early years to imagine a denomination in which the invitation system was a hot button issue. But, such was the influence of revivalism and crusade evangelism, and such was the influence of William Hill and the PEF, that it was. Those who wanted to protect the system feared it could be “outlawed” by appeal to the Directory, while those who opposed it would not have been happy to have seen it explicitly allowed. So we punted. As it turned out the ball got kicked out of the stadium altogether.

Whether that analysis is correct, partially so, or not at all, there should be little debate over the result. There is no unity of worship in the PCA. Every local congregation does what is right in its own eyes. Even in Presbyteries where men are asked explicitly to affirm the regulative principle, there is a great diversity of worship. That is fine, if worship “style” falls within the things that are indifferent, that is, if there is no regulative principle.

It has been said that that Presbyterians do not have prescribed worship (as, say, the Anglicans), nor free worship (as, say, non-denominational churches) but directed worship – that is, worship guided by a directory that does not prescribe such things as the content of prayers or the text upon which the minster preaches. But, what the PCA really has is free worship. Given the choice between free and prescribed, I’ll take prescribed. The Book of Common Prayer provides far more Biblical worship content than the modern “worship leader” with the “worship team” or the minister who is out to create his own fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants liturgy.

A PCA member traveling or moving to a new community cannot say, “I’ll just look up the local PCA church(es), and I’m sure I’ll find place to worship.” Regardless of his “preferences,” he is as likely not. That seems to me a threat to the basic unity of the church. The Anglican Church proves that a common liturgy does not guarantee a common theology, but we are proving that a common theology, not even a commitment to the same WCF theology of worship, will produce a common worship.

Of course, as a curmudgeon, I don’t mind getting these things out of my gut and onto paper. But, more than that, it seems to me that these are issues concerning the church’s government and worship that are worth discussion even at this late date.


Anonymous said...

The "Invitation" or "Altar-Call" System may have been an issue of the early assemblies of the PCA; but, according to the conversations that I had the privilege to listen in on, the issue was continuing spiritual gifts, i.e., the charismata.

Rod said...

I don't know if this would be an additional stumbling block or an overlapping one, but my observation (having been involved with the PCA since 1975) is that, while those who started the PCA professed adherence to the WCF, they really did not see the Reformed distinctives as being a major issue. I don't impugn their motives at all - they were coming out of a situation in which they were having to fight for the very inspiration of Scripture against liberalism. Reformed distinctives understandably (but regettably) were put on the back burner for many of them (with a few exceptions, such as Morton Smith).

But that led to your problem with worship. Many simply did not see an invitation as a problem with their theology, since they really didn't think about the implications of the Reformed faith.

Maybe that is tied in with your first point - the grass-roots emphasis means we don't have a denomination led by scholar-theologians, but with many (especially on the presbytery level) who have the attitude of "Just give me the plain, simple gospel of Jesus, without all that complicated theology." But, as you say, the grass-roots representation is almost non-existent at the General Assembly level. However, the teaching elders end up reflecting that grass-roots mentality when they go to GA.

While I have my own problems with the OPC, I do appreciate the fact that they self-consciously were founded on a robust understanding of Reformed theology, so they have not suffered from some of the problems you pointed out in the PCA.

I think we also have to appreciate the fact that the PCA founders experienced conservative voices being shut out of the GA deliberations due to the politics at the presbytery level - only liberals being elected as GA delegates. The PCA founders understandably (but regrettably) set up procedures to guard against that happening again.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

I now have official figures from the Stated Clerk's Office for attendance at the PCA 2011 GA. Total Commissioners: 1183. TE Commissioners: 901. RE Commissioners: 282. My estimation or the ratio between TEs and REs was wrong. It was closer to 3 to 1 than 4 to 1.