Monday, May 21, 2012

Who Needs the PCA?

Who's Got the Big Mo?

On Saturday last the Vicksburg (MS) Post reported that 99 years after the first time Vicksburg and Port Gibson have once again fallen to invaders. Three area churches, including the First Presbyterian Churches of Vicksburg and Port Gibson, were on Thurdsday dismissed by The Presbytery of Mississippi (PCUSA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. These are added to two other Mississippi congregations in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs. At least five other congregations had earlier received similar permission.

What has happened in Mississippi seems to reflect a national trend among disaffected PCUSA congregations. They are not going to The Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA remains the “big boy” among the non-mainline Presbyterian denominations with 1455 congregations, and nearly 273,000 communicant and 348,000 total members. The EPC has about 300 congregations and 115,000 members.

Meanwhile January the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians announced its formation. The new denomination, if it is to be called that, described its identity thus:

The distinctive of the ECO will be a commitment to growing and planting flourishing churches and nurturing leaders for gospel ministry. They will have a flatter polity system than the PC (USA) to promote this mission.

The following were listed in materials distributed as a brief summary of the values of the ECO:

1. Jesus-shaped identity (in which the essential question has to do with whether one is actually a disciple of Jesus).

2. Biblical integrity (in which the essential issue is whether the unique and absolutely authoritative Scriptures actually define our identity).

3. Thoughtful theology (in which Reformed theological education is treasured).

4. Accountable community (in which churches are communities where guidance is actually a corporate spiritual experience).

5. Egalitarian Ministry (in which the spiritual gift of both genders and all racial and ethnic groups are “unleashed”).

6. Missional Centrality (in which the church “lives out” the whole of the Great Commission, “including evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion and redemptive justice”).

7. Center-focused spirituality (in which the church calls people to the core of what it means to follow Jesus and “does not fixate on the boundaries”).

8. Kingdom vitality (by which the church actively reproduces missional communities).

The EPC gives this list of what makes it “distinctive” among American Presbyterian denominations (abridge by The Curmudgeon):

1. Distinctive: The Essentials
While adhering to the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught by the Bible, we have developed a document called "The Essentials of Our Faith." While we believe all of our faith is important, some elements of that faith are absolutes.

2. Distinctive: The Westminster Confession
The Westminster Confession of Faith has had a number of revisions over the years. Not only has the Evangelical Presbyterian Church adopted some important revisions that bring it up to date, but in addition, it has adopted a modern language version.

3. Distinctive: Work of the Holy Spirit
While affirming the priority of the fruit of the Spirit over the gifts of the Spirit in the Christian life, we also affirm those who believe that all the gifts of God's Spirit are biblically valid for today. While we are not Pentecostal, neither do we believe that the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, should be ignored or forbidden.

4. Distinctive: The Ruling Elder
Part of the genius of Presbyterianism has been the role of the Ruling Elder, the layman, in the government of the church. When a denomination becomes clergy dominated, it tends to lose touch with the grassroots of the church. To maintain that important balance, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church provides for each congregation to send two Ruling Elders for each minister to Presbytery and General Assembly

5. Distinctive: Women in Ordained Office
In the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the decision to elect women as Ruling Elders or Deacons is left to the discretion of the local congregation. We believe that under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, God's people should be free to follow His leading on this important issue. (Editorial note: The EPC also allows local congregations with the approval of Presbyteries to elect women as ministers.)

6. Distinctive: Rights in Perpetuity
,.. there are certain features of our government that are unique and distinctive, and should never change. Among these are the rights of a church over its own property and to elect its own officers. To insure that such features are not the victims of time or circumstance, there is written into our Book of Government, a section called, "Limitations in perpetuity."

7. Distinctive: Mission of the Church
The Church must never confuse its primary task of evangelism (the Gospel) with the fruit of faith (good works)." This affirmation settles for us a dispute that has caused much division in our day when churches have become preoccupied with social change to the neglect of true spiritual change.

8. Distinctive: Congregational Rights
In our Book of Government, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church spells out rights reserved to a particular church…the right is included for a particular church to own its property as well as to withdraw with its property if it so decides. It outlines other rights, such as the right to call its own pastor.

9. Distinctive: Voluntary Giving
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has no "per capita tax." We do not believe that one court of the Church has the right to put a "tax" with obligation on another lower court.

10. Distinctive: Position Papers
In the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we have developed a system whereby the denomination can speak clearly and decisively to member congregations on issues facing our society. We do not believe in political positions, but we do believe the Church has an obligation to speak its mind to congregations on important issues..

Conclusion: Truth in Love
Perhaps the finest distinctive of all in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is the spirit of love that characterizes our denomination. With the historic marks of the true church -- the practice of scriptural discipline, the right preaching of the Word and proper observation of the sacraments -- we have included loving fellowship (John 13:35). Our motto is "In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity." And underneath this motto, the seal of our Church adds "truth in love."

This writer notes that both these denominations provide health insurance plans for their ministers. The PCA, the victim of its own distinctive polity, does not and cannot. The large, healthy, and young do well under the PCA system; the rest do not.

All this leads to several questions:

(1) What is the PCA? Not what is an individual congregation or Presbytery, but what is the PCA as a whole? The matter of identity is as alive now as it ever was – and perhaps more so. Growth for the PCA is most likely to occur by church planting, not by gaining congregations from the PCUSA. But what will those church plants look like and what impact will they have on PCA identity? (Hint: Look at the past and present to predict the future.)

(2) How long will the PCA as presently constituted hold together? There are those on the denomination’s right who would like to see the left and the squishier parts of the middle leave. If this does not happen, we could see yet another Presbyterian denomination. At the same time, not a little energy is extended on pan-denominational unity – whether of the NAE type or the Gospel Coaliton type. (NAPARC, or Presbyterian unity, is pretty much irrelevant.)

(3) In the long run, what will some of the bigger names in some of the bigger, largely metropolitan, churches do? They surely have options which could make a better fit, if they decide they want any kind of connectionalism at all. They could escape such controversies as the Federal Vision and six-twenty-four creationism and would be free to have women deacons and over time women elders and ministers.

The PCA remains the biggest of the Presbyterian splits. The OPC, ARP, and RPCNA can look at its size and resources, if not much else,with envy. But for how long will the PCA be the 800 lb. gorilla in the Presbyterian room? The momentum may be shifting elsewhere.

Responses are invited and will be published as submitted.


Ken Pierce said...

I see it as a hopeful sign for Presbyterianism overall and probably a healthy thing for the PCA longterm though costly in the meanwhile. Nobody can see the future, but it seems to me the EPC and ECO will come together --nothing will hold them apart. This could be a release valve for more progressive PCA congregations, and a more confessional PCA could occupy the ground so long held by the CRC as the thoughtful but not reactionary conservative Reformed body. But, I have no crystal ball.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

This from an EPC minister who gave permission to publish his private email response:

Bill, you write with clarity and objectivity, and I really appreciate it. Your probing questions are the right ones to ask, I believe. Since I know extreme little about the PCA, I cannot say who else is asking those questions, but I suspect a lot are.

The EPC has taken in some strong PCUSA churches this last two years, and I sense they are more theologically concerned than the EPC was when they came in. I say this because I see the churches here in the Midwest being somewhat aggressive during Candidate exams. I like their emphasis, and am pleasantly surprised. We took in the first female Teaching Elder last year, from the PCUSA, transferred with her church, and she was given the most rigorous exam I have seen in my 16 years in the Midwest. She was wonderfully Reformed in theology, knew Scripture extremely well, has a great history of deep pastoral experience, doesn't have a feminist agenda, and is an excellent preacher. Not everyone in this Presbytery wants female TE's, so they really went for her throat. I was surprised by the outcome, as she was accepted because she she could not be faulted. One church pulled out and joined the PCA over acceptance of female TE’s. The reason I mention this is to say the complexion of the EPC is changing with the influx of PCUSA churches, and I think it's for the better. We have tended to downplay theology somewhat, but not anymore. The PCUSA churches that join us nowadays have had to fight for their Reformed theology, so they consider it a little more precious, I think.

I don't think anyone can predict what the PCA will look like in the next 20 years, but it is an interesting watch. The PCA has been and I think will continue to be a solidly Reformed denomination that loves church planting and foreign missions. I highly respect that.

Jonathan McGuire said...

In response to the "EPC minister" and his helpful comments:

I always find it odd that those who accept, or are, female pastors do so and say they do not have "a feminist agenda." I think this begs the question.

It must be shown that a female pastor and those who would support her do not have a feminist agenda, and simply subscribing to much Reformed theology does not mean one does not have a feminist agenda. Nor does a rigorous Presbytery examination. If anything, the evidence, documented by Mary Kassian, Piper, Grudem, and many more, show that Feminism has so subtly infiltrated the church and all of our ways of thinking as Westerners that we are (almost) unable to find where to begin in discussing Feminism and how it has effected us.

I would like to have been at the Presbytery examination of this woman who sought entrance on the credentials of being a conservative Reformed pastor in good standing with the Standards (which I know is still the EPC criteria) and the historic faith and PRACTICE, and to have seen the ways her assumption to the office was challenged. Namely, was it even asked, "How do you justify being a woman in pulpit?" Or better yet, "Using biblical and systematic theology, prove to us the legitimacy of bi-gender calling to the preaching of the Word." If she balked at such a question or failed to convince, surely her understanding of the Scriptures should be called into question, if not her calling generally. I know this isn't the primary focus of the blog post, but it is highly relevant for me as one in the process of ordination into the PCA, and a very conservative Presbytery of the PCA at that (creationism, etc.) as well as one who cares deeply for schisms and reunification whenever possible.

From many of us in the PCA, the mere acceptance of women in teaching office is a violation of biblical and systematic theological witness stemming, largely (today at least) from a feminist agenda. Saying otherwise doesn't make it so (though, of course, I'm not providing my own "proof" here!)

It should be remembered that not all Feminism appears the same but is more like a diamond: it glitters and shines depending on the angle and light.

Our inability to articulate the nuances and understand or project trajectories of all that falls under the umbrella of "Feminism" is part of the reason we are where we are today, still fighting this war, and does not bode well for the future as we fight the battle over GLBT crowd seeking ordination. Yes, I know the "gay" discussion is old. However, Feminism, gender, and sexuality are closer than cousins and will continue to muddy the waters of denominational allegiance so long as "Reformed theology" cannot keep up with these nuances.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

@ Jonathan. I think the question is: What is a feminist agenda? Is a woman who is ordained to ministry by definition a feminist? Might she be convinced that she has a a call and that the Scriptures allow her to hold the office, and yet not have any interest in, or, for that matter be opposed to a feminist agenda in the church and culture? My answer would be, Yes. I am observing in myself as I get older that I am less rigid and more rigid at the same time. On the one hand, I am less tolerant - say of our Bapterian theology and worship. On the other hand I have fewer answers about quite a number of things.

Steve said...

Jonathan, having recently come out of the egalitarian CRC (where I served on Council with and sat under the preaching of women), I’d caution against attributing a categorical feminist agenda. It may be better to attribute it to egalitarianism as opposed to elitism, which is to say it’s not just about sex. Think every member ministry where unordained men and even children are thought to have access to places and roles for which they are not authorized. The problem isn’t feminism versus patriarchy, it’s egalitarianism versus elitism.

We should be glad for women in our midst who can hold a rigorous Reformed theology. I often wonder if those who charge feminism can appreciate that. Sure, some of them who are able also need to see the importance of what it means to have biblical authorization. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean they’re always feminists.

Ken Pierce said...

Whether or not we call something egalitarian, feminist or whatever is really secondary.

The question is "What does Scripture teach?"

There may be some robust orthodox Reformed women, but I can't seem to think of many --at least no-one prominent. The only relatively conservative clergywoman I can think of in recent memory is the late Elizabeth Achtemeier, and she was neo-orthodox.

The CRC is a great case study, because, unlike other mainlines, it built a hermeneutic that allowed for female ordination: essentially saying "The Bible says we should ordain women."

That same hermeneneutic, then, opens the door for homosexual marriage and ordination --a move that is happening relatively faster in the CRC than in other mainlines (like the PCUSA) who simply said, "We don't care what the Bible says about women. That teaching was time and culture bound." This is why we are seeing, now, a major exodus of albeit-egalitarian evangelicals from the PCUSA --they have said "thus far and no further."

There doesn't seem to be that same move afoot among egalitarians in the CRC. In fact, is it not the same people who were agitating for female ordination that are now advancing the homosexual agenda, unlike in the PCUSA?

Interesting times. Certainly, the easiest thing to do would be to capitulate on this issue.

Complementarianism will become more and more costly in the coming years. We have not done a good job of teaching it --we have simply assumed it-- which is why we see PCA churches leaving for egalitarian denominations, a phenomenon that has surprised many, me included.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

I was ordained with a neo-orthodox man in PCUS. Some years later we were talking and he said to me something like, "What is important is not so much what you believe about the Bible but how you handle the Bible" (he meant, how you approach, interpret, and preach a text). He was a better exegete than a lot of my conservative colleagues. Anyway, I am thinking that what and how you preach is at least as important as the gender of the preacher.

Ken Pierce said...

I think it's wrong to posit faithful female preaching against unfaithful male preaching. I've known some people (whose names you would know) who have gone to Europe and heard some stunning sermons, only to find out later that the preacher was an open homosexual.

The crying need of the hour, particularly in the PCA is gifted, called and faithful male preachers.

We are doing ourselves a great disservice by ordaining men who cannot preach, by anyone's definition of the word. I am amazed that nobody marvels that somehow God has called 3 times too many men to the gospel ministry in the PCA.

We need to stop looking for minimum competence. You don't want the brain surgeon who just made it, and yet we entrust souls (humanly speaking) to people who probably never will be capable in a pulpit or, if they will, they are not demonstrating it now.

Here endeth the sermon.

Ken Pierce said...

Oh and okay I thought of one otherwise orthodox prominent female, but no longer ordained: Carmen Fowler LaBarge of The Presbyterian Layman.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

OK, but the Reformation doctrine is that we are to receive the Word, as we receive the sacraments, apart from the qualification of the preacher/celebrant to hold the office. Why do we focus so much on gender? Is any man more qualified than any woman because he is a man? How many terrible sermons have you heard in presbyteries, including your present one, from candidates for ordination and from men already ordained. Would you rather hear an authentic word from a competent woman exegete and preacher or hear nothing from a male?

Ken Pierce said...

Was Paul then wrong when he said, "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man?"

You're positing a false choice: either ungifted men or gifted women.

I maintain there are enough gifted men. It would certainly be attractive, on a human level, to be reconciled to the correctness of female ordination. Better pensions, health care, more church choices, even, in many cases better worship (one of the best services I have ever attended was at Shadyside Pres in Pittsburgh!).

And, yet, there is that verse, and several others.

Steve said...

Ken, I don’t think anybody is positing a false choice so much as making a worthy point: the efficacy of Word and sacrament does not depend on the character or even the authorization of the minister. Obviously, this is in no way to suggest that the character or authorization of the minister is negligible. You are correct that Paul clearly disqualifies women from office. You are also correct that there are sufficiently gifted men (how could God not provide in accord with his own rules?).

Even so, I would be lying if I said I never heard a woman preach the unfettered gospel and was edified, because I have and was. But this is a case of God working despite the failures of his people. One might get further making the case about the importance of authorization to admit that ability can reside even in those unauthorized, instead of pretending that ability and authorization always go hand in hand. That just isn’t reality.