Tuesday, March 26, 2013

PCA Presbyterians Play Politics

Below are two old posts. In light of the revelation of new political maneuvering in the PCA, I thought they might be of some relevance, 

Of Presbyterians and Politics

I was a seminary student in the days when there was a conservative caucus within a conservative PCUS presbytery. This was a pre-presbytery meeting at which conservatives decided what would happen at the upcoming meeting without having to deal with those troublesome liberals.

One of my professors was also the stated clerk of the presbytery and a participant in the caucus. He got a fair amount of pleasure from gathering some of “his boys” in his office and telling stories about the personalities and powers in the old denomination.

One day after the caucus meeting, he was sharing a little gossip with some of us about the proceedings. He looked at us with the characteristic twinkle in the eye and wry smile and said of the caucus, “It’s wicked, you know. It’s wicked.” Little did we realize how right he was.

In early years of ministry I was a minister of the new Presbyterian Church in America in the PCA presbytery that succeeded the old PCUS one and encompassed the majority of Presbyterians in area where I had attended seminary. It did not take long before I began to perceive that, though we had separated from the liberals, we had not separated from the politics played by conservatives. Nearly forty years later my observation is that as it was in the beginning, so it is now.

More than twenty years after seminary, when I was about to move from “up north” a Yankee took me aside and said, “You’ll do well up there. You’re a straight shooter, and they like straight shooters.” 

What I found when I moved was that there was little intrigue, little arranging behind the scenes. The system worked. Clerks were clerks. Committees were committees. There seemed to be no good ole boy networks. Deliberations occurred on the floor. I, though a unreconstructed Confederate, could actually be heard when I spoke. Arguments mattered. There was less indirection. I never sensed there was "a plan", that people had been "talked to", that the fix was in. Fewer times was I among the losing minority. I still lost, but it was not so hard to take, because all was done above board.  I seemed able to make a difference. I found the openness refreshing.

Now I have a question for the ecclesiastical psychologists and sociologists. Why? Why the so obvious differences? Is it something about the cultural differences between Southerners and Northerners? Or the historical experiences of the Northern and Southern Presbyterians? Hodge and Thornwell? Or what?

Of Politics and Presbyterians, Part Deux

It was one of those rare convergences. Two friends were called to churches in the same town at almost the same time. A third minister happened to see the minister, whose call came first, just after the call was extended to the other. One of the observations the first made to third was that the call of his colleague by the one church might prove good for his church. Why? Because what he perceived as the deficiencies of the second minister might lead to people looking for other options.

In another setting the third party listened as a fourth party in advance of the second party’s move expressed displeasure with him about several things. Eventually, the third party asked the rhetorical question, “Should we not want him to succeed?”

Yet the first, second, and fourth parties were friends. And it occurred to the third as he listened, “And these guys are friends?” If they are friends and so speak of and treat one another, what do they say about and how would they treat  those who are not in their circle, not among their “friends”?

How do we explain such things? Politics. We ought never be shocked when these kinds of things happen in political parties, even within the same factions of political parties. A politician has to be polite and friendly, and often politicians are just that.

They also have to get things done, and they need other people to get things done. They are all part of the same system, and they know the way things work in that system. Rarely is there a difference of personality or principle between politicians that keeps them from working together to get things done. As the saying goes, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” They may not like each other or even trust each other, but they will be friendly toward one another because that’s the way they work, and they will work together because that’s the way politics works.

Sometimes, however, they part company because they their goals are contrary or competitive. They may remain outwardly polite, but each will do what it takes to frustrate the other and to accomplish their own ends. Once in awhile that leads to permanent rupture, but usually, they return to more normal patterns, again because that’s the way politics works.   

That’s the way it works in the world. Anyone who is surprised or disillusioned by it is na├»ve. The real world of politics has always operated in this way, and it always will.

Now what perhaps should surprise and may disillusion is when the church works this way, too. On the one hand it should not surprise simply because the polis of church and state is run by sinners.

But the question nags: Should it be this way in the church? Was the church assembly recorded in Acts 15 really infected by politics? Were there caucuses, off the record conversations, and private deals? Were elders and apostles “organized” before the meeting? Did Paul and Peter cooperate for similar ends while talking behind one another’s backs and not much liking or trusting the other?

I really don’t know, but I hope not. I need to believe the church can be different. And should be.

But maybe it’s just me. If I were a football coach, I would line up in the I, and run between the tackles most of time. Sometimes I would get wild, and run the Green Bay sweep. I would not do very well with the spread, players all over the  field, and misdirection plays the norm. That’s probably why I don’t play much ball.