Thursday, March 28, 2013

The PCA: Are We Taking Ourselves Too Seriously?

You know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore....Paul Simon

The Presbyterian Church in America is the largest of the conservative Presbyterian denominations with 350,000 members, if you count the children, or 300,000 if you count only professors. However, we are not so much, to use a Dr. Will McIlwaine phrase, as “a poot in a whirlwind” in the ecclesiastical world.

Why? Well, there are something like 171 million Protestants in the US. There are maybe 63 million Roman Catholics. Among the 15 largest Protestant denominations the largest is the Southern Baptist Convention with 16.2 million while the smallest is the African American Episcopal Church with 1.4 million. The Presbyterian Church USA, despite big losses, has 2.8 million.

Yet we with our 350,000  take ourselves very seriously.

The latest illustration of this reality of taking ourselves more seriously than we may deserve is the news of the existence of a new organization, the National Partnership about which I knew nothing (no surprise) till I read about it at the Aquila Report. The Partnership wants to preserve what it believes was the founders’ vision for the PCA and to promote more involvement in the committees and courts of the church by those who are in sympathy with its goals. In other words, it wants to work its will with an effective strategy. The organization apparently flexed its muscles at the recent meeting of the General Assembly’s Nominating Committee.

The news of the Partnership’s existence follows a January Vintage 73 proposal that the PCA engage in intentional “division” or “partition.” According to this suggestion the PCA is too large (difficult to take seriously) and diverse (much easier to take seriously) now to experience unity among ourselves or with others. The solution may be to divide ourselves into three or four smaller denominations each of which can be itself, pursue its own goals, and establish its own fraternal relationships. In other words, the way forward is to add to the already embarrassingly large number of Presbyterian denominations in the United States.

I think it likely that Vintage 73 and the Partnership have similar, if not identical, goals. The Partnership would achieve its goals by controlling committees and courts. Those who do not like it would have the choice of accepting their permanent lack of significant place within the church or of leaving. Some no doubt would leave, which is already being considered according to Andy Webb who says there is a Yahoo group where leaving is discussed. The leaving of some would serve at least some of the purposes of both the Partnership and Vintage 73.

Several negative responses to the news of the existence of the Partnership have been published.

Representing conservatives is Andy Webb, who points out that conservatives have lost nearly every contest, citing as examples the failure to approve the explicit prohibition of intinction and the allowance of a diversity of views regarding the creation days. He acknowledges that the only power conservatives have is the threat of leaving. He points out that, if conservatives left, the church would drift inexorably leftward because there would be no rightward tug on the moderate middle. In my view, neither the threat nor the supposed consequence of its fulfillment will cause the Partnership any grief.

My friend (which can be, but in this case isn’t, a meaningless if not insincere description) Ken Pierce has written from what he describes as the center right. While on the right, he is happy to be in a broader denomination, but he decries the establishment of the Partnership as a “jerk” thing to do because it divides people into the “ins” and the “outs.” It smacks of the sort of southern “good ole boy” way of operating that excludes people such as himself.  He pleads for the group at least to operate in the open.

Perhaps the most insightful and telling criticism (full of literary and cultural allusions I am not smart or hip enough to get) is from the center left (my choice of designation) by my old campus ministry colleague, Tom Cannon. Tom, who was invited to join the Partnership but declined, says he greeted the news of its having come into existence with “despair.” This despair is a new low point in something he has experienced from the time of his ordination:
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.
He puts his finger on the mote in the Partnership’s eye:
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.
Tom looks to the future with uncertainty yet some hope:
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.”
Well, then, a few comments after caucusing with myself:
(1) Through 40 years of ministry, I have considered myself on the right. I was an original TR. But now I do not know where I am. I find myself disagreeing with Andy Webb, Ken Pierce, and Tom Cannon. Of course, my disagreement with them is of less significance than the "poot in a whirlwind." 
Some of this has to do with movement on the right. We have seen develop something like an ecclesiastical tea party that casts doubt on more traditional rightists. One of the desires of the tea partiers is for 6-24 hour young earth creationism to hold sway. I don’t.  I want a conservative church of which Warfield and Machen could be ministers.
Some of this has to do with movement in me. I am somewhat disillusioned with the right because of things I have observed and experienced. I increasingly find myself thinking of some that “they are of a different spirit.” I do not know to what extent I now “gee and haw” with the right, especially as I know it in my present presbytery. But, another factor is that I more recently re-thought some of my previously not sufficiently considered opinions about, for example, matters of liturgy and ecclesiology. 
Also, I wonder now how it is possible that anyone can say upon examination by a presbytery that he has no exceptions whatsoever to with the church’s doctrinal standards when those standards include the Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism. That's a lot of detailed teaching about faith and practice. While it seems to me that good faith subscription can be wide enough to drive a theological and liturgical Mack truck through, I do not think there are many who can get their camels through the eye of really strict subscription.
(2) The big mo in the PCA is with its left. The right controls a few presbyteries such as one on whose roll I am honorably retired. But the right has little influence. One of the primary reasons is that it lacks leadership. The lack of leadership boils down to this: Those who would lead can’t, and those who could lead won’t.
The reasons those willing to lead are not able are several. They may lack the connections to have wide influence. They may not have the necessary political skills to pull it off. Their personalities may be too introverted, too overtly strong, or insufficiently winsome. They may be neither wise as serpents nor harmless as doves. But, these are guesses, and not at all exhaustive. 
On the other hand those who could lead won’t. We saw this happen during the days of the PPLN when a conservative nominated the PPLN’s candidate for moderator. Leadership does require winsomeness and skill, but it also requires a lot of moral courage, along with a willingness not be liked by important and influential people and to experience possible, even probable, defeat. It may require putting aside the larger pan-denominational vision for the sake of the smaller one of fighting for the soul of a  denomination.
Without leadership the conservative part of the church will never exist anywhere except on the margins.
(3) The PCA, as a predominantly southern denomination, is and always has been a church characterized, perhaps more than most, by political maneuvering and intrigue. After all, we would not have been born without politicking. This is one of the things that is so puzzling to those who come to us from other sections of the country and other denominations.
My guess is that one of the things that happened at the time of J&R was that that the good ole boy group within the PCA knew that the RPCES men werennot really “one of us.” But, though they were “not from around here”, they could be co-opted for good ole boy objectives.
But perhaps the "good ole boy" network is not all there is to it. One of the most helpful insights into the political nature of our denomination and into my personal experiences of two northern presbyteries in contrast to my present southern one was offered by a church historian. He proposed that the south’s roots are in aristocracy, and aristocracy works things out in private among those who have connections and influence. There is no list of the ins and outs, but aristocracy knows aristocracy. Aristocracy has dirty laundry, but it is loathe to having it displayed in public, so it does its business behind the scenes. Aristocracy will not stand for being embarrassed. Aristocracy pretends to forget and forgive, but aristocracy behind its smile remembers and pays back and works its will.  The aristocracy provides the leadership and strategy and the good ole boys go along.
(4) It seems that almost everybody celebrates the PCA’s diversity of worship. This is seen as something we can live with happily so long as we all continue to affirm our allegiance to the Confession and our willingness to play by the rules of the Book of Church Order. But I am doubtful you can ever have real unity where there is such diverse practice of worship. What we now are willing to live with as acceptable worship would seem like a lot of strange fire to our forefathers from the time of the Reformation till rather recently.
Consider a few instances of this diversity: On Sunday morning you can find everything in ministerial dress from colorful robes and stoles to skinny jeans, tight tee shirts, black glasses, and sneakers/sandals. You can sing and/or hear anything from unadorned tunes, to high brow classical, to cheesy old-time gospel,  to easy listening pop, to edgy rock, to black gospel, to twangy folk/country, to some blend of them all. You can be accompanied by anything from nothing, to pipe organ, to an orchestra, to acoustic guitar, to a rock band with drum set and electric bass. You can be led in worship at various times by the preaching minister, by the worship pastor (relatively new church staff position), by the praise team, by men, by women, and by the occasional child.
 In my presbytery men are always asked to check certain boxes including ones having to do with worship such as  their agreement with the regulative principle, their disagreement with John Frame, and their belief that women should not lead in worship, including Scripture reading. Yet, if one could be ubiquitously present in all the churches on a Sunday morning, one would find almost all the diversity described in the previous paragraph. What then does acceptance of the regulative principle mean?
I have said before, and will venture to say again, that one of the most consequential decisions made by the PCA early on was its decision not to have a real Directory for Worship. Though this avoided a fight, and though the consequences were not foreseen by those who voted in favor, the effect of this decision has turned out to be to allow virtually anything in worship so long as one can convince himself it is allowed by Scripture and could somehow be subsumed under some understanding of the regulative principle.
Now you can go from PCA church to PCA church and not have a clue you are visiting churches of the same denomination. Despite the near universal willingness to have to diversity in “worship styles” I am unconvinced that the diversity is not diversity of substance or the triumph of style over substance. I just don’t see how you can have real unity of doctrine and spirit without unity in the way of worship.
We in the PCA take ourselves very seriously, but I wonder if we really need the PCA anymore. Of course, we like being the 800 gorilla in our little world, though it may be that we will in not too many years be eclipsed by the EPC and the Evangelical Covenant Order. But we may be the least distinctive Presbyterian body in the USA now. If we dissolved ourselves tomorrow, I think all who still want to be Presbyterians would be able to find a home in one of the NAPARC denominations or the EPC. There's a modest proposal for you. 

Call me Al, if you like, but I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.  


Lee said...

Still one of the best music videos of all time. May or may not call you Al.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Lee I call you Betty so you might as well call me Al.

Curt Day said...

With regard to the PCA taking itself too seriously, it is possible. The kryptonite of all moral groups, and I am member of 2 of them being the OPC and OWS, is being self-righteous like the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the tax collector and having delusions of exceptionalism.

But what could be true of the PCA is true of the whole conservative reformed movement. We love to claim that we are always reforming but true change scares the one-and-many problem out of us so we become dishonest with the confessions. Some hold the confessions so seriously that you would expect them to have Dutch-English interlinear versions of them

Here is the problem I see and this might only be partially related to your article here. The true division we need is to divide the confessions we hold so near and dear to our hearts into two parts. The one part would be about our definition of the God and salvation while the second part would be about our life here. The result would be that we could tolerate very few and smaller exceptions with the part about God and salvation while we need to reconfigure the practical commands that deal with this life. It is in the second part that we can see a far greater imposition of the confession writers' culture on their interpretation of the Scriptures than on the first part. Or at least we could admit that parts of the confessions are far more clear and can tolerate far fewer divergences from one part than the other.

The above distinction in the confessions could allow the Reformed churches to be far more relevant to and learn from our present world without compromising the essentials of our theology. We could then change without suffering a one-and-many crisis. And such an approach would prove without a doubt that we actually can tell the difference between the Scriptures and the confessions.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Anonymous, I would be happy to post your comment, but I do not post anonymous comments. However, I do believe I fairly represented your proposal.