On January 17, a diverse group of about 50 PCA ministers came together in Atlanta for a five-hour Meeting of Understanding to discuss the present challenges of ministry and fellowship within our Church family. Afterwards, byfaithonline.com reported on that meeting. A number of people have expressed interest in knowing more about the get-together. I am glad to have this means of setting that gathering into context and to give additional information while honoring the spirit of the meeting.
As many pastors can agree, one of the greatest challenges in a marriage is communication. Two people, of different genders, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, with different interests, covenant not only to seek to live together in harmony, but also to function as a family. Family is more than just additional people arriving on the scene; it is the development of healthy relationships within the roles and responsibilities God has given us, bound together by Christian love. That communication challenge is also present within local churches and denominations in the ecclesiastical family.
We share the experiences of other evangelicals from mainline denominations in North America who have been through a cycle of (1) theological and ethical decline, (2) lack of accountability and discipline, and (3) abuse of ecclesiastical power. In Presbyterian circles, this has played out at least four times in the last four generations, resulting in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, the PCA in 1973, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1982, and now the newly formed Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians in 2012. Ecclesiastical separations are heartbreaking and liberating; heartbreaking that separation became “a tragic necessity” (to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s description of the Protestant Reformation) and liberating by allowing evangelicals to focus more time, energy, and resources on the Great Commission.
The PCA began in 1973 with the goal of being a Church that is “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” We do not live up to that motto completely and consistently, but it is our goal. In God’s providence, the PCA has retained for four decades a coalition of Reformed Christians who have different perspectives within the parameters of our confessional theology and who have different ministry emphases.
Change Necessitates Communication
The world has changed since 1973. The PCA of today is not the PCA of 1973. We are more consciously and consistently Reformed in our theological understanding. The Lord has added to the number of our members, churches, and Presbyteries. We have more and a greater variety of ministries to work toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples. The PCA, like North America, has become more ethnically diverse. We are no longer a southeastern denomination; we have churches across the USA and churches in Canada. Growth that has made us more diverse, coupled with the disconcerting tendency of conservatives who separate from mainline denominations to continue to divide, makes communication within the PCA all the more important and challenging.
The 38th General Assembly in 2010 decided to “Encourage gatherings of non-agreeing enclaves to discuss major denomination-changing or culture-changing ideas and how to live together with differences.” The Meeting of Understanding of January 17 was in keeping with that General Assembly action. Such charitable communications are essential to our living and serving together.
In my view, sometimes when we relate to fellow Christians with whom we perceive we disagree, we tend to think in caricatures and speak in hyperbole. We tend to talk about one another without talking with one another. Sometimes when we hear or read what others say, our tendency is primarily to formulate a rebuttal to their positions rather than to seek better understanding and common ground. Charitable and forthright communication, preferably face to face, is an antidote to such deficiencies.
Gatherings of PCA people who share distinctive common views and interests take place throughout the year within their own enclaves. Several pastors suggested to me in the fall of 2011 that it would be helpful to have a gathering of ministers from across the PCA spectrum to discuss forthrightly and charitably the causes and solutions for differences in the PCA that hamper our pursuit of the “purity, peace, and progress” of the Church. After conferring with some ministers across the PCA about my helping to bring brethren together for such a civil conversation, and with encouragement from various segments of the PCA, I agreed to put together a Meeting of Understanding to meet January 17.
To reflect the diversity of the PCA, there was an effort to include a cross-section of 30 to 50 ministers from different generations, different sized churches, different geographical areas, different perspectives, different ethnicity, et cetera. That goal of a perfect cross-section was not achieved. Nevertheless, with suggestions from various quarters, an earnest effort to bring together a diverse group was made.
To make attendance more feasible, a one-day meeting was held in Atlanta because it is a major air hub (the most passenger traffic in the world), a meeting site could be secured at a hotel near the airport, and some could drive to the meeting more easily.
To make forthright and charitable conversation more likely to occur, a relatively small group was gathered. There are almost 3,800 Teaching Elders in the PCA. It would have been impracticable and impossible to have every PCA minister participate. Moreover, the size and arrangement of the meeting room (set up in a square with participants seated at tables) limited participation to 50. I regret that it was not possible to include in the conversation every person who may have been interested.
To encourage frank and gracious discussion, we operated under “The Chatham House Rule” which is, “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant may be revealed.” (For further explanation, see http://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/chathamhouserule ). The Chatham House Rule was developed initially for diplomatic negotiations and has been useful in facilitating frank yet courteous discussions in other settings. A meeting under the Chatham House Rule is not an executive session or secret meeting, but participants are to use their discretion within the honor code of the rule. Individual participants who want to make their participation known may certainly do so, but no list of attendees is to be distributed. Participants may use information received at the meeting but may not attribute statements to identifiable persons. We used the Chatham House Rule to encourage participants to be open and gracious.
Informing the Full PCA Constituency
Dr. Lloyd Milam was an elder on the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, Miss., when I was pastor there 1982-1993. He was a godly, wise, and gracious man of few words. As we began a relocation and building program he said in a Session meeting, “People are down on what they are not up on.” Therefore, we sought to keep the congregation informed. Following that principle, an article on byfaithonline.com was published last week and I am giving further information by this means within the framework of the Chatham House Rule in an effort to inform the full PCA constituency that this effort at charitable communication took place.
Since the January 17 meeting, a number of participants from across the PCA spectrum have indicated to me that they found the meeting to be a helpful step in the direction of better understanding and appreciating brethren who hold to different perspectives and who serve in different ministry contexts. Some were disappointed that more progress was not made. Several participants are seeking to develop closer relationships with brethren outside their usual circles of interest. Many came away from the meeting with a renewed intention to conduct their conversations and communications, whether in person, in print, or online, in accordance with our confessional understanding of the Ninth Commandment as expressed in the Westminster Larger Catechism 143-145. I think that all participants came away from the meeting with a more informed understanding of other brethren and their concerns.
Focusing on the Great Commission While Dealing With Differences
Throughout the history of the Church, there have always been controversies; just read the New Testament. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was occasioned by both evangelistic success and theological controversy, coupled with some practical-relational considerations. We face the same creative tension of focusing on the Great Commission while dealing with doctrinal, relational, and strategic differences. The larger, more diverse, and more geographically distributed the PCA becomes, the more important, intentional, and difficult charitable communication is. We have new and expanding ministry opportunities in the context of a rapidly changing culture, and are at the same time confronted with the complex challenge of how to engage in theological reflection as an evangelical, Reformed, confessional Church.
The PCA was formed in 1973 by conservatives within our former denomination, who concluded after several decades that their gifts, opportunities, resources, time, and efforts, could better be directed through a new denomination. The PCA was not formed by perfect people as the ideal denomination. We are not an Ivory Soap Church (99 & 44/100ths % pure) in any respect. No branch of the Visible Church is perfect. Yet the Lord has graciously blessed the PCA in spite of our imperfections. I believe that the PCA has a unique ongoing role as an evangelical Reformed denomination. In retrospect, I am glad to have cast my lot with her in 1973 as a young minister.
The Meeting of Understanding was not a meeting of a Church court or council. The gathering of ministers passed no motions, adopted no reports, and approved no policies. It was, in my view, a helpful attempt better to understand, appreciate, and support fellow servants of Christ within the PCA.
In 2010, the General Assembly, as part of our thinking together about ministry in the coming years, adopted a strategic initiative of encouraging civil conversations among differing enclaves within the PCA. On January 17, a meeting of that nature took place. The Meeting of Understanding was not a meeting of a Church court or council. The gathering of ministers passed no motions, adopted no reports, and approved no policies. It was, in my view, a helpful attempt better to understand, appreciate, and support fellow servants of Christ within the PCA.
“Speaking the truth in love” is not easy and requires, among other things, charitable discourse. That is why there was a Meeting of Understanding January 17.