In 1976 Charles Dunahoo agreed to serve as CEP’s (Christian Education and Publications) coordinator for three years. At the end of 2012 — some 36 years later — he’ll finally begin his life’s next chapter.
Dunahoo was one of the PCA’s founders. In the interview below, he remembers the denomination’s first days — the excitement, the emotional ups and downs, the challenges, and the privilege it was, “to take a stand for the truth before the watching world ….”
You were involved in the PCA from the very beginning. Would you give us an idea of what it was like?
I was eight years out of seminary, coming up on the end of the counterculture movement deeply concerned about truth, the church, and the kingdom of God — especially the truth’s impact or lack thereof in our culture — and concerned about its compromise in the mainline churches. I was concerned that my generation realize truth mattered. I believed the church was the place where truth ought to be clearly proclaimed, taught, and lived, being influenced by men such as Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, Edmund Clowney, Jack Williamson, John R. Richardson, Bill Wilson, etc.
Having come through the “Jesus Movement” where we had tried to reach out to those postmodern young people, I wanted the church to stand for the truth. Actually, that was my main reason for participating in “The Continuing Church Movement.” We maintained throughout that process that we were not leaving the church; it was leaving us by its embracing both Neo-Orthodox and Liberal Christianity. We wanted to stand for the historic Presbyterian Church in faith and order.
I remember in those days as a member of the executive committee of the Presbyterian Churchmen United, along with three other executive committees, how we volleyed back and forth with the liberal leadership in the church in hopes of a peacefully agreed upon separation. Such was not to happen. When that was made clear, individual churches and groups of churches began to either withdraw, such as my church in the Atlanta area, or make plans to do so.
Honestly, I was a bit nervous — not knowing what might come, concerned not to jeopardize our church property, [dealing] with the sadness of some of the older folks regarding this move, and trying to leave the denomination with a hopeful positive attitude. I was pastoring a 500-member congregation. Thankfully, though regretfully, we lost only four members, and we were able to retain our facilities and 10 acres of property. We were moving forward but constantly praying and wondering if leaving the mainline church was the right thing to do, while at the same time seeing no other options.
I tried to express, intentionally, to those I left behind, this was more about what I wanted to stand for, far more than what I was against. I remember taking Communion at the presbytery meeting where I later announced my departure. Reminding them that I took Communion with them, I expressed my hope that some would join me. I think my being “defrocked” was simply a matter of the presbytery not knowing what to do with me, even though I had outlined to the chairman of the membership committee the possibilities from the Book of Church Order, none of which involved divestiture.
Even though being “defrocked” by that presbytery saddened me, I was glad to be a part of a continuing church movement committed to standing for the truth, as expressed in the Scriptures and our Westminster Standards.
Our leaving that denomination happened six months before we actually formed the PCA. With three other churches and four teaching elders, we formed North Georgia Presbytery. My prayer all along was that from small beginnings, we would not remain a regional church in the Southeast but that we could impact the nation. The church I was pastoring was one of the 30 churches, and I was one of the 30 members of the original committee that called for a “Convention of Churches” in August of 1973, which then called for the first Continuing Church General Assembly to convene in December of ‘73. Excitement, some ups and downs emotionally, real challenges, but a privilege to take a stand for the truth before the watching world best describes my feelings at that time.
The PCA now consists of 80 presbyteries and nearly 2,000 churches. Are you surprised?
Growth was my prayer from the beginning. We asked God to let this be a movement with nationwide consequences. It had been a delight and joy from early on to see other churches outside the Southeast begin to come into our newly formed church, especially from places such as the Pittsburgh area and beyond.
It has been a great privilege to travel across the church over the years as CEP coordinator, working with leaders and teachers. I have thanked God for those who have shared our vision for the kingdom of God and the church’s role in discipling people for kingdom living. I guess that’s how my three years have turned into 36 years. I have been encouraged, seeing the unity of faith in the PCA’s mission and challenged in my own thinking, seeing the diversity of ways our churches implement that mission, seeing the PCA as a living example of the unity/diversity principle. That is one of our strengths, but it also opens the possibility for weakness as well.
As you look back at the PCA’s history, what has the denomination contributed to the wider church?
God has used the PCA in many ways that have surpassed all our thoughts, but not our hopes and dreams. I think of our churches across North America, our church-planting networks, our partnership with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the Great Commission Publications venture which impacts churches beyond the PCA. I think of what God is doing through our CEP women’s ministry serving as a model for other churches, of Reformed University Ministries on our college campuses, and our extensive overseas ministries. Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary have also extended our influence far beyond the PCA. I think of churches ministering from a kingdom world- and life-view perspective and their impact and challenge for other churches. Yes, I am amazed at what God has done for and through the PCA. Our membership in movements such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and North American Presbyterian and Reformed Councils (NAPARC) has enabled us to carry out what we expressed in the beginning in our “address to all churches,” adopted at our first PCA General Assembly. In that statement of intent, we expressed our desire, which continues to be my hope and sentiment for the PCA, that as a particular church of our triune God, we will always see ourselves in relation to, but not in isolation from, the larger body of Christ.
You’ve dedicated your life to Christian education and discipleship. From what you’ve seen, are you satisfied with the state of Christian education in the PCA?
My heart’s concern, as a young pastor, which continues to burn deeply in my heart today, is that as a biblically Reformed church, we see our primary mission “to make kingdom disciples, having a biblically Reformed world- and life view, which in turn would help us have a godly influence on the world around us.” I believe the church, described as “the pillar and buttress of truth,” has that assignment. When I was interviewed by the CEP search committee in the fall 1976, I agreed to leave the pastorate for a three-year period to assume the role of coordinator of CEP, beginning in January 1977. I did that, sensing the Lord’s leading and listening to wise counselors. I believed if the PCA was to be all we believed God wanted her to be, the people were going to have to be discipled with the holistic world- and life view of the Christian life.
As a young college student, I had been involved in several “parachurch” ministries. While I appreciated and benefited from those ministries, I realized the broader aspect of discipleship was not always present. In defining the Assembly’s assignments to CEP, we have focused on the task of “making kingdom disciples” in each part of our ministry. Our staff has trained literally thousands of leaders, teachers, men and women, through our seminars, personal consultations, and writings. Our primary approach has been to challenge the leadership to think about the church’s role in making disciples in the larger context of a world- and life view, and once that framework is in place, help these churches develop plans, suited to their context, of carrying out that assignment.
We regularly see and hear about the fruit of those labors but always want to see more results. We are very aware that we are engaged in serious spiritual warfare, and the rising generations are the most vulnerable targets. While being faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed faith, we have been sensitive to the context into which God has placed us and how best to carry out the church’s role with this ministry to the present and rising generations.
There is much more that needs to be done in helping our people see that Christianity is a way of life and not simply a personal relationship with the Lord, important and central as that is. As we say, it is not about us but about God and His kingdom. That is our priority.
We need a carefully coordinated plan in our churches where intentional discipleship is taking place, from the pulpit to the classroom, from Bible studies to personal reading and studying. The Apostle Paul says we need to be transformed in our thinking in order to know what God would have us do. Transformation is an ongoing process, never reaching the end until we go to be with the Lord. While we know that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate teacher of truth, we realize that He uses us in that process, and because He holds us, as leaders, teachers, and parents responsible for our role, we must put forth our best effort required for the task.
Give us your evaluation of the PCA today. Is the denomination healthy?
Looking back at the PCA today, I am grateful to rehearse the many things God has done for us during these 40 years. At the time of the “joining and receiving” of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod into the PCA, in 1982, Francis Schaeffer said to Jack Williamson and me something to the effect of, “Do we understand what God has done, and the open door He has set before the PCA?” One of his messages to the PCA, which CEP later published, Schaeffer titled “We Don’t Have Forever.” Was he ever on target with that message!
While I am excited about the PCA and believe God has a special place in His plan for us, as a church, there are concerns because I am aware we have an enemy who is constantly swinging his tail toward the PCA, seeking to knock us off course. He would take no greater pleasure than to thwart the PCA’s mission. I really believe that the PCA is one of Satan’s prime targets. We often forget who our real enemy is.
We must never forget that God’s truth comes to us by His Word and Spirit, not by clever man-made ideologies. I am concerned that we see how much we need the accountability of our confessional identity and the encouragement of one another to remain faithful to who and what we are called to be and do. I came out of a church that basically allowed its people to pick and choose what they believed. We must protect ourselves from that.
Oftentimes we fail to distinguish our preferences from our principles. Sometimes our preferences are not reflective of genuine biblical principles, and in our efforts to push our preferences, we tend to forget the unity/diversity principle. While I believe there is genuine commitment to the unity of truth in the PCA, we are not always uniform in our expression of truth, and that is not all bad, unless we forget who we are. There must be unity, though not necessarily uniformity in our worship and work. I have appreciated things God has taught me from men like John Calvin. In “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he writes that not all doctrines in the Scripture are of equal importance. While I have seen the PCA disagree on things, we have, to this point, agreed on the major doctrines set forth in the Word and Confessional documents. This practice must continue, if we are to complete our assignment.
I lived through the 1960s and ‘70s with the mantra being “don’t trust anyone over 30.” I have hoped that to be past, but I have some concern that [the] saying still has influence today. Older men and women discipling younger men and women is the biblical pattern, according to Paul, and from there work together within the body to serve God’s purpose. The body is one, but the parts are many, and one cannot say to the other, “I have no need of you.” Together, we must focus our intention, young and old, working to disciple the rising generation.
If the PCA is going to be effective in the days ahead, we must maintain our commitment to His truth and see our challenge to be “as iron sharpening iron.” As we do this, we need to remember Jesus’ words, “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (I was pleased to hear some in debating several issues at this past General Assembly to agree to abide by the decision of the court.) We must continue with much prayer and intentionality for God to remind us of the unity/diversity principle.
Above all, we must increasingly learn how to demonstrate a kingdom perspective where our Christian life can impact every area of life for the Lord. While I do not believe our role is to transform culture, if we are trained, equipped, and discipled with God’s truth (in mind and heart), culture will be impacted by our salt-and-light influence. This will require that we focus more attention on implementing our position of welcoming multiethnics into our churches and leadership roles in determining how to communicate the truth to the growing numbers of non-Anglos in our midst. Sadly and to the shame of our system, in my 36 years, no non-Anglo has ever served on the CEP Committee.
One last thought that both challenges and concerns me is our need to experience and demonstrate the power and influence of being a denomination. As long as being in a denomination does not isolate us from the rest of the church, there can be great value, wisdom, and benefit from such a connection. “Two are better than one.” Within that confessional and contextual identity, we do need one another, but only as we are “faithful to the Scripture, committed to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” I am concerned with so many of our ministers not coming out of a church-model background that our seminary training needs to help students by underscoring the positive ministry of being biblically Reformed, understanding our church polity, and how to work within a denominational setting, assisting one another to remain true to the faith once delivered to the saints. Hopefully, the PCA will continue on that course.