The evidence is about as solid as it can get: The Presbyterian Church in America is a deeply divided body. And some of us couldn’t be more hopeful.
The Thursday afternoon vote on the last day of the PCA’s 37th General Assembly was on an important issue—and it was close. While 446 commissioners said in effect that they neither want to change the PCA’s exclusion of women from the office of deacon, nor even to talk any more about it , 427 of their fellow-churchmen fell barely short in their effort to extend just such a discussion.
Yet while heavy thunder and late spring rains pounded the Orlando convention center where the PCA met this week, remarkable calm pervaded both the huge auditorium where official business was conducted and the broad hallways where that same business was informally discussed and evaluated. In various quarters of the church, the vigorous disagreement had been ballyhooed for months as a threat at least to the PCA’s unity, and maybe even to its existence. But at least in the first few hours after the vote, an uncharacteristic tranquility reigned.
The knockdown, drag-out slugfest predicted for Orlando simply didn’t happen. And the body that emerged at the end of the week may prove to be stronger—and maybe less susceptible to future fevers—because of the experience.
And if “The Great Debate of 2009” didn’t occur within the General Assembly itself, a big part of the reason was that two prominent PCA churchmen humbly backed off the chance to dramatize their personal roles. Instead, they deliberately lowered the stakes in what might come to be known as “The Slightly Lesser Debate of 2009.” Tim Keller, senior pastor at Redeemer PCA in New York City, and Ligon Duncan, senior pastor of First PCA in Jackson, Miss., simply refused to engage in point-scoring when they spent 90 minutes in front of perhaps 750 listeners (with a third of them sitting on the floor) in a late afternoon side room session. What Duncan and Keller provided instead was a rare, up-close model of modesty and civility, with each seeming determined genuinely to out-nice the other.
To pay such high tribute to those two men shouldn’t keep us from noting the parallel leadership exhibited by virtually everyone participating in the debate. The high standards set by Philip Ryken, David Coffin, and E. J. Nusbaum, in particular, should be both studied and mirrored by anyone aspiring to future leadership in our denomination. The quality of argumentation, consistently kept within the context of sweet-spirited and mutual honor, made many rejoice—again—to be part of the PCA.
Not everything at the Orlando assembly made the PCA look good. On the crucial vote over women deacons, 873 teaching and ruling elders helped shape the church’s policy for the years ahead. But something like 1,100 had registered and paid to be part of this important assembly. Where were the other 200 pastors and elders when such critical decisions were being made?
If the overall cost of accommodations and meals for assembly participants didn’t set records this year, it must have been close. It was tough to find a passable breakfast for less than $12—and by one estimate, the collective bill every time commissioners sat down for a meal was at least $25,000 to $30,000. The number of commissioner complaints about all that may have set a record as well, and may prompt PCA leaders to explore again new ways to hold such assemblies without nudging the denomination and its local churches toward bankruptcy. The fact that this year’s assembly had been scheduled in a relatively plush setting, at a time when so many congregations and denominational programs are struggling financially, added to the embarrassment.
But back to a couple of the many reasons for optimism about the PCA. Skeptics were everywhere a couple of years ago when major revisions were made in assembly operations—placing a major part of the debate within a significantly expanded “Overtures Committee” that would be populated each year by one teaching elder and one ruling elder from each of the PCA’s approximately 75 presbyteries. “It’ll never work,” said the doubters. But these days, seldom is heard a discouraging word about the big changes that occurred two years ago. And for those who wondered whether a 150-member Overtures Committee can fairly represent the larger assembly, note this statistic: This year’s recommendation by the Overures Committee on the issue of women deacons (54-46%) proved to be an almost precisely accurate forecast of how the assembly at large voted (51-49%) when it got the chance.
The bigger question may be this: Why, when the Overtures Committee is perceived as the center of influence these days in the overall assembly operation, were only half of that committee’s seats filled by the respective presbytery representatives?
I left home early this week, heading for the assembly here in Orlando, and having sung at our evening worship the night before those familiar hymn lines about the church:
“ … by schisms rent asunder, by heresies oppressed … .”
Which, I wondered, would be the case in Orlando? Might we possibly be so careless with our doctrine and our handling of the precious truth of the gospel that some would accuse us of the sin of heresy? Or would we look at things so narrowly that we’d be forced to watch the PCA splinter, a little or even a lot—and be accused of promoting the sin of schism?
The hymn writer wasn’t just picking casual, random things that might go wrong in the church. He was pointing to the all-too-real ditches on either side of the road, reminding us not to be distracted from the hard but liberating line of truth.
I think the PCA was blessed to hear that warning this past week in Orlando.