A “Meeting of Understanding,” was held in Atlanta Tuesday, January 17. Some 50 PCA pastors as well as coordinators and presidents of the PCA’s permanent committees and agencies attended. Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly, in collaboration with other denominational leaders, called the meeting.
“One of the themes of the 2010 PCA Strategic Plan was the necessity for civil conversation,” Taylor said. There’s stress within the denomination, he continued, and there are arguments and rhetoric that may be more divisive than unifying. As stated clerk, Taylor noted that he serves the whole of the denomination. Given the tension within the PCA, he and others believed some civil conversation was needed.
The meeting had two specific goals: “To discuss charitably and forthrightly the causes for conflicts in the PCA that hamper our ministry and unity.” And to discuss solutions to those conflicts. The meeting was conducted under Chatham House Rules, meaning that “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.”
Three of the participants—older men who had been in the denomination for many years – believed the PCA is healthy, that elders were generally united, that our system of government works well and as intended, and that the denomination is less politicized today than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
And while nearly all agreed that more unites the denomination than divides it, many saw deep rifts and simmering tensions.
Civility and Theological Precision
The PCA has set the bar too low, one man said. I’ve seen [ordination candidates] eaten alive at presbytery because they didn’t give the exact right answer; because their response to certain questions weren’t precise enough. Is that what we’re after, he wondered. Is that kind of precision—that level of exactness—a healthy goal?
In this man’s view such strictness leads to idolatry. The proper goal, he stressed—rather than that level of precision—should be love. If the goal isn’t love we don’t have a vehicle for patience and we get scared. If our goal is precision, he told the group, then our goal is too low.
A teaching elder who had come into the PCA from another Reformed denomination, agreed. We exploit some of the vulnerabilities in our [presbytery] system, he believed. At the presbytery level, pockets of the PCA have become overly concerned with measuring orthodoxy. We’ve reduced ourselves to a measuring stick, the speaker said. As a result, nothing gets built. Men are leaving the denomination, which means we’re limiting our tools for building the kingdom. This, he said, is what’s destroying our harmony. We don’t trust each other any more.
Blogs and Protecting Reputations
A number of men believed that online publications have hurt. They steal face-to-face time in dealing with one another, one said. The speaker alluded to younger men who have left the denomination, feeling as though they’d been “shut down” and branded as heretics. It’s not right to rejoice when brothers are excoriated online, he said. If we can’t disagree graciously…we don’t deserve a denomination.
Another told the group of a survey he’d made of various PCA-related blogs. Men in the PCA, he reported, have called others apostate, heretics, damnable heretics, and witch hunters. One blogger wrote that a man in the denomination made him “want to throw up,” presbyteries have been characterized as “feminized,” and one blogger referred to his brother as a “purple robed, miter-wearing papist.”
A third speaker talked about leaders who have made comments on blogs and in emails. It’s not just what we say about people, the man said, it’s how we’re arguing. [It’s] how we’re talking about issues and how we’re talking about each other. This is affecting the ethos of the denomination.
An older, long-time member of the PCA suggested that we refuse to have discussions on the Internet. It distorts the message, he said, and does a lot of damage. It’s easy to ruin someone’s reputation with a “send” stroke. This man expressed deep concern about some of the views he had heard regarding inerrancy, justification, law, and the role of women. But these won’t be solved by name-calling, he said. We should be on our knees and talking with one another.
Can We Still Champion One Another’s Ministry?
When I first came into the denomination, one man told the group, I found a church and people who championed the ministry of others. We’ve lost that, he said. I don’t hear us celebrating what God has done through the ministry of others. He went on to express his fear that, if we’re not careful, “our camps” won’t allow us to support others.
Such comments resonated with another man who said he had grown weary of being told, “who I’m supposed to hate. I’m tired,” he said, “of wondering who’s a part of what team.”
Yet another man believed the PCA was a place where he could discuss and argue “robustly,” but now, on occasion, fears a “witch hunt” atmosphere. This, he said, could undermine a church culture that should long to be open and teachable.
Loving One Another and Matthew 18
According to one participant, there’s not much wrong that the consistent application of Matthew 18 won’t fix. The issues, as they’re so often debated, become caricatures, he said. We might make progress if those of us who are perceived as leaders would challenge our own folk; if we’d point out that certain assertions were unproven, unfair, or uncharitable. It might also help, he said, if the blogs established a code of ethics; if publishing standards were held up to biblical criteria.
Another PCA veteran suggested that there’s nothing a glass of wine and a good cigar won’t help. We need to maintain Christian fellowship, he told the men around him, and we need to pray together. There’s a place to criticize, but it’s within the bounds of Matthew 18.
A long-time PCA leader closed the meeting talking about the importance “for those of us who are older to listen to the younger elders.” These men believe there are problems, he said. We need to hear what they’re telling us.
The group then broke into groups of five or six and, together, prayed for the ministry of the PCA, and for unity.