A Denomination That is Quick to Hear
By Tom Gibbs
Quick to hear

Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak (James 1:19).

Recently, I was invited to share my thoughts on those ideals and attitudes that I’d like the PCA to be known for. As we approach this year’s General Assembly, I can think of few things more relevant for us to consider before our annual gathering.

Before that, however, I’d like for us to humbly acknowledge that our opinions, viewpoints, convictions, and beliefs originate along a much more complicated path than we sometimes admit. Because of our high view of Scriptural authority, we all confess that what the Bible says must be our final guide. This commitment binds us together in profound ways. Yet determining what the Bible means and how it applies are more daunting tasks and often divisive ones.

In his important book “The Righteous Mind,” NYU researcher and psychologist Jonathan Haidt insightfully recognizes that the opinions and convictions we form, defend, and seek to persuade others to embrace are not simply a matter of logic or reasoning. He notes, “You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.” Indeed, more is going on than logic. Our “rational” viewpoints, particularly our political and religious ones, are subject to deeply held biases that are oftentimes unacknowledged.

As Christians this shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, this resonates with the words of our Savior recorded for us in Matthew 15:18, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Jonathan Edwards reminds us, “[T]rue religion consists in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart.” It’s the heart, the seat of our affections, not the head that most strongly informs the opinions we form.

Making this all the more confounding is the entrance of sin into this world and how it pollutes each person’s heart. The prophet Jeremiah put it well, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our sin, then, constantly prejudices and further complicates the process through which we determine those things we believe are true and matter most.

Instead of being convinced that we are already “right,” what might happen if we made a genuine effort to hear and understand the other side?

Bringing this back to this year’s Assembly and the ethos of the PCA, a word of caution is in order. No matter how sharp our oratory skills and compelling our rhetorical arguments, they are unlikely to persuade on their own. Perhaps a better starting point for all of us would be humility. Instead of being convinced that we are already “right,” what might happen if we made a genuine effort to hear and understand the other side? And I’m not simply talking about their arguments. Rather, it’s about hearing what are the issues of greatest concern or consequence for those holding differing views. It’s about the issues underneath the issues.

Taking this to “heart,” we might even discover that we share more in common than we previously imagined. For instance, some in our denomination decry that we are becoming slippery on Scriptural authority because greater attention is being given to the issues of race, justice, and sexuality. When I listen to the arguments of those who seek to lead on those issues, however, I find that their concerns and applications flow from a high view of the Scriptures. Loving our neighbors who are very different from us will often be risky, costly, and uncomfortable. But doing so cannot be ignored precisely because the Scriptures require it in fulfillment of the Law (Luke 10:25-37) and our Lord Jesus himself modeled it (Matt 9:10-13). Might we have something to learn from those who most want to heed this message in the Scriptures?

Others in the PCA who want us to take courageous, and sometimes unpopular, moral stands amidst a secularizing culture do so, in my view, precisely because they too want the church to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ speaking infallibly through his Word. Regardless of our view on this or that issue, shouldn’t we celebrate such a commitment? Can’t we all agree that the Scriptures sometimes call us to embrace doctrines, beliefs, and practices rejected by the culture around us? If so, then, I think we can appreciate the earnest convictions of our brothers and sisters regarding Scriptural authority even when they may not share our particular application of those convictions.

Perhaps it’s ironic to some, but the PCA’s desire that it be a denomination “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission” endures as a compelling vision, if sometimes controversial. Friends, our annual General Assembly is where we work this vision out together, amidst competing opinions, swirling arguments and imperfect hearts. This is also precisely why we need each other, especially those who disagree with us (1 Cor. 12:21). When I think about what I’d like the PCA to be known for in succeeding generations, I might describe it like this: I want us to be as passionate about loving our neighbor in this cultural moment as we are to being faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition, remembering that our first neighbors are those who share the pew next to us.

Tom Gibbs is in the incoming president of Covenant Theological Seminary.

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