On January 17, 2012, a “Meeting of Understanding” was held in which 50 invited pastors discussed issues of unity and charity in the PCA. In descriptions of this event, it was inevitable that comparisons to marriage would be made. PCA Stated Clerk L. Roy Taylor pointed out that “one of the greatest challenges in a marriage is communication” in order “not only to seek to live together in harmony, but also to function as a family.” This analogy of a church body to a marriage is most appropriate since both are covenant relationships ordained by God and the relationship of the church to Christ is described by the apostle Paul in terms of marriage (Eph. 5:32).
Like most pastors, I have performed a large number of weddings and have spent almost countless hours in marital counseling. I can attest that communication is indeed one of the more difficult and important issues in a marriage, and it is therefore worthy of a great deal of effort, thought, and repentance as needed (and repentance is almost always needed!). In a healthy marriage, partners are careful how they speak to one another, both in terms of the content and the tone of their speech. The same should be true of partners in a church denomination. Therefore, if the “Meeting of Understanding” contributes to more careful and godly communication in our denomination we will be greatly blessed.
The Need for Faithfulness
Another thing a pastor learns through his ministry to marriages is that communication is not sufficient to guarantee union and blessing. Communication serves unity, but only faithfulness can establish union in a marriage or a church. This is why the wedding service is centered around holy vows that solemnly bind a bride and groom to clearly stated expectations and obligations. In the form of service that I use, the groom is asked, “Have you a token to give of your fidelity to this covenant?” “I have,” he answers, and places the wedding ring on the bride’s finger, “as a symbol and pledge of my constant faith and abiding love.” The bride then repeats the words as she gives her ring to the groom. By pledging “constant faith and abiding love,” the couple commits to a relationship that marries faithfulness in action and understanding in the way they interact.
Like any pastor, I have witnessed the need for both of these virtues if a marriage is to succeed. Sometimes I will meet with a couple where one has broken faith with his or her vows, or where a partner suspects that infidelity may be taking place. In this situation, care must always be taken in how they speak and act towards one another. In many cases, I have been unable even to meet with the couple together because of the vitriol in their language. Here is where the “Meeting of Understanding” makes an important point with respect to charitable communication within the PCA. But effective communications must serve and not replace the restoration of trust through demonstrated fidelity. For this reason, our laudable pursuit of unity in the PCA will never succeed apart from credible proofs of fidelity to our covenant vows. Does a godly husband resent his wife when she says, “I need you to be faithful to your vows to me?” Has a husband abused his wife if he states, “It is important to me to know that you are faithful?” To be sure, concerns about faithfulness should always be conveyed with charity and respect, but faithfulness is still necessary to a strong and well-established marital union.
The PCA’s analogy to a wedding is the service of ordination prescribed by our Book of Church Order. Here, vows to fidelity are made primarily with respect to upholding our doctrinal standards. An elder vows to receive the Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. He further vows that the Bible’s teaching – “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” – is summarized in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of our Church, namely, the Westminster Standards. So essential are these doctrinal standards to our unity that teaching elders (ministers) must vow “to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church,” even to the point of withstanding persecution (BCO 21-5).
Seeing the doctrinal focus of the vows that bind us together, and noting the importance of charitable communication, let me suggest some practical commitments that may lead to greater unity through a marriage of faithfulness and understanding:
1. Remembering that the shepherds serve for the good of the flock, and noting the doctrinal fidelity necessary to unity, let every church officer cheerfully submit to rigorous examination, lest our teaching should injure the sheep or bring disharmony to the Church.
2. Realizing that any teaching or practice that is contrary to our confessional standards harms the unity of the church and thus the cause of the gospel, we should make every effort to ensure that our teaching upholds our doctrinal standards. If we find ourselves unable to continue upholding the doctrine and practice required by our standards, let us cheerfully resign from our offices, showing an integrity to our vows that will promote harmony and mutual respect.
3. When concerns are raised about the doctrine or practice of fellow elders in the PCA, prayerful consideration should be made as to both the content and the tone of how these concerns are expressed. Every effort should be made to avoid insult, misrepresentation, and remarks that are likely to inflame the recipients.
4. When sincere elders raise concerns about matters on which the PCA has taken a clear and public stance – matters such as the doctrine of justification, women in leadership positions and functions, and the acceptable bounds of teaching on creation and human origins – our charitable communication should refrain from labeling these concerns as “witch-hunting” (an expression reported from the “Meeting of Understanding”) or from immediately accusing those expressing the concerns of violating the ninth commandment.
5. Remembering that every elder has vowed “subjection to the brethren in the Lord,” we should all welcome concerns as to the acceptability of our own teaching and practice, listening charitably to questions that are raised and being humbly willing to make corrections as they are required.
Charity with Boundaries
I do believe that the marriage analogy helps us to relate the dynamics necessary to unity and harmony within the PCA. One participant at the “Meeting of Understanding” is reported as having emphasized our need for “a church culture that should long to be open and teachable.” To be sure, a marriage governed by excessive suspicion is bound to be stifled and contentious. At the same time, a marriage can be so “open” as not to survive. This argues that unity and harmony in the PCA requires both a spirit of charity and clear boundaries, beyond which openness will likely lead to dissolution. Unless we commit ourselves to unity through doctrinal faithfulness and also to communication that seeks understanding, we will never preserve harmony in the PCA. For us to abandon such a union of faithfulness and understanding is to jettison all hope of unity within our current configuration. In such a situation, the PCA will join the ranks of other denominations that suffer, as Dr. Taylor warned, a “tragic necessity” of “heartbreaking separation.” May God protect our denominational marriage, and may we all be committed to the faithfulness and understanding that are essential to our covenant bond of love in Christ.