For the past 48 years, in the weeks just prior to General Assembly (GA), PCA elders, finding themselves on opposite sides of difficult issues, have marshaled their arguments and expressed their views soundly, persuasively, and sometimes heatedly.
Thats how Presbyterianism works.
But this year is unusually tense, many believe. Open letters have been written, signed, and posted. A conference was convened to define the pressing problems facing the PCA, and the proper response to them.
For weeks, even months, on key issues and divisive issues, arguments and counter arguments have been strategically planned. Commissioners are primed to begin debate in a just few days.
Several overtures that deal with homosexuality have stirred the inordinate friction. With subtle differences, they address sexual identity, conduct, and desire and each one proposes new and controversial policies for dealing with them.
Other matters loom as well: critical race theory, egalitarianism vs. complementarianism, social justice, and confessional integrity, to name a few. Behind them all are the ways that we, in our different factions, think about or perhaps emphasize truth, grace, the churchs mission, and the church’s relationship to culture.
An Open Letter Galvanizes One Camp
The most visible campaign to date may be an open letter titled Looking Forward Together. The letter, written and revised by several men, was conceived by Mike Khandjian, pastor of Chaplegate Presbyterian in Marriottsville, Maryland. It now has more than 650 cosigners, including Will Barker, Mark Bates, Steve Brown, David Cassidy, Elliott Cherry, Ray Cortese, Mark Dalbey, Bob Flayhart, Tom Gibbs, Terry Gyger, Paul Hahn, Irwyn Ince, Alex Jun, Charles McGowan, Randy Nabors, Randy Pope, Scott Sauls, and Thurman Williams.
The letter, Khandjian says, is meant to encourage readers about the present and future of the Presbyterian Church in America. We are, after all, a denomination that is planting churches, sending missionaries around the world, teaching and equipping college students at RUF, and increasing our support for minority leaders.
The letter is also a challenge to some assertions that are being made about the PCA that he and the cosigners believe are inaccurate and harmful.
These assertions stem from the false notion that there are some in the PCA who favor the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Khandjian says hes heard the claim in his own presbytery. But he is emphatic that nothing could be further from the truth. He, and hes certain that every cosigner, upholds the Bibles clear teaching on sexual conduct, sexual identity, and marriage. No one in the PCA, he claims, is pushing such a policy.
Throughout the letter theres a palpable concern not only for the content of various claims, but for where theyre expressed: blogs, Facebook, online news agencies, and email. The letter argues that when we speak broadly and about denomination-wide issues, we must find more charitable, biblical ways of speaking. Otherwise, we jeopardize the nuanced work of local churches in their congregations, communities, and contexts.” The PCA will be better served, the letter argues, if we let sessions and presbyteries men in good standing who know the people, circumstances, and setting tend to their local responsibilities. Thered also be less anger, less agitation, and a lot less pressure to approve overtures that might damage the witness and testimony of the PCA.
The denomination needs to move past labels, Khandjian says. We need to see that were brothers in Christ, with the same desire for a lost and dying world.
Fifteen Former Moderators Strike a Similar Tone
A second letter, released on June 17, and signed by 15 former General Assembly moderators, strikes the same tone.
Charles McGowan, moderator of the 24th Assembly and Paul Kooistra, who presided over the 36th and who also served as president of Covenant Theological Seminary and Coordinator of Mission to the World are its primary authors.
The letters third paragraph captures their theme:
If you have heard some voices sounding an alarm that the PCA is on a steep slippery slope that leads to liberalism, we disagree. Any claim that we are becoming a denomination of liberals or have embraced an agenda that is out of accord with historic Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity fails to either understand our denominational history, our shared and variegated Reformed theology, or both. We do not know of a single pastor or ruling elder in the PCA who could be described as theologically liberal.
Fifteen GA Moderators Who Signed
Mark Belz (19th)
Wilson Benton (20th)
Richard Hostetter (21st)
Will Barker (22nd)
Frank Brock (23rd)
Charles McGowan (24th)
Kennedy Smartt (26th)
Joel Belz (31st)
E.J. Nusbaum (35th)
Paul Kooistra (36th)
Brad Bradley (37th)
Bruce Terrell (41st)
Jim Wert (43rd)
Alex Jun (45th)
Irwyn Ince (46th)
McGowan is concerned that this Assembly will be more contentious than any weve ever had. There are loud voices that are speaking very negatively about the PCA, he says. Thats why, Were calling for a spirit of calm and peace. These former moderators are also reaffirming their confidence and deep devotion to the PCA, and to its commitment to orthodoxy, purity of doctrine, and personal piety, McGowan says.
They are also using their influence to let people know, If you have heard some voices sounding an alarm that the PCA is on the precipice of drastic ecclesiastical change, we disagree.
In support of that view, the letter points to the fact that the PCA has had study committees on women serving in the church as well as on sexuality. Both papers, and particularly the more recent work on sexuality, have been widely praised from all corners of the PCA.
A Third Letter In Response
The voices Khandjian and McGowan hear often come from members of the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN), an organization that exists, its website says, to cultivate healthy Reformed churches in the PCA.
The GRN leadership consists of several well-known and esteemed elders: Jon Payne, senior pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, Ligon Duncan, chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jason Helopoulos, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, Richard Phillips, senior minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, Harry Reeder, senior pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, David Strain, senior minister of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, Melton Duncan, church administrator of Second Presbyterian Church, and David Garner, academic dean, vice president of global ministries, and associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Shortly after the open letter was posted Payne, GRNs executive coordinator, issued a response.
As he sees it, the open letter aims, in part, to admonish those who are causing unnecessary and harmful division in the PCA. But by his reading, the letter deepens division rather that heals it. Its claims, Payne says, are uncharitable assumptions and reveal a patronizing dismissiveness of real concerns.
For example, at a recent conference, the GRN expressed concerns about the influence of Revoice (Side B Gay Christianity), social justice, Critical Race Theory, and confessional integrity in our churches and presbyteries. The open letter, he argues, fails to address them. Instead, he says, it diverts attention to the slanderous claim that there are PCA pastors who hope to ordain practicing homosexuals. It is a claim, Payne insists, I have never heard. Not even once. It is a red herring, he says, intended to distract attention from the real pressing issues facing the PCA.
Whats more, by inviting signatories, Payne believes the letter heightens suspicions and speculations rather than soothes them.
Payne grants that theological controversy is wearisome. But it is also necessary, he says, to avoid doctrinal drift. Its necessary, too, he thinks, to arrive at truth. While Payne appreciates and even echoes the other letters pleas for peace and unity, he also insists that, True unity is impossible apart from unity in the truth. Biblical fidelity and confessional integrity serve as the glue that holds the PCA together, he says. Without it, we will eventually come apart.
No one is arguing against that, he adds. Even so,Our different interpretations and applications of the Scriptures and Standards divide us. Its our disparate visions for the future health and extension of the PCA, especially in light of present cultural challenges, that separate us. Its our divergent views of Christian mission and discipleship that foster division.
Khandjian agrees. In the open letter he asks: Where do we differ? It is, he says, in the expression of our orthodoxy when it comes to worship, while keeping within the bounds of our polity and Scripture. We may differ in how our local cultural perspectives impact our day-to-day practices: to be faithful to Christs mission and to make evident to all the integrity and power of Gods Word.
McGowan, too, recognizes that there is a spectrum of differences that exists within the PCA. But these are differences in philosophy of ministry, worship style, and ministry focus.
The writers of these letters are striving for the peace and purity of the PCA. Lets take them at their word. And watch what they do.
Where do we go from here?
The writers, signers, and supporters of these letters are from their own theological, cultural, and missional perspectives striving for the peace and purity of the PCA. They also speak of their love and respect for those who see things differently.
Khandjian, for instance, hopes that we would come together, join hands, and enter into the worlds pain for the sake of Jesus, together. We need to come to the table as friends who recognize that they have intense differences, he says, but who are bound in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.
McGowan and Kooistra, citing John 13:34-35, close the moderators letter, saying, May he be pleased by the love and respect that we have for one another in St. Louis. And may he graciously preserve our fellowship.
Payne hopes and prays that we can come to a united understanding and application of the truth.
These men have earned respect, exhibited faithfulness, and revealed their unwavering commitment to Christs gospel. Lets take them at their word.
And lets watch eagerly and expectantly to see what they do in the days after the 48th Assembly.
Editor’s Note: After this article was completed, GRN member Richard Phillips posted a reply to the McGowan-Kooistra letter. You can find it here.