I was grateful to be asked by byFaith to offer something of a response to the often-insightful March 21 article by Tim Keller, entitled, “What’s Happening In the PCA?” Keller begins by correcting what he believes to be a misinterpretation of the recent failure of Overtures 23 and 37 and then proceeds to offer his perspective on the state of the denomination as a whole.
While I will interact with Keller’s piece at various points, in what follows I will also try to offer some thoughts of my own regarding the state and health of the Presbyterian Church in America which will present a slightly different take on where things stand and how best to proceed from here. Before I do any of that, however, I wish to thank Keller for his article and for his ministry in general. I hold him in the highest regard, have benefitted from his preaching and writing, and, like so many of us, I’ve learned a great deal about ministry, but especially about Jesus from him. He remains in my prayers as he continues to serve our common Savior and our beloved church, even in the midst of his fight with cancer.
We All Agree: Side B Christianity is an Unwelcome Guest
Keller takes as his primary target a narrative that reads the failure of the two overtures in question as indicating that, while “most of the PCA is sound,” a minority of the presbyteries of the PCA are “Side B-leaning.” If left unchecked, this argument runs, they will slide inevitably into Side A “and the end of orthodoxy.” He rejects that account of things for three reasons: First, no court of the church has ever endorsed Side B convictions; second, the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality clearly rejected Side B theology; and third, given the overwhelming support for the report, we must recognize the many other valid reasons why presbyters and presbyteries voted ‘no’ besides agreement with Side B ideas.
So, Keller concludes, “As far as I can tell and as far as our documented actions can affirm, an overwhelming super-majority of the PCA does not accept the biblical legitimacy of a Side B perspective.”
In my judgment, the recent votes of both General Assembly and the presbyteries tell us not to back off from pressing the matters raised in the overtures, but that we are yet to perfect the language.
In this, I am delighted to say, I am in complete agreement with Keller. Side B “gay-Christianity” is an unwelcome guest in the PCA, and the overwhelming majority of our members, churches, presbyters, and presbyteries reject it. That Overtures 23 and 37 failed, but only by the very slimmest of margins, surely reinforces that point. As Keller helpfully points out, many of those who voted ‘no’ did so without any disagreements with the theological or ethical issues raised in the overtures themselves. They voted ‘no’ out of concern for what they feared might be the unintended, negative consequences for our polity and procedures of some of the language used.
I can say that I’ve heard some — but really only a very few — voices (over)reacting to the failures of the overtures by suggesting that those who voted “no” are crypto-liberals who want the PCA to fling wide her doors to Side B-affirming candidates and officers. In my view, these are unworthy and unhelpful ways to characterize the votes of brothers to whom we are duty-bound to extend the most charitable interpretation of their actions.
Recent Votes Tell Us to Perfect Language, Not Retreat
Instead of concluding that the PCA has suddenly slipped further down the Side-B slope, I have a different interpretation of the failure of the overtures. In my judgment, the recent votes of both General Assembly and the presbyteries tell us not to back off from pressing the matters raised in the overtures, but that we are yet to perfect the language, and we must listen carefully to the polity concerns that have been raised, and bring back improved versions of these important overtures to this, and if necessary, to future Assemblies.
The message isn’t “the PCA is sliding into liberalism.” The message is “the PCA is in broad agreement on this issue, now let’s find language that allows us to implement wise provisions that address the problem.” Then, having found that language, we need the courts of the church to take appropriate action to ensure that all who hold office in the PCA embrace and teach our constitution on these important matters. Many point to the “Ad Interim Study Committee Report on Human Sexuality” as clear evidence of the essential soundness of the PCA on questions of sexuality and Side-B/Gay Christianity. But given that support, let’s not now balk at amendments that will make the conclusions of the report enforceable.
I should also say at this point that I share Keller’s frustration over labels. No matter what term you choose when characterizing the various trends, trajectories, and tribes in the PCA, you will almost certainly offend someone. So, when I use the “conservative” or “progressive” labels, please understand I intend these labels to reflect, not the current political polarities so troubling our society at large, but simply the spectrum of opinion within a denomination that is, in the eyes of the American public at least, very conservative.
Our Disagreements Are About Public Theology, Not the Culture Wars
Speaking of current political polarities, it is here where I’d like to register a difference with Keller’s perspective. I’ll not dispute for a moment the claim that the American cultural landscape has become more divided than ever. Nor will I argue the claim that similar patterns of brinksmanship within one’s own party, and the demonization of those on the other team appear in the PCA in ways that mirror contemporary political discourse.
However, I cannot agree with Keller when he suggests that there has been an effort to “tie the old strict-broad division in the PCA to the culture wars of the country.” I am unaware of any such effort. The arguments I’ve heard about Side-B, or about the mission of the church in relation to social justice — which are the two issues Keller mentions — have been advanced on biblical and theological grounds. Whether we are persuaded by those arguments or not, those who make them see them as an attempt to do faithful, public theology on matters of present concern to Christians who seek to live obediently in our cultural moment.
I am persuaded that if we are to have any hope of constructive dialogue across “party lines” in the PCA, then we need to do better than to argue that there are no substantive differences between us after all, or that those who express concern are simply overreacting.
When I hear notes of alarm from those on the left of the denominational spectrum that suggest that PCA conservatives are engaging in “culture war,” I can’t help but wonder if these brothers would sound the same alarm were the topics to be human trafficking or racial justice, instead of abortion, human sexuality, or critical theory.
Furthermore, Keller suggests that the tying of “the old strict-broad division in the PCA to the culture wars of the country” has had the effect of leading “[m]any folks who would not ordinarily vote or side with the stricter party” to do just that on Overtures 23 and 37 at the 2021 GA. With all due respect to Keller, I think this argument risks causing real offense to those who voted as they did out of a sense of genuine conviction. I prefer to conclude that the vast majority of the commissioners at the last General Assembly, along with the majority of the presbyteries around the country, voted as they did because they agreed with the theological and ecclesiastical arguments advanced in favor of the actions proposed, and not because they had been bamboozled by reactionary political discourse leaking into the courts of the church.
I am persuaded that if we are to have any hope of constructive dialogue across “party lines” in the PCA, then we need to do better than to argue that there are no substantive differences between us after all, or that those who express concern are simply overreacting. Frankly, when the concerns of the “stricter” party in the PCA (to use Keller’s taxonomy) are said by those in the “broader” camp to be scaremongering, or advancing a species of culture war, the fears of many in the PCA are not quietened. Instead, conservatives feel belittled and patronized, and their concerns dismissed rather than respectfully heard.
One popular “solution” for what ails the PCA seems to be to recognize that we are all really conservatives at heart, that those who express alarm are little more than moralistic, Southern fundamentalists, and that the path forward is to stop raising the issues — especially online — and to simply just get along. But far from persuading and unifying, in the ears of many rank-and-file PCA ruling and teaching elders that approach sounds dismissive at best, or as an attempt to silence legitimate and strongly held differences of opinion at worst.
Strategies to Move Forward
Keller advances four excellent strategies to help the PCA move forward together: We should acknowledge how much doctrinal unity we do have; we should acknowledge the complexity of the reasons of why we differ; we must repent and forgive each other; and we need far more face-to-face conversations. I couldn’t agree more. I believe that the majority of those on the ‘stricter’ side of the denomination share upwards of 90% of their opinions with those on the ‘broader’ side.
What we need desperately are forums where our agreements can be affirmed, but not as a means to minimize our differences. Too often we want to find points of commonality in order to paper over the cracks where we disagree. But, while it may provide temporary relief by stifling dissent, it’s a strategy that is certainly doomed to eventual failure — and indeed, may only generate frustration that will cause much more serious divisions down-stream. Instead, let’s use the areas of wide agreement to clear the decks of mutual suspicion, and then find ways to respectfully hear each other out, in order to isolate the handful of substantive differences that continue to hinder our unity. Then, let’s engage with one another in an effort, first, to explain our own views, and then to persuade our brothers.
In the end, we may find we cannot reach agreement. But then again, we just might.
So far, I’m not sure we’ve really tried.