I was encouraged that our initial commentary (“Our Point of View”) generated several comments and raised some important questions about what Biblical unity is and how Reasoning Together will promote it. A comprehensive answer to the former question would be book-length, so our next several commentary posts will be designed to suggest how we believe Reasoning Together can apply principles from the Bible and the PCA constitution to promote unity among our ranks.
As we pointed out, the PCA’s originally constituency rallied around three commitments (reflected in the motto that pre-dates the denomination): to Scripture, to Reformed Theology, and to the Great Commission. While we may differ as to how a particular passage is to be interpreted, there has never been disagreement in the PCA about the inerrancy of Scripture and its place as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. And while there may be disagreements about the proper methodology for advancing the Great Commission, there has never been disagreement as to our commitment to it – witness the fact that over 2/3 of the PCA’s total expense budget for 2013 is given to the work of the three committees that are directly involved in outreach (MNA, MTW, and RUF).
But Reformed theology – that’s another story. Not that there’s any disagreement that we should be Reformed – that commitment is universal. But whether or not certain beliefs and practices are consistent with Reformed theology has been a matter of serious contention. How can we resolve these differences?
Let me first suggest what I consider to be two inadequate ways to resolve them:
- Mere Legislation – amending the Book of Church Order to single out a particular disputed belief or practice and affirm or prohibit it.
- Mere Litigation – using the judicial process for the purpose of declaring that a disputed matter is contrary to our Constitution.
Notice the use of the word “mere.” There may well be appropriate times to amend the Constitution or (as a last resort) use our judicial procedure to root out a clearly unconstitutional belief or practice. What I’m objecting to is using these as short cuts to attempt to enforce our personal convictions. It is our contention that before a first step toward legislation or litigation is even contemplated, there should be plenty of conversation. We need to listen carefully to each other – to our explanations of our positions and our understanding of what the Bible and our Confession have to say (or not say) about those positions; to reason with each other as to why we should hold to a particular position or tolerate another, so that we can understand each other before proposing any action. Who knows – the other person may be convinced by your arguments – or you by theirs. Or you may learn from each other and both modify your positions – or conclude that both positions are acceptable and agree to disagree.
We would argue that this is consonant not only with what the Bible teaches about proper interaction with each other when a matter is disputed, but also with Biblical examples of how unity was preserved in such instances. James says, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (Jas 1:19-20). Paul tells us it is by believers “speaking the truth in love” to each other that the Church “grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15, 16). We see these principles at work in Acts 15, the record of the famous “Jerusalem Council.” The Council began with “much discussion,” Peter shared his experiences that he found relevant to the matter at hand, and Paul and Barnabas gave a report on their ministry among the Gentiles – all before James spoke up and offered a proposal agreeable to all. That sounds more like a conversation than a formal meeting.
The importance and priority of conversation as a means of addressing disputes in the PCA is reflected in the first “theme” of the Strategic Plan approved by the 38th General Assembly: “Civil Conversation”. The goal that expresses this theme is to “establish places to enter into civil conversation about the best ways to advance the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry and mission.” The means advanced to achieve this goal included holding public forums at General Assembly “to discuss difficult subjects or new ideas without vote, offering charitable judgments among elders in the fellowship of ministry”; encouraging presbyteries to hold annual retreats for the same purpose; and holding annual discussions outside General Assembly of “non-agreeing enclaves to discuss denomination-changing or culture-changing ideas and how to live together with our differences.” At the time these ideas were proposed, Reasoning Together wasn’t even a gleam in anybody’s eye, but one of our purposes is to provide an online forum for this kind of “civil conversation” – thus our “Conversation” page, where we feature some of the matters we disagree on to solicit your thoughtful and respectful comments – in other words, to enter into conversation with each other.
Of course all of these are formal means to encourage conversation – but the best conversations are held one-on-one. If each would seek out a brother who we know to disagree with us on matters that divide us, listen to their position for the purpose of understanding it thoroughly, share our convictions with them, reason with each other, and learn from each other, I’m convinced we’d find it much easier to maintain our unity.