Perpetuating Reformed theology, engaging in personal evangelism, reclaiming the nation for Christ, ministering to the oppressed, transforming the culture. A personal to-do list for your average PCA member? Well, yes and no.

Though these are priorities shared by many PCA members, they also represent “animating values” that frequently draw divisions between individuals, churches, and affinity groups within the denomination who share different overriding goals and passions.

While few question the strength and clarity of the denomination’s confessional standards (also called formal values), the PCA’s animating values—as identified by the 2010 PCA Strategic Plan—reflect tensions that frequently cause conflict within the denomination. And these animating values, those that “get us up and going each morning for the work of our individual presbyteries, ministries, and churches,” affect how groups identify themselves and how they perceive others.

These identities frequently produce tensions that simmer into conflict over a range of matters: How should we worship? What is the nature of ministry? What is the role of women in vocational ministry?

The tensions are longstanding, and may be here to stay. But what is behind them? Are they inherent in the Reformed faith? How can members reflect Christ while agreeing to disagree? And can the whole situation be leveraged into an opportunity for the PCA to thrive?

Conflict and the Reformed Faith: A History

According to a number of PCA leaders, conflict within the denomination is nothing new. “Actually, I don’t believe there are more tensions now than in the early days of the PCA,” said Dr. Ligon Duncan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss. “But the kinds of tensions have changed over the years. Previously, it was Old School versus broadly evangelical, whereas now it’s strict subscriptionist versus TR.”

He believes that our current tensions are focused on philosophy of ministry. “Some are committed to a kind of evangelical pragmatism, versus those interested in cultural engagement or traditional ecclesiology, for example.”

Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, sees a history of conflict not only within the PCA, but also within the much longer lifespan of the Reformed faith. In his paper, “What’s So Great about the PCA” Keller says, “The PCA has always been a diverse body filled with conflicting theological agendas, though within a conservative set of impermeable boundaries such as the inerrancy of Scripture, Reformed soteriology [doctrine of salvation], and the rejection of the ordination of women. That is because the founders wanted to make room for all the traditional Reformed branches, perhaps not realizing what a challenge it has been historically to keep them all under one roof.”

He describes the fundamental conflicts within the Reformed tradition as being between doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists. “The richness of Reformed theology inevitably inspires vigorous evangelism and sound doctrine; subjective spiritual experience and the ‘great objectivities’ of the sacraments; building the church and serving in society; creative cultural engagement and rootedness in historic tradition. In actual practice, however, these emphases are very difficult to combine in a local church and even more difficult to maintain together in a denomination. The proponents of each kind of ministry tend to grate on each other and mistrust each other. And yet Presbyterianism continually produces them all.”

“What’s facing us is not new,” said Dr. Sean Lucas, senior minister of First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, Miss. “That should give us confidence—it’s part of living as Christ’s church together.”

Further, he says, unanimity is not unanimous, but a majority. “I’m thankful for the brothers in the minority vote on the Strategic Plan. They expressed an important perspective that the church needs to hear. … It’s okay for us to have minority votes. Christ rules over His Church through majority votes, through His Spirit.”

David Coffin, senior pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va., agrees. “From the beginning of American Presbyterianism the brethren agreed that when a majority vote is passed you either actively concur, passively submit or, if conscience will permit you to do neither, you peaceably withdraw. That’s part of what it means to be in submission to the brethren, it’s part of what it means to be Presbyterian, what it means, finally, to be a Christian, means to be willing to submit to the brothers. … That’s the culture we need to create in the PCA.”

Why the Tension

Though PCA leaders express varying opinions on the factors leading to current tensions within the denomination, most agree that generational differences represent a major component. It’s a broad issue affecting not only the PCA, but other denominations as well as the culture at large.

“There is a generational aspect to these tensions that are new to the PCA and perplexing to the older generation,” said Duncan. “For the younger generation, the life of the church has disappointed them in some way. They’re frustrated with legalism and looking for something deeper, more counter-cultural, more grace-oriented.”

Alternatively, the older generation has “just tried to hold on to Jesus and Scripture” throughout tumultuous times, he continues. “They’re dumbfounded at the seeming lack of loyalty to the church within the younger generation.”

Keller has another take on current tensions. “I propose that these struggles are a sign of something good, even uniquely good, about our denomination. I believe our conflicts lie in that we are one of the few Presbyterian denominations that hasn’t pruned off one of more of its historic branches.”

Greg Thompson, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., believes that the PCA’s tensions have more to do with cultural than generational differences. “Some version of theological sectarianism—a theoretical or practical identification of your church as the church—has implications for theology, mission, ethos, ecclesiology, and worship.” He favors the concept of catholicity as a way forward, to guard the orthodoxy of the denomination and to preserve a balance in views and perspective.

In fact, he says, the modern era is calling forth a redefinition of friends and enemies. It’s like the example of a husband and wife in the midst of a huge argument, he says, until they realize somebody’s getting shot at. In that moment they realize, ‘This is my spouse, and we’re in danger.’ Right now, within the PCA, we’re fighting with each other even though we agree on 99.9 percent of things—all the while America is declining as a superpower, China is on the rise, and Islam is sweeping through Western Europe.”

Thompson envisions the church as a home base for responding to these realities. “We can embody the new world, the city of God in our churches. [Church] needs to be a place where we counter the most destructive parts of the modern era by loving our neighbor.”

But, he says, it will take intentionality and communication to bring the various factions of the PCA together. “We must reconfigure the family identity to make room for change—preserving the good of who the family is and also expanding it to include who the family is becoming. We want to live together, we want to share a common table together, but we need to have some conversations [to get there].”

Finding a Way Forward

Given that conflict is a part of walking together in faith, how can the PCA pull together to preserve its unity while addressing ongoing areas of debate?

• Remember our commonalities

One key principal is remembering that the things that unite the PCA as a denomination are far more significant than those that divide it. Sean Lucas sees an overwhelming consensus around the PCA’s confessional standards. “I believe our confession and polity represent what the Bible teaches. It attracts people to us—it’s our greatest strength.”
He notes the partnership example set by MNA and MTW in 2005 as they helped created “Hope for Hattiesburg,” an initiative to rebuild homes in an area of Mississippi heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina. A relationship between an African-American church in the community and First Presbyterian Hattiesburg continues today, even though the agencies’ work is done. “To have these kinds of partnerships happen is a significant work of the gospel, and it’s the PCA doing it. This is being replicated all over the country in small towns and cities.”

• Find shared animating values

Ligon Duncan emphasizes the need to find and celebrate shared animating values within the denomination. But this shift will need to come from the top, he says.

“Leadership has to cultivate a sense of what these animating values are, and that will involve risk. We will have to celebrate things in common that will disappoint those within our own animating values culture.” But, he says, this will lead to greater denominational unity and mission, better communication, and ultimately greater joy, enabling us to “give each other joy in ministry—not just survive each other.”

As an example, Duncan describes the growing friendship between himself—self-described as gravitating toward a traditional church model and “the ordinary means of grace”—and Keller, who is known for his bent toward contextualization and cultural engagement. (In recent years, Duncan and Keller have frequently spoken from different points of view at denominational forums on topics ranging from women’s roles to the direction of the PCA.)

“Just by interacting with [Keller], I’ve learned how much theologically we have in common, and I’ve learned to see my own blind spots and compensate for them,” said Duncan. “Tim is very concerned for evangelism in the local church. He has tons of wisdom about how to use the worship service as a platform to engage unbelievers without being overtly evangelistic.”

These days, Duncan says, when thinking over a theological or ministry issue, he tends to ask himself: “If I said this to Tim, how would he respond?”

• Learn from one another

One way of fostering discussion and communication within areas of debate is to read more broadly, according to Keller. “Simply stated, we don’t read each other’s books,” he said. “We have not listened long and intently to each other’s spiritual mentors and teachers.” He recommends creating communities of learning to read and discuss key texts of various Reformed branches, as well as establishing forums where informal discussions of theology and ministry can take place. Dr. Bryan Chapell, president of Covenant Theological Seminary, agrees: “We must get brothers together to talk about the purposes and progress of the church across party lines.” In fact, one of the proposals of the PCA Strategic Plan is to  host these kinds of discussions annually at General Assembly.

• Honor one another

Perhaps one of the most consistent reflections to emerge is the need for civility and respect within the context of disagreement, particularly within public arenas like the Internet.

“Very few differences within the PCA could not be overcome with consistent application of Matthew 18,” said Chapell. “Specifically, to speak truthfully and defend the reputation of others.”

At times Presbyterians are so committed to the correctness of ideas that they are tempted to believe others are not only wrong, but bad, he says. “As history says, ‘Good men may differ.’”

Duncan agrees with the need for honorable dialogue, especially when dealing with public controversy. “It’s good to ask, ‘How is the way I engage in this controversy going to impact others in my area of influence? Am I modeling humility and appropriate speech?’

“I think sometimes we’re caught off-guard because of the media age we live in, especially online. It allows people to say things they would never say to someone’s face, and it adds to the perception of tension.”

• Know the value of humility

When our patience is tested by those who disagree with us, the tendency is to evaluate our opponent’s weaknesses rather than his strengths. But this is backward, according to Tim Keller. “We must examine our own motives before judging others, and only give criticism in a meek and self-judging spirit.”

Lucas agrees, saying, “We need to ask God to drive the gospel deep into our hearts—we need a big cross.” This involves understanding that our opponent is just as united to Christ as we are, that Christ sees him as cherished, beautiful, beloved. “That changes the way I listen, speak, and blog,” said Lucas. “I can’t appraise him the way the world would.”

Ultimately, deepening our understanding of the gospel of grace changes the way we interact with one another. “God pursued us to the ends of the earth,” said Lucas, “even when we rebelled against Him. When we reflect on that undeserved favor it frees us to do that with others.”

He uses the Strategic Plan process as an example. “There were many who disagreed on issues, but they ate together, hung out, and created bonds of mutual trust that allowed friendships to develop—which provided the foundation for a healthy discussion. In the end, we learned not to simply tolerate, but to cherish the other person.”