One of the latest controversies to unsettle the PCA was sparked by the unauthorized release of eight years of confidential emails that had circulated among a network of PCA elders called the National Partnership (NP). The release produced a flurry of posts on various websites questioning the National Partnership’s efforts to influence the direction of the PCA. Questions were also raised regarding the ethics and motives of how the emails were obtained and of making private emails public without consent.
Beyond that, the controversy calls attention to other, more fundamental questions:
- What other networks are in the PCA, and what do they hope to accomplish?
- What is the history of networks in the PCA?
- Do networks have a legitimate place in Presbyterian polity?
To begin, the biggest and best-known group is the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN).
The GRN Aims to Correct and Reform
The GRN began in the winter of 2012 in response to a concern expressed by a number of PCA elders. They believed that the doctrine of sanctification — especially as it relates to justification — was not being taught from a biblical, Reformed, and confessional perspective in a growing number of PCA churches. Jon Payne, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and GRN executive coordinator, says the group’s initial purpose was to expose erroneous teaching on the doctrine of sanctification, and to provide resources to correct it.
“We detected a rising current of teaching that, at best, minimized, and at worst, neglected the third use of the law and the nature of progressive sanctification,” he says. Payne reports that when the GRN leaders began sharing their thoughts publicly, they heard from many ministers and congregants who shared similar concerns.
In 2017 the GRN expanded its mission, which is now to “cultivate healthy Reformed churches in the PCA.” A survey of the content on GRN’s website reveals articles on prayer, sexuality, and worship. Several pieces suggest that the PCA is in danger of losing its biblical and confessional fidelity and therefore call on her people to “humbly contend for the biblical and confessional faithfulness of our beloved church.”
The GRN has expressed its vision and distinctives in seven couplets which are explained on its website. It promotes these with articles, videos, conferences, and luncheons during General Assembly. Every GRN event is open to everyone.
Though it has no formal membership, it is led by a council of eight members and has 501c3 status. The GRN is funded by financial gifts from PCA churches and individuals.
The Fellowship: A Community of Encouragement
A third network, The Fellowship, seeks to influence the PCA less formally. Mike Khandjian, senior pastor of Chapelgate Presbyterian Church near Baltimore, and the early leader of the group, describes The Fellowship as “a community of encouragement that reflects the joy and freedom in the gospel that the PCA was always intended to express.”
The Fellowship began roughly 10 years ago. As Khandjian tells the story, he and Paul Kooistra, then coordinator at Mission to the World, had spent a year praying together for the PCA. They both realized that several pastors, especially younger men, were discouraged by the tone at General Assembly. “Some had already left the PCA,” Khandjian said, “and others were planning [to].”
Through the years, the various networks have sought to move the denomination according to their vision of the PCA’s identity.
Khandjian and Kooistra met with about 30 pastors at the 2012 General Assembly, where they learned that the younger men were struck by the harsh tone and rigid expressions at the Assembly. In their eyes, the PCA fundamentally lacked humility and a spirit of gentleness.
Khandjian stayed in touch with the pastors and made plans for a follow-up gathering the next year.
These “Fellowship Gatherings” — which Khandjian describes as an evening of food, drink, music, message, and encouragements — have become an annual event at General Assembly. A speaker presents a keynote message, several ministries — including RUF, Parakaleo, and Covenant Seminary — offer updates. And there’s prayer for new leaders of PCA-related ministries. The Fellowship prayed for Ligon Duncan when he was named chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and Harry Reeder IV when he assumed the role of president of Birmingham Theological Seminary.
The Gathering is informal and open to anyone, and have been attended by PCA founders, pastors, teaching elders, church staff members, and pastors’ wives. Attendance is now around 700.
In addition to the Gathering, Khandjian sends out a mass email — “Updates and Encouragements” — roughly every six weeks. The emails provide news, job opportunities, and prayer needs. Khandjian says the emails, though they rarely touch on church politics directly, are “unapologetic in stating our hopes for whatever will strengthen the PCA.”
Last year Khandjian handed leadership over to Joel St. Clair, though he continues to edit and author the emails.
Funding is provided by a registration fee for the Gathering and donations from churches and individuals.
MORE — Removing Financial Barriers for Ruling Elders
MORE (More Orthodox Ruling Elders) was founded in 2017 when Ruling Elder (RE) Charlie Nave went to his first General Assembly and found that ruling elders were outnumbered by teaching elders 4 to 1. Convinced that the primary reason for low RE turnout was financial, Nave created a nonprofit to connect PCA donors with REs who needed help with GA expenses. In 2021 it assisted 49 REs. The goal, Nave says, is remove the financial stumbling block from an RE’s path to General Assembly.
“We hope to influence the direction of the denomination by making sure that ruling elders have a voice in its courts,” he said.
MORE’s website includes articles, most of which promote greater RE involvement, though some advocate a position on particular issues and on the state of the PCA. For example, MORE favors the changes to BCO 16, 21, and 24 that are currently before the presbyteries. And in one post Nave commended an article on how the Christian Reformed Church “lost its way” as “a sobering article” every RE should read concerning “what that tells us about the direction of the PCA today.”
The National Partnership Encourages Participation of Younger Leaders
That brings us back to the National Partnership. In 2012, James Kessler, then 33, launched a few frustrated texts to friends on his way home from GA. It was Kessler’s sixth Assembly and it had become clear to him that his generation wasn’t connected to the work of the denomination. Many, he concluded, were poorly informed and reluctant to participate.
He noticed something else: The debates at the GA did not seem to reflect the denomination as a whole. There seemed to be an absence of what he identified as “moderate” voices.
By starting the NP he hoped to help organize the men who occupied the middle ground who were being minimized, particularly by encouraging younger men to participate in the business of the denomination at the presbytery and Assembly level; getting moderate, younger men to serve on permanent committees, committees of commissioners, and the denominational agencies of the General Assembly, and to become active in their presbyteries.
They would also share resources and opinions via email in advance of key votes in presbytery and in preparation for Assembly work. In carrying out these aims, he believed the NP could help maintain a representative voice for what he saw as the majority in the PCA. “I believed if more were involved in the work,” he says, “the outcomes would be healthier.”
The network has been maintained through private emails, written primarily by Kessler, and sent to some 230 elders. In the emails he encourages involvement and expresses his opinion on matters before the denomination. The emails are private, Kessler says, in order to instill trust and encourage honesty. Nobody wants to be misunderstood or see their comments taken out of context, he says. Kessler has led the NP from the beginning; there is no board or council, though he regularly seeks advice from the group. He says he avoided a formal board because he felt it would encourage a greater sense of factionalism.
While Kessler calls public accusations of NP vote-whipping at GA “a reasonable misunderstanding by some,” he stresses the fact that members aren’t uniform in their views. “One thing I’ve really appreciated about the NP,” he says “is that members have been willing to disagree.” He cites occasions when he’s been confronted about his tone and when others moved him in a more charitable direction.
“The goal of the group is unity, not uniformity,” Kessler insists.
PCA Networks Existed Before the PCA
PCA networks existed before the denomination. Two of the four organizations that formed the basis for the new denomination were networks: Concerned Presbyterians brought together like-minded ruling elders, while Presbyterian Churchmen United did the same for ministers.
The other two organizations: the Presbyterian Journal and the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship held annual meetings (Journal Day and the PEF Family Conference) where informal networking thrived.
Church politics as practiced by networks is not inherently wrong. Their proper role is “to inform and persuade.”
Members of these networks easily rallied around the threefold commitment that became the unofficial motto of the PCA: “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.”
But it soon became clear that there were different perspectives about to how to incorporate them. An informal network of elders emerged that self-identified as “Thoroughly Reformed” and alleged that some in the denomination didn’t hold to important particulars of the Reformed faith. They argued that the PCA should require officers to agree with every proposition set forth in the Westminster Standards. This is referred to as strict subscription.
Another network drew together around an alternative view — system subscription — which allows exceptions to Confessional propositions so long as they don’t undermine the system of doctrine it teaches.
These two groups were soon at odds over other issues — creation days, for example — but subscription always loomed.
At times these networks established more structured organizations: Vision 2000, Concerned Presbyterians (not to be confused with the original group by that name), and the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network, for example. Like today’s networks, these all sought to lead the denomination in the direction they thought best.
Subscription Still Looms
In 2003, the 31st General Assembly ratified a Book of Church Order change that allowed “Good Faith Subscription,” meaning that presbyteries could grant exceptions to the Standards that weren’t hostile to “the system of doctrine” the Standards teach or to “the vitals of religion.”
Even so, debate over subscription persists. The last three Assemblies have addressed the question of whether a minister may be prohibited from teaching an exception his presbytery has approved. And at the last Assembly a seminar on subscription drew a capacity crowd.
This debate reflects what Sean Lucas, in his book “For a Continuing Church,” calls a struggle over the PCA’s identity: What does it mean for the PCA to be Presbyterian? Does it mean to be culturally connected? Evangelistically committed? Doctrinally particular?
Through the years, the various networks have sought to move the denomination according to their vision of the PCA’s identity. “In many ways,” Lucas says, “the contemporary networks continue what was present in the beginning and are very much part of our PCA sense of self.”
According to Lucas, shifts in American culture have made the PCA’s denominational culture more abrasive; this has carried over in the mission of the networks themselves. “We are less willing to trust one another and to believe the best about one another,” he says.
Dr. Roy Taylor, PCA clerk emeritus and for 14 years chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, notes that networks are common in the ecclesiastical world. “There have been networks within Presbyterianism and other denominations for a long time,” he says. He points to networks of renewal groups that once existed in the mainline denominations, and to the Presbyterian Lay Committee which published The Layman.
“The official polity of the PCA is the courts of the church,” he says. “The unofficial polity — its politics — is networks.” In Taylor’s opinion, church politics as practiced by networks is not inherently wrong. “Anything that involves polity includes politics. The proper role of networks,” he says, “is to inform and persuade.”
Taylor argues that church politics become problematic when every side thinks that God and the Bible are on their side. “They come to believe that anything is allowable for a worthy purpose — the-end-justifies-the-means type of thinking.”
Observing the same phenomenon, PCA Stated Clerk Dr. Bryan Chapell notes, “There have always been networks in the PCA, as brothers work with those they know to establish legislation and leadership they believe are the good of the church’s future.” However, when visions clash, Chapell finds words once attributed to Ben Franklin still relevant: “Only some revolutions are legal. Those are revolutions in the first person, because those are our revolutions. All other revolutions are their revolutions and, therefore, are illegal.”
Adds Chapell, “I have not been a member of any network for years, but I have attended meetings and consulted with leaders of differing views for the sake of information and fairness. In doing so, I have observed that that the word ‘networks’ could readily be substituted for Franklin’s ‘revolutions’ in our ranks, if we are not careful to practice biblical integrity and charity in our expressions and activities.”