Now that I’m back in Southern California, where people are reasonable and normal, I have the time to reflect upon the proceedings of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly.
In one sense, that assembly has the possibility of becoming a watershed, depending upon—in Sesame Street language—what happens next. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.
Since returning, I have benefitted greatly from articles written by Teaching Elders Don Clements and David Hall. I am privileged to call them both friends. Before I deal with their articles on this year’s GA, I want to give a bit of a “run up” to what transpired on the floor of the assembly. This part will be taken from my notes and will not stand the test of a verbatim record.
The Duncan/Keller Discussion
On Wednesday evening, June 30th, Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller spoke to a packed house about the need for the PCA to stay together. Apparently, someone was thinking that the PCA might split, so it was decided to have an amicable meeting where two leaders in the PCA discussed this need to remain as one body. Although I have not heard this type of overt speech (civil discourse) in the PCA, it is quite possible that some have been floating trial balloons on this issue.
Whatever the case, I am going to begin by giving you my impressions of the discussion, which, by the way , was quite civil and, at times, quite funny. My colleague and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary classmate, Tim Keller, began by citing three “theologies” described, if I’m not mistaken, by George Marsden. Those theologies are “doctrinalist,” “pietist,” and “culturalist.”
The term “doctrinalist” is somewhat self-explanatory. There are a number of these folk in the PCA and might very well be represented by the TR (Truly Reformed) crowd. As the description suggests, doctrine is very important to this group.
The pietists, Keller explained, stress “core doctrines” over “secondary doctrines.” This was said in passing and no specific examples were given of either category, which might have been helpful. But just like John Calvin’s reference to “fundamental” and “non-fundamental” doctrines in the Christian faith, this can be somewhat helpful until parties in the discussion attempt to pinpoint what is fundamental/core and non-fundamental/secondary. At least there is historical precedence I suppose.
Culturalists are open to the “new” and most recent scholarship. Since Keller mentioned that culturalists have an affinity with Anglicans, I took this as a veiled reference to N.T. Wright. Apart from the Anglican slant, not too long ago it might have been conceivable that the culturalists were open to the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, John A.T. Robinson, or Joseph Fletcher.
A plea was then issued for the current PCA not to move our “original boundary markers.” He called for us to stop impugning motives to each other as well as to learn from and “flavor” (Tim’s term) each other. This admonition/plea was accompanied by a request not to seek to “lop off” any one of these “theologies.” I took that message to heart and hoped that others did as well. Apparently, I was wrong, however. That is to say, I am not certain that everyone at this year’s General Assembly took it to heart, and I’ll tell you why.
A Kind of “Lopping Off”
In his July 2, 2010 article, “How to Deal with a Large Minority—My Opinion of the Strategic Plan Process in the PCA,”http://bit.ly/bmxQ3K Don Clements cited the PCA Book of Church Order, Chapter 20-5, which reads, “On the election of a pastor, if it appears that a large minority of the voters are adverse to the candidate who has received a majority of votes, and cannot be induced to concur in the call, the moderator shall endeavor to dissuade the majority from prosecuting it further; but if the electors be nearly or quite unanimous, or if the majority shall insist upon their right to call a pastor, the moderator shall proceed to draw a call in due form, and to have it subscribed by them, certifying at the same time in writing the number of those who do not concur in the call, and any facts of importance, all of which proceedings shall be laid before the Presbytery, together with the call.” (Emphasis added.)
Clements cites two crucial standing count votes of 507-366 (42%) to invite “younger generation leaders onto GA boards and committees and 425-409 (49%) dealing with alternative credentialing from “disadvantaged constituencies, enabling them to attain the same ordination standards expected of a traditional M.Div. seminary graduate.
Even though 20-5 speaks about the election of a pastor by a congregational vote, surely the principle of “large minority” applies. Even if by some rigorous standard someone wants to argue that this only applies to a congregation electing a pastor, then surely Tim Keller’s request not to “lop off” one of the theologies existing in the PCA must come into play.
If the plea that was given to us on Wednesday applied on Wednesday, why didn’t it apply on Thursday? Given the percentages of 42% and 49% respectively, why didn’t some pietist or culturalist rush to a microphone and say something like this:
“Brothers, given the large minority of the ‘doctrinalists’ (or whoever they were) voting against these proposals, I urge the meeting to cease and desist on these measures and reconsider recommitting this to the Administration Committee for further study”? Would that have been unreasonable? Put a different way: would it not have been in keeping with what Keller pled for on Wednesday evening? Surely, it would have been.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. Instead, the chairman leading the meeting in the Strategic Plan encouraged us, in the words of John F. Kennedy, to go to the moon, figuring out how to get there on the way. This was disconcerting for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, one might have reasonably expected something more biblical than a quote by a womanizing former-President. I think we could have done a lot better than that. Of course, the quote was not impromptu, but rather was planned as it was thrown up on the “big screen.” Too bad it wasn’t in 3-D. That would have really been cool.
Second, that statement about figuring out how to get to the moon while we’re underway is chilling. In reality, it smacks of what our Congress has done rather repeatedly lately, namely, passing bills before reading them. Clements tells an anecdotal story that is quite informative. A Ruling Elder said to him that it appeared that a “lot of men…did not trust the leadership of the church.” What he said next was quite disturbing; “He said that he and others he knew had not even read the Strategic Plan, let alone carefully [studied] it before coming to the Assembly, but rather were just voting because they trusted the leadership.”
That sends a chill up my spine and not the kind of “tingle up the leg” that Chris Matthews used to get when talking about President Obama. So let’s break this down a little. Out of the 1,700 PCA congregations, less than half (750) attended General Assembly, with only 333 Ruling Elders present. How many of the delegates had read, studied, and comprehended the very far-reaching implications and applications of the 2010 Strategic Plan? I don’t know. I’m just askin’.
But if the RE that spoke to Don Clements is in any way indicative and representative of the 2010 delegates we’ve got problems—big problems. We simply cannot assume things. Should we trust our leadership? Of course we should, but not to the extent that we do not fulfill our responsibilities to be informed delegates.
In our next installment, I want to take a look at a term that is being used in the PCA currently to describe a portion of pastors, elders, and congregations: progressive. I’m going to suggest that this term has political, historical underpinnings and involves quite a bit more, for example, than merely calling illegal aliens “undocumented workers.” I will further suggest that as the term was applied politically that it described a “top down” hierarchy that is beginning to typify some in the PCA “bureaucracy.”
I noted to a friend during GA that since coming into the PCA in 1995 I have noticed that some in PCA headquarters are beginning to act with autonomy and impunity towards those who disagree with them or challenge. In some cases, these bureaucracies have taken on a life of their own and similarly to their political counterparts, seem to ignore those who have placed them in positions of leadership.
Ron Gleason holds a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary. After pastoring churches in the Netherlands and Canada, he joined the PCA in 1995 and currently serves as pastor of Grace Presbyterian in Yorba Linda, California (where people are apparently “reasonable and normal”.)