When it comes to describing the PCA the conventional wisdom is we are hobbled by our contentious nature. We were started by men who like to fight and we just can’t stop. Staying in perpetual conflict is part of the warp and woof of our church. The conventional wisdom is at best simplistic and likely just wrong. The PCA is not, and never has been, any more dispositionally fractious than any other denomination.
In a normal state the human brain operates with a relatively stable level of neurons “firing” in the brain stem. With the introduction of a threat-stimulus that changes. It’s not just that brain activity increases, it’s how it increases. There is a release of noradrenaline that immediately acts on the heart, blood vessels and respiratory system. This produces immediate and distinctive physiological changes which together are called Acute Stress Response. A pioneer in this field was Harvard Medical School psychologist Walter Cannon (no relation). His research found this was hardwired into everyone. With it, people are better equipped to survive a threat. University of Rochester professor Jeremy Jamieson puts it a bit clinically when he says these produce tools “that help maximize performance.”
One of these tools is myopia. An intense focus on what’s in front of you. To be distracted or equivocal threatens survival. In the fact-based HBO miniseries Band of Brothers there is an episode where a military officer loses focus in the midst of intense enemy fire. His men are endangered and he’s quickly replaced by the legendary Captain Ronald Speirs who in one of the most memorable scenes demonstrates extraordinary battlefield leadership. When the bullets fly, you’re all in. Or you’re all dead.
When it comes to describing the PCA the conventional wisdom is we are hobbled by our contentious nature. We were started by men who like to fight and we just can’t stop. Staying in perpetual conflict is part of the warp and woof of our church.
The conventional wisdom is at best simplistic and likely just wrong. The PCA is not, and never has been, any more dispositionally fractious than any other denomination. I was living in Australia when apartheid collapsed in South Africa. Australians (like Americans) have a deeply ingrained sense of their national virtue and the country was basking in the smug satisfaction that their valiant opposition to that system was vital to its undoing. One of their commentators had a different view: “Don’t kid yourself. If given half the chance, Australians would have invented apartheid first.” They didn’t because the particular circumstances of their founding made their form of racism different.1 I have enough friends in other Christian traditions to know their denomination’s capacity for anger, control, turf-protecting, agenda-pushing and pettiness is the equal of ours. It’s a different arena with different rules and implied social contracts so it just looks different.
And here we circle back to the brain stem.
That series of articles [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.] surrounding the founding of the PCA is a picture of a large group of people in threat-stimulus mode. The Presbyterian Journal started in 1942 which tells you the conservative movement in the then PCUS was at it for some time. For years the perceived threat level from theological liberalism was considered manageable. When these articles pick up its 1971 and that’s changed. A sizable and relatively well-organized group of PCUS members are on war footing and they’re about to cross the Rubicon. And it’s all in. Noradrenaline is at full capacity and equivocation or distraction is simply not in play.2
For those, like me, not directly connected to these events and the history that preceded them the tone and timbre of these articles can be a little disorienting. (“They Cannot Be Trusted,” “If Ever-Now!”). Circumstances have no bearing on the obligation to be Christ-like and with the detachment of passing years it’s clear that this standard was not uniformly kept by our founders. (That may strike some as disrespectful and others as understatement. I don’t believe it’s either.) But circumstances do matter when it comes to seeing this without unguarded self-righteousness. And being able to learn from it.
For whatever reason the PCA stayed in a state of Acute Stress Response and we’ve never completely left it. I do not fully understand why but it’s certainly more than “we just like to fight” or fusing us with “Machen’s Warrior Children“. There’s likely some truth to both but the omnium-gatherum of the PCA suggests there’s a lot more to it than that. My gossamer thin and very tentative theory is perpetual-threat-response (which was avoidable) was set early by a relatively few influential institutions and individuals on varying sides. Since then it’s created a particular microenvironment in our denomination which makes the standard posture of debate include the bulk of reasonable men lining up behind those on the ideological edges. That’s my theory. I won’t die on that hill. I could be wrong.
The Second General Assembly convened just nine months after the first and the Presbyterian Journal (on page 112) has already begun to shift its threat response from the PCUS to “the denomination’s right wing.” The tone appears understated but it has the feel of spiking the football when calling their parliamentary defeat a “watershed moment.” For over 40 years the Journal was the most important unifying institution among conservatives in the PCUS. The ink had barely dried on the PCA’s Message to All Churches when it began to bifurcate the denomination. At the Fifth General Assembly, it appears that watershed moment may not have happened. A position paper from the Permanent Committee on Mission to the US (now MNA) to yield campus ministry to para-church organizations was presented and, for the most part, roundly rejected. This was described by the Banner of Truth as showing, “The cleavage between thoroughly Reformed and general evangelical opinions within the PCA…”
This “in or out” cleavage is playing out currently in the grace-works debate in the PCA. Unlike some, I don’t see this discussion as evidence of our impending collapse. It is necessary and healthy. There’s a reason why this question dominates so much of the New Testament. It’s hard to get right. What isn’t so healthy is how our threat-response culture means the bulk of reasonable men seem compelled to let the ideological wings completely control the debate. These wings are important voices to hear. That’s not faint praise. They could be right. But our church culture means they get little scrutiny and a movement unexamined is a movement with too much elbow room for abuse.
Those on the holiness side of this debate include those whose Theological GPS is guided as much by American Fundamentalism as anything else. And if you’re wondering, I think American Fundamentalism is a really, really bad thing for the PCA. Resisting it is a line-in-the-sand issue for me. It’s also just one more piece of what Udo Middelmann calls “The Islamization of Christianity“. There are men I respect and admire in this camp but some of them have been reckless and shrill. And they’re not getting the scrutiny they need because our church culture instead gives them oxygen.
Less obvious to some but just as insidious are some “protecting” the grace end of the continuum. I am, on balance, more likely to hang out with these folks but some of them are genuinely scary and becoming what Larry Osborne calls “Accidental Pharisees” as they absolutize a view of grace the Bible patently doesn’t. And they make no secret that their view of grace is the gospel. It would shock them to be called Pharisees but that is where they are landing. Any attempt to cull the herd of the church with an extra-biblical standard is an attempt at spiritual tyranny. And they too seem to be doing this with impunity because, well, that’s how we roll.
The most biblical position doesn’t have to be in the middle between these movements. It could be much closer to one than the other. That’s not the point. And it’s not just the squeaky wheel getting the grease. It’s allowing the dysfunctional to define and, in a way, control us. I’m getting tired of that.
Osborne notes that a common characteristic of groups like those on the extreme ends of the grace-holiness debate is a tendency to “catastrophize the future.” Their identity and behavior depend on it. It’s one more reason why I don’t engage in PCA Doomsday Talk.
We’re just feeding the Monster.
Tom Cannon is Senior Pastor of Red Mountain Church (PCA) in Birmingham, AL. This article first appeared on his blog, A Cold Day in Hades, and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: Original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]
1 Our almost ten years living in Australia were life-changing. I still consider it home. I carry an Australian passport. Yes, Elizabeth is my Queen. It pains me to say it but Australia’s racial history is arguably worse than America’s.
2 A person’s view of the PCA largely depends on judging how legitimate the threat was to the gospel during that place and time. I remain convinced it was.