I would like to make an argument here that if we show partiality in judging a brother in Christ outside of the church courts (Presbytery & General Assembly) then it will make it virtually impossible to be impartial in our judgement when a brother’s case comes to a church court. It appears, based on what many are writing and speaking on social media, that the purpose of Overtures 23 & 37 is to get Greg Johnson out of the PCA and prevent another Greg Johnson from coming into the PCA. Its interesting to me that all the arguments for these Overtures at one point or another come back to Dr. Greg Johnson. He is a fellow elder being judged on social media by those who will judge him in the church courts. First, in our votes regarding Overtures 23 & 37 in our presbyteries. Secondly, as we possibly make a final vote regarding those overtures at the 2022 General Assembly and decide on matters related to SJC actions pertaining to him, God’s Word urges us toward extreme caution as we act as judges. It is imperative that we are able to act as impartial judges.
Acting impartially isn’t merely about the kind of judgment we make. It’s also about the kind of judge we are and the kind of character we display. One could come to the right decision while still committing the sin of partiality. With God, the ends don’t justify the means. Displaying God’s glory in the means we use are just as important as the outcome of our judgment as elders in Christ’s Church.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13 ESV)
In James 2:1-13 we see the Holy Spirit, through James, challenge those who profess Christ but commit the “sin of partiality”. To get James 2 in context we need to look at James 1. There James identifies true Christians as one who remain steadfast in the faith despite the trials they face, seek God for wisdom, and are moved by their faith to not only hear God’s Word but to put it into practice, that is, to be “doers of the Word”. (1:3-25). Christians are those who remain steadfast, seek God for wisdom, and put God’s Word into action in their lives.
This general context leads into James 1:26-27. This often-quoted passage serves as the bridge between what James says in 1:3-25 and what he will say about making judgements as a church in 2:1-13. First James observes that a professing Christian who does not bridle his tongue not only deceives himself but also has a worthless religion (1:26). He will pick up why bridling the tongue is important for Christians in 3:1-12 where he concludes that the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). Ultimately for James, how one uses their tongue is a great indicator of the reality of their faith and standing before God.
James goes on to speak of what pure and undefiled religion looks like. He first mentions what we do, “visit orphans and widows in their distress”. Practicing true religion sees the needs of the marginalized and meets them where they are suffering. Next, he mentions what we resist. We keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” (1:27). This is a picture of a doer of the Word. Their faith can be tangibly seen in their lives by their conduct. James picks this up in 2:14-26 where he argues that “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (2:17) and “for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Thus, how one lives their lives tells the truth about the reality of their faith.
In other words, true Christians are careful about what they say and the things that they do point to a genuine faith. The ones who remain steadfast in this kind of life through trials while seeking God for wisdom are the ones we’d truly count as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It’s in the midst of this argumentation that James 2:1-13 appears. The sin of partiality is one that bears witness against the genuineness of faith. The sin of partiality is not “doing the Word” and it is not “bridling the tongue”. So, what is the sin of partiality?
Holding to, being “steadfast”, in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means that we will not show partiality (προσωπολημψίαις)(2:1). As Keener notes, “The language of impartiality was normally applied especially to legal settings.”(p. 693). Johnson notes that the word is a Christian neologism of the Hebrew “nasa panim”. He observes this Hebrew word at work in Leviticus 19:15, ““You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor,” (p. 221). Yahweh ingrained into the justice system of his people that judging is to be impartial. Davids also notes that James would refer to Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord,” in 2:8 (p. 110). Spencer quotes Deuteronomy 10:17-18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” She observes, “God is not affected by any external pressure to be unjust,” before concluding, “Therefore, since God the Trinity is impartial, it should be impossible to maintain a faith in Jesus that is partial to the wealthy.” (p. 100-101).
God does not show partiality between Jews and Greeks (Rom. 2:11). Masters are to treat their slaves well because of God’s impartiality (Eph. 6:9). God will show no partiality in paying back the wrongdoer for what he or she has done (Col. 3:25). So, if we show partiality by not “loving our neighbor as yourself” (2:8) then we are sinning because we are falling short of God’s glory shown in His impartiality. Thus, we are convicted by God’s moral law as lawbreakers. The sin of partiality is a serious offense against God. It is not something to take lightly according to James.
How does he describe this sin? James speaks of two men. The first man wears a gold ring and fine clothing, while the second man wears shabby clothing (2:2). This echoes back to 1:9-10a where James writes: “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation.” The lowly, the poor are lifted up by the Gospel while the rich are brought low, humbled by the Gospel. One would expect, then when these two people come into the assembly of Christians that no distinction would be made between the poor man and the rich man. But that’s not what happened. What happened is the opposite of what one would expect from reading James 1. Instead, the rich man is given the place of privilege and the poor man is marginalized (2:3). The assembly is making a distinction between the rich man and the poor man. Craig Keener notes that, “Jewish legal texts condemn judges who make one litigant stand while another is permitted to sit” (p. 694).
Of note, the Greek word used for the assembly is συναγωγὴν. They are at the synagogue which was not only a place of worship but also a place where elders of the assembly gathered to resolve community disputes (Johnson, p. 222). The language and setting harkens back to the day when religious people would seek to have their disputes resolved by religious leaders. In this case, it is possible that this was not a worship gathering, rather a rich man and poor man come to the synagogue to have their dispute resolved by the elders of the congregation. Maybe the same case or two different cases. It could have also been a worship assembly. In any case, the congregation telegraphs their hearts in the disparate treatment of the rich man and the poor man. McKnight has a footnote that lists the many modern scholars that see this passage describing a judicial function of the synagogue rather than a worship function along with a scholarly work that traces this view back to the 17th century (p. 185).
The assembly of Christian judges “pays attention” to the rich man (ἐπιβλέψητε). Johnson notes the force of this word is to look upon favorably based on the appearance of the rich man and the poor man (p. 222) and in doing so become judges with evil designs (p. 223-24). The evil design is to reject the command of God in Leviticus 19 to judge impartially. Without hearing any evidence the assembly is already judging guilt or innocence based on appearance. When they do this they are not loving their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).
The world looks with favor on the rich man and with contempt upon the poor man. This is true even today. I heard someone once say, “True justice in the American courts is only for those who can afford it.” In my ministry to the poor, I have seen this happen over and over. There is a great difference in the quality of representation between an overworked, usually inexperienced public defender and an experienced and well-paid defense lawyer. This is not God’s way. James reminds his hearers of this in 2:5-7. God chose the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom in His economy (2:5). In contrast, the rich are the oppressors who drag the less fortunate into court and they are the ones that blaspheme the name of Jesus (2:6-7). The world is pressing the judges to view people a certain way, but James is reminding them the folly in God’s economy of showing partiality.
James urges that those who judge, do so according to the “royal law” that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.” (2:8). Spencer quotes Michael Fiorello’s observation about Leviticus 19, the chapter that serves as a foundation for James 2:8, “communal holiness is defined as love expressed in displays of integrity and guardianship for one’s neighbor.” (132).
Would we want people judging us to show partiality and favoritism toward those we are in a dispute with? Why then would we do that to others? Why would we want to single out one sin that Scripture condemns for special judgment while not addressing other sins the Word of God mentions in the same sentence? Why favored treatment toward those who commit “respectable sins” while adding to Scripture words that are not there when judging one particular sin regarding hierarchies of “heinousness”?
James clearly states that showing partiality is a sin and makes one just as much of a lawbreaker as the one being judged (2:9). Breaking one aspect of the law makes us guilty of all of it (2:10-11). This doesn’t seem to leave much room to debate the heinousness of sin, making out our brother’s sin to be more heinous than ours. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t degrees of heinousness of sin, but it means that it is immaterial to how we judge others. We can debate whether adultery or murder is more heinous but James isn’t measuring the degree of the sin but what it does to our relationship with God. That is the danger of legalism, we drift into it when we begin to show partiality in our judgment towards others. We begin to excuse our own sin while harshly condemning the sin of others. We get into discussions where we make our own sins less heinous than another’s.
It seems to me, based on this passage, that we can misuse the Westminster Larger Catechism at this point. We quote the answer to question 151: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” What about the “sins in themselves?” What could the Westminster Divines have in mind here? The answer is in the Scripture proofs they provided…idolatry (Ez. 8), unbelief (Ps. 78), betrayal of Jesus by the religious leaders (Jn. 19), and the “sin unto death” (1 John 5), that many commentators would argue as the sin of failing to repent and believe the Gospel. Notice that any reference to homosexual sin is absent from the minds of the Westminster Divines. That such would be a more heinous sin in and of itself is a modern creation.
We also seem to forget that question 152 further defines the “several aggravations” of question 151 by placing those aggravations into four different categories, the persons offending, the parties offended, the nature and quality of the offense, and the circumstances of time and place. The Westminster Divines didn’t view the determining the heinousness of sin by creating a hierarchical list. Rather, they noted that the heinousness of sin was determined by a number of factors that required wisdom and insight.
After clearly condemning partiality in judging in the church, James goes on to point to a better approach to judging. He calls those judging to, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (2:12). John Calvin writes that James is making the point that, “…unless you wish to undergo the rigor of the Law, you must be less severe on your neighbors. The law of liberty, then, is the equivalent to God’s clemency, which free us from the curse of the Law.” (p. 281). Christian judgement is to be done as those who are under the law of liberty. Calvin saw this as referring to a deliverance that comes from the Gospel that frees us from the “rigor of the law”. Jesus quoted the Septuagint version of Hosea 6:6 when challenging the legalism of the Pharisees, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6). Mercy is of high value in God’s Kingdom among His children.
In Luke 4 Jesus goes to Nazareth, his hometown, and preaches the Gospel from Isaiah 61. It declares the Messiah will bring liberty for captives and those oppressed. Then He tells the citizens of Nazareth that God chose to show mercy on Gentiles and not Jews only. This enraged his Jewish audience who thought it was by their law-keeping that they had a special standing with God (Luke 4:16-30). Again, mercy rises to the top in connection to liberty.
The Apostle Paul issues an exhortation and warning in Galatians 5:13-15, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” If we treat others without mercy then we are not using our liberty in Christ to do the good work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Are we surprised that James ends his argument with, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (2:13)? Its interesting that after Jesus speaks about church discipline and judgment in the Church (Matt 18:15-20), he goes on to tell the parable of the “Unforgiving Servant.” Peter wants to know how often he has to forgive a brother. Jesus follows with the parable that tells of a servant who has a great debt that he can’t repay and his master shows mercy toward him and forgives the debt. That same servant has someone else who owes him a much smaller amount. The servant does not show mercy to his fellow servant like the mercy he was shown by his master. That angered the master and the servant was sent back to jail to pay off his debt. The point Jesus was making about forgiveness to Peter is that God has shown him much mercy so he should show mercy to others. Receiving mercy begets giving mercy, and forgiveness is part and parcel of showing mercy.
To sum up, I think the point of James 2:1-13 is that Christians are not to show partiality when making judgements in the church courts. Partiality is shown by singling out people (like the poor) based on pre-judging their character based on appearance and giving favoritism to other people (the benefit of the doubt) based on their appearance. By showing partiality in any form a judge has evil intentions and sins against God. Rather than showing partiality, a judge is to love his neighbor as himself and in doing so speak and act as one under the Gospel (law of liberty). In understanding this, mercy will triumph over partiality in judgment. The key to overcoming partiality is loving neighbor by showing him mercy.
The one who would judge but does not bridle his tongue (1:26) is not as religious as he imagines himself to be. Why? According to James, the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness (3:6) and restless evil, full of deadly poison (3:7). Paul warns about these kind of men becoming elders in the Church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30). They do not embody Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In 1 Timothy 6 Paul identifies false teachers as leading people away from behavior that honors God (1 Tim. 6:1-6). They are known as people who have an, “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:4-5). In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul warns against people who stir up “rivalries, dissensions, divisions” saying they will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-20). Those who make it a practice of reviling (being verbally abusive) will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
In other words, unregenerate men like this will be flagrant violators of Westminster Larger Catechism questions 144-145 because their focus is gain over godliness (1 Tim. 6:1-6). Pursuing the truth for God’s glory does not require violating our ordination vows.
The WLC on the Ninth Commandment (not bearing false witness) is written with the spirit of James 2:1-13 at the forefront. Consider the wording:
What is commanded in the Ninth Commandment: “The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.”
What is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment: “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.”
It is hard for me to imagine the PCA remaining united through the challenging times posed by the current culture war raging around us. If we get caught up in that and begin to turn the judgements of the church courts into political battles I think we will suffer greatly. If, as we get caught up in battles over overtures, we begin to show partiality in our judgements in violation of Scripture it will be far too easy for us to take the easy way of fighting political battles rather than the hard way of setting aside our biases and judge based solely on the Word of God guided by the system of doctrine we believe accurately reflects Bible teaching. In the next part I want to examine some biblical texts that are very pertinent to the judgements we will likely be called to make at the 2022 and 2023 General Assemblies.
Bibliography of Study Resources:
John Calvin. Trans by A.W. Morrison. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke Volume III, James and Jude. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Peter Davids. New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)
Craig Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993)
Luke Timothy Johnson. The Anchor Bible: The Letter of James.(New York: Doubleday, 1995)
Scot McKnight. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)
Douglas Moo. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter of James (Second Edition). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021)
W.E. Oesterley. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Volume IV: The General Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)
Aida Bensancon Spencer. Kregel Exegetical Library: A Commentary on James. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020)
I’m hearing word from pastors that our public battles on social media is damaging their witness in their communities and stirring up division within their churches. Some have lost families. Others have lost good outreach opportunities. The PCA has become a front in the culture war and our political behavior is driving people away. People are looking for the Jesus proclaimed by the Gospel in the Bible. I believe we’re sowing the seeds of our own destruction in the way we are dealing with conflict as a denomination.
Conservative traditionalist church members and the culturally conservative unchurched see the dire predictions regarding the direction of the PCA on social media and begin to wonder if they had better leave or not join a PCA congregation at all. After all, they hear loud voices proclaiming that the PCA has become untethered from her biblical moorings with gay and liberal pastors. Progressive, biblically grounded members see what they consider to be Pharisaic judgementalism coming from the more extreme voices on the traditionalist side and begin to wonder if the PCA isn’t on the verge of abandoning the biblical Gospel. They fear the replacement is self-righteous hypocrisy. Unchurched cultural liberals who embrace LGBTQ and CRT and other humanistic philosophies avoid the PCA, not because of the Gospel, but because of a perceived hatred and dislike of anybody that isn’t a white Evangelical traditionalist.
The sad thing is that these overtly politicizing public debates in the PCA are probably being propagated by only 10% of her elders. But the actions of a minority are negatively impacting the whole denomination. I simply do not believe there is a political solution to the challenges we face. This is especially true in a very polarized society with two very distinct cultural worldviews that are mutually exclusive. We don’t need to fight it out like Democrats and Republicans fight it out for cultural dominance. That is the way of the world.
In other words, the PCA’s public battles are hurting the church’s discipleship and mission. We will feel it more in the coming years. If we don’t find a way to return our focus toward keeping obedience to the Great Commission I don’t think the PCA will remain united. And that would be sad because doctrinally we capture the teaching of Scripture faithfully. That is, it takes both the “progressives” and “traditionalists” working together as in a marriage to make a stronger body. Becoming political enemies does not advance the Kingdom of God.
I believe that if the PCA is to remain as a united national denomination we’ve got to figure some things out and fast. We’ve got to learn how to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission,” in two very different, polarized cultures simultaneously. Without a mighty work of God in our midst I believe this is an impossible task. The culture war raging around us between Blue State culture and Red State culture. This culture war has been turning our mission field here in the United States into a battle zone with accumulating ruins.
The ever-increasing polarization leads people to intensely negative feelings, if not outright hatred of the other side. The other side are idiots, are evil, are misguided, are ignorant, are destroying America, any bad name you can think of is hurled toward the other side. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. Liberals and Conservatives hate each other. The LGBTQ+ Movement and the Traditional Marriage and Family Movement hate each other. The Socialists and the Capitalists hate each other. The America First crowd and the Pro-Immigration crowd hate each other. We could go on and on. The debate is not just intellectual anymore. It’s visceral. The United States is turning into a melting pot of hatred and disgust toward one another. The frog is in the kettle and the water is now boiling.
I know these are strong words but the culture war is evoking very strong feelings. Those that are active in the battle express it publicly and vocally. Those caught in the middle between the two extremes increasingly suffer culture war PTSD. We don’t know how to even act in the public square anymore. What is okay to say? What should I be quiet about? How do I keep myself from getting canceled? Businesses are on edge. Public institutions are on edge. The ideologues of both sides are moving into public spaces and drowning out any voice that would question them.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were sure that former President Donald Trump cheated in the 2016 elections. That was the only explanation for their loss. After all, Blue State culture represented most Americans in their minds. Former President Donald Trump and the Republicans were sure that President Joe Biden cheated in the 2020 elections. There is no other way to explain it. Red State culture represents most Americans in their minds.
War is being raged between the opposing sides in the culture wars. It feels like a no holds barred political street fight to those in the middle. The fight is for public perception. With truth being relative in the public mind there is no search together to find a middle ground. The winners get to determine the version of truth we will get. The losers are left fighting to prevent the winner’s version of truth from being embraced. The battle rages on and on.
The goal is to make the leaders on our side look like saints and the leaders of the other side look like devils. We are the good guys. They are the evil guys. Blue State culture and Red State culture get a constant diet of “love our team” and “hate their team” messaging across their preferred media platforms until we no longer see the flaws and failings on “our side” and see only wickedness and corruption on the “other side”.
This is the lake where the PCA swims. It is stormy and tumultuous. It is fraught with danger. The promise of success seems unlikely and impossible. But when it gets that way, God has a way of showing up and bringing glory to himself. In the midst of this culture war God is going to have the final victory, Jesus will bring people to himself because the Holy Spirit will do His work. As my dad used to say, “The question isn’t whether the Holy Spirit is going to work and accomplish the purposes for which he came, the question is whether He will use us or someone else to accomplish those purposes.” The PCA is at a crossroads, and it seems like we are in danger of failing the test. Has our time to do the Lord’s work come and gone? If the way we conduct our denominational affairs looks suspiciously like the way worldly culture engages in politics, then could we take that as a warning sign that we are off track? Seriously off track.
Before jumping in further I have a confession to make. I was praying about this today. When I look at WLC 144-145’s exposition of the Ninth Commandment, I see my guilt. I have not kept God’s law like I should as His child and ambassador of Jesus Christ. Reading through the Ten Commandments section of the Westminster Larger Catechism brings me into close encounter with a magisterial exposition of Scripture. It also confronts me with my total inability to keep God’s Law perfectly. As I’m confronted by my own faults and failures – that is my sin – I’m driven to cling to Jesus and any pretense to self-righteousness begins to melt away.
It also serves as my guide. A “how to” live as a child of the living God who made me, adopted me into his family, and takes care of me. So I confess that I imperfectly keep God’s Law. The Holy Spirit wages war against my flesh so that He might bring forth the Fruit of the Spirit in me. I’ve been a Christian for 32 years now. More and more I see the depth of my sin and how great my need of a Savior really is. Any vestige of self-righteousness in me undermines my growth in sanctification.
Violations of the Ninth Commandment, cannot be avoided, if we speak and write. Scripture calls us to be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). James also tells us that no one can tame their tongue and that they are a restless evil that is full of poison (3:8). Should we journey through the Proverbs? The more we write and engage on social media and other online platforms the more likely we will violate the Ninth Commandment, even if it is unintentional. At any time someone can point out how what we write falls short of God’s glory. Even though we’ve been made new in Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit waging war against our flesh (Gal 5:16-24 cf. WCF 13.2) we still have not attained the perfection that awaits us in the New Heavens and New Earth. I think those who approach online interactions with others in a spirit of pride and self-righteousness are bearing bad fruit and show they don’t really understand the Gospel. The Gospel leads us to humility, compassion, patience, and mercy.
This is how I see us conducting ourselves in public according to worldly political power struggles rather than biblical imperatives.
Back & Forth Online (i.e. Arguing in Front of the Kids)
When it comes to disagreements between parents there is a balance. Kids need to see parents working out differences. But if those differences are leading to a breakdown of the marriage, it only serves to stir up a child’s insecurity to see how close to a trainwreck their parent’s marriage is.
There are PCA elders throwing things out there in public forums. Then other PCA elders respond. It’s one thing to have a discussion about ideas (but is doing in on social media really all that effective?), it’s another thing to tear down and rip apart both the PCA as a whole and the elders who serve her. Someone makes a controversial statement or claim and then members of the other side jump in to express disagreement. Give it a few days or maybe hours and a full-blown unhealthy public debate is going on. Repeat this hundreds of times and negative impressions are built by outsiders (remember that biblical qualification of being thought of well by outsiders) and by church members alike. The sheep start getting restless because the under-shepherds don’t look very much like the Chief Shepherd.
Sometimes posting a blog post or YouTube video only serves the purpose of being a flame thrower to take out one’s opponents. This is the world of grassroots politics online. Make your point and debate everyone else. The loudest, strongest, and most persuasive voice wins. People outside looking in couldn’t care less about the National Partnership or the Gospel Reformation Network, if they are spiritual seekers, they are looking for people in whom they see evidence that God is at work, that their faith is real, and that they care about people like them. Who wants to go to church with people who argue like Democrats and Republicans on Facebook?
Demagoguery and PCA Stardom
When I first heard there were “gay pastors” in the PCA, I was alarmed. In my mind, there were elders in the PCA that were engaging in homosexual acts. As I dug deeper, I heard about a pastor in British Columbia and one in Georgia who were disciplined by their Presbyteries after engaging in homosexual acts. Though their Presbyteries didn’t act perfectly, these men were removed from office. I couldn’t find one Presbytery in the PCA that didn’t discipline those who engaged in homosexual practices in their bounds or embraced and promoted homosexuality or gay marriage. As I even dug deeper, I discovered that there are some same sex attracted pastors that fight to mortify homoerotic desire. But these men do not engage in homosexual practice or promote it. In fact, they were supporting the traditional, biblical Christian sex ethic. Using “gay pastor” without qualification only serves to stir up fear and create “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions” (Gal 5:20). These are the works of the flesh and part of worldly politics.
The same is true when speaking of “liberals” and “progressives” in the PCA. Not knowing any better, it leaves the impression that there are elders in the PCA that deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible, who deny the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, who don’t believe the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. In other words, there are men in the PCA who no longer affirm their ordination vows. But that is not what is meant by the term. Often Tim Keller and Scott Sauls are named as the prime example of these “liberals” and “progressives”. These men and others that fit into this “camp” or “tribe” or “group”, whatever you choose to call it are not the progressives and liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Those earned the name by their doctrinal deviation from biblical truth. When we talk about liberals and progressives in the PCA we are talking about men who affirm the Scriptures, the Creeds, and our Confession. I think the reason “slippery slope” comes up in the context of these discussions is because what is being said of these men is fundamentally untrue and dishonest. One must predict the future with regard to these men and their ministries in order to make the “progressive” or “liberal” label stick. Kind of like convicting a man on charges of murder because you think some of his ideas could possibly lead him to maybe having thoughts of committing murder. Again, these labels, used without qualification, are ones that are meant to evoke fear and distrust amongst the brethren.
This is the way of worldly politics. Both sides try to define each other in a way that puts their opponents in the worst possible light. They try to get labels to stick and put their opponents on the defensive. This is not the way of Scripture. Didn’t Jesus say, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’” (Matt. 5:43-44). How does that fit in with contemporary national politics in the United States? How does this kind of behavior fit the imperative of Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear?” It doesn’t seem to me that the disingenuousness of creating a false picture of one’s opponents is being obedient to God’s commands about speech in Ephesians 4.
It appears to me that a lot of these tactics are being used by men who produce blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and social media posts trying to build their brand among those that think like them. In fact, it seems to me that the most strident voices appear to be pursuing PCA stardom. It may not be their conscious intent, but it sure looks like the effect of their behavior.
“Presbyleaks” and the National Partnership
There has been a group of elders that has been touting the release of confidential emails from a group that call themselves the “National Partnership”. Some voices are trying really hard to turn these emails that are claimed to have been leaked into a major scandal. I saw one public Facebook post that imagined these emails to be something church historians would talk about. Really?
First of all, nobody has come forward to identify themselves privately to the sender of the emails (I asked him directly) as the one who leaked them or publicly to explain why they leaked them. In fact, it is also possible that the emails were gained as a result of a hack or by stealing a username and password of a member of that Google Group. Something doesn’t feel right about the whole way these emails came to light. I think Peter’s urging in 1 Peter 2:1, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”
Secondly, a weakness of human nature is to desire knowledge that is forbidden. To create a group and give it an important sounding name, “The National Partnership”, and then let PCA elders know of its existence but tell many, “our discussions are confidential and you can’t be part of our group,” only stirs up suspicion. In some ways the National Partnership’s wounds were partially self-inflicted.
Third, the National Partnership is a group so small that it has little real influence unless their ideas and nominations they supported were agreeable to the mainstream. With 230 in the email group at their highest point, they weren’t swaying votes like a secret cabal. Rather, their agenda fit well enough others that some of the priorities expressed by the National Partnership came to fruition. If anything, it shows that those in the NP were in touch with the majority of the PCA.
Again, “Presbyleaks” is the way of American politics. Dig dirt on your opponents and use the media to try to create scandals that will damage them. But how does this fit in with 1 Corinthians 12:21-25, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”? It seems to me that if one thinks that they National Partnership members are less honorable and unpresentable, why are we not treating them with greater modesty? Why do we have to parade their dirty laundry, not just among other elders, but to the general public? Digging dirt and trying to create scandals is not the way that Jesus Christ leads His Church.
Non-Profit PCA Super PACs
In American politics if you want to push to defeat an opponent or ram an agenda through what do you do? You form a non-profit PAC (political action committee). What does the PAC do? It creates a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a Twitter account, and it starts pushing out its position in hopes that larger media venues will pick up its case and help them make it to larger and larger audiences. You’ll hold rallies with speakers that people respect. You’ll give people opportunities to join the cause. You fundraise and try to get resources to hire staff, pay for advertising, and try to influence those who vote in order to make the decisions you want them to make.
In order to get attention these PACs make outlandish and shocking claims. They often use half-truths and deceptively shape perceptions of their opponents to maximize shock value. Fear and angst are a major motivation for people to vote for you in American politics. You exalt your vision while making people scared of the other side. “Going negative” works in American politics. The goal is to make sure people don’t even give your opponents position a fair hearing.
There are several 501c3 non-profits that have been formed or are in the process of being formed to directly influence the direction of the PCA. These organizations seek to influence the courts of our Church while remaining outside the jurisdiction of our Church. They are behaving like PACs that are trying to lobby and shape public perception in order to achieve their agenda. But do we want these groups to shape the perception the public has of the PCA. The vast majority of PCA elders have little or no influence in these groups.
Over the last several months I’ve had a number of paid advertisements from these groups appear in my Facebook news feed. Some elders have been frustrated when trying to correct erroneous statements in the blogs and other public statements by these organizations. Their private messages aren’t responded to. Their comments correcting false statements are deleted. They save screen shots as proof but have no idea what to do with them. This is not the behavior of brothers in Christ pursuing the truth. This is the action of a political group seeking to influence an election. Their opponents are persona non grata to them.
How drawn are we to webpages and blogs that airs all of our dirty laundry in full view of the public? How slow are those pages and blogs to correct false statements once they are made aware of them? Do we secretly love to watch “the politics of personal destruction” unfold before our eyes? Are we ready to jump on board with a narrative more because it appeals to our convictions and less because we have thoroughly researched what the speaker or writer is saying?
“Side B” Christianity & Revoice Theology
In worldly political discourse a political party will try to tie the beliefs and practices of extreme members of one party to their mainstream. For example, a Democrat politician participates in a community party gathering. Republicans then say that all Democrats are socialist. A Republican politician participates in a white supremacist rally and the Democrats say all Republicans are racist. Trying to make extreme beliefs mainstream for the opposing political party in order to damage a political party’s reputation has been a standard play for the last several decades.
This is playing out when it comes to discussions of “Side B” Christianity and ReVoice theology. Trying to fasten the extremes to PCA elders is a political power play in my mind.
Side B Christianity is a response to Side A Christianity which seeks to normalize homosexual practices in various denominations and traditions within Christianity.
Side B Christianity is like the Pro-Life Movement. What unifying is the desire to uphold the historic, biblical ethic on sexuality and marriage among those who are same-sex attracted. Side B Christians can be Arminian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Dispensational, Roman Catholic, Mormon and a host of other beliefs, just like it is with the Pro-Life Movement. To tie a Mormon “Side B” Christian’s theological beliefs and practices with regard to same-sex attraction to a PCA elder is not fair or accurate. Side B Christianity isn’t a theological movement as much as it is an ethical one. There are a lot of differing theologies that fall under the Side B Christianity umbrella. Just because a Roman Catholic Side B Christian argues according to the theology of their church doesn’t mean that a PCA elder isn’t coming to his conclusion based on a very different theology. A PCA elder should be judged on their own beliefs, not the beliefs of someone else in the Side B Christian movement.
There is no “ReVoice theology”. In the beginning several PCA elders were involved with Revoice. But, due to the controversy in the PCA, ReVoice has distanced themselves from the PCA. There have been no PCA elders that are on staff, on the board of directors, or on the board of advisors of ReVoice for several years. It is an interdenominational ministry that include a wide range of Christian denominations and traditions. I asked Dr. Nate Collins, the founder and director of ReVoice directly, and they are very wary of the PCA right now and are not eager to do anything in partnership with any PCA church or organization.
ReVoice has three official faith and practice documents. They adopt the Langham Partnership’s Statement of Faith. The Langham Partnership was started in 1969 by John Stott. They have a statement on Christian Ethics and Christian Obedience . Finally, they have a statement on Public Posture and Christian Obedience. Any talk of “ReVoice theology” should only be in reference to these official statements from the organization.
Outside of their uniting documents there is no complete system of theology. ReVoice speakers and others involved with the organization each have their own individual beliefs. The diversity in ReVoice as a non-denominational, parachurch ministry is far broader than what would be acceptable in the PCA. Being involved with ReVoice is like being involved with the NAE (National Association of Evangelicals). It’s helpful for us as a denomination to be involved in the broader Christian community but it also makes many of us uncomfortable with the broadness because we have significant theological disagreements with Charismatics, Arminians and Dispensationalists. We would vigorously oppose someone imputing Assemblies of God theology to us just because we are in the NAE together.
Playing politics in this manner only serves to further divide the PCA. We need less polarization, not more. We need to be very careful about how we talk to one another as we try to build a consensus on how we will approach the issue of homosexually oriented Christians who remain celibate and embrace a biblical sexual and marriage ethic.
Then there’s the sloganeering. In secular politics one creates slogans to streamline messaging. Has anyone heard “Let’s Go, Brandon” lately? Remember the oldie but goodie, “The Politics of Personal Destruction”? How about “Liberalism is a mental disorder”? Or, “Conservatives are fascists”? Former President Trump was a master of branding people with short slogans. Remember “Sleepy Joe” and “Crazy Bernie”. This pejorative labeling says to followers, “Stay away, these are bad people.”
How are we doing with that? I’ve seen “Keep the Gay out of the PCA” and “PCGay”. There’s “liberal rot” in the PCA. How many times have we heard “Slippery Slope” used in a political way? “National Partnership” (NP) and “Gospel Reformation Network” (GRN) have become pejorative slogans depending upon which side you are on. As a former Fundamentalist in my childhood and an OPC elder earlier in my ministry, I admit I greatly struggle with watching GRN align more and more with the historic Presbyterian Fundamentalism of the Bible Presbyterian Church (which split off from the OPC). But that’s no excuse. Yeah, I’ve been guilty and it’s not right. This is the world’s way of doing politics. The pejoratives seem to come from all over and they are used to batter and bruise our opponents in the eyes of the people we are trying to persuade. Those “independent” PCA people who aren’t aligned with any “camp” or “group” or “side” or “tribe”, whatever you want to call it.
Sloganeering and demonizing opponents is the way of worldly politics. It’s not the way of a denomination that says WLC 144-145 is an accurate exposition of Scripture. Our goal as Christians is to restore gently (Gal 6:1-2). Where is the deep grief over a brother we feel is going astray? Has politics in the PCA become a blood sport for many of us? Have our opponents become enemies to be vanquished rather than brothers to be reconciled?
The world is watching us and our behavior. What are they thinking of the PCA right now? Yes, it’s a small minority making the most noise. But if we let that small minority continue to act without accountability or correction, what kind of reputation will we have as a denomination in a few years? Will every godly elder be tarred and stained by opponents as the culture war in American culture is brought into the PCA? Will the “progressives” and “traditionalists” so batter and bruise one another that nothing viable is left standing?
How do we deal with a minority of elders who are damaging our reputation as a denomination by their speech and writing? I’m not thinking about discussion and debate in the church courts or in private among groups of elders. That is healthy and good. I’m thinking of those who air our “dirty laundry” out in full view of the general public. Somehow we need both accountability and a culture change. I really struggled with posting these articles on my blog because of the risk that those who are not ordained elders in the PCA might come across them. Brothers, somehow we’ve got to shift our culture to more God-honoring practices. If our politics lead us to self-destruction, then we’ve got to change our politics.
Scripture tells us that those who practice the works of the flesh such as, “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:20). God’s Word also tells us that revilers (verbally abusive people) will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). Paul instructs Titus, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Tit. 3:10-11). Paul warns the Ephesian elder about savage wolves that would come from amongst their number, “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30). We’ve got to be careful about who we follow.
Which is preferable? A repentant homosexual who does not engage in homosexual acts can be a true believer, born again by the Holy Spirit who will inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11). An unrepentant divider who does not repent will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). I’d rather have a regenerate Elder who mortifies SSA and chooses celibacy over engaging in homosexual acts, than an unregenerate Elder who unrepentantly stirs up and foments division through slander and reviling.
My point is that I do not think we can resolve the many issues related to all the godless, immoral sexual practices we are seeing around us these days by turning the issue into a Red State culture vs Blue State culture political battle. It’s not the “culture warriors” vs the “social justice warriors”. I think that we need to back off the heated political infighting and step back and consider acting as biblically faithful judges in the church courts. We’ve got some significant issues to resolve. They deserve more than sinking to our lowest common denominator. There must be some accountability for the lowest common denominators in our midst.
I don’t think the PCA can remain united, and it may not even remain viable, if we continue down the path of the politics of self-destruction. The public battles are hurting our churches and making life very difficult for many of our Sessions. It doesn’t need to be this way. We can handle controversies like ReVoice and CRT privately amongst ourselves and in our church courts. The next two parts describe what I see in Scripture that I believe can guide us through the issues we face at the moment with regard to homosexuality.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines politics in part as the “art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy,” and “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” As Presbyterians we have a polity, a Presbyterian form of government. The Book of Church Order (BCO) provides the framework for how we engage in politics on a denominational level.
Back in 1861 as the Civil War broke out the national Presbyterian old school body, the PCUSA, was split and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) was born. The old school Presbyterian Church could not overcome the cultural political division between the North and the South that had been developing for decades. Debates on the floor of General Assembly would get hot and heated.
The Gardiner Spring resolutions passed at the 1861 General Assembly were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Resolution 2 stated: “Resolved, That this General Assembly, in the spirit of that Christian patriotism which the Scriptures enjoin, and which has always characterized this Church, do hereby acknowledge and declare our obligations to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of these United States, and to strengthen, uphold, and encourage the Federal Government in the exercise of all its functions under our noble Constitution; and to this Constitution in all its provisions, requirements, and principles, we profess our unabated loyalty.” It’s not surprising that ministers and elders serving in the states that would form the Confederate States of America would have a little trouble with the resolution. The resolution appeared to be a political power-play at a time when there were deep societal divisions that were spilling over into civil war. Rev. Gardiner Spring was caught up in the heat of the culture war of his day and, in his zeal, further exasperated the division to its breaking point.
In 1864 the old school PCCSA merged with the new school United Synod of the South to form the PCUS, aka “The Southern Presbyterian Church.” The PCUS grew up as a denomination in a region that had just been decimated by the Civil War. Nearly 300,000 lives lost. About 60% of the wealth evaporated. Agricultural equipment destroyed. Carpetbaggers from the North coming in to try to reshape the South into the image of the North. In came the era of Jim Crow.
In that environment the “Lost Cause” explanation of the South’s predicament grew. How does one preserve a culture that had just been crushed in battle and repudiated? The old institutions grew in importance and value. The PCUS churches were generally comprised of the leading citizens of the communities they inhabited – the educated, the wealthy, and the influential. It was the PCUS that, in many ways, became the cultural historians and preservationists in the South.
Heading into the 20th century theological liberalism was a highly infectious disease being spread from “Northern Presbyterians” into the Southern Presbyterian Church. In addition, the United States was being culturally shaped by Europe. In the first 60 years of PCUS existence: Darwin brought evolution; Marx brought communism; Nietzsche brought nihilism; Freud normalized sexual deviancy; and Sanger brought eugenics into broader American culture. In the 1930’s the Great Depression brought suffering across the United States. Socialism was introduced as a solution through the New Deal. By the end of World War II, the United States had a percolating secularism and pluralism that has grown up into what we now call “Liberalism” or “Progressivism” today.
By the 1960’s the PCUS had been irrevocably shaped and influenced by both theological and cultural liberalism. The departure from biblical truth had a devastating effect on a Church that adhered to the system of doctrine found in the Westminster Standards and the polity found in the Book of Church Order. The rapid transformation of culture combined with the departure from orthodoxy left a Church that remained rooted in Southern traditions and a culture that was interpreted by the Lost Cause, but without a solid biblical and theological foundation. Both theological and cultural liberalism and progressivism needed to be opposed.
During the Civil Rights era, in the South, progressivism and traditionalism battled it out. In the minds of most Southerners, progressivism won. The PCA was born in 1973 into this world as we took the mantle from the PCUS to be a continuing conservative, mainline Presbyterian Church as Sean Lucas described it. We aspired to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” It was the commitment to be obedient to the Great Commission that would propel the PCA into becoming a national denomination rather than merely a Southern regional one.
PCA churches in the South were big on tradition. The Big Steeple churches of influence shaped a denomination that would be faithful to the Scriptures and true to the Reformed faith. Reformed Theological Seminary was formed in the 1950’s in Jackson, MS to train ministers who would soon flock to the newly formed PCA. These men would faithfully serve to preserve a biblically faithful tradition in a culture that valued tradition.
The conservative, mainline bent also made for a bigger tent in the PCA. There was a measure of tolerance in the PCA that was fueled by this mainline spirit. More and more church plants looked very different from the Big Steeple churches that funded them.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the drive to fulfill the Great Commission led to the cultivation of churches that would not be very Southern in their culture and philosophy of ministry. For example, there was New City Fellowship under the leadership of Randy Nabors in Chattanooga, TN with its drive to cross racial barriers. Then came Perimeter Church under the leadership of Randy Pope in Duluth, GA that opened the door to mix the historic Reformed faith with more contemporary forms of worship, discipleship, and outreach. By the late 1980’s there was Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who under the leadership of Tim Keller, focused on mission to educated, secular urbanites. The Great Commission was being obeyed and the tent was being enlarged and the PCA was growing rapidly.
In the North, several decades earlier, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was borne out of the liberal drift among Northern Presbyterians. Soon after the OPC was founded there was a rift between the old school traditionalists ministering in the spirit of J. Gresham Machen and the new school fundamentalists with Carl McIntyre as the leading voice. The Fundamentalists would leave to form the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC).
During that time a young man, Francis Schaeffer, was starting his education at Westminster Seminary, the training ground for the OPC traditionalists. He would finish his education at Faith Seminary with the BPC fundamentalists. Over time, Schaeffer would become disenfranchised by the harsh fundamentalism of the BPC. He would eventually start L’Abri and become a leader in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES). The RPCES eschewed the harsh tone and inflexible tactics Fundamentalism and embraced a missional apologetic that involved engagement with secular culture. They also had a seminary that came to them via merger, Covenant Seminary, in St. Louis, MO to train pastors to serve the RPCES well.
When the PCA and RPCES merged in the early 1980’s it seemed like a great fit. Both were seeking to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” Overnight the PCA grew by about 30%. But there were some fundamentally different approaches to ministry and a divergent culture that came along with the RPCES.
Southern PCA churches seemed to have a dominant vision for ministry based on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
For the RPCES and the PCA church plants influenced by Covenant Seminary it would be 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
This tension existed and was tolerated while we were a national leader in denominational growth for several decades. Both sides tolerated each other. After all, people were coming to faith in Jesus Christ and new churches were being started across the United States. The “progressive” church planting movement was making the PCA a national denomination and we were growing in influence in the evangelical world. The Southern Presbyterian churches tolerated what made them uncomfortable. These new churches were creating new traditions and didn’t seem to value the traditions of the past.
On the other hand, the church planting movement needed the Big Steeple Southern congregations. That was where most of the aggregate wealth in the PCA was located. The church planters, increasingly trained at Covenant Seminary, engaged in church planting mission across the United States and the traditional Southern congregations, with their zeal for the Great Commission paid for it, despite the discomfort many felt. The Big Steeple Southern teaching and ruling elders also provided the largest share of leadership denominationally.
The spirit of the RPCES lived on in the training Covenant Seminary provided to PCA pastors, especially church planters and RUF campus ministers. As the PCA grew, so did the number of teaching elders who weren’t very Southern Presbyterian in their outlook and approach to ministry. These elders also wanted more of a voice to shape the PCA on a denominational level. But the traditional Southern congregations still generally controlled the vote at General Assembly. They appeared to be fine with what Covenant Seminary and the church planting movement was doing in fulfilling the Great Commission, but lots of these very traditional elders were not going to vote for men who, while they valued their work for the denomination, didn’t feel comfortable with their outlook and vision for ministry.
When I came into the PCA in 2003 from the OPC, I felt this tension. What drew me to the PCA was this tension. There was a high value for the historic Presbyterian polity of the BCO and doctrine of the Westminster Standards, yet a willingness to reshape that tradition into something intelligible to people we were reaching as we planted churches. The tradition was firm, yet flexible. It was Big Tent Presbyterianism that was “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” I loved it. I could live in this tension. I could attend Twin Lakes Fellowship with many traditional Southern elders one weekend and the next weekend get more ministry training at Perimeter Church.
As we plateaued in our rapid growth in the 2000’s I think people began to feel it. The “progressives” weren’t delivering when it came to rapid expansion of ministry at MNA or at RUF. The “progressives” began to feel that the PCA as a denomination was being held back by the “traditionalists” that controlled most of the church courts, especially GA and our denominational agencies. To move off the plateau and return to a greater focus on biblically faithful mission, then there needed to be a change of leadership at the General Assembly level.
The need was being even more acutely felt by PCA “progressives” as American society was becoming more and more polarized. I was living in New Hampshire in 2008 when Civil Union laws were passed. On January 1, 2010, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage. Since that time many “Blue States” have not only embraced the LGBTQ+ movement, but also many movements like BLM and others we call “politically correct.” In “Blue States” the LGBTQ+ movement is accepted and promoted. As a national denomination a lot of our church plants and mission works are ministering in a culture where gay marriage is not only legal, but homosexuality is embraced and promoted as a cultural value.
“Progressives” ministering in this environment are trying to implement 1 Corinthians 9 while remaining “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” It’s in this environment where ministries like ReVoice take shape. It’s also where something like ReVoice becomes a broad interdenominational cooperative effort with different collaborators that aren’t totally on the same theological page. The desire is not to depart the Reformed faith but to bring the Gospel to people who have thrown off all restraint when it comes to sexuality. Partnering with a theologically diverse group of Evangelicals in achieving that goal makes sense but it doesn’t lend itself to theological precision, something Presbyterians highly value.
The story is much different culturally in the “Red States” where the vast majority of the traditionalist PCA churches exist. The “Red States” culturally have not embraced homosexuality as the “Blue States” culturally have. In fact, it took a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme court to force gay marriage on Red States against their will. The cultural pressure on Red States is to fight and resist the expansion of the LGTBQ+ movement. The inclination for traditionalists primarily in the South and Midwest is to dig in and resist. I think we can certainly expect the culture war that has been brewing for a long time to spill over into the PCA.
American society has become so polarized in recent years that we can see a definite “Blue State” culture and “Red State” culture. These two cultures are at war with one another. People are getting more and more politically polarized.
Some PCA churches and elders are seeking to faithfully minister in the very secular “Blue State” culture driven by 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Other PCA churches and elders are seeking to faithfully minister in the culturally religious “Red State” culture driven by 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. The tension that has been developing for decades in the PCA. We are moving toward a breaking point in our denomination as the culture war further fractures the United States.
I think it’s the height of arrogance for any of us to think we’re immune from the cultural forces around us. I think we can be quite naïve at this point. Because we live in the United States where people are getting more and more polarized in their views, we can expect this spirit of polarization to rear its ugly head in our denomination. It’s often very hard to spot our own party spirit. We think we are being objective without bias, but others don’t see our perspective the way we see it.
The greatest danger I see will come from trying to solve the polarization politically. Those seeking to reach Blue State culture and those seeking to preserve Red State culture can expect to be at odds. My Session reminded me of this when it comes to ReVoice. ReVoice makes sense in a Blue State culture. ReVoice is harshly condemned by the LGBTQ+ movement. It is not seen as an ally of the LGBTQ+ Movement in any measure. ReVoice does not make sense in a Red State culture that is already opposed to the LGBTQ+ movement. In that environment ReVoice looks like a capitulation to the LGBTQ+ Movement. This tension cannot be solved with politics and compromise.
It’s understandable that many PCA elders would be strongly opposed to ReVoice. It’s understandable that many PCA elders see ReVoice as a helpful outreach tool. But I contend, that if we make the battle political, nobody wins and the PCA suffers great damage.
The PCUSA split in 1861 because Northern elders voted for a resolution deeply influenced by Christian Nationalism. Southern elders could not see the errors of the institution of slavery. The elders that formed the 1861 General Assembly did not desire to depart from Scripture or to betray the Reformed faith. They were sincere in their beliefs. They were trying to bring glory to God. But they were all culture bound too. Many in ways they didn’t recognize. We can see more clearly now because we aren’t in the midst of their culture war. We are in the midst of a different culture war. Is there a way we can step back and keep the PCA united without compromising our faithfulness to the Scriptures, fidelity to the Reformed Faith, and obedience to the Great Commission?
I fear the way of modern secular politics is the path we are walking. Modern political discourse is less concerned with truth and more concerned about appearances and power. In world where truth has become relative what is there left, but the power to make one’s version of truth the dominant one? This worldview may fit in a world that suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. It doesn’t fit in with our commitments as a denomination. I think pursuing truth by means that American political parties pursue power will lead us to self-destruction. In other words, I don’t believe we can pursue God’s glory in the manner the world pursues political power. In part 3, I’d like to discuss how I think we are slipping into worldly means of pursuing biblical truth.