Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 2) PCA Politics and American Culture

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.

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