Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 3) The Politics of Self-Destruction

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.

Sloganeering

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?

Final Thoughts

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.

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