A Way Forward for PCA Peace, Health, and Unity

Will the PCA make changes by legislative fiat from the top – or – by consensus among the presbyteries and local congregations?

This pastor remains far more concerned that the peace of our church will be wounded by unwitting defenses and advocacies, which employ legislative fiat, in thesi deliverances, or manipulating things such that voting among the grassroots presbyteries is strictly avoided.  That may be the way to win a demagogic vote, but it’s a surefire way to fracture unity. Servant leadership can patiently sell its ideas such that 2/3 of the grassroots presbyteries do concur.

 

At the 2016 Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly in Mobile, the proposal of the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) to erect a committee to study the role of women in ministry was approved. This approval came against a contrary and feisty substitute to punt on erecting a study committee for the most studied and discussed topic in a decade (this substitute had been approved 31-7 by a grass-roots committee, although reversed on the floor 699-477[1]). Thankfully, at least one of the fathers of the CMC idea verbalized its lack of warrant to propose things as it did.

Evidently a previous article here stirred the passions so greatly that several grown presbyters had to man the microphones to complain about how mean and unfair it is publicly and vigorously to question an historically-suspect vehicle or act as if the PCA is morally superior and immune from temptations to power.

By the way, I accept it as fair that if a person advocates positions in writing, his ideas may be criticized and disagreed with vigorously—I won’t squeal about spirited and rational public discourse. Indeed, more of that may lead to more peace rather than less. Perhaps some readers will agree that good interaction, even allowing dissent, may have positive effects and consider my suggestions about discourse, which ask us to think objectively about methods, well-intentioned leaders, and power as we move forward. I imagine Dr. Aquila, who was also whined about because his “news magazine” – published relevant previous GA Minutes (here, here and here) and a discursive article, might even invite equal time for folks to continue this debate in his magazine, especially since some publications cannot find the digital space to include articles that do not support their editorial agenda.

So while not wishing to poke the bear that we lovingly refer to as the CMC, but wishing to make suggestions for how greater peace and unity could be forged, below are 3 short points for readers to consider for coming discussions.

First, after any reading of all the prestigious names on the CMC—one supposes for information, for surely defenders do not wish to suggest either moral or ecclesiastical superiority for any group—it would be nice to have someone also read equally melodramatically the names of the 39 presbytery representatives on the Committee of Commissioners who reviewed the actions of the Administrative Committee (AC), who devoted substantial time to disagreeing with PCA Central, and who served just as valiantly, though vastly under resourced, while attempting to spare our churches the division that has needlessly been created. Had that other honor roll been read, one could have also realized that actual Millennials were on that committee. Take, for example:

  • A doctoral candidate in history from a Northeastern state university; teaching millennials
  • A 30-something pastor in a mostly chic city, with a seminary trained wife from California
  • A very hipster looking presbytery stated clerk and church planter
  • A young Midwestern pastor, who recently transferred from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) to avoid both bureaucratic rule and expansion of women’s roles
  • A youth pastor married to a fiery redhead, who has a call to church plant in pretty non-Southern Sweden
  • A recent Dartmouth grad, pastoring now in the South
  • A Cuban-American pastor from the Southwest.

There were also some other distinguished long-serving presbyters on the AC Committee of Commissioners, primarily from actual congregations—even some former moderators. Next time, lest our elitism be embarrassingly public, instead of a roll call of past celebs already listed, could someone vouch equally for the character, integrity, piety, courage, etc., of the grassroots committee that represented almost 40 presbyteries?

Second, while information flies on the floor, assertions that this particular power grab has been widely known for a long time needs substantial qualification. In fact, might someone point to the GA minutes where either the CMC or the AC was tasked to provide BCO amends[2]?

The point that over 40% of the GA Commissioners objected to was that few had ever heard of any clue to recommend BCO amendments to allow women to assist in pastoral ministry. That, friends, would be legislation. Yes, perhaps a little read article here or aside reference there may have been made previously to the CMC’s self-creation of 5 subcommittees; however, the specific announcement that a committee with full BCO-amending recommendation power—and that should be understood as the objectionable point—didn’t seem to be widely known at all. Hence, the adverse reaction of the grassroots members of the AC Committee of Commissioners from 39 presbyteries.

Again, could those tapes be played where it was so publicly, openly, and specifically announced that a committee with full legislative powers and pastoral letter authority was announced prior to the late April 2016 AC meeting? Attending every meeting of the AC from 2011-2015, this member never heard that any legislative activity from top-down was being considered, especially in light of the previous, pointed answers from the 36th, 37th, 38th, and 40th Assemblies on how such matters should be considered.

Third, one of the recurring arguments to innovate seems to have deteriorated to this: “Because I can’t explain why we do things to my kids [or fill a demographic group in the blank], therefore the church must change, and we need the momentum of a study committee to provide shade to do so, because if judged on the merits of the case, these changes probably won’t pass constitutional muster.”

Whether one’s fear is:

  • whether his own children will remain in the PCA (why, a lot of pastor’s kids actually do!); or
  • whether we’ll lose Millennials (although only selective Millennials are surveyed; see the 31-7 vote above from many pastors in local churches); or
  • whether all women are mad and frustrated because they can’t be ordained or have some more public title (really, one might get out more or broaden the survey before making that embarrassing claim again); or
  • whether women can serve on boards of a denominational school (they can elsewhere; and our schools could also immediately have board-women if they wish to be liberated from denominational constraints); or
  • whether any other inability to provide answers that may not fit in with the surrounding culture.

Is it not a better solution simply to point questioners to the Bible, or say as my “Wife-Shepherdess-Pastoral Volunteer without power or title” (WSPVWPOT) repeatedly said, for example, to her two very competent professional daughters?

“Megan and Devon, God chose to set things up this way, and he has revealed in his Word that women have certain jobs and men have others. I’m not totally sure WHY he limited the OT priests to one tribe only or the leaders in the NT church to men only, but he knew that was best. And I kinda doubt that he is surprised by egalitarianism or that when you get to heaven, you’ll prioritize scheduling ten finger-wagging minutes to interrogate him about his choice. So let’s just do what he says and find our joy in the Lord. Isn’t he enough?”

Finally, if you think all wives will thank you for voting for this, and that no wives oppose this (anyone wish to randomly deputize the 39 wives of the Committee of Commissioners into a committee or at least solicit their opinions?), well, I better stop lest I violate enough safe space among public leaders that they may bring charges for . . . oh, disagreeing and still not being impressed with this idea—while retaining respect and affection individually for CMC friends. And also for reminding the church: Yes, this is precisely how our parent denominations raced to decline.

This pastor remains far more concerned that the peace of our church will be wounded by unwitting defenses and advocacies, which employ legislative fiat, in thesi deliverances, or manipulating things such that voting among the grassroots presbyteries is strictly avoided.  That may be the way to win a demagogic vote, but it’s a surefire way to fracture unity.

Servant leadership can patiently sell its ideas such that 2/3 of the grassroots presbyteries do concur. Any committee that avoids that consensual method is not seeking to do things constitutionally but coercively (even the CMC isn’t included in the BCO—only inserted into the lesser Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) by one General Assembly, perhaps signaling its sunset?). By now, we all know that it’s much easier to send text voting guides and use top leaders to signal support to Chicago ward style caucuses than actually to pass something with constitutional merit, exegetical soundness, or to bring unity to the church.

One hopes that our study committee will be so transparent and unity-minded as to access these regular toeholds in order to receive broad support from all the churches if BCO changes are warranted. Or will a single Assembly do little other than ramrod more in thesi permission slips for egalitarian tokens—all with precious little exegetical foundation for such recommendations?

I would also hope that our assemblies are mature enough to allow dissent, and I sincerely intended my earlier article to be a critique of the idea (not the persons, of course) that a top-down committee that is not even in the BCO should generate BCO amendments itself on any topics—can someone help me find that BCO paragraph that says our committees are “to serve and not dictate policy”? And, what, with all the speeches challenging so many manhoods not to “fear” studying, one would have imagined that we’d not be so fearful of hearing dissent, even with the highest echelons of leadership.

For the future and for the peace of the church, I offer these suggestions above; in short, we need to hear more from the grassroots and local churches—not less. I do not believe the recent process facilitates that. As we move forward, many members and many sessions will be watching and studying, and some are astute enough to apply a bit of history. I think after the amount of floor time devoted to protesting too much, that it’ll still take some responsive leadership to persuade and lead with constitutional and open provisions that will unify the church rather than further balkanize it. The future peace and unity, for which I am praying, may be as simple as this choice: Changes made by legislative fiat from the top – or – by consensus among the presbyteries and local congregations?

David W. Hall is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the Senior Pastor of Midway PCA in Powder Springs, Ga.

[1] The 59.4% approval, complete with the support of the CMC and PCA Coordinators, was almost identical to the percentage support for the ill-fated 2009-2010 AC Funding Plan, which failed not only to receive affirmation from 2/3 of the presbyteries but also failed to receive even a majority of the lower courts.

[2] All that the previous assembly records from the CMC is one generic observation—no BCO recommendations—and that subcommittee is the only one of the five that did not proffer a written attachment: “The subcommittee reported that they had discussed the importance of and possible means of giving women a greater voice and more visible roles in all levels of PCA church life. They recognized that both the OPC and the former RPCES have discussed proposals for constitutional changes to recognize deaconesses while maintaining the male-only governing roles of Teaching Elder (minister) and Ruling Elder. The subcommittee also noted that there is an allowable diversity of practice in PCA churches on the role of women, ranging from women ministering to other women and children only, to women participating in all roles that do not require ordination. The PCA as a whole needs to discuss this issue, bringing scripture to bear on both history and the present culture” (Min43GA, 327-328). A careful reading of the Minutes a year earlier shows only that subcommittees would be created, with the first one described in short as: “The role of women in the PCA – giving women a greater voice and more visible roles, while maintaining our position on male ordained leadership in governing the PCA (Min42GA, 318; emphasis added). The 41st GA did not even mention women’s roles. It is difficult to see or hear the notices that BCO amends were being considered. Further, one might search to see if the Stated Clerk’s annual summaries of GA actions gave notice of such envisioned legislation.