After all, how can we solve problems if we cannot state specific, identifiable, perhaps quantifiable issues that must be addressed? How can we learn about those specific problems if we do not take the time to ferret out the details and perform something like a root cause analysis? And how can we reach a final resolution and put these issues behind us if we don’t propose specific, implementable solutions? How can we know what success looks like unless we make the effort to define a measurable and achievable desired end state?
The PCA will consider a host of overtures at the 44th General Assembly that purport to deal with racial/ethnic reconciliation, although most merely parrot Overture 4. I believe that all but a couple of the reconciliation overtures are seriously flawed. I hope to briefly explain a few of the issues.
Let me make clear up front that racism is sin. Exegesis that states or implies that ALL men do not equally bear God’s image is wrong and self-serving, not God honoring. Not loving ALL of our brothers and sisters in Christ as John admonished in his first letter is sin. Let’s get that off the table up front.
The Ninth Commandment
Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 144 says that the 9th Commandment requires in part:
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…and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth…studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
I contend that in regard to the duties required by the 9th Commandment in the WLC Q/A 144, all overtures requiring the PCA as a whole through “covenantal and generational involvement” to repent of events related to or following the Civil Rights Movement causes the PCA as a whole, presbyteries, and the bulk of the current PCA particular churches and members to violate many, most, or all of the above excerpted requirements in regard to their own history and sins, depending on individual circumstances. And while anecdotes and stories are interesting and tug nicely at the emotional cords, it is hard data that should inform all decisions and votes.
The PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era to which many overtures refer, commonly pegged as 1954-19681. The PCA’s first constitutional assembly was in December of 1973. How can the PCA confess and repent of something that happened before its founding? How could the PCA as a whole be complicit in something that happened before it existed? Individual churches in existence during the Civil Rights era that later joined the PCA may or may not have something of which to repent, but not the PCA as a whole as called for by these overtures. To do so would fail to tell and uphold the truth, maintain the good name of the PCA, or practice what is true, at the least.
According to Dr. Sean Lucas’ book on the history of the PCA2, the PCA was explicitly created to be open to all races and ethnicities3. There were no organizational, polity, or policy barriers raised to prevent reconciliation4. That’s not to say that individual churches could not or did not raise such barriers, and we know that some certainly did so, but such was not and is not the PCA’s either informal or formal policy. In fact, Dr. Lucas points out that there was a significant contingent of younger pastors who joined the PCA that actively opposing segregation5. Many proposed overtures appear to do these men, their congregations, and the overall design of the PCA a serious injustice.
Further, the PCA had 260 congregations with around 41,000 communicants at the initial founding in December of 19736. Many of those early officers and communicants have gone to glory. By God’s grace, the PCA has grown to 1,534 churches with over 370,000 communicants as of the 44th GA7. In 1973, the PCA was primarily a regional denomination. Today, by God’s grace, the PCA has spread throughout the entire country. The bottom line is that – without passing any judgement whatsoever – the PCA of today is quite literally not the PCA of 1973, and even that PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era. Even if all the original communicants were still with us, they would constitute just 11% of the current PCA. Just 11%. These are hard facts.
The PCA membership today is significantly different than at its founding. For example, God graciously placed my church, and indeed my presbytery, in an ethnically diverse community. Our membership literally spans the globe. Our annual Lessons and Carols service features readings in Urdu, Lingala, Spanish, Mandarin, Dutch, German, and others as well as English. We have first and second generation legal immigrants from around the world who and whose ancestors had nothing to do with the 60s Civil Rights issues in this country. To ask them to confess and repent as a church of such issues amounts to asking them to bear false witness to their and their families’ history and sins, and fail to preserve their good names or the truth.
Corporate Repentance and the Continuing Church
While there are a few examples of corporate repentance in the Old Testament, recall that only a tiny fraction of Israelites remained faithful to God at those times, 7,000 out of at least several million in Elijah’s case. That’s clearly not the case in the PCA according to our own statistics.
Yet even in the Old Testament just prior to the Exile, when faithfulness was at an all-time low in Israel, God deals directly with so-called “sins of the fathers” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. The issue in those passages bear similarity to the bulk of the proposed overtures. From Ezekiel 18:
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
God’s sums up His admonition, which covers all of Ezekiel 18, with His declaration in Ezekiel 18:20:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.
In Jeremiah as well, God clearly states that each man will be judged for his own sin, not for those who came before. That’s black and white Scripture, not anecdotes or convenient interpretation. I believe that these passages negate the corporate and/or covenantal argument as applied in most of the overtures.
We are a “continuing church” with regard to Reformed doctrine, missions, and church government as RE Jack Williamson made clear at the first General Assembly8, but God makes it clear that sins are individual unless that sin is encoded in our governing documents and/or policies, which demonstrably isn’t the case in the PCA. Anyone who sins against their brother or sister is violating our constitution and should be challenged, and if appropriate, brought up on charges in accordance with BCO procedures. That negates any “institutional racism” by policy or construct. To say that the PCA as a “continuing church” bears the sins of those from which it separated says more than most would want. That would make us liable for the sins of rejecting the authority of Scripture, which led the old church to a host of fatal theological errors. Does the PCA bear the guilt of those sins as well? Where do we draw that entirely arbitrary line? Who gets to decide?
One advantage, of course, of the corporate approach is that it diffuses the responsibility away from individuals and courts who actually did sin. Just like the old saying “Be a team player, it diffuses the blame.” If we blame everyone, practicality speaking, we blame no one. It takes courage to hold individuals, sessions, and presbyteries specifically accountable, but it’s easy to make broad pronouncements that make us feel good but ultimately hold no one accountable. That’s exactly what the bulk of the reconciliation overtures do.
Burden of Proof
I was blessed through my military service to live and travel across our great country, worshiping with many congregations. Although trained through 30 years of military leadership to spot and address these kinds of racial and ethnic issues, I’ve not seen widespread evidence of a systemic or institutional racial or ethnic problem in the PCA. The burden of proof – not personal anecdotes or catchy liberal buzzwords – falls on those making these accusations – the 9th Commandment demands it – but I haven’t see any hard data offered. It is easy to make broad-brush claims, but where is the evidence of wide-spread racism in the PCA? Any argument using statistical demographics must be accompanied by evidence of malfeasance at their root as opposed to cultural or sociological patterns unrelated to wrongdoing by anyone in the PCA. Sociology cannot usually be boiled down to a few numbers.
Though there may be some individuals and churches now in the PCA who have something along these lines of which to confess and repent during their previous membership in other denominations prior to the PCA (I’ll mention one shining example later), they are a very small minority in the current PCA as the numbers clearly show. Even if ALL the founding officers and congregants of the 1973 PCA were still in the 2016 PCA, which we know isn’t the case as many have gone to glory, and if ALL of them required such repentance, and we also know isn’t the case, they would only make up only 11 percent of the current denomination. Should an entire denomination repent of the sins that something much less than 11 percent of their members MAY have committed before the denomination even existed? That doesn’t make sense to me, nor does it agree with God’s explicit commands in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
I know that there continue to be racial/ethnic issues in isolated cases in the PCA, just as there are in society at large. Those involved must repent of these sins and rely on Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins, as do we all. That’s what the disciplinary processes coded in the BCO should be used to address where necessary, as it was in Western Carolina Presbytery a few years ago. The process was painful for the faithful, but it worked. But, it hardly seems appropriate for an entire denomination to repent for the sins of a relatively few – at most way less than 11%. Again, God’s commands in Jeremiah and Ezekiel relative to the sins of the fathers clearly argues against this.
Back to the Ninth Commandment
The 9th Commandment issues come clearly into focus when using set theory and logic to examine the overall situation. Every communicant member of the PCA falls under the shepherding of their session, their local court. Every PCA session is wholly contained within the set of its presbytery. Similarly, all presbyteries are collectively and wholly contained within the set of the PCA. Think of this as a set of concentric circles with the individual communicant in the smallest inside circle, wholly contained in the larger session circle, itself wholly contained in the presbytery circle, and the largest PCA circle wholly containing the presbytery circle. So, when the PCA as a whole confesses and repents, as most of the overtures require, the entire set of the PCA includes successively every presbytery, every session, and every communicant member. When the PCA repents of anything, that carries through to the every communicant in the pews, which causes them to violate the 9th Commandment when they have not sinned in that way. It’s logically a package deal.
Where do we go from here?
Albert Einstein is famously quoted as observing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. The PCA passed overtures and personal resolutions in 20029, and a pastoral letter in 200410 at the GA level, a 2002 paper in Potomac and Chesapeake Presbyteries, and others as well. Yet, there we were in 2015 and here now in 2016 proposing to do the same thing. Such overtures are not binding, but considered deliverances of the Assembly, to be given due and serious consideration in the denomination according to BCO 14-7. How did that work out in 2002 and 2004? Apparently not so well since here we are again.
The PCA needs a different approach, which Potomac Presbytery has proposed in Overture 45. We believe that it is time to break the cycle of overtures and resolutions based on emotional anecdotes and generalities – called information-free decision making by my boss – and approach the subject of racial and ethnic reconciliation in a deliberative manner to garner specific facts and issues to be resolved, resulting in specific actions to be taken as we saw in Western Carolina. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PCA must address specific sins with specific measures which presbyteries and sessions may implement without ambiguity. The Civil Rights Act didn’t just say “Stop that,” it addressed specific wrongs with specific, implementable solutions. That’s exactly what Potomac’s overture recommends that the PCA do.
After all, how can we solve problems if we cannot state specific, identifiable, perhaps quantifiable issues that must be addressed? How can we learn about those specific problems if we do not take the time to ferret out the details and perform something like a root cause analysis? And how can we reach a final resolution and put these issues behind us if we don’t propose specific, implementable solutions? How can we know what success looks like unless we make the effort to define a measurable and achievable desired end state? The answer to all these questions is that we cannot, as recent PCA history demonstrates.
Potomac Presbytery has put forth an alternative overture which corrects the defects in most of the other related overtures to the 44th General Assembly. Potomac’s Overture 45 asks for specific, concrete actions to affect lasting change, something that most of the overtures lack. I say this with an eye firmly on the peace and purity of the PCA, basing my position on Scripture, hard data, verifiable history, and logic, while seeking analytical rigor. I encourage the commissioners to the 44th General Assembly to perfect and approve Overture 45.
At the same time, I also encourage the commissioners to approve Overture 53, as it puts forth specific, concrete actions to be taken in accordance with our polity to hold those guilty of racial/ethnic sins accountable. The elders of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, set the bar by taking concrete action to repent of specific past actions of the church and deal directly with specific issues in specific past session minutes. This leading by setting the example by taking concrete steps to repent of specific past actions, is also true of First Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, and Independent Presbyterian Church, Memphis TN11. Every church court and individual who so sinned must do the same.
The commissioners of the 44th General Assembly should reject any and all overtures that purport to address racial/ethnic reconciliation, yet do not hold anyone or any church court accountable under BCO procedures. Let us not repeat the errors of the past by passing feel-good overtures that diffuse the blame, sounding pious but accomplishing nothing. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in 10 years doing the same thing all over again. It will be déjà vu all over again.
Bob Mattes is a Ruling Elder in Christ Church (PCA) of Arlington, Va. This article is used with permission.
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68). Accessed Dec 13, 2015.
2 Lucas, Sean M., For a Continuing Church, The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015.
3 Lucas, p.296
4 Lucas, pp. 307-308
5 Lucas, pp 323-324
6 PCA Administrative Committee website, http://www.pcanet.org/history/. Accessed Dec 13, 2015.
7 Administrative Committee Report for the 44th General Assembly of the PCA, p. 253.
8 Lucas, p. 313, Derived from Jack Williamson’s opening sermon at the first PCA GA: “We have committed ourselves to be the rebirth and continuation of a Presbyterian Church loyal to the Scripture, the Reformed faith, and committed to the spiritual mission of the Church as Christ commanded in the Great Commission.”
9 PCA Historical Center, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/race.html. Accessed Dec 13, 2015.
10 Ibid, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/racism.pdf. Accessed Dec 13, 2015.
11 Haynes, Stephen R., The Last Segregated Hour, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.228-245.