Spinal Tap, Rodney King and the National Partnership

I met the news of the “National Partnership” with a despair I’ve rarely known in my 31 years ministering in the PCA

The NP tips its hand with this: “We seek to staff committees for healthy and effective denominational business.” I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet the ranch and the dog this means: “We seek to staff committees with people who share our convictions on disputed matters.” And that would mean people like me. And this would be done through select membership and anonymous discussion. If I’m right, no amount of word-fog changes it.
I am a pastor in the PCA. I believe the gospel. I also believe our view of the diaconate as an authoritative office needs to be reexamined. Though I hold a conservative view of Genesis 1-3, I strongly believe we should be inclusive of a wide berth of views. I vigorously opposed the recent overture to ban intinction in the PCA. As a pastor I am committed to the practice of weekly communion. In the church I serve, people with two X chromosomes help serve communion elements and read the Bible in worship. And we use a drum kit. I believe all those convictions to be consistent with the highest view of the Bible and the Westminster Standards. And I think bow ties and seersucker suits look ridiculous.

I also met the news of the “National Partnership” with a despair I’ve rarely known in my 31 years ministering in the PCA, 25 as an ordained teaching elder. It could be a low-water mark for our denomination. If there is a bellwether moment that points to the PCA becoming like Spinal Tap playing at an amusement park this could be it. OK, I may be laying it on a bit thick.

Just to be clear, I’m not going all Rodney King here. This is not a plea for “just getting along.” There is biblical precedent for faithful Christians to sharply disagree. Trust me, I’m fine with that. What has me banging my head against the wall is how we have managed in a short history to come up with so much Orwellian Doublespeak and pass it off as loving the church. By people who should know better, who should have learned.

(Full disclosure. Late last year I was given privy to what is now called the National Partnership. I was asked to be part of it. I politely but firmly declined, citing my aversion to organized affinity groups and my perhaps Pollyanna intention to see my presbytery as the only exception. The whole “confidential” thing was not mentioned. Had it, I would have been less polite.)

Reading the email that went out recently to solicit NP members was like being forced in group therapy to relive bad family history. The roll of pan-presbytery groups out to recover, save, reclaim or otherwise influence the PCA is so long it would be tedious to go into any real detail. Some had the kahunas to lay out exactly who they are. Others attempted to operate in the shadows (like the Pentaverate.) I remember the malaise of the first G.A. I attended after my ordination. Every significant issue had already been decided by one of these covert organizations that had met earlier at one of our largest churches. All of these let’s-save-the-PCA groups have two things in common. The attempt to overcome the charge of disunity and/or subterfuge with the fog of virtue-speak. And the straight face they steadfastly maintain as they try to sell it.

One of the stated goals of this latest group is, “Greater love for the Brethren through resourcing and communication.” The reference to “resourcing and communication” sounds like middle-management PowerPoint babble. I have no clue what’s going on there. But I’m getting snagged a bit on “Greater love for the Brethren”. Why? I’m one of them. I drink beer and single malt with them after G.A. business sessions. I sit with them and hear them talk. I huddle in the hallways with them. I read their blogs. I go to conferences with them. We believe the same things. And there’s something they’re leaving out.

They want their way.

And that’s OK. The people they see as the problem want their way too. That’s fine. When I say that I am leaning on a basic, undisputed part of our polity. At the core of presbyterianism is rule by plurality of elders meeting in the courts of the church. Which means, barring a vote without dissent, on disputed matters the minority gets the rough end of the stick. Every time. We believe God speaks through the courts of the church, “ministerially to determine” the ecclesiastical issues of the church (WCF 31.2). On disputed matters we participate in this with different views and convictions. We enter into this with prayer and an agreed process. Then we vote. We go with the plurality.

It’s hard enough to do this well under the best of circumstances. It’s impossible when we bob and weave around the idea of “ministerially determining through church courts.” Despite what the stated intentions are, these groups operate to determine issues outside the process, outside the courts. The NP tips its hand with this: “We seek to staff committees for healthy and effective denominational business.” I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet the ranch and the dog this means: “We seek to staff committees with people who share our convictions on disputed matters.” And that would mean people like me. And this would be done through select membership and anonymous discussion. If I’m right, no amount of word-fog changes it.

Do people on the more conservative side do this? Perhaps. But I’ve not seen any evidence they do it with the same amount of regularity, zeal and apparent blindness to our very short history. What have these movements achieved except bruised feelings, suspicion and short organizational shelf-lives? They all eventually collapse under the weight of short attention spans and (this is important) the lack of any real progress in what they set out to achieve.

Is the PCA big enough for Tim Keller and Joey Pipa? Is it big enough for me and (my new Facebook friend) Andy Webb?

My answer:

1. I honestly hope so.

2. I honestly don’t know.

You can make a case that groups like the NP could maybe extend the structural life of the PCA as people get tired of the hassle and go somewhere else, leaving behind only the similarly convinced.

You can also make the case that diversity in the PCA will be too hard to maintain. And let’s be honest. If that happens and we go belly-up it will not, in the big picture, be much more than a blip on the screen.

Can we ministerially determine things without bloated self-importance, with a little more integrity and the commitment to talk to one another? Can we be OK with the oddball and culturally marginal group we are? And can we lay to rest the nonsense that any group has dibs on what the PCA forefathers “envisioned.”

Maybe that’s Pollyanna thinking. Who knows, we may end up like Spinal Tap. I honestly hope not.

Tom Cannon is Senior Pastor of Red Mountain Church (PCA) in Birmingham, AL. This article first appeared on his blog, A Cold Day in Hades, and is used with permission. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]