The PCA General Assembly, Cul De Sacs, and False Dilemmas

Certain facets of the PCA’s polity can create procedural cul de sacs that are making issues impossible to resolve

I also came away convinced we need to make some allowances at GA for our family system of suspicion. We can regret that all we want but it seems pointless to ignore it. One way is to consider a policy the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted.  At their annual meetings the SBC use a trained, certified parliamentarian from outside their denomination to ensure full confidence in rulings from the chair.

 

During an online discussion of the recent PCA General Assembly, Kenneth Pierce referred to “certain facets of our polity…creating procedural cul de sacs that are making issues impossible to resolve.” He put into words something that was a vague but persistent notion as I left Greenville last week. Often GA’s are measured by who “won” or “lost”. We vote on issues so in a hairline understanding there is winning and losing, but that is scarcely an adequate metric of what defines these gatherings.

If nothing else this GA revealed how we can paint ourselves into a parliamentary corner. Particular issues that hover around core theological principles were at this gathering behind a constitutional deflector shield and (correctly it turns out) impervious to any scrutiny or even discussion. This not only creates procedural inertia, it has the added kinetic of creating a kind of ambient white board on to which can be scrawled various group fears and anxieties. Getting stuck on the BCO hamster wheel (which we did more than once last week) spawns a Kafkaesque frustration. What the hey his going on? How did we get to this place? Why can’t we move? And in those moments quoting the BCO is correct but seems bloodlessly clinical. And sort of wrong. A de jure solution but a de facto rabbit hole that we need to work out of.

Front and center last week were the Overtures surrounding Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNWP), Peter Leithart and the Federal Vision movement. I’m not going to rehash the details except to say it has more than a tangental connection to the actions of the GA in 2007 when a statement rejecting FV was overwhelmingly adopted. I was in the back of the hall when that vote was taken. There couldn’t have been more than ten votes out of nearly 1000 opposed. If there was ever an issue that crossed theological and dispositional boundaries, it was this. But because of a process that was also overwhelmingly adopted what seems (is) obvious is, well, not. Still with me?

The overtures seeking redress over the Standing Judicial Commission’s ruling on PNWP Presbytery’s acquittal of Leithart were ruled out order. The case for doing that was airtight. It was a constitutional slam dunk. It also played right into our deeply ingrained in-or-out family system. The white board? Some rushed to write, “Federal Vision has been ratified by the PCA! We’re doomed!” A much smaller group, “Woo hoo! Leithart has been vindicated!” The fallacy of the false dilemma makes for a tidy worldview but here it does nothing but inflame, indulge and distort. The plain truth is that both views are wrong. But Josh Walker points out the lingering conundrum:

Of course, this is nothing close to an exoneration in any meaningful sense. This would be a curious form of exoneration; to have the case never brought before the GA on a few technicalities is hardly what most people would consider exonerated. The General Assembly, to our imperfect memories, never even mentioned the name “Leithart.” Nobody at GA heard the complaints or even had an opportunity to publicly discuss the merits of the case. And as it stands, it looks like that may never happen. 

It may never happen because in 1996 the PCA (again, overwhelmingly) adopted an SJC process which needs some tweaking. Unless a member of the SJC objects to one of its own rulings there can be no other objections. Full stop.

Mea culpa: I voted for this system. I remember the days when review of judicial decisions took up huge sections of GA time. It was exhausting and, frankly, hard to navigate as we tried to shoehorn dense and emotional issues before we had to leave on Friday afternoon. The present system appeared to be a reasonable and welcome alternative. And for the most part it has been. But there has to be a means by which SJC decisions can face scrutiny while still maintaining a more streamlined process. Reluctance to consider this is once again remaining captive to the excluded middle. (See polity, cul de sacs.)

An adjunct issue is the role of the Committee On Review Of Presbytery Records. When a doctrinal issue is raised by this committee we get the understandable objection that theological disputes should not be generated by RPR. We have better, more thorough avenues to do that. I’ve made that objection. But our agreed polity clearly gives the RPR that brief. They are charged, among other things, with making sure presbytery records adhere to our Constitution which includes the Scriptures and the “doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order”. We live with that. Or we adjust that. (Again, polity, cul de sacs.)

We also got tripped up when considering the report of the Ad Interim Study Committee on Insider Movements . This was a case where a majority of commissioners judged arguments to be reasonable (and voted to consider both the majority and minority report) then as the debate evolved things got more complicated. It also got overheated as some intemperate and, bluntly, manipulative language put us close to an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I standoff. It was obvious we needed an exit strategy but parliamentary rulings appeared to make it difficult to recommit the report. Add to that the committee chairman’s unfortunate position the majority would have nothing more to say on the issue and we were stuck in a form of deliberative purgatory. By less than 30 votes we eventually recommitted the report. Recommitting was not a sign of waffling but wisdom on the fly. Getting it right is important even if it takes time.

I also came away convinced we need to make some allowances at GA for our family system of suspicion. We can regret that all we want but it seems pointless to ignore it. One way is to consider a policy the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted. This grew out of a culture of suspicion which eclipsed ours. In 1985 a couple sued the SBC because they didn’t agree with the rulings from the chair at their annual meeting that year. The court ruled in favor of the SBC but since then their annual meetings use a trained, certified parliamentarian from outside their denomination to ensure full confidence in rulings from the chair. We should trust the men on the dias to conduct business fairly. I am fully persuaded they do exactly that. But not everyone does.

This could be a fairly straightforward way to address that and help avoid those, you know, polity, cul de sacs.

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.

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