They would say it is because Scripture and the Westminster Standards support the idea that SSA is not a disqualification for a minister because SSA is not necessarily sinful, or at least that it is no more heinous than other sins. This is a theological difference. Unless the supporters of Revoice theology prove to have discovered a truth that has eluded the Reformed churches for the last 500 years, many reasonably suspect that the mission (reaching or transforming the culture) is shaping the message and doctrine.
“In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
These words are from the stirring opening paragraph of J. Gresham Machen’s monumental-but-brief 1923 masterwork Christianity and Liberalism. Machen was the most eloquent, erudite, and forthright defender of orthodoxy in the northern Presbyterian church during the era we now call the Presbyterian Controversy. In a sense his times could not have been more different than our own. Though controversy rages in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) today, there are no theological liberals denying such cardinal doctrines as the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, His bodily resurrection, or Christ’s substitutionary atonement.
But there are similarities between our time and the tumultuous early 20th century. For one thing, Machen’s opponents (which included moderate evangelicals) did not want a “fight”—there was much criticism of his tone, temperament, and tactics. That’s why he had to first defend the very concept of fighting. Unity, ecumenism, and shared mission were the watchwords of his day. We see much the same thing today where all but the politest dissent is disparaged. Machen’s battles were waged in pamphlets, newspaper pages (secular and religious), seminary board rooms, and ecclesial meetings. Today’s squabbles often occur online, and a recent spate of online posting of open letters and blog posts about PCA issues and the upcoming General Assembly has turned up the tension even as the posts aimed to promote unity.
A recent social media post by a PCA pastor neatly sums up both the aversion to fighting and the minimizing of meaningful differences in doctrine and practice:
“So here’s where it seems we are to my eyes: we agree on 97% of everything theologically, and probably 75% of methodology, yet there are folks ready to go Mortal Kombat at GA (General Assembly)?”
Quantifying doctrinal fidelity in percentages seems like an impossible task. The doctrinal debates in the PCA focus largely on confessional subscription. The “confessionalist” wing of the PCA is not happy with how “good faith subscription” has developed in the 20 years it has been the law of the church. This rule allows presbyteries to grant ministers’ exceptions to the Westminster standards so long as they are recorded and approved by the ministers’ presbyteries. One confessionalist complaint is the way that many common exceptions are granted in some presbyteries as a matter of course. There are also active controversies over whether presbyteries can prohibit ministers from teaching their exceptions. Even if putting a percentage on doctrinal agreement is impossible, the existence of serious disagreement is obvious.
The offhand social media post gets closer to the crux of the issue when it speaks of agreement in “75% of methodology” in the PCA. Methodology includes ecclesiology, worship, and mission. Methodology is the program (or programs) of the church and the container or channel for the message. Ecclesiology is itself doctrinal. Methodology is what we believe applied. While some write off methodological differences as the normal consequence of contextualization (adjusting methods to local situations), others view “25% disagreement” (as it were) about methodology as an unhealthy and untenable arrangement.
While Marshall McLuhan’s famous line “the medium is the message” may overstate the case, we must agree that the medium or methodology that churches use shapes the message, not just the other way around. What churches do and how they do it necessarily reflects their doctrinal convictions, not just how good or bad they are at contextualizing their message. Is 75% agreement on methodology a good thing? Can 97% doctrinal agreement produce only 75% methodological or missional agreement?
It’s clear that most of the recent cries for unity and peace in the PCA are reactions to the recent Gospel Reformation Network conference. PCA moderates, missionalists, and progressives took issue with David Strain’s confessional alarm, Jon Payne’s overview of issues, and Harry Reeder’s comparison of progressive Christianity and theological liberalism (which Machen defined as a different religion altogether). In the text of a recent sermon which summarizes Reeder’s GRN talk he said:
“In the mainline church, it was liberal Christianity in the 19th century that was moving to the 20th century. In the evangelical church, the inroads are made by not liberal Christianity…but by progressive Christianity. It is my strong conviction that progressive Christianity is liberal Christianity 2.0. It is cut from the same bolt of cloth.”
What is the evidence for this unwelcome conclusion? The similarity of methodology and mission:
“The simple fact is, whatever your functional mission becomes will eventually define your message and your ministries. So, if the mission is cultural transformation, and the motivation is to be accepted by the culture and applauded by the culture instead of being declared irrelevant by the culture, then the message becomes a download of the culture’s message, so a cultural accommodation.”
Many in the PCA extol the contextualization of the church’s structure (ecclesiology) and mode of communication—methodology and medium—and believe doctrine can remain relatively unchanged. Missional latitude is precious to them and the operating space provided by good faith subscription is essential, thus they resist “narrowness” or tightening at every point, whether in doctrine or ecclesiology. But ecclesiology is doctrinal and exists to guide and prescribe how mission is carried out.
Motives are not at issue, nor are personalities. Reeder reminds us “Liberal Christianity did not start out as a movement to destroy the church. On the contrary, it was the latest movement that would save the church from cultural irrelevance.” Reeder may be wrong, and the missionalists, big-tent proponents, or progressives in the PCA may not be on this well-worn track. But many good men sincerely believe the PCA is drifting in the wrong direction.
The question of the hour is whether missional contextualization requires celibate gay/same-sex-attracted (SSA) “Side B” pastors. The supporters of (or tolerators of) Side B ministers and the novel doctrine that goes along with them would not say that mission-driven cultural accommodation (per Reeder) is behind their support or allowance of “Revoice theology.” They would say it is because Scripture and the Westminster Standards support the idea that SSA is not a disqualification for a minister because SSA is not necessarily sinful, or at least that it is no more heinous than other sins. This is a theological difference. Unless the supporters of Revoice theology prove to have discovered a truth that has eluded the Reformed churches for the last 500 years, many reasonably suspect that the mission (reaching or transforming the culture) is shaping the message and doctrine. But even suggesting such a thing raises howls of protest.
The recent posts and open letters calling for unity and cessation of hostilities in the PCA ought to be read as calls to maintain the doctrinal latitude that good faith subscription is thought to provide. Notably, the online missives hardly mention the contentious SSA issues.
It may seem strange to those in the pews or to those in non-city settings that making room for SSA ministers in the PCA is a hill worth dying on. Doing so only makes sense, in this writer’s opinion, if what is really at stake and what is really being protected is doctrinal, ecclesial, and methodological latitude without which (some might say) no culture shall be transformed.
Many elders and concerned laymen alike are concerned that the PCA will be truly and inevitably transformed if room is made for SSA ministers and Side-B celibate “gay Christianity.” They care enough about these issues to fight, believing the future and even the viability of the PCA depend upon it. Those concerned elders’ main chance to make a difference at next week’s General Assembly in St. Louis will be in voting on overtures that might restrict SSA-identifying pastors from ordination. Nothing will be finally resolved in St. Louis, but clear indications about the future of the PCA may emerge. So if you hear of wars and rumors of wars in the PCA this year, do not be alarmed. Important things are at stake, things worth holding. Things about which men ought to fight.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He is co-host of the Presbycast podcast.