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Cultivating the Bonds of Peace in the PCA

If censoriousness is not a fruit of the Spirit, and uncharitable assumptions are not marks of genuine piety, then why are they so prevalent in the courts of the church, and in the recesses of our hearts? Seriously. Why are we so prone to suspicion? Why are we so swift to judge the motivations of our fellow presbyters? Why don’t we honestly discuss our differences, rather than unfairly represent them? Why don’t we assume the best of our brothers in Christ, and not the worst? Why is my own heart so slow to love those with whom I disagree, those for whom Christ died? These are important questions for us to reflect upon, especially as it concerns the future health of the Presbyterian Church in America. 

When it comes to disagreeing with brothers over denominational issues, many of us can relate to Paul’s expression: “I do not do what I want, but often the very thing that I hate” (Rom. 7:15). We know deep down that we should engage in humble and open dialogue with the “other side”, and yet we largely dwell in the comfortable and affirming echo-chambers of our own tribe. We lob impulsive (often harsh) verbal grenades on social media. We convince ourselves that no benefit will come from meeting with one another. What’s the use? It’s just easier for everyone if we simply keep our distance. But God calls us to something different, doesn’t He? That’s why I was grateful to receive an invitation to meet for dinner in Nashville, Tennessee with several PCA teaching and ruling elders from differing perspectives within our denomination. 

Other than our host, Howard Donahoe, everyone who gathered in Music City was associated with either the National Partnership or the Gospel Reformation Network — two PCA networks, among numerous others, that are seeking to foster biblical fellowship, denominational health, and mutual encouragement within our almost half-century old denomination. Many have understood these two sizable networks to be at odds with each other, that they are in different places theologically, confessionally, and philosophically. Therefore, while the gathering was in no way representative of the wider denomination and, of course, had zero ecclesiastical authority, it was still a highly beneficial meeting. Indeed, it’s always good for fellow presbyters from differing perspectives to sit down and talk to one another; and to do so “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3).

There were eight of us who gathered for dinner: Scott Sauls, Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN; Richard Phillips, Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC; Mike Khandjian, Pastor of Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, Marriottville, MD; Jon Payne, Pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian, Charleston, SC; Bruce O’Neil, Pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Annapolis, MD; Mel Duncan, Ruling Elder at Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC; David Filson, Associate Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN; and our host and convener of the meeting, Howard Donahoe, Ruling Elder at Redeemer Presbyterian, Redmond, WA. Several of us met for the first time. I’m thankful we did.

After spending a little time getting to know one another, sharing about our families and churches, Howie asked if we could each take a turn addressing the table. As each of us shared, there was an intermingling of robust response and honest, forthright discussion, the kind I would personally like to see more of in the PCA. Scott Sauls humbly reminded us that Paul commenced his epistles with the greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” and that our relationships as fellow presbyters should reflect this holy sentiment. Our relationships as brothers should be full of grace and peace. He warmly expressed that he could be happy worshipping in any one of our churches, and that he thinks we agree upon far more than we disagree upon. It was encouraging to hear that Scott is currently pouring over the writings of “three Johns” — John Calvin, John Newton, and Johnathan Edwards. Mike Khandjian underscored the importance of viewing each other as beloved brothers in God’s family (even with our different perspectives on how to rightly apply our common Confession), and not opponents. We all reflected upon the fact that our sinful hearts can easily become calloused and cynical towards those with whom we disagree. I had the privilege of sharing my testimony, how God redeemed and rescued a miserable sinner at Clemson University from the bondage and penalty of sin in the spring of 1991.      

The conversation was filled with more than warm sentiments, however. Honest questions were asked about the nature and aims of the National Partnership and the Gospel Reformation Network. Questions were raised about Scott Saul’s endorsement on the Revoice website, and whether or not it was the National Partnership’s hope to one day see women ordained into the eldership. Concern was also expressed regarding women fulfilling functions in public worship services that are traditionally reserved for the officers of the church; functions such as the reading of Scripture, the taking up of the tithes and offering, and the distribution of the elements during communion. At one point it was conveyed to me that my writing for the GRN was generally warm and fair, but at times could be harsh (a criticism that I have taken to heart). Rick, Howie, Mel, Bruce, and Dave all shared valuable insights on why we have such a hard time getting along, as well as some positive ways to purse peace in the future.   

Not only did these and other forthright questions foster frank discussion about some important issues facing our denomination, they helped to clear up some misunderstandings as well. Scott Sauls shared that he had actually requested that his endorsement be taken down from the Revoice website. While desiring to encourage biblical ministry to Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction, Scott was not aware of or in agreement with some of the website language as well as some aspects of the conference. In addition, he and Mike Khandjian both expressed misgivings with the use of the labels “LGBTQ Christian” and “Gay Christian,” and do not use this label themselves. Moreover, without hesitation, Scott Sauls and Mike Khandjian stated that neither they nor anyone they knew from within their PCA networks desired to see women ordained to the eldership in the PCA. Whatever our differences may be, on these things we all agree.                     

During the meeting we also discussed the merits of robust theological debate. We reflected upon the fact that we will, at times, come to different conclusions on how best to apply our Reformed Confession. However, at the end of the day, we are all brothers in Christ and called to love one another. Like those who get into skirmishes during soccer practice, but afterwards walk off the field together as teammates and friends, we, as presbyters, need to be able to engage in serious theological debate in a way that does not always threaten the peace and unity of our denomination. We need to be careful not to take things so personally. Therefore, “if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).  

I am convinced that in the PCA there are too many caricatures, and not enough sincere conversations. Consequently, the so-called “progressives” and “TRs” frequently misunderstand and unfairly judge one another. Moreover, we often fail to recognize that there are real differences of opinion among those who are in the same camp. I don’t always agree on everything with my friends in the GRN and the Twin Lakes Fellowship. Nor do they always agree with me. However, like politicians in Washington, we often lump everyone into one group or another. This is unfair at best, and judgmental at worst. Rather than reserving judgment and getting to know our brothers, we pigeon-hole them and immediately write them off. I’ve certainly done it. 

Of course, with thousands of teaching and ruling elders in the PCA there isn’t enough time for everyone to get to know each other and personally discuss the issues. In a big denomination like ours, we must concentrate our efforts in the cultivation of peace and unity within our own presbyteries, as well as with those who we may interact with on the General Assembly level. In addition, those who write and speak publicly, beyond the scope of their own congregation, must be willing to receive public criticism from brothers in the Lord— yes, even brothers from within our own denomination. Writings, lectures, and sermons which aim to impact the wider PCA communion and beyond are fair game for honest public critique. It’s not always a Matthew 18 situation, as some suggest. Earnest public theological debate is a good thing, and is meant to sharpen and humble us all. That being said, it would serve well our pursuit of peace and unity if our critiques online and elsewhere dealt with the issues at hand, and were not ad hominem attacks or mean-spirited judgments of the motivations and intentions of the hearts of those with whom we disagree. Love, not anger, must guide our pens when interacting with brothers in Christ.

As I conclude, there are two things that I have been reflecting upon since our meeting in Nashville. First, that the future of the PCA depends on a faithful and submissive adherence to the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. I believe we should all be able to commit to a mere presbyterianism. If current trends in evangelicalism and mainline protestantism gain a serious foothold in our presbyteries, especially trends related to the sexual revolution, women’s ordination, and social justice, it will not bode well for the future of the PCA. The winds of secularization are blowing hard, and we must stand firm as a denomination. 

Second, while there will inevitably be honest disagreements about doctrine and polity within our ranks in the future, we need to foster more of an irenic spirit when we have them. Brothers who find it difficult to be temperate on social media should consider abstaining (most would agree that FB and Twitter are not the best forums for debate). We need to be willing to talk to one another, and not assume the worst. We need to be more patient with each other, and less combative. Even the great Genevan Reformer, John Calvin, confessed, “I have not so great a struggle with my vices, great and numerous as they are, as I have with my impatience. My efforts are not absolutely useless; yet I have never been able to conquer this ferocious wild beast.”   

Our time in Nashville was a wonderful reminder that misunderstandings can be expelled through humble, forthright discussion. It was also a strong reminder that these men are my brothers, purchased with the atoning blood of Christ. God gave his Son for them. Jesus loves them and died for them. Am I not to love them too? We are fellow elders in the same presbyterian communion. In Christ we are members of “one body”, possess “one Spirit”, and “were called to … one hope” We have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, [and] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Our shared life in Christ and common confession of faith should make a real difference in the way we view and treat one another. This is, in no way whatsoever, a call to minimize, compromise, or disregard the truth.  

It’s a call to embrace it.

 

*This article presently appears on the Gospel Reformation Network, October 4, 2018, and is used here by permission.