This post is part of a series of discussions on Vintage73 focusing on the PCA’s proposed strategic plan. We’ll provide both pro and con positions on different aspects of the plan. To benefit most from these posts we suggest you read the plan itself first. We’re thankful to the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) for their hard work in creating this proposal and pray that our efforts here will help sharpen their work as iron sharpens iron.
On the List
I’ve been attending presbytery meetings for 7 years. Over those 7 years that span two presbyteries I’ve developed an unofficial list of elder’s names. I call it my list of grumpy presbyters.
Admittance to the list is somewhat difficult. My list excuses momentary lapses of judgment that may lead a normal elder to pugnacity over the trivial. After all, everyone has a bad day. But once you’ve displayed a habitual knack for the kind of contentious remark that sends your fellow elders to deep sighs and docket doodling, well then, you’re on the list to stay.
My list is compiled in good fun, self serving, and completely subjective — which led to my complete surprise when I found my own name on it.
The circumstances? I read the Strategic Plan for the first time.
There I was with highlighter in hand. I dissected every statement, looking for a hidden agenda. After all, any document with the words “strategic” and “plan” in it had to be concocted by denominational malcontents completely oblivious to all biblical and confessional rationality.
I finished reading the plan, laid my highlighter down, embraced my smugness, and discovered—with a strange mixture of guilt and humor—that I had become a grumpy presbyter.
Something had gone wrong inside me. I had forgotten cardinal rules of biblical church government. It had nothing to do with the content of the document(s). It had everything to do with how I approached them and their mysterious authors.
After some reflection, I reminded myself of three reasons why I should have wanted to vote in favor of the Strategic Plan before I read it. Or, to put it more simply, here are three ways to avoid becoming a grumpy presbyterian.
Reason 1: I Believe in Elders
I do. Believe in elders, that is. I love 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Within the PCA alone there are 3,500 teaching elders. If you add two ruling elders for each TE, that puts a modest estimate of 10,500 elders in our denomination. By biblical definition, that is a small army of mature Christian men who love Jesus, their families, their churches, their communities, and are possessed with a supernatural gift to articulate the gospel.
What does this have to do with the Strategic Plan?
The connection is the Cooperative Ministries Commitee—the committee that authored the Strategic Plan. By RAO 7-1, the CMC is composed of the chairmen and chief administrative officers of the General Assembly permanent Committees and Agencies, along with the past five moderators of the General Assembly.
If you forced me to choose my list of top 20-ish elders in the PCA based on positional leadership within the
denomination, I could hardly do better than RAO 7-1. The CMC is the Presbyterian All-American team. You may think somebody else should be on there too. But there is no doubt these men are the best we have to offer—based on positional leadership. If we have any question about the orthodoxy of these folks, then we have much deeper issues than the validity of a strategic plan.
In the course of their deliberations, those men have,
- Prayed more than I have for the PCA.
- Thought through the current state of the PCA more thoroughly than I have.
- Garnered a broader understanding of the PCA as a whole than I have.
- Spent more time in deliberation with other godly men about the PCA than I have.
- And most them—if not all of them—have spent far more years in gospel ministry than I have.
So my question to myself is, “Do I really believe in the office of elder?” If I answer yes to that question, then I should approach documents like the SP—produced largely by the best elders the PCA has to offer—with charity, humility, and a high level of trust. If I disagree with the plan at first read, I should assume that the problem lies with me and give it a second read to be sure.
If you can’t trust a group of elders, who can you trust?
Reason 2: No One Is Out to Get Me
The Strategic Plan nailed me. By far, it’s most insightful and helpful diagnosis of the denomination we love is it’s description of the minority positions (page 6) that now make up who we are. I’m not so concerned with discussing each group and the validity of the stereotype. Although I find it safe to say that by the very fact that most people are offended by the list proves that they are somewhere in the list.
The point that the list proves is that the PCA is apparently growing more segmented and diverse. Someone else can argue the merits or demerits of this diversification within an organization. What I find of interest is what James Davison Hunter, in his most recent book, To Change the World, labels as a minority group’s tendency toward “ressentiment.” Hunter, discoursing on groups that no longer see themselves as exercising dominant power within their political system, describes the tendency of these minority groups to ground themselves, “in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury.” He goes on to say,
“the root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds… In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in position of power. The sense of injury is the key… Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action.”
I could go on, but anyone even remotely familiar with any organization of any size has seen how this kind of process occurs.
You may think that political theory is a long way from theological distinct groups within our denomination. But is the tendency to reinforce party spirit by maligning opposing theological combatants so far from our common experience that the current diversification of our denomination should not give us pause? It gives me pause.
I see myself in one—maybe two—of the Strategic Plan’s proposed theological stereotypes. And I feel in myself the seed of what Hunter describes—the tendency to develop a “narrative of perceived injury.”
That’s why when I approach a document like the Strategic Plan, I need to remind myself that no one is out to get me. The CMC, General Assembly, and the most appositional theological group to me in the PCA are all still composed of my brothers in Christ. No one is out to get me or the theological subgroup I tend to gravitate toward.
Reason 3: GA Will Do What GA Will Do
People often ask me how a Virginia boy, educated at RTS, Charlotte ended up pastoring in MS. My simple response is, Bebo Elkin. RE Elkin has counseled and taught countless young men who are now effectively pastoring PCA churches throughout the US and the world. Anyone who knows Bebo has run across some of his favorite sayings—many of which are scorched indelibly on my pastoral memory.
One of which goes like this: “Session will do what session will do.” And as the law of graded courts goes, we could expand that to, “Presbytery will do what Presbytery will do” and “GA will do what GA will do.” Put another way, a group of elders can’t create the immovable rock.
What General Assembly does this year, it can undo next year. We can’t tie our own hands to any course of action we later deem unwise or comparably weaker to a better course of action.
This principle has brought me a certain measure of solace when I’ve been on the losing side of raised placards.
It may be by early Fall of 2010 that God provides the circumstances or collective wisdom to realize that the Strategic Plan isn’t so strategic. In which case he has also given us the church government to make amends.
So as I approach the Strategic Plan with mixed feelings—which I do—I can rest assured that if it doesn’t prove to be all that effective then in a mere 365 days we can set forth a different plan or none at all.
The fact that “General Assembly will do as General Assembly will do” should provide me with comfortable affinity toward the Strategic Plan before I even read it.
What if it’s Still Horrible?
It may be that you read through my three reasons and agree. It may be that you’ve given yourself a good Presbyterian gut-check. It may be that you love elders, are devoid of a party spirit, and are blissfully aware of the advantages of our Presbyterian polity. And it still may be that you have major disagreements about the Strategic Plan.
In which case you are bound by your conscience to vote against, speak against, and amend against the labors and final product of the CMC. After all, one of the bedrock principles of the PCA is that godly men can disagree—and remain godly men.
But we should all be sure that our contending is in good conscience and not just our proclivity to be grumpy presbyters.