I remember a talk by Dr. Chapell during my first year of seminary (2003) where he told us about life in the PCA. I do not remember the exact context of the talk, but he gave a list of “hot topics” that the PCA went through over the previous several years. He talked about the Creation Days controversy. He talked about the debate over strict vs. “good faith” subscription to the Standards. He then proceeded to tell us that, if we were going to stay in the PCA, we needed to be prepared for “the next big controversy” which would be purported to destroy the denomination. He did not say this sarcastically, but more like a wise teacher, sagely reminding us to love those with whom we may disagree. He also said that, for some reason, we should expect controversies every 2-5 years.
Since that time, I saw the debate over the Federal Vision unfold (and General Assembly’s response) and I have now witnessed the passing of most of the Strategic Plan. (I am using short-hand, here). I realize that the debate over FV is not fully over, but the assembly acted and the denomination did not split in two. Did we lose a few churches? Yes. But the extent to which the “deep divide” existed seemed to be overstated.
I was curious to see how the SP would play out in the Assembly. It passed with the exception of two small portions. I am not going to deal with the substance of the plan, but make a few general observations. Oh, and to lay my cards out in public, I did vote for the parts which passed. I do understand that the voting was close the entire time, but at the same time, while I desired it to pass, I never felt like the PCA would face the deathnail in her coffin if it did not pass.
First, I found the arguments concerning lack of Scripture and applying sociology over it to be a false distinction. With respect and love to my fathers and brothers who made this argument, good sociological analysis can come from a Biblical framework. I assume that a committee of our denomination is operating from a Christian perspective and furthermore, operating from a Reformed life and worldview. Good sociological analysis is not mutually exclusive from proof-texting. Additionally, we don’t expect Christians to proof-text their arguments for whatever field in which they operate, like business or philosophy, but we accept them. I highly doubt the Ph.Ds in attendance who studied at secular institutions used chapter and verse references in their dissertations, yet we would not hold their work to be suspect for the lack of proof-texting. The same goes for all the men who voted and did not study at an explicitly Christian institution. In 2007, the General Assembly passed the statement on the Federal Vision without a single proof-text. False distinction.
Second, the sky will always be falling somewhere in most denominations, and especially in the PCA. Peruse presbyteriannews.org sometime, which archived a lot of stories from the late 1990s and early 2000s. You will find stories about churches which began to use “contemporary” worship and find a lot of energy devoted to proving that it was wrong. You will find speculation that the PCA will be ordaining women as elders in just a few years, or that the PCA was only a few years behind the CRC. These dire predictions were flat-out wrong. The sky did not fall. We grew as a denomination during the 2000s and began to have influence in new outlets. Talk to people who have heard about our denomination and generally you will find a complimentary attitude toward our adherence to Scripture.
Third, we’re all sinners. Say wha???? Our perceptions and attitudes and interactions are tainted by our sin. Even when we have the best intentions, whether pro or con about whatever issue our denomination faces or how we drive in traffic, we deal with sin. It is easy for us to demonize and dehumanize those with whom we disagree. I think it is the worst part of working with people. When we do not see eye to eye on every little thing, not only do we grate against the substance of the issue, we go for the person. I confess that I did this during GA. But the beauty is that it shows my need for the Gospel and the active work of it in my life. Why do we treat teaching and ruling elders in good standing as if we are calling into a talk radio program to share our disgust for “those people.” Surely, we can be above this and disagree with civility and charity. I am sure we can, but let’s face it, we struggle.
Fourth, we agree on more than we disagree on. I know I am repeating part of the Keller-Duncan “civil conversation.” (Yes, the term is weird.) But whether you are a strict or “good faith” subscriptionist to the Confession, you still agree with me with close to 100% of our standards. We may disagree on application of those standards, but we affirm much, much more than we recognize. To use caricatures, a “Covenant Seminary” PCA pastor or “RTS” PCA pastor or “Greenville” PCA pastor all have more in common with one another theologically than with Spurgeon, Edwards, Piper and Driscoll. That does not mean that GA is a kumbaya-fest and we do not hash out tough issues like the SP, or days of Creation or subscription to our standards, but know that when we do disagree that we do it out of a desire to be faithful to Scripture, true to the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission.