Could a split the best thing for the PCA? I know this is a question that won’t get me elected moderator, but maybe it’s one that more leaders in the PCA should be considering.

While immediately many people will begin rummaging for reasons why the answer to my question is, “no”, let me do three things. First let me suggest what kind of partitioning I have in mind. Second, let us look at some of the problems that we have in our current form. Finally we can consider some of the benefits of an intentional split.
What kind of partitioning are we talking about? Well let’s consider that there are several large tribes in the PCA, some smaller or larger than others. It it easy to compose several equally fitting ways to partition the denomination (culture, location, philosophy of ministry), but instead of doing that, lets simply talk about three or four similarly sized partitions.

An intentional partitioning would recognize and allow the competing identities we see in the PCA to grow along each side each other, rather than bite against each other.

Division rightfully leaves a bad taste in our mouths, and too often it has been done with great sadness. But what I am proposing is not a, “purge the evil from your midst” attitude. It’s not even an, “I’m going to take my ball and go home” attitude. What I’m suggesting is a peaceful and equitable separation, that emphasizes cooperation and support afterward, rather than shouts of, “good riddance.” What I’m suggesting is a family of brothers moving into their own homes, while staying in the same town. We are not talking about a divorce.

Rationale

First it seems obvious that our current structure and theological positions are not likely to move very much. A line here, a sentence there, but that’s about it. Many people are happy where the lines have landed, but many others seem to be frustrated by this stalemate. Some are even frustrated enough to say things like:
“conservatives clearly cannot affect [change] in any meaningful way.”1

the reality seems to be that no one group in the PCA is able to shake the tree hard enough to knock the others out.

Others are frustrated enough to simply slip away from the denomination. Each year the match goes back and forth. Each side is both optimistic and stifled. The same men who cheer the defeat of one overture, hang their heads low at the adoption of the next. This pattern repeats itself time and time again, and the reality seems to be that no one group in the PCA is able to shake the tree hard enough to knock the others out.

keithmwilliams-brids

Paradoxically this stalemate seems to cause more tension and fear around assemblies. Will this be the year that things come crashing down? Will this be the year that I am pushed outside the bounds of the PCA? Will this be the year that the other side win? This kind of thing shouldn’t be celebrated, but must it be ignored? An intentional split along theological or philosophical lines would free us from the strife and finger-pointing we currently see in the domination.

The second reason to consider an intentional partitioning of the denomination has to do with the identity of the PCA. In truth, the PCA has no national identity. Depending on where you are in the country and with whom you’re talking, the PCA will be honored or shamed to some degree or another. The PCA has a muddled reputation, and this problems extends into the Kingdom as well. Some Christians I’ve talked to think the PCA is a cantankerous group of grumps. Others think we are a bunch of watered-down wimps.

Two competing solutions have been offered to this problem: Either we move toward a stronger central leadership, or towards a stronger shared culture. In truth, I’d imagine that if we were able to decide on one, either would work just fine. The problem is that to decided on either would betray some part of what has made us the PCA. To embrace a stronger central office, would be to reject our emphasis on being a bottom up movement.

To insist on a uniform culture in our churches, in terms of worship and philosophy of ministry, would be to reject our emphasis on being a national Presbyterian church. A forced uniformity would be a rejection of the full history of our denomination (After all the PCA is made up of the old PCUS, the old United Presbyterians, the Bible Presbyterians, the Covenanters, and even those curious Independent Presbyterians, to name a few). An intentional partitioning would recognize and allow the competing identities we see in the PCA to grow along each side each other, rather than fighting with each other.

The third reason that we might consider a peaceful division, is because it seems that we are/or have outgrown our structural connections. In our current undelegated structures, maybe we are just too large of an organization to work effectively.
We’ve decided year after year not to shorten our assemblies, we’ve decide that we all want a vote. I’ve yet to met anyone who really loved the idea of an Overtures Committee. At best it is a compromise, a tourniquet that has keep us alive the last few years. It’s not hard to imagine that at some point even the Overtures committee will bloat beyond its usefulness, and become too big to work as it was intended.

Now many will say, “no we just fixed this…we just amended x to correct a new problem that we noticed.” But there we have the meta-problem. Each year we stretch and stretch our system, and each year it becomes a little harder to follow what we do and why we do it at General Assembly. In its current printing, the Book of Church Order (from the Preliminary Principles to the end of the Rules of Discipline) is 101 pages long, the Rules of Assembly Operation (Not including the SJC Manual) is 56 pages.

Organizational surgery seems much easier to perform on young patients, at some point we all just get set in our ways.

Put another way: over one third of everything that we have to say about the organization of our denomination deals with what we do at General Assembly (an event that from start to finish is four or five days long). Perhaps the solution is not to add another rule to correct the last loophole we have found. Instead of increasing our national structure past its breaking point, we should consider if there is a way to create two or three smaller organizations that don’t need a perpetual policy machine to keep them going.

Potential Benefits

While it might be against most logic, a breaking up of the PCA into its component parts, might be a catalyst for greater cooperation and unity within the presbyterian tradition. Several years ago I had the chance to hear Dr. Taylor speak about his service on the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. NAPARC is an ecumenical organization which brings together similar conservative Presbyterian churches. In his report he mentioned the fact that the PCA was larger than all the other members of NAPARC combined, and that our size seemed to hinder discussions of mergers or cooperation. The fact that we so outnumbered any other group made it hard for any of them to consider a deeper relationship with us.

We might also consider the Evangelical Presbyterians, a younger denomination (but one closer in to our size) that shares many of our commitments. They have a slightly more open position in a few areas, but their commitments are very similar to our own.

For most of us it is easier to look back…

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

This might also give us a much need opportunity to reassess how we have interacted with other ethnic and cultural groups in America. Right now the dominant cultural paradigm of the PCA is a White South Suburban perspective. Maybe such a shake up would produce a healthier inclusion of Black Christians, Asian Christians, Latino Christians etc.

The Second potential benefit of a partitioning is the chance for local church leaders to assess their hopes for the church at large. Quite honestly, I believe that many of the problems of the PCA come down to ostrich-itis. Local church leaders are unsettled with certain things going on in the PCA (shifts to the right or to the left), but many shrug their shoulders and give up. They see the stalemate. So, they simply give up participating at a denominational level.

A break up of the denominational continent would forces churches to ask, “who should we be? What do we want our denomination to be know for?” For most of us it is easier to look back and say, “this is what we were about”, rather to look forward and say this is what we want to be about.

Each of the new denominations would look slightly different and it would give local churches the chance to say who do we best fit with, and whom do we best partner with in our local ministry.

A final benefit of a partitioning would the opportunity to refine and simplify our denominational organization. As I mentioned above, it is hard to participate in the General Assembly, and each year it seems to get harder. Additionally there seem to be dozens of competing organizations connected to and supported by parts of the denomination, all with overlapping administrative costs. As I said before, as a denomination, we seem to be stuck with what we have. Many men from newly formed presbyteries have expressed the benefits of being able to reevaluate things which were simply assumed as the status quo in their previous presbyteries. Organizational surgery seems much easier to perform on young patients, at some point we all just get set in our ways.

I know that the idea of an intentional division might seem radical or unnecessary, but consider this: If we knew of a 40 year old church that was fairly healthy but in need of some redirection, we might encourage them to consider sending out members to form a new church, or even, more radical–we might challenge them replanting as a whole. This wouldn’t magically happen, it would take intentionality to avoid sinful pride, or selfishness, but it is possible. It would necessitate long seasons of prayer, and it would take equally long seasons of gracious and honest discussions about the details of such a move. These would be hard conversation, but the outcome could potentially be multiple healthier congregations each dedicated to the work of the kingdom.

All I am proposing is that we consider a similar solution at a denominational level.


  1. “07-03-2010, 07:44 PM
    Puritanboard title: “New Yahoo Group for PCA Conservatives”
    Dear Brothers,
    I have created a new Yahoo Group for Conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Teaching and Ruling Elders concerned about the leftward drift in the denomination. The group is designed for discussing whether we should remain in the denomination, leave for another denomination, or form a new denomination.
    Please note that if you join this group, you MUST introduce yourself and tell us which congregation or institution you are affiliated with.
    Please also note that this group is NOT for discussing or making plans for the future of the PCA, as conservatives clearly cannot affect that in any meaningful way. It is merely for discussing our future and that of our congregations.
    To join, please go to pcaconservatives : PCA Conservatives
    or send an email to: pcaconservatives-subscribe@yahoogroups.com
    Your Servant in Christ,
    Andy [Webb]”