Celebrating and Wishing More for the PCA
Recently, the denomination with which Christ Presbyterian Church is affiliated, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), gathered for its annual “General Assembly.” This is the annual and largest gathering of the PCA’s local church pastors and elders, sent as delegates from their congregations.
At the risk of sharing too much or too little, I simply offer my thoughts and experience below concerning our beloved denomination.
THINGS TO CELEBRATE
A Strong Unity Around Essential Matters
The evidence was clear and unequivocal that the PCA’s founding principles of (1) fidelity to all of Scripture as the infallible and authoritative Word of God, (2) alignment with the Westminster Confession as the system of doctrine we uphold, and (3) renouncing “progressive Christianity” in all its forms, as Alisa Childers faithfully describes it in her excellent book, Another Gospel, remain solidly intact.
In spite of any differences we may have, our unity around these three things is a solid as it has been since the PCA’s founding in 1973. At this year’s Assembly, our unity was most evident in our overwhelming affirmation of the Report on Human Sexuality, which was put forth representatively by Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung on behalf of the committee that crafted it, and to which I served as an advisor and voted enthusiastically in favor of.
A Remarkable Diversity
Although the PCA has more work to do in the nurturing of ethnic and other forms of diversity, there remains a significant perspectival and philosophical diversity that, if stewarded lovingly, can become a hallmark of our theologically unified communion.
In an essay from 2012 called “What’s So Great About the PCA?”, Tim Keller distinguished between three unique “branches” or “impulses” in the PCA: doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist. You can read Keller’s essay to learn more about the distinctions, but it is fair to say that these three distinctions, and the diversity they create, still hold in the PCA. Keller argues that despite its inherent tensions (true diversity is always disruptive on some level—as Paul’s teaching leading up to Galatians 3:28 confirms), none of the three branches should be “pruned” but rather must be protected and “owned” by everyone.
Like Paul’s teaching about the church being one body with many interdependent parts, the PCA’s diversity is always worth fighting for—and must never be fought against—as long as we remain unified around our shared non-negotiables of Scripture, doctrinal and confessional fidelity, and disavowal of “progressive Christianity.”
As a church that has pastors, staff members, and members representing all three of the “branches” Keller describes, we at Christ Presbyterian want to do our part to support and promote such unity amidst diversity (as awkward, yet refining and humbling, as it may be) not only locally, but nationally. To do so would be to uphold the Jew-Gentile principle that Paul is so adamant about in his writings, especially Ephesians 2 where he insists that all dividing walls of hostility must be broken down between Jew and Gentile “branches” (We might say that the Jews were the “doctrinalists” of the day, and the Gentiles were the “culturalists”). This is always a must, and never merely an option because of shared union with Christ. Because we belong to him, we also belong to each other.
There is a marked difference between Christians who embrace the idea of diversity and ones who embrace real and sustained diversity.
To be true to Scripture, we must lean against the former and lean into the latter. Our opportunity as the PCA is that all three diverse “branches” are still well represented when we gather. What is yet uncertain is whether we’ll choose a pruning approach that shrinks the tent, or a preserving and “owning” approach that celebrates and nurtures the uniqueness and contribution of each branch, thus keeping the tent intact and, God willing, expanding it in days and years ahead to include all kinds, and not just some kinds, of the people that Jesus loves and with and alongside whom we are fellow heirs.
The scribes and Pharisees preferred a small tent, one in which people who were not part of their own “branch” were not welcome.
Jesus and the Apostles, on the other hand, preferred a large “tent” or “tree” from which every branch that receives nourishment from its roots is esteemed, cultivated, and kept. Beneath this tent or tree is an eagerness to embrace saints and demonstrate love to sinners of every kind, welcoming and eating with them all (Luke 15:1-2).
In the PCA, we already have the composition to be and become more of a big tent. But the question remains, do we have the will to build upon it? Personally, I believe that we do.
A Midweek Gathering That Represented All That The PCA *CAN* Be
(And In Many Ways, Already Is)
Our Christ Presbyterian team participated in a midweek gathering of roughly 700 men and women at Covenant Theological Seminary. The air was light, prayers were authentic, the music and testimonies were rich, and people from all three “branches” of the PCA were well-represented.
I was honored to give the keynote talk (available here in video format, and here in audio) in which I shared how our diversity in the PCA including frustrating and sometimes hurtful critiques that some branches experience from other branches (That’s how actual families work, right? Sometimes they hurt each other. But in healthy families, they reconcile and are built up by the experience).
After my talk, men and women from each of the three branches sought me out to share their own enthusiasm about (a) the three things that hold us all together…Scripture, Confession, and resistance to both nationalistic as well as “progressive” trends in the broader evangelical church, and (b) a vision for doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists working hard to celebrate the things we do share in common (which, in my estimation, are many), versus amplifying and attacking and casting suspicion upon the things that we don’t (which, also in my estimation, are few).
The midweek gathering offered a united diversity, not only with the happy presence of PCA doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists, but also moving testimonies from a young, rising star Black leader serving with RUF, two women who are using their exegetical and leadership gifts to benefit our whole denomination, and a moving prayer by my constant encourager and friend, Bob Flayhart, over my longtime friend, Tom Gibbs, as Tom begins his new role as President of Covenant Seminary. Covenant is the place where I, along with pastors Todd Teller, David Filson, and Russ Ramsey trained to be pastors, elder Rob Wheeler received training in theology, cultural engagement, and counseling, and Melanie Rainer and Mallory Hammond trained to become the excellent leaders that they, too, have been for our church.
Also present were former PCA moderators Howie Donahoe, Irwyn Ince, Alexander Jun, Bruce Terrell, and wife of former PCA moderator and my mentor and predecessor, Wilson Benton, who could not himself make it this year…the illustrious and wonderful Pam Benton. Nashville’s Tim and Sandra (McCracken) Nicholson helped provide the music, trauma and abuse victim turned advocate, Rachael Denhollander was welcomed and acknowledged, my good friend and new Gospel Coalition president, Julius Kim, was also in the mix.
There are many more whom I am forgetting to mention.
This midweek gathering’s seriousness about biblical truth, tone of humble grace, and a representative diversity of doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist “branches” as well as genders, ethnicities, and ministry contexts, gave this PCA pastor great confidence that ours is a denomination that, to use Keller’s phrase, is still in many ways “great.” And where we are not currently great, we surely have potential to be.
Three Outstanding, Grace And Truth Filled Sermons
As an Assembly, we worshiped together three times. Rather than summarize what I heard, I will simply encourage you to listen to the sermons (if you can find them online) by outgoing moderator Howie Donahoe, Washington, D.C. pastor Russ Whitfield, and my former Redeemer NYC colleague, Abraham Cho.
WISHING FOR MORE
Soon, I will write and release more essays that highlight some things that, in my opinion and experience, we as the PCA do well to lament and address in the coming year, in hopes of building a better future together. Like every true family, we do have our issues, too. But because of our shared union with Christ, we are not without hope!
As I left this year’s Assembly, some things had me feeling heavy hearted. Rather than being reason for discouragement or withdrawal, I believe they could be opportunities for a better, more faithful future as a denomination.
You can read a second, follow-up to this essay to this one here.