On Assembly Stacking, Assumicide, and the PCA
Q. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?
A. That I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing.1 Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are the very devices the devil uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath.2 I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.3 And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.
– The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 112
Recently, a friend forwarded to me an essay written by a fellow Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Teaching Elder (TE). In this essay written by a man I have never met, I was accused of two of things. First, the man accused me of slander. Second, he accused me of disrespecting the office of Ruling Elder (RE) in the PCA.
In reading this man’s essay, I was alarmed by how one minister can, without clarifying conversation or accountability or consequence, so boldly and publicly assign nefarious motive to another minister. That is to say, my initial response was a bit defensive.
But shortly after that, I took a step back to revisit the following excerpt from a remarkable essay by Tim Keller about how to respond when someone criticizes you:
Several people have asked me ‘how do you deal with harsh criticism?’ In each case, the inquirer had felt stung by what they felt were unfair attacks on him or her. In this internet age, anyone can have their views censured unfairly by people they don’t know…even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own short-comings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you.
Following Tim’s lead, I humbly own and apologize for speaking “in a way that was not circumspect.” Along with this, I wish also to explain why “the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons.”
To the critic’s point, I tweeted a statement that was, in the literal sense, incorrect when I expressed concern on Twitter that the 2021 General Assembly was “stacked” by a certain ideological group to achieve certain political outcomes.
Ever since that non-circumspect tweet of mine, podcast episodes and blog posts from that same ideological group have emerged to decry any notion that the Assembly even can be stacked. These brothers make a fair point. Every church in the PCA may send a certain number of delegates to the Assembly, and no person or group may block said delegates from showing up and voting. It’s the beauty of representative church government.
In the literal sense, then, my remark about stacking was incorrect and may have stirred a hornet’s nest that did not need to be stirred. To the degree that this is the case, I again apologize and will try to be more careful and caring with my words moving forward.
Second, had I been more circumspect with my remarks about stacking, I would have explained further that I do in fact believe that a *stacking effect* was accomplished not through literal stacking, per se, but rather by mass persuasion through use of blatant, steady, unaccountable false testimony.
It’s hard to imagine how else to explain disparities between the staggering 77% “yes” that the Assembly gave to Overtures 23 and 37 on one hand, vs the prior Assembly’s more true-to-form 60% “yes” to a similar Overture, vs the more recent defeat of Overtures 23 and 37 in the Presbyteries. Some have tried to offer explanations. Personally, I find those explanations unconvincing.
Overtures 23 and 37 both aim to prohibit certain same-sex attracted *and* faithfully celibate, chaste, biblical-sex-and-marriage-ethic-affirming men from serving as ministers in good standing. A record number of TE and RE commissioners showed up to the Assembly to debate this (a good thing). One wonders, however, if this happened in part because of a well-curated climate of alarmist, fear-inducing, and oftentimes patently false messaging through social media, blogs, and conferences (not a good thing).
Some examples of such falsehood include, but are not limited to:
FALSEHOOD: Alleging that the Assembly was “stacked” reveals disrespect and disregard for Ruling Elders.
TRUTH: Far from it!
Personally, I wish RE’s could actually do more than current PCA polity allows — namely, to administer the sacraments, to preach if gifted to do so, to lead in aspects of the liturgy that are currently reserved solely for “the minister,” to officiate weddings, etc. In short, I would love to see more RE influence and engagement, not less.
The church I serve has six TE’s and over fifty active RE’s who, together, lead and govern our church. Because of our church’s growing ministry needs, we are seeking to add even more RE’s for the future of our ministry.
We send our maximum representation of RE’s to every Presbytery and General Assembly, where our RE’s significantly outnumber our TE’s. Though costly for a church our size, and though our elders’ diversity of thought sometimes leads them to cancel out each others’ votes, we believe this is part of our duty to the denomination and we support and encourage any church that does the same.
What we can’t support is any effort that rallies RE’s to bring their votes to the Assembly through use of fear tactics, falsehood, deceit, slander, and/or six-figure donations in the service of achieving political outcomes.
A better, more godly approach would be to (a) stop saying untrue things, and (b) redirect the six-figure donations to the PCA Commissioner Scholarship Fund. This long-standing, non-biased fund also exists to support Assembly participation for RE’s from smaller churches.
FALSEHOOD: Those who do not support Overtures 23 and/or 37 are “progressives” who are infiltrating the PCA with mainline liberal doctrine and trying to force a “Side B Gay Christianity agenda” on the PCA.
TRUTH: There are many, widely-esteemed TE’s and RE’s who have argued against Overtures 23 and 37 (one notable example is TE David Coffin). This isn’t about doctrinal progressivism vs doctrinal conservatism. The differences here are in essence cultural, not doctrinal.
I wrote a prior essay about the inflammatory, deceitful nature of using such labels like “progressive” to describe one’s fellow PCA ministers in good standing. Notably, anyone who is deemed progressive in the PCA is labeled with another word by people, including Christians, outside the PCA:
FALSEHOOD: These so-called “PCA Progressives” are on a slippery slope that will lead them and others into biblical infidelity. Labels attributed to them by certain RE’s and TE’s include “false teacher,” “heretic,” “wolf,” and “clown.”
TRUTH: All such labels are baseless. The overwhelming, near-unanimous passage of the 2021 Ad Interim Report on Human Sexuality — which declares that sex is for marriage only, and marriage is for one man and one woman only — shows where we *actually are* as a denomination on these matters.
What’s more, there has been *zero* opposition in the PCA to historic, orthodox, biblical teaching about sexuality and marriage.
There has also been *zero* opposition to what the Westminster Standards say about sexuality and marriage.
FALSEHOOD: Any professing Christian who ever, under any circumstance and for any reason and in any context, uses the word “gay” to describe his/her struggle with same-sex-attraction is claiming a gay identity. Likewise, he/she is on a slippery slope that will lead to embracing and affirming a gay lifestyle.
TRUTH: First, I personally think that Christians using terms like “gay” to describe themselves can lead to more confusion than clarity. I prefer a different approach. But I also come short of supporting policies “with teeth” aimed at forbidding use of the term to describe a *struggle* versus an identity.
When you claim something as your identity, you will naturally organize your life and behavior around that identity. If it’s your identity, you will not resist the way of life and behaviors associated with that identity. Instead, you will embrace, celebrate, champion, defend, and welcome others into that life and those behaviors.
One TE who has had charges brought against him in this vein is now almost 50 years old. In his lifetime, he has never once been romantically involved with another person because of his declared and practiced *Christian identity*. He has not looked at pornography for nearly twenty years and meets weekly with others for the purpose of accountability. Though not a perfect man, if you nonetheless compare his online viewing habits with the average PCA TE or RE, chances are he will come across as notably pure by comparison.
Similar stories can be told about other men and women in the PCA who experience SSA. If they were claiming an *actual* gay identity, why would they choose to be part of a denomination such as the PCA? The answer is that they would not.
If these men and women are really on some sort of slippery slope, how is it that after decades of living with SSA, none of them has shown any signs of slipping? Why are they still, after all these decades, saying no to the flesh on a daily basis? Why do they continue, after all these decades, to live chaste and sexually pure lives? Why aren’t we talking about *this* aspect of their lives and identities more? Why are we talking so much about their words without giving due acknowledgment to their actual deeds?
As the Apostle James wrote, “I will show you my faith (my identity) by my deeds.” One’s chastity says much about what he/she actually believes concerning his/her identity.
FALSEHOOD: One PCA minister declared in alarmist fashion at a Birmingham conference that if a minister with SSA says he hasn’t been able to “pray the gay away,” then what he is *really* saying (and I quote) is that “God *cannot* change people with SSA.” When challenged twice about his word-spin (putting words into people’s mouths that they didn’t say), both times the accusing minister doubled down and refused to retract it.
TRUTH: To accuse fellow ministers in good standing of teaching that God *cannot* change people with SSA is to accuse them of teaching heresy and attempting to entice people to deny the omnipotence of God.
In truth, not a single PCA minister can be found who would dare say, “God cannot change certain people.”
These falsely accused ministers are not denying God’s omnipotence but are merely acknowledging the way things are. Even with much prayer and daily mortification, the existence of SSA rarely disappears completely. Just as some Christians struggle for a lifetime against the temptation to get drunk, other Christians may struggle for a lifetime against the temptation to succumb to attractions that are forbidden by Scripture. My own besetting struggle has been against the temptation to live in anxiety, which is addressed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Biblically, such situations are called being tempted. And as Scripture and Confession both attest, temptation and sinful acts are not the same thing.
FALSEHOOD: We in the PCA have always supported our members and ministers who declare, “I am an alcoholic” at AA meetings and elsewhere as part of their fight for alcohol-sobriety and faithfulness. Even those TE’s and RE’s who object to Christians calling themselves alcoholics come short of wanting to censure or discipline these men and women. Yet many who support Overtures 23 and 37 say that we should, on the other hand, *not* support those who similarly declare, “I am gay” at support group meetings and elsewhere as part of *their* fight for sexual sobriety and faithfulness.
TRUTH: Scripture admonishes all believers to confess our sins, one to another, that we may be healed. Calvin famously states that Christian confession should not be made generally, but specificically, to “confess particular sins, particularly.” To prohibit men and women from *naming* their particular sin or struggle is to deny them of this divinely sanctioned, healing path.
Applying similar logic, if we are going to censure sexually chaste men and women for using the word “gay” in certain settings to describe their struggle with temptation, then to be consistent, we must also begin censuring alcohol-sober men and women for using the word “alcoholic” to describe their struggle, as well as drug and/or porn-sober men and women for using the word “addict” to describe theirs, etc.
Do we really want to go down that road? Why censure one group for their “I am _____” statements if we’re not going to censure all other groups for their “I am _____” statements also?
On a related note, what shall we do with the Apostle Paul who boldly said of himself, “I am the chief of sinners?” Or, of Luther who said every Christian is simultaneously a sinner and a saint? What are we to do with our first membership vow that requires every person to identify as “a sinner in the sight of God?”
I’m not trying to be combative here. Rather, I’m trying to show how easily we can fall into a kind of inconsistency that isolates certain people while welcoming others, even as they use the same language to confess their struggles with this or that temptation or besetting sin. God shows no partiality, so why would we? If we’re going to give latitude to one group of sinner/strugglers, then let’s give latitude to them all. And if we’re going to drop the hammer on one group but not the others, then let’s at least be honest about our own inconsistency, partiality, and subsequent lack of integrity.
In conclusion, my hope and prayer is that all assumicide in the PCA will come to an abrupt end.
The act of making false, uncharitable assumptions about others and then attempting to assassinate their character based on those assumptions.
Let’s mortify our assumicidal orientations, shall we? Let’s also listen more carefully to each other and believe the best instead of the worst about each other. Why? Because to resist doing so would be to reject an Overture that is not up for debate:
“You must…rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:8-11)