Bruce Terrell’s work as Moderator of the PCA General Assembly can’t be blamed for the contentious nature of the 41st. He didn’t help it either. Terrell looked hesitant, confused, lost, and waylaid throughout the debates on the floor. I don’t recall him showing confidence about the next item on the agenda even when the room was relatively calm. Terrell frequently had to redo votes, dismiss and then recall commissioners making motions and speeches, and reflexively turn to parliamentarians and the Stated Clerk for bailouts. He didn’t project understanding of how the GA works or more than a minimal understanding of Robert’s Rules. I was impressed with how humble and apologetic he was about all the confusion and inconvenience. He seems like a nice fellow. Granting that, I don’t see why he was nominated for the position. It’s common in Presbyterianism to honor servants of the church with nominations to lead church assemblies. Why not nominate men with some savvy in parliamentary procedure so that the church business will proceed with excellence? Or, at least with a minimum of embarrassment?

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I’d like to imagine some of the commissioners were getting an uneasy feeling in the gut listening to the outgoing Moderator’s sermon. Dr. Michael Ross took the theme of making all things new and steered into conventional fare about how people inevitably lose the fire of their early days. “A convert becomes a conservative.” Yet, this hackneyed theme soon bared its fangs at a segment of the room. Then came the stuff about conservatives as shrill, unloving curmudgeons who defensively react against change. They also aren’t very welcoming. In case some of his listeners were looking for a way of escape, he denounced the straw man of liberals out in the world. He then said, “I doubt sincerely that there is even one progressive, as they like to be called today, in this room this evening. We are conservative people.”

Dr. Ross’ selective scolding starts from poor exegesis. He made an erroneous application of Isaiah 48. It is an abuse of Scripture to make “God making all things new” into a Hegelian justification of new church initiatives and expanding doctrinal boundaries. One would expect that Ross would reject this characterization. And well he should. He should also reject the sloganeering popular with theological liberals for at least 200 years!

The thing that really makes me uncomfortable with Ross’ sermon is that this “God is always doing something new” bit will be painfully familiar to those of us who have already had to leave denominations that have decided that confessional Reformed theology is passé. I was once a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. I remember well that the apologists for that church’s progressive agenda frequently appealed to the Holy Spirit and the New Creation motif as that denomination made its final descent into confessional anarchy in the mid to late nineties. I was even told by one of my pastors, as the consistory forced pop-evangelical worship down the throats of the confessionalists, that the elders were just trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit!

So Mike Ross wants to warn you conservatives in the PCA that conservatism has its dark side. Never mind that liberalism has a dark side, or rather is the dark side! Yes, there is the false humility and self-correction of “I may be wrong and I may be unkind.” If only we’d stop and think about what we’re saying. Ross dismissed the straw man of liberals out in the world only to make a straw man of conservatism and miss the reality of liberalism in the church altogether! If you have to say “I may be wrong and I may be unkind” you’re probably both.

Someone seeking a statement of what Presbyterians believe in our time can’t be blamed for running into some confusion. Looking at a spectrum, one side will have the Presbyterian Church(USA) with their Book of Confessions. Not only is the large number of confessions from different times and places in itself daunting, the mainline Presbyterian Church of today really has little regard for the older confessions. Let’s face it, even the Confession of 1967 grows old in PCUSA years.

The opposite side of Presbyterian definition shows up in smaller, staunchly conservative Presbyterian churches. These bodies are likely to see the Westminster Standards as a singular achievement in the history of the church. Even so, some small Presbyterian bodies will readily admit that confessional revision is necessary. Those churches that consider themselves American Presbyterian will have a revised Westminster, especially on the relation of church and state.

The Presbyterian Church in America is somewhere in between. The church contains men who cherish the Westminster Standards as an excellent summary of the Bible’s teaching. It also contains men who, while not theological liberals in the classic sense, declare the Westminster Standards passé. Dr. Robert Rayburn of Tacoma, WA is an example of this latter type. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Rayburn has taken such an active role in defending Federal Vision thinkers in the PCA and that he openly expresses deep dissatisfaction with the Westminster Standards. He has, in his defense testimony in the Meyers case, said the following:

So there’s all of that, but gentlemen,
we’re in a period of transition. Our 350-year run
with the Westminster Standards is coming to an end.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s inevitable. You got to
take — you got to accumulate the learning of the last
long period of time to get you incorporated into the
way in which you’re thinking about. That. [sic]

Meyer’s Trial Transcript, Part 2, pp. 103-104.

Dr. Rayburn isn’t content to wistfully foresee the eventual retirement of Westminster. Readers of his church’s newsletter “Words of Faith” would have recently received a series of articles by Dr. Rayburn thoroughly criticizing the Westminster Standards. It is important to look at the incoherence faced by a person desiring to know what Dr. Rayburn’s congregation believes. On the one hand one will find the Westminster Confession under “Doctrine” on the church website. On the other, you’ll have the pastor deprecating the Westminster Standards in the pulpit, in the newsletter and elsewhere.

Many PCAers adhere to “system subscription:” the idea that there is a “Confession” within the Westminster Confession; that office bearers are welcome to eclectically take or leave statements in their doctrinal standards; that office bearers can teach their congregations that the so-called Confession of Faith is the confession of a distant time and not our own. Such ideas are bound to have consequences. Of all the theories as to why the PCA is divided, the theory that makes sense to me is that its doctrinal standards are increasingly inoperative. This results naturally in doctrinal provincialism, litigiousness, and even anarchy. We’re talking more than an exception here and there, a scruple with this or that formulation; we’re talking a fundamental rejection. Is the best many PCA office holders can say for their confessional identity, “I was for Westminster before I was against it?”

It was too much to expect that the PCA GA would do anything about their Standing Judicial Commission’s shoot the messenger approach to the Complaints in the Leithart and Meyers trials. The Overtures asking the GA to take up these matters were ruled out of order (is that a polite way of saying, “blown off?”) by the Moderator. One blog has asked whether there is any accountability of the SJC to the GA. The answer is, “no.” Whether or not this outcome is correct according to the PCA Book of Church Order (I’ll leave it to BCO wizards to decide that), the PCA appears helpless if its SJC goes rogue. The way the Leithart case (and maybe the Meyers case) has turned out at the GA places a huge question mark over the notion of a Standing Judicial Commission at the broadest level of Presbyterianism. The PCA’s GA is not the highest court; a “sub-court” that may or may not be truly representative of the denomination is the highest court. The reasoning of Overture 19 is rather strong, showing that the SJC’s notion that they can’t overrule a Presbytery trial that appears to be conducted in a supposedly orderly fashion reduces the SJC to essentially a paper-shuffling committee. They look at a doctrinal trial, make sure everything is “in order,” ignore the constitutional questions, scold the complainant and move on. Might as well go ahead and make Presbytery rulings final!

All that is left is for a potentially silly (and I suppose, inevitable) process of appealing to the same court that already delivered the questionable rulings (very much like the futility of asking Pacific Northwest Presbytery to have the courage of their Westminster Confession). Another three Overtures seeking relief in the Leithart case have been referred to the SJC! How many times will this “eternal recurrence” of asking a court in the PCA to review something and the court responding, “yeah, we already reviewed this and we haven’t changed our mind” continue? The wheel may spin until good men tire of repulsing revisionist attacks upon Reformed theology. The PCA has a more fundamental problem of an essentially anti-confessional element firmly nestled in the denomination. That will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Here’s my thoughts on the debate over the Minority Report on the Insider Movement at the 2013 PCA General Assembly. This will be the first in a short series on the 41st GA. I watched a decent portion of the streaming video and I’ll give my interested layman’s perspective. Presbyterian polity benefits from transparency, and thankfully the PCA practices some transparency by streaming the proceedings of their broadest assembly. This beats the mere talk of transparency we get from a certain Nobel Prize-winning chief executive in the civil realm.

I’d call for not overplaying the emotion displayed. There are times when disagreements over the direction of the church will heat up. The men speaking in opposition to the Minority Report, whether or not they misconstrued the passages about Allah and the true God, truly believed serious issues were at stake. One seminary president stated in so many words that this was the last straw. Others, visibly infuriated, declared that they cannot abide the notion that Allah and the Holy Trinity can be equated in any way. Yes, some of them showed strong emotion but the substance of most of their comments reflected a pointed and considered challenge to what they believe is error. Indeed, much of the heat of the debate had to do with the fact that the substitute motion making the Minority Report part of what the GA would commend to the churches took many commissioners by surprise. Once that point had been reached, the opponents of the Minority Report saw the GA as one vote away from a colossal blunder. Hopefully more of the video of the GA will be posted so that we can review the substantive arguments of the “angry” opposition. Sometimes we need to have the discipline look past emotion and listen to what people are saying, not how they’re saying it.

In fact, the valid points of the opposition were largely ignored by the side favoring the Minority Report. I don’t recall much effort to engage the substance, just comments that “the dear brother means well” or “there’s practical (vs. dry and arid) stuff in the minority report” or “I have missionary experience and I don’t see anything wrong here so why should you?” (For a substantive presentation of both sides, go here). The supporters of the Minority Report can search their souls as surely as the men who spoke in opposition. Were some of them too quick to fill their hearts with indignation at the anger they perceived on the other side? Were they so quick to defend a brother’s honor that they overlooked the fact that those opposing the Minority Report weren’t angry at TE Nabeel Jabbour, but at erroneous things they believed his report contained? It’s worth considering these possibilities.

All of which brings me to reactions in poor taste to the Insider Movement Debate 2013. First, one commissioner decided to settle the score once debate had concluded and the Assembly had recommitted the reports to the Ad-Interim Committee, covering his revenge with an abuse of parliamentary procedure (by the indulgence of a perpetually flummoxed Moderator). The commissioner was recognized before he stated his reason and proceeded to bash the opponents of the Minority Report as insensitive to Rev. Jabbour’s testimony. Talk about focusing on personalities rather than issues!

Second, the blogosphere has predictably provided a forum for fanning a fiery debate into an epic conflagration. I have seen a couple sanctimonious expressions of dismay (in comment boxes) befitting dignified Victorian ladies having their tea time interrupted by a nearby street brawl. It appears that Roman Catholic internet zealots can’t resist the opportunity to gloat over any perceived dysfunction in Presbyterian polity. We’re supposed to swim the Tiber for safety, ‘cause there’s a land of pure delight in communion with the Pope of Rome, right? Yawn…

[Go here for an overview of the 41st GA of the PCA]

… that’ll fit on a sticky note? It’s even a plan that would save the church money. Too bad it isn’t cool or impressive in the world’s eyes. From Darryl Hart:

The lesson may be that the PCA needs to go from being the Southern Baptist Convention to a truly Reformed church where ministers (even celebrated ones), congregations, presbyteries, and agencies all recognize that they are already partners in a common enterprise regulated by Presbyterian polity, Calvinist theology, and Reformed worship.

The PCA seems very far from this plan after observing this year’s GA. Sadly, the PCA has taken a step away from Reformed catholicity by tolerating two novel practices in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. They are Paedocommunion (the promotion of this view was allowed to stand in one presbytery) and intinction (a practice that appears widespread in the PCA and an amendment against the practice failed to come to the GA for a final vote. Too few presbyteries endorsed prohibition of the practice). These are just two of the contested issues this year. Well, I suppose many commissioners took to heart the sermon of the outgoing moderator: “Conservatives are mean, grumpy people who aren’t on board with what God is doing in the church today” [my summary]. You can find the sermon somewhere in here.