Brad Isbell

My Hope and Vision For The Future of The Presbyterian Church in America

Let’s admit that General Assembly is the easy part. The great task of shepherding is the hardest task we have as elders, and the one in which so many of us, (myself included) fall short. God help us be the kind of elders he would have us to be for the sake of Christ, his church, and the gospel.

[Editor’s note: These are the slightly edited remarks of Presbyterian Church in America ruling elder Brad Isbell at an Assembly-wide seminar, “The Future Glory of the Church: The PCA We Envision for Christ’s Purposes,” at the PCA General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., on June 22, 2022.]
I must begin by acknowledging the great debt I owe to the two PCA pastors I’ve served with and whose teaching I have enjoyed over these last 18 years—Dr. Duncan Rankin and Dr. Nick Willborn. Few men in this room have had the privilege of serving with more thoroughgoing, learned, and principally committed Presbyterians. Their commitment to our doctrine and polity has always been infectious. I must also say that I serve on a faithful session, with men of whom I am not worthy, and who all excel me in gifts and faithfulness. And I serve a wonderful church. We learn by hearing and reading, by studying, but also by seeing and doing. Presbyterianism walks the halls of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the officers and members there have been my best teachers. I love them dearly.
But none of us love our churches as Christ loves his church.  He has told us in his word how his church must be ordered and what her simple mission is. Biblical church government is Presbyterian church government. Our polity is not optional.  It is not one polity among many.  It is not a spare musical score that suggests endless improvisation. It is not a hindrance to any worthy goal. Thus, my hope and vision for the future of the PCA is that she remains thoroughly and simply Presbyterian—maybe even becoming more Presbyterian, certainly not less.
As I read the scriptures and our standards, to be Presbyterian is to encourage and demand the full participation of all elders (ruling and teaching, from small churches and large churches) in the governance and shepherding of the church in courts of every level. We don’t need to be Acts 29 churches, which is to say more networked than denominational and led more by more great men and charismatic pastors than officers. We do not need to be endlessly creative and innovative, always designing something new rather than valuing simple, biblical polity. No, we need to be Acts 14 and 15 churches, relying on the ordained officers God provides, officers accountable to one another in binding ways. There is a great tendency, it seems to me, for churches to be more staff-led rather than officer-led. This is not the way, if you’ll pardon a pun related to our denominational logo and all the Star Wars memes it has inspired.
To be Presbyterian is to be biblical. To be Presbyterian is to be led by presbyters—elders of both kinds, ruling and teaching. We see little differentiation between the elders in the New Testament, a principle we call the parity of elders, a principle explicitly enshrined in our Book of Church Order, the manual and rule book of our polity. Too often, this parity, which concerns both authority and numerical representation in the courts of the church, is an on-paper principle rather than an on-the ground reality. Why should we insist on this party of elder principle? Well, first because the scriptures teach it (and that ought to be enough), but there are also obvious practical reasons for insisting on this distinctive.
Here are several reasons:

It’s good for the sheep, the members of the church. The burden of teaching and shepherding cannot (and ought not) be borne by pastors and paid staff alone. Our people need ruling elders.
It’s good for pastors. We’ve all heard the stories of a wave of pastoral resignations and burnout in the last two years. My suspicion is that many of these men were in church plants (which lack their own local sessions) or in churches without a well-developed ministry of ruling elders. Pastoral survival and longevity require good ruling elders.
An emphasis on elder parity also increases diversity in the courts and councils of the church. Ruling elders are naturally and necessarily a more diverse lot than our teaching elders are. Many lack graduate degrees. In economic and cultural terms they are more diverse. Ruling elders come into everyday contact with the cultural zeitgeist and the practical consequences of secular theories. Some of these theories and paradigms may intrigue the bookish pastor in a coffee shop but may be viewed in an entirely different way by ruling elders. With this century’s mounting cultural crises, we need the different perspectives of ruling elders to correct and guide the ministry and mission of the church.
And lastly, the parity of elders is essential to maintaining orthodoxy. Retired Stated Clerk Taylor wrote this: “The PCA was started primarily through the efforts of Ruling Elders.” Why was this? Maybe because they had the money and time to devote to the formation of a new denomination. But maybe it’s because they were not part of the pastors’ club. Presbyteries and General Assembly can become pastors’ clubs, where getting along can become more important than fidelity and frankness. We need ruling elders because our doctrine, which is not complex and does not require a specialist degree to comprehend, is always under assault. Understanding and defending our orthodoxy is every elder’s job.

And here’s a related bonus point: the nature of the church and her spiritual mission are also things any elder can understand. Ruling elders may well be less likely to veer off on cultural tangents or fall for trendy methods. We need the common sense and realism of ruling elders.
The genius of Presbyterianism—its true contribution to the church—is the concept of rule by elders and parity among those elders. We ought never undervalue our polity, even when it runs counter to the culture or to trends in the broader church, whose form of government is determined more by tradition or pragmatism than the Bible.
The great 19th century Presbyterian Stuart Robinson wrote a book entitled The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel. The title reminds us that the Gospel and polity cannot be separated.  Rosaria Butterfield wrote a book entitled The Gospel Comes with a House Key. The gospel also comes with a house: the church Over that house are the elders. Now, Rosaria’s book is about hospitality, and I’d like to close with an appeal for hospitality…to ruling elders. The sacrifices ruling elders make to attend presbytery and General Assembly are enormous. Most pastors have their expenses paid and are also paid to attend General Assembly. Ruling elders often burn precious vacation days and “wife points” to attend. Many cover a portion of their own expenses. Even presbytery meetings (often held on weekdays) cut into the income or vacation time of ruling elders. We’d do well to think about that.
General Assembly is confusing to the ruling elder who can only occasionally attend. This is a vexing problem, but certainly pastors could do more to help ruling elders find their way. We can and should make every effort to structure the assembly so that real, substantive business is done and done efficiently.
Some say ruling elders are offended by conflict, debate, and disagreement. I don’t believe they are, but they are offended (in my experience) when they perceive that the outcomes at General Assembly seem almost pre-determined or everything is rushed. Give us an open, accessible General Assembly with time to do our business.
Pastor Terry Johnson was speaking of liturgy and doctrine when he said, “You need a Reformed bucket to carry Reformed water.” Well, Reformed doctrine and the Reformed understanding of Scripture demand a Presbyterian house, even if that’s not the most convenient or cheapest type of house to build.  Nothing is harder than rightly ordering a Presbyterian church, but nothing has more benefits for (or better protects) the Christian. A Presbyterian church is worth all the trouble.
Finally, let’s admit that General Assembly is the easy part. The great task of shepherding is the hardest task we have as elders, and the one in which so many of us, (myself included) fall short. God help us be the kind of elders he would have us to be for the sake of Christ, his church, and the gospel.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, board member of MORE in the PCA and the Heidelberg Reformation Association, and a co-editor of the Nicotine Theological Journal.
Related Posts:

What’s In a Denominational Name?

Ultimately though, the last names chosen for the OPC and the PCA are probably better than their first. And the tortuous church-naming process the two bodies endured offers a warning to any would-be splitters or leavers: choosing (and keeping) a new denominational name may be harder than anyone expects. And think of all the stationery that might have to be thrown away!

Today, neither the Orthodox Presbyterian Church nor the Presbyterian Church in America bear their first chosen names. Different as the two denominations are, the reasons for their name changes and even their slates of rejected names are quite similar. And the names—those chosen and those passed over—say a good bit about the aspirations and outlooks of the two churches at the tumultuous times of their formation.
The OPC formed on June 11, 1936 when 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in Philadelphia to constitute the new church as the Presbyterian Church of America. This founding few left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the rapidly-liberalizing Northern mainline church, with their leader J. Gresham Machen, whose 1935 conviction was upheld by the 1936 PCUSA General Assembly. Among Machen’s crimes (besides being irritatingly effective at pointing out the PCUSA’s slide into unbelief) was his role in an independent missions board meant to support only orthodox missionaries.
Though the number of “orthodox” ministers and churches that left the PCUSA with Machen was small, their vision and hopes were large, thus the OPC’s first chosen name was the Presbyterian Church of America.
The fledgling assembly (whose full number would have fit into two or three buses) proclaimed in their Act of Association:
In order to continue what we believe to be the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which we hold to have been abandoned by the present organization of that body, and to make clear to all the world that we have no connection with the organization bearing that name…do hereby associate ourselves together with all Christian people who do and will adhere to us, in a body to be known and styled as the Presbyterian Church of America.
Was the “of” chosen because of some fancy that the eventual OPC was in fact the Only Presbyterian Church for the USA? Probably not, but it must indicate…something. Maybe it was chosen to be as close to their progenitor’s name as possible while still providing differentiation.
At any rate, the first PCA did not remain so denominated for long. Their wayward strumpet of a “mother” church was then well supplied with lawyers, politicians, movers, and shakers so there were plenty of suits ready to swing into action when the PCUSA decided that a tiny church with the words “Presbyterian,” “Church,” and “America” in their name threatened their mammoth brand. The legal letters began to fly and the tiny, cash-strapped PCofA had to give in.
A general assembly (the first of two in 1939) was called expressly for the purpose of re-denominating the three-year-old church. The minutes disclose an astonishing slate of proposed noms d’église:
The following names were suggested: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian and Reformed Church of America, The American Pres. Church, The Presbyterian Church of Christ, The Protestant Presbyterian Church of America, The Seceding Presbyterian Church (of America), The Free Presbyterian Church of America, The True Presbyterian Church of the World, The American Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
It took at least four ballots to finally choose The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a name that seemed to guarantee that the church would forever be known as both odd and highly doctrinal. Who can but regret that The True Presbyterian Church of the World was not chosen? Such a name might have at least helped the OPC avoid their several failed flirtations with church union. And did rejection of The Evangelical Presbyterian Church presage the OPC’s “sideline” understanding of itself as a pilgrim church?  Interestingly, that name was adopted in 1961 by an offshoot of the OPC’s early fundamentalist offshoot (the Bible Presbyterian Church) and by other more patient (though unrelated) mainline refugees in 1981.
The loss of their founder (Machen died barely six months into the church’s life), the loss of church property (for most), and the loss of their first chosen name  might have demoralized the infant communion—yet they persisted.
In 1973 the OPC’s Southern cousins (wearing wide ties and earth-tone polyester) left another expression of liberalizing mainline presbyterianism, the Presbyterian Church in the United States. This church’s conservatives were used to nice things, respectability, and cultural influence, and their first chosen name for a continuing church reflected their great expectations: The National Presbyterian Church. But the mainline struck again, though not in the form of a denomination but of a local mainline congregation. And quite a locality it was. The ultra-modern National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC (the cornerstone of which was laid by former President Eisenhower on October 14, 1967) was a sort of last gasp of truly Christian nationalist pretensions. And it was considered the flagship church of the clunkily named Northern mainline body, The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), later to join with the PCUS to form the current PCUSA.  The local church was jealous for its name, and they, too, could afford great lawyers.
One of the first actions of the National Presbyterian Church’s second assembly (1974) was to find a new name and thus lose the unwelcome legal troubles. The list of proposed names was a wonder to behold:

National Reformed Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian Church of America
International Presbyterian Church
Vanguard Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian Church in America
Presbyterian National Church
Historic Presbyterian Church
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
International Reformed Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
Nationwide Presbyterian Church
Continuing Presbyterian Church
National Continuing Presbyterian Church
American Presbyterian Church
Christian Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian Church of Jesus Christ
Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States

Some looked back, some looked forward, a few were identical to names on earlier OPC lists, many were quite American or national. Conspicuous by its absence was the term “Southern.” The new denomination’s expansive vision was obvious—they would be a regional church no more.
On Tuesday evening (the assembly’s first day) the name National Reformed Presbyterian Church was chosen. The year-old church had a new name by the addition of only one word. The church’s legal counsel was immediately tasked with clearing the new name with the offended Washington, DC congregation.
The next morning—either because of communication with the DC church or because of second thoughts—the Rev. Kennedy Smartt moved that the name be reconsidered. A gang of eight names included a few that were more international or mission-oriented than national:

Presbyterian Church in America
The Presbyterian Church
International Presbyterian Church
Grace Presbyterian Church
Mission Presbyterian Church
National Reformed Presbyterian Church
American Presbyterian Church
Presbyterian Church of the Americas

The assembly overwhelmingly selected Presbyterian Church in America—a name very close to the OPC’s original name but with the all-important “in” rather than “of,” reflecting the Southern church’s spirituality-of-the-church convictions. By the end of its second assembly the church was on its third name, but this one would stick.
So what is in a church name? Maybe a little, maybe a lot. The old saw says that seeing the sausage made is not a good idea. Seeing it made quickly and under duress may be an even more unpleasant proposition. Ultimately though, the last names chosen for the OPC and the PCA are probably better than their first. And the tortuous church-naming process the two bodies endured offers a warning to any would-be splitters or leavers: choosing (and keeping) a new denominational name may be harder than anyone expects. And think of all the stationery that might have to be thrown away!
This article originally appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal and is used with permission. Read more from the NTJ here:
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, board member of MORE in the PCA and the Heidelberg Reformation Association and is a co-editor of the Nicotine Theological Journal.
Related Posts:

A Presbyter’s Progression

MODERATE: Dear Presbyter, look!—it grows dark and the way seems far worse ahead. Whether you accompany me or no, I must turn back with all haste. Fare thee well and take care. I fear for your safety, dear brother. I must fly. 
An Excerpt From the P.C.A. Presbyter’s Progression:

From the Denomination That Was
To That Which Is To Come:
Delivered under the Similitude of a
Wherein is Discovered
The manner of his setting out,
His Dangerous Journey; And
Surprising Outcome of His Travels
Now I saw in my dream, that when Confessionalist was gone back, Presbyter and Moderate went talking over the steepening track; and thus they began their discourse.
PRESBYTER: Come, neighbour Moderate, how do you do? I am glad that you are with me on this treacherous, beautifully-broken-but-orthodox way. You seem an authentic and plain man, and I am happy for your company. What think you of this way?
MODERATE: Well, good Presbyter, the views are certainly beautiful, but I fear this slope which falls away so sharply to our left as the trail grows more narrow and steep. The footing is not at all to my liking, what with loose stones of many sizes and types.
PRESBYTER: Now, now good Moderate, see you not these excellent Shoes I wear of hearty Evangelical stock? These shoes were made by the most excellent cobblers of the City Cultural for Mission and Progress. No such shoes are to be had in the country!
MODERATE: Well, Presbyter, the shoes are most beautiful. The design is lovely to behold and such a shine they have!— though I venture to say that the dust of this way does but begin to dull them. But the great thing about shoes is how they stand wear and how they protect one’s feet, is it not? And how (on so rocky and treacherous a track as this) they allow a man to keep his feet. It may be that a simple country cobbler knows the better how to fashion shoes for the wilds we now traverse.
PRESBYTER: Stuff and nonsense, dear Moderate! These shoes will serve me well. I have paid dearly for them, and they are all the rage in the City Cultural.
Read More
Related Posts:

Lady Preachers in PCA Pulpits?

Being authentically presbyterian when an egalitarian culture is so decidedly against the truths of God’s word and his design for his church is hard. And though it is hard and unpleasant work, faithful churchmen must call to account those who would deviate from God’s blueprint for His church and her worship. 

Presbyterianism is pretty simple. As the name suggests, presbyters (elders) are essential to the church. Congregations elect qualified men to ensure that the means of grace (word, prayer, and sacraments) and discipline are maintained. These men—one or more of whom is an elder qualified and approved to preach—constitute the local session, and are accountable to higher courts that have the oversight of larger geographical areas (regional presbyteries and synods or general assemblies). The various local churches and courts are vitally connected primarily by a common confession of faith and a common church order—not primarily by experience or ardor (more about that later).
Bonds of love and trust between churches in a presbyterian denomination rely on common belief and common, accountable order. Essential to that order are the clear definitions of office and preaching. And this is why the fact that women are filling pulpits and expounding Scripture at the center of stated Lord’s Day worship services in the PCA is so troubling, and why it bodes so ill for the peace, purity, and sustainability of the PCA.
Yes, you heard correctly: Women have recently preached (by any commonsense definition of preaching) in PCA churches, and PCA women (including pastors’ wives) have preached in churches of other denominations. I will not post links to videos and websites here that prove this contention (though hundreds are aware of them and they are not hard to find), since there are active or pending complaints and communications about these incidents at presbytery levels. One thing is certain—you will hear about some of these cases before long.
Why is this happening? Previously-stated justifications given for women expounding the Scriptures during stated Lord’s Day worship services involve finely-drawn distinctions between teaching and preaching. Some have contended that there is nothing in our standards that absolutely says women cannot read, give the sense of, and apply Scripture during a worship service. They might even say that the Westminster Divines or authors of the PCA Book of Church Order never defined preaching as clearly as they should have.
Is it surprising that the divines did not defend truths and concepts that were not under attack, nor define subjects about which all 17th-century Christians were agreed? Likewise, one reasonably assumes that the founders of the PCA assumed that women would never be preaching in PCA churches so long as the office of elder was limited to men.
Why is it that women are barred from preaching in conservative Reformed churches? Our sisters can speak well and even produce impressive spiritual experiences when they speak. They can study and have biblical knowledge and wisdom just like men. So why not preach?
The short answer is that our scripturally-faithful books of order limit preaching to those men who are called and approved to the teaching office of elder, or else to those who are in training for the office and under the care of presbytery. The Larger Catechism provides some clarity:
Read More

Shall the Radical Contextualizers Win?

The antagonists in this ecclesial conflict are not conservatives vs. liberals, Christians vs. post-Christian pagans, or even confessionalists (broadly construed) vs. non-confessionalists. The conflict is between radical contextualizers on one hand and advocates of  simple, ordinary means-of-grace ministry, subject to the plain reading of the denomination’s standards on the other.

Revoice theology or the tenets of Side B celibate same-sex attracted Christianity are, at the same time new and not new. They are strikingly current and redolent of revivalism and of the theological liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Revoice and Side B do not seek to destroy Christianity or cripple the church. Rather (as with the liberals of yesteryear), they seek to save the church’s mission for a new generation and for some very specific segments of society.
A helpful shorthand term for the clunky  terms “Revoice theology” and “Side B celibate same-sex attracted Christianity” is Johnsonism, after the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Greg Johnson who personifies the movement. Surely there is range, lexical and doctrinal, in the movement—Greg Johnson is not Revoice and all Side B folk do not agree on every point. But just as Rosaria Butterfield represents one way of dealing with and speaking to believers who struggle with homosexual desires or sexual confusion, Johnson represents another.
Reading Johnson’s 2021 book Still Time to Care (an attack on conversion therapy and an appeal for compassionate ministry to gay Christians) is one way to understand Johnsonism, but now there is another: a very brief booklet meant to supplement the longer work called On Mission with the LGBTQ+ Community .  In barely seven pages of text Johnson has given us  “some thoughts on ministry to the LGBTQ+ community…and a lot of this is personal experience,” per his introductory Facebook post.
On Mission is Revoice applied, and it starts with Revoice. Johnson begins by recounting the opposition to the inaugural 2018 Revoice Conference (hosted by Johnson’s church—he also spoke at the conference) from the local homosexual activist community, who denounced the celibacy encouraged by Revoice, but quickly turns his shame guns to the right: “There is no community on the planet that longs more deeply for what only the gospel can give. But there is no community on earth that feels more threatened by biblical Christians.”
Biblical Christians are presumed guilty and Johnson has strategies to help the conservative church make amends. Johnson points to the Posture Shift curriculum which pretends to be a “missiological framework” for outreach to “nonstraight people,” but which reminds those versed in church history of the Social Gospel and the ethos of Protestant liberal missionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Posture Shift pithily exhorts:
Offer enhanced inclusion. Prove justice through visible care. Level the playing field. Collaborate. Be humble. Resist the theological hammer. Avoid trigger words/clichés. Never lead with theology. Avoid politics.
There is not much original there. In fact, the above sounds like a general primer on outreach to cities, college campuses, or culture-making leaders in the arts, business, and culture. Further, given the degree to which homosexuals have penetrated these elite circles, the overlap is natural: The culture is gay so you must be gay (in some way) to reach the culture.
From the familiar “for the city” tropes, Johnson turns to the insights of cross-cultural, international missions for help with mission to (or with , per the title) the LGBTQ+ community.  In quoting a missiologist Johnson clearly implies that the Western “sexual minorities” (many of whom enjoy great privilege and favor at the moment) are as different from conservative Christians as are tribal folk in New Guinea. The quoted missiologist mentions a number of sexual perversions that missionaries encounter in certain parts of the world. Somehow, the tolerant, gentle approach of missionaries to tribal people’s bizarre sexual mores is supposed to be helpful since missiology is “attentive both to the possibilities of syncretism with cultural ideology on the one end, and healthy contextualization on the other.”
Read More

Positive Schedule Changes for the 2022 PCA General Assembly

One permanent solution might be to amend the Rules of Assembly Operations to require the Stated Clerk to propose a docket with minimum amounts of business time for each day of the assembly. A formula requiring two to four hours of business on the first day, eight on the second, and eight before 6 pm on Thursday would guarantee several more hours for critical business than the most recent dockets have done.

The 2022 Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly promises to be jam-packed with drama and deliberation, but there’s good news—the schedule proposed by Stated Clerk Bryan Chapell ( packs in more than three hours of extra business prior to the always-stressful, open-ended Thursday night session. (Fifteen and a half hours of business are scheduled this year by 6 pm on Thursday, whereas only a bit more than 12 hours of business were docketed in 2021.)
Though some of that business time is taken up with required reports and such (as always), commissioners who dread the drama and mad dash that looms as the clock ticks on Thursday can expect that more time for business may equal less drama and an earlier conclusion. Thursday is typically the last day of business unless the Assembly bleeds over into Friday (a thing to be avoided since commissioner travel means Friday attendance is always diminished). In 2021 the Thursday evening session did run into Friday, ending at 12:43 am, but the Assembly did not have to reconvene on Friday.
The relatively small amount of business done on the Assembly’s first two days has irritated commissioners in previous years. In 2021, for instance, barely 6 hours of business was done between Tuesday (a half day) and Wednesday afternoon when business ended at 4:30 pm for a worship service. Wednesday nights are reserved for free time, mostly for parties and social events. It would seem to require little imagination to see why small-town pastors or ruling elders (by Wednesday in their third day of burned vacation or lost wages) would find the traditional Assembly schedule to be inefficient if not irrational. And by late Thursday night nearly everyone, teaching and ruling elders alike, has had enough of a long and trying day…trying to make up for lost time.
The new schedule is much better, but much more could be done. First, assuming everyone not on a committee understands that Monday is a travel day, business could begin earlier or go later on Tuesday. The next two suggestions touch the third rails of worship and party time. Doing business on Wednesday night would mean hours of extra business time at the expense of partying and socializing. Canceling any of the optional worship services (only the opening one which must include the Lord’s Supper is required by the Rules of Assembly Operations) would also free up time. Neither of these options would be popular, nor would cutting out the mini concerts often appended to at least one of the worship services. The PCA General Assembly is first a court of the church, but it has grown to be much more than that.
One permanent solution might be to amend the Rules of Assembly Operations to require the Stated Clerk to propose a docket with minimum amounts of business time for each day of the assembly. A formula requiring two to four hours of business on the first day, eight on the second, and eight before 6 pm on Thursday would guarantee several more hours for critical business than the most recent dockets have done.
Back to the present—this year’s schedule is a great improvement, though the improvement may not be apparent given the large amount of controversial and time-consuming business this year’s assembly almost certainly has in store. Hours will still be in short supply, and so may be the patience of the participants.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, and board member of MORE in the PCA.

A Word on Narratives

The reasonable conclusion in the case of the SSA controversy is that the innovators are the schismatic and contentious ones, not those who question them. It would be an unloving and cowardly act for those who oppose dangerous innovation, encroachments of the modern sexual revolution, and flawed concepts of identity and personhood to quit the fight before every effort has been made to preserve the church. If anyone leaves the PCA over these issues, it ought to be those who would turn the church upside down with new doctrine, not those who seek to preserve her in faithfulness.

Narratives are funny things, but there’s a certain consistency to them from decade to decade, even from century to century. In the organizational world (including the visible church), those persons, departments, coalitions, or factions perceived as narrow, precise, and conservative are usually considered to be less than ideal—not good for flourishing, to put it in 21st-century speak. Organizations, especially those structured along modern lines, seek self-perpetuation and growth. The biological-business concept “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” is modern conventional wisdom. And the acceptance of this wisdom is not confined to secular organizations.
A religious organization’s immune system—especially one informed by revivalism—may learn to react strongly against anything deemed narrow, precise, and conservative. Good intentions (reaching the lost, transforming the city, keeping the church alive, not “losing the young people”) create an exigent impulse to change, adapt, and innovate. As for those who question the wisdom or intentions of innovators; those who wave the standard of, well, the standards a little too vigorously; those who point back to history and raise the red flag—such persons are placed within the narrative under the label of “divisive.”
Conservatives are presumed divisive. While their efforts to slow the advance of innovators or erect fortifications of defense are considered inconvenient or unpleasant, any offensive action to push back an assault is met with howls of foul play and harsh condemnation. Conservatives are, the narrative goes, the problem, the obstacle to peace and flourishing. Such a thing is happening even now in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but there is ample evidence that the divisiveness is actually coming from the “progressive” or “beautifully orthodox” side, not from the conservative side.
For instance, in the PCA in 2022 a sizeable faction believe it is not just unenlightened but divisive to oppose the radically innovative “Side B” movement, which assumes homosexual attractions rarely change, accuses the church of horrific homophobia, and finds positive good in some aspects of homosexual culture and identity. This movement, personified by PCA minister Greg Johnson and embodied by the Revoice Conference, would be controversial enough if it involved only church members, but the Side B movement promotes full inclusion in church life, including all church offices and pastoral roles.
Promoting his new book (which promotes the idea that a number of famous 20th-century evangelicals would have warmly embraced Side B), Johnson has gone on the offensive against his conservative skeptics. And he does so not against evangelical Christians generally, but against a large majority of those commissioners to the last PCA General Assembly who voted for proposals (overtures) that would change the PCA constitution. These overtures (which may or may not receive the requisite two-thirds approval by PCA presbyteries—it’s very close) propose slight adjustment to passages about officer examinations and qualifications—changes that might make it easier for a conscientious presbytery or session to discern if a candidate holds views, maintains behaviors, or identifies in sinful ways. They are not radical, though Johnson worries that they will be used to “eliminate folks like [him].”
Read More

5 Presbyterian Predictions for 2022

So what will be the end of the matter, if end there be? Maybe cries of “Make presbyterianism boring again!” will reverberate in the cavernous GA hall as presbyters long for the day when some of these controversies are behind them.

Please forgive the fact that all of these very personal and very fallible prognostications concern the Presbyterian Church in America, which is, for better or worse, the 800-pound primate in the conservative Reformed room. Sturm und drang cloud the horizon as the personal becomes ecclesial and political, cultural warfare causes collateral damage in the church, and issues of identity (both human and denominational) perplex us. The following predictions are not pretty:
1. Thrown Into Confusion
PCA Overture 37 will fail to receive the requisite two-thirds vote of the presbyteries to bring it before the 2022 PCA General Assembly for final approval. And Overture 23 (which, like 37, concerns same-sex-attracted church officers) will pass or fail by a narrow margin of 1-5 presbyteries. This will confuse outsiders and PCA members, and it will confuse PCA sessions who are on the fence about their churches’ future in the PCA. Adding further confusion will be a raft of replacement overtures if both 23 and 37 fail. The outcome of the overtures votes and the prospect of prolonged conflict will prompt…
2. Reaffiliations and Rumors of Reaffiliations
There will be a few prominent and influential churches that will reaffiliate or begin the process of reaffiliation in 2022. However, it will likely be unclear until at least 2023 whether these leavers are lone (or local) dominoes, or are the sort that will lead to a larger and more consequential chain reaction—an exodus. The same forces that are driving churches from the Southern Baptist Convention and are causing splits in the Reformed Church in America and United Methodist Church can also be assumed to act on the PCA, though probably in slower and subtler ways. Those who might leave the PCA sooner rather than later over Revoice-related issues should reconsider because…
Read More

A Minute With the Minutes On Overtures 23 & 37

These numbers suggest that the “no” votes on the highly-contested, SSA-related overtures were disproportionately those of teaching elders. Of course, the reverse can also be assumed, that a disproportionate number of the “yes” voters were ruling elders…. Does this suggest a disconnect between pew and pulpit (RE/TE)? Or is it a metro/blue suburbs vs. rural/red suburbs disconnect? Or southeastern vs. the rest of the country (assuming more REs attend from the southeast)? There are likely many theories, no one of which explains all.

The recorded “no” votes on the controversial overtures 23 and 37 from the last Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly (PCAGA) are now available in the just-released minutes of the 2021 summer assembly. Recording of votes is optional and generally indicates strong feelings or convictions on a given issue or measure. One conclusion that might be drawn from these numbers is that teaching elders (TEs) in the PCA are far more likely to have strong feelings about these overtures than are ruling elders (REs).
Overture 23 had 1855 votes cast. It passed 1438-417 (71% for, 29% against). 137 “no” voters recorded their votes (33% of those against). Of that 137 only 18 (13%) were ruling elders. Ruling elders made up 25% of all commissioners (616 out of 2115 total elders).
Overture 37 had 1826 votes cast. It passed 1209-617 (66% for, 34% against). 177 “no” voters recorded their votes (29% of those against). Of that 177 only 18 (10%) were ruling elders. Again, ruling elders made up 25% of all commissioners.
These numbers suggest that the “no” votes on the highly-contested, SSA-related overtures were disproportionately those of teaching elders. Of course, the reverse can also be assumed, that a disproportionate number of the “yes” voters were ruling elders.
This is speculative, but if the recorded TE:RE “no” vote proportions are an accurate representation of all “no” voters it might be reasonable to suggest that approximately 55 ruling elders voted against overture 23 out of 616 in attendance. For overture 37 the number of total ruling elder “no” votes might have been around 62 out of 616 in attendance.
Does this suggest a disconnect between pew and pulpit (RE/TE)? Or is it a metro/blue suburbs vs. rural/red suburbs disconnect? Or southeastern vs. the rest of the country (assuming more REs attend from the southeast)? There are likely many theories, no one of which explains all.
The recorded “no” votes can be found on pages 89-99 of the 2021 GA minutes.
Brad Isbell is a Ruling Elder in Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tenn. This article is used with permission.

Splinter, Split, or Stay in the Fight?

The PCA is not rotten, not given over to unbelief. But the denomination, now almost 50 years old, has serious problems. And many within the PCA don’t want to wait until it’s too late, and so they consider their options. 

It is no secret that the Presbyterian Church in America is in turmoil. No one denies the existence of conflict and consternation. Though some consider the strife to be unjustified, even they do not believe the strife will soon cease or be easily resolved.
Let’s cut to the chase and say the quiet part out loud: There may come a time when the Presbyterian Church in America needs to split. But until that time comes it should not splinter.
Let’s consider the conflict, which is not altogether new and which has no single source. Presbyters with a historical bent may point to the diversity present in the PCA’s founding generation in 1973 and the decade that followed—a mixed multitude of seriously confessional Presbyterians, broad evangelicals, half-recovered quasi-Baptists, ill-taught presbyterian traditionalists, cultural conservatives troubled by the tumultuous 1960s, and Lost Cause Southerners. With such diversity of conviction, understanding, and affinity, is the current conflict any surprise? Having run this taxonomy by a diverse group of PCA folk, I am prepared to assert that the categories are largely correct; only the percentage distribution is in question.
Of course, the distinctions were (and are) not neat and tidy… there was a mixture within the mixture. And it’s impossible to understand and quantify individual Presbyterians who may not even have understood themselves. Nevertheless, many who love the PCA have spent a lot of time trying to describe the PCA in the interest of understanding, improving and preserving the denomination.
Retired pastor Tim Keller of Big Apple fame took a well-researched and thoughtful stab at explanatory categorization in 2010. Keller admitted at the outset that “This ‘big tent’ approach… sets the PCA up for conflict.” He largely employed and approved of church historian George Marsden’s “doctrinalist, pietistic and culturalist” breakdown. [1] Keller’s prescription for unity was maintaining a symbiotic balance between the three camps or “impulses”:
“The main way we could actually forge greater unity between ourselves is by letting some of the other branches’ emphases and strengths color, flavor, and affect our own approaches to doing ministry.”
Keller penned his diagnostic in 2010, the year the contentious and quietly revolutionary Strategic Plan was approved by the PCA General Assembly. The plan had been years in the making and before some of its more controversial corners of verbiage were rounded off it called for theological “safe places” where edgy things could be discussed without fear and for “more seats at the table” for women, minorities, and internationals. This plan seemed to predict the PCA racial reconciliation and women-in-ministry reports and movements that came in the second decade of the 21st century. What the plan did not predict was a little parachurch conference and concept that rocked the PCA like nothing that had come before: Revoice and “Side B gay Christianity.” If balance between doctrinalists, pietists and culturalists was ever possible, the 2018 Revoice Conference (and its PCA connections) wrecked whatever near-equilibrium or peace that had been achieved.
It has been difficult for many ordinary PCA members and officers to understand why the Revoice/Side B movement has become a must-have or a must-tolerate issue for some in the PCA—mostly pastors of the “missional” or city church kind. According to the Keller-Marsden model, it could be that those who want to reach the culture of cities (often dominated by homosexual-friendly artists, politicians, and elites) see Revoice/Side B as not only helpful but essential. The doctrinalists find much in, well, the doctrine of the Bible and the Westminster Standards to make them wary of if not hostile to the innovations. The pietists love conversion stories and may even appreciate “new measures,” but many are still ambivalent about the propriety of same-sex-attracted officers in the PCA. Maybe it all seems a bit sudden, out of the blue. Or left field.
Read More

Scroll to top