Brad Isbell

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…
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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.
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Smells Like Party Spirit

What did eight years of organizational communication reveal? Well, thankfully, nothing terribly personal or scandalous — what has become public is mostly political. The messages show a highly-organized group comprised almost exclusively of pastors (teaching elders in PCA parlance). There are members, though how one becomes a member or who decides is never revealed. What the members received was lots of advice about how to get on committees deemed strategically important, how to vote on issues essential to the Partnership’s agenda, and who to vote for. This may sound banal, even benign, but the courts of the church are meant to be open, deliberative assemblies…,

Have you ever ended up at a party and felt as if you didn’t really belong? It may be that you had a right to attend that party. You had an invitation of sorts, but you didn’t really feel welcome and you didn’t really fit in. Things happened that seem to be guided by some unseen hand. Maybe people were dancing, but you knew none of the steps. You were at the party, but somehow not of the party. It’s almost as if there was a party behind the party.
To be honest, this is a bit how it feels for the ruling elder or small church pastor who finds himself at the big party-event known as the annual Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly. He comes ready to deliberate and vote, but something seems off, predetermined, stage-managed. The moderator (a powerful position) seems to have been preselected, for instance, often without opposition. An elite group appears to control things.
Maybe the elder tries to write off the sensation, chalking it up to his own inexperience, but the nagging feeling persists. He’s heard of shadowy groups who communicate by Facebook Messenger and marshal votes and voters. Commissioners stream in right before important votes as if by magic. How, he wonders, can they have an opinion on how to vote if they have not heard the debate? Is the General Assembly really a deliberative assembly as it’s supposed to be… like the local session and presbytery with which he’s familiar?
Now imagine that lowly elder’s reaction when he learns that rumors of a powerful party behind the party are true. The National Partnership is now out in the open, though not by its own design or on its own terms.
However one feels about the way the email cache (dubbed #PresbyLeaks) of the “confidential” group was revealed and distributed, it must be admitted that these emails (now surely viewed by thousands) contain troubling information.
What did eight years of organizational communication reveal? Well, thankfully, nothing terribly personal or scandalous — what has become public is mostly political. The messages show a highly-organized group comprised almost exclusively of pastors (teaching elders in PCA parlance). There are members, though how one becomes a member or who decides is never revealed. What the members received was lots of advice about how to get on committees deemed strategically important, how to vote on issues essential to the Partnership’s agenda, and who to vote for. This may sound banal, even benign, but the courts of the church are meant to be open, deliberative assemblies where issues and members are judged on their merits, not the advice of an unofficial council. Inordinate control of any court by a secretive group with no public face and no accountability runs counter to presbyterian principles.
One test of behavior and tactics in a church court is to ask the question: Is it scalable? In his magisterial commentary on the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Book of Church Order, the late Dr. Morton Smith wrote that though the courts of the church are graded, “all of these ‘courts’ are really presbyteries, each being composed exclusively of elders. One of the important implications of this fact is that all of the courts are of the same nature. The gradation is not based upon any hierarchy or office, but rather only on the portion of the Church that is represented.” If this is true, then what is appropriate for one court is appropriate for another. Do we really believe that a secret, well-organized faction, communicating and scheming privately and independently of other members of a local session or presbytery is conducive to harmony, unity, and understanding? Most elders would be horrified to think that members of a local church session would behave that way, so why would it be appropriate in the church’s highest court?
And what if a local church session or a presbytery witnessed members loitering in the hallway for large portions of a meeting, only to be summoned in by e-mail or text message in time to vote on something “really” important, their presence not be required for minor issues or maybe even for the debate on “important” issues?
Most would agree that such behavior is unseemly. The members of presbytery or the local session would likely lose respect for the lobby-lingerers and those who electronically summon them. Mistrust would ensue. And elders would lose faith in the system and each other. Sadly, the National Partnership’s emails reveal just such a scenario.
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