Splinter, Split, or Stay in the Fight?

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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