Why would anyone spend all those hours in deliberation and debate and votes and call it “church”?
I spent most of my years as a pastor in the independent church world. For the outsider, that means that every problem must be solved by the local congregation and only the local congregation. Period.
I sojourned briefly in the “restoration movement” of gifted leaders (small “a” apostles) who oversee local congregations. Such gifted leaders have broad authority to fix problems and tell churches what to do. Unlike true apostles, these “apostolic leaders” are self-sent. Contrary to the church’s beliefs of 1700 years, these men believe that they may “rule” the church without for formal affirmation of the congregation. I left them because of high handed abuse of their authority.
Now I am a Presbyterian.
What is that, you ask?
That means two things: first, leadership and authority in the church rest with elders (presbyters). The church appoints elders based upon know character and gifts. Elders are accountable for their character and beliefs.
Second, it also means that individual churches are formally connected to other churches. This is more than association. No church is alone. The elders of churches in a region are a church when they gather. They have oversight of their member churches and elders. And the elders of all the churches in the denomination meet as a church. They have oversight of the entire denomination.
People ask: Why did you become a Presbyterian?
One answer is that I value being in a form of government that based upon hundreds of years of dealing with the bad things people can do. It is wise and realistic. No one is striving to create a true NT church.
Granted it is anything but perfect, but it is incrementally better than what I saw in the independent and “apostolic” world. Presbyterianism developed as a reform of the errors in the church. It was a return to the way things had been for hundreds of years.
You may ask, Then how does one group of churches join together in this way?
The answer is very simple: we form a denomination as we confess to a common statement of our beliefs. We agree to honor a way of being the church. That means we are accountable to our agreed upon statement of beliefs.
Those beliefs and rules are not overly detailed but they are substantive. No one can make up their own rules. And changing the rules is a group decision. No one can go rogue without being escorted to the door. That is not because we have “apostles” with that authority but because we have united around agreement in faith. Breaking that agreement means no loner being part of our denomination.
So why is this good? Layers of authority.
First for me: it means that when elders do bad things, there is a way to set it right. Every member has a right to get the help of the authorities over their church. If you believe your elders sinned or you were wronged, you have recourse. You should never hear from your elders, “It’s my way or the highway.”
In my independent church days, there were occasional insoluble problems. They often blew up people and churches. I was an eyewitness to the rise of theAmerican CEO/celebrity pastor who determined everything. They are unaccountable except to themselves.
So why is this good? Respect and change.
Second, it means change requires respect for the others who have made a commitment to the same rules and beliefs. Change requires significant agreement. That is obtained by deliberation and debate. It sounds simple but it is not — everyone is prejudiced, has blind spots, and has holes in their commitment to the common faith and way of doing church.
If you are following my thinking you will realize that when you have a denomination of almost 400,000 members with 2000 churches, all that accountability and improvement and clarification is a complex process — and a very slow process. You have to keep the rules while you seek to change the rules.
That many people involved also means it is a flawed process. You have to have rules (yes, Mr Roberts is the dude who guides us) because how else can more than 2000 people debate and deliberate? Three cheers for our Moderator.
How does this relate to the General Assembly?
General Assembly is a gathering of the elders of the national church. It is where the whole denomination, represented in its elders, faces complaints and wrongs done in the church. Together we pursue accountability. Together we make changes to improve or clarify of our beliefs and practices. General Assembly is a gathering of the church.
Because this is the church, the people of God.
No, it is not sexy, nor experientially awe-inspiring. But neither is changing diapers, doing dishes, or paying rent — yet, they are part of this wonderful thing called marriage and family.
Upholding our convictions from Scripture is good. Following processes that are designed to create just and agreeable solutions is worth all the effort. Designed I say, not a guarantee.
GA: The “sides”
Being newer to the PCA, I enter a denomination where there are “sides.” One group pulls us toward robust confessionalism. The other toward engagement with the modern world. Another group seems committed to be non-reactive to modern issues. The other wants us to be more up to date.
I am on neither side. That is because each side is a package deal and I reject parts of the package. Making sweeping generalizations about the other side is divisive and lazy.
I reject “either-or” arguments. That is a logical fallacy of the excluded middle. I want to be confessionally loyal and communicate well to our post-post-Christian society. I want a way of doing church that is not reactive nor stuck in the previous centuries.
GA: The critics
Post GA I have tracked some of the responses.
It seems there are radicals who want to blow it all up — and have rule by diktat based on the moral cause of the day.
There are others who spend their days finding fault with other men of good faith, pointing out all the slippery slopes everyone is on.
And there are people who want to write the whole story as though this year’s GA is the last chapter (e.g. PCA does not care about abuse victims because we did not pass mandated background checks, or allow testimony from unbelievers in church courts).
And then there are the outsiders misrepresent what actually took place.
My response: GA, the church addressing wrong doing.
First, in line with my first reason above, we have a group of elders who receive complaints and accusations against elders. If someone is not satisfied with the verdicts of the church or regional church, they can bring it to this group. It is like a court, but in the church.
The men on the commission have the highest integrity. They make hard calls. Reading through their report, I saw their integrity again.
One of their decisions was controversial this year. What is remarkable to me is that people who have 10% of the information in the confidential 1900 page transcript of the trial seem to be certain of their conclusions when they disagree with those who gave a week of their lives to do the trial.
We have flaws. I am among those who think our rule book (called the Book of Church Order) is sometimes vague, needs updating of language, and requires inside knowledge to use when facing complex situations. On the other hand, it is clear that the men who serve in this role know it well.
This year’s GA: discerning what needs to be said that is not already said.
For the last few years, our church has faced its own sins. Racism was practiced and endorsed in some churches and by some leaders.
We have labored for clarity and nuance in addressing issues in our culture of liberation. This began with addressing the distinctions of male and female in the home and the church. Our modern sexual revolution raised has questions about sexuality and identity not known to our forefathers. We have addressed these. And, as with other churches, we face the dreadful reality of elders and others abusing the vulnerable.
This year some of us hope we have finalized a response to the issue of sexuality. It took years to do so. Why so long? It is not easy to uphold the grace of God to all people, no matter what their sin — and to uphold the nature of supernatural transformation into the maturity and character required to be a leader in the church. Reacting and over reaction are easy.
Now we face the hard work of refining our processes for dealing with abuse. That includes everything from protecting the victim, to insuring impartiality, to determining what witnesses are acceptable. And there is more.
Proposal, debates, deliberation, and clarification are how this gets worked out.
This all takes time. It requires debate.
It was clear that there is no “control” of the debate. Rules keep us from ranting or slandering. But beyond that, people speak freely. I heard arguments on all sides of issues.
After sitting through hours of deliberations, it is clear that people listened and changed their minds. Other people reveal the flaws in one’s arguments.
I personally wrote two of the Overtures for this year — both designed to provide protections to all parties in cases of abuse. I am so glad neither of them passed. It was obvious that they were terribly flawed and would have created more problems than they solved. They were sent back for more work, not because people do not care, but because they care enough to do it right.
The process of refining and perfecting is so very slow.
Debate and personal growth in love
The process of argument and deliberation is terribly sanctifying.
I found myself not just disagreeing with things said but wondering about the intelligence of moral character of the person saying it. My heart leaned toward censoriousness. That is not a right response.
Love covers a multitude of sins in the midst of open arguments. Our own Arizona churches spent 3 hours in open debate on these issues. What I learned is that no one disagreed on the principles. We disagreed about whether we need to add new words to our standards and how to do it. And we committed to walk away as brothers.
I am not sure if the Moderator of debates can control this, but I would suggest certain brothers voluntarily limit their time at the mic. Really. Some men spoke to much and I got to know them so well I thought of sending them a Christmas card. Defer to each other includes letting others speak. Go to the back of the line.