An Illuminating Analysis Of The PCA GA Vote On Overtures 23 And 37

PCA Ruling Elder Brad Isbell, co-host of the Presbycast podcast has published a brief but illuminating analysis of the vote, at the 2021 PCA General Assembly, on overtures 23 and 37.

He writes, “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.” Read more»

NOTE

1. Overture 23:

Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.

2. Overture 37:

In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, Presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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23 comments

    • Nancy,

      I’ve added the text of the two overtures to the post. The quotation, however, of Brad’s article is only part of what he wrote. The rest of his article is at the Aquila Report.

  1. The numbers which would have been really informative would have been a breakdown of how many REs voted for and against each overture vs. how many TEs voted for an against each overture. It has been implied that REs are more conservative and thus would have voted in a greater proportion for these overtures than against as compared to the TEs. It would be interesting to find out for sure. I would also be interested in knowing how many yes vs. no voters were Covenant Theological Seminary graduates.

  2. It is important to remember that the 2021 PCA GA was held in St Louis, home of Greg Johnson and the Missouri Presbytery (MOP). Each overture had 18 RE “no” votes, and as RE GA participation is low as a percentage of PCA REs, it seems likely that many (if not most) of those 18 RE were from the MOP. In the past the MOP has sought to vigorously protect its own when outside charges threaten a TE, e.g., FV-ist Jeff Meyers. It would therefore be very surprising if the MOP and NP did not do all possible to defeat the two overtures; having as many MOP REs at GA would be part of that.

  3. I was wondering: why does the apparent disconnect between TE’s and RE’s actually exist? Paul appeals to us to “be of the same mind.” I believe this applies to more than just the gospel. Is it that there’s no worthy discussion between them? These men who have such great authority in the Church can’t possibly have such a great divide over something so seemingly obvious to the untrained laity.
    I encountered a young third year (on-line) CTS seminary student and had a brief but revealing chat about the issue concerning MOP/SSA/Greg Johnson. He stated he had never heard of either, and this was way after the 2021 GA.
    All opinions/polls/numbers aside, this bothers me.

    • What seems to have evolved into conventional wisdom is the so-called theological divide between TEs and REs. I have not seen any numbers that are convincing. The TEs have voted down any number of overtures that would make it easier for REs to attend and/or vote at General Assembly. It is unquestionable that there are many more TEs at GA. Therefore it is concluded that the progressive drift in the PCA is due to the TEs and that more REs voting would necessarily move things in a more confessional direction. I’m not convinced that logic is sound. I would say that most sessions have RE’s who substantially agree with the TE. If that weren’t the case, I think we would see more disharmony within our sessions but we don’t.

  4. Being from the outside looking in, and coming from a non denominational Baptist church, of the “plurality of elders” type, I’m curious that if there is a division of essential theological/doctrinal issues (and I know they do exist) between TE’s and RE’s, how is it that they are resolved within the WCF, and is this where the GFS comes into play?

    • Nick: You insist that there is a division on theological/doctrinal issues between TEs and REs. Where is your evidence? If there is a division, I see it more in the realm of polity where the TE’s have made it difficult for there to be a parity of representation at GA. That doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is a theological divide. The simple explanation may be that the TEs are reluctant to share power.

      • Bob,

        It seems reasonably clear that, when more REs show up to presbytery/GA, those bodies vote more conservative/confessionally. When they don’t, those bodies tend to vote more “progressively.” That seems to suggest a theological divide.

    • Bob,

      Theory: conflict is contrary to the culture of the PCA. It’s a Southern church. I’m not a sociologist nor an expert on Southern culture(s) but my perception is that, in the South(east), conflict is conducted behind the scenes not out in the open. By contrast, in some cultures, conflict is conduct out in the open for everyone to see. I see that difference between Omaha and Lincoln. The latter is am All-American, plain vanilla, Methodist-dominated city where open conflict is discouraged. When I worked in radio in Lincoln it was a rule or well known that it would be difficult to do traditional talk where hosts provoke and callers respond and argue. That’s just not Lincoln. Everyone knows everyone and it’s a small town (now of 300K). Omaha is ethnically diverse and more culturally accepting of open disagreement.

      I think sessions are like Lincoln and Presbyteries/GA are more like Omaha. Further, at Presbytery and GA TEs are likely to dominate and thus it is not one TE versus a session but a majority of TEs versus a minority of our REs.

      In short: group dynamics.

  5. Dr. Clark: If REs are really only comfortable in the friendly confines of their own session then I really don’t see how they will ever have much influence at the presbytery/GA level.

    • Bob,

      This is the work of groups such as MORE in the PCA, to help REs understand the important role they have in the preservation and Reformation of the PCA.

      It takes years sometimes for people to see what’s going on around them. People are busy raising kids and working. Let’s pray that the laity and the REs are or become aware of the important questions before the PCA.

  6. This brings me back to a question I always end up asking: Is it not ironic that it falls to REs and the laity to drag the TEs kicking and screaming back toward orthodoxy? It begs another question: Is a seminary education really beneficial when viewed in its totality?

    • Bob,

      I’m not in the PCA but I don’t have the impression that REs are being dragged as awakened. As Brad Isbell has noted, TEs get paid to go to Presbytery and GA. REs don’t. REs have to take vacation time or even close their businesses to attend to presbytery/GA. They face some structural/inherent problems that TEs don’t.

      The de facto congregationalism in the PCA also works against REs being aware of what’s going on. I recall hearing the story, from some who were involved at the presbytery, of a PCA congregation where the REs did not know that they were PCA. The TE didn’t tell them. They discovered that they were PCA when they had trouble with the TE and one of them stumbled upon the BCO. Then they contacted the presbytery and began to find resolution. This might be an extreme case but it’s indicative of the degree to which it is possible to isolate REs from the broader/higher assemblies.

      This is especially true when all the members from whom the leadership is drawn are new converts or evangelicals new to the Reformed faith, where the congregation is not self-consciously Reformed, where its Reformed theology, piety, & practice is intentionally hidden. This is not uncommon among those attracted to the pragmatic church-growth model.

    • Dr. Clark mentioned this: “…a PCA congregation where the REs did not know that they were PCA. The TE didn’t tell them.”

      It’s not just one church. I also know of a PCA church where most members are unaware the church is a member of the PCA and it is very unlikely that the eldership either knows or cares that they are in the PCA. The church has fairly recently put the PCA logo on its church sign, but that was after calling a new pastor, and the new pastor doesn’t have much more interest in the denomination than the previous pastor. My guess is he wanted to make clear for those who see the sign that the church is not in the PC(USA), but perhaps I am being overly charitable. I know numerous people in that church, but I don’t know anyone in the church who would be able to define the words “Reformed” or “Calvinist,” and I don’t know of anyone in the church who has read the Westminster Confession or Catechisms. Many probably don’t know they exist.

      This sort of thing may be extreme, but it is more common in the PCA than most conservatives realize.

      It’s one thing to be “evangelical first, Reformed second.” I get it that there are people who think confessional Calvinists are too narrow and more interested in the confessions than in the Scriptures. There’s a place for that sort of nonconfessional approach to church life in the EPC and ECO, where such approaches are welcome and encouraged.

      It’s something very different when members of a PCA church have never had it explained to them what the word “Reformed” means and do not even know the church is a member of the PCA. I think most EPCs and many, perhaps most, ECOs are better than that.

      The question can fairly be asked why a church like that doesn’t become an independent evangelical church, where it would have plenty of company. It’s not like a PCA loses its property when it leaves the denomination, or that the pastor is getting denominational mission money (in the case of two pastors like this who I know, both are serving self-supporting churches that receive no money from the denomination). It’s not like the name “Presbyterian” is an advantage — the brand has been badly damaged by the PC(USA) and many evangelicals are turned off by the name “Presbyterian” on a church sign, assuming all Presbyterians are liberals.

      I really don’t see why pastors like this and churches like this want to be in the PCA when they’d do just as well as a nondenominational church, and have a name on the church sign that doesn’t include the word “Presbyterian” and would more effectively reach the people they want to reach.

    • Dr. Clark: I think you may have misunderstood my point. I was making the point that it is ironic that REs and the laity are being called upon to bring the TEs back toward orthodoxy when one should expect the TEs to be the example of orthodoxy given their education.

  7. Bob/Dr. Clark,
    My premise was to inquire how the theological/doctrinal differences are resolved. Resolution of these things must be foremost in the minds of those who profess Christ, and yes, it could take a long period of time.
    Please remember that I’m a newbie to intricacies of the PCA’s polity and practice. The questions I ask are not meant to arouse quarrels. I come here simply because I find both Dr. Clark and you to be an honest display of both Scriptural and doctrinal knowledge and congeniality. My apologies.
    If I may, the reluctance of any TE to “share power” is by definition a theological/doctrinal issue, and to be more precise, could be an effort to “lord it over” those who are not elevated to such a prominent position, which is in no uncertain terms, sin.
    Mea Culpa.

  8. Brad’s conclusion that the “no” votes were disproportionately TEs is not supported by the evidence he offers. Asking to have a vote recorded is an action that is only likely to be taken by those very experienced with the policy of the PCA. I am hardly speculating when I say that TEs are on average more experienced with the polity of the PCA than REs (though perhaps the REs at GA are not representative). If TEs are more likely to ask for their vote to be recorded then it is incorrect to assume that the proportion of REs in recorded votes equals the proportion of REs who voted no.

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