As they used to say on Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the others…”. That is the question raised by an article in byFaith, the official magazine of the PCA, which seeks to quiet the furor over the formerly secret network, The National Partnership, by trying to persuade PCAers that the National Partnership (NP) is just like other organizations, such as More in the PCA (MPC) and the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN). The thesis of the article is that there should no controversy over the NP because it is just one of several networks in the PCA and each of them, in it own way, is seeking to persuade the PCA to go in a certain direction.
Public Versus Private
Does this thesis hold, does it adequately explain the evidence? Are these organizations essentially the same? I think not. The first organization the author, a contributor to the NP, highlights is the GRN. The author describes the GRN as “the biggest and best known” of the networks in the PCA. Perhaps but is it the most influential? It is well known because, unlike the NP, the GRN has done its work in public. The GRN has a public website, a council, and an Executive Coordinator, Jon Payne, Senior Pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA) in Charleston, SC, a friend whom I have interviewed for the Office Hours podcast a few times. See the resources below for one these interviews. Jon says that response to the formation of the GRN has been very strong, that their conferences have been well attended and viewed by thousands who were not able to attend in-person.
The council is composed of the following men:
- Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary
- Rev Jason Helopoulos, Senior Pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, MI
- Rev. Dr. Richard D. Phillips, Senior Minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC
- Rev. Dr. David T. A. Strain, Senior Minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS
- Mr. Melton L. Duncan, Ruling Elder and Church Administrator of Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC
- Rev. Dr. David B. Garner, David Garner is Academic Dean, Vice President of Global Ministries, and Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
- Rev Dr Harry L. Reeder III, Senior Pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL.*
See the resources below for more on the GRN.
More in the PCA is a public organization led by PCA RE Charlie Nave, who is given a byline on the first post (from 2017) on the MPC site.
Both MPC and the GRN are registered nonprofit organizations. Strangely, defenders of the NP have highlighted this fact as though it were a bad thing. As a longtime employee (and sometime administrator of a nonprofit) and now as the president of a nonprofit organization I wonder if those who make such arguments know much about how the nonprofit world actually works? It means the board and administrators of the organizations are accountable not only as individuals to their sessions and presbyteries but they are accountable corporately to the secretaries of state in which they are incorporated and to the IRS.
We presume that the leadership and members of the NP are accountable to their sessions and presbyteries but if a secret organization falls in the forest, does a session or presbytery hear it? We search in vain for a public website for the NP or a public list of directors or officers. Indeed, the NAPARC world did not learn that the NP existed, what they hoped to accomplish, and how they were going about it until someone leaked a cache of secret emails.
The author mentions another network hitherto unknown to this writer: The Fellowship. The author writes,
A third network, The Fellowship, seeks to influence the PCA less formally. Mike Khandjian, senior pastor of Chapelgate Presbyterian Church near Baltimore, and the early leader of the group, describes The Fellowship as “a community of encouragement that reflects the joy and freedom in the gospel that the PCA was always intended to express.”
Like the NP, The Fellowship has no website but neither has it a cache of secret emails leaked to the public.
The author mentions some earlier networks in the PCA, e.g., Concerned Presbyterians and Presbyterian Churchmen United, which helped to form the PCA but the author omits two important precursors to the NP: 1) Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together (PPT), though not formally a PCA organization PPT was dominated by PCA Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders. It reflected the same sort of ethos and program that one associates with the NP. 2) In 2020, Brad Isbell reminded us that before the NP was the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network, led by Bryan Chapell. I seem to recall learning about the existence of the PPNL in the pages of the now defunct Presbyterian and Reformed News.
Informing And Persuading Whom?
The author argues that these organizations are all trying to do essentially the same thing but are they really? He argues that they are all trying to inform and persuade the PCA to adopt a particular view of the PCA and pursue a particular vision. Perhaps but MPC and GRN have a publicly-stated agenda. The GRN has held public conferences, written public articles, and done public interviews to try to persuade the PCA to steer a confessional course. The other organizations are certainly trying to persuade people: those who have been invited to a private organization or given the login credentials to a secret website. These are both forms of persuasion but they are not the same forms of persuasion.
The GRN and MPC are open, public invitations, in the first instance to REs, TEs to read, learn, and grow together in our shared Reformed faith as confessed in the Westminster Standards. MP is devoted specifically and publicly to increasing attendance of confessionally orthodox REs to the General Assembly. E.g., they just announced that they want to bring 100 REs to this year’s GA.
Not All Networks Are Networks
I lived and ministered in the Kansas City metro for six years. For four of those years we lived in Gladstone, Missouri, a little suburb on the north end of the metro. What we did not know when we moved there but discovered while we lived there is that it was influenced by a network of sorts. Right after we moved in one of our neighbors told me, “We don’t lock our doors here. We don’t have any crime.” I found that puzzling but I soon found out why. Our little town was the home of the Kansas City mafia. The Don, the paterfamilias, lived just southeast of us a bit. In the interests of probity I will only say that I knew a guy who knew a guy who was a retired hitman, who lived just south of Gladstone. I recall eating at one of our favorite BBQ restaurants one hot July evening (the significance of which you will see momentarily) when in walked several men all dressed in long, black overcoats. They disappeared into a private room. As soon as I saw them I realized that these were not the sorts of fellows at which one stares. There was no crime in Gladstone because the criminals knew better. The mob bosses lived in Gladstone and worked, as it were, in Kansas City. Indeed, it was quite shocking when, in 1990, the informant Larry Strada was shot to death in front of his home after testifying against the mob. That sort of thing did not happen in Gladstone or in the surrounding Kansas City North area. All this to say, the mafia is a kind of network. It lives and works in the shadows.
I confess that, while I lived in Kansas City I too was a part of a network. It is known as the Kiwanis Club. I attended most Wednesdays with one of my ruling elders, Bill Sanders. We met for lunch with businessmen, talked about ways to improve North Kansas City, and held an annual pancake breakfast fundraiser.
The GRN is a network. It has the word network in the title of the organization. The PPLN and later the NP are also networks but they are not the same sorts of networks. The Aquila Report has published some of 2017 emails from the NP by Mike Khandjian, who also happens to have been the organizer of the The Fellowship. In those emails we see Khandjian whipping votes, i.e., getting people to vote a certain way on certain issues at GA and promoting, among others, Michelle Higgins (who is now the Rev Michelle Higgins, Senior Pastor of St John’s UCC, St Louis) and Rankin Wilbourne, now the former pastor of Pacific Crossroads Church, in the LA Metro.
Naturally, human organizations have some shared characteristics but it is important to look beneath the surface and to consider clearly, in light of facts and logic, the nature of the various organizations being compared. In that way this essay is less an argument for one side or the other (although my sympathies clearly lie with the Gospel Reformation Network and More in the PCA) and more an opportunity for PCA laity, REs, and TEs to practice critical thinking skills as they consider the future of their denomination.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
* An earlier version of this essay confused Harry L. Reeder, III with Frank Barker. The management regrets the error.
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- Podcast: Riding With CW: The Demise of the Overtures | January 23, 2022
- Podcast: Riding With CW: Follow Up and Fatal Indicators | January 24, 2022
- Todd Pruitt, Making Sausage With the National Partnership
- I. C. Light, The RealPolitik of the National Partnership