Two Of These Things Are Not Like The Others

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.

NOTE

* An earlier version of this essay confused Harry L. Reeder, III with Frank Barker.  The management regrets the error.

Resources

 

    Post authored by:

  • 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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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8 comments

  1. I’ve have always thought of the NP as a kind of “cabal” trying to carry out a clandestine project while the GRN et al are above board and take a public stance whether you agree with that stance or not. On a recent episode of Presbycast, a guest who had grown up in the PCUSA, describes the many agendas active in that group, but they all were public in what they were up to – newsletters, public events, etc. It’s too bad that in the supposed confessionally reformed PCA not all want to function where all can see.

    This is an adversarial approach (the NP approach) and such an approach to power and influence can only have one telos or goal: to defeat the opponent and win what they see as a the battle against the opponent. It sees everyone outside as the enemy and does serious damage to basic and clear biblical values. Not good for reformed polity.

    We are all sinners and can find ourselves glaring at the “other side” but I pray that the GRN and others can void functioning in such a way and that the NP will be above board in its agenda.

  2. If the NP didn’t have something untoward that they wanted to conceal, one would think they would be stung by the criticism they now receive and come out of the shadows. That seems like a small thing but I suppose when compared with what the sanitizing effect that the light would have, their reticence is entirely understandable.

    • John 18:20  Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.

  3. A couple of comments:

    1) News about the National Partnership broke in March 2013 as reported on the Aquila Report: https://theaquilareport.com/national-partnership-a-new-group-in-the-pca/

    So the recent leaks of NP emails only reveal what was going on for seven or eight years. I don’t think that too many people took this seriously when the story broke. Consequently the National Partnership grew numerically and has exerted enormous control over the denomination through its agencies and committees.

    2) The National Partnership was secretive from the beginning. The initial letter inviting people to join was sent out by George Robertson. It ended with this paragraph of legal threats that the contents were confidential and/or privileged.

    It begs credulity to send out such an email and later claim that it was all innocent, never intended to be secretive or subversive.

    • I’d like other peoples’ opinions. At this point should we consider members of the National Partnership to be brothers in Christ?

  4. Scott,

    There is nothing partisan about distributing something freely and openly (such as the Federalist papers, or when I publish an article or book, or when you post something on Heidelblog); there is something partisan about intentionally excluding some church-officers from communications that go to other church-officers. If one has wisdom to share, he should share it with all; if one has historical or theological insight to share, he should share it with all. Solomon had little good to say about private communications:

    A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. Prov. 16:28
    For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. Prov. 26:20

    T. David

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