Hammers And Nails (And PCA Overtures)

Prior to the 21st century, it was not uncommon for one’s elders in home, church, or community to have a significant influence on one’s attitudes, beliefs, and general outlook on life. If Marc Prensky was right (I believe he was), this changed in the early 21st century, which witnessed the bifurcation in our culture of what he called “digital immigrants” (people who grew up without the digital environment and later “immigrated” to using them) and “digital natives” (who grew up in the digital environment and were shaped by it).1 One’s “significant others” among the immigrants tended to be one’s extended circle of friends and families, including significant others who were a generation or two older. Among the digital natives, who from an early age are in nearly-constant contact with their generational peers, their “significant others” tend to be their contemporaries. As Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein observed, young people now develop in what he called a “generational cocoon,” isolated substantially from the influence of older generations.2

One result of this cultural shift (unmentioned by Prensky) is that the accrued cultural wisdom once passed along via oral wisdom plays a much smaller role in the development of digital natives. I still appreciate that oral heritage and its influence on me; much, if not most, of such oral cultural wisdom had stood the test of time, and existed precisely because it contained memorable observations about what is enduringly human, whether about our better traits or our worse ones. I noticed that my Millennial students were largely unexposed to this heritage, and when I would mention once-commonplace bits of such a heritage in class without comment, my students looked as perplexed in my regular classes as my first-year Greek students looked when I introduced the Greek alphabet.

It did my students little good, for instance, for me to observe in an appropriate circumstance: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Not only were they unfamiliar with the saying, some were (I fear) unfamiliar with hammers or nails. The saying is still true, however, and it explains many of the peculiar aspects of our shared human condition. It still informs my (limited and jaundiced) viewpoint on the church courts in general, and therefore those in the PCA, wherein I have been either a ruling elder or a teaching elder for four decades. Frequently, over those forty years, overtures have been offered with whose intention I have been in substantial or even entire agreement, but whose adoption I have opposed, because the problem was not a nail and the solution was not a hammer.

In a culture of 24-hour news, the actions (or inactions) of various governing bodies (especially legislative ones) are incessantly reported to us. Frequent attention to the actions of such bodies may lead us, unwittingly, to the conclusion that their actions are important. In actual fact, their actions are less important than we often think. I occasionally smoke a Cuban cigar, for instance (now legal, if purchased overseas). But for nearly thirty years, I smoked an occasional Cuban cigar when doing so was not legal. President Kennedy’s embargo was dubious in its own day, entirely irrelevant after the removal of missiles from Cuba, and even more so after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the embargo greatly affected the Cubans for worse. But the embargo injured us in the United States far more by our moving from cane sugar to corn sugar (which made us obese) than it did by reducing our consumption of Cuban cigars. My palate dictates my smoking behaviors; laws do not (though said laws may cause me to disguise Cuban cigars with Nicaraguan bands).

Messrs. Castro and Kennedy have had little direct impact on PCA deliberations, but the mere fact that they were involved in government and drew attention to themselves in their respective roles therein, probably has had an impact on PCA deliberations. Lawmakers believe every problem has a legislative solution; were this not so (and it is not so), their labors would be quixotic (and they are ordinarily quixotic). Our influence on the behavior of other human beings is, in fact, slight; but more importantly, such influence is of three kinds, not one. We may influence by example, by moral suasion (reasoned discourse), or by coercion (legislation). The hammer of coercion is not the only tool in our toolbox, nor is it ordinarily the most effective. If we pause to think about the positive influence of others on our own lives we will realize that we have been deeply and helpfully influenced by examples of people who characteristically handled life gracefully and uprightly. We have also been deeply and helpfully influenced by those whose patient reasoning and evidence has sometimes convinced us of better ways of understanding some aspects of life. Legislators, by contrast, have had little positive influence on us; their influence is ordinarily non-existent or negative.

Among our many PCA imperfections is the reality that our Constitution is a moving target, a chameleon, a will-o’-the-wisp (choose your preferred metaphor; the reptilian one appeals to me). Other Presbyterian and Reformed communions adopt a constitution from the many that have served Presbyterians in the past, and simply live with it. If, every half-century or so, an enduring defect is perceived, a constitutional revision committee is appointed, and a half-decade or so later the proposed revision is either adopted or rejected. Our constitution, by contrast, is not permanently bound, but “bound” in a loose-leaf “binder” (which is no binder at all). We are tempted, therefore, to believe that since we have an ever-moving constitution, the solution to every imperfection is constitutional. It is not. Christ-like example, and reasonable discussion of the rich truths of our Holy Scriptures (or even of general revelation) are also means of influence.

I gave no speech at Presbytery (or in the digital or hard-copy press) about the recently-proposed overtures (23 and 37), nor did I vote; I abstained from voting or saying anything, until now, when it is irrelevant to do so. I leave such to those who wish to influence others via coercion; I myself have little desire (and no ability) to do so. It is not irrelevant, however, to remind gently that adding another constitutional hoop to the already-labyrinthian list required by BCO 21-4 would not guarantee that anyone would jump through it. And I hope it is neither irrelevant nor impertinent to remind gently that Christian example or moral suasion are also valid means of influence. The proposed constitutional amendments were designed as means to achieving certain ends; they were not and are not the only means.

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.


1 “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” 2001, privately published, but widely available as a PDF on the Internet. I should qualify my approval, however, because while Prensky’s analysis is, in my judgment, correct, I disagree nearly entirely with his recommended solution, that the immigrants basically get on board with the natives.

2 The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeapardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under Thirty).  Tarcher Press, 2008, p. 10. Notre Dame’s Christian Smith similarly observed, “Most emerging adults live this crucial decade of their life surrounded mostly by their peers—people who have no more experience, insight, wisdom, perspective, or balance than they do” (Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog. New York: Oxford, 2011., p. 234).


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  1. This sounds all well and good but I don’t see TE Gordon proposing any solution to the problems facing the PCA. If nobody follows the constitution of the PCA anyway as he seems to suggest then what do we have left? Persuasion as a method sounds rather “winsome” but it seems like unilateral disarmament when dealing with a National Partnership. I’m being more and more persuaded that schism may be the only viable alternative.

    • Bob,

      That an overture may not be the right way to address the problem does not mean that there is no other way to address the problem. There is church discipline. It might be that there will need to be some serious instruction in the churches about what church discipline is, how it works, and why it matters.

      It’s a mistake to dismiss persuasion lightly, after all, the preaching of the gospel does not come with force. It is used by the Holy Spirit to bring his elect to new life and to true. If so, cannot the same Holy Spirit persuade PCA members to seek to discipline the church and to address doctrinal and practical problems? Perhaps were the church better taught, the overtures might have passed? Perhaps persuasion must take place before action in the courts?

  2. If the Church spend more time examining the reasons why men seek the office of ruling elder and deacon she will find herself spending less time on discord and disagreement.

    Romans 5.8 provides a precise contrast between those governed by the “righteousness of the law,” (5.4) and those who “do mind the things of the flesh.” We must not be surprised by the tensions between sin—death–deceit, and holiness—life and peace.

    We witness this opposition even within the context of the visible church. When the leadership of the church make “the things of flesh … the objects of which their hearts are set, and to which their lives are devoted” then worldliness and corruption will prevail.

    Candidate for the ministry, what is your object of attention? Tell us about those things which move you–the desires of your heart? Why are you standing here before us–tell us plainly, why do you pursue this office? Ruling Elder, what is the devotion of your life? What is your ambition and why are you still serving the church–and what do you seek first daily and tell us plainly? Deacon, what do you wish to obtain for yourself in this life? And why do you desire to serve tables? Oh! let us return to the things that the Spirit proposes and approves, and only then shall we be found again singing and making melody in our hearts unto the Lord.

    Charles Hodge – Commentary Romans 6
    Samuel Miller – The Ruling Elder

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