I spend an inordinate amount of time moderating the bickering between my 5- and 7-year-old boys. One stole a dinosaur, one threw a Lego, one sat on the other’s head, picked the other’s nose, ate the last of the favorite cereal, and my current favorite: went after his brother with the Children’s Catechism in sociopathic but impressive violence. Sometimes, in those more egregious instances, I am forced to summon my wayward progeny and interrogate each of them in an effort to discern the nature of their altercation. When this occurs, if one or both children misrepresent the other, if I lackadaisically assume only one child’s guilt, or if we all point to the poor idiotic Beagle quivering anxiously in the corner as an emotionally-negative behavioral force, then there is little hope of ever resolving the dispute. Although it might be easier to gripe about my children, to fret and whine and seethe in frustration at my matronly predicament, or to make uproarious fun of the whole lot of them, it would also be terrible parenting.
In similar fashion, the Presbyterian Church in America desperately needs to have an honest, dispassionate, and thorough family discussion. The current discourse is failing atrociously, to put it mildly. Though we could grumble quietly among our friends or post merciless hot takes online, the inconvenient truth is that there is no such thing as pious grumbling. Dr. Thomas Gibbs, current President of Covenant Theological Seminary, seeks to address some of our denominational squabbles in a recent essay, “Bridge-building, the PCA, and the Next 50 Years.” I admire him greatly for this instinct. His tone was charitable and I have no doubt that he genuinely seeks to bring two opposing sides together. With due deference and much respect for Dr. Gibbs, however, I humbly suggest that to lay sole blame with one party usually does not alleviate friction.
In his article, Gibbs likens the PCA’s current state of internal communication to countries who purposefully sabotage their own bridges amidst warfare, “characterized by increasing polarization, the breakdown of communication, and the loss of trust.” Regarding these disrupters of peace, Gibbs asserts that much of the blame lies with their “chronic anxiety”—that they are “fixed on their symptoms rather than on the emotional processes that keep those symptoms chronic.” He continues:
It’s our reactive responses, then, that sabotage our bridge-building and bridge-preserving work, no matter how noble our aspirations, confident our theological positions, or strategic our plans. I’ve heard it more times than I can count that we in the PCA “keep having the same debates.” After 50 years, is it possible to conclude that the “answer” may not be total homogeneity on every point of exegesis, worship style, or evangelistic practice?
There is a kind of therapeutic psychology rampant among the elite in Western culture’s ivory towers and it has made its way into our seminaries and churches, beguiling some and maddening others. Proponents of it call us to see unconsciously repressed emotions in areas of dysfunctional family dynamics. For instance, instead of interacting with the specifics of the disagreement at hand, one party claims omniscience regarding the other’s psychological condition. This renders further debate unnecessary because one side has decided that the other has certain emotional hinderances such as anxiety, stress, or trauma, and that these are the sole influencers of their position. C. S. Lewis, in his famous essay “Bulverism” reasons the following on presuming a man’s arithmetic is based on wishful thinking:
If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant–but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds…In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly.1
To say that many among the more conservative spheres of our denomination are fatigued by this psychological debate tactic would be a considerable understatement—and a debate tactic it is. It wrests persuasive power from the one who has mere convictions and deposits it into the hands of one who claims to understand the other’s emotional motivations. Is it any wonder then that we as a denomination struggle to trust each other? Brothers, you may not demand trust from a man whilst unfairly refusing to consider the marrow of his argument. One may not glibly dismiss deeply held convictions as emotionally-influenced philosophical dalliances. A brother’s theological persuasion is not, to quote Ebenezer Scrooge, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard.”
Trust is rooted in truth, and truth must be such a dearly held virtue among us in order to provoke the spending of appropriate time and energy needed to genuinely understand each other. Consideration of one’s argument must be weighed before consideration of the emotions that may or may not influence that argument. As strange as it sounds, we must be able to disagree accurately with one another. To disagree inaccurately is to assume a man’s argument, his rationale for it, and his motivations behind it. I may disagree accurately with a man for a time, but after years of thoughtful analysis and careful consideration, I may be slowly persuaded of his position. I will never be persuaded by an assumed opinion which I have relegated in my mind to a nice, tidy intellectual box labeled: “dumb.”
“Total homogeneity” is one of those assumed opinions. Gentlemen, let us speak candidly. Given the past few years, one can understand the wish to avoid the kind of circumstance which arises from a man who will not submit himself to his denomination’s values and Standards. He is not of the same mind as we, nor is he willing to submit to our teaching, counsel, or reproach. This creates waves of unnecessary contention that, in some cases, ripple throughout the entire denomination. Consequently, for the vast majority of those who would describe themselves as “confessional,” it is not out of want of disruption that they desire close adherence to the Standards; in fact, it is quite the opposite. A dear friend of mine remarked, “The Confession is not a whip to drive people away, but a fence inside which there is protection for the Church from errant doctrine and practice.”
Unity can only be achieved with love, charity, and some agreed-upon groundwork for understanding truth. A dryly monolithic body is not the end goal; rather, it is a consistent assent to the summaries of truths found in our Standards so that the Church is faithfully nourished and protected from undue controversies, and her shepherds freed to labor peaceably with one another. “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10; ESV).
Gibbs concludes his article by highlighting three areas that he believes will promote the health of our communication in the PCA. He begins with trust: “How different might our interactions be if they were more informed by trust and an inherent regard for the dignity and worth of each person regardless of which side they represent?” I believe all of us are in complete agreement with this sentiment. The notion of working alongside a group of people this side of heaven, where each relationship is trustworthy, is I daresay every minister’s dream. Gibbs goes on to assure us that for every ordained man in the PCA, this trust has already been earned.
To be continued (the link will be live when part 2 is published).
©Sarah Morris. All Rights Reserved.
1. C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 272.
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