In this first part of this essay, I surveyed Dr. Gibbs’ article in the PCA denominational magazine, ByFaith. He writes:
I am grateful that every PCA officer can affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, a systemic view of the Bible’s theology as expressed in the Westminster Standards, a Biblical view of morality, and a mutual submission to their fellow officers. In light of such views, we begin a high degree of trust upon which to build and share ministry.
In comparison to most of what passes as Christianity in Western culture, the PCA is indeed on the conservative end of the conservative spectrum. Regardless, we do well not to compare ourselves to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve a false sense of achievement. Theological liberals, in the strict historic definition, do not exist in our denomination. Yet, are we willing to assert that all ordained men are theologically trustworthy by virtue of their ordination? Sadly, experience has shown us that this is simply not the case. Do I mean that we should enter our presbyteries with a high degree of mutual suspicion? Certainly not. Time, however, is the great equalizer in regards to a man’s character and true convictions. Trust is earned, and trustworthy men do not make habits of demanding fealty.
We may not bludgeon sincere men with cries of “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace. We may not neglect the reasonable concerns of our brethren by naïvely asserting that everyone is trustworthy and in one accord merely by virtue of their ordination. Reality has shown that we are not all on the same page. Merely stating that “we are all on the same page” doesn’t magically make it so. Instead, it has the dystopian effect of a parking-lot speaker during Covid cheerily blaring, “We are all in this together!”
In the spirit of togetherness, Gibbs’ second recommendation was for the PCA to engage in humble dialogue.
Among the most encouraging moments for me at General Assemblies are the stories of presbyters putting aside their agendas and working hard to understand one another’s point of view. Inevitably, new solutions that strengthen our bonds grow out of this humble dialogue. Yet without that dialogue and the safe space created by humility, those bridges cannot be sustained.
The importance of respectful dialogue is a necessary point, and it is what I appreciate most about his article. It is no secret that my convictions place me in the more conservative spheres of our denomination but many of us are weary of cantankerous men within our camp, the kind of men who bloviate sanctimoniously in feigned shock and purposeful overreaction following any interaction with “the liberals.” There are extremes in every group, and mercifully they are few in the PCA, but it is simultaneously exasperating and disheartening when those with whom we might share theological convictions are abrasive and ill-mannered when expressing those convictions, leaving all tact, charity, and social aptitude behind.
The struggle for profitable communication becomes nearly impossible when truth is expressed, albeit poorly, by insufferable personalities. Nonetheless, we (and I am speaking to all parties here) may not dismiss truth when it reminds us of a pestiferous caricature. Fighting for truth can mean bravely holding the line until we have few others standing with us, but more often, fighting for truth comes in the form of agreeing with a point made by someone whom we find irritating. It is annoying to agree with an annoying person. I have in-laws; I understand. If, however, truth is always worth defending, if truth should be truth at all times and in all places, then we must acknowledge its existence when it manifests its itself in words spoken by those across the aisle.
As an aside, engaging in dialogue should be respectful, but new solutions do not always grow out of “humble dialogue.” There will occasionally be eternal disagreements. The fact that there is disagreement is not necessarily a sign of ill health. Rather, it is usually a sign of conviction. How one expresses that conviction to his brethren is always of importance but humility is not a cure-all for disagreement. That said, how we engage with one another certainly matters.
Dr. Gibbs praises Covenant Seminary professors who “exhort students that they have not fairly represented a differing viewpoint until its proponent can recognize it as a faithful articulation.” It is an admirable endeavor to be sure, if not sometimes an impossible task. The past few years have shown us that even though we would attribute to certain groups an espousal of Federal Vision theology, they would vehemently disagree with our assessment. Regardless, there is wisdom in the sentiment, and it should motivate us to be champions of honest representation. Let us not lose a correct, Biblical understanding of charity or winsomeness. To stand boldly for truth does not necessitate acerbic nastiness; godly rebuke is never cruel.
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness…Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness (2 Tim 2:16, 23–25a, ESV).
Finally, Dr. Gibbs petitions us to appreciate our differences. “Clearly, there were differences in the church at Philippi that had to be navigated (Phil. 4:2–3). Paul calls the individual members of the congregation to respect those differences, which meant making room for them and not allowing them to be the cause of separation.” Gibbs also asserts that “recognizing our diversity need not detract from but accentuates the impact of Kingdom service.” This is all well and good, except for those cases when diversity is detracting from the impact of Kingdom service. It might be an overly broad interpretation to posit that the apostle Paul wanted the Church at Philippi to “make room” for every difference. Wisdom, and most notably, Scripture, tell us that not all diversity is good; just ask the sons of Korah.
So then, how much diversity is to be allowed and diversity in what? What are these differences that we should appreciate? Are we referring to worship style or significant theological differences? A man may respect another presbyter and deal charitably with him but that man is allowed to voice a concern if his conscience is troubled by an opinion held by another presbyter. He may not appreciate the difference between the two of them if that difference is unbiblical. Our pastor reminded us last Sunday of Luther’s famous cry: “It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
Appreciating differences may be an admirable goal, but practically, it is a much trickier reality when the question of which differences may be appreciated and which differences must be disciplined arises. There is no amount of winsomeness that could ever be procured to solve all relational problems in a denomination. It is a vast arrogance that asserts that most ecclesial turmoil could be resolved if we would maintain the right tone, allow for more latitude in our boundaries, and lessen our intensity over third-tier issues. We are left with unanswerable questions such as: Who polices tone? How much latitude should be allowed? Who is the arbiter of what constitutes a third-tier issue?
Brethren, it is my humble opinion that more instigators of disunity arise from among those who push the envelope of theological creativity or attempt to broaden the practical definition of an established denominational boundary. I am a mother who has disciplined many times arbitrary rule-changing, the flagrant disregard for rule. Though there is always that child who corrects the other children regarding the specificity of the rules and is fastidious in his application of them, he is usually not the one who interferes with the integrity of the game. That problem arises when “home base” starts to mean two trees instead of the initially agreed-upon one, and when “out” is changed to “mostly out, but not really until you tag me three more times.” This sort of latitude serves no one well. This is the way of disquiet with children and the sometimes the discourse of educated gentlemen is not so far off from the quarrels in my backyard.
Should there be any purpose or motivation for our unity as a denomination, then it must be for the glory of God. How can we glorify God? When my son is not beating his brother with his Children’s Catechism in deranged glee, he will cheerfully recite the answer: “By loving Him and doing what He commands.” We have a tendency to view any kind of rule or constriction as burdensome or, in Dr. Gibbs’ words, “overly censorious and harsh.” We need to go back and simply read our Bibles to remind us that this is not true. My dear husband wisely instructs us:
We must have room in our piety to say, “Oh how I love Your law!” (Ps 119:97a; ESV) without being squeamish. “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.” (Psalm 119:103–104; ESV). In Christ, the Law comes back to us as our friend; it is not merely the accusing schoolmaster driving us to Christ.
We may not adopt a milquetoast tone in our discussions about sin and theological error for the sake of denominational peace. Unity for unity’s sake is fruitless. Unity at the cost of purity is foolish. Do not antagonize your brethren who desire conformity to the word of God in our churches and presbyteries. They are not menacingly severe or riddled with anxiety because they do not share your every opinion. They are not unloving or arrogant because they disagree with you. They simply disagree with you. Listen to each other, search the Scriptures, pray for wisdom, and respect our Standards. Those of us who are on the sidelines watching your interactions implore you: Fathers, do not exasperate your brothers.
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I am suspicious of the phrase “humble dialogue,” whether in contemporary politics or ecclesiastical polity. Often it means no more than “Keep quiet and agree with me.” While I make no judgment regarding Mr. Gibbs’ intentions, neither will I naively assume that all men genuinely want dialogue, humble or not. I’ve watched this scene play out many times in the past fifty years . To be forewarned is to be forearmed. I’m sad that I remain “cautiously pessimistic” regarding the PCA; the spirit of compromise is too much with us.
Content aside (which I resonated with), what an incredibly well written essay. THIS is what writing should be. Well done, Sarah.