"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Thursday, April 22, 2010

PCA Strategic Plan: Thoughts

[This is an opinion piece about an internal discussion in the PCA. If you are not in the PCA, you are welcome to skip it as it contains matters of an internal debate, which will in no way diminish my appreciation for the PCA and its work]

A few weeks ago, the CMC released the PCA strategic plan. This plan looks into the future and attempts to make changes to plan for the future and how the PCA will see its own role in the future in American Christian mission and religious life. I wanted to take some time to read the plan and reflect on it. I do this not as a voting member of Presbytery, but merely as a person under care of a Presbytery looking toward ordination in the PCA. Thus, my thoughts are tempered and are only suggestive to those who might be voting members.

The plan, spearheaded by President Bryan Chapell of Covenant Seminary, has a few general themes, some BCO change recommendations and some suggestions on changing the affiliations of the denomination. As I comment, I would also like to say I have benefited greatly from Chapell’s work especially on preaching and respect him as a minister in good standing. I would like to briefly comment on the proposed themes and changes.

1. Require contribution to the PCA Administrative Committee for participation in GA.

Many prominent PCA ministers, including Lig Duncan, have supported this part of the plan as a step in the right direction towards a more Presbyterian church government. After all, even the Southern Baptist Convention, a looser confederation than the Presbyterian form of government, requires contribution to vote at their convention. Over half of the churches in the PCA contribute nothing to the PCA and have voting rights.

Generally, I would agree that this perhaps is the historical structure of a Presbyterian governed church. That half of the churches contribute nothing is embarrassing. The requested amount is less than 1% of a church's budget, hardly a bank breaker.

However, we must recognize where the PCA comes from. The PCUSA had a strong denominational structure that still hamstrings some individual churches in regards to property ownership. PCA churches are, and should be, weary of a strong denominational government, not due to the current ethos of the denomination, but the possible future status of the denomination. If a church becomes concerned with the use of its resources in the future, if they protest by withholding contribution that would deny that church a vote at GA. Such a move empowers the denomination over the local church. Although more churches should contribute, and be petitioned to contribute, none should be required to.

That leads to a second objection. Might I quote a Baptist who may have a point where he is more Reformed that the PCA strategic plan: "The local church is the focal point of God's plan for displaying his glory to the nations." This is the motto of 9 Marks, Mark Dever's organization for reforming churches according to Scripture. This perhaps should be the dominant philosophy of the PCA in the future. This leads to our next theme:

2. Redirecting the mission focus of the PCA away from NAPARC

NAPARC is the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. This Council consists of confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Church. This organization is dedicated to confessional expression of the Reformed tradition and presenting a unified front on in this endeavor of advancing confessional Reformed churches in North America.

Page 26 of the Strategic plan recommends withdraw from this organization. The reasoning is given in Bryan Chapell's video that this organization consists of "micro-denominations" that have fewer members than the PCA but have equal vote. This organization is said to be draining our time and energy since it "shares our doctrinal identity, but not our ministry focus." This statement is never clarified, however, from the rest of the plan this seems to mean a new focus to work with organizations, outside of our confessional identity, that do not share our doctrinal distinctives but give the PCA more "influence," presumably as a Reformed voice among non-Reformed Christians in missions organizations.

This proposal, I believe, is the most telling of the vision of the strategic plan. The plan introduces various "means" towards achieving the goal of a larger "influence" in American Christianity. This is misguided on a number of fronts, but this is chief:

If we do not share the ministry focus of NAPARC, then we are do not truly share their doctrinal identity.

Confessional Reformed doctrine believes the means of achieving the mission of God in the world are the means God has ordained. These are not parachurch organization, though they may have some role, but the "ordinary means" as outlined in the Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 154-160. These means are the Word, read and preached, the sacraments and prayer. In other words, the means of accomplishing the mission of God is the church performing its ordinances given to it by God, by which He has promised to bring fruit. When the Word is preached, that is the means by which people are converted (Romans 10:14-17, 1 Cor 1:21). Baptism and the Lord's Supper are visible words, proclaiming that gospel alongside the Word (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Cor 11:26) and prayer is the means of advancing the kingdom (Mathew 6:9-13, See Matthew 6:10 NET). A focus away from the local church towards the denomination, denominational programs and parachurch organizations due to a leveling off of church membership displays an approach driven by numbers and a desire to manipulate those numbers by means other than the ones we are commanded to be faithful to perform. (Tim 4:13)

The concern of the PCA should be our faithfulness to what God has called us to and leave the numbers to God. If we see numbers declining, our recourse is repentance, and renewed vows to faithful to preach and administer the sacraments, the duty given to us in the Great Commission. (Matt 28:19) The means given was not certain programs and parachurch affiliations but the ordinances of the church. The advancement of the Great Commission then is the duty of the church and that is where the PCA should focus its energies (along with the other denominations in NAPARC)

What has attracted me to the PCA is the churchly spirituality of the Reformed faith as expressed in the PCA. I believe the PCA is well positioned to offer a biblical churchly spirituality to a culture that is greatly lacking true spirituality instead chasing fleeting experience, psychological comfort and charismatic mirages. I would like to see the PCA continue to do so rather than become more generically evangelical.

Alternatively, the PCA as a denomination certainly could establish structures and programs that would help advance the mission of the church, but these must be with a focus to the local church, not programs or parachurch associations.

Here are a few alternative suggestions:

1. Establish an internship fund of the PCA.

The OPC has a general fund to pay those seeking ordination in the OPC to work within a local church for up to a year. This allows a future minister to focus on learning the craft of ministering from a local minister, whose church may not be large enough to support that intern alone. This also allows the ministerial candidate to focus on the craft of ministry solely for the year of preparation rather than also maintain a full time job, thereby shortchanging his internship experience.

2. Fully fund RUF ministers and Missionaries through the PCA.

Either we consider RUF minister to actually be ministers or we do not. Currently, most RUF ministers are only half-supported by the church and half-supported by individuals. A minister is one who is supported by the church, as Paul tells us, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages." " (1 Tim 5:17-18) Only half supporting missionaries in MTW and MTNA and RUF ministers, if we truly consider them ministers, reduces them to half a minister and, though popular in American mission structure, a skirting of Scripture's command for the church to support their ministers.

3. Fund Church planting

Most church planters also are forced to raise support from individuals rather than the church. The same applies to these evangelist ministers. Either they are an elder/minister or not. If they are, the church ought to fund them, if not, then do not call them ministers.

If the PCA would take steps towards advancing the gospel and the kingdom to an even greater degree than they thankful have done, in the manner of supporting the local church, the first measure for more funding would meet with a greater welcome by me. However, the lack of faith the strategic plan seems to have for the ordinary means and the local church forces me to recommend to any that are attending GA this year to vote to defeat the strategic plan in regards to changing the BCO to require church funding of the denomination, and to vote against withdraw from NAPARC.

The focus must be brought back to a biblical focus on the local church, the means of grace, and the proclamation of the gospel purely and simply. This is the hope of the world and the future of God's universal invisible church. May the visible church in the PCA align itself as closely and faithfully to the command of God as possible.


Pastor St. John said...

Some good points. Thank you!

M. Jay Bennett said...

Good reflections Jared!

Aquatiki said...

As a fellow seminary-candidate under care, I think you and I must be very similar in life situations.
1. Your answer to "The PCA is too Baptistic" is to cite an argument from Mark Dever?! I would ask you to clarify your views of ecclesiology, with Scriptural backing, if you have time; a lot of your complaints about 'denominationalism' sound like arguments for congregationalist polity.
2. The RCUS has 4,000 members. They have good theology, but are not known for evangelization. Lot's of denominations have head-based knowledge of the Standards, but their lives show them to be the Frozen Chosen, more interested in policing who is Reformed and who isn't than reaching the lost who are perishing. The proposal isn't to quit calling them The Body of Christ, just to not expend energy on communion with people who have such different focii than we do.
I don't mean to be harsh. I listen to a lot of Baptists myself and am a big, BIG proponent of things like T4G and The Gospel Coalition. The local church matters as much as Piper and Mohler say it does, but elders matter JUST as much.
Also, we are not saved so we can get doctrine right. We are saved and get better at doctrine so we can be God's servants in the world.

Jared Nelson said...


I'm happy to clarify my meaning.

1st, Ecclesiologically, this is how I would describe myself: I am about as high-church as you can be and still be Reformed. By high-church, I mean that I believe the Westminster Confession when it says outside of the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. I also believe the Larger Catechism (and more importantly the bible) that speaks of the means by which God brings people into his kingdom is the Word, preached and read, the sacraments and prayer.

The concern on numbers seems to assume that if numbers aren't there, we need new means, new measures by which to bring people in. When Reformed theology points to the means of grace as the vehicle, to say “well we assume that, let's look beyond that to new ideas to grow the church,” that is a lack of faith that God accomplishes his purposes by the means he specifies. This values numbers over faithfulness.

Let's take four hypothetical churches to demonstrate this: a growing church that is faithful to the means. A growing church that is not faithful to the means. A shrinking church that is faithful to the means. A shrinking church that is unfaithful to the means.

My number one preference is for a growing church that is faithful to the means God has given her. My second preference, of these four, is a shrinking church that is faithful to the means. Notice the common attribute. If a shrinking church could grow by doing something other than the means, and neglecting the means in preference for what something other than the church is doing that gets numbers, I would resist it.

2nd, I think in the second point, you offer a false choice between doctrine and evangelism. I think you begin this with a statement I don't understand, you say: we are not saved so we can get doctrine right. We are also not saved in order to be servants in the world. We are saved in order to glorify God. But that doesn't mean either being a servant or getting doctrine right are abrogated duties.

The Scriptures are very clear that right doctrine is necessary for the Christian life, so we are not tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine (Eph 4:11-14), so we might identify false teachers (Rom 16:17), to grow in godliness (1 Tim 4:6-8, 6:3), in order to advance the gospel (1 Peter 3:15), and to spread the knowledge, not ignorance, of Christ everywhere (2 Cor 2:14-17).

I would agree with scholar Jaroslav Pelikan that “The church is more than a school...but the church cannot be less than a school” of doctrine. If we neglect what teachings/doctrine the apostles have handed down, we are no longer faithful to God's command and though our church may grow, instead of shepherding a small flock of sheep we will be entertaining a large audience of goats.

We ought not contrast and make a false choice of being concerned about doctrine and being concerned about evangelism. In order to be concerned with being faithful in evangelism, we ought to be concerned with being faithful to the teaching/doctrine of Christ.

Aquatiki said...

Thank you for that clarifying answer. I'm new to your blog, having been pointed by Nick Batzig, so I wasn't sure where you were coming from in a lot of respects. As Green Baggins pointed out, this SP is aimed primarily at the more liberal and confused segments of the PCA. I don't think persons such as you or I or Nick are in any danger of jumping ship for the OPC or Bible Pres. The perceived threat is churches and presbyteries joining the EPC. I don't think Dr. Chapell actually weighs his decisions on the basis of numbers. Instead, hard-core "missional" types have been content to not raise topics of disagreement because they've been too busy saying, "we're in the fastest growing Reformed denomination." Such numbers talk is meant to shake THEIR tree. It's a wake-up call to some that they need to show their cards, 'cause the chips are finally down.
Now, admittedly, there are some people who are liberal and thoughtfully so. The TN presbytery's motion seems that way to me. Women's ordination IS a gospel issue and I'm glad to see such dead branches pruned.
Conversely, however, I hope you will agree that there ARE some groups/people putting doctrine ahead of unity. Splitting with unbelievers is no sin (Galatians) but refusing to be unified with fellow sinful Christians is a great evil (John 17). The fractious spirit which dominates discussions of the FV and the NPP's (both of which I oppose) are ungodly and unspiritual. The PCA's emphasis on a "big tent" is Biblically right. Splits like we have with the OPC and RPC should grieve a Christian's heart. I disagree with the SP in a lot of places, but we must never see doctrine as an end, but a means. I like that 'school' quote!

Jared Nelson said...

Thanks for the comments.

I don't want to be nit-picky, but I would again voice a disagreement over a false choice on doctrine in "putting doctrine ahead of unity." The basis of unity is right doctrine.

Romans 16:17 - "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them."

Division then comes from false doctrine, unity is around the doctrine of the apostles. If FV teaches false doctrine, it is disunifying (for they cause divisions) to merely tolerate false doctrine.

Though I do see that there may be areas of some ambiguity. I like the fact that the eschatology of the Reformed confessions is only as specific as the text allowing for amillenial, post-millenial, and even to some extent historic pre-millenial perspectives. However, where Scripture does speak, we must speak as well and with one voice.

But again, thanks for commenting. I enjoy the interaction. God Bless on you seminary and candidating ventures.

Aquatiki said...

I'm too appreciate the interaction. I know doctrine has a formal definition, but I've heard so many people speak as you do then act so uncharitably. When the Bible says "the doctrine you've been taught," that means the gospel of grace - salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the sacrifice of Jesus to appease the wrath of God against our sins. The UGLY kerfuffles I've been in over my paedocommunionism have all featured a terrible usage of "doctrine". I am very afraid of women deacons, because to egalitarians it is a foot in the door towards women's ordination. But I can't not call that a doctrine unarguably taught in Scripture. The men in my presbytery take exceptions on the Sabbath, art in the sanctuary, RE's serving communion, etc. The people who fought them called their positions "doctrine". If you take any definition other than the Gospel, you are calling our Reformed Baptist and Anglican friends "false teachers". They are not; they are brothers with whom we disagree.
My point is that you are right: doctrine unifies true believers. But we have that in common already: anyone who subscribes to the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity has enough doctrine "right" to justify our unity with them. I'm afraid there are many who insist of "doctrinal rightness" way beyond Scripture. I don't want to get back together with the Coptics, Orthodox or Rome, so I'll draw the line at Calvin!

Jared Nelson said...

I wish we really did have unity over the Westminster Confession. It is hard to say we have a unification over the Westminster Confession when ministers are taking exceptions. This is especially true when exceptions are taken to the covenants, and are actively teaching against it, which strike at the heart of system.