“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The well-known opening line from Dickens’ classic 19th-century novel, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be applied to the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) annual General Assembly. In many ways, the annual gathering is the best of times. Friendships are renewed and made, unity is fostered, truth is championed, and Christ is exalted through the worship, business, and fellowship of the church. But the assembly can also be the worst of times. Brothers in Christ are vilified, positions are mischaracterized, unity is compromised, and charity is neutralized under a nasty cloud of cynicism and pride. Called to be godly examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3; BCO 21-5), we sometimes exhibit attitudes and behavior at the assembly that would perplex our congregations back home. If we are not careful, our politics can eclipse our piety. The General Assembly can bring out the best in us; but if we are honest, it can also bring out the worst.
As I was recently thinking about this year’s 45th PCA General Assembly, it occurred to me that a little encouragement might be in order for those of us who will serve as commissioners. The following are five characteristics that we would all do well to display this June in Greensboro.
1. Sincere Humility
Humility is the golden grace of the Christian life. It’s the fruit of walking closely with Jesus. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humility. Moreover, humility counts others more significant than ourselves and is antithetical to selfish ambition and ecclesiastical oneupmanship. Humility is Christlikeness (Phil. 2:1–11). Therefore, as we approach this year’s assembly, may we remember the divine directive to “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). As blood-bought sinners saved by sovereign grace, may our interactions on and off the assembly floor exhibit a spirit of sincere humility (Rom. 12:3).
2. Loving Charity
One thing I have noticed in past assemblies is a lack of charity among the brethren. I suspect we’ve all seen it, and have all participated in it in one way or another. It comes out in audacious ad hominem attacks during debate on the assembly floor and, perhaps more predominantly, in private conversations over coffee in the exhibition hall. We can think the worst of those we disagree with on key denominational issues, rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt and treating them as cherished brothers for whom Christ died. Uncharitable assumptions sow the seeds of bitterness, contempt, and disunity, and they should have no place in our beloved denomination. Strong, and even passionate, disagreements over theology, polity, and confessional fidelity will likely be a part of this and every other future assembly. Even so, loving charity must always rule our hearts and inform our words. It is the way of Christ (John 13:34).
3. Complete Transparency
The PCA has sometimes been described as a “big tent” under which there exists differing perspectives on the application of the Reformed Confession to ministry and life. It’s widely recognized that PCA churches sometimes differ on approaches to worship, mission, discipleship, women in ministry, ecumenism, and other matters. It’s really no surprise, then, that various networks and partnerships have emerged that seek to lead the PCA in one direction or another, especially as it pertains to the philosophy of ministry and mission. This is all a very natural part of denominational life. When carried out openly and publicly, these networks and partnerships can be beneficial. Indeed, they can help make the PCA a dynamic environment for honest and challenging dialogue about ministry. The resources that flow from these various organizations within the PCA can challenge our approaches to ministry in healthy ways, even if we may agree to disagree on the “non-essentials.” We all have weaknesses and blind spots and can learn from one another.
A serious problem arises, however, when networks and partnerships constituted of PCA teaching and ruling elders go beyond public and transparent ministry to private meetings and ecclesiastical intrigues for the purpose of winning votes and transforming the denomination. If a real time, vote-by-vote, running conversation on the assembly floor becomes a regular practice by denominational networks, then men will inevitably vote their “party” rather than their conscience. This, of course, cannot be healthy for the future of the PCA. And, in time, it would create a party system inimical to biblical unity.
Therefore, as we approach this year’s General Assembly let us all commit to openness and transparency with one other. As brothers in Christ and fellow stewards of the gospel, may our networks and partnerships, and the events that we plan, always be a place where all are welcome and where factionalism is greatly discouraged.
4. Joyful Solidarity
The Bible commands us to cultivate, nurture, and protect Christian unity (1 Cor. 12:12–26; Phil. 2:2). Maintaining unity is an important aspect of discipleship. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted by Christ, in part, to strengthen the bonds of Christian unity and love (Eph. 4:4; 1 Cor. 10:17). We are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3, emphasis mine). In case anyone was wondering, these verses apply to all PCA commissioners this June!
To be sure, authentic Christian unity will only grow in the soil of confessional orthodoxy. C.S. Lewis was right when he wrote, “Seek unity and you will find neither unity nor truth. Seek the light of truth, and you will find unity and truth.” Even so, it’s important that we do not let our zeal for truth lessen our pursuit of unity— even with those we may disagree with on secondary matters.
Our session recently met with a sister church’s session to discuss some issues that had fostered tension and division between us. It was not a meeting any of us were looking forward to. However, as we met it became evident that we had all made some uncharitable assumptions of one another and allowed bad feelings to fester in our hearts. After genuine apologies were made, we went to the throne of grace together in prayer. It was wonderful and long overdue. Since then we have enjoyed a couple of informal meals together, and are actively pursuing friendship and gospel unity. I’m so thankful for the Lord’s work in this situation. The bonds of unity and love are on the mend between our two sessions. I’d love to see more of this among our ranks.
Perhaps it goes without saying that we need to be slower to write one another off. We need less angry and impetuous emails and texts, and more face-to-face conversation. Indeed, conversing through digital technology can dehumanize interaction; “in person” communication is always best.
Joyful solidarity in a large denomination and between local churches isn’t always easy. Who ever said that it would be? Perhaps it’s time to commit ourselves afresh to gospel unity at this year’s assembly— a unity based upon biblical and confessional truth.
5. Biblical and Confessional Integrity
Since its founding in 1973, the PCA has been deeply committed to the goal of being faithful to the Scriptures and true to the Reformed faith. We have a strong belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and efficacious Word of God. In addition, we believe in the Reformed and Presbyterian interpretation of the Bible as set forth in the Westminster Standards. Not only are the Westminster Confession and catechisms useful tools for discipleship, they also keep us on the path of theological orthodoxy and pastoral orthopraxy.
For these and other reasons (see Nick Batzig’s recent article), it is important that every commissioner at the General Assembly exercise integrity as it pertains to our system of doctrine. May our worship, preaching, teaching, writing, and debating in Greensboro be informed by an enthusiastic commitment to our Reformed confession. For when our theological positions are contrary or indifferent to our confessional standards, we end up striking at the very foundation of denominational unity.
Fellow commissioners to the 45th PCA General Assembly, let’s pray that as we gather together in Greensboro this June we would all be marked by sincere humility, loving charity, complete transparency, joyful solidarity, and biblical and confessional integrity. With a goal like this, perhaps the best of the best of times in the PCA are before us.