This is a long thought… so buckle up…
The PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) is a relatively new marvel in my life. I was raised in a Conservative Baptist church. I dabbled with non-denoms and other forms of Baptist through college and some of my adult years. I had very little knowledge of Presbyterians much less the sub-categories of Presbyterians.
And now I’m all up in it. A former staffer at a PCA church, and currently and always married to a TE, which is the term for teaching elders, or what the rest of the church world calls pastors. If you had told me this would be the case even 5 years ago I would have laughed it off like you were smoking something fun. I had no idea that my life would take this turn, but now I find myself fully embracing it and digging in.
Which mostly means reading every By Faith magazine – a kind of who’s who, what’s what of the PCA, complete with nearly life size photos of all the good male folk who represent the thinking heads on all things.
I kid. I kid. I actually find the articles very interesting and it helps me to better understand and formulate opinions on the issues that people like my husband deal with. Call it occupational hazard education. And for the most part, I feel that I have made a good choice – to marry Rob (of course that was a great decision) and, by default, marry the PCA.
My husband is looked at as a radical extremist in some circles. It’s so fun and kinda funny. I love being married to a radical extremist. But the truth is he really does lie solidly in a centerish spot, maybe more to the left if there is a left. And that’s part of what I’m reflecting on here, that within the PCA your center is going to be this tiny minuscule sliver in each direction. You start with an incredibly narrow spectrum and finding the center can sometimes need a microscope.
We have to find a broader test base. In any theory proving exercise, you can’t use the same five subjects every time. Statistically speaking, the results will always be skewed to your liking and in a place where there’s very little wiggle room to begin with, whatever conclusions you are coming to are hardly going to be representative of all christendom. Im not saying that it’s a matter of watering down the truth in order to reach “the masses.” It’s a matter of understanding your reach and getting to the areas in which you currently have no reach whatsoever.
There are some who would point to Tim Keller as way left of center, which again is not entirely that far, considering everybody in the world. I’m going to guess that I am way farther left in the broad spectrum of the real world than my husband or Keller. But can you be left and still willingly embrace the structure and demands of the PCA? That’s the question. The question I answered in the blog title already.
Yes. A resounding yes. I love the structure. People like me and my husband are seen as rebellious, but I have to ask you why in the world would we choose to be part of a structure we do not have to be part of? I think we could plant a church in a hot minute outside the confines of PCA. That’s not bragging, it’s reality. I have often wondered, daydreamed really, about throwing off all the structure of denomination and what that would look like for us. But I think that, all things considered, we are in the PCA because we know we believe in decency and order, and we do believe in the work of the Holy Spirit through structure and church governing bodies. But we are the outliers and we know that God, in the past, has done his best work with outliers.
For those who don’t know anything about the denomination, (which is a larger group of people than many PCA churches seem to realize) here are the basics. The pastor is one of many in a position of authority and leadership. All the ruling elders have an equal vote/voice as the teaching elder. The pastor is not the sole voice of the church. The pastor is not going to make any of the big decisions alone. This both alleviates the pressures some pastors face in other denoms, or non-denoms, and it gives authority to others to speak into the pastor’s vision and leading, like a checks and balances system. Of course there will be abuses, a pastor surrounded by yes men, or elders who consistently conspire against him. Because evil exists in all men’s hearts. But within the structure, meaning there IS a structure, the room for such abuses tend to be minimized or at least given more careful scrutiny.
When we were dating, I often teased Rob about the PCA. I still do from time to time. It seems such a small, restrictive place to live. But all kidding aside, my understanding of its history and careful study of ecclesiology and doctrine has grown. I have come to better appreciate the specific place the PCA holds in the American Church. Of course there is room to grow. There are voices that need to be heard and considered. My experience has been that the PCA gives that room and makes those platforms available on many levels.
This sounds like a commercial for the PCA. It is in no way endorsed by any one, whoever that would be, and I am not going to try to recruit any one to it. I did come to a place in my own life where I felt strongly about finding a denomination I could sink my teeth into. I felt that God works in denominations, pushing us to deepen our faith, our knowledge, our understanding of the church and its place and responsibilities. It’s too easy to attend church and not think much more about it than “I like the music” and “The preacher seems cool.” Consider what that church is all about, where they stand on their purpose for existing and how they live out their gained and growing understanding of God’s purposes for them.
All that said, the imperfections and failures on the part of the PCA has never been more clear to me. Becoming more deeply aware of the very real stain of sin and sickness within the denomination can be very painful and discouraging. Our churches tend to be filled with “older brother types.” The older brother is the one who had a ready list of grievances to bring up. The older brother is the one who gave up relationship to prove he was right and good. It was the older brother who was equally called to repentance to a loving, faithful Father, to be reminded of the goodness of His Father’s house, to taste and see how high, how deep, how wide His Father’s love truly was – and he refused it. It has never been clearer to me that the PCA struggles with doling out grace, a prodigal grace as Keller put it. It seems at times that they miss an important part of grace giving – that being winsome and being wise are not mutually exclusive, and are, in reality, proportionate.
Bridge builder or troll?
I ask again if we are going to be a people of bridge builders, or are we trolls under the bridges, guarding them? Are we so concerned with who uses the bridge that we start yelling and, well, trolling them from the moment they step onto the bridge? Are we so busy hoarding what we have, out of fear of losing it or maybe, more to the point, losing control of it? Are we priding ourselves on being small in numbers because of our superiority? Or are we lovingly, winsomely urging people to consider the complexities of our great salvation and redemption so that they study and wrestle with the very issues that make us Presbyterians and more importantly believers?
In another analogy, are we going to be people who are on the search and rescue teams, or people who stay in the ski lodge and lecture others about starting avalanches? I think we are at a crucial time in history when the Church, as a whole, and the denomination specifically will show its true colors, and will pave the way for the next few decades. We will either be the ones to build those bridges or burn them. Yes, it really is like that. Please believe it. I think it would be helpful to consider with every conversation you have, every statement made, every post typed, every blog blogged, to ask ourselves, am I right now building or burning?
I am more hopeful than I’ve been before, and a little less hopeful than I’ve been before. I find myself living in some middle ground. I see the sinfulness in all people’s hearts. I also see the grace that covers it. And I think this is a good place to be. I think this is where the Gospel does its best work. And I humbly ask to be a part of it, to be building the bridge and to be caught doing grace when the Master returns. He will come for many in many denominations, but not everyone from every denomination. That’s the only thing I know for sure.
Meanwhile, let’s do the work. Let’s believe together that Jesus loves his church passionately and emphatically, that he gave his life for her and that he will not let her stand alone and perish. Let’s believe that there is a time for everything, that there is a time for discussion and careful consideration. There is a time for decisions and actions. There is a time for weeping with those who weep, no shaming, no blaming. There is a time for repentance and mourning. And thanks be to God there is a time for rejoicing and celebrating for every sinner who has come home. We are sinners making up a denomination, a body of Jesus people, who long for more worship and more grace. Come, Lord Jesus. But as you tarry, put our hands to the plow and help us harvest.