Big Tent Revival or Pup Tent Presbyterianism

July 11, 2021 7:08 pm

A Big Tent PCA is Not a Liberal PCA

In a recent article on the Gospel Reformation Network website, GRN Council Member Jon Payne wrote about his belief that our tiny PCA tent has grown big enough. I certainly concur with Jon that our PCA tent is indeed very small but I beg to respectfully differ with him about keeping it that way, especially if that means shrinking it even further. 

The larger question in all of our discussions must be, “What would please the Lord?” It won’t please God for us to merely bicker or get defensive & political about the way we see the Lord at work in and through us. Jon Payne is Jesus’ servant and my brother. We’re in this little tent together and I have to believe that Jon wants the same thing I want even when we don’t see eye to eye on the shape that takes just now. We both seek the honor of Jesus Christ. 

So let me begin by saying that I believe Jon is right – the PCA really is a tiny tent. After all, how many people on the planet or in the Christian galaxy affirm the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as a faithful summary of the Christian Faith? How many North Americans would agree that the Report from the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality is a faithful and beautiful exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the subject, not simply for Christians but for all? Not many. In fact, it’s a minuscule number. That’s likely true even among Evangelicals. 

So the PCA is a pretty small tent pitched in the North American Christian and Evangelical forest. That said, it isn’t ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ and it isn’t even close to being so. In fact, real theological progressives and liberals wouldn’t dare join it, would summarily dismiss it, and probably publicly castigate us for our views. The PCA is indeed a small tent – a very theologically conservative, small tent.

Jon Payne writes that this smallness is to be preferred because, in his view, it reflects a deeper fidelity. I on the other hand think we need to make it much larger – not because we’re embracing progressivism (we haven’t and aren’t even in danger of doing so), but because the beauty of the Gospel and the theological splendors of covenant theology really are compelling. I think a larger tent can reflect deep fidelity too and I’m very concerned that any approach which claims we have to narrow our welcome and zip up the tent door will leave us with Pup Tent Presbyterianism. Since I’m a 3x size kind of guy, that sounds like an unhappy situation to me. 

Get a Bigger Tent

Isaiah was a big tent kind of prophet serving an even bigger tent Redeemer and Lord. “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes”, he wrote (Isaiah 54:2). Following that spirit is what made some very kind, deeply Reformed, Gospel saturated Nashville Presbytery men like Scotty Smith and David Filson welcome in a waif and stray like me 22 years ago. I’m a theological mutt that wandered into the Westminster Dog Show and wasn’t shown the door by the fancy poodles and poms that were candidates for the blue ribbons. That experience makes me a big-tent PCA Presbyterian. They let me in and I’m so glad they did. While I’m not entirely certain the PCA still wants me around, I do think that while I’m here I’m going to hold open the door for others who like the look of the PCA House and are thinking about moving in. 

When some people talk about a ‘big tent PCA’ it sounds like they mean a church that’s forgotten it’s identity and roots, one that lacks boundaries and can’t withstand the onslaught of darkness, slip-sliding away into theological progressivism. If that’s a ‘Big Tent’, then I completely agree with staying small. I’d join the GRN to stop it. But by that reckoning of “progressivism”, and this is vital, there are no progressives in the PCA and all of these dire warnings amount to underwater Fire Drills. To suggest that men who subscribe to our standards with only a few minor, regularly allowed exceptions and rejoice in the AIC Report on Sexuality should be characterized as less than faithful PCA Pastors is absurd in the extreme.

Unity is Not Uniformity

To be fair to Jon and the GRN, he’s OK with the past fifty years of the PCA’s theological and ecclesiastical expansion, writing, “Anyone familiar with the history of the PCA recognizes this distinct feature of our denomination. Some expressions of Reformed Presbyterianism in the PCA are more broadly evangelical, while others are more narrowly Reformed. Some emphasize doctrinal purity over evangelism, while others emphasize the reverse. We all try to be faithful in both, while doing neither without fault. It’s how we’ve done it for close to fifty years.”  All true and I’m right there with Jon in agreement that this approach, despite its attendant tensions, has largely served us well (though I must express misgivings about how these differences are articulated above; I don’t think evangelistic concern rules out doctrinal fidelity and I frankly doubt doctrinal fidelity if it ignores mission).

So why stop now? As Jon notes, this has worked. We’ve grown in number and our sphere of service; we’ve grown in grace and repentance; surely we can continue to do so under God’s merciful hand. The PCA began and has grown as a response to Big-Tent Liberalism. In that sense it has to remain ‘Small-Tent’ but it mustn’t shrink further and it has to be a big tent for all who desire to serve Christ and for ministers who are one with us theologically even if differences exist sociologically.

Jesus brought men together from wildly diverse backgrounds and mutual antagonisms into a community of truth & mission. He turned natural enemies into covenant friends. He’s still doing that. We all need one another. I don’t want a PCA without my friends in the GRN and that’s true even when I think they’ve described my colleagues and me unfairly. We have to have a gracious generosity of heart in our work that reflects the generous grace of the first Apostles of the Lamb. That group started out small but grew very large, and did so remaining faithful. Can we not do the same? 

I’m concerned that Jon wants the GRN to go on a mission to make the already small-tent even smaller, shrinking it down to a de-facto strict subscription pup tent. This aim is furthered by castigating as ‘progressives’ those who don’t agree with its objectives. 

The PCA and the Mythical Risk of Liberalism

I know Jon & others are concerned that the PCA tent might just be getting too big because he believes the PCA is in on the cusp of capitulating to an ungodly sexual ethic he labels ‘Side B gay celibate Christianity’ and a social justice movement fueled by ‘Critical Race Theory’. 

I’ve heard ‘Side B Gay Christianity’ terminology bandied about (with its several definitions), but this is the first time I’ve seen ‘celibate’ thrown into the mix. Why did that term sneak in? And ‘Critical Race Theory’? I remember the good old days when the GRN was only concerned about whether we actually believed in sanctification. Suddenly they’re getting really concerned about the culture war here. 

First of all, the General Assembly voted against the formation of a study committee to investigate CRT, so whatever one’s views of that issue may be, it just isn’t that big a deal to the General Assembly and along with others I have every confidence that able scholars in our Church will help us sort through the many and varied opinions on the matter. Jon and others in GRN are very worried about ‘social justice’ movements in the Evangelical Church, especially if they take root in the PCA. Yet given the tragically racist history of my denomination, I’m infinitely more concerned about actual racism in the Church than I am about whatever helpful or less than helpful tools might be employed to identify it. But that’s another Overture for another Assembly.

Those of us who see racism’s impact in our communities and congregations, who long to see our churches more resemble Joseph’s coat of many colors than a bowl of vanilla ice cream, those of us who don’t think we should define diversity by how many different kinds of lawyers we have on a Session rather than whether or not our churches look like a foretaste of the nations gathered around Heaven’s throne, are singularly unimpressed by this profound worry. While there’s plenty about CRT I don’t like, and while I also believe Ephesians 2 answers the basic problem of racial & ethnic division in its exegesis of the cross of Christ and its profound healing of our alienation from God and one another, I’d suggest that we be a lot more concerned about the impact of actual prejudice and injustice than we are about the latest effort in right-wing pop-culture to dismiss those concerns by labeling them “Marxist.” We could start with how we speak of and to our Korean Brothers and Sisters in our own denomination. Surely we believe Jesus can so unite us that we can be respectful of all and especially mindful of the marginalized. 

Secondly, let’s talk about the response to those men seeking to serve Christ as Officers in his Church when they know themselves to be in Christ and growing in grace while still experiencing unwanted erotic attraction to men, either exclusively and consistently or occasionally and with varying degrees of intensity. Jon praises Overture 23 (though not 37) as a helpful ‘tool of discipleship’ despite the fact that, as Jon knows, the Overture is completely out of step with the AIC Study Report presented by Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung that received such an overwhelmingly positive response from the Assembly (and which really is an excellent tool of discipleship). I thank God for it and for the wisdom and guidance it offers to our Officers and Members. 

But that’s where the problem is. You see, AIC members like Kyle Keating and Jim Pocta – excellent brothers – oppose Overture 23, and with good reason. Together with Overture 37, it represents an approach that doesn’t match the AIC report. It leads to a host of questions about whether or not a ‘same-sex attracted’ man who walks in holy obedience to Jesus, whether married or celibate, can serve God by serving in the PCA (despite the fact that there have been such men serving in the PCA since its beginning). And can someone who seeks ordination still employ the phrase ‘SSA’? Maybe. Apparently, one can, so long as one is careful to do so in just the right way. And that’s a problem. The BCO demands clarity, something entirely missing from these Overtures. 

Getting Clear on the Lack of Clarity

I should be clear on this clarity issue. I’ll do so without parsing the Overtures by offering ‘The Sam Allberry Test’. Sam is a wonderful Anglican minister and apologist, originally from the UK and now based in Nashville, and well-known for his work on the issues around sexuality & faith. His books are commended in the AIC Report, and I’ve commended them to many people too. Sam is also same-sex attracted and celibate. 

So here’s the Sam Allberry Test. I’ve asked ten different PCA elders whether, assuming theological congruence with our Standards, Sam could be ordained in the PCA if Overtures 23 and 37 were made part of the BCO. I’ve received the following answers – “Yes”, “No”, “I don’t know”, and one “Hell no.”

To be frank, if the “No’s” have it, and a man of Sam Allberry’s character & gift can’t be ordained in the PCA, then perhaps I just don’t belong in this tent anymore. But that’s not the point. The point is the confusion that exists over the issue. The Overtures are not sufficiently clear and BCO language requires exacting clarity, especially on an issue like this. 

Something else bothers me too. Why doesn’t Jon quote from the AIC report? After all, we commend it as biblically faithful and helpful. It’s a source of great unity among us. Surely there’s some exceedingly helpful material in it that would become a wonderful resource for Christ’s Church and her ministers. Yes, we all know it’s not binding or used in the way the BCO is within our Constitution; yet surely we also all recognize its usefulness and many gifts. Why ignore it? 

Growth is Usually Messy

The expansion of our already tiny tent that Jon wants to avoid – but which I cherish and for which I pray  – means that there are some wild looking dudes near the flaps who keep trying to lengthen cords and spread the tent walls further out, all while hammering down the pegs as they go. To some, that’s dangerous stuff. Camel noses might get under the flap at the far end from where the guys near the center post can’t see what’s going on. Portland is a long way from Charleston after all.

It’s true that weirder dudes who turn out not to be reformed in their soteriology or ecclesiology might wander in and Jon might believe they’d be hard to spot in that bigger tent. I think that’ll be evident pretty quickly; our ordination process isn’t exactly for the faint of heart as it is and that’ll sort ’em out. We do not have to zip up the door and pull in the welcome mat. I don’t believe Jesus is building his Church in that way. I believe we exercise gracious welcome, godly training, and joyful equipping for service. I’m all about things being a bit messy. When I see a garage that’s in perfect order I immediately think, “No kids.” Sometimes the messiness just means you’re seeing fruitfulness.

I’m Guilty for Sure!

Jon wrote, “…after countless exchanges over the years with brothers who identify with the ethos of the National Partnership, one common theme continues to surface. It’s that we, the PCA, mustn’t do anything to unnecessarily alienate the culture, lose a hearing with the lost, or be inhospitable to the sexually broken.”

Jon, I’m guilty as charged. It’s completely true I don’t want to ‘unnecessarily alienate the culture’ (emphasis mine), even though I sometimes necessarily do so. Like early 2020 when my preaching and teaching on sexual ethics caused some Matthew Vines supporting people to leave the church I served because in point of fact we upheld Biblical truth with both clarity and charity. It wasn’t an unnecessary offense. It was completely necessary. But I’ve seen plenty of unnecessary offensiveness as well. Like the Church ignoring evangelism & mercy in the gay community or acting as the moral policemen of society when our own house is filled with leaders notorious for everything from the belittling and sexual harassment of women to the sexual abuse of minors. Has the GRN been much concerned about those matters? Might we also be summoned to repentance on these sins too? 

Yes, I am also concerned about ‘the sexually broken’, and no I don’t think keeping the broken out of the tent is a good idea. I haven’t closed the door on them in over forty years of pastoral ministry, from the UK to Florida and everywhere in between; I have no plans to start now. I think we need to get them inside the tent and get some great discipleship going on. And yes Jon, as I preached at GA two years ago, we’re in a tough spot missionally when the people we’re trying to reach think we despise them. Here’s what I said Jon and I stand by it:

In UnChristian, What a New Generation Thinks of Christianity, Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnamon note that the single most recognized thing about Christians today in the wider culture is that we are anti-gay bigots. “The severity of the perception surprised us…out of 20 attributes we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity…being antihomosexual was at the top of the list…not opposition to gay politics or behaviors but DISDAIN FOR…individuals has become virtually synonymous with Christian Faith.”

You and I can reply, ‘But we don’t deserve that label’ and in many cases, that’s true, you don’t. But we also all know there have been many cases of real disdain for image-bearers of God that have occurred in the name of defending morality and truth.

Look, we know we live in a time when all who have any Biblical standard on sexuality will be hated. Jesus was hated. He loved perfectly and was hated. So let’s not labor under any illusions that merely loving well will gain us PR points with the culturati. NO ONE THINKS THAT. We are all seeking to be faithful to our Confessional standards and to be faithful to the Scriptures. Those who say otherwise are spreading falsehood. 

Fear Two Ways

The AIC Report on Human Sexuality noted two realms of fear that PCA members and ministers find dueling for our heart’s attention, sometimes in unhealthy ways. On the one hand, we can be deeply fearful of causing further pain to the sexually broken, fearful that we will add further layers of grief to those who have already been wounded, often by the Church. We want our words of truth to be saturated in love and mercy. On the other hand, many of us are fearful that the Church will utterly surrender to the prevailing culture of licentiousness and sexual confusion. We see entire denominations do so and don’t want the PCA to head in that direction either. Can we find the wisdom to walk together, banishing these fears from our hearts together as we learn to deal with the very valid issues from which our fears arise? I hope so.

Finally, I’m weary of the maddening ‘slippery slope’ arguments that keep getting thrown around about the danger of the PCA’s slide into theological liberalism and cultural accommodationism. This is always in reference to the PCUSA, or some other group that’s thrown in the towel on confessional and biblical conservatism. To get real about this, I have friends in that denomination (and others), and the idea that anyone in the PCA is vaguely close to where ministers in liberal reformed denominations are in their commitments on Scripture, Confessional Standards, Polity, or Practice is frankly laughable… and I’ve heard them laugh about it too. 

I love the BCO and I’m a conservative. On the issues at hand, I will act as a conservative and vote to conserve the BCO, rather than vote to radically alter it. It’s fine as it is. Let the AIC Report offer guidance and wisdom for all examining committees to apply our existing BCO standards for ordination. That would offer both clarity and charity. 

Let me quote Jon one more time to highlight our agreement (in which I really rejoice) and our disagreement (which saddens me). He writes, “The impulse to be outward-facing and welcoming to our fallen and broken world is a good one, a biblical one. But we must never accommodate error in our attempt to be winsome. This wasn’t the modus operandi of Jesus, the prophets, or the apostles. It mustn’t be ours either. It can never be repeated enough: We are called to speak the truth, with clarity and love. And if ever there was a time for the church to speak with clarity about sexual ethics, biblical justice, and qualifications for ordination, it is now. The future health and mission of the PCA depend on it.”

I couldn’t agree more about being outward-facing and speaking with loving frankness. But I’ll tell you straight up what grieves me. I can’t name a single PCA Pastor trying to ‘accommodate error in an effort to be winsome’ and I’m weary of these insinuations that such is a problem in the PCA. It isn’t. Time to ‘speak with clarity on sexual ethics… and ordination?’ You bet it is. The AIC report does so. Overtures 23 and 37 do not. 

I agree that our tiny tent does need attention. I believe it needs to get bigger. Much bigger. Not because our tent needs to be more liberal but because it is so joyfully theologically conservative and needs to show the beauty of grace and the riches of Christ to as many people as possible. Actually, I think the GRN would agree with me on that. Perhaps Jesus in his great mercy will help us all to “Lengthen cords, strengthen pegs, and extend the curtains of this dwelling.”

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