A Word on Narratives

A guest post from a PCA Ruling Elder

Narratives are funny things, but there’s a certain consistency to them from decade to decade, even from century to century. In the organizational world (including the visible church), those persons, departments, coalitions, or factions perceived as narrow, precise, and conservative are usually considered to be less than ideal—not good for flourishing, to put it in 21st-century speak. Organizations, especially those structured along modern lines, seek self-perpetuation and growth. The biological-business concept “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” is modern conventional wisdom. And the acceptance of this wisdom is not confined to secular organizations.

A religious organization’s immune system—especially one informed by revivalism—may learn to react strongly against anything deemed narrow, precise, and conservative. Good intentions (reaching the lost, transforming the city, keeping the church alive, not “losing the young people”) create an exigent impulse to change, adapt, and innovate. As for those who question the wisdom or intentions of innovators; those who wave the standard of, well, the standards a little too vigorously; those who point back to history and raise the red flag—such persons are placed within the narrative under the label of "divisive."

Conservatives are presumed divisive. While their efforts to slow the advance of innovators or erect fortifications of defense are considered inconvenient or unpleasant, any offensive action to push back an assault is met with howls of foul play and harsh condemnation. Conservatives are, the narrative goes, the problem, the obstacle to peace and flourishing. Such a thing is happening even now in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but there is ample evidence that the divisiveness is actually coming from the “progressive” or “beautifully orthodox” side, not from the conservative side.

For instance, in the PCA in 2022 a sizeable faction believe it is not just unenlightened but divisive to oppose the radically innovative “Side B” movement, which assumes homosexual attractions rarely change, accuses the church of horrific homophobia, and finds positive good in some aspects of homosexual culture and identity. This movement, personified by PCA minister Greg Johnson and embodied by the Revoice Conference, would be controversial enough if it involved only church members, but the Side B movement promotes full inclusion in church life, including all church offices and pastoral roles.

Promoting his new book (which promotes the idea that a number of famous 20th-century evangelicals would have warmly embraced Side B), Johnson has gone on the offensive against his conservative skeptics. And he does so not against evangelical Christians generally, but against a large majority of those commissioners to the last PCA General Assembly who voted for proposals (overtures) that would change the PCA constitution. These overtures (which may or may not receive the requisite two-thirds approval by PCA presbyteries—it's very close) propose slight adjustment to passages about officer examinations and qualifications—changes that might make it easier for a conscientious presbytery or session to discern if a candidate holds views, maintains behaviors, or identifies in sinful ways. They are not radical, though Johnson worries that they will be used to “eliminate folks like [him].”

Twitter is the modern medium of self-expression for thought leaders, activists, and innovators, and it is more subtle than you might suppose. As with live human communication, there is more going on than just the words one speaks or types. “Likes” and “retweets” are akin to non-verbal cues, signaling agreement… a digital nod, if you will. A sneer or an eyeroll may be enough to start a fight in personal interaction. Likewise, Greg Johnson’s digital affirmations of certain “takes” on the current controversies may suggest truly divisive intent. Take the following tweet as an example (note that @PcaMemorial is Johnson's Twitter handle):

Johnson signaled his approval of this assessment of the overtures with his “like” button and by retweeting it—sending it out to all of his followers. Calling carefully-considered overtures overwhelmingly approved by the PCA’s largest-ever assembly “unloving, unmerciful, and judgmental” seems accusatory and agreeing that they are “wicked” seems even more disturbing:

These words introduced a retweet of the first tweet quoted above, and they received the same like and retweet approbation from Johnson. “Wickedness (which) will be held to account one day” is a clear statement of judgment upon all who consider the SSA-related overtures necessary. Johnson added no correction, qualification, or nuance to these statements, he simply agreed with them and spread them about.

It should be self-evident that the language and tone expressed above are divisive. What should also be self-evident is that Side B doctrine itself is inherently divisive. The hosting of the 2018 Revoice Conference by Johnson’s church (still the subject of an open PCA discipline case) introduced a radically innovative concept that could only rock the PCA and radically change outsiders’ perspectives of the denomination. The overtures are an understandable and measured response from presbyters who have valid concerns and are generally hospitable to the diversity that has characterized the “big tent” PCA.

The narrative that the opponents of Side B are the divisive ones is unsupportable, even if you view some of the broader tensions in the PCA as a recapitulation of the New School-Old School controversies of the 19th century, which concerned doctrinal precision and the acceptance or denial of certain revivalistic “New Measures.” If missional contextualization and outreach to cities, culture, and elites require Side B (or Revoice) theology to succeed, then the PCA has truly crossed its Rubicon. Thinking about what further adaptations and even-newer measures might follow in the PCA’s missional march causes conservatives to shudder. But such concern is not divisive. Failure to accept every new innovation is not wicked hate—it is loving concern for the flock, for biblical truth, and for the church’s doctrinal standards.

The term divisive suggests division. Unjustified division in the church—actually dividing for less than good reason—has always been considered a sin, and those who disturb the church with “schismatical contentions and disputations” ought to be suppressed according to the PCA’s Book of Church Order. The reasonable conclusion in the case of the SSA controversy is that the innovators are the schismatic and contentious ones, not those who question them. It would be an unloving and cowardly act for those who oppose dangerous innovation, encroachments of the modern sexual revolution, and flawed concepts of identity and personhood to quit the fight before every effort has been made to preserve the church. If anyone leaves the PCA over these issues, it ought to be those who would turn the church upside down with new doctrine, not those who seek to preserve her in faithfulness

Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, and board member of MORE in the PCA.

Related Links

Podcast: "Overtures 23 and 27, and the Book of Church Order"

"Brothers, We Are Presbyterian" by Sarah Morris

"Grief, Confession, and Prayer for Peace" by Todd Pruitt

"Splinter, Split, or Stay in the Fight?" by Brad Isbell

Vital Churches: Elder Responsibility for Their Pastors and Congregational Planning by Wendell Faris McBurney

Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian by Ken Golden