Brothers, We Are Presbyterian
Author's Note (11/15): Due to many helpful, cordial, and somewhat painful conversations over the course of the day, I have become less convinced that those who shared the email link over social media sinned — though I still do not believe theirs was the most prudent course of action. I do not take accusations of sin lightly, and therefore this article has been updated accordingly.
I think while I clean. I know that most normal people come up with good ideas in the shower, or mentally process through problems with a strong cup of coffee or after a good run. Alternatively, I find I do my best deep thinking while cleaning grout or scrubbing baseboards, which means that this past week I have deep-cleaned window sills, wiped down walls, vacuumed behind washing machines, and inordinately terrified my dog with the steam mop. What has transpired over the last couple of weeks in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has weighed down my spirit and occupied my scarce mental bandwidth. Why would elders in the church purposefully deceive one another? If there was no wrong-doing, why was there such secrecy? How did anyone think this was a good idea? Who leaked the information? Was it ethical to do so? Who, if anyone, is in the right? How am I supposed to submit to leadership which seems to have no moral compass? My heart was heavy as I pondered this convoluted mess. As a result, my house is now immaculate, my head hurts, and my dog has been hiding under the end table for three hours.
The recent e-mail dump containing nine years’ worth of confidential National Partnership business has been dubbed #PresbyLeaks, which hilariously sounds like a terrible geriatric condition. A very well-organized clandestine political wing of our denomination has been exposed for being exactly what it is, despite many of us having been assured time and time again that the National Partnership was merely an exclusive fellowship organization akin to a type of pastors’ support group. I have seen many men betrayed, slandered, lied to, and lash out in anger on both sides this week and last. The situation is a colossal dumpster fire. I certainly am not shocked, but I am disappointed and a bit confused. The same question keeps repeating in my head: “Brothers, are we not Presbyterian?”
Earlier this year, James Kessler wrote an article entitled, “A PCA Worth Having.” Mr. Kessler opened his argument by stating,
“As the founder of the National Partnership, I’ve been careful to avoid the sense that I was creating a tribe in the PCA.”
I wonder, did it start out rather innocuously? Was it a group of friends who got together to enjoy their own comradery over a drink, who attracted others until the group grew past the confines of a room? Conversation moved to online groups where excitement brimmed, plans were made, emails were launched, and the National Partnership was formed. More were added to their number, and slots on various committees were filled to the extent that they could refer to whole presbyteries as NP presbyteries.
But something started happening. Amidst the calls to action to steer the ship, Kessler started warning against playing two-party politics, keeping one’s tone gracious, and spending too much time on empty rhetoric battles at the mic. There were some exceedingly pastoral warnings given against characterizations of the other side, and Kessler tried to gently discourage the proclivity to enter the black hole that is the endless back and forth of blog posts, Facebook comment sections, or Assembly floor speech duels. And yet, something of a tribe mentality had already set in. Men frustrated with their more conservative brethren started referring to the other side as “the fundamentalists” and “the unhealthy wing of the denomination.” A few choice examples show the level of partisanship that had been formed:
"The PCA gets plenty of things wrong, but I’m increasingly convinced that if there’s a group most capable of getting it right, it’s this group."
“Riding the wave of culture-war, fear has created a strong voting block that has not only stilted our voice as an Assembly but helped to repopulate some of our committees, like the SJC, with less healthy expressions of our denominational body.”
"The last four years the GRN has worked, in my opinion, to amplify the volume not of the most vulnerable in our society but the most vocal anxieties in our denomination."
“They will take every inch we give them and then keep coming at us and trying to push us out. Our good will has been used against us for years. This will not stop now. They have hammered us three years in a row, all while we try to play nice and meet in the middle.”
Even David Cassidy, while publicly responding to the National Partnership email leak, lumped a large majority of our denomination into a group he labeled, “that other side” – of whom he was deeply suspicious and assigned sinful motives rather freely:
"My colleague and friend who coordinated this email list of other friends was wounded by this betrayal - and make no mistake about it, a betrayal is exactly what took place. It was sinful. It was also unethical. It’s also, given what I’ve come to know about some of the men who are part of that ‘other side’, hardly unexpected."
So how did we get here? The short answer is simple: Presbyterians rarely like to act like Presbyterians. But the fact that we are Presbyterians generally means that we prefer long answers, so let’s get to it, shall we?
The first item which desperately needs to be addressed is the ethical nightmare of the entire situation. This is where I will likely have the charming experience of making all parties equally enraged. All emails were subject to a confidentiality agreement. One could quibble about the lack of legal efficacy if the receiving parties had not signed a non-disclosure agreement, but we are speaking about pastors here, and ethics should not have to be litigated to exist. The real question is: was the way in which these emails were disseminated sinful?
I acknowledge that the unsavory methods of backdoor politicking of the National Partnership needed to be exposed. However, was Mr. Kessler contacted privately before the release of records in order to call him and others to repentance in accordance with Matthew 18? I do not have that information, so I cannot speculate, but it’s a question which must be considered. I do not see a problem with the emails being sent to other ruling and teaching elders as part of a potential investigation. However, I humbly suggest that the posting of these emails to social media so that the entire world outside of the PCA's membership might have access to our dispute is neither becoming nor wise. Mr. Kessler and all members of the National Partnership made vows to their presbyteries, and it is their presbyteries who should discuss the nature of their sin and call them to repentance. While vigilante justice via the internet is immediate and rather satisfying as entertainment goes, it is the antithesis of presbyterian government and church discipline. The “holy slowness” of presbyterian courts can be a lengthy and discursive process, but it prevents rash decision-making and allows time for passions to cool in those given to hysterics. Pragmatism should not determine ethics or due process. That is not to say that these elders’ actions should never be brought before local congregations.
“But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” - I Timothy 5:20
However, in this backwards scenario, the sins of the National Partnership were made known to every Tom, Dick, and Harry before their presbyteries ever had a chance to meet. I do not expect everyone to concur with my assessment; I realize quite cheerfully that many men will disagree with my opinion, but I trust that they have good and reasonable grounds to dissent. What I fear may have transpired in many cases was the click of the “share” button first, and the consideration of ethics later.
That said, there is a difference between confidentiality of personal information and covert undermining of our presbyterian government. If the leaked emails were composed of confidential personal information, such as casual inane conversations, descriptions of brothers struggling with alcoholism, or prayer requests for failing marriages, then this would have been an unconscionable breach of privacy. However, there were no such conversations. Yet, Kessler warned his email recipients thusly:
"Confidentiality exists in this group because our conversations are not public. We want to know who we're talking to. And we want reasonable assurance that our words are being read charitably and in context."
It is important to note that the desire for a safe environment to discuss theological and ecclesial issues is understandable. The yearning for a fellowship of elders for encouragement and spiritual sharpening is Biblical. The longing for a place to discuss and debate the future and nurture of the denomination is commendable, but we already have one. It's called presbytery.
Furthermore, secrecy is found nowhere in the manuals for presbyterian government. The information in these emails is not confidential information, it is secret information. There is a nuanced difference between confidentiality and secrecy. Confidentiality breeds trust, peace, and security, whereas secrecy begets anxiety, suspicion, gossip, and dysfunction. Secrecy has less to do with privacy and more to do with concealment. Generally, if you feel the need for secrecy, you already know what you're doing is wrong.
Instead of persuading local elders in their respective presbyteries of a specific vision, the National Partnership formed a type of covert presbytery within our wider denomination with the express purpose of infiltrating other presbyteries in order to steer the denomination in the direction of the will of its secret constituency. All teaching elders are required to take vows to their presbyteries to be in submission to their brethren. How can one be in submission to their brethren if they have decided that their brethren need not know their intentions?
Operating in this fashion ensures that conclusions are reached with a large majority left out of the decision-making process. I simply cannot emphasize this enough: a small group of elders who meet in private to discuss and decide on issues on behalf of the entire denomination, and then send representatives from that group to presbyteries and General Assembly with pre-determined voting instructions regardless of any conversation, discussion, input, or alternative counsel from the rest of the assembly of elders — this is not presbyterian. This process is an unhealthy mutation of the example of early church government given to us in Acts 15, Galatians 2, and many other New Testament passages. I do not need to rehearse a lesson in church history; you men ought to have a seminary education.
Brothers, you most certainly will encounter other cantankerous personalities who will misconstrue your words. Someone somewhere might say something mean to you at some point. Unfortunately, being in subjection to your brethren isn’t always pleasant. I’ve been married for over a decade. I know a thing or two about inconvenient submissiveness. Regardless, if your vision for the denomination is worth pursuing, then it is worth defending. If you firmly believe in a certain direction for the church, then you should not conceal your intentions in the corner of a dark room only visible to a few. Anything which you regard as contributing to the health and building up of Christ's Bride you should shout from the rooftops! Do not hide behind anonymity like a child behind his mother's skirts.
As Mr. Kessler so aptly puts it:
“What I tell my own people is simple: I’m better when I reason together with others. I don’t know everything. I need help to fulfill my duty as a presbyter."
Members of the National Partnership: plainly speaking, you shot yourselves in the foot. Your secrecy aroused all kinds of paranoid speculation. You were authors of your own worst critiques. Going forward, open communication will serve you well in defending unfair characterizations of yourselves. I do not believe the National Partnership as an organization needs to cease to exist; it merely needs to be public and honest about what it is doing. My immediate maternal instinct may be to knock some heads together, but I do not believe you all to be vicious. Please pursue reconciliation with your brethren humbly and with contrition.
Finally, it is important to understand that PresbyLeaks has had an impact not just on REs and TEs, but it has made a nasty fight very public, and the rest of us in the pews are reeling from it all. Do not think that just because we are unordained, we are unaffected. I dearly love the Church. Currently, her ministers are making it unnecessarily difficult for other people to love her, and it is infuriating to see the disillusionment on their faces. Please forgive me if I sound sanctimonious or insubordinate; it is not my intention. I am just a mom wearily wrangling kids on Sunday; I do not wish to be contentious. It is my desire to be in complete submission to all of you. My husband is a teaching elder, so I possess a great tenderness towards you men who have been called to ministry. I have an idea of the road you travel, and I love you for it.
I would like to conclude by quoting Mr. Kessler. I greatly appreciated this caution, and I see his pastor's heart in his concern. I may disagree with his methods, and I may believe that he, along with many others, needs to repent for breaking his vows to his fellow presbyters, but I do not believe him to be my enemy, nor does my disagreement with him dissolve my responsibility to respect his teaching and to submit to the discipline of the church.
"A good friend reminded me of a helpful truth a couple of weeks ago: we must constantly fight against the tendency to reduce the personhood of those with whom we disagree to a proposition easily dismissed. More simply: your opponents are more than the propositions they affirm. We have to fight to hear each other in these heated debates. I tell you I am not good at this. I am impatient and weary of anyone’s voice but my own after a few minutes. I pray that you and I will fight the good fight to love Jesus well in these conversations.”
Brothers, we are Presbyterian.
Now start acting like it.
Sarah Morris is a member of Westminster PCA in Roanoke, Virginia where she lives with her husband, her three children, and her pathetic excuse for a dog.
"Grief, Confession, and Prayer for Peace" by Todd Pruitt
"Smells Like Paerty Spirit" by Brad Isbell
"Honest Thoughts on the Open Letter" by Stephen Spinnenweber
The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever
Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian by Ken Golden