(Mopping Up) The Big Leak, Pt. 1
A guest post from a PCA Teaching Elder
The Damp Introductions of Mr. Scott and Mr. Inman
Travis Scott has begun a reflection on the Big Leak of documents from the National Partnership. He speaks from greater knowledge than any critic, since he has been a member of NP since 2017. Such a perspective is valuable, although it carries a liability. It is not evident how his sworn confidentiality continues into this public forum.
He considers that confidentiality wholesome, and he in fact divulges no more than is already available to any who will sully themselves with the leaked emails. To some degree, his account implicitly commends not reading the emails. A responsible person might elect to receive only the forthcoming account of this better informed NP member. There’s like 400 pages. They’re leaked. National Partnership members are not advertising any chagrin.
That might be a less conspicuous bit of implicit influence, if Mr. Scott did not also forthrightly commend acting in a political fashion. He says politics are inherent to Presbyterian polity. In an earlier time, a thoughtful reference to lice would not be rude or unfamiliar. It would allow a little ecumenical resourcing of Wesley’s “cleanliness is next to godliness” to tag sophistic realism as cynicism that doesn’t want to take frequent showers. I’m sure someone can find politics in Paul—with enemies, not brothers.
Mr. Scott is attentive in stipulating that Semper Ref is not a National Partnership endeavor. It is an understandable clarification. Given that I disagree with Mr. Scott and here proceed to criticism of the National Partnership in rejoinder to his claims, nothing could make that assertion more plausible than the posting of this article on Semper Ref. Criticism of myself or this article might deflect my request, but I have made it.
Like Mr. Scott, I ought to disclose my place in this hubbub. I am an Ass. Pastor in a tiny PCA church. If they hadn’t called me when they did, I likely would have demitted the ministry by now. Under all my “it’s complicated” over the last decade, I largely disengaged from active participation in the work of church beyond the congregations. I have lurked. I have been a full GA streamer and scrolled through the AlQaeda Report and ByCredulity with some regularity. Increasingly I have noted the difficulty of even getting a program from a seat up in the rafters. "Programs! Get'cha programs! Can't tell who's who without'cha program."
Three years ago I commenced more active engagement. In doing so, I witnessed in chat spaces repeated discussion of the NP. I knew about previous groups in years past and heard similar things. I knew a lot about the GRN even from the cheap seats, but I didn’t know that the NP was off in the ultraviolet part of a spectrum. With the contrary descriptions of the NP and the lack of concrete undisputed anything, I knew it was important but not what it actually was.
When the soppy bundle of leaks showed up, I read them. They were in fact wet. In rejoinder to Mr. Scott, after this counter introduction, I offer two swipes with a swiffer.
First, because there are too many different glistening spots on the tile to avoid a puritanical treatise with a title longer than any paragraph I write—I offer ten quasi-one liners traded for quasi-one liners from Mr. Scott's article. Squirt for squirt, let’s say.
Second, a direct discussion of the most mundane, repeated and perhaps attention numbing element of the emails. It's not the only one, but a very swollen sponge to squeeze. There is moppin’ up to do.
“Careful, don’t slip: there’s another little puddle.”
“What [Mr. Kessler] did not desire was to create a specific tribe or worse, a voting block.”
You are the best and the brightest of the PCA tribe endeavoring to foil the influence of the worst and the whatever of the PCA. Your claim of the center is a claim to transcend tribes. The aim seems to be somewhat larger than a tribe, more like desiring to create a specific denomination.
James Kessler: “We are looking for unity, not uniformity.”
That sounds like a healthy presbytery, but NP has an exclusive membership untrammeled by a lot of other presbyters. What is a party but unity with the same open mind and its limited permutations? Perhaps presbyters could cultivate this as the substance of their respective presbyteries.
“Over the years different members of the NP have communicated poorly and in a triumphalistic way about different positions, approaches, and most importantly - votes. It’s important to admit this because it’s true. However, at the same time, most often the men who’ve made those sorts of statements have apologized and sought to clarify their meaning and intent.”
Conspicuous secrecy and unembarrassed political strategy draw more weight on the gaffes than the subsequent clarification. In political terms, some things must be redressed not because they are false but because they are impolitic. This is political commonsense
“Most of the suspicion and maligning has come from the fact that the NP email list is confidential. Many have seen this as inherently untrustworthy and indicative of ill intentions.”
The value of the email discussion could have been adduced on the floor of presbyteries. Not out of order at all, but clearly out of bounds for strategy on the floor of presbytery. Perhaps it was not politic to to announce on the floor that you actually represented the majority—you might not get the majority of the votes that way.
“The aim of the confidentiality of the group was to promote open communication and trust between members of the group. This was seen as necessary in an ecclesial environment given to theological trolling, denouncement, and the continuous graceless questioning of men’s confessional integrity.”
There is not a straight line from this complaint to General Assembly committee assignments. GA is the main focus of the NP emails.
“The leak of these nine years of confidential emails revealed that the NP… is exactly what most of its members have always said it was. . . When people work together, they are inevitably involved in politics.”
Setting aside the chorus of “no, not what they said to us” of many vocal critics—that is the NP. Well, that would be a horrible family, especially a family business of three founding brothers and three generations. Our presbyteries? Our denomination? Politics is kingdom normal?
“The critics of the NP need to prove that the political movements of the NP are inappropriate based on its goals, methods, and agenda – and now they have nine years of emails to use to that effect.”
Yes, there is method to my madness. I will only take up method below, as the other two are so vigilantly disputed. Two out of three. Odd lapse, hmm.
“However, throughout the emails there are no nefarious plots or schemes, no pressuring or bullying, no underhanded tactics to undermine and subvert our polity or our courts.”
Could gentlemen, chivalrous fellows, subvert the court in loyalty to queen and country? Three musketeers are too bawdy a comparison, as one may comport subversion better.
“If the Big Leak had proven that the NP was exerting some sort of undue pressure to keep everyone in lock step and all thinking and voting the same way then it would be right to decry it as an inappropriate political group.”
No, we wouldn’t ever be like Mark Driscoll, but maybe Robert Schuller ,or the way the CRC saw its church order flanked for women officers in the 90’s? Vigor, polity, and 1% sufficiently adjacent results, not bullying. Perfunctory esteem for presbytery and exploiting it—might that be decried?
“So, the Big Reveal about the NP is really that there’s really nothing that’s been revealed which the founder and many of the members haven’t been saying for years.”
Has the NP said that it’s strategy is to accomplish the appointment of as many NP men as possible from as many presbyteries as possible to the most important committees of General Assembly in order to have a determinative effect on the actions of those committees? I haven't been listening for a very long time, but I squeezed this sponge and I’m soaked.
(O.K., that was ten, but we weren't counting. We aren't taking names either.)
"The more troubling revelation in my mind is what the Big Leak reveals about the character of the NP’s most vocal detractors. That will be the basis of Part 2 in this series."
I’m just going to say, don’t dirty the water. In presbytery, per Robert’s rules, you don’t address the motives or the person of a speaker—only his arguments. I know, it’s Roberts Rules, but don’t throw the twins out with the bath water.
“If we’re careful, most of the water will end up in the trash with the sponge.”
I’m not carrying water for anybody but the PCA. Not for GRN, or the Liberti Network or the New Life Network (still exists?) or the Regulative Principle is The Best Crack Network. It’s been ten years since I had a tribe, but I have a presbytery. The people who seem to agree with my little WTFNP flourish are people I’ve never met. I’m doing my best to superficially offend all of them, so men will rally to principle and polity rather than pride and party.
Folk, with women and babes, died for Presbyterian polity. I can look stupid. The Reformation had a massive question: instead of bishops? The NP makes me queasy about the presbytery part of the PCA. Perhaps, it’s something in the water we drink, and the odor off the floor is enough to reflex fill the back of my mouth.
What will you find in the leaked emails? You will find nothing about cultivating the unity of particular presbyteries. You will find no discussion of how to seek a common mind and mission by the godly affections of the court’s members. There is no attempt to forge open air unity among the officers appointed by Christ to carry out the gospel stewardship together. Politics can’t do that; in fact, the political aims of the NP demonstrate no interest in the health of presbyteries.
Perhaps they think most are flush with wholesome unity without uniformity. The resort to confidentiality belies that happy thought—and any actual cherishing of presbytery. The only concern with presbyteries is the GA nominations process. That is valued, but I cannot find respect for it glimmering on the surface of the NP puddles.
As I now assume must be true of all robust discussions among elders seeking insight about the church's mission, the NP emails are heavy on rosters, tallies of courts and confirmed committee assignments. If you roll through the 400 pages, these are repeated columns and comments that you might scroll by as mere repetition with incremental variation. Month after month.
- The list of men added to the NP membership.
- The growing list of “National Partnership Presbyteries.”
- The list of NOT yet NP presbyteries.
- The list of confirmed NP men on Overtures, RPR, Administration, etc.
- The list of GA assignments not yet filled by presbyteries.
- The repeated exhortation for NP men to get appointed to GA committees.
Why do BCO amendments stand for vote in each of 88 presbyteries? Each holds a whole stewardship of the gospel ministry within its bounds. Each stands as a singular court of Christ’s church, comprising the ministers and congregations that are bound together by Christ’s Spirit. These are the men full of the Spirit, instructed in the Word and qualified in character to discern together—without uniformity. They should draw on all resources fitting to their vows, but they should brook no subversive supplanting of the task for which God will hold them accountable.
What an unwieldy mess! Who can bring them into a coherent whole? How can wisdom and purpose ferment and rise up out of 88? Surely there must be some abiding and animate wisdom, a godly choreography that can summon out of this sprawl solid decisions and ambitions that have the wholesomeness of the Spirit’s nurture. How will the presbyteries be coordinated, as if they were the body of one wise man?
The presbyteries are coordinated in three ways. The PCA’s constitution provides an determinative footprint, a set of norms shared by the 88 and biasing them each in trajectories that overlap and can vary only along a general path. The General Assembly sets questions through BCO amendments that can only be answered—yes or no—within that width of trajectories. The GA exercises review and control to nudge presbyteries in difficult points of harmony. Constitution and GA are purely instrumental. Christ alone can animate and direct 88 in both unity and ambition. Does the Lord Jesus rule presbyteries through all those enrolled, or are some—maybe many—merely cogs to vote without informed deliberation?
The National Partnership is rich with discussion, difference and diversity of opinion—in so far as is possible in a selected and exclusive group of like-minded men. They are commended to one another by their partnership in the pondering and coordination of their organized affinity. The single unalloyed goal—the annual action of nine years that received no virtuous deference for conscience in 400 pages—is to place as many NP members as possible, from as many presbyteries as possible, on the committees of the General Assembly.
The 88 are unwieldy, and the effort at coordinating them exceeds a mortal’s mastery of majorities. Still, the numbers assigned to GA committees are drastically smaller. Instead of coordinating the 88, you can just use them. Get the nominations. Get more nominations. Just get more each year.
Have men spoken on the floor in keeping with these emails, or in keeping with the strategy of these emails? Have men risen to speak for a nomination saying, “I move that Mr. NP be elected to Overtures because he is a member of the National Partnership, has benefited from the NP’s resources and demonstrates a commitment to the unity without uniformity treasured by our organization.” Have men been forthright and argued, “It is important that RPR be populated with men enrolled in the National Partnership from as many presbyteries as possible in order to squelch the extremist influence in our denomination?”
Have men exploited Robert’s Rules and the modest seal it lays over motives by concealing a primary argument in their own conscience for the election of one man over another? Call it confidentiality on the internet; all this is secrecy on the floor of as many presbyteries as possible. That is coordination of the presbyteries that depends on concealment in the presbyteries.
Christ alone—by the open deliberation and full forthright and frank advocacy of each member according to his conscience submissive to God's word and faithful to our vows—can bring any good out of a single presbytery. He can coordinate them without the hoodwinking and patronizing reticence of men who know better than the body can be allowed to know. The water stinks. I want to wash my hands. These are leaks. Where is all this water coming from? Does somebody want to say this is Ezekiel's river?
There is moppin’ up to do—and then what?
Benjamin Inman is a Teaching Elder at Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fuquay-Varina,NC.