Smells Like Party Spirit

*Update* Because I do not want Brad Isbell, a faithful Ruling Elder, to go through any unpleasantness, I have chosen to redact the quotes which came from the recently released National Partnership emails. One of the things that is troubling to many of us is that members of the National Partnership have taken to social media and blogs to deny that there is anything at all problematic with the emails. And yet they remain hidden. Thanks to Brad for being willing to give voice to a much needed perspective; one that is often ignored. — Todd Pruitt

A guest post from a PCA Ruling Elder

Have you ever ended up at a party and felt as if you didn’t really belong? It may be that you had a right to attend that party. You had an invitation of sorts, but you didn’t really feel welcome and you didn’t really fit in. Things happened that seem to be guided by some unseen hand. Maybe people were dancing, but you knew none of the steps. You were at the party, but somehow not of the party. It’s almost as if there was a party behind the party.

To be honest, this is a bit how it feels for the ruling elder or small church pastor who finds himself at the big party-event known as the annual Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly. He comes ready to deliberate and vote, but something seems off, predetermined, stage-managed. The moderator (a powerful position) seems to have been preselected, for instance, often without opposition. An elite group appears to control things.

Maybe the elder tries to write off the sensation, chalking it up to his own inexperience, but the nagging feeling persists. He's heard of shadowy groups who communicate by Facebook Messenger and marshal votes and voters. Commissioners stream in right before important votes as if by magic. How, he wonders, can they have an opinion on how to vote if they have not heard the debate? Is the General Assembly really a deliberative assembly as it's supposed to be... like the local session and presbytery with which he’s familiar?

Now imagine that lowly elder's reaction when he learns that rumors of a powerful party behind the party are true. The National Partnership is now out in the open, though not by its own design or on its own terms. 

However one feels about the way the email cache (dubbed #PresbyLeaks) of the "confidential" group was revealed and distributed, it must be admitted that these emails (now surely viewed by thousands) contain troubling information.

What did eight years of organizational communication reveal? Well, thankfully, nothing terribly personal or scandalous — what has become public is mostly political. The messages show a highly-organized group comprised almost exclusively of pastors (teaching elders in PCA parlance). There are members, though how one becomes a member or who decides is never revealed. What the members received was lots of advice about how to get on committees deemed strategically important, how to vote on issues essential to the Partnership’s agenda, and who to vote for. This may sound banal, even benign, but the courts of the church are meant to be open, deliberative assemblies where issues and members are judged on their merits, not the advice of an unofficial council. Inordinate control of any court by a secretive group with no public face and no accountability runs counter to presbyterian principles.

One test of behavior and tactics in a church court is to ask the question: Is it scalable? In his magisterial commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, the late Dr. Morton Smith wrote that though the courts of the church are graded, “all of these ‘courts’ are really presbyteries, each being composed exclusively of elders. One of the important implications of this fact is that all of the courts are of the same nature. The gradation is not based upon any hierarchy or office, but rather only on the portion of the Church that is represented.” If this is true, then what is appropriate for one court is appropriate for another. Do we really believe that a secret, well-organized faction, communicating and scheming privately and independently of other members of a local session or presbytery is conducive to harmony, unity, and understanding? Most elders would be horrified to think that members of a local church session would behave that way, so why would it be appropriate in the church’s highest court?

And what if a local church session or a presbytery witnessed members loitering in the hallway for large portions of a meeting, only to be summoned in by e-mail or text message in time to vote on something “really” important, their presence not be required for minor issues or maybe even for the debate on “important” issues?

Most would agree that such behavior is unseemly. The members of presbytery or the local session would likely lose respect for the lobby-lingerers and those who electronically summon them. Mistrust would ensue. And elders would lose faith in the system and each other. Sadly, the National Partnership’s emails reveal just such a scenario. One of the emails from 2018* contains a link to a schedule for the General Assembly’s business. Important daytime items of business are highlighted. A note advises commissioners to schedule their socializing so as to not miss key votes. Now maybe this note was meant to be cheeky, but nothing in its context indicates that. Rather, it suggests that an appreciable number of National Partnership-affiliated elders attend General Assembly to party and socialize as much as they do to deliberate and vote. The Partnership is there to help them know when the important business takes place. Most PCA congregants can appreciate that there is a social dimension to the General Assembly, but would they be happy to know that some of their elders have to be advised when to vote, how to vote, and when to drink...or not? 

About that voting thing — the National Partnership emails often stress that its members have freedom of conscience, but how they should vote and who they should vote for is suggested quite pointedly. And the “when” of voting is not just a matter of highlighted schedules, frantic calls for voters (“--------------------------------------------------------------”) come in the midst of the assembly.

Who is the “us” suggesting votes and summoning errant voters? Who is the ‘we”? Is it the leadership of the National Partnership? Some sort of council? Just one man? We’ll never know because, unlike other groups in the PCA such as the Gospel Reformation Network and MORE in the PCA, the National Partnership has no website or public face. Where would one go (besides the emails) to learn about such an organization’s goals, methods, and agenda? To whom are they accountable?

Interestingly, everything we know about the group has come from “leaked” emails. An explanatory email to a select group of elders back in 2013 was published by a news website. And in 2017 an email to a list associated with the National Partnership revealed a bit more about the organization’s methods (“Once again at GA we will organize a ‘real time on-the-floor,’ vote-by-vote running Facebook Messenger conversation…”), and its own self assessment (“Our Fellowship has grown from a test group of sorts, to a place where, if united, we can win every vote.”). Now we have the leaked cache which reveals the scope of the National Partnership’s activity.

So, what was secret (or confidential) is now in the open. Maybe that’s a good thing. If the National Partnership’s goals and methods are noble, and (as the emails often assert) they represent the majority — the “healthy” part of the PCA — and embody the PCA  founders’ vision, what should they fear? Maybe those attending future General Assemblies will look to the Partnership for guidance. Or maybe presbyters will be careful to examine people and positions, motives and machinations a bit more warily than before.

As was noted earlier, Presbyterians have traditionally valued openness, believing that Christ rules his Church through the sincere labors and deliberations of her officers. Let us close with these words from the great ecclesiologist of Old Princeton, the venerable Samuel Miller:

“Never allow yourself either to propose a scheme, or to suggest means for its accomplishment, which you would not be willing ultimately to see emblazoned in every gazette in the country. Depend upon it: artifice, concealment, and evasion, are, nowhere, ultimately profitable to any man: but in an ecclesiastical assembly, there is a hatefulness about them which cannot be too strongly portrayed, and a mischief which never fails, sooner or later, to fall on the head of him who employs — Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits (1827)

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

*The author of this article believes he is justified in quoting from National Partnership documents, as a website sympathetic to the organization is doing so: