The PCA Doctrine of Election, 2022 Style
The terms, tropes, and tactics of secular politics certainly influence ecclesial politics, so it’s no surprise to hear one of the Presbyterian Church in America’s most prominent and influential pastors sounding very much like a pundit on a cable news show: Conspiracy! The Russians! The vote was rigged! Now, no doubt you’re wondering which seersucker-attired “TR” confessionalist (smelling vaguely of cigar smoke and bourbon) sputtered such scurrilous and wild charges—allegations of shenanigans in the courts of the church, suggestions of suspect voting results. But these quite-confident, repeated charges do not come from the PCA right, but from the denomination’s winsome center-left.
Scott Sauls was Tim Keller’s right-hand man for a time at the large and unquestionably influential Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. About the time Nashville, TN was exploding in growth and becoming a global city in its own right, Sauls took a senior pastor post in a large suburban church there. He had heretofore seemed generally uninterested in PCA politics. The landmark 2021 PCA General Assembly and its aftermath appear to have changed that.
The controversial overtures 23 and 37—which might have restricted certain “same-sex attracted” or gay Christian officers from serving—have failed to reach the required supermajority of presbytery approval. These overtures (proposals to change the PCA constitution) passed by large margins at the 2021 assembly. A clear majority of presbyteries have approved one or both since, but not enough to advance them to the final step of ratification. This disparity between General Assembly voting and the 88 presbyteries prompted Sauls to allege court-packing on Twitter:
I do hope that this experience with 23 and 37 is a wake up call concerning how easy (and wrong) it is to stack the Assembly to achieve outcomes that mischaracterize the PCA as a whole.— Scott Sauls (@scottsauls) February 11, 2022
Hoping for better in Birmingham, but we'll see.
Where to begin? Court “stacking” is identical in most peoples’ minds to “packing the court,” which is often threatened in regard to the U.S. Supreme Court. That sort of stacking, though, would be accomplished by appointing additional court members to influence ideological outcomes. PCA General Assemblies are not appointed; they are open to every ordained pastor (teaching elder in PCA parlance) and two or more ruling elders per church, depending on size. It is a voluntary assembly. Those motivated by the issues and compelled by conscience or principle make the effort to attend and vote. The idea of “stacking” also suggests cheating or a loaded deck—unfairness. That’s a serious charge, and would involve actual, sinful impropriety (“and wrong”). Unless the electronic voting system was hacked (by Russians?), allegations of this type of stacking seem laughable.
Replying to a detractor, Sauls doubled down:
Yes, the assembly was unquestionably stacked. The Presbyteries are currently demonstrating the evidence of that.— Scott Sauls (@scottsauls) February 11, 2022
How was the General Assembly “unquestionably stacked”? Sauls indicated agreement with another commenter who accused the Gospel Reformation Network and MORE in the PCA—a group that provides financial assistance to ruling elders (laymen) who wish to attend to the General Assembly—of nefarious activity.
These charges are interesting, since the Gospel Reformation Network only produces conferences and online content, and MORE in the PCA helped only about 50 ruling elders (out of a record 2115 commissioners!) in 2021 with registration fees, lodging, or travel expenses—and I know this to be the case, since I am on the board of MORE in the PCA. The clear-cut results and wide voting margins of the 2021 assembly could not have been influenced by assistance given to fewer than 50 laymen, since the ruling elder percentage of General Assembly commissioners (25.2%) was identical to that of the previous Dallas assembly. And the Gospel Reformation Network provides no monetary assistance to any elders.
“Stacked” seems to mean “unrepresentative” to Pastor Sauls:
What I’m hearing Jason say here is that 2021 was unique in the degree to which efforts seemed politically driven and organized. That is my observation, as well.— Scott Sauls (@scottsauls) February 12, 2022
Presbytery votes seem to indicate that GA 2021 was imbalanced concerning representation.
This logic works both ways. Maybe the presbytery votes were imbalanced in representation because of organized, politically-driven efforts. Or maybe some who voted for the overtures at the assembly thought about it and changed their minds by the time of the presbytery votes. Or maybe a significant number of presbyteries are even more dominated by pastors than the General Assembly is (most observers will tell you that pastors vote more progressively than ruling elders). No one can say why the results and percentages differed between assembly and presbyteries. And that’s one reason why no one should be alleging “wrong” things like “stacking.”
A cynic in today’s PCA might suspect simple projection at this point. There is, in recent PCA history, only one documented and inarguable case of political organizing: The National Partnership. This shadowy organization began in 2013 and the infamous 2021 “Presbyleaks” email dump exposed years of political activity, voting advice, and, yes, efforts to “stack” or control certain committees, always (depending on your perspective) in a “missional,” “progressive,” or “beautifully orthodox” way.
It’s unsurprising that those who have engaged in secret or confidential activity—which included real-time vote direction at assemblies and year-round strategizing—might assume that others are doing the same. But the attempts of the National Partnership and their progressive sympathizers to equate the efforts of the Gospel Reformation Network and MORE in the PCA with their own fall flat… and smack of the tu quoque fallacy.
An objective observer of PCA history might point out that the broader, missional-progressive camp has often succeeded in the past 20 years. And for the past ten years, they’ve usually picked a friendly moderator (who actually does appoint powerful study committees) and have generally prevailed on legislative issues. According to the logic of Pastor Sauls, maybe it’s the conservatives who should be crying foul, having been on the outs for so long. But for all their grumbling and rhetoric, conservatives have not cried shenanigans! after their many setbacks. Claiming that an assembly is wonderfully representative when you win and “stacked” when you lose is simply bad form.
All attempts to undermine the confidence that members and officers have in the PCA’s highest court are unhelpful, unwise, and un-presbyterian. Interest and issues motivate attendance. What may be “stacked” against one part of the PCA is the conviction shared by a majority of PCA members and officers (especially outside of cities and college towns) that something must be done about the incursion of Side B/celibate gay Christianity into America’s largest conservative presbyterian denomination. A reminder: In conservative organizations, radical and innovative positions may well suffer defeat on their merits rather than because a court or assembly is unrepresentative.
There can be no peace in the PCA until this issue is settled. The defeat of two overtures (constitutional amendments) is not the end of the story. And silly allegations of “stacked” and unrepresentative assemblies may motivate even greater attendance at the 2022 Birmingham assembly. And that could represent a turning point in the PCA.
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.
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