Covenant Seminary President Bryan Chappell will lead an important presentation and discussion concerning the future direction of the PCA at the PCA’s General Assembly in Dallas this summer. The stated reason that this seminar needs to take place (and it does, and will be excellent in Dr. Chappell’s able hands) is because of the increasingly controversial and divisive issue of the role of women in the Church’s ministry. The past few years have witnessed several prominent ministers and congregations depart from the PCA over the current stance of the denomination on this question. Other congregations freely use the term ‘deaconess’ to refer to women in their churches who carry forward ministry related tasks, and this makes some in other congregations very uncomfortable. At least two Presbyteries have offered Overtures for this year’s GA to form a study committee to look into this matter, reporting back to the GA the following year. Thus the issue will shortly be noted as a front and center issue, rather than a simmering controversy discussed only quietly and in private. Looking ahead to Dr. Chappell’s seminar, I thought it might be helpful to say up front the way I see it. This opening article, written before I knew about Dr. Chappell’s seminar, offers my take on why this matter is so potentially explosive.
PCA Fault Lines and the Coming Ecclesiastical Earthquake
For some years our family lived in western Kentucky, not far from the New Madrid fault line that runs north-south through the central United States. We were regularly warned about the danger of a major earthquake, the kind that occurred in 1811-1812 which re-directed the Mississippi River and formed Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. It was an almighty shake up that very well could be repeated. We never felt more than minor tremors, one occurring just a few weeks ago in that region of the country.
Fault lines are boundaries, places where the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth meet – and sometimes move, causing the great earthquakes which can devastate wide areas. These underground lines are well known and in some cases visible to trained eyes. Yet the surface appears to be safe to most observers, the underlying faults not readily recognizable. When tectonic plates – the massive, irregularly shaped slabs of solid rock that make up the earth’s lithosphere – shift and collide along the hitherto hidden fault lines, the energy released causes massive devastation. The minor tremors often experienced in the fault line regions are reminders of what lurks beneath.
It seems to me that some ecclesiastical geological surveying is in order. It appears to many that some fault lines are running beneath the surface of the Presbyterian Church in America, occasionally showing themselves with the eruption of various disputes. It has to be said that most of these in recent years have been what one might describe as ‘minor tremors’ (though to the people directly involved they might have felt rather dangerous indeed). Issues like the length of the days in creation, theonomy, spiritual gifts, and the more recent controversy about the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision theology have indeed demanded a lot of attention from PCA elders and congregations, and yet have been rather tame disputes in comparison with other titanic conflicts in Church history. But is ‘the big one’ coming? I think so.
In the past I have described the PCA as consisting of a few prominent groups: TRs (Truly Reformed), the BRs (Barely Reformed), the URs (Urban Reformed), and the LRs (Liturgically Reformed). Tim Keller has suggested a paradigm of ‘Transformationalists’, ‘Doctrinalists’, and ‘Pietists’. Keller’s incisive analysis captures the picture in broad terms, and I think it is certainly helpful. Nevertheless, the TR, BR, UR, and LR distinctions strike a chord at the practical-emotional level because they describe approaches to worship as well as approaches to society. TRs, BRs, URs, and LRs might all be engaged for cultural transformation, but their differences on worship would ultimately alienate them from one another.
Yet this demarcation also masks the more substantial divisions that exist in the PCA. The recent FV controversy highlights this. The BRs and TRs were able to make common cause against people they perceived to be common opponents, and thus one might fairly conclude that the fault line running between the TR tectonic plate and the BR tectonic plate is surprisingly narrow and lacking in the capacity to become the epicenter for a massive shift. But neither the TRs nor the BRs could make common cause with many of the LRs, primarily because the LRs viewed those condemned in the FV-NPP Report as on their side of the fault-lines. Why? The culture of worship. The URs were largely silent in the last conflict, not from lack of conviction either way, but probably because they saw the FV controversy as a conflict between two kinds of TRs, and the outcome would not in any way affect their worship culture. And that is where the real divide in the PCA exists – worship and sacraments.
Let me suggest that this worship demarcation is a much more critical fault line that runs through the lithography of the PCA landscape beneath the previously mentioned groupings and it is this line that provides the context for the considerable shift that I believe may well take place. This lithographic survey highlights four key ecclesiastical cultures in the PCA which I have labeled in this way: HCs (Historical Catholics), NPs (Neo-Puritans), STs (Southern Traditionalists), and EPMs (Evangelical Postmoderns). There is some crossover among these groups; there are NPs who are also STs. But it should also be noted that the chasm between each of these groups is also quite wide. There does not seem to be a place where, for instance, the HCs meet the EPMs, or the EPMs meet the STs. What is characteristic of each grouping indicates why a place of meeting would be very difficult. Some of this is due in no small part to the underlying history of the Reformed movements. The differences between the British and European Continental churches and theology (and the unique approaches that exist between the European communions, notably between the Kuyperians and Schilderians), all contribute to this divergence. Those from a Scottish heritage for instance could never bear to have portions of the English Book of Common Prayer used in their services, nor could the Dutch Reformed ponder for long a Scottish style Presbyterian polity.
Let’s look briefly at these groups as I observe them.
HCs (historic catholics) value the ancient Faith as expressed in the Creeds, worship in such a way that the Lord’s Table has a place of weekly prominence, and the liturgical structure images the more ancient practices of the Church. Scripture is taken very seriously, studied enthusiastically, and proclaimed faithfully. These congregations however see themselves first and foremost as part of the centuries deep and wide Christian Church which encompasses a far wider community than the Reformed, and takes seriously the call to work with other kinds of Christian congregations in their locality for the growth of the Kingdom. Often in favor of paedocommunion, HCs are determined to plant beachheads of kingdom renewal, appreciating their reformed pedigree and confessional allegiance, but never allowing that to trump Scripture when there is any apparent disagreement between the two. They would value Systematic theology, but not at the expense of Biblical theology, which would have pride of place in this theological scheme.
NPs (Neo-Puritans) value the Confession and Catechisms above the ancient Creeds, worship in what might be identified as a more Puritan- minimalist style, and have a liturgical structure which places the greatest emphasis on the sermon. Here Scripture is taken very seriously as well, and it is taught and proclaimed with vigor and devotion. These congregations see themselves as rooted not so much in a patristic Church tradition as in the Reformation itself, and may view with suspicion anything that is not part and parcel of that great renewal. They may work with other local congregations, but might also be reluctant to do so in the name of preserving the purity of the Gospel.
STs (Southern Traditionalists) might be described as exactly like the NPs with this notable exception: STs tend to be ready and able to work with other evangelical congregations in community wide evangelistic work and mercy ministry. In addition, their worship is somewhat more culturally conditioned as well, often with large choirs at the front of the worship space, and magnificent productions and spectacles presented that affirm America’s uniquely Christian history, as well as the expected Christmas and Easter pageantry. One person described these congregations as NPs with a smile. That is not fair to either group in fact. Their similarities in concern are genuine, but their differences in worship remain profound. Like EPMs, these churches will be happy to employ modern technologies of mass communication to increase their reach and (as they see it) effectiveness in getting the message out.
EPMs (Evangelical post-moderns) value contextualization and the constant search for the narrative of the people they serve, so that the narrative of Scripture can be communicated to those people. In a certain sense this is not post-modern; it does after all acknowledge a meta-narrative in both the community and the Scripture. But it is post-modern in its shape, for its methodology suggests that the narrative of the post-apostolic experience of the Church can be “mined” for examples without buying the whole parcel of the experience and history of that ancient Church. EPMs would thus be more than happy to quote an Augustine or Athanasius, while in the same breath roundly asserting that we must beware of the dead religiosity of the past. Worship here may best be described as experimental and open; the leaders are committed to the search for the appropriate words and vehicles to present the person and message of Jesus Christ within their cultural context and language. This may include drama, art, various musical styles and performances (though never classical), and innovative preaching and teaching presentations, often involving multi-media displays with power point and move clips. They are gladly open to work with Christians from other groups, and they tend to not be self-consciously catechetical and confessional, seeking to keep the doctrinal and dogmatic end of the Faith somewhat underground and on a very short leash.
Running throughout the PCA are fault lines around these theological and ecclesiastical tectonic plates. They await the one issue that will unleash the kind of energy that causes a massive shift, with the plates moving away from one another, causing a new alignment to occur. That issue is now on the horizon, and the low rumblings from deep beneath the surface can be heard as that issue moves closer to consideration. That issue is the role of women in the Church.