Saturday, July 3, 2010

The End of the Assembly Summarized

The 38th General Assembly ended with most of the Strategic Plan adopted (at least this stage of it adopted) with vigorous protest of a large part of the Assembly on some of the Plan. One of the PCAs remaining founders, Don Clements (the Aquila Report), expressed his concern in an article. Likening this to calling a pastor he posed a rhetorical question, "Who would take a call as a pastor with so many people dissenting?" Don is afraid that the Administrative Committee and other denominational functionaries (with a few prominent pastors thrown in) have won the battle of implementation but are in danger of losing the war for trust. Another founding pastor, Bill Iverson (also perhaps the greatest living evangelist in the PCA) delivered a stirring speech which seemed to be a condemnation of the worldliness of the whole thing and a call to return to faithfulness in advancing the Gospel.

The PCA issued a letter on homosexuality and the possible (likely?) repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. The PCA has a large, influential, and active chaplains corps and our chaplains are very concerned. The statement adopted by the PCA was made stronger on the floor of the Assembly and it was reported to us that the chaplains were VERY encouraged. Before the ink was dry on the statement it was communicated in substance to the Pentagon at a high level meeting. The PCA is often very loathe to speak on matters of politics but sounded a clear prophetic call on this one.

Without the expected debate on the "deaconess issue", the Assembly basically affirmed that is was not inappropriate for churches to have "deaconesses" or "diaconal assistants". It was also affirmed that ordination was only appropriate for men. This leaves many churches' practices in place and agrees with the practice of our Korean presbyteries, which have a position called a "kwonsa" which corresponds to this. This practice has some roots in older presbyterianism as well.

I plan on blogging more details about the Assembly and some thoughts on our denomination as well as some confessions and oddities. Coming soon: Travis gets nabbed by the po-po, Dan mostly redeems himself from cowarding, the Assembly finds truth out of order and yours truly fails to condemn blasphemy - along with one or two Nashville tips.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Signs of a Possible Turning of the Tide...

After an embarrassing argument justifying the lack of Scriptural support and a growing sense of the near inevitability of the passage of the whole Strategic Plan, the tone of the Assembly seems to be changing as two of the recommendations have been defeated in a row with a third passing by ten votes. The men seem more somber and engaged and the "powers that be" are huddling and whispering to one another in the front of the room.

Assembly decides that no committee or other body of the PCA can function without Bryan Chapell

Not really, but it is starting to look that way. Bryan Chapell, who is the president of Covenant Seminary (the head of a committee) and on the committee which develops and administrates the Strategic Plan, and who takes part in almost all of the informal decisions about our denomination (and I don't know what else), was elected to serve on the Standing Judicial Commission. Not a hair on his head is out of place at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Grinding Through the Strategic Plan

The Strategic Plan is moving forward slowly. Passage is probably inevitable but the majority is successfully moving it forward despite the relentless objections of the minority. The minority are arguing that there is too much confusion and no explicit Scriptural support for the Plan. The majority is arguing that the biblical work was done previously and that the details of the plan will become plain as we put them into action.

Two pastors gave beautiful exhortations about grace and trusting the Lord. No one has countered the assertion that the analysis contained in the analysis is mostly sociological. One commissioner pointed out that there is actually no sociological analysis, simply sociological assertions.

The Assembly has already approved the parts of the plan which require that churches give a certain percentage of their offerings to the Administrative Committee or not be able to vote at General Assembly. This is called a "pay to play provision." Churches which do not pay accumulate debt that must be paid or negotiated with the Administrative Committee. Provisions will be made for "hardship cases."

Beer, Cigars, Munchies and Missions

In a stunning display of Christian liberty, World Harvest Missions has been operating a hospitality and fellowship room in the Flying Saucer Pub. All comers are offered a beer, a cigar, and food. Members and guests of the Assembly were invited to hang out at the pub and visit with World Harvest missionaries and directors. Conversations on the Kingdom of God abounded.

PCA and the Aryan Nations

This post isn't really about the Aryan Nations, except in a tertiary way that some would characterize as unfair - others as troubling or bizarre. The larger issue, which I'll touch on at the end, is the question: "What constitutes racism?" and "What views on race are acceptable in a) the church, b) on the local session, and c) in the ordained pastoral ministry?"

At my first General Assembly I met two brothers who have become my adoptive cousins, Jeff and Chris Hutchinson. The Assembly was at Birmingham and racism was the big issue. While there I met a ruling elder name Neill Payne who I subsequently found out was a racist (note 1) who was being investigated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal civil rights organization.

Mr. Payne distributed an email promoting some extremely offensive racial views and his pastor (Rev. Buckeley, on left) attempted to persuade him to change his views and step down as an elder. That ended up in a terrible mess in his church and the presbytery became involved. On the presbytery level, my cousin Jeff Hutchinson (on the right) picked up the torch for prosecuting Payne and the case ended up with eleven judicial cases before the General Assembly's Standing Judicial Commission.

Jeff has been handing out articles from the Southern Poverty Law Journal as tracts. The Southern Poverty Law center took a very positive view of the Presbytery's and Jeff's handling of the matter. It also included photos of Mr. Payne's wedding at a meeting of the Aryan Nations. The wedding happened a long time ago and wasn't the cause of the case, but any time Payne's name comes up in reference to this issue, the wedding resurfaces as a topic. It's the kind of thing that's hard to live down. I understand from second hand reports that Mr. Payne disavows any attachment to the Nations and his brother-in-law, Mr. Kirk Lyons, claims that the wedding never meant full support (or perhaps any) of the Nations (note 2).

The surprising thing about the Poverty Journal article is the very positive take they have on our denomination's handling of the case (given that they are very liberal and often very opposed to anything conservative or Christian). The article notes that this was the first time ANY Presbyterian denomination has EVER prosecuted anyone for racism.

Meanwhile, Mr. Payne and his supporters within the church have all been removed from the rolls of the PCA "as an act of pastoral discipline" (BCO 38-3) and Jeff Hutchinson was elected to our Standing Judicial Commission.

[This article has been edited with some corrections and developments since the original post with information provided by Jeff Hutchinson and Kirk Lyons.]

Note 1: Mr. Payne would certainly object to being called a racist. The views he circulated in an email (which I have not read but seem fairly undisputed) are the standard "blacks are dumber than whites and we're all dumber than the Asians" variety along with comments on the state of most African nations being attributable to race. I would call this the definition of racism, thought the term might be so overused that something like "racialist" would serve us better.

Note 2: The full explanation, which I will not reproduce here, has a plausibility to it, but for me raises as many questions as it purports to answer. Walking through it all would involve a great deal of time and bring others into the article who were not part of the GA Judicial Commission case. I'm just not willing.

Other notes:

1) The SPLC "tracts" comment is a tongue-in-cheek joke. At that GA, Jeff told me about his involvement with this case and the oddly favorable reporting of the SPLC. I was fascinated and he said, "I have a copy right here." I laughed and teased him about having a couple of copies, saying that he was passing out tracts. Jeff wasn't passing out SPLC "tracts"; it was a joke.

2) I'm no huge fan of the SPLC because they are ideologically liberal and tend to paint conservatives with the racist label, and that bothers me very much when it comes to the anti-jihadist community. But I found it interesting that they recognized that our denomination is actually doing something about racism.

3) What we're dealing with here is not just a disagreement about the "facts," but the definition of racism itself. Mr. Lyons (Mr. Payne's brother-in-law and one of the members removed from the rolls) disputes both the facts and the "real issues" of the case. Of course, no one agrees when they lose a discipline case (and I've lost one), but the question of "real issues" and combing through the "facts" is pretty far outside of my interests here. We have the SJC for a reason. I don't have direct knowledge or interest in this case. I am interested in race and the PCA.

4) The problem that Mr. Payne and his supporters ran into is that the majority of us in the PCA think that this kind of "racial profiling" (or "racialism") is completely inappropriate for an elder in Christ's church. An elder is held to a higher standard than a church member and if an elder can't figure out that labeling races more of less inferior is counterproductive to the advancement of the Kingdom is pretty blind. Why would any elder, after decades of involvement with white-supremacist issues, still distribute racialist literature?

Even the authors of the Bell Curve (highly controversial book on intelligence and race) simply made two points (disputed by many): a) There are scoring disparities among races on intelligence tests and b) intelligence is a high predictor of social success. They DIDN'T make the claim that blacks are biologically less intelligent than whites. If you accept their findings, there are simply too many factors than have not been adequately researched. Ann Coulter has pretty well demonstrated that the crime differences between blacks and whites disappears when your factor out single mothers. And it is commonly known that a high black divorce rate is a more recent phenomenon - not racially inherent. Veda Jairrels has convincingly argued that the academic achievement gap between blacks and whites disappears with a single factor - how much a child is read to by her parents. I'm sure someone more informed than I could go on, and on.

The point is that jumping on the pseudo-science of racialism when real science is only beginning its conversation is irresponsible. When the pseudo-science is hurtful towards a minority group who experienced slavery and hundreds of years of oppression, the irresponsibility is hard-hearted, grievous sin. We need better than that from our elders.

Steve's Book Prominent at the Assembly

Steve Corbett's book, When Helping Hurts, continues to occupy an important place in the PCA (and beyond). Steve's co-author and fellow professor gave a seminar at General Assembly. And at the PCA bookstore the book is displayed prominently. Praise God this important book is still getting the attention and consideration it deserves.

The Stated Clerk Chides Bloggers

Dr. Roy Taylor gently chided bloggers for criticizing the Strategic Plan on the internet. During his report to the Assembly as head of the Administrative Committee Dr. Taylor noted that only twelve people have directly contacted his office with concerns about the Strategic Plan but many have criticized it online. Some of the criticism he found thoughtful, but other criticism was very mean spirited and personal. He seemed to be chiding both groups of bloggers, but the first group much more so than the second.

Dr. Taylor explained that they have taken the criticisms into account and have been changing the plan to reflect some of the concerns. He said that they had been revising the plan even during the Assembly in response to some of the criticism. This was confirmed to me by a friend who sat in on the Administrative Committee meeting.

The Administrative Committee certainly deserves kudos for being responsive to the people they serve and being open to suggestions. There was some irony, however, in the report.

As one of the bloggers (who is also a very committed pastor and published author) pointed out, the Strategic Plan is a public document and the Administrative Committee has produced videos and print media to support it as they have the denominational resources at their disposal. This isn't just about interacting with the Administrative Committee, its about whether the Assembly is convinced to adopt this plan. The AC understandability wishes to convince the Assembly to adopt the plan, but some wish to convince the Assembly to not adopt it. It's hard to convince people to vote no on the plan by sending private letters to Roy Taylor. Are not public documents best responded to publicly?

Another choice bit or irony is this, Dr. Taylor completely neglected to mention the bloggers who have taken up the task of defending the plan by fairly personal and uncharitable rhetoric.

There seem to be double-standards here on several fronts.