Reflections on GA: Dialogue with David Wallover, part 2...

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"We don't want our denomination to develop a master plan for us. With due respect, we don't need the PCA to plan seats at our table or safe places in our assemblies. What we want and need are faithful courts--bodies that will hold us to our biblical, confessional commitments..."   - David Bayly

(David) Below is the second installment of a dialogue with David Wallover, a friend and fellow PCA pastor. David Wallover's initial email was in response to this post giving my reflections on the Presbyterian Church in America's 2010 General


Dear David (Wallover),

Your presence in the Ohio Presbytery was one of the reasons we chose to cast our lot there so I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my post about the PCA's recent General Assembly.

An initial correction: you speak of the three of us having been in the PCUSA together. Though you and Tim were in the PCUSA in the 90s, I was in a non-confessional Brethren denomination which we left for reasons centering around their acceptance of Open Theism and Inclusivism and their ordination of women to pastoral office rather than the issues that caused you and Tim to leave the PCUSA.

I suspect the differences between our views of the PCA today find their root in the unique circumstances of our respective entries into the PCA.

It was as the pastor of a new church with a functioning elder board and 150 members that I entered the PCA. We weren't searching for identity in entering the PCA, we were looking for a confessional home for an already-established church. We weren't lacking energy, history or character. We didn't need external vision to guide us in serving as salt and light in Toledo. We needed a denominational home that would, should we encounter difficulties beyond our capacity to solve, serve as a 21st-century expression of the Jerusalem Council for us.

Newcomers to the PCA are often surprised to hear...

the PCA's deliberative bodies called "courts." The term strikes them as pejorative and lacking vision. For us, the thought of a denomination's deliberative bodies serving as courts came as a welcome change. Courts lack executive power. They adjudicate rather than legislate, remaining in the background rather than dominating the foreground. They come into play when judgment is needed and division or difficulty arises.

PCA history exhibits its founders' commitment to local church executive authority in a variety of ways. From the name given our deliberative bodies ("courts") to the concept of local control of church property to the PCA's refusal to permit its central bureaucracy to tax local churches, PCA governance demonstrates its origin in the historic polity of Geneva and Scotland, a Presbyterianism in which local churches possess decisive and final authority under Scripture in most matters, and presbyteries and general assemblies meet the needs of local churches not by arrogating such authority to themselves but by faithfully serving those churches as higher courts.

Classic Presbyterianism is Acts 15 enacted: churches going beyond local leadership for the resolution of conflict, for the establishment of God's will in accord with His Word in times of moral turmoil or doctrinal difficulty, and for the examination of candidates and the laying-on of hands.

This is what the leadership of Christ the Word sought in entering the PCA and this is what we initially gained. We were happy to work without interference in Toledo, knowing that a confessionally-committed body stood behind us. We were pleased that the PCA's courts didn't instruct us in how to conduct worship in areas where Scripture manifests freedom (such as drums in worship), yet questioned us about our method of keeping the Sabbath and our use of images.

But, David, the problem that's now before us is precisely the opposite of the problem you describe in your email. You suggest the problem is my focus on the character of our denomination--that I should simply lead Christ the Word in the work of the Gospel in Toledo and leave the denomination and its issues behind. I'd be happy to do this, but elements at the center of our denomination refuse to leave us alone. They have an agenda and a plan for local churches. They plaster our assemblies and denominational organs with details of that plan. They promote their thoughts and wills through their training of our seminarians. They require we listen to their plans, they place them before us in our denominational assemblies. They seek, in short, those powers reserved both by the example of Scripture and by presbyterian polity for the local church.

You suggest I accept the fallibility of denominations and get on with my life. I entirely agree that every denomination is fallible. That's why it's important that denominational authority be limited to Biblical parameters. But agreeing with you about the fallibility of the PCA doesn't remove the specific reality of that fallibility, nor does it convert my calling attention to that area of fallibility into the real problem--which is that local PCA churches are confronted by an expansive denominational bureaucracy that increasingly seeks to mold and shape the character of its constituent churches.

In fact, the problem before us is two-fold. Not only is the center seeking executive power when it's a court, it's neglecting its primary judicial role; it's doing what it's not empowered to do even as it neglects its true duties. Just as one example, a PCA church has ordained a woman as an officer of the church in a public service of worship yet no court has dealt with it, no court has even addressed it despite universal acknowledgment that it occurred.

I understand that the church's actions were described by its pastor as an honest mistake. But courts exist to adjudicate between mistakes and volitional wrongdoing and to prevent repeated mistakes.  This is the reason civil courts exist alongside criminal courts in secular society, and this is a significant reason for the existence of the PCA's courts as well.

It's the job of courts to distinguish between willful wrongdoing and simple mistakes. When wrongdoing is the product of an honest mistake, courts are able to apply non-punitive remedies to guard against further such errors in the future. But when serious error arises and church courts refuse even to broach the issue, they repudiate the entire rationale for their existence--and thus, for our entire denominational structure.

Should the PCA's courts return to a commitment to the primacy of the local church, should they revert to serving faithfully in accord with Scripture and the Westminster Standards, no one would be happier than I. But my concern is that the courts of our church are blinking rather than judging even as our denomination's bureaucracy is seeking to establish policy.

David, we don't need the PCA to tell us how to advance the Gospel in Toledo. We're not seeking to tell others how to advance the Gospel in their contexts, nor do we want to be forced into the mold of Atlanta or Philadelphia or Medina.

We don't want our denomination to develop a master plan for us. With due respect, we don't need the PCA to plan seats at our table or safe places in our assemblies. What we want and need, are faithful courts, bodies that will hold us and others to our biblical and confessional commitments.

We want moral character examined. We want teaching held to Biblical truth. We want courts that will challenge us if we depart from Scripture by misuse of the Law, disobedience to the Second Commandment, rejection of male headship....

Sadly, these are precisely the areas where the new PCA hierarchy is silent even as it seeks to force-feed PCA churches what we neither want nor need in the form of executive actions lacking any connection to the essentials of the Gospel. This is why I am disturbed by the character of our recent General Assembly. When a church reaches the point where biblical standards are ignored even as non-biblical standards are promoted, the tocsin begins to ring. We may not be entirely there yet in the PCA, but the players and the playbook look increasingly familiar to anyone who's gone through the process elsewhere.

Finally, David, I'm sure you don't really think I'm a cynic any more than I think you're a Pollyanna. Yes, I'm tempted to look at you in that light, but I know you too well and love you too much to dismiss you that easily.

Love in Christ,

David Bayly