In the fall of 1998, I added what was at the time a pertinent, hot off the press book to my college dorm bookshelf alongside classics like Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. The book, Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl’s Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, would help me wrestle with the spirit of the age, namely, a morality that, Beckwith and Koukl write, understands “moral truths to be preferences much like our taste in ice cream.”
Nearly twenty-five years later Beckwith and Koukl’s book seems like a relic of a bygone era, not because of anything the authors argue, but because the cultural mood has shifted so dramatically. A rigid moral absolutism has replaced the notion that morality is preference. Social media mobs scour the internet to severely punish delinquents. Things like mask wearing (or not), pronoun usage, and vaccination status are carefully scrutinized and held as shibboleths on either side of the cultural and political divide.
How unexpected? The breezy, moral relativism of the 90s has been replaced by a rigid and strict dogmatism held up by a series of laws and rules to determine who’s in and who’s out. What accounts for the shift? There are many factors, to be sure, but one is widespread distrust. Anne Snyder puts it this way, “When seeds of distrust are allowed to germinate, weeds of suspicion shoot up and tangle into a thicket that soon protects little but bloated self-righteousness and a narrowing eye.” A general atmosphere of suspicion produces thickets of distrust in all kinds of places: homes, politics, athletic teams, school PTOs, and neighborhood HOAs.
Institutions caught in distrust’s thicket can move in a couple of directions to break free. They can move upward, creating new broad and far-reaching standards, rules, and policy, or they can move downward, focusing efforts at a more local level.
This latter approach, the downward move, is the better strategy for exiting distrust’s thicket because it relies more on relationships and trust, forcing parties in conflict to come together in order to address a problem. On the other hand, seeking to break free of the thicket by moving upward often backfires. For example, in the realm of education national educational standards were born out of distrust in the schools and their leaders but they have tended to only deepen the distrust between educators and bureaucrats without improving educational outcomes. If the seeds of distrust grow into weeds of suspicion that develop into a thicket, we might add that rules and laws, rather than loosening the thicket’s grip, can become blooms on the thicket, giving it added shape and strength to further entrap. Multiplying laws simply leads to more procedures and protocols, which makes trust and relationship even less necessary while simultaneously making the institutions less humane.
The tendency to move upward to get out of the thicket is understandable as any parent knows who’s lost trust in their teen; the parent’s natural response is to swiftly establish new laws to curb future transgressions. Unfortunately, the addition of laws often reinforces (rather than breaks down) the thicket. This explains the broader cultural trend, specifically, how the moral relativism of the 90s gave way to the present moral absolutism marked by a rise in both distrust and rules and laws.
My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), while having remarkable doctrinal unity, has, like any institution, often found itself in distrust’s thicket over the course of its history. Aiken Taylor, one of the founders, remarked shortly after the establishment of the PCA that from its beginning “the trenches had been dug and the guns loaded” between differing camps within the denomination.
Most recently, the PCA has been asking the question, in the words of its Stated Clerk, Bryan Chapell, “how we should apply the standards of Biblical sexuality?” As pastors, churches, and presbyteries have wrestled with this important question a thorny thicket has grown up around the issues. So what is the best path out of distrust’s thicket? Should the denomination move upward or downward?
Historically, the PCA has invested a high degree of authority and independence in local churches so as to avoid interference from denominational bureaucrats (something that did happen when the PCA split from the old southern mainline church, the PCUS). The PCA has leaned heavily into its confessional standards (the Westminster standards) and the Scriptures. A high trust in local churches and high trust in the confessional standards go hand in hand and have historically kept the denomination moving downward when breaking out from distrust’s thicket.
This general approach of resting upon a broad set of standards and trusting individuals and churches to act in wisdom and faithfulness to the authority of those standards and the Scriptures has worked well for the PCA. The denomination started in 1973 with 16 presbyteries, 260 churches and 41,232 members. In 2021 there were 88 presbyteries, 1,928 churches, and 383,000 members.
And yet there is a curious shift within the denomination as it reckons with the topic of human sexuality and the thickent of distrust that has grown up around it. Rather than moving downward in the direction of local churches, elders, and presbyteries to apply the biblical and confessional standards of sexuality in place, the denomination tends upward on the matter. For example, at the 47th General Assembly, the PCA endorsed the transdenominational Nashville Statement. The PCA did not deem it necessary to endorse similar statements like the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and the Danvers Statement describing complementarianism, even though the PCA would broadly agree with those statements. More recently, a majority of those attending the 49th General Assembly in June believe it is necessary to add Overtures to the Book of Church Order, which guides ministry and the work of the church for the denomination.
It’s understandable (and indeed right!) for the PCA to be wrestling with this topic of human sexuality, for there is widespread confusion and outright rebellion concerning human sexuality and it’s all moving at a clip. In 1941, John Dos Passos wrote, “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.” In an effort to not let the “quicksand of fear” inform our thinking, it is important for the PCA to look to its past, which means a movement downward.
As it relates to the Overtures, it means, as David Coffin wrote when similar Overtures (23 and 37) were before presbyteries last year, remembering that “[a] book of church order is not designed to settle all the questions or controversies that may come up in the life of the church. That labor belongs to the elders of the church, through their respective courts, beginning with those nearest to the circumstances, with each matter subject to the review of the court next higher.” Notice the direction of engagement: moving downward toward those “nearest to the circumstances,” and, if necessary, moving upward from there.
How should the PCA apply its standards of biblical sexuality? As I consider what the PCA has in place for applying the historic, biblical standard of sexuality, it does not seem to me deficient. The Westminster Standards and Scriptures are clear that human sexuality is designed for the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman, and any sexual activity or desire outside that design is a violation of God’s law. The denomination’s Ad Interim Committee (AIC) on Human Sexuality developed a strong report on human sexuality that was almost unanimously approved by the 48th General Assembly.
While the report is non-binding, its wide acceptance and praise underscores the denomination’s alignment concerning the historic, biblical understanding of human sexuality. Add to this, thousands of elders holding one another accountable via biblical and rigorous processes of ordination, accountability, and care with layers of courts for handling cases that might arise, and it seems the PCA is in a strong position when it comes to these important matters of sexuality. The denomination should trust this framework and move downward in effort to apply it at the more local level.
Moving upward when stuck in distrust’s thicket is not as attractive as it appears and will not solve the deeper distrust, but could aggravate it because, after all, the move upward often carries with it a tacit distrust of those downward like local churches, presbyteries, and their elders. A better course for the PCA is to move downward in the direction of the local church, its leaders, and presbyteries. While a slower, more arduous path, it’s what our polity calls for and where we have historically leaned. The cooperation and struggling together required of it is likely a better recipe for overcoming the larger challenge: distrust.
Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 28. ↑
Anne Snyder, “Sowing for Trust,” Comment 39, no. 1 (Winter 2021), 4-5. ↑
Quoted in Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 317. ↑
Bryan Chapell, “Stated Clerk’s Summary and Reflections on the 49th General Assembly.” Accessed August 4, 2022, https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/2022-Stated-Clerks-Summary-of-49th-GA-8-3-22.pdf ↑
See Jake Meador, “The Nashville Statement and the PCA,” First Things, July 5, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/07/the-nashville-statement-and-the-pca ↑
Quoted in Wilfred M. McClay, Land of Hope (New York: Encounter, 2019), vii. ↑