“Therefore my appeal is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.”
Are We Ignoring the Issue?
At the start of this series the target was set: to answer three questions to determine whether it is helpful and good for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to continue to focus on the issue of race. The questions are as follows:
- Whether the PCA has a clear and thorough declaration on the sin of racism;
- Whether there are any new or extraordinary manifestation of this sin rearing its head in society or the PCA that would warrant additional teaching from God’s word;
- Whether the PCA neglects shepherding of private or public unrepentant sins in this regard that should be addressed by church courts.
These three inquiries form the diagnostic questions the answers to which will inform the recommended responses and conclusions. The first question was answered here. The second question here. To summarize, the PCA has made clear and thorough declarations on the sin of racism, and there are no extraordinary or new manifestations of this sin that would require additional responses from the PCA. The only question remaining is whether the PCA, as a denomination, is ignoring the theology it professes by failing to address racial sin among its members. Assuming that the assertion of this series regarding the PCA’s theology is correct, the PCA as a denomination has come to the point where that sin must and should be addressed through the process of church discipline, not via declaration. Church courts should at this point address any unrepentant sins that arise.
Unrepentant sins of racism manifested in churches should be addressed pastorally as any other unrepentant sin. If a sinner will not be corrected, the church should walk through the painful but necessary and good steps of church discipline. This process should not look like the current response in the world. The church’s correction may not be punitive or overly harsh. Accusations should be made only against a person who sins, and not anyone else. That is because church discipline is practiced for the spiritual protection of the sinner, the preservation of the purity of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the glory of God.
Racial sin should not be permitted to take root in the church. To that end, congregants and elders must work to confront and address it with individuals who continue to sin in this area without repentance. If the church does not act, pronouncements can be made ad nauseum without any effect. The church is purified from sin when it is not allowed to gain a foothold among God’s people. However, a continual restatement of well-established theological positions will only mean that sin will be highlighted and the more difficult part of shepherding under that truth will be ignored.
Implementing Significant Change
Making repeated pronouncement is actually easy and pretty cheap. It is much easier to point out the sins of grand-parents than it is to deal with the sins that plague the church today. In my experience, racism is not the primary ill that is plaguing the church. For the last twelve years I have been in the deep south of the US and have experienced one blatant instance of racial sin. The vast majority of PCA Christians love their neighbor regardless of ethnic background. During my time in Jackson, MS, I had the privilege of knowing a man who, as a white man, quit his job in order to be able to devote his time to disciple young boys who lived without a father. The vast majority of these children happened to be black. But he loved these children, and the whole congregation got behind him in support of it. However, it is possible that my experience does not reflect reality. It is possible that there are instances of racial sin in the PCA that I am missing. Perhaps racial sin is rampant in the PCA and I have simply missed it all. That does not appear to be the case, and this is why.
When a person engages in racial sin, those who observe it should first, in love, address it with the person one to one (Matthew 18:15-17). If that person refuses to listen, there should be another visit, this time with an additional witness. And finally, if the person remains defiant in their sin, the church is to get officially involved, with the possibility of censures should the need arise.
When a person observes sin and the church is unwilling to address it, the member has the right of complaint. A member who sees racial sin and whose elders are unwilling to address it may file a complaint against their elders, asking the next higher court to ensure sin is not allowed to remain unaddressed in the church. I am not aware of any cases involving racial sin being brought to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). That means either elders are neglecting their duty or racial sin is being properly addressed at the Session level. Now the former is possible, but the latter is more likely.
However, even if the former is taking place, the hard work the PCA must do is not issue another statement, or produce another theological summary on the sin of racism. It must do the hard work of shepherding and working through the process of discipline to stamp out this sin. If this sin is as widespread as some would try to convince that it is, there must be action taken to address specific instances. As Paul says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:13).
So the answer to the third diagnostic question, where the silence in the church courts makes it unlikely that there is a festering underbelly of racism in the PCA, further demands a move away from the PCA’s current practice of declaration. If there is racial sin the church is obligated to do the difficult work of shepherding. Declarations and letters are the wrong tool to address an on-going sin issue.
The PCA has plainly repudiated racial sin. There is no new seismic shift in society or church that would necessitate revisiting this issue. And there are no active cases of neglected discipline being circulated through the church courts, which is the only measure denominations have to see if sin is being addressed within its membership. So let us leave behind these requests for recognition based on ethnicity and find a better way.
The PCA must cease from importing the terminology of secular sociology when it comes to examining the body of Christ, His church. No more cheap declarations about how sorry we are for the sins of others. If there is sin among us (also racial sin) let us address it. If there is disunity among us, let us unite as brothers under Christ and through fellowship and true Christian love overcome it. But enough of dividing up a primarily gentile church into many different gentile groups (white gentiles, Asian gentiles, black gentiles, etc.). We, the PCA, are one body made up of many parts. There are hands and feet and mouths and eyes and hearts and all manner of different parts. The significance of those parts is not in their color, but rather in the fact that they are members of the body.
However, rather than leave this topic in the mire of generalities, the next installment will deal with some practical things that can be done to change the tone of the discourse in the PCA.
Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.