The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was founded in 1973. At that time, its identification with the evangelical movement was so strong that its members, when deciding on the name for the fledgling denomination, briefly considered calling it the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The PCA’s connection to evangelicalism was also signified by its membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which it joined in 1974. That membership ended last month, when the PCA voted at its annual General Assembly to leave the NAE.
The NAE is an activist organization based in Washington, D.C. It seeks to speak and lobby for its constituents in the broader culture and within the political machinery of our nation’s capitol. The NAE describes its history this way: “The National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942 as a fresh voice for biblical, Christ-centered faith that was meant to be a ‘middle way’ between the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches and the progressive Federal Council of Churches.” Today, many denominations and networks belong to the NAE, including the Evangelical Free Church, the Salvation Army, the Free Methodist Church USA, and the Wesleyan Church.
The middle way is hard to maintain. While most of the public positions of the NAE have broad, perhaps universal, support among PCA churches, some are more contested. This was a concern for some at the General Assembly. Much of the commentary since the withdrawal has centered on the “Fairness for All” legislation that the NAE supported. This legislation, in attempting a compromise, would in fact enshrine the reigning ideology of gender and sexuality into law, while offering few religious protections. This issue no doubt lurked in the background, and it played a slight role in the public debate on the assembly floor.
The public arguments for leaving the NAE also had little to do with the term “evangelical” itself or with its historical precedents. The concerns were broad, relating to the freedom of conscience given to individual Christians and congregations on matters of policy about which the Scriptures and our confession do not speak clearly. While many issues of public ethics are clear and therefore binding, and others about which the denomination has made public statements, there are many other political issues about which there has historically been wide diversity in the Christian church, and no clear consensus in our ecclesiastical or denominational tradition. The NAE, however, speaks loudly on many contested issues: creativity and the arts, gun violence, COVID, foster care, international poverty, and voting, to name just a few. Those arguing for separating made allusions to NAE support for bipartisan immigration reform and the strengthening of nuclear treaties.
The debate invoked freedom of conscience. Pastor Carl Robbins, whose report formed the basis for the floor debate and for the vote of the assembly, gave four reasons to withdraw, but his most substantive was the appeal to Christian liberty. He requested that the assembly stop binding the consciences of the entire denomination in terms of supporting the NAE. He argued that individuals and congregations may well have active policy prescriptions for which they advocate, and may even wish to unite with the NAE in doing so, but that the denomination as a whole should not be asked to support an organization that claims to speak for it.
Beyond this appeal for freedom of conscience was a call for retrieval. Many in the church feel that something from our confessional Presbyterian tradition has been lost, namely, the spiritual nature and mission of the church. Our Book of Church Order begins by saying, “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men.” It further states, “No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience.” And, in a passage often quoted in discussion about pastoral involvement in political issues, states, “All church power, whether exercised by the body in general or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative.”
It is hard to know exactly why these concerns metastasized at this point. Over the last ten years, PCA members made several overtures designed to initiate the withdrawal of the PCA from the NAE. Each time these overtures were voted down. In this case, although it was clear that many within the denomination’s administration favored maintaining membership in the NAE (the former Stated Clerk of the denomination even filed a formal protest after the decision was made), the vote from the floor was not close. The will of the body was clear.
In our tumultuous political climate, Presbyterians are rediscovering a vision of the church defined less by the positions of organizations such as the NAE and more by the closing paragraph of Presbyterian minister J. Gresham Machen’s classic book, Christianity and Liberalism:
Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.
At the PCA General Assembly, the majority agreed that separating from the NAE was the way to better protect the consciences of its pastors, and the way to better unite—to gather in Jesus’s name in gratitude at the foot of the cross.
Jonathan L. Master is president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
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