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Tears for the National Partnership™

[This essay was written at the moment it addresses, yet I think it remains timely.]

The Other Side?

I did not know much beyond the name National Partnership, though I have heard frequent references over these last several years. I had one very disturbing exchange with one of the big-name-round-there brothers. It didn’t tell me anything about the NP, but it resonated with the dark characterizations I saw tagged on to NP. This brother quickly deduced from my criticism of an article on progressivism in the PCA that I preached another gospel. Yep, the Godwin’s law of industry presbyterianism invoked from reading my piece in the space of three DM’s.

I have an extended family member who is given to strong, hard, out of the blue statements. I taught high school with some wonderful students with the wild angles that can show up “on the spectrum”. So, I didn’t conclude that the fellow was a wingnut. When he said he would pray for me, he clearly put it on his calendar for the next two weeks; he DM’ed me to say he was praying for me. I had to decide to set aside the dark characterizations, but it wasn’t hard. This brother had nothing to do with anything connected to me, and he conducted himself with a balance of admirable and first-blush-odd. I am not a standard to score people on odd.

Then along came Presbyleaks, or NatPartnergate or the We Got Owned Scandal. The National Partnership emails (or some portion?) from 2013-2021 were . . . forwarded, leaked, stolen, made available? Yes, I read them. I was told and discovered them to be entirely concerned with the business of my church’s General Assembly. Barring a few out of order characterizations of individuals, they contained little that could not be stated on the floor of presbytery; nevertheless, it is obvious that much of the diction and most of the substance would never be voiced aloud in that setting. It was a bit like a transcript of a football team watching the films of the upcoming opponents and preparing for the big game week after week. Who would they keep out of that room? The only people who shouldn’t be in on the discussion are the other side. The other side.

I overheard a lot of things about the National Partnership. As they say, I didn’t have the receipts. I didn’t even have a reason to go looking for receipts. I’m a nobody Ass. Pastor, more than occupied with life in arm’s reach. I heard all sorts of stuff about the NP. I didn’t disagree because I was too ignorant. I couldn’t agree with the references to names and events, but I followed the grammar and the logic. If X, Y, Z, then the characterizations were not clearly intemperate or hyperbolic. What is the National Partnership?

I guess the National Partnership™ didn’t want to tell me. I never was invited, which is their vestibule. It looks like someone who knew and had eight years of receipts wanted to tell me. When they did tell me (whoever they may be), they did it with nothing but receipts: the National Partnership is the Other Side. They don’t want me and mine and maybe similar to know what they are doing to win this game. They want to defeat whatever will stop them from winning this game. They don’t want to break the rules. They place a premium on good sportsmanship on the field. Of course, they don’t consider this just a game. This is about the kingdom of God, the gospel in the world, the future of the church. It is far more serious than any sports metaphor, and that’s why they aren’t letting the Other Side in on their activity and resources and goals.

There are men in the mix whom I have known for some time. There are men with whom I have long differed yet still cherish. There are men whom I admire, though they confuse me. The whole mix of men weighs on me. The whole mundane careful counting of National Partnership members, and National Partnership Presbyteries and National Partnership commissioners on Overtures, Review of Presbytery Records, Administration-- the banal listing month after month nauseates me. I didn’t know this was going on, I’m not utterly shocked, but I just want to weep.

Men dear to me have been nodding along with all this: repeated mention of this small group speaking for the majority, an annual urgency of ensuring that the denomination’s true identity is represented faithfully by as much NP representation as possible on denominational committees, the obliviously counterpointing leitmotifs sounding so cacophonous when paired-- unity in open-mindedness and exclusivity in secrecy.

The Voice of the Spirit without Continuing Revelation?

I have an elevated view of Christ’s reign in his church, one which exalts each officer to be unimpressed with himself and unconcerned with accomplishing his own will. Hubris about our goals is just as ugly as hubris about our persons. That is why several power exists only within the parameters of joint power. Joint power in church courts rests on the belief that these officers are each full of the Spirit, well instructed from the Scriptures and appointed by the Lord Jesus to wield his authority. The lowest, least and even lacking presbyter is unquestionably so invested-- unless some members start determining who is actually legitimate, pretending that as individuals or as a faction we wield something of greater import than the Spiritual power culminating in the joint power of the court.

Just such an elevation-- ugly presumption and hubris pregnant with harm-- is what happens when a faction of officers conclude that they speak for the majority or the purity of the court. Only the living God-- the Spirit within and the Father who searches hearts-- can report on the majority without resorting to some kind of vote. One can contend for the purity of the church; however, one cannot do this by under the radar implementation-- even incrementally. You must contend to inform and invigorate consciences. If you win enough votes else wise, even purported purity cannot be foisted on the church without doing her violence.

The most elevated, most substantial and even most gifted presbyter does not have a promise upon his office to set him above the other brothers. This is why our business is done by plurality and by deliberation. It is believed that honest discussion among such men will most likely bring us to wholesome conclusions and determinations by the Spirit's work among us all.

It cannot be presumed before the court deliberates that the obvious answer is correct and salubrious. Only in the iron on iron, in the work of the Spirit in each one for the other, in the expectation that Christians go right by marking their temptations and hearing out the second witness-- only in these ways do we remember that you get Gibeonites when you fail to inquire of the Lord and trust the bare senses of a quorum. “By acclamation” betokens unity, but it can be either deep running or stagnant.

One of the bright virtues of Confessional rigor is the opportunity to deliberate together on the entire spectrum of judgement calls-- an opportunity made possible by the deep and profound unity of conviction woven into the PCA's constitution. The entire logic of subscription, as opposed to mere veneration, provides the framework for deliberation. There is a fixed set of parameters which require officers to act in particular situations: ordain someone, discipline someone, send an evangelist, organize a particular church. The thick substance of the shared constitution determines things that must be done, directs how things must be done and discloses questions that must be answered. It is a unity in Christ, enriched by a unity in convictions, providing a unity for mission.

This unity is the only possible way for the efficiency of bishops to have been replaced by the unsightly spectacle of voting. It presumes that all the men making the decision really are qualified to participate in the process, in short officers of the church. It presumes that these officers share a sufficient and significant understanding of what the Scriptures teach. It presumes that submission to such conviction by such men will often require judgement calls and determinations. It presumes that nothing could actually be voted up or down which would violate this unity of character and conviction and cooperation.

How should the church make decisions on a local, regional, national scale? We don’t have reason from Scripture to rely on monarchical bishops. Yes, some Christians practice thus, but not Presbyterians. We do not believe that contemporary prophets and seers should be consulted or received. Yes, some Christians practice thus, but our Confession excludes it. How will the Spirit give the wisdom and instruction for the church local, regional and national? Not by faction, and not by doing what may seem obvious to the influential few in any presbytery.

We must make decisions-- how? Officers qualified in character and knowledge, resort to Scripture and deliberation to come to conclusions that persuade the most of them. Either this is just clunky democracy with its polite respect for a diversity of opinions-- or, it is trusting Christ to work by his Spirit through the officers he has called as his servants. We don’t have the guarantee of new revelation, but we have the promise of the Spirit with the Word in the submissive unity of Christ’s officers.

The Secrecy of the Majority?

I find the National Partnership™ grievous as an ill-winded adaptation to hollowed out Presbyterianism. To the degree that presbyteries are merely well documented rubber stamping oversight agencies for local congregations and their bishops-- occasionally employed to implement the plan of some well-intended faction or hopefully less often required to sort out some charge or complaint-- to that extent bishops who think bigger than their voice will carry can wrangle the regional apparatus to get something done by means of presbytery. Specifically, they can get the people they want doing what they want in General Assembly’s agencies and events. It may not be that they are presumptuous presbyters hijacking the system, rather they may be men ignorant of Presbyterianism because the PCA hasn’t unfurled it well. These are grotesque speculations-- fit to grab the eyes of those looking without seeing. While they should be tempered, it must be understood that the National Partnership™ could only thrive in a particular context.

The resort to secrecy is the most insidious form of factionalism. It means that the living Spiritual endeavor of the court has been reduced to a mechanism for results-- a machinery handled to achieve the ends of me and mine and more likely a minority of many. What the Lord Jesus Christ puts into the world as a trustworthy alternative to the magistrate, what Paul commends as worthy of our suffering loss rather than abandonment, what turns unity into actual animate coordination-- this is the body of Christ rather than a body to be used for the purposes of some other in Christ's name. A few or even several managing the courts with the compassion and shrewdness needed to care for a revered man phasing toward dementia-- this is appalling. There are things you don’t discuss with your aging dad, or with your increasingly paranoid elderly mother or your perseverating uncle. That is not how you treat men filled with the Spirit who share with you the same responsibility and accountability before God.

Joint power in church courts rests on Jesus’ promises to his people knit together in unity with one another as the efflorescence of unity with him. No Christian is hail when despising or diminishing another. Agreement. Two or three. There in your midst. Paul certainly was not in yoke with those who sought to rankle his imprisonment further by their gospel ministry; but he loved God by delighting in Christ preached, and loved neighbor by an open and frank estimation of them. There is a real unity that has a narrow bandwidth but still honors God and brothers-- but this does not require any reticence or feigned commonality. A wide bandwidth does not carve out more space in unity for exclusion of men carrying the same stewardship, for concealment of working allegiances and for strategy surreptitiously employed against the other side.

In place of secrecy, one would need to exercise the common virtues of Christlikeness. One would need to consider fidelity to the church's unity as a right and wholesome limit on all sorts of success. Success that counterfeits unity is not more useful than schism. This is why the National Partnership™ is worthy of our tears. The goals can wholesomely be considered. One might well see in the interests worthy ambitions. The secrecy not only stains, it infuses even valuable success with a catalyst for the dissolution of Christian unity. There are fine custom houses, sold for less than the cost of construction. The couple who built them together cannot live in them together. They can’t even manage to give an honest mutual account of the construction costs when others come to take possession.

There is a profound and disturbing conundrum humming in the background of these eight years and many emails: the secrecy of the majority. By repeated assertion and articulated reasoning, these emails show a small group of officers claiming to stand for the majority in our communion. Their discussion manifests a concern to ensure that the majority view in the denomination is not slighted by the vigorous efforts of minority positions-- views purportedly unrepresentative of the majority among us. With even more frequent explicit statements and with just as conspicuous a role throughout, confidentiality and an exclusive membership pervade the emails. Why would secrecy be employed by the majority?

One brother commented on the provenance of recently made public NP emails. He was distressed at brothers committed to secrecy who did not keep their word. He saw the disclosure as dishonorable. Even unity among those bound to secrecy cannot withstand the inherent caustic power of secrecy employed to outflank the difficulty and humility of Christian unity. I am acquainted with that big-hearted man, and I imagine tears when he divulged his disappointment to his dear wife. I find myself in disagreement with him, but I share the taste of that distress.


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