Slow to Speak

I realize that we all do not agree on every issue in the PCA. I even realize that there are sharp disagreements about significant matters in the PCA. But it would do us all well to remember that in the midst of our disagreement, we are brothers. The belief that Jesus Christ is fully God, or that God is the Author of the authoritative and sufficient Scriptures, or that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone is not up for grabs. To understand that does not make us milquetoast, indecisive men. Paul and Barnabas disagreed so sharply that they could no longer work closely together in ministry (Acts 15:39). But neither Paul nor Barnabas viewed the other as the equivalent of a Pharisee, or a Roman centurion. We can, and should (yea, must!) disagree without viewing our “opponents” as those who wish to destroy the Church or abandon Jesus. GA is a meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ, and we should treat it as such.
 
It’s that time of year again for the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA)—summer is here and General Assembly (GA) is upon us. GA is the annual gathering of pastors (Teaching Elders or TEs) and elders (Ruling Elders or REs) that serves as a meeting of the entire Church, an opportunity for friends to catch up, and a convention where a variety of ministries connect with people. I have been attending GA since 2001 (in Dallas), first as a Ruling Elder, and after 2006, as a Teaching Elder. Over the course of those many years, I have noticed a continued and disturbing trend at GA: the tenor and tone of discourse is often unbecoming of a church gathering. I wonder what many would think if the media actually covered our GA and published extensive quotes from our debates? Now let me be clear, I am not saying that men should not vigorously discuss important issues, or that we should not seek to sharpen each other using Scripture. I am saying that we need to be wise in our speech, no less than if we were speaking to our congregation from the pulpit or in a congregational meeting. Wisdom, discretion, and patience are important qualities for a churchman.
Learn Before You Teach
Let me start with a principle that might seem obvious, but my observation of GA teaches me otherwise: you need to learn before you can teach. What that means is that if you are a young man at his first GA or two, you really should not be quick to jump up to the microphone to share all your insights. This is not because every man just needs to wait his turn or navigate some hazing ritual, but the best way to develop skill and to understand how to be effective speaking at GA is to watch and learn. This is the biblical principle expressed in James 1:19, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.” Far too often, new commissioners (especially young pastors) believe that they have a burden to immediately correct the problems and errors in the PCA. What most do not realize is that they do not know the way that arguments have been conducted in the past, or why certain polity structures are the way they are. They have no experience with past debates, and they have not heard what the more experienced, wise elders have expressed on a given topic. Think about it this way: how would you like it if a stranger came into your congregation and at a meeting immediately tried to tell you what your church should do, without having any background or experience with your church’s life and ministry? I would encourage newer commissioners to watch and learn and to trust the Lord that there will be other more experienced commissioners who will make the point you wanted to make.
Remember Where You Are
If you do speak, an important consideration is to remember where you are. You are not in a town hall meeting. You are not in a debate with an atheist. You are not even at a community gathering of various denominations of Christians. You are at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. You are among fellow elders, men who have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, who have been nominated, trained, and elected to serve the Lord in their congregations, and who have taken a vow “faithfully to perform all the duties [of an elder], and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your life, and to set a worthy example before the Church” (BCO 24-6, vow #4). I realize that we all do not agree on every issue in the PCA. I even realize that there are sharp disagreements about significant matters in the PCA. But it would do us all well to remember that in the midst of our disagreement, we are brothers. The belief that Jesus Christ is fully God, or that God is the Author of the authoritative and sufficient Scriptures, or that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone is not up for grabs. To understand that does not make us milquetoast, indecisive men. Paul and Barnabas disagreed so sharply that they could no longer work closely together in ministry (Acts 15:39). But neither Paul nor Barnabas viewed the other as the equivalent of a Pharisee, or a Roman centurion. We can, and should (yea, must!) disagree without viewing our “opponents” as those who wish to destroy the Church or abandon Jesus. GA is a meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ, and we should treat it as such.
To Whom Are You Speaking?
At the same time that we realize that GA is gathering of not only Christians, but Presbyterian Christians, we cannot help but see that there are issues that divide us.
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