Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Does Presbyterian Church Government Really Provide Superior Accountability?

Removing Tullian Tchividjian's blog was a big win for TGC's credibility regarding the "G" in "TGC." I'm inclined to agree with PCA pastor and Ref21 blogger Rick Phillips when he argued recently that Tchividjian's truncated (at best) understanding of sanctification constitutes "false doctrine."

I'm grateful for Phillips' bold, clear words, as well as several others' at Ref21. But I was intrigued by his concluding frustration with TGC's apparent reluctance to remove Tchividjian's blog.

Obviously, we know that TGC has taken this action, so that that point is now essentially moot.* But what seems to me to be a very live issue is the fact that Tchividjian pastors a PCA church—a church in the same denomination as Phillips, and not merely a denomination, but a Church—a capital-"C" Church. Now, I don't understand everything about PCA polity—not by a long shot. But I understand from a recently-ordained PCA pastor (converted from the Baptist/baptistic world) and Ref21 blogger, Todd Pruitt, that Presbyterian polity has an established process in place to deal with doctrinal error and abuses of authority. Not long ago, in reference to the Steven Furtick fiasco, he asked Southern Baptists, "Is there no mechanism in the Southern Baptist Convention that can provide oversight and correction to such abuses?"

Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the mechanism available to Baptists is the local congregation. Congregations sadly run amok, but local church autonomy is one of the areas in which we allegedly-but-inconsistently "Bible people" have stuck to our story. But on the other hand, no, in the sense that we don't have a governing body sovereign over local churches that's empowered to hold them accountable. Unlike the PCA, we're merely a Convention organized to cooperate in pursuit of our mission, not a capital-"C" Church. Scripture teaches that we need to deal decisively with false doctrine, and it speaks most specifically to false doctrine within a particular church—or Church, as the case may be. Granted, another PCA pastor has proposed a debate with Tchividjian, but wouldn't "false doctrine" require a Church to respond with more than debate? Perhaps that might be a first step.

So having said all that, I'm quite interested to see how a PCA pastor's accusation of "false doctrine" internal to the PCA plays out in PCA polity. I wouldn't have been surprised if an inter-denominational parachurch ministry created to foster evangelical unity had struggled to reach consensus or take decisive action. And I'd expect a Paper Presbyterian denomination to minimize doctrinal error. But that's not what I think the PCA is. And I don't think it's what the Ref21 PCA men think it is either. I pray they find wisdom and success, for the sake of the gospel.

*In fact, it appears from Tchividjian's messianically-titled post ("I've Come to Set the Captives Free") that TGC made the decision no later than Thursday. TGC's post corroborates the timeline. Phillips posted on Friday. Perhaps he, a Council member, already knew the action had been taken. Or perhaps it matters little either way.


Bruce said...

That same thought had crossed my mind.

David Stertz said...


I am with Bruce and you. While I appreciate much of what Pruitt says, I wonder what would happen if he asked his church historian podcast buddy Carl Trueman "wasn't there a mechanism in the Northern Presbyterian Church to deal with theological liberalism in the 1920s?" Polity is not always the answer to all theological problems.

Ben said...

Bruce, I wonder whether we agree due to nature or nurture. Hmmm...

David, I guess we'd have to agree that there was a mechanism to deal with "problems" in the Church. That mechanism was even employed! But it was employed to throw Machen out, of course. Oops.

Bruce said...

In this case, I'd say nurture.

My reaction was not so much a criticism of presbyterianism as such as it was in Phillips' inconsistency to call out a parachurch for its apparent passivity when the church structures (which everyone agrees should be primary) had not been activated.

TGC needed to do something, but the PCA should have done something first.

Todd Pruitt said...


I think you will notice in my post I am careful not to claim that Presbyterian church government eliminates any possibility of nonsense. My assertion is, however, that Presbyterianism does offer a better structure than congregational polity for dealing with yo-yo's. A good polity does not mean that the men who operate within its bounds always execute it properly. Indeed, I am grieved that some PCA presbyteries have not properly disciplined certain pastors for holding to doctrines that are outside the bounds of our confession of faith.

David Stertz said...


I appreciate your clarification on your post. However, I think you are begging the question. Ben has asked whether or not Presbyterianism presently offers "a better structure than congregational polity for dealing with yo-yo's." I asked, briefly, the same question historically. The present situation is a potential failure or success. The past situation with Machen was certainly a failure of Presbyterians.

It seems to me that you have at least three hurdles to overcome to make the "superiority" claim. You would have to show it historically, presently, and biblically. As as a baptist, I think my polity is right biblically. I am happy you think you are right biblically as a Presbyterian. But to prove superior polity historically and presently is a lofty claim. I am not sure that either of us, or anyone for that matter, is actually in a position to prove it on those metrics. I would be careful of such claims.

I am a regular listener and reader of yours Todd. Keep it up! You are a blessing and a help.

Ben said...

Todd, I understand your point, and I agree that you've fairly represented what you wrote. I think I have, as well.

But this is really the point—the answer to the question in my title: Yes and no. Presbyterians have a better mechanism than Baptists to deal with false teaching in other local churches. But at the same time, Presbyterians have a deficient mechanism to deal with false teaching in their own "Church." As you acknowledge, you're at the mercy of another presbytery to deal with what happens within your Church in Florida. I think that's a pretty significant problem, as we're presently seeing played out in the RCA. Obviously, there's an ecclesiological divide between us at the source of the difference, but I'm grateful that there is no church/Church I'm a part of that is implicitly affirming the fidelity of another congregation that celebrates false teaching.

Now, I do wonder this: Do you see the irony in PCA ministers calling on TGC to take action?

And having said all that, I wish you nothing but fruitfulness in your pastoral ministry and your denominational relationships. I'm glad for so much that we hold in common with our PCA brothers and sisters.

d4v34x said...

Interestingly, one rather vinegary Presby elder (OPC, no less), doesn't seem to think this whole kerfuffle is such a big deal:

Anonymous said...

The answer to the question is yes.

In Baptist congregationalism, congregations can't hold anything/anyone accountable but their own congregation. There is no mechanism to hold other people with the same name (Baptist) accountable. There is also no mechanism for individuals within a congregation to appeal the decision of a congregation run amok.

Of course, no form of polity or accountability will always produce right results. Fallible humans make mistakes with good mechanisms all the time (most plane crashes are due to pilot error not to equipment failure).

Also, Presbyterian polity (like that in the New Testament) doesn't work at the speed of blogs. It takes time.

I don't share Rick Phillips' level of concern with Tullian. And, I can't speak for Phillips in any way. But, as a presbyterian, I think I can make a pretty good guess about how he'd respond to the charge of inconsistency.

Tullian's writing on TGC blog can easily and quickly be stopped by the leadership of TGC. Therefore, because his public writing is causing controversy, and some think it is out of bounds, it should be stopped until the matter can be worked through privately.

Privately, Phillips and those who agree with him will try to work things out. But, if they can't be worked out, the matter will eventually be brought to Presbytery and eventually (if necessary) General Assembly. Whatever is decided will then be the official position of the Presbytery or Denomination.

This all takes a lot of time, and it does not guarantee any individuals view of the "right" outcome, but it is not inconsistent, and it is superior to congregationalism.