Should the PCA be part of the National Association of Evangelicals?

An ongoing point of controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is whether or not the denomination should maintain its membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Wes White has posted the text of an overture from one presbytery requesting that the General Assembly (which will meet in June) withdraw from the NAE. However, he has also posted the response of the Interchurch Relations Committee, which is recommending that the PCA not withdraw.

The arguments both ways are interesting, and they seem to revolve to a significant extent around the NAE’s perceived advocacy of policies and positions designed to curb global warming. As the Interchurch Relations Committee notes, however, the NAE’s position on creation care is actually quite nuanced, quite good, and avoids any position on global warming. That a former leader within the NAE, Richard Cizik, was and is highly involved in an effort to raise awareness about global warming does not mean that the NAE shared Cizik’s views.

Why should the PCA be involved in an association like the NAE at all? Interestingly, the presbytery requesting withdrawal does so on the basis of a two kingdoms type logic:

The PCA does not need a voice in Washington championing political concerns that would not even be permitted as a subject of discussion before its councils, let alone be adopted as positions.

Yet the Interchurch Relations Committee’s response questions the assumptions behind this claim and refuses to allow potentially controversial political issues to distract from the broader reasons for PCA membership in the NAE.

Through its participation in the NAE the PCA has contacts with other evangelical Christian denominations, organizations, individuals, and ministries, shares in the mercy ministries of the World Relief Commission, participates in world evangelization, and has a greater voice and influence in civic engagement through the NAE Office of Governmental Affairs in Washington D.C.

Membership in the NAE helps Presbyterians maintain the broader unity of Christ’s church:

We believe that “the catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, and the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Westminster Confession of Faith XXV-1). We do not believe that Presbyterian-Reformed believers are the only Christians or that the PCA is the only legitimate expression of the Church. (“This scriptural doctrine of Presbytery is necessary for the perfection of the order of the visible Church, but is not essential to its existence” Book of Church Order, 1-7). Fellowship and cooperation with other evangelical Christians is consistent with our theology.

Finally, the NAE’s political work is actually helpful and pertinent to the mission of the church:

The NAE’s presence in Washington and other venues champions such concerns as the defense of marriage as being between one man and one woman, the liberty of evangelical military chaplains freely to preach, teach, and practice the Gospel and biblical truth, the liberty of evangelical campus ministries, not only speaking out against abortion but actually reducing the number of abortions in America, seeking to reduce international sexual trafficking of women and children, promoting religious liberty in areas where Christians are persecuted, imprisoned or enslaved. Surely, such issues are not off limits for discussion or actions in PCA church courts.

I think all of these are excellent points, and there is much more in the committee’s response worth reading. The church does have an obligation before Christ to maintain unity – both informal and formal – with all churches faithful to the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, the church does have the obligation of proclaiming to civil governments both God’s judgment and the Gospel when matters of basic justice are in view. The two kingdoms doctrine qualifies how the church should go about doing this, but it does not mean the church should remain silent before civil government. All of the classic Reformed two kingdoms advocates, from Calvin on, argued that the two kingdoms must interact and even cooperate together on matters of common concern. One need not be a theocrat to hold this position. And on that note, the NAE’s basic statement on the implications of the Gospel for politics is excellent, and anyone interested in these matters should read it.

That said, none of this justifies the PCA or the NAE or any other ecclesiastical body being involved in partisan politics or the nitty-gritty work of policy, let alone speaking out on matters that are inherently prudential. My concern about the NAE is that on various issues it crosses just this line. In its recent statement on nuclear weapons the NAE made numerous prudential determinations beyond the authority of the church, let alone the consensus of the denominations and individuals who make up the NAE. And while the NAE’s statement on immigration is somewhat better, its advocacy of particular policies of immigration reform is alarming and hardly represents the legitimate function of the church.

What all of this means is that there are excellent reasons for the PCA to be a part of the NAE but there are also good reasons for it to be concerned. The PCA should use its influence to curb the NAE’s problematic actions, reminding it that its influence is entirely dependent on its faithfulness to the Gospel and its representativeness of the denominations that form it. And the NAE should not take its influence or the membership of the PCA for granted. This stuff matters. The integrity of the church’s gospel witness is at stake.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Should the PCA be part of the National Association of Evangelicals?.

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