Several years ago the presbytery of which I am a member was so seriously affected by divisions that the General Assembly appointed a committee to visit and seek to assist us. While there was a theological issue that was the focal point of much contention, the Committee to Visit the Presbytery of the Northwest reported to the General Assembly its view of underlying problems which had resulted in two congregations withdrawing from the OPC with their pastors and a third minister renouncing the jurisdiction of the OPC. The Committee spoke of “divisive speech and attitudes” in the presbytery. It reflected on “the mistaken notion that the PNW merely suffers from a theological dispute leads to an unhelpful tendency to inadequately address and acknowledge the more significant causes of division…. On the personal level, brothers within the presbytery have failed at crucial times to deal openly and honestly with one another about various personal grievances.” (quotes from the Minutes of the Eighty-third General Assembly, p. 326).
Prior to its report the General Assembly, the Committee had spoken frankly in a written report to the PNW at its September 25, 2015, meeting:
It is our conviction that your presbytery, as the whole presbytery, has yet to fully assess what seems to us to be a key bone of contention: the manner and rhetoric which is appropriate for intramural debates among ministers. We choose the word “intramural” intentionally to describe debates had over issues that have not been officially condemned by courts of the church…. Where our committee has thought that the disagreement has crossed the line from brotherly and collegial to hostile and sinfully disrespectful, we have made our appeal to the individuals most directly concerned.
Speaking for myself, the counsel of the Committee, while deeply challenging at times, was profoundly helpful. In an addendum to its report to the Eighty-third General Assembly, the Committee was able to report that the PNW had adopted without dissent a motion confessing that it had “failed to address sins committed by communication, public and private, in our midst.” The Committee added, “While the Presbytery still has a great deal of work to do in the pursuit of true reconciliation, this is not an insignificant step and we commend the brothers for taking it.”
While there is still room for progress (both the corporate sanctification of the PNW and my own are works in process), I am grateful to observe that my presbytery is more peaceful at this point. For that I thank God. Not the least lesson we have learned is that our communication, especially by us ministers, can be harmful and even sinful. It can push individuals, and even congregations, out of our church.
I raise that history, not to pick at scabs of healing wounds, but because, against the background of the pain through which the PNW has passed, I am distressed to hear recent language coming from fellow ministers in other presbyteries, language aimed at members (or those who were members at the time) of the church. I read words such as “heterodox” and “worldly.” I hear a minister describing the teaching of members of the church as “false and vile” and using the term “Jezebel” in his description. I see the names of fellow ministers among those expressing support for the blogs and videos using that language.
Those using such strong language may attempt to justify it on the grounds that they are opposing what they see as error threatening the church. But I would plead with my brothers to consider whether they are not using language that is “hostile and sinfully disrespectful” in debate “over issues that have not been officially condemned by courts of the church,” to borrow the language we in the PNW heard from the Committee. Are we protecting the sheep or are our words harming the flock? Are we correcting error, or are we using our rhetoric to drive people out of the church?
Brothers, before we engage our tongues (or put fingers to keyboards), perhaps we ought to re-read James 3. Are our ministerial voices building up or tearing down? Are both our manner of speaking and the substance of what we say godly examples?