Beautiful Gospel Centered Ministry in the PCA
Old School Confessional Presbyterians need to be more intentional in the language they use to describe themselves and communicate their goals in the PCA.
Language shapes the way people think and heavily influences the judgments people make. George Orwell illustrates this well in 1984. We see this in secular culture; simply by adding the modifier affirming to a product, policy, or institution, it is easier to brand opponents of the policy, product, or institution as some sort of -phobic.
Who could possibly be opposed to something that is affirming and who could survive being labeled some sort of -phobic? Language manipulates the way people perceive issues and even whole groups.
Even in the Church labels influence the way people in the Church relate to one another and how we see ourselves relative to others in the communion. Of course our primary identity flows out of Christ as saints, beloved, and children. Nonetheless in a communion as large as the PCA it is helpful to recognize where one stands along the spectrum.
In 2015, TE Bryan Chapell wrote describing his impression of three main groups in the PCA: “traditionalists, progressives, and neutrals.” Nobody seemed to like Chapell’s designations, and the volume of blogs on all sides objecting to the way Chapell described the different groupings suggests he was probably near the target(s).
While I am not a fan of being labeled a traditionalist, the three words Chapell used to describe the three groups were respectful and accurate enough for people to grasp what he was talking about in 2015 without a whole lot of nuance or elaboration. There are simply differences of ministry perspective, philosophy and priorities across the PCA, and people generally fall into one of about three broad categories. Chapell’s three words effectively distinguished the three groups.
Shaping the Message
Not all labels are as neutral as the ones in TE Chapell’s 2015 article. If an elder is described as winsome, missional, outward facing, and/or gospel centered where would we assume he falls in the Chapell Taxonomy above? If a congregation tends to focus or speak much on “beauty” and “authenticity,” where would you tend to assume it falls on the Chapell Taxonomy?
Recently a church website posted selections of references given for pastoral candidate TE James Kessler, including one from now Stated Clerk Chapell.
Stated Clerk Chapell asserted,
James [Kessler] is courageous and gospel centered. He is very insightful of people. James has multiple gifts so he has an extraordinary ministry. He is a true gem. James has been a leader in the denomination, especially of those pastors who are ‘gospel centered.’1
Are there PCA pastors who are not “gospel centered,” is there a portion of the PCA which is not “gospel centered?” What would the taxonomic label for this group be? “Law Centered?” We can only speculate, and that is not the purpose of this article.
My purpose is, however, to highlight how men on the more confessional or “traditionalist” end of the PCA spectrum have done a poor job using language to communicate the beauty, loveliness, and grandeur of simple, ordinary, plain, vanilla, Old School, Reformed, Westminster, Confessional, Ordinary Means of Grace Presbyterianism.
The Importance of Language
Language is vitally important to the work of the Church. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Word, language is the means by which disciples are made: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Because language is both important to the proclamation of the gospel and the reputation of Christ’s people, the Saviour calls us to a faithful, straightforward, and plain use of words:
Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:37)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
(1 Corinthians 1:17)
Certainly, we ought to shun the use of bare slogans and meaningless platitudes and cringey attempts to be relevant. But on the other hand, we on the Old School, confessional, ordinary means of grace (or as Chapell put it, traditionalist) end of the PCA need to work harder at highlighting the beauty of Reformed orthodoxy; we need to be better at using language.
Language is for Use
It is regrettable to me that many on the Old School, Ordinary Means of Grace wing of the PCA have avoided the use of terms such as beautiful, winsome, and missional. We have missed an opportunity to draw attention to the beauty and winsomeness of the historic Reformed Faith as expressed in the Westminster Standards.
I was confronted with this reality after I made a speech at General Assembly highlighting the beauty of a nearly unanimous recommendation from the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) Committee regarding an issue in Metro New York Presbytery.
Many brothers thought I was trolling by the use of beautiful. Some congratulated me on the successful “troll” and others thought it was needlessly inflammatory. My intention was neither to inflame nor troll, but to emphasize our RPR Committee had - with one exception - united around the recommendation. I thought this a remarkable expression of beautiful unity around our Constitution.
The interactions and responses, nonetheless, confronted me with the sorry state of language in the PCA. The “Progressive” wing of the PCA, at least in people’s minds, seems to have a monopoly on the word beautiful. And for me to use that word was perceived by many as trespassing into the bailiwick of the other end of the PCA.
We need to more intentionally convey the beauty of Old School, Confessional Presbyterianism. When people think of beautiful orthodoxy, they should think of men like Gillespie, Makemie, Davies, Miller, Hodge, Thornwell, Dabney, Peck, Warfield, Machen, Smith, Scott, Elkin, Pipa, Aquila, Duncan, Master, Phillips, and Payne. This is because Old School Confessional Presbyterianism is the most grand and faithful expression of Biblical truth.
Why do I believe this is the case? Because when I was a young messed-up student at Grove City College, a PCA minister named Irfon Hughes took the time to take me through the Westminster Confession of Faith. As we went week by week, I discovered the beauty of the Reformed faith and developed a commitment to its simple, but grand orthodoxy.
We need to do better by the Reformed faith. We should not shun words like beautiful, nuance, winsome, and missional, but find ways to use them and use them properly: to extol the virtues of the Westminster Standards as a philosophy of ministry and summary of the Scripture’s teaching.
A Gospel Centered Ministry
How strange and regrettable is it that when the Stated Clerk of the PCA wants to provide a reference for a man, one of the characteristics that effectively distinguishes him is the label “gospel centered.” Surely all PCA ministers are centered on the gospel, but here again one wing of the PCA has done a much better job deploying language and the way people — even Stated Clerk Bryan Chapell — perceive them: the National Partnership elders are the “gospel centered” pastors.
Elders in the PCA who are committed to an “ordinary means of grace” ministry are centered on the gospel.2 But the trouble is “ordinary means of grace” is a mouthful; “Old School Confessional Presbyterian” sounds like a punk Rock band.
We need a better label. We need to use language more effectively and intentionally and we need to do so in a beautiful, winsome, missional, authentically gospel centered way: to bring people to Christ so His Spirit may grant them new life and grow them in holiness conforming them to His image for the glory of God.
The Reformed Faith is grand. We should talk about it like it is.
While many readers are aware of allegations made by former Beautiful Orthodoxy Conference staff and former members of TE Kessler’s recently-closed congregation in Hilliard, Ohio against TE Kessler on social media, we should not presume TE Chapell was aware of them when he gave this reference. Allegations made on social media rather than the Courts of the Church are deeply problematic.
Note the website has been update. Here is the original wording from the Internet Archive.
WLC 154, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to His church the benefits of His mediation, are all His ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer: all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.”