This article was originally presented at the 48th PCA General Assembly as a part of the assembly-wide seminar “The Future Glory of the Church: The PCA We Envision for Christ’s Purposes” and is adapted from Semper Ref.
I sit here before you today because I stand on the shoulders of hyungs (형) who have gone before me. Almost nothing that I’ve said or done over these last 53 years of my life can be seen or heard outside of the many wise and godly hyungs, or older brothers, who have taught me and loved me. So, as I now share my much too brief thoughts concerning the future of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), please know that it borrows heavily from many hyungs who have influenced me and have allowed me to stand on their shoulders.
Now, mind you, the word hyungs describes more than just a social stratification or an age difference. It signifies, especially in a Confucian worldview, all the deep affection, trust, commitment, sacrifice, and learning that happens between older brothers and younger brothers.
The word hyungs signifies all the deep affection, trust, commitment, sacrifice, and learning that happens between older brothers and younger brothers.
In a recent tribute to John Stott, Russell Moore wrote the following about the way Stott approached the cultural challenges in his ministry:
Stott, thus, emphasized integrity—a holding together—both in doctrine and in mission. That’s why he refused to put a both/and where the Bible puts an either/or—it cannot be both Yahweh and Baal, both God and Mammon, both Jesus and Caesar worship. But he also refused to put an either/or where the Bible puts a both/and. We are to be about both grace and truth, both exposition and application, both evangelism and justice, both love of God and love of neighbor, both accountability and mercy, both conviction and kindness, both the intellect and the emotions, both denominationally rooted and globally connected.
I think this captures the appropriate balance that we all need to have right now, as various issues and ideas are pulling us in so many different directions. But as you well know, this requires much wisdom—the wisdom and the balance of many other hyungs. Indeed, I would argue the wisdom of us all. We need the wisdom of one another.
Now, let me state up front that I truly believe that as we envision the future of the PCA, we must remain committed, as Bryan Chappell rightly said, to the fundamental identity and mission of our denomination, namely:
- that the inerrant Scriptures are the only infallible rule for faith and life;
- that the great Reformed doctrines summarized in the Westminster Confession with his larger and shorter catechisms are true; and
- that the Great Commission is the calling of our church.
In addition to this, I believe it is imperative that we not lose sight of the tremendous responsibility and privilege that we have to reach and teach the next generation of young people. We must evangelize and disciple in our homes, in our churches and in our communities.
This is why I am so indebted to those that have gone before me and have allowed me to stand on their shoulders. The task before us is immense and intimidating, but because of the gift of our Titus 2 hyungs who have much to teach us, we have a bright future.
Indeed, I believe we have much hope. And so let me introduce you to two hyungs who have influenced me and helped me in my thinking regarding the future of the PCA.
The First Hyung Is Don Carson
In addition to being one of my professors during my doctoral studies, Don Carson has been instrumental in helping me see how shepherds in the local church need to be biblical, historical, and global, in order to properly feed and protect the flock.
Although Don is well-known for his careful academic work and teaching of the New Testament, those who know him well know that he had a passion for evangelism and for the global church. In addition to his many years of scholarship, especially his expertise in exegesis and biblical theology, he spent many years traveling all around the country and the world to help foster a gospel-centered movement, not just to expand a particular organization.
This idea of fostering a global movement centered on the gospel, not an insular organization promoting partisan issues, is worth exploring.
Regarding TGC’s global vision, Don stated this:
We’ve been clear from the beginning that we at TGC don’t want [overseas groups] to be American-controlled. Instead of an American hegemony that’s some sort of new worldwide mission, the hope is simply to engender strategic and mutually encouraging fellowships around the world.
Notice what he said. Rather than assuming some form of American parochial authority over the global church, he argues here and in other places that part of our calling as pastors and leaders includes partnering with like-minded churches and pastors from the global church. I think he recognized the many benefits and blessings that come when we humbly recognize that we are called to promote global Christianity, not American Christendom.
For those of us familiar with the statistics, the last 100 years have revealed a drastic shift in what constitutes the “church.” The map of global Christianity has changed. For example, at the beginning of 1900, 90 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the United States and Europe while 10 percent lived in the global South and East. A hundred years later in 2000, however, only 30 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the U.S. and Europe. Now close to 70 percent of the world’s Christians live in the global South and East. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than all the Anglicans in the U.K. and U.S. combined. There are more Christians in communist China than all of Europe.
This is why missiologists like Christopher Wright argue that in addition to unlearning our default assumptions of what constitutes real Christianity, we also need to challenge the potential blindness we may have to the ways Western Christianity is infected by cultural idolatry.
So, in addition to their goal of restoring the center of historic, confessional Christianity in the Reformed heritage, the founders of TGC—Don Carson and Tim Keller—desired to bring together a coalition of like-minded pastors who were part of churches that were countercultural for the common good through a movement of gospel-centered and gospel-driven ministry.
And part of that ministry includes protecting our flock against the dangers of both irreligion and religion. As shepherds, we’re called to always “be on guard” for ourselves and for “all the flock the Holy Spirit has appointed” us as overseers, ready to fend off “savage wolves” (Acts 20:28–29). We are called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) as we pursue the unity Jesus prays for in John 17. But we cannot sacrifice purity for the sake of unity.
This is why I think it’s wise to maintain perspective on varying levels of danger. I’ve been hearing a lot of this these days: “So-and-so is the greatest threat to the Christian church.” We can fill in the blank of threats with words like racism, sexism, feminism, fundamentalism, postmodernism, traditionalism, pragmatism, individualism, and that wonderful all-encompassing word, wokeness.
Now, first of all, we don’t want to dismiss the dangers of all of these ideas. They are real and present threats to the church of Jesus Christ. As watchful shepherds we must be on alert against the wolves that threaten to devour our flock.
But also need to carefully place each of these in a broader global and historical perspective. That is, we need to see how these broader trends manifest around the world and how they may be tied to older philosophies. When we do this, we’ll see that we’re not alone in what we’re facing. Our Christian brothers around the world and from ages past may be able to teach us how to best deal with what may be to us unique threats. We may discover that these threats are just old wine in new wineskins.
For example, it may be helpful to see that the transgender revolution is the result of a greater threat. As Carl Trueman has helpfully shown us, this is a natural byproduct of the expressive individualism that undergirds much of the world’s convictions regarding gender and sexuality. So, by broadening your lens, you not only treat the symptoms, but you also are able to diagnose the disease that is actually more dangerous to the spiritual health of your flock.
Thinking bigger and broader, then, allows you to exercise another important function as a shepherd—performing theological triage. That is, discerning wisely how to prioritize one’s response in a medical, or in our case, spiritual emergency. In an emergency room at a hospital or on the front lines of a battle, medical personnel must prioritize which patients they must tend to first. Some threats are more dangerous than others, so a wise process must be followed to determine urgency.
I first learned of this in 2005 when Al Mohler introduced this medical analogy to reveal the wisdom needed to make critical decisions that often have life-or-death repercussions. In his taxonomy, he argued that there are three levels of theological urgency:
- Level One includes those first-order doctrines that are central and essential to the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
- Level Two, or second-order doctrines, are those in which believing Christians may disagree but will often lead to significant boundaries. For Mohler, this would include the meaning and mode of baptism and women serving in pastoral roles. Interestingly, it is in this level that the most heated disagreements between believers take place as these frame our ecclesiological convictions and practices.
- Level Three, or third-order issues, are doctrines over which Christians may disagree but still remain in close fellowship, such as debates over eschatology.
Now, my point in all this is not to start a discussion over the merits or demerits of his taxonomy. I’ll be the first to admit that all analogies break down and there is more nuancing necessary. The reason I bring this up is to reveal at least three things:
- that part of our task as shepherds is to do the hard work of engaging in theological triage, a.k.a. pastoral prioritization;
- this triage includes taking into account how these current issues fit within a broader perspective of global and historical trends; and
- applying this wisdom to feeding and protecting our unique flock.
Think Big, Think Small
In other words, we need to think big and think small. What I mean by thinking big is that we need to look up and look back; that is, in order to see what God is doing in his church, we need to look globally and historically. I believe this will help us put the right God-sized perspective on some of the issues facing the church here in North America.
But you also want to think small, namely, allow the Scriptures and the collective wisdom of your fellow undershepherds help you discern what is really at stake for your unique flock. We must not allow social media to disciple and distort us or our flock of what may or may not be the problem. As one author suggests, “Step out of the social media chambers of constant controversy, turn down the volume of the loudest voices online, and then carefully discern the best way to shepherd the people for whom you will give an account.” That’s sage advice.
The Second Hyung Is Tim Keller
In addition to the wisdom of Don Carson, I’ve been incredibly blessed to learn from the other founder of TGC, Tim Keller. Though much can be said of the many ways Tim has influenced me and countless others with his ministry of speaking and writing, let me share a few ways in which his insights may be helpful to us in this cultural moment.
We need to look up and look back; that is, in order to see what God is doing in his church, we need to look globally and historically. I believe this will help us put the right God-sized perspective on some of the issues facing the church here in North America.
In 2017, Tim gave a speech to the General Assembly reminding us of the various impulses of three main branches found in our denomination, a.k.a., the doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist impulses. Influenced by George Marsden’s understanding of the history of reformed churches in America, Tim wrote in 2010 regarding these tensions:
The doctrinalists are always worried there are “stealth liberals” in our midst and the social engagement emphasis of some churches will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise. Those in the social justice (culturalist) branch are afraid that others in the denomination are becoming culturally reactionary, and may, in their phobia against social involvement, become as blind to injustice as the Old School has been in the past (e.g., slavery). Those in the pietist branch feel that a lack of evangelistic fervor is a serious sin, and they doubt the spiritual vitality of the other branches. Then along comes an issue and the pent-up energy (the fear and frustration) is released.
Even though there is an important biblical insight that each branch puts forth, they tend to have their own unique weaknesses. The critiques of each branch are usually on the mark. Keller observes:
The doctrinalist branch can breed smugness and self-righteousness over its purity . . . the pietist branch is very pragmatic and results-minded, and it is resistant to enter into processes of discipline or theological debate . . . the culturalist branch becomes too enamored with modern scholarship [with a corresponding] erosion of orthodox theology.
Why bring this up? Because I think this analysis is still helpful for us today. Much of the conflict we are experiencing now is due to these impulses, both positive and negative.
We Need Good-Faith Conversations
But what makes our situation right now more complex and, frankly, more severe, is what I see as the lack of priority on good-faith conversations in the context of our Presbyterian systems. Rather, we seem to be politicizing our conversations in the context of social media. This is not wise and it does not breed more trust in one another. We’re moving even farther apart from one another.
I think Keller rightly argues that when a church tries to purge one of these branches, or a branch gets so discouraged it wants to leave, the church finds that in a generation or two, its younger leaders are drawn to the lost branches. Keller continues:
Richard Lovelace used to say doctrinalists are like white corpuscles that are better at defending the faith (against heretical “infections”) than propagating the faith. The pietists and reformists are like red corpuscles that in their pragmatism do a better job of propagating the faith and yet often lay it open to doctrinal indifference or decline. Too many white blood cells over red blood cells is leukemia; too many red blood cells over white blood cells is AIDS. We need each other. We can’t live comfortably with each other, but we are much less robust and vital apart from each other.
In other words, we all need to be better hyungs. Each branch needs the other to counter its own tendencies. Each has its own blind spots. Again, Tim is helpful here:
We need each other. Regardless of the topic that is creating such division, be it race or sexuality, we must not give up on our confession and we must not give up on one another.
Please don’t misunderstand when I say that our current conversations on race and sexuality are unimportant. They are vitally important to God and thus to us. But as Tim rightly suggests, we need to learn from each other by taking the time necessary to work through our differences before they become controversies online or judicial commissions in our courts.
Now, I recognize that these last 16 months have not been easy. It’s extremely difficult being a pastor at this time. But if we keep our focus on what makes the PCA so great, namely, our unifying commitment to be faithful the inerrant Scriptures as the only rule for faith and life, our unifying commitment to be true to the great reformed doctrines summarized in the Westminster Confession with its larger and shorter Catechisms, and our unifying commitment to fulfill the Great Commission, the future is bright for the PCA.
So, as we with integrity remain committed to what makes us the PCA, we must also strive for the unity Jesus pleads for in his high priestly prayer in John 17. But this integrity and this unity can only be accomplished with humility—humility before God and humility before one another.
Fathers and brothers, as we humbly recognize the great salvation we have in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, we need this great gospel to keep animating what we do as we sacrifice for one another. The integrity and the unity we desire will only come as we humble ourselves before God and before one another. Simply put, we need to lay down our lives for one another and stand on each other’s shoulders.
As we humbly recognize the great salvation we have in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone, we need this great gospel to keep animating what we do as we sacrifice for one another.
Stand on Christ’s Shoulders
What does this kind of sacrificial love look like? Bryan Chappell, another one of my hyungs, tells this story in one of his books (Each for the Other):
Two brothers decided to play on sandbanks by the river’s edge. Because our town depends on the river for commerce, dredges regularly clear its channels of sand and deposit it in great mounds beside the river. Nothing is more fun for children than playing on these mountainous sand piles—and few things are more dangerous.
While the sand is still wet from the river’s bottom, the dredges dump it on the shore. The piles of sand dry with rigid crusts that often conceal cavernous internal voids, formed by the escaping water. If a child climbs on a mound of sand that has such a hidden void, the external surface easily collapses into the cavern. Sand from higher on the mound then rushes into the void, trapping the child in a sinkhole of loose sand. This is exactly what happened to the two brothers as they raced up one of the larger mounds.
When the boys did not return home for dinnertime, family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother. Only his head and shoulders protruded from the mound. He was unconscious from the pressure of sand on his body. The searchers began digging frantically. When they cleared the sand to his waist, he roused to consciousness.
“Where is your hyung?” the rescuers shouted. The younger brother replied, “I’m standing on his shoulders.”
With the sacrifice of his own life, the older brother had lifted the younger to safety.
Fathers and brothers, so too did the One who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Heb 2:11). At the cost of his own life on the cross, Jesus, our elder brother, freed us from the sin of self-indulgence and self-centeredness so that we might live eternally, standing before God on the shoulders of his righteousness.
And now he calls us to pursue the peace, purity, and unity of his church as we learn how to stand on each other’s shoulders.
This is how I envision the future of the PCA, a place that holds fast to Christ and to one another, allowing the grace of Christ to empower us to have the integrity, humility, and unity we all desire.
So, as we consider our elder brother, our hyung Jesus and his sacrifice, my prayer and my hope is that we would not give up on each other, but following our hyung Jesus, we would lift each other up on our shoulders, even at the cost of our lives.