Reflections from the PCA sidelines

For two weeks, I’ve reflected on the recent national meeting of my Presbyterian denomination. I’ve listened to thoughtful comments and read the posts from my friends and fellow ministers.

Now retired, I chose to not participate in floor debates, nor to cast votes. But, as a septuagenarian minister from the PCA sidelines, I am constantly drawn to Jesus’ prayers for his church in John 17.

Jesus’ high priestly prayers for his people are both timeless and timely as the PCA considers the identity, ministry, and mission of the church at this time and in our broken world. From John 17:

verse 9: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me …”
What should the church and its ministers (not cultural leaders) say and do?

verse 11: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”
Jesus’ church is not siloed from a place and ministry in our world.

verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
The church's greatest vulnerability, therefore its greatest need, is spiritual protection, not cultural isolation or disengagement.

verse 17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
The church is spiritually distinct only if faithful to God’s Word.

verse 18: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
The church should not turn away from a broken world. Jesus sent his church into the world — to embody God’s love and God’s truth. The church’s great co-mission reflects Jesus’ own mission.

verse 21: “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you … so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Visible church unity is what makes the good news of Jesus Christ demonstrable, plausible, and credible to the world.

Decades ago, John R. W. Stott expounded John 17:

“There are two distinct human communities … spiritually distinct … not socially segregated.”
“Remaining in the world [the church] should be … by the power of God, ‘kept’ a distinct people …”
“If we are sent into the world, we cannot withdraw from it. If we are sent into the world, we cannot conform to it either, or we shall lose both our message and our power.”
“The principle of incarnation challenges us not to cut ourselves off … nor to become assimilated … [but] to accept the pain and the peril of entering [the world] … understanding its thought forms and learning its language, while remaining ourselves distinct from it.”
“This is the ‘sanctification’ for which Christ prayed … summed up in the three prepositions … the Christian is ‘IN’ the world, not ‘OF’ the world, but sent ‘INTO’ the world.”

I have convictions and concerns on human sexuality, views that are not detailed here. I prayerfully await and eagerly expect a PCA Study Committee Pastoral Statement that is gospel based, that speaks the truth-in-love, and that reflects the heart of Jesus Christ.

But John 17 offers boundary constraints on our motives, processes, and goals. Will the church reflect Jesus’ incarnation, not assimilation or isolation? The prayers of Jesus in John 17 form my heart and shape my prayers for my church family.

May the church not separate what Jesus Christ has joined together. May God sanctify us — set us apart. First, for Christ-like character, “kept” spiritually distinct. And for Christ-like mission, to be “sent” and socially engaged. God sanctifies the church for both distinction and mission — to be "in," not "of," but sent "into" our world.