In the Throes of Ecclesiological Crisis

Article by   June 2011
The Trials and Tribulations of the ARP Church, Part 2

Last year about this time I wrote an article for this website entitled "Whither or Wither?: The Trials and Tribulations of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church."  In it I identified a number of challenges facing the ARP Church: an ongoing crisis of identity following the breakdown of the old praxis distinctives of the church (e.g., exclusive psalmody), the problem of an aging denomination with a disproportionate number of small rural churches, the challenge of finding resources sufficient to fund the varied ministries of the denomination, and the problem of bringing the denominational college and seminary into line with the church's vision for ministry.  I suggested that unless these challenges, and especially the problem of identity, are quickly and decisively addressed, the church will face a grim choice of merger with another body or slow death.  Rather than repeat that material here I am going to assume it in this article.  

Events of the last year or so, however, compel us to add another to that list of challenges--a roiling ecclesiological crisis that simultaneously threatens both the well-being and the integrity of the church.  But why do I term this crisis "ecclesiological" rather than "ecclesiastical"?  The term ecclesiastical merely speaks of having to do in some sense with the church.  Ecclesiology, on the other hand, is the term we use for the doctrine of the church, for matters that cut to the heart of the church's identity and mission.  As we shall see, issues of that magnitude are indeed at stake.

As many are aware, in March 2010 the General Synod of the ARP Church met in an extraordinary called meeting (now called the "Snow Synod") and, after hearing a report from a Moderator's Commission on Erskine, acted to remove the existing Board of Trustees of Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary.  The ensuing controversy then revealed a variety of underlying problems within the church, two of the most pressing of which have to do with personal and corporate accountability within the church. 

A CRISIS OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE

Almost immediately after the March 2010 "Snow Synod," civil actions were filed against the General Synod by a number of Erskine Trustees and Erskine employees.  Among these were three ARP ruling elders and one teaching elder, all of whom had previously vowed "to submit in the spirit of love" to the higher courts of the church.  To date, only one of the three ARP Presbyteries involved has taken any meaningful action toward the imposition of church discipline, and this inaction has created considerable heartburn among those on the right wing of the church.  But those on the left have experienced heartburn as well over their inability to silence conservative firebrand Charles Wilson, a visually disabled retired ARP minister who publishes the spicy Internet blog ARPTalk , which chronicles with considerable enthusiasm the foibles of the ARP Church.  Though many view Wilson's language as less than decorous, the factuality of his reporting has been difficult to challenge. 

The bottom line of all this is that the ARP Church often does not seem to do church discipline particularly well, or even, in some cases, at all.  This, in turn, raises questions about the ARP Church itself.  There are, of course, debates as to whether the exercise of church discipline is an essential mark of the church.  Some classical Reformed theologians (e.g., John Calvin and Peter van Mastricht) spoke of two marks (the right preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments) but many other Reformed thinkers (e.g., in the Scots and Belgic Confessions) added the faithful exercise of church discipline to that list.  That being said, the records of the Genevan Consistory certainly indicate that Calvin took discipline with deadly seriousness, and the Westminster Confession of faith, while it does not explicitly frame the issue in terms of three marks, nevertheless cannot be said to slight church discipline in that it devotes an entire chapter to "Church Censures" (chapter 30).  Section 3 of this chapter speaks of such censures as "necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders."  Here we are faced with an uncomfortable question: Given that the church appears to be on the cusp of ecclesiastical anarchy, how long can a body that cannot make its decisions stick or discipline its own members continue to call itself a church? 

A CRISIS OF INSTITUTIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY

There has been persistent debate and discussion since the 1970s regarding the failure of the General Synod to bring the Erskine institutions into line with the evangelical identity of the church and the mandates of the ARP Manual of  Authorities and Duties hich governs the activities of the Boards and Agencies of the ARP Church.  As noted above, the March 2010 attempt by the General Synod to replace the Erskine Board of Trustees was met with lawsuits from a number of trustees.  Three trustees obtained a restraining order from a South Carolina judge which kept the sitting Board in place until the case could be heard.  Then, despite the fact that much of the restraining order was quickly overturned on appeal and the General Synod stood a good chance of prevailing on the merits, the General Synod, to paraphrase the "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, went "wobbly" at its June 2010 meeting and passed a motion whereby the Synod would abandon its attempt to replace the Board if the lawsuit against the Synod was withdrawn.  The plaintiffs then sought to extract further concessions from the Synod before the suit was finally withdrawn in September 2010.  

Most recently, the Erskine Board approved a new set of By-Laws for the Erskine institutions.  The By-Laws were overdue for revision, and the new document accomplishes a number of good and necessary things.  But, whatever the intent of individual trustees (which doubtless varies from person to person), an effect of the document is further to distance the schools from the General Synod.  This distance is evident in three areas and potential in a fourth.  First, the language in the new By-Laws speaks of "consultation" and "coordination" between the Erskine Board and the General Synod (thus implying a peer relationship between the Board and the General Synod), rather than acknowledging the Board's subservience and responsibility to the General Synod.  Second, in the section dealing with "undue influence" (a provision required by the accrediting agencies) there is no recognition of "due influence" by the ARP Church, and trustees shall not "submit to undue influence from any external source" (p. 21).  Thus attempts by the church to ensure missional conformity by the Erskine schools could be construed by accrediting agencies as the exercise of "undue influence," and trustees can use the accrediting agencies as leverage against the ARP Church.  Third, the new By-Laws explicitly state that only the Board itself, rather than the church as the appointing body, can remove Trustees (p. 4).  Finally, the new By-Laws provide for a new trustee appointment process that essentially places a newly-revised Board "Committee on Trustees" on a peer level with representatives from the General Synod's Committee on Nominations.  While the specifics of this new process have not yet been finalized by the Board, there is some concern that it will, in effect, give representatives of the Board veto power over the names that are submitted by the Committee on Nominations for approval by the General Synod.   What is clear is that an attempt to address these problems by amending the document with language modeled on the Covenant College Board's By-Laws was decisively defeated by the Board.  

We are already seeing efforts to sell the new By-Laws as the achievement of peace in our time, but the implications of all this for the ARP Church will likely be clear soon enough.  Although I am ambivalent on this point (and hope that I am wrong), it can reasonably be argued that the schools are now on a trajectory that will lead to separation from the church (though the messy process of disentanglement will doubtless take some time).  

Why has the General Synod failed so miserably and so publicly in its efforts to require missional fidelity in one of its own agencies?  The reasons are many, but let me mention four.  First, and most importantly, the ARP Church itself has failed the Erskine institutions.  It has failed to provide a coherent and specific mission for the schools that goes beyond general language about "training for ministry" and the "integration of faith and learning."  There is, for example, considerable disagreement among conservative ARPs over what the "integration of faith and learning" means.  Does it, for example, include or exclude the teaching of evolution at Erskine College?  The church has also not been in a position to provide the numbers of students and the financial support that translate into real influence at institutions of higher learning.  Finally, it has failed to provide sufficient oversight of the schools (a fact recognized by the Moderator's Commission at the Snow Synod).  The Synod has repeatedly failed to put individuals on the Erskine Board who are unambiguously supportive of the church's role and vision for the schools, and here responsibility attaches to churches and individuals who have failed to recommend appropriate candidates for nomination to the Board, to the Nominations Committee of the General Synod, and to the General Synod itself which has repeated approved the slates presented.  Moreover, these patterns are not easily fixed, for they reflect the conflict-averse "culture of niceness" so trenchantly identified by the 2007 Vision Committee Report as characteristic of the ARP Church.  

Second, we must recognize the effective, spirited, and persistent opposition from individuals at Erskine itself, from the Erskine Alumni Association, and Erskine's allies in the General Synod.  The EC Foundation (a tax-exempt entity with three ARP ruling elders on its board) was active in raising money to finance the lawsuit against the church, and people are still being encouraged to contribute to the Foundation (perhaps in anticipation of further litigation should the General Synod not quietly acquiesce to the situation created by the new Erskine By-Laws).  

Third, some Evangelical appointees to the Board and Evangelical members of the General Synod have been less than effective in preserving and pursuing the church's interests at Erskine.  Broad Evangelicals tend to think in individualistic, pietistic, irenic, and parachurch terms that leave little room for a robust doctrine of the church.  Or, to phrase it differently and more bluntly, broad Evangelicals are often "ecclesiologically challenged."  As long as there is an evangelistic witness on the Erskine campus and the Bible Department is relatively orthodox, such people often seem to be pretty happy, and some have been lukewarm at best in their support of efforts to change the culture of Erskine.  Not surprisingly, such people often find arguments for gradual and incremental change compelling, despite the ample witness of history that educational institutions only move gradually to the left as they track the broader culture.  Real and decisive movement to the right, as Al Mohler and others have argued, is inevitably more rapid, difficult, and conflicted.  The examples of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the 1970s, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1990s, and Shorter College (now Shorter University) in Georgia even more recently clearly illustrate this principle (of these instances, the Shorter College episode provides the closest parallel to the Erskine situation in that many of the same dynamics and issues were in play).

Fourth, divisions within the ARP Church itself have hampered the church's efforts to change Erskine.  For some time the General Synod has been split roughly 40/30/30 into three recognizable groups.  By my estimation, approximately 40 percent is self-consciously confessionally Reformed and Evangelical.  Another 30 percent or so are more broadly Evangelical. These have a high view of Scripture but they are wary of too much doctrinal definition and they put a premium on peace.  Finally, there is a culture-Christian wing comprising about 30 percent.  Many such people wish that the ARP looked more like the PCUSA, and they are often more loyal to Erskine than to the General Synod.  The voting patterns at the Snow Synod of March 2010 suggest that the 40 percent on the right and the 30 percent in the middle voted together to try to fix Erskine.  By June of that year, however, the ongoing legal conflict together with other factors such as the web of family and friendship ties that constitutes the peculiar sociology of the ARP Church, personal ambition, and concern for the peace of the church caused many in the middle group to vote with the left wing for compromise.  So it was that a 70% majority in three months became a 40% minority.   Much more importantly, a signal opportunity was lost, perhaps forever, and the church itself was embroiled in the ecclesiological crisis of which this article speaks.  

CONCLUSION

The Erskine controversy has brought long-standing divisions and disagreements within the ARP Church out into the open, and these differences can no longer be papered over with rhetoric and the singing of Psalm 133.  Without a shared identity, there is no overarching sense of mission; instead, there are individual and group agendas.  Not surprisingly, trust has to a great extent broken down and personal tensions are often palpable.  Though some may long for the good old days, the status quo ante bellum cannot be restored.  As my friend Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia likes to say, the toothpaste is now well and truly out of the tube, and all of this raises some heady ecclesiologically loaded questions.  What will the church do if one of its agencies, after decades of tension with the General Synod, begins to declare its independence?  Will the ARP Church continue to funnel over a half-million dollars annually to the Erskine institutions?  If so, will many in the church feel compelled for reasons of conscience to withhold their tithes and offerings from the already-stretched Denominational Ministry Fund?  Finally, an even broader ecclesiological issue is now increasingly being raised in a variety of quarters within the ARP Church--the question of whether the church has any business having boards and agencies at all!  The name of James Henley Thornwell is increasingly being invoked in these discussions, and once the dust settles the church may be poised for a reprise of the nineteenth-century Hodge-Thornwell debate over this issue.  

Sad to say, the ARP Church also still appears to be on track for the "merge or die" scenario I reluctantly outlined last year in "Whither or Wither."  The 2011 meeting of the General Synod will likely be crucial in deciding not only the shape of the relationship between the General Synod and the Erskine institutions, but also the future of the ARP Church itself.  


A self-described "paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinist," Dr. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, SC.  He holds degrees from Taylor University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (M.A.R., Th.M), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.).   He is the author of Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).  He also served as an Assistant Editor of the New Geneva Study Bible/Reformation Study Bible and as Moderator of the 2005 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  In his spare time he writes the ARP Adult Quarterly Sunday School curriculum for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  



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