Results tagged “PCA” from Reformation21 Blog

The Westminster Statement on Biblical Sexuality


Ray Ortlund, one of the original signers of the Nashville Statement, in his book Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, wrote poignantly on the gospel implications of taking a public stand on sexual issues in a culture such as ours:

"Everyone who reveres the gospel has compelling reasons to champion biblical sexual ethics. It is falling to our generation to raise up a prophetic counterculture in the face of the sexual revolution's direct attack on Christ and his marital appeal at the heart of the gospel. The fact that we too are sinners does not exempt us from taking this stand. Our own sinfulness simply means that we take our stand with humility and honesty. But we must not be silent. What is at stake in our sexuality is nothing less than the gospel itself."

The PCA has agreed with this sentiment, recently passing an overture to "declare the Nashville Statement to be a biblically faithful declaration." Some have pointed out that what the PCA did is tremendously important for several reasons, including the benefits of showing forth the clarity of God's word as it speaks to current and pressing cultural issues.

However, some within the denomination have argued that this was a mistake because there is no need for making such a statement, citing the fact that we are a confessional denomination, and our standards speak clearly enough. Others have argued that it is not pastoral in nature. It was even argued on the floor of our General Assembly that certain parts of the Nashville Statement are hurtful to those who identify as same sex attracted.

If this is the case then I would simply point out that the Nashville Statement overture passed by the PCA was simply a "declaration" that this was a "biblically faithful declaration" about a specific, culturally sensitive, and terribly relevant issue. The real pastoral help should, can, and does come from Scripture and is set out in our confessional standards.

Therefore, given some of these recent arguments against the PCA's decision to declare the Nashville Statement to be biblically faithful, I thought it would be helpful to look at the clarity of the Westminster Standards, specifically as to what our standards have to say about sexual ethics and the ordering of sexual desires. After all, I and all ministers in the PCA have taken vows "to sincerely receive and adopt" the teaching of these devotionally and pastorally useful doctrinal standards. While pastoral in nature, they are far more convicting and constricting than the Nashville Statement regarding how our sexual desires are to be ordered and directed.

According to LC 139, among the sins forbidden by the 7th Commandment are all "unnatural lusts" and "all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections." The Westminster Confession of Faith 6.4-5 teaches that the corruption of nature itself, from which our sins proceed, is in itself, prior to any transgression, truly and properly sin. So, when comparisons are being made that seem to put SSA in the same category as non-moral physical maladies (unless I am misunderstanding something) there seems to be some--at least implicit--disagreement between teaching that includes comparisons such as these and the Confession and Catechism's teaching on the taxonomy of sin and corruption.

But there is another line in the previous WLC question (138) that should be very relevant to the current issues in the PCA. Larger Catechism 138 seems to speak into the current situation in a way that I have not yet seen addressed in any sort comprehensive manner. Among the duties required by the 7th Commandment is "marriage by those that have not the gift of Continency." Also forbidden by the 7th Commandment (LC 139) according to our standards is the "undue delay of marriage."

Here seems to be a significant area that some of the Spiritual Friendship and Revoice proponents within the PCA need to address: do our confessional standards teach that the 7th commandment requires biblical marriage for those who have strong sexual desires (however disordered)? The Catechism seems to be arguing that the presence of strong sexual desires rules out one's having the "gift" of continency. Here is what the English Puritan, Thomas Ridgeley, in his famous exposition of the Westminster Larger Catechism, A Body of Divinity, says:

"As for those who cannot, without inconveniency, govern their affections, but are sometimes tempted to any thing which is inconsistent with that purity of heart and life which all ought religiously to maintain, it is their duty to enter into a married state; which is an ordinance that God has appointed to prevent the breach of this commandment."

In 1 Corinthians 7:2 and 7:9 (the same texts the Westminster Divines attached as proofs for this clause) Paul sets forth the distinction between the gift of continency (celibacy) and the need to marry because of sexual desires. Paul never says someone should stay single out of an inability to fulfill disordered sexual desires, rather he charges those with unbridled sexual desires to marry quickly.   Moreover, Paul's teaching on believers being regenerate and sanctified members of the new creation order (6:11ff) quite naturally flows into his teaching on sexual desire and marriage in chapter 7. Regarding those who had been guilty of homosexual behavior or desires prior to being "washed" by Christ (6:11) and given their new identity in Christ, Paul trumpets the resounding and comforting, "And such were some of you!"

Our Anglican brothers agree with the LC in their Book of Common Prayer, teaching that marriage "was ordained for a remedy against sins, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body."

Philip Melanchthon, in his Apology of the (Augsburg) Confession agrees:

Paul here commands those who have not the gift of continence to marry; for, soon afterwards he explains himself, saying: "It is better to marry than to burn;" 1 Cor. 7:9. And Matt. 19:11, Christ clearly says: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given." As then, since the fall of Adam, both the natural affection and the inborn evil lust exist in all of us, and this lust foments the natural desires, so that matrimony is even more necessary than before the corruption of human nature, Paul thus speaks of matrimony, in order to assist our weakness; and to prevent burning passion, he commands those to marry, to whom marriage is necessary. And the declaration: "It is better to marry than to burn," cannot be abolished by any human law or monastic vow; for no law can change the inborn constitution of our nature. All, therefore, who are subject to sexual passion, have the right to marry; [17] and all those who are unable to continue truly pure and chaste, are bound to follow the command of Paul: To avoid fornication let each one have his own wife. In this matter each one must examine his own conscience."

By way of contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has redefined the "gift" of continency and chastity and singleness for SSA individuals. Revoice and Spiritual Friendship sound far more in accord with the teaching of Rome on this point than with the historic teaching of Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Catechism reads,

"Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."

So, the idea that the earnest endeavor to live a chaste, single life rather than to employ God's primary appointed means of alleviating sexual passions and temptations is the Roman Catholic solution to a problem the Scriptures and all of Protestantism has up until quite recently understood and approached much differently.

If the Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran teaching on continence is the same as that which the Larger Catechism teaches concerning the 7th commandment, it leaves me to wonder whether some of the Spiritual Friendship and/or Revoice proponents in the PCA might not have some significant disagreement with the Westminster Standards on this issue and all other implicated areas as well.

I am certainly not claiming that the temptations of those who struggle with same sex attraction will ever completely go away.  What I am intimating is that our doctrinal standards interpret Paul as saying that biblically defined marriage is one of God's foremost means against all sexual immorality and temptations. It is one thing to be in the fight of your life against your sexual desires and temptations--it it is quite another altogether to do so without fighting equally as hard to pursue and make use of God's appointed means to satisfy those sexual desires as an aid to mortifying lust. To fight to abstain without making use of God's means is rather self-defeating in the battle against lust and unclean affections. This neglect of God's gift of marriage--perhaps unnecessarily--has also been said to result in crippling loneliness for suffering believers.

It may be objected that there are a great many exceptions to being able to marry. There are obvious physical disabilities or any number of other preventative providences that make up life in a fallen world that prevent someone from marriage, temporarily or permanently. These are real trials and need to be addressed on a person-by-person basis with great compassion. I have experienced loneliness only for a fraction of my life, and it is an awful thing. However, the presence of disordered sexual desires and unnatural affections does not seem to fit in the WLC's understanding of a person's possession of the 'gift' of continency. Simply being single does not mean one has been endowed with the "gift" of continency or celibacy.

I am prayerfully optimistic that the Study committee that was approved by the General Assembly (not yet named) will serve our denomination along with the broader church well. I also trust that they will address this particular issue, especially as to how it is addressed in our confessional standards, as it would seem to have a direct impact on how we as ministers teach and shepherd God's people on this tremendously volatile and sensitive issue--especially those who valiantly struggle against the sin of SSA.

At the end of the day, while extraordinarily helpful and clear and biblically faithful regarding such a culturally relevant and pressing issue, the Nashville Statement says much less, and in much softer tones, than that which I and my fathers and brothers in the PCA have already vowed to sincerely receive and adopt as our binding confessional standards.

Furthermore, those things which our standards make clear regarding sexual ethics and ordering of desires are also tremendously pastoral and useful in shepherding, teaching, and counseling struggling believers through the difficulties of SSA and other disordered desires and unclean affections. They not only in point them to the Savior, but to God's ordained means of grace and to His plan for great blessing and aid in this life. These things are pastoral indeed.

If I have vowed to sincerely receive and adopt these things, how am I--how are we--using this in our evaluation of current trends in the PCA and in our ministry to God's people, especially those who struggle with these issues? For the sake of the gospel, are we taking a stand not only on what the Nashville Statement declares, but on what the Westminster Standards pastorally and clearly teach on these ever so important issues?

Rev. Jeffrey Windt is the Assistant Pastor of Youth and Families at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC. 


An Evangelistic Time to Stand


A square circle. A married bachelor. An African-American millennial PCA pastoral intern who believes in biblical social justice and agreed with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) commending the Nashville Statement as a biblically faithful document. I not only agreed with it but I signed it and promoted it to others. Some will read this and think that, like the first two examples, the third is a contradiction of the highest order. I assure you it is not. As an evangelist who has been sharing the Gospel in the public sphere since 2006 across the United States and abroad, I see the need for this statement at this particular time in history.

Part of the Problem

I well remember my first semester of college in the Fall of 2007 in Southern California. I joined a campus Christian club and when it came time to speak with non-Christian students, I was surprised by their form of "evangelism." Their method of evangelism was simply to talk of God's love for all. No mention of sin, righteousness, or the judgement to come (Jn. 16:18). Their message gave the non-Christian students they encountered the impression that God is not angry at sin nor at the sinner and that all was fine between them and their Creator. Although shocked, I shouldn't have been. This phenomenon of withholding clear biblical truth isn't new or quarantined to Southern California only. It is worldwide.

Early last month in the Philippines, a group of professing Christians attended and walked in a Pride rally in Marikina City. They held up signs which included messages such as, "Christians harmed the LGBT community"..."I've rejected and hurt your family in the name of 'family values.'"..."God loves you, so do we," and "I used to be a Bible-banging homophobe Sorry!!" The pastor of this group, Val Paminiani, even went as far as to say, "I used to believe that God condemns homosexuals, but when I studied the Scriptures, especially the ones that we call 'clobber Scriptures' that are being cherry-picked from the Bible to condemn LGBT people, I realized that there's a lot to discover, including the truth that God is not against anyone..."

Some of the "cherry-picked...clobber Scriptures" he is speaking of are undoubtedly Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. None of these verses are taken out of context and all of them clearly condemn homosexuals and homosexual behavior as well.

That sort of argumentation is a case in point of professing Christians seeking to be nicer than Moses, the Apostle Paul, and the Triune God Himself. To compound the problem, many Christians believe that when homosexuals and transgender people think of Christianity, they think of people who hate them and call them the worse sorts of names (and, to hate and call precious image bearers names is a heinous sin; rather, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves). This is, however, quite a deceptive misconception--as many in the LGBTQ community are predominately hearing the demonic lies of theological liberal mainline denominations which state, as Pastor Paminiani said, "God is not against anyone..."

In other words, many within my denomination believe that the world already knows what the Bible declares regarding human sexuality in regards to homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex attraction. Based on my own evangelistic interactions with unbelievers, I strongly disagree. With groups of Christians telling the LGBTQ community that Jesus is all love who requires no repentance on their part, confusion as to the teaching of Scripture regarding these issues abounds among the lost.

Part of the Solution

In my nearly 13 years of sharing the Gospel with non-Christians, including homosexual and transgendered people, on college campuses, beach boardwalks, and street corners, I can say that the Nashville Statement ought to be commended by the PCA. The Nashville Statement--which was drafted by godly saints who deeply love God and their LGBTQ neighbors--is a document full of both grace and truth. It speaks the "truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) concerning homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex attraction. Of course it doesn't cover every single issue regarding these topics; but, as Pastor Harry Reeder said on the floor at General Assembly, no statement will ever be comprehensive enough. It does say enough however, is biblically faithful, and is desperately needed in our culture today.

Part of rightly loving the LGBTQ community is telling them the truth about their sin, its consequences (i.e. the wrath of God in the Lake of Fire - Revelation 21:8), and the redemption found solely through Jesus Christ and His finished work for all who truly come to Him (Acts 20:21). This is what the Nashville Statement does so wonderfully. It lays out the truth of what God says in His Word concerning these important issues and then, in Article 14, closes with the beautiful Gospel of Jesus Christ. It ends with offering those in the LGBTQ community true hope of Gospel transformation. It is also telling that Christians who have struggled with or continue to struggle with same-sex attraction also signed this statement such as Jackie Hill Perry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Sam Allberry.

Law and Gospel 

As a young Black Christian in a denomination that I love, I realize that I stand on a different side than many others I love, respect, and who are in the same biblical social justice camp as myself. So why take the stand I do? Because my loyalty lies not to any one camp or tribe but to the Word of God alone. And the Nashville Statement takes a much-needed biblical stand for Jesus Christ and His truth. As Ligon Duncan said on the floor, it gives clarity and we need to be clear to a confused world where we stand as a denomination regarding homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex attraction. To do so is both evangelistic and apologetic (1 Pt. 2:9; 3:15).

It does a wonderful job of laying out the Law of God regarding sexuality leading us to see how both homosexual and heterosexual sin is wrong (Article 9) and then presents the Gospel of Christ. In other words, this Statement is very evangelistic as that is one of the most biblical principles in evangelism: the Law being presented in order to prepare the person for the Gospel. In light of all the above, how is the Law and Gospel presented in the Nashville Statement not pastoral, beautiful, or nuanced enough for our LGBTQ neighbors?

The PCA is not to make decisions based on the emotive appeals and experiences of individuals but on the unchanging Word of God. On Thursday, June 27, 2019 we took the right stand as a denomination. I too take that same stand unashamedly. Therefore, the Nashville Statement is one I will, without reservations, use in evangelistic conversations with truly interested people who are open to hearing about the Bible's sexual ethic and how they can be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-21). I recommend the same to you. It is time to take a stand. Will you?

Lamont English is the Assistant Director of the PCA's Mission to the World (MTW) West Coast office. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not represent those of MTW. 

Four Cheers for PCA Approval of the Nashville Statement


There have not been many times over the last twenty years in the PCA General Assembly when I had no idea how a crucial vote was going to turn out. Late last Thursday night (or was it Friday morning?), the GA's vote on the Nashville Statement was one of them. The Nashville Statement was produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to address questions regarding gender identity and homosexuality that are contested in our culture. In my opinion, this vote was a watershed in the PCA regarding whether our ethos will be shaped by cultural pressures or by the Word of God. How relieved I was when the vote came in, a substantial majority of the assembly approving the Bible's teaching on human sexuality as reflected in the Nashville Statement.

Let me offer four reasons why I think the General Assembly's approval was important. I will outline these briefly, hoping to provide fuller explanations in the future:

  1. The teaching of God's Word brings blessing and healing. There were undoubtedly a number of reasons why a minority of commissioners voted against the Nashville Statement (NS).   The most frequently cited reason was that it would cause harm to those struggling with same sex attraction (SSA) if the PCA declared the NS a faithful and useful summary of Scripture. Very few argued that the NS was in error. What they argued instead was that by setting forth such teaching, the PCA would bring emotional harm to those struggling with homosexual desires. Yet surely the PCA is not ready to abandon its core principle that the truths of God's Word bring light and life. Moreover, the ministers who will provide tender, loving ministry to those struggling with SSA need biblical clarity on contested matters. Despite the distorted descriptions made of the NS during the debate, its greatest commendation occurred when Ruling Elder Mel Duncan simply read it. The biblical positions set forth in the NS will help us to speak the truth in love, providing careful ministry to those in need, which is why so many Christians struggling with SSA have signed and endorsed it, such as Christopher Yuan, Rosaria Butterfield, and Sam Alberry.
  2. The teaching of God's Word is needed when new cultural challenges impact the church. Another argument made against the NS during and after the GA debate was that we have no need directly to address the issues related to homosexuality and gender confusion. After all, it is said, we already have the Westminster Standards. Yet the Westminster divines scarcely imagined a culture in which homosexuality would be as aggressively celebrated and promoted as in our society. It is because we face new challenges that the proposed alternative to the NS was the PCA's own study committee, the support for which renders suspect the argument that the Westminster Standards provide sufficient clarity on our cultural context.
  3. The teaching of God's Word corrects error. The motion to support the NS was a response to the Revoice conference that emerged in 2018. While Revoice has provided different versions of its teaching, some better than others, the spreading of error has threatened the health of our denomination. These errors were replete in the GA speeches offered against the NS. One error is the confusion of sinful desire and temptation. SSA was consistently referred to as a temptation, under the notion that temptation is not sin. But as James 1:14-15 so clearly states it, temptation is the suffering imposed by inducements to sin whereas desire is the disordered affection and will that desires to embrace the temptation. Several anti-NS speeches during the debate compared SSA to medical challenges such as cancer, avoiding the truth that SSA involves a sinful aspect that mere disease does not. Another error concerns whether a Christian may wholesomely embrace a sin category as part of his or her core Christian identity. In short, is "gay Christian" a biblically faithful core conception? Despite denials that Revoice endorses "gay Christian," TE Greg Johnson assailed Article VII of the NS during his moving speech, the point of which is to "deny that adopting a homosexual or trans-gender self-conception is consistent with God's holy purposes in creation and redemption." (See 1 Cor. 6:11). Another speaker in the GA gave the frequently heard accusation that Revoice critics tell us simply "to pray the gay away." This is a disingenuous misrepresentation of our concerns. More alarming, however, is the disdain shown for the power of God to heal and deliver through the mighty resource of prayer. Revoice critics know that wrestling with SSA involves more than prayer and that this complicated issue has no easy answers. Yet dealing with SSA surely involves much prayer, and a believing hope in the power of God to deliver from sin and its effects. The scorning of prayer and God's power to deliver is a source of great alarm.
  4. The teaching of God's Word brings spiritual unity.   As I pointed out in my GA speech, the Revoice movement has greatly disturbed the peace and unity of the PCA. The way to bring unity and peace is to speak the truths of God's Word. This was greatly needed at this year's GA and I am profoundly grateful for the assembly's wisdom in supporting the NS. Moreover, as was established in the debate over remaining in the NAE, the PCA should seek to stand in unity with other evangelical bodies. I shudder to think what would have been the effect within the PCA and in our relationship with other conservative denominations if the Christianity Today headline had been reversed the morning after GA, saying that the PCA had approved Revoice over the Nashville Statement. In my opinion, the result would have been a convulsion of division that may well have led to the splitting of the PCA. I thank our Lord that the assembly took the opposite approach, supporting the NS's exposition of truth as a basis of unity, peace, and a shared vision of ministry for our denomination.


Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs


Occasionally, a family calls a council at which members express critiques of family interactions, rules and priorities. In my family, the meeting often revolves around the same few contentious topics. Our family rules are set, but we also desire for each member to know that their insights can make a real difference. In the end, the rules don't usually change, but we adjust certain applications based on their input. Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs  is such a family meeting. 

Alexander Jun, Moderator of the 45th  General Assembly for the PCA prefaces the book: 

"My sisters in Christ have called for a denominational family meeting to discuss some critical questions in our churches (...)" Brittany Smith, one of the editors and contributors, introduces the book with the need for a strong apologetic: "And if we want to have a strong apologetic for why we consider it biblical to continue to have male-only eldership, we need not only the willingness to attempt to thoughtfully articulate our beliefs (...), but also a willingness to root out latent misogyny in the church." (p.XIV)

The family meeting starts with the stories of sisters in PCA churches, learning from their perspectives, and wrapping it up with statements from our fathers and brothers. A variety of female voices of different racial backgrounds contribute: married and single, professionals and homemakers. They are well-spoken, theologically astute sisters, who, for the most part (a little snark included!) write in a gracious tone, despite reporting hurtful experiences. Pastors who have wrestled through the issues add their stories, coming to their own conclusions and applications. If there is anything afoul in our churches we should not be afraid to assess it, address it and redress it.

Sisters tell sad stories of observing very poor counseling or protection from abuse. Some women feel judged for their career choices or marital status. Women with teaching gifts struggle to fit in, while others feel their role in worship is limited. Some feel their gifts are ignored, their questions are threatening, their interest in theology is suspect. These reports are disheartening! The book also contains a few encouraging stories of women who feel respected, cared for and very much at home in the PCA.

Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs is a clarion call to pastors to examine whether they deliberately see, love, serve, encourage, and train the women in their congregations, as well as think creatively about utilizing their gifts for the edification of the body. One of the negative examples given reveals a restrictive approach to women in the church that borders on spiritual abuse: "'Are you really saying that women may not teach the Bible, even to other women?' (...) 'Yes. All teaching must be done by the pastors. The women should restrict their teaching to the application of the doctrines.' "(238) If this is true, this brother is prohibiting women from doing something the Scriptures expressly commands in Titus 2.

I find the family model a helpful theological framework onto which to hang gender relations in the church. "If we are the family of God (...), then surely how we treat women in our family is just as important as making sure that our church order is proper and that we ensure that only men are teaching and ruling elders. In fact, if we love to call each other "fathers and brothers," then we should also delight to call the women in our churches "mothers and sisters." (254) The testimonies by men expressing humility and willing to recognize their own blind spots are moving as well. "Most of the difficulties I have had (...) have not been resolved by clarifying roles. They have been resolved by my repenting of my male hubris and disrespect for women." (283) There is also the recognition that "Not all complementarians are out to grab or preserve male authority and patriarchy. In fact, most are not. Most (...) see themselves as men and women who are under authority." (290-291) There is no shame in recognizing that we, as a denominational family, can continue to grow in love toward one another.

From an editorial standpoint, it is always difficult for a multi-authored work not to feel too choppy. Some contributions, though interesting, don't seem to quite fit the topic at hand and some were adapted for this book. Understandably, multiple authors discuss the meaning of ezer/helper, for example, leading to some repetition for the reader.

The lack of clear definitions can be frustrating. What is meant by "leadership", "ministry", "feminism", "pastor", "patriarchy", "privilege", etc.? The struggle over language is not just the reader's. One pastor who has hired a woman admits: "Another ongoing tension has to do with language: What do we call her? Debbie is a pastor; she pastors people. In many ways she is a better pastor than I am (...) there are real distinctions between what she does and what I do. But still, there is something of an awkward tension in my own heart about titles." (195) A family needs to share common language. Most of us in the PCA would probably be shocked to hear of a sister church hiring a woman pastor. Words are important because they communicate implied realities. The fact that there is a lot of one-anothering across gender lines in churches does not mean that every person who ministers to another is a "pastor". The Apostle Paul nowhere forbids women from caring for others, including men in the church, but he does forbid them having an authoritative overseer function. If we said Debbie is "pastoral" with a lower-case p, we understand, but if Debbie is functioning as an elder, this would be problematic in our PCA context. Our language needs to match our realities more closely.

The term "sexual minorities," (182) for example, is also confusing. SSA Christians may well be in the minority, but this does not give them special status based on sinful tendencies. Whether intentional or not, the book provides no correctives to terminology. In fact, it seems to be leaning in the direction of defining women's experiences in terms of intersectionality, meaning the more strikes there are against someone, the more likely that person is to be oppressed in the PCA. Naturally, we should deal with injustice or gracelessness in our hearts and in our churches, but what paucity is ours if we cling to our hurt or even our sinful tendencies as germane to our identity instead of who we are in Christ!

Some troubling points are the less than gracious accusations made against specific PCA brothers who feel strongly about guarding our doctrine. It is said that they don't want to revisit the issue because they fear a slippery slope into liberalism. These men may have a valid point when one considers the direction of other denominations that have abandoned the biblical teaching on gender altogether. Said elders would probably explain in their own defense that the family rules have already been established in our creeds and confessions and hence do not need constant revisiting. Are our elders not called to guard the precious apostolic deposit of the church? Do we not need them to bring correctives to our young women growing up with worldviews radically opposed to the Bible, some of which are evident in this book? They are constantly hearing that there is nothing they cannot do, that personal choice and autonomy, sexual preference, career and equal rights are the highest values to pursue. We need our elders to help us recalibrate our hearts and minds to the Word of God!

Even the topic of inerrancy seems to be framed negatively, as part of the historical analysis for why the PCA disallows women's ordination: "This link between disallowing the ordination of women and belief in Scripture's inerrancy is highly significant. It excludes the possibility of variation in interpretation of Scripture, at least in relation to passages on the role of women in the Church. (...) to prevent women from being ordained is to respect biblical principles, thereby maintaining the centrality of Scripture's inerrancy. (161) This is a true statement, but unfortunately, it could be perceived to mean: "If we could only toss inerrancy, we could finally reinterpret the Bible to allow women's ordination." (Forgive me, sister, if I'm completely misunderstanding your intent). Why not formulate what we believe positively?

What is positively formulated throughout the book, is a compelling apologetic for working together and respecting one another as brothers and sisters in the family of God. What is missing for me as a complementarian female reader, however, is a clear, no-nonsense, exposition of why God's creational authority structures in marriage and in the church are very good, and how they are a testimony to the Gospel itself. This is what the younger generation of women will need to make sense of and integrate their femaleness into God's grand story of redemption. There is a repetitive, positive focus on being an ezer, Eve's task at Adam's side, but hardly even a mention of the obvious main way the woman is called to help, namely by being chavvah, a life-giver, which is essential to Eve's unique creational identity. I experienced a great deal of sadness of a different sort when I read statements such as "We are smart. We're scholars. We're teachers (...) But don't relegate us to the nursery and the Women's Committee" (301). Relegate? Does teaching only qualify as good when men are in the room? Let's be careful not to become "sexist" and "ageist" and throw our own babies out with the bathwater of our past frustrations with the church! This aspect of woman's Imago Spiritus (her being made in the image of the Lord and Giver of life), though not strictly confined to biology, remains central to God's creational intent. What a missed opportunity!

Regardless of the critique I have raised about certain aspects of this book, I recommend it to you. Listen to your sisters in the PCA, mourn the sins committed against them. Interact critically with the ideas being discussed in the denomination, even if you fall on the other side of the family discussion. I believe that we will remain a complementarian family. Some will want to preserve doctrine carefully, others might want to push Christian freedom. At the end of the day, even our most progressive churches will not go far enough for those who cannot agree to the limitations placed on women drawn from the Scriptures, however positively the message is packaged.

Eowyn Jones Stoddard lives in Berlin, Germany. She studied at Westminster Seminary in California.

Power for Missions Restored


Since the early 19th Century the American church has largely taken for granted the necessity and legitimacy of mission agencies, both church and para-church. By the mid 20th Century they were as firmly entrenched as any feature of American church life.

But a surprising deja-vu moment occurred during the 1973 formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The voices of the Boards Controversy, dead for 100 years, briefly came back to life. And, in establishing her missions program, it was Thornwell's voice that was heard.

Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell represent the two corners in The Boards Controversy (1840-1860). Never before or since have American Presbyterians - or possibly Christians anywhere - wrestled so carefully with questions concerning how the Church's mission should be organized and executed.

Hodge argued that Foreign Mission Boards could belong to the Church without being part of the Church. It was the best of both worlds: Church access (for funds and recruits) and a general oversight, without the attendant risk of churches controlling a work they didn't understand.

Thornwell argued that, in order for the Church to properly bring all of its resources to bear upon the Great Commission, Foreign Mission Boards would need to be part of the Church, under the Church's authority.

A fundamental question was beginning to emerge: Where does vitality for missions come from?

Gospel Government?

Thornwell believed Presbyterianism held the answer. It is a faith revealed in Holy Scripture with Spiritual energy. Any alternative is a man-made construct with human energies. It was that simple.

Hodge seemed to view Christ as an absentee King. In the work of kingdom expansion the Church was left to labor as best she can according to her own devices. Like Lewis' Aslan who would send emissaries from time to time to his tortured Narnia, Christ reserves his own reign for the Last Battle. Thornwell's reading of Scripture allowed for no such absenteeism. Such a Christ cannot save now. Rather, Christ reigns in the present from Zion, the visible Church, and he does so directly by his own Word and Spirit. It is by His own power and His own authority that His own kingdom is to grow to the ends of the earth. Nothing and no-one comes between Christ and His kingdom reign. Christ is REALLY present. The administration of this present and active Spiritual authority, organically resident in the Church as a whole, is required of men by ordination and in the courts of the Church. The Church is positively constituted by direct orders. Any interference by man in this Spiritual authority is an affront to Christ and His work. Man's interference disempowers.

Hodge accused Thornwell of hair-splitting, a nuisance to a well-oiled and proven mission machine. Thornwell saw a machine that was swiftly on its way to a nuclear meltdown. Not only was it destructive to the real power for missions but it would take the whole Church down with it.

Gaining and Losing

In 1861 the first General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian church issued the declaration: "obedience to the Great Commission is the great end of our Church's organization and the indispensable condition of her Lord's promised presence." Thornwell was appointed to chair the committee that was to organize this supreme obedience. The Board structure of the prior church was replaced with "strictly defined and limited Executive Committees."[1] But how "strictly defined and limited" did they turn out to be?

"The Executive Committee for Foreign Missions began "to initiate and conclude many things which, when reported to the Assembly, might be approved or disapproved but could not be undone."[2]

Reaching for the Past

Thornwell's voice was heard from the grave in 1973 when the PCA published its own "Message to all the churches of Jesus Christ throughout the world." The letter was modeled after the one Thornwell wrote in 1861. Quoting Thornwell's letter, the Church "has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth."

With the benefit of a century of accumulated experience and wisdom, our PCA founding fathers tried their own hand at putting into place "strictly defined and limited Executive Committees." For the supremely important work of foreign missions they had a Manual written which deliberately followed Thornwell. It recognized two mutually reinforcing but differentiated bonds: Between General Assembly and missions there is what I will call the "bond of unity". But the indispensable bond is between the lower courts and missions, what I will call the "bond of power".

The Bond of Power

The bond between missionary and Sending Body is the "bond of power". The commissioning of the missionary by the sending body invests the power of that body in the missionary for a particular assignment. Unlike the local pastor who is installed or local church worker who is assigned, the missionary is commissioned to extend the ministry of the Sending Body.

"The book of Acts sets forth the scriptural role of the church -- the local church -- as the sending authority and as the prayer and financial base for world evangelism. In our Presbyterian system, the proper sending bodies, therefore, are the session of the local church for laymen and the presbytery for ministers."[3]

Without being commissioned (which includes the sustained bond which the act of commissioning entails) the missionary is not in possession of any vocational Spiritual authority to evangelize, disciple, preach, or teach towards establishing/strengthening churches. Commissioning is not an isolated task but rather entails a complex of responsibilities:

"The responsibilities of these sending bodies, in consultation with the General Assembly's Committee on Mission to the World, include recruitment, examining, training, support, commissioning, contact, and furlough."

The Manual fills in more detail concerning the nature of the bond of missionary to Sending Body:

"[The missionary] came from them; he is supported by them; in a real sense his work is an extension overseas of their own local or presbytery ministry. There should be maintained a vital contact between the missionary and the sending body. The session or presbytery should arrange to receive regular reports from its missionary on the field. It should evaluate his work and seek to offer advice and encouragement. It must take seriously its basic oversight for his doctrine and morals."

The Bond of Unity

The bond of missionary with General Assembly (through its committee) is the "bond of unity" within the PCA. GA is "the bond of union, peace and correspondence among all its congregations and courts." (BCO 14.1) The Manual begins with a statement of order:

"Relationship of the Committee to the Presbyteries and Sessions of the denomination is defined by the duties assigned to the Committee by the General Assembly. Its role is to serve and offer coordinating facilities to these church courts."

Commissioned PCA missionaries are coordinated by GA through its permanent committee. Coordination is thus MTW's principle function with regards to church power.

What are the boundaries of this coordination? When the consultant becomes the boss. To the extent that specialized centralized coordination slips into perceived Spiritual authority there is real danger.[4]  

The MTW Committee (including its staff), as an institution, is not invested with church power. As a committee it neither has commissioned power nor is it a commissioning body. Herein is the distinction between the "bond of power" and the "bond of unity".

Yet the work cannot be other than one organic work.

"The Mission to the World Committee serves as an "enabling" committee. It was created by the General Assembly to encourage and enable the Presbyterian Church in America at every level to function as a missionary church. . . The Book of Church Order sets forth the role of the committees as that of important but limited servants of the whole church."

MTW Manual Completed

The completed Manual claimed to offer peace and purity in an organic continuity:

"It presents a program of missions which is in the best Reformed tradition and one that all our churches can accept and support. Because of the insistence on the scriptural role of the church and presbytery as the sending bodies and because of the variety of models, the conscience of no individual church member, minister, session or presbytery is violated. This program can maintain the peace and purity of our church and it can unite us in the great work of world missions."

Its greater achievement was restored power.

*See also the extended version of this post here

[1] Samuel H. Chester, Behind the Scenes; an Administrative History of the Foreign Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, (Austin, Tex.: Press of Von Boeckmann-Jones Co., 1928), 12.

[2] Chester, Behind the Scenes; an Administrative History of the Foreign Work of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 13.

[3] This and subsequent quotes are from the "Manual for Mission to the World Committee" in the form most recently reviewed by GA (Minutes of the 7th GA, pp. 241-251).

[4] See Philip DeHart, "Staying Tied to Foreign Missions," ByFaith, 16 January 2019.

Revoice and the "Idolatry" of the Nuclear Family


When the Obergefell case was argued before the US Supreme Court to establish the right to gay marriage, many saw little threat to religious liberty. It became clear, however, that the approval of same-sex marriage would in fact result in the delegitimizing of the Christian view of sexuality and marriage in American society. Justice Samuel Alito noted that far from merely establishing equal protection to competing views, the official approval of gay marriage would "vilify those who disagree, and treat them as bigots."

Something similar now seems to be taking place within the "gay Christian" circles of the church, as evidenced by the recent Revoice conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis. One of the surprising claims to come out of this conference was made by Revoice president Dr. Nate Collins. In his address titled "Lament," Collins suggested that the homosexual community be compared to Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. "Is it possible," he asked, "that gay people today are being sent by God, like Jeremiah, to find God's words for the church. . . [and] shed light on contemporary false teachings and even idolatries?" The question can be raised as to whether there is a genuine analogy, as Collins sees it, between the poor oppressed of Israel in the days of Jeremiah and the homosexual community today which is joined not only by the afflictions of sin but also by a shared temptation to sin.   But more significantly, when Collins goes on to identify the false teachings exposed by "sexual minorities," he states that the presence of gay people in the church constitutes "a prophetic call to the church to abandon idolatrous attitudes toward the nuclear family."1

I place Collins' comments beside the effects of the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision because they share a significant common feature. As Justice Alito pointed out, the right to gay marriage not only grants a freedom to one view but also denies freedom to its opposite. Likewise, the vision of human sexuality espoused by Revoice not only conflicts with but also excludes the biblical vision for sexuality and human society. In both cases, Obergefell and Revoice, this collision is inevitable since the normalizing of homosexual behavior/desires demands a radical revision of human life. The Bible says that God created mankind "male and female" (Gen. 1:27) and then placed them in the covenant union of marriage involving a man and a woman. "It is not good for the man to be alone," the Lord noted, and in direct response to this assessment he created the first woman (Gen. 2:18-22). In contrast, a major theme of Revoice is that homosexual desires existed before the fall and are not in themselves necessarily sinful. Yet as we consider what the Bible says, homosexual desire has no way to fit into Genesis 2 and thus the ordering of human relations by our Creator. There is no male-to-male or female-to-female sexuality in God's created design. Furthermore, Genesis 2 views the creation of nuclear families not as idolatry but as a vitally significant way in which man's purpose in life is fulfilled. The words, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28), described not the worship of a false god but obedient faith in the one true God. If the fulfilling of mankind's creation mandate involves idolatry, then the world created by God must inevitably be a different one from that which is described in Genesis 1 and 2. Therefore, if there is a prophetic call from those who seek to normalize homosexual desires, its message is that the Bible's view of humanity and life must be recast according to the agenda of "sexual minorities."

There are many reasons to have sympathy with the aims expressed by the Revoice conference, especially the genuine sorrows of those who experience same-sex attraction. But the doctrine of Revoice is not one that biblically faithful Christians can afford to view with sympathy. Either the biblical view of humanity, sex, marriage, and society is right or else it is wrong. Likewise, if gays represent a prophetic voice challenging the church to conform, then it is the traditionally understood Christian view of sex and marriage that comes under rebuke. It is for this reason that the PCA cannot afford either to endorse the Revoice message or even to stand by inactive as conferences like these are held in our churches. If the Bible is true, right, wholesome, and good, then the doctrine of Revoice must not be embraced, nor permitted in the counsels of the church. What is at stake in this controversy is nothing less than the commitment of our denomination to the truth of God's Word and our embrace of the Scripture's view of life and godliness.

1. Revoice 2018, General Session 2: Lament (starting at the 36:30 mark).

Richard D. Phillips is senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC. He has been the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology since 2000 and is series co-editor of the Reformed Expository Commentary series (P&R).

Taking Exception


At the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR) presented its annual report. The Assembly tasks this committee with reviewing the minutes of each of the PCA's Presbyteries. CRPR relays to the Assembly any constitutional irregularities that it believes it has found in those minutes. One alleged irregularity became the occasion of some debate on the floor of this year's Assembly.

A Presbytery had examined and approved a candidate for ordination. In the course of that examination, the candidate declared a difference with Westminster Larger Catechism 109.[1] Having approved the candidate for ordination, the Presbytery subsequently approved a motion that the candidate "not be allowed to teach his exception to LC 109."[2]

CRPR recommended that the Assembly find this action of Presbytery an "exception of substance."[3] A minority of the committee disagreed and argued that Presbytery was within its rights to forbid the ordinand from teaching his exception. After hearing from both the committee and the minority, the Assembly debated the matter. The Assembly ultimately adopted CRPR's recommendation to find the Presbytery's action an "exception of substance."

The Issue

What was properly at issue in this debate? Here it is crucial to define the question. The question is not whether a difference with LC 109 constitutes an acceptable exception in the courts of the PCA. Nor is the question whether it is under any circumstances permissible for an officer to teach an exception to the Westminster Standards. Nor is the question whether the Presbytery, in this particular situation, acted prudentially. The question is whether a Presbytery possesses the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. This question is both important and wide-ranging. It touches not only upon the inherent rights of particular church courts, but also upon the relations among the courts of the church. It raises questions of the nature and purpose of confessions, of the relation of officers to the church, and of the liberty of conscience of those who subscribe to the church's standards.

We will argue that Presbytery does possess the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. There are four interrelated considerations that will help us to see that Presbytery has such a power.

  1. The Nature and Purpose of Confessional Standards

The first concerns the nature and purpose of confessional standards. The Westminster Standards are, of course, "subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God."[4] They "sink below the authority of the Scripture."[5] What, then, are the Westminster Standards, and what purpose do they serve in the PCA? According to the nineteenth century American Presbyterian, Samuel Miller, a creed or confession is "an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the Holy Scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity."[6] It is "a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches...which a certain portion of the visible catholic church agree in considering as a formula by means of which they may know and understand one another."[7] Miller highlights two important dimensions of a confession in the life of the church. First, a confession is a statement of the church. It is not the opinion of a private individual or individuals. Neither is it a declaration of a particular assembly of the church's leadership. It is a public and official declaration on the part of the whole church with respect to what she believes the Bible to teach.[8] Second, the purpose of a confession is to maintain and promote unity. Since the church's unity is necessarily founded upon the truth of Scripture, confessions afford invaluable aids to the church to comply with the apostolic command to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:3). Creeds and confessions do not merely serve as tools to ascertain the orthodoxy of candidates for office. They promote the church's unity by declaring, up front and in writing, what one may expect to be taught (and not taught) within the church. They mark the boundaries within which those who teach in the church are expected to function.

These considerations help us to understand the ecclesiastical significance of candidates' stated differences to the Westminster Standards. In the judgment of the church, the Westminster Standards summarize the teaching of Scripture. For that reason, "an exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture (although obviously not from the point of view of the sincere exceptor)."[9] When a candidate for ordination declares a difference that is subsequently deemed to be an exception, and when this candidate wishes to teach his exception, he is requesting that he be permitted to teach contrary to the church's understanding of the Bible. This is not to say that it is categorically impermissible for an officer to teach an exception to the church's standards. But it is to say that the church has both an interest in and the right to determine whether or not he will be allowed to teach this exception so long as he ministers within her bounds.

  1. The Relation of Officers to the Church

The second consideration comes from the relation of officers to the church. To begin, church office is not a right to which an individual is entitled. It is a privilege that the church grants to those whom it deems qualified. This point is underscored by the Second Preliminary Principle of the PCA's Book of Church Order (BCO):

"In perfect consistency with the above principle [i.e. of the true liberty of individual conscience], every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own."

This Preliminary Principle acknowledges that churches may misuse this right, but abusus non tollit usum-that misuse does not nullify the legitimate use of this right. When a man seeks office in the church, he agrees to be examined according to the qualifications set by the church. When the church admits a man into office, the man agrees to hold office on the terms set by the church. A minister or an elder does not function in the capacity of a private individual. He functions as an officeholder in the church. Even as his "commission is from Christ," it is also "through the church." Since "the church's organ, through which she officially performs her witnessing function as a body, is her ministry," the "official testimony [of church officers] is her testimony."[10]

Because officeholders are, in this respect, the church's instruments, when the church admits a man to office, it is a reasonable expectation on the part of the church that an officer of the church would teach the standards of the church. It is, furthermore, a legitimate prerogative of the church to insist that he, so long as he is an officer in her bounds, refrain from teaching a particular doctrine that is contrary to the church's standards.

It is sometimes argued that setting the terms of office in this way violates the liberty of the candidate's conscience. This is a serious concern, not least because Presbyterians have historically stood in the vanguard of those who defend liberty of conscience. Does forbidding a man to teach his exception as a condition of holding office require him to violate his conscience?

The answer to that question is "no." Recall that church office is a privilege and not an entitlement. No individual deserves to hold office in the church. Furthermore, the church is free to set the terms of office how it pleases. Even when she errs here, the Second Preliminary Principle reminds us, the church "does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of her own." If a particular body's terms are not agreeable to the individual, he is not bound to agree to them. No earthly injustice is done to him if, for these reasons, he is not admitted to office. Moreover, he is free to affiliate with some other body whose convictions lie closer to his own. As J. Aspinwall Hodge, commenting on this Second Principle, observed, "This principle is essential to all organizations. Men are at liberty to refuse to be connected with a society, but if they voluntarily enter, they must submit to its terms of admission and to its laws."[11]

You can read the rest of this article here.

Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?


Some years ago, our friend Terry Johnson (senior pastor of Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church) wrote an article suggesting an opportunity for constructive dialogue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Terry classified the two main PCA camps in positive terms, seeing some brothers as more evangelistic (ME's) and others as more Reformed (MR's). Not that neither camp was evangelistic or Reformed; these labels could be given to both sides. Rather, the two camps could be distinguished as being more of one than the other. Terry argued that if we learn to trust one another, the ME's could be restrained from unbiblical innovations by the MR's and the MR's could be stimulated towards a Reformed piety that more greatly emphasized gospel outreach by the ME's.

At no time since Terry's article have I thought such a positive scenario to be more plausible than after this year's 2018 PCA general assembly. Recent history has conditioned us to expect combat between the two main camps, widely understood as progressives1 and confessionalists (or conservatives). Going into this year's assembly, however, the absence of highly contentious overtures was noticeable. Moreover, the most likely candidates for assembly warfare proved to be sources of cooperation and widely-held agreement. First was our unanimous affirmation of the Racial Reconciliation Study Committee report. Next came substantial agreement that the Bible's teaching of male-only eldership effectively bars women from serving as voting members of GA committees. Perhaps most notable was the nearly unanimous vote to grant full constitutional authority to the Book of Church Order language limiting marriage to only the union of a man and woman. Moreover, both in committee meeting rooms and the hotel lobbies, would-be progressives and confessionalists were seen conversing as friends and even forging agreements that would produce a greater consensus.

All of this is to ask, "What is happening to our beloved PCA?" Hopefully, I would suggest, something very good. Might this year's GA signal that we are moving close(r) to a new and functioning unity? As one who has often departed from the PCA general assembly in near despair, I must confess that I returned this year with hope that, Yes, perhaps we are closer to unity that I earlier had thought.

Even as I write these words, the groaning from supposed enemies and (even more so) from loyal friends rings loud in my ears. So let me be clear that I have not yielded to sentimental fantasies. I know quite well the significant number of matters on which unity does not exist in the PCA. Why, even the GA worship services are usually divisive (especially to oft-horrified confessionalists like me), replete with ruthless virtue signalling and finger-pointing sermonic warfare. Meanwhile, the fringes of both main camps regularly speak and act in such a way as to prompt spontaneous combustion on the other side. Yet it still seems that the PCA middle is growing larger in number and clearer in its commitments, and with more participation from partisan players (like myself). Therefore, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:3, which urges us to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," let me explore two key avenues for the PCA to move forward in a new functional and spiritual unity.

First, unity in the PCA will require a clear doctrinal consensus on contested matters. It speaks to our times that PCA members are divided not so much on matters of confessional theology but on contested cultural hot spots. I would identify three main topics in which a future unity in the PCA will require a strong consensus: women's ministry, creation v. evolution, and homosexuality. So what would a ME-MR constructive unity look like when it comes to these subjects? Let me offer the following, not in terms of demands from one side or the other but simply my own view of what unity would require:

  • Women's Ministry. In order for the PCA to have unity, it will be necessary for ME's to accept our denomination's historical commitment to the Bible's teaching of male-only elders and deacons, involving not only ordination but also the functions of those offices. Meanwhile, MR's will need to show a broad embrace, within the above bounds, of women exercising their gifts and partnering with men in the work of the gospel. Given the clear stance of the 2017 Women's Ministry Study Committee report in agreement with both of these sides - against ordination to elder and deacon and for wide-ranging ministry - there is reason to be optimistic. This year's denial of the overture to admit women as voting members of general assembly committees is even more encouraging to those concerned about a liberal drift. Still, the coming years will tell the tale, and if progressives become resolved to achieve women's ordination then all hopes of unity in the PCA will be dashed.
  • Creation v. Evolution. PCA unity on this topic requires MR's to accept that not all of our brothers are going to hold a strict 24-7 view of Genesis 1. But it will also require ME's clearly to accept that evolution has no place in our denomination, including end-run theories like old earth progressive creationism. If we can continue to agree on the biblical portrait of a historical Adam, clearly exclude evolution, and accept diversity within those bounds, the PCA can maintain our functional unity. Conversely, attempts to foster acceptance of evolution or to impose a 24-7 creation view on the denomination will lead to further division.
  • Homosexuality. At the heart of our division on this subject is whether or not to define same-sex attraction (SSA) as a morally neutral status that does not require repentance. PCA progressives seem to have asserted such a sub-category beneath sinful desire (essentially adopting the pre-Reformation concept of concupiscence).  PCA conservatives hold with the Reformers against concupiscence, urging that the Bible does not meaningfully distinguish between "orientation" and "desire" (see James 1:13-14). Can we come to an ME-MR agreement on this topic? I was encouraged in this regard by comments made during the general assembly by Mark Dalbey, president of Covenant Theological Seminary. While conservatives may quarrel with details of Dalbey's configuration, his statement that "attraction to the same sex must be mortified by the means of grace and the support of the people of God,"2 is at least close to the conservative view regarding same sex attraction. Moreover, MR's are convinced that expressions such as "gay Christian" are incompatible with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a wholesome description of a believer. For their part, ME's are concerned for believers struggling with homosexual desire to be granted their full human dignity and embraced with loving gospel ministry in the church. Can we reach an agreement that brings both sides together? This remains to be seen, although I was encouraged in this hope by the experience of general assembly.

As I have indicated, I left this year's PCA general assembly with a strengthened hope that we may achieve a constructive doctrinal consensus on cultural hot topics. But, second, unity in the PCA will also require a renewal of trust between the long-contested parties. Can we move from progressive-confessional conflict to a constructive ME-MR dialogue? The answer will require us to think better of one another than our fears might counsel. It will mean seeking to understand as well as to be understood. Unity will require us to face the question as to where our actual aspirations lie: against one another or together in renewed unity? I do not deny that I, for one, have often despaired that the two sides of the PCA have enough agreement to ever really walk together again (Amos 3:3). Undoubtedly, the upcoming general assemblies will tell this tale. But 2018 suggests that maybe we do want to walk together and maybe we can. Perhaps the real question asks if we are willing to agree? To be sure, it will be through a shared commitment to truth that we will recover our trust. But the dynamic works both ways: if we are willing to trust one another, this will greatly aid our shared pursuit of truth.

The stakes are high. What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world. Truth first, then unity. But, for both, let this year's PCA general assembly prompt a renewal of trust, or at least in the hope of trust. For we are, both ME and MR, "his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3), and we both love and serve the same Good Shepherd whose "steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations" (Ps. 100:5).

1. So named by Bryan Chapell, "The State of the PCA," By Faith, 5/12/2015.

2. See the video recording of the Thursday PM session, starting at 2:09:05.

Can the "Welcoming Church" Speak the Truth?


One feature of life in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the unveiling of the annual buzz-word for our General Assembly. This year, the word is "welcoming." So far as it goes, this is a fine aspiration for our denomination. We, of course, want our doors to be open not merely to certain kinds of people but to one and all. We especially want to embrace the heart of our Savior for lost souls of all kinds. We have good news to proclaim, and our gospel is one of welcome from a God of grace in the name of his crucified and resurrected Son.

Moreover, there is a legitimate need to emphasize "welcoming" in our national context of polarized worldviews. Far too many evangelical Christians look upon their political opposites as culture war "enemies" rather than as neighbors to be loved, served, and evangelized. If, for instance, proponents of sexual perversity and gender confusion are perceived as our enemies, then Jesus has told us what to do: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 5:44-45). Unlike tax collectors and Gentiles, who love only their own, let us heartily welcome perceived enemies as neighbors who need to hear about our gracious God and his gospel.

It must be pointed out, however, that the context for "welcoming" as our new buzzword is not the polarized cultural struggle but its corollary within the PCA. In this context, "welcoming" is the self-embraced label of the progressive camp, which has assigned "fearful" as the conservative/confessional label. Commissioners are being urged to vote for "welcoming" priorities, which will likely be those that take a soft stance on homosexuality, gender egalitarianism, and other progressive priorities. The upcoming "Revoice" conference in St. Louis is providing an advance screening of what this looks like. This PCA event, much lauded by our progressive friends, advocates an "LGBT Christian" category and speaks of "sexual minorities"1 and even "queer treasure, honor, and glory" in heaven. Far from an irrelevant outlier, this conference previews where the "welcoming" agenda is seeking to go.

With this in mind, the question I want to ask is this: "Can the welcoming church tell the truth?" Amen to us welcoming sinners of all kinds with an open heart and ready embrace. On this point, progressives and conservatives sincerely agree. But, having welcomed one and all, do we then speak biblical truth about sexuality, gender identity, sin and repentance? For instance, what does the welcoming church say to the homosexual who wants to join its membership? We, of course, declare to them forgiveness and cleansing through the blood of Christ through faith alone. But do we add 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Bible's insistence that homosexual desires be not merely accommodated but mortified and repented? When a new convert expresses disdain over the exclusive maleness of our pulpits and eldership, do we apologize and convey plans to become more welcoming in the future, or explain the Bible's teaching about male headship in the home and church? If they are secularists who assume an evolutionary worldview, at some point do they hear from us a biblical critique of evolution and an exposition of biblical creation?

Let me conclude by answering my own question. Yes, let us be a truly welcoming church, extending a warm-hearted invitation to sinners of all kinds, just as Jesus extended such a welcome to us. But then, for the love of Christ and those we welcome, let us plainly and thoughtfully speak the truth. For unless God and his truth are sovereignly welcome in our midst, our welcome to the lost will end up in vain.

1. See Kevin DeYoung's excellent critique of the phrase "sexual minorities," over at the Gospel Coalition.

Considering Exceptions: Covenant or Testament?


In the intro to this short series of posts, we began to look at a few common differences with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms stated by some of the elders in the PCA. The purpose of these posts is not to tread ground covered by other, more able, men regarding major issues (days of creation, paedocommunion, etc.); rather, it is to examine a few places in our standards that garner less attention. Today, we begin with WCF 7.4--which reads:

"This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed."

The common objection to this section of the confession is due to the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament." Most modern translations, along with most modern commentators, recognize (at most) one place in Scripture where the word διαθηκη should be translated either will or testament. Once is not frequent, not by any measure. As such, 7.4 is an inaccurate statement. Or, so this commonly stated difference goes.

By starting here, I am not saying that this is the most controversial difference. Further, I don't know anyone who would argue that this stated difference is hostile to our system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion - in fact I doubt anyone has been granted an exception for this difference that rises above "merely semantic." Indeed, one could argue that this is the poster child for merely semantic exceptions. Yet it is precisely for this reason that I wish to begin here.

Having studied WCF 7.4, I have personally decided again stating a difference with this section of the Confession, concluding that it is important and correct both as a historical document and for continued use in the contemporary church. I will therefore look at this section from these two perspectives.

When the divines originally wrote the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament," it was wholly accurate. As pedantic as it may sound, 7.4 does not make reference to a Greek word, but an English one. That is, the divines were not so much commenting on the proper (or improper) translation of διαθηκη as they were commenting upon the phenomenon of the word testament in the King James Version of the Bible. It is vital to remember that the divines did not seek to write a confession merely for theologians or academics. Rather, they wrote these documents for the church (indeed, for their church). Therefore, while the confession instructs us to consider controversies by way of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, the divines sought to present the church's confession in the language of the pew.

When a Christian in the 17th Century read the book of Hebrews or heard the words of institution for the Lord's Supper, he or she would come upon the word testament. We might even say that he or she would do so frequently, as the word occurs in the King James Version some fourteen times in seven different books. To gloss over this phenomenon would have been a disservice to the version of Scripture the members of their churches read.

At the same time, the divines were certainly aware that covenant and testament in the King James Version were variously translating a single Greek word. But they would also be aware that not every person reading their Bible or hearing a sermon would know this. Therefore, they sought to make the connection between covenant and testament explicit in the confession. Whenever a Christian read testament, the divines wanted them to realize that this inheritance bequeathed to them through the death of Jesus Christ is not something set alongside the covenant (i.e., tangential to or beside it) but is an integral aspect of the Covenant of Grace. And this is all the more important because the notion of inheritance belongs more properly to testament than to covenant. That is, the link between inheritance and covenant is found in the promises that God repeatedly makes, rather than in the nature of a covenant itself. We do not inherit eternal life in Christ because of the concept of a covenant in general, but because of the content of this specific covenant. Therefore, one could say that in a world in which the most commonly read English Bible was the King James Version, 7.4 becomes immensely important to the covenantal theology of the church.

Of course, times have changed and the current situation in our churches is very different. But have they really changed all that much? According to organizations that track such things, the King James Version of the Bible has outsold all other versions every year for all but the most recent years. Even in the years that the KJV has been surpassed, it still comes in at number two. Plus, at least one research site found that over half of the Christians they surveyed stated that the version of the Bible they read regularly was the King James. In other words, there is a collective impact of the KJV being the top seller year after year after year. As such, it is highly likely that any time you preach, any time you teach, there will be a few King James Versions in the pews or seats in front of you. And that means that, more likely than not, some of the people to whom you minister will need the instruction that takes place in 7.4. They will need the instructive reminder to think covenant whenever they see the word testament. And everyone - regardless of the version they prefer - will need the reminder that the concept of testament (no matter if or how many times the word itself is used) is vital to our understanding of the covenant promises our God has made and our Savior has fulfilled.

But doesn't that just mean that the church as a whole needs this instruction. And isn't that the point of a confession in the first place - to provide instruction the church as a whole needs? Therefore is it not preferable for me, whose preferred Bible version does not even have the word testament once, to confess this section of our subordinate standards precisely because the point of our confession is not to reflect my personal preferences but the needs of the church at large? Like the divines, I am not confessing what translation of διαθηκη I think is most accurate - I am confessing a reality of the current state of translation in the English versions of Scripture.


Remembering Dr. Morton H. Smith


Dr. Morton H. Smith, founding professor of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), founder of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS), first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and one of the world's foremost authorities on American Presbyterian history and theology, passed into glory on Sunday, November 12, 2017. He was 93 years old.

He was the fourth of five sons born to James Brookes and Margaret Morton Smith of Roanoke, Virginia on December 11, 1923. His early childhood was characterized by a love for the mountains of western Virginia and a heartfelt commitment to Christ from a young age. The Smith family maintained an active membership in the Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Smith served as a Ruling Elder until they moved to the Mt. Washington area of Baltimore, Maryland.

It was at the Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church that Dr. Smith publicly professed his faith in Jesus Christ. Later on in life, Dr. Smith would credit Pastor James E. Moore with having the greatest influence on his life outside of his parents. The elders received Dr. Smith as a communing member when he was eleven years old. During the membership interview, the senior elder of the session asked Dr. Smith, "What does Jesus mean to you?" The generally shy young man expressed his love for Christ when, choking up, he eked out an answer that communicated, "He means everything to me, and I trust Him as my Savior."

In the Spring of 1941, Dr. Smith graduated from the St. Paul's School for Boys in Baltimore. He enrolled at the University of Michigan that Fall to study Forestry. In his first year at Michigan, he met his future wife, Miss. Lois Knopf. They married on June 30, 1944 while Dr. Smith was serving as a military flight instructor during World War II. After graduating with a degree in Botany in 1947, he accepted a position as the office manager in the Registrar's office.

The Lord used teaching and preaching opportunities at Grace Bible Church (Miss. Lois' home church) to call Dr. Smith to the gospel ministry. He enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia in the Fall of 1949. While at Columbia, Dr. Smith gravitated to the last remaining confessional professor at the seminary, Dr. William Childs Robinson. Recognizing the entrenched theological liberalism of the institution as a whole, the Smiths decided to transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary in the Fall of 1950.

The Smiths spent one year at Westminster, and Dr. Smith later recalled it as the most intellectually stimulating year of his life. He particularly profited from time spent with Dr. Cornelius Van Til and Professor John Murray. Though their year in Philadelphia was a great blessing to the Smiths, Dr. John R. Richardson of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta convinced them to return to a denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in order to prepare for ministry in that body. Dr. Smith completed his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in December of 1952.

Like many students of Columbia Seminary at the time, Dr. Smith was active in pastoral and preaching ministry while pursuing his degree. In 1952, he was ministering to an unaffiliated core group of believers in Valdosta, GA who ultimately organized as a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). After consulting with Dr. Van Til and PCUS missionary to Japan Dr. David McIlwaine, both of whom urged Dr. Smith to remain in the PCUS in order to maintain a confessional witness within the Southern Presbyterian church, he elected to pursue a call in the PCUS. In 1954, he accepted a call to a two-church field: Springfield-Roller, near Baltimore, MD.

That same year, however, he received a call to teach Bible at Belhaven Colleg in Jackson, MS. He would hold that position until 1963. It was during this time that the Smiths adopted Samuel and Suzanne in 1958 and 1962, respectively. In 1962, he completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree on a Fulbright Fellowship to the Free University of Amsterdam, under the tutelage of Professor G.C. Berkouwer. His doctoral dissertation is in publication under the title, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. In 1963, Westminster Theological Seminary invited Dr. Smith to join the faculty as a guest lecturer in practical theology.

In 1964, the Smiths moved to French Camp, MS to serve on the faculty of what would become Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Smith taught classes in several locations around the country, locations to which he would travel by plane in his own Cessna 150. He would fly his plane all over the continental United States as both a professor and a churchman for decades, finally selling his last aircraft in 1988.

Dr. Smith was on the original faculty in the Fall of 1966, when Reformed Theological Seminary commenced classes with 17 students. He taught there until 1978, at which point his role as Stated Clerk of the PCA grew into a full-time responsibility. The Steering Committee of the Continuing Presbyterian Church (what would become the PCA) commissioned Dr. Smith to produce a book outlining a rationale for separating from the PCUS. How is the Gold Become Dim was published shortly before the Continuing Church met in December of 1973. At that first meeting of the Continuing Church, the gathered elders elected Dr. Smith to serve as Clerk at the Convocation of Sessions and at the First General Assembly of the fledgling church. He would continue in this role until 1988, serving the new denomination which from its start devoted itself to three great aims: to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.

In 1978, once he began to work full-time as Stated Clerk. Toward the end of his tenure as Stated Clerk, Dr. Smith began working with a group of elders from Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC to establish an Old School Presbyterian Seminary in Upstate South Carolina. In the Fall of 1987, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary began classes to equip preachers, pastors, and churchmen for Christ's Kingdom.

After resigning as Stated Clerk of the PCA, Dr. Smith continued to serve on denominational committees, take an active part in the Western Carolina Presbytery of the PCA, and participate in the life of Cornerstone PCA in Brevard, NC. He also traveled extensively around the world to teach, preach, and train pastors in many different countries: South Africa, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Russia, and New Zealand. In 2013, the Board of Trustees of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary named a Chair in Systematic Theology in honor of Dr. Smith.

Generations of his students will remember him as a godly, gentle, and quiet man of strong Christian character and conviction. As a scholar, he was committed to the depth and breadth of the Reformed tradition, founded upon the rock-solid foundation of God's Word. His was an exegetically grounded theology. Committed to preparing and equipping Reformed ministers, his academic work flowed out of the instruction which he provided to his students. As a true child of God, Dr. Smith had a humble, simple faith in Christ. For Dr. Morton Smith, all true doctrinal inquiry finds its ultimate terminus in Christ. He loved to talk about and preach Christ.

The PCA recognized his contribution as one of the founding fathers of the denomination when the 28th General Assembly (2000) elected him to serve as Moderator. To date, he appears to be the last bearded moderator of the PCA General Assembly.

In a festschrift published in honor of Dr. Smith's eightieth birthday in 2004, I described Dr. Smith's influence on the PCA in no uncertain terms: "no man has had a more profound impact on the early development of this denomination than he." Reformed Theological Seminary Chancellor and CEO Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, who studied "The Theology of the Westminster Standards" under Dr. Smith at Covenant Theological Seminary, identified him as both a family friend and "one of the key figures in late twentieth-century North American Presbyterianism." Reformed Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus Dr. Douglas F. Kelly commended Dr. Smith as a man who has "stood for what he understands to be God's truth no matter how offensive it has been to the spirit of the age."

In the last few years of his life, Dr. Smith enjoyed receiving guests into his home, many of whom were students and colleagues from various seasons of his life. He also lovingly cared for his wife as her health declined more rapidly than his. It was only a severe stroke on Thursday, November 2, 2017 that caused him to pass more quickly into glory.

We thank God for the life and legacy of Dr. Morton Howison Smith, even as we mourn his death. Yet our loss is his gain. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Q. & A. 37, "The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves til the resurrection." Having passed into glory, Dr. Morton Smith is now perfect in holiness, beholding his beloved Christ.

A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion


In the denomination in which I serve as a minister--The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--we have confessional standards to which all our ministers voluntarily agree to submit, subscribe, and support. The language we use to describe this action is that of adoption. He must, our Book of Church Order requires, be "able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Fatih and Catechisms" of the church as "containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (BCO 21.4).

That fact being stipulated, the adoption of the documents as containing the system does not mean a jot and tittle adoption of every "statement and/or proposition" (BCO 21.4). To put it another way, one is not automatically disqualified from being able to minister in the PCA because of a difference with the Standards. Instead, ministers and candidates for the ministry may take exceptions--at the discretion and permission of a Presbytery--to any differences or scruples they might have with the official doctrine of the church as contained in the standards. When this happens each exception is weighed and examined by the court of the church. Some exceptions are deemed acceptable and thus approved; others are not.

Of course, all of this raises the following questions: "By what standard is an exception deemed acceptable or not? Is there another repository of truth which may be mined and appealed to in order to determine whether or not an exception is acceptable?"

The answer to the latter question is "Yes!" The litmus test used to determine acceptance and approval of exceptions to the standards is this: "The exception(s) must not be the kind that is either hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion" (BCO 21.4). In other words, all exceptions are acceptable as long as they don't strike at the vitals of religion. So far so good, right?

But this forces additional questions to surface. What are the vitals of religion? Where might one find the list of them? What types of exceptions are hostile to the system? Where might one find that list?

This is where things get quite interesting. The answers that I have heard to those questions, at least from my experience and in my opinion, is alarming. The vitals of religion evidently clearly exist. They are mentioned in the BCO, after all. But no one can seem to agree what they are or where they are codified. In the context of debate on the Presbytery floor, I've even asked for someone to articulate them! Many people seem to know what they are and where they are codified. But the problem is that often their particular lists differ from the list of their colleagues.

Evidently the vitals of religion are different for different people. And because different people make up different Presbyteries, they are, therefore, different for different Presbyteries. Furthermore, if history teaches us anything it's that the vitals actually change over time as well. What was once a vital and struck against the system in 1973 is no longer a vital today and therefore acceptable. And we should expect the same evolution and progression to continue. What is a vital today will not likely be a vital in 50 years from now.

This undefined language of the BCO is, at this point, highly subjective and allows for the acceptance of anything so long as it is agreed upon by the majority who determine that the exception is not threatening a vital.

From this we can conclude that a vital is what the contemporary majority at the time of examination determines a vital to be.

The only way to remedy this is to come up wth a list of vitals--that is, acceptable exceptions--or require strict subscription to the original documents. There are simply no other alternatives. And when the list of vitals is produced, no doubt, a sub-set of vitals-of-the-vitals will emerge, and then we are back to square one. Apart from strict subscription, all other solutions will allow for the contemporary majority to determine what is acceptable or not in the denomination.

At the end of the day, Even if we come up with a list of vitals for the entire denomination now it will reflect the contemporary opinion of the majority. So, really, the only option is full subscription to the old confessional standards. If this is rejected the PCA will be, in 50 years, what the PCUSA is today.

The Public Reading of Scripture--Presbyterian-Style

In 2011, the session of the church that I pastor sought to educate and assist the members of the church regarding proposed changes that we had decided to make to an important aspect of our corporate worship services. Prior to these changes, unordained men would regularly lead the congregation in the public reading of Scripture and prayer. Desiring to bring our worship into greater conformity with our doctrinal standards and historic Reformed practice, our Session passed a motion limiting the public reading of Scripture to the minister who is preaching.

Since we are a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, some within the congregation rightfully and insightfully raised the question about the propriety of this change in light of Book of Church Order 50.2. That section reads: "The reading of the Holy Scripture in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister or some other person." Obviously, the phrase in question at the end of the statement is, "or some other person." So, are we to understand by this phrase that unordained men and women are allowed to read Scripture in a worship service in the PCA? Those who allow unordained men to read the Scripture in public worship appeal to this phrase, as do those who wish to allow women reading Scripture in the context of public worship.

What follows is not intended to be an exegetical wrestling with Scripture about the topic of women or unordained men reading the Scripture in worship; neither is it meant to be a substitution for that. That is, of course, most important and necessary. This is an attempt to investigate the background of BCO 50.2. Additionally, appeal will be made to the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Directory for Public WorshipAfter all, the BCO should be interpreted in light of those documents due to their respective provenances.

First, if "some other person" means, "anyone else without qualification," then there is clearly a contradiction between BCO 50-2 and WLC 156 where restrictions are placed around the reading of the Word. WLC 156 states:

"Q. Is the Word of God to be read by all? A. Although all are not to be permitted to read publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the Holy Scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages."

We must ask the question, "Who is not permitted to read publicly to the congregation?" At a recent meeting of our Presbytery, one minister insisted that this was merely excluding five year olds. Aside from the obvious fact that the vast majority of five year olds don't read, such a suggestion is intellectually offensive and stretches credulity to the breaking point. Did the framers of the confession really only want to restrict young children from the public reading of Scripture in worship?

Contextually, the restriction should be understood in light of the encouragement. "...all are not to be permitted...yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves..." Those not permitted to read the Scriptures publicly, then, are the "all sorts of people" who are encouraged to read it privately. "All sorts of people" is most certainly, then, not a reference to age or to gender but rather to those who do not hold the ordained office.

Support for this is found in the Scripture proofs chosen to defend the statement that "all are not permitted to read publicly to the congregation"--namely, Deut. 31.9-13 and Neh. 8.2-5. In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses specifically tasks the Levites to read the Word of God to the people. Similarly, in the Nehemiah passage it's Ezra the Priest who gathers the people and reads and explains Scripture to the people. These passages highlight the distinction between the ordained and unordained ministry.

This is also the conclusion of Johannes G. Vos in his commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism. After citing the Scripture proofs he offers the following comment:

"Reading the Word of God publicly to the congregation is the duty of those especially called as ministers of the Word." (Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 438).

Later Vos asks, "Why are not all Christians people 'to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation?'" He then offers this commentary:

"Reading the Scriptures 'publicly to the congregation' is a part of conducting the public worship of God, and therefore it is to be done only by those who have been properly called to that office in the church. Of course in the absence of an ordained minister or licentiate, the elders of the church may properly appoint some person to read the Scripture and conduct a prayer meeting or 'fellowship meeting.' What the catechism denies is that any private Christian may lawfully take it upon himself to conduct public worship, without being appointed to do so by those whose office it is to rule the house of God (Vos, 439).

Since WLC 156 was written many years prior to the "some other person" statement of BCO 50-2, it should be clear that "anyone else without qualification" cannot be the authorial intention ofBCO 50-2, but is to be understood in light of the restriction referenced in WLC 156.

Second, the context of the question is important. WLC Q. 154 begins by dealing with the "outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of mediation." These means are all His ordinances, but especially 1) the Word; 2) sacraments, and 3) prayer.

From here the ministry of the word is taken up and divided into two subcategories: Reading (Q/A 156-157) and Preaching (Q/A 158-160). In this series of question and answers the catechism envisions the one who is preaching also to be the one who is reading because the reading of Holy Scripture is a ministry of the Word and thus a function of the minister who has been ordained to the ministry of the Word and sacraments.

Furthermore, from this it follows that all who are entitled to read are also entitled to preach because both reading and preaching are two aspects of the ministry of the word.

Third, the progression of the developed teaching of BCO 50.2 is important to understand. Consider the following:

  • The Directory for the Publick Worship of God; agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, 1645, III-1 & 2 

"Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
 Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto."

  • PCUSA, 1786, DfW, 2d Draft
"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Congregation, is a part of the public worship of God; and ought to be performed by the Ministers and Teachers."

  • PCUSA 1789. DfW, III-1
"The reading of the holy Scriptures, in the congregation, is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the ministers and teachers."

  • PCUS 1894, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1925, Directory for Worship, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1933, Directory for Worship, III-1 [§310] 

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and should be done by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCA 1975
"The reading of the holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister, or by some other person."

What is equally fascinating is the way that BCO 50-1 is so restrictive while BCO 50-2 is so expansive. In 50-1 reading is restricted to the minister alone.

"The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God's servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon. The reading of the Scriptures by the minister is to be distinguished from the responsive reading of certain portions of Scripture by the minister and the congregation. In the former God addresses His people; in the latter God's people give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments. The psalms of Scripture are especially appropriate for responsive reading."

How are we to explain this seemingly obvious discrepancy between BCO 50-1 and 50-2 and between BCO 50-2 and the WLC? In his commentary on the BCO, one of the founding fathers of the PCA makes the following statement:

"As already noted, this paragraph [BCO 50-2] is in contrast to the first sentence of the 50-1. The "or some other person" was added by the PCA by motion from the floor of the Assembly when it was adopted in the Book, and it is evident that it was not carefully compared to other portions of the Book. Without any qualifications as to the "other person" it nullifies all restrictions implied in both 50-1 and 50-2. This is one of those areas that needs further study" (Morton Smith, Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, 408).


From these historical, confessional, and contextual observations, I am led to conclude that the phrase "or some other person" of BCO 50-2 can only be expanded to include visiting ordained ministers, ruling elders, and those who are not yet ordained as either a TE or RE, but are in training for that office and have been approved by the Session.

Moving forward those on both sides of the debate should insist that BCO 50.2 should be updated and delivered from its current opacity, which is neither promoting unity or clarity in our denomination.

I've been wondering just what we're supposed to do with Bryan Chapell's "The State of the PCA" essay in byFaith (available here), beyond praying over the sad state of affairs it describes.

Chapell adapted this essay from a private letter to a friend he was trying to orient to the PCA. In the moonlight, it reads as a straightforward attempt to describe a difficult situation; out in the sun, as a state-of-the-union statement, a few early paragraphs seem to have some english on them. Still, I'm grateful elder statesmen are willing to cast their thoughts into the current for little piranha like me to devour.

A Useful Orientation?

Trying to find my place in the PCA with this essay, however, is not easy. I immigrated here a dozen or so years ago and am grateful to have a home where people care as much as I think we do for biblical fidelity, Reformed theology, and the church's evangelical mission to the world. Like Sean Lucas, who comes off rather neutral here, I also think we should work hard to be friends and am grateful to see so many brothers and sisters doing just that.

That said, I'm also "highly committed to our Confessional standards," believing they mark the most helpful and urgently needed place for us to stand in the world today. The way forward, I'm convinced, is to keep on confessing those robust biblical standards as we energetically devote ourselves to ordinary means of grace ministry.

Does that make me a traditionalist? Apparently not. First, I'm too young. Second, I tend to view orthodox evangelical types as a fringe minority in a pseudo-pluralist society. The notion I was surrounded by a moral majority always seemed a bit absurd and self-serving to me. Third, I agree that a merely reactionary conservatism is unworthy of Christ and our calling in this world and I'm willing to raise questions about the credibility of our theology--actually, the credibility of those of us who profess our theology--on the contemporary American scene. 

Then again, I'm pretty sure the progressive version of cultural engagement that focuses on meta-affecting the ambient culture through centers of social influence is just a gentrified version of Falwell's blue-collar culture war, rooted in a similar misunderstanding of the evangelical nature and mission of the church.

Where does all that leave me? Right where it found me, I think: happy, active, and confessional.

Partisanship and Pluralism?

Every sociological observation is easily criticized for seeming to describe something in general but never anything in particular. Chapell's essay is no exception. But this brings me back to my opening question: What are we supposed to do with "The State of the PCA"?

Using this essay as a field guide to orient ourselves to party politics, as natural as that is, is exactly the wrong use.

A far better use, I think, is to take this Corinthian-like description of our church--as divided and weakened by partisanship while confronting a challenging cultural context--and carefully consider how Paul's appeal in 1 Corinthians 1-4 applies to us at this moment. What does it mean for us to agree, to be of one mind, as undivided as Christ? How must we become fools that we may become wise through the word of the cross? How can we move beyond suspicion that all progressive types are compromisers and all traditionalists are indifferent to the world and all neutralists are rudderless, and be the one church under one Lord with one faith and hope that we are in Christ?

What has the possibility to unite us is not the recognition of a greater enemy on the horizon in the form of pluralism, an enemy we have in common to some degree with Mormons and Muslims. Our unity must be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's the clear assumption Chapell makes in his discussion of how God might use pluralism to bring us "to new levels of graciousness to each other and dependence upon the grace of our Savior." Maybe God will use pluralism this way, but I think it's worth reminding ourselves that unity in Christ does not require and will not be secured by a common cultural enemy, but only by faith working through love in the messiness of it all right here, right now, whatever our cultural context may be (Gal. 5:6). On that I trust we all agree.
Although there are some denominations that fully or partially fund their church planters, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is not one of them. Therefore, if the local church, or presbytery, calls you to plant a congregation, you must raise the financial support you need to fulfill your monetary requirements.

Initially, this was one of my greatest fears. Since I did not have many connections in the PCA, I was not sure if I could raise the financial support necessary to complete my 3-year budget, and if I could not raise the support, I would likely not be able to plant a PCA congregation. Those concerns are still present, especially considering I am still in the process of fundraising; nevertheless, in time, things became much easier because of what I have learned along the way.

If you are considering planting a PCA congregation, here are some things that may help you.

1. Create your network now. In other words, if you are going to plant a church in the PCA even if it is in 3-4 years, begin creating your network list now. A network list is a group of churches and individuals who may support you financially. Begin with your sending church and the churches in your presbytery. (Your presbytery may financially support you as well). After you have exhausted that list, consider other churches, both those in your denomination and those outside the denomination. Write the names of family members and close friends who may support you, too. Be mindful that your sending church may not want you to petition the people of that congregation, especially if that church is supporting you. 

2. Expand your network. After writing down the various churches and individuals who may support you, at some point, ask them if they know anyone who may be interested in helping financially. Also consider asking those in your core group for help. Find out if they know others, whether churches or individuals, who may support this effort.

3. Prepare a proposal. Some churches and individuals want a proposal. They desire to see a more in-depth approach to what you are doing. The proposal should include a brief 1-page testimony, perhaps a resume, a brief 1-page summary regarding why this work is important, your budget and current percentage raised, and demographics of the church planting area. More information may be required, but this should get you started. Remember, hundreds of other church planters may be petitioning the same churches you are. When considering the importance of your work, what makes you different? Is it the location of your church plant? Is it your vision? Do you have a strong desire to be an evangelistic church? What is it?

4. Send a hardcopy first. When sending financial support letters, consider first sending a hardcopy letter with your signature. A mass email may seem too impersonal. Also consider personalizing one or two introductory paragraphs in each letter to tailor it to those to whom you are writing. Will this take more time? Yes, but it may be worth it. Will sending an initial hardcopy letter cost more? Yes, but if you are able to generate the funds, it may be worth it. You can always follow-up the initial letter with an email and/or phone call.

5. Don't be disappointed. Do not get disappointed if a church or individual cannot financially support you. During the fundraising process, we create lists based on churches and persons who will necessarily support us. When those individuals or churches cannot, disappointment may set in. Do not let it. There may be valid reasons why people cannot financially offer any help presently.

6. Be prayerfully aware of God's sovereignty. Pray that God's will be accomplished. Although fundraising can be hectic at times, the God of all creation is in control. He will bring you financial support in accordance with his will. That may mean you accomplish your goal in one year; that may mean you are fundraising for five years; that may even mean you do not accomplish your goal and you have to consider another way to plant a church (e.g., bi-vocational). Whatever the circumstances, God is sovereign, and he is directing your efforts in a manner in accordance with his will. 
As Katniss Everdeen, Haymitch Abernathy, and Peeta Mellark are traveling to the Hunger Games, Katniss walks into a conversation where she is greeted by these words from Haymitch: "I was just giving some life-saving advice... It should come in handy if you were still alive." The goal was survival. Someone needed to be the last man or woman standing. Who would it be?

As far as I was concerned, the last man (or family) standing at the Presbyterian Church in America Mission to North America (PCA MNA) Assessment Center was going to be my family. Prior to attending the assessment center, I was looking for "life-saving advice." I had heard too many horror stories about the process. In some cases, the stories I heard were just short of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Attempting to be a good husband, therefore, I relayed the information to my wife. It did not help her much. In fact, it made her more nervous. Apparently the fact that she was/is pregnant was unhelpful as well.

On day one, we got acquainted with the assessors and those being assessed. My antennas of discernment were up. I quickly began analyzing people. "Who do I need to take out first?", I thought. "If there is only going to be one family remaining, it must be us." My competitive juices were flowing. I began analyzing the dominant personalities and those whom I could befriend. Although the assessors claimed to be on my side, I was not entirely sure. They were watching our every move. As a matter of fact, someone was told that they placed hidden cameras in our bedrooms. For my family, it did not matter. We were on our best behavior.

My desires to compete with the other families and have our arms raised as the victors of the Hunger Games at the end of the assessment soon ceased. By the end of day one, the fog through which I analyzed the process cleared. I began to realize people were extremely friendly. This was not a competition. We were actually all trying to get to the same place - church planting. The assessors were warm, welcoming, pastoral, and gentle. So, too, were the families being assessed.

What I heard about the PCA MNA Assessment Center and what I experienced were two completely different realities. There were no hidden cameras in our rooms. You did not need to be the victor. The entire process was about glorying God by helping us, those being assessed, to further embrace Christ. Yes, there were times when the assessors had to expose the idols of our hearts, but they did it in such a gospel-saturated manner, they left us with hope.

I highly recommend the PCA MNA Assessment Center. It was a blessing to my family. The assessors truly cared about us and it showed. We also met some amazing church planting families with whom we hope to keep in touch. 

If you are considering attending the assessment center, you might not want to believe the hype. It might have you going to Atlanta (or wherever the assessment is being held) ready to chop off peoples' heads and take no prisoners. Rather, let your guard down. Know the assessors have your best interest in mind. Relax. Enjoy. Learn. Have a good time, and may the odds ever be in your favor.

Is This Possible?

Here, signs above the water fountains said, "For Colored Only." Certain parks, restaurants, and swimming pools prohibited all but its white guests. Distant past? No. As recently as 1960, ethnic integration on public transportation was still questionable. 

Home to the Manchester Slave Trail and Lumpkin's Slave Jail, Richmond, Virginia - the capital of the Confederacy - still suffers from its terrifying and unfortunate history. Conversations of white supremacy and suppression among blacks occur in one neighborhood - the black neighborhood - while the stained image of black victimization, slothfulness, and criminalization occur in another neighborhood - the white neighborhood. Like many cities, Richmond is largely segregated. In fact, Christianity Today writes Richmond is the "site of urban-suburban divisions as stark as any in America."

Perhaps some of its ethnic segregation is opportunistically planned (e.g., Little Italy, China Town, etc.). Perhaps some of it is worse than that (e.g., exclusively wealthy neighborhoods as opposed to purposefully planned areas populated by government housing). Regardless of the reasons for ethnic and socio-economic segregation - and there are many - what is most unfortunate about the segregation that exists in Richmond is that it even exists in the vast majority of churches

But I thought the gospel transcends ethnic barriers? I thought the good news of Christianity was for Jew and Gentile, rich and poor? It is! The Directory of Public Worship states,

"The unity and catholicity of the covenant people are to be manifest in public worship. Accordingly, the service is to be conducted in a manner that enables and expects all the members of the covenant community - male and female, old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and infirm, people from every race and nation - to worship together." (1.B.4.C)

Regrettably, most churches in Richmond do not reflect that. We hope to see that change.

So why go into an area with such division to start a Bible study and hopefully plant a church? The answer is simple: people from all ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic categories need the gospel. 

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?" (Romans 10:14, my translation). 

Will you pray for this work? Will you tell others? Our hope is that God will build a Revelation 5:9-10 church in South Richmond. We believe this is possible.

Here is a brief video that talks about our desires. Contact information may be found there. 

Thank you for your prayers; thank you for spreading the word. May God be glorified!

All that Grace Does!

This coming Monday evening, June 17, we begin our pre- PCA General Assembly conference, hosted at Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville by the Gospel Reformation Network.  The conference is titled, "What Grace Does."  Too often today, salvation is preached as if it consists only of justification through faith alone.  Thank God for the good news of justification!  But we must also proclaim and enter into all of  the good news of what grace does.  Our conference will celebrate how grace regenerates, liberates, recreates, and consummates those who are brought into union with Christ through faith.  If you are in Greenville for the PCA General Assembly, I hope you will join us for worship and God's Word, Monday evening at 7 pm.

Why Intinction Matters


One of the Book of Church Order amendments making the rounds of PCA presbyteries this year is a proposed change to forbid the practice of intinction.  For those not in the know, intinction is the procedure of receiving the Lord's Supper by dipping the bread into the cup. Instead of eating the bread and drinking the cup, one eats the wine or grape-juice saturated bread.  


It seems likely that this amendment is going to fail to achieve the necessary 2/3 of presbyteries to be approved, so that we will see the novelty of a Reformed Presbyterian denomination approving a procedure historically associated with the Roman Catholic Mass.  What is more revealing, and to me discouraging, is the kind of argument being reported in presbytery after presbytery.

Rick Phillips on the PCA

Reformation21's own Rick Phillips wrote a thoughtful and charitable piece on the PCA's "Meeting of Understanding" here