Results tagged “Presbyterianism” from Reformation21 Blog

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.

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.

Considering Exceptions


It is not uncommon for ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I pastor--to lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity among fellow pastors in our denomination. It is also not uncommon for ministers in the denomination in which I minister to lament the lamentations of those who lament a lack of doctrinal uniformity. At the center of these expressions of grief are the stated differences that ordained men either do or do no have regarding the doctrine set out in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (i.e. the Westminster Standards). Many of those who have no stated differences with the Standards look with suspicion at those who have stated difference-and vice versa. Each group of ministers wonders if those belonging to the other group has ever carefully read and studied the Confession and Catechisms. 

A candidate for licensure, ordination, or transfer must state their differences in their own words for all to read and examine. In these instances there is usually no doubt as to their depth of understanding. The candidate for ministry must define and defend their understanding of the Standards to the degree required by the Presbytery and/or its examining committee. Yet, for many Presbyteries, there appears to be no process for examining a man with no stated differences on a number of those doctrines on which others frequently state differences. For instance, I have yet to witness a man with no stated differences examined with regard to his view of such portion of the Standards as WCF 7.4 (regarding "the covenant of grace frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament."), WCF 21.5, WLC 109 (regarding "the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image"), or WLC 123-133/WSC 63-66. These issues only ever seem to arise in an examination if a man has brought up an issue that he had with the wording or substance of the doctrines set out in the Westminster Standards. Assuming most theological exams are at or below the level I have witnessed (a dangerous assumption, to be sure), the questions tend to focus on major points of doctrine and rarely get to some of the issues about which many elders state differences. Examining committees ask questions about days of creation, who can and should take communion, and the role of women to the various ordained offices;  but, these other issues rarely come up.

Some ministers in the PCA will suggest that it is prima facia evidence that a man has not carefully read or studied the Standards since he does not state a difference with any of these sections. How--the argument usually goes--can any thinking man, with the benefit of all the theological and biblical study of the past 350 years, not find some place or point of the Westminster documents to be lacking, if not in error? And yet sometimes those who do not state such differences provide more than merely prima facie evidence: they are unprepared to defend their position on these issues. Certainly, they are trained and prepared to defend the major points of contention within Christendom, such as the five points of Calvinism, the deity of Christ, or substitutionary atonement. The continuing validity or helpfulness of 17th century British social structure? Not so much.

Therefore, I'd like to put the commonly stated and frequently overlooked doctrines in the Standards under examination in a short series of posts in order to encourage all of us to read and study them. As one who happens to have no stated differences, I want to define and defend why I believe these doctrines to be worthy of our defense - both in terms of their inclusion in a document, and in terms of our assent to them. To that end, in the forthcoming series of posts I want to take up a few statements in our confession and catechisms that are more rarely considered - but which might be a larger cause of the disunity that we have experienced in the PCA.

At the outset, I want to be clear that it is not my desire to be unduly polemical. To that end, I am committed to refraining from attacking those who hold views contrary to my own and to discouraging others from doing so. Rather, I only desire to demonstrate why I believe that the Standards are biblically faithful in those places where there are often challenged. I sincerely hope that I can encourage brothers who may have stated differences on these points of doctrine to study them more carefully and to know that, at least, some who agree with the Standards on these disputed doctrines have themselves carefully studied them.

Additionally, I am not and do not confess to be an expert on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. I trust that all of us are willing to admit that we do not know the theology of the Standards (as nuanced as it is) as we ought. Neither am I saying that I have thoroughly examined every debated issue, or that I could correctly capture every position. I too am seeking to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the theology of the Westminster Standards.

Finally, it is my desire that everyone who read these posts will come away with a greater appreciation for our brethren and for our Standards. We can love someone with whom we sometimes disagree and we can love a doctrinal statement with which we sometimes disagree. That is something, I believe, that those of us who have no stated differences with the Westminster Confession and Catechism could benefit from remembering.

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.

The Westminster divines were compromisers

I love reading a good book, the type that keeps you reading till the end. A recent book by Hunter Powell, The crisis of British Protestantism: Church power in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-44, reminded me of the importance of good scholarship not only for the academy, but also for the church. It kept me reading till the end and taught me a great deal about my Presbyterian history.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a complicated document in some respects, with an even more complicated history. Presbyterians should love the Westminster standards, which stand as the high-water mark of theology in the seventeenth century (though the Savoy divines did make some "latest and best" additions in 1658).

While we still debate issues surrounding the soteriological topics in the confession (such as the IAOC), we rarely examine the ecclesiological aspects of the Confession. This is regrettable. 

There were intense ecclesiological debates at Westminster as the Puritans involved tried to redefine England's National church. A lot of received wisdom needs to be (and has been in scholarly circles) turned on its head. 
What we find is that the same intellectual rigour applied to texts surrounding issues such as justification, were also applied to the texts surrounding church government. Painstaking exegesis was a hallmark of debate among the divines. Those who wrote the Confession were constantly arguing from Scriptural texts, not just citing older Creeds.  

While the Puritans knew that church government was secondary in terms of orthodoxy, it was the church that protected orthodoxy from drifting into heterodoxy.
Many of our assumptions about men such as Rutherford, Gillespie, Goodwin, and Burroughs are based on the conclusions made in one of the greatest compromise documents in the history of the church, the Westminster Standards. People who don't see the Standards as full of compromise - though, also full of polemic against heterodoxy - generally haven't done much scholarly work on the Standards and thus offer an a-historical, a-political, and a-theological reading of the text. 

Methodologically, the theoretical work of 'the Cambridge School', particularly the work of the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Quentin Skinner, is important for this studying the Westminster Standards. Without suggesting that 'the Cambridge School' invented these ideas - though, Skinner in particular has articulated these ideas better than others - John Coffey has accurately noted that this 'school' criticizes 'both the "idealist" tendency to study the Great Books without reference to the circumstances in which they were written, and the "realist" approach which sees ideas as the causally determined offspring of their social, economic or psychological context. They argue for a method of reading historical texts which respects the intention of the author and is aware of the linguistic, political or ecclesiastical context in which he was working. This method is important for understanding the intentions of the divines at Westminster. 

We see that there were a number of versions of Presbyterianism that were competing for attention in the Jerusalem chamber, and that the final product was written in such a way that wouldn't alienate Presbyterians with a more clerical bent from those who had more 'congregational' inclinations.   
Puritanism has also been understood in an "Anglo-centric" manner. As a result, we have missed the fact that it was the English who stood outside the Continental Reformed tradition, whereas the Scots and the Congregationalists had the most in common with the Continental Reformed. One just has to read the Owen of Holland, Gisbertus Voetius, to see where his sympathies lay when he examined the debate in England and New England. 
In connection with the above, Powell's book is the first to take a careful look at the Minutes of the Assembly and untangle the exceedingly complex and erudite debates that took place between the Westminster divines. Powell gives us a framework for how to understand the Minutes and the men who wrote them.  Robert Paul attempted to do this with a blow by blow account of the Minutes; but in doing so he introduced a whole host of false assumptions that still impact the way we think about the church.
One thing we learn is how seriously these men took the church, and how carefully they thought about it. With the little regard our seminaries and churches give to this topic, it would be good for us to learn something. Personally, I'd recommend spending the $100 on the book mentioned above, especially Presbyterian ministers who take the Confession seriously. I love the diversity of the Reformed tradition, but I also love the way that diversity is kept in tact by Confessions such as the WCF.

Not surprisingly, even on ecclesiology, the WCF is a Presbyterian compromise document. Our divines were "compromisers." 

I don't normally make it through to the end of a book, but Powell's book was a notable exception. It is one of the most fascinating reads of the year for me. (I did not receive a copy of this book, but these are just honest thoughts). He does not make mere assertions, but vigorously argues his case with a lot of evidence. I'd expect nothing less from a Cambridge-trained scholar who went to Westminster Seminary (though regrettably remains a Baptist).
Update: Compromise: 1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

Westminster, Regensberg, Chalcedon, Dort, etc., all provide us with plenty of evidence of compromise for the sake of producing a document in order to unify people who don't agree on all details of theology. I wonder if anyone who denies the divines made all sorts of compromises have actually published on the Westminster Assembly or read carefully the Minutes?
Over at Justin Taylor's blog at the Gospel Coalition, I contributed to a historians' forum that sought to answer certain questions on southern evangelicals and their failures on Civil Rights. My answer particular focused on southern Presbyterian conservatives, many of whom would form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

Of course, a 900 word blog post (I was over the requested amount by a 100 words!) can't do justice to a complex issue--especially when I was trying to offer a little bit of nuance into the overall discussion: namely, a) not every southern Presbyterian conservative was a hardboiled segregationist and b) there was change over time, especially for the younger generation that would lead the steering committee that produced the PCA. 

In my forthcoming book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, which will be published later this year by P&R, I devote a lot of space to southern Presbyterian conservatives and race. However, I have offered shorter summaries of that material in many open forums, from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and the University of Southern Mississippi to the PCA General Assembly. One such shorter summary, done this past summer at a pre-GA conference sponsored by the PCA Historical Center, was called, "Race, Civil Rights, and the Southern (Presbyterian) Way of Life." 

Because the audio of the meeting costs $25 and because some feel that PCA historians are not forthright on these issues (although I talked about these issues also in Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life), I am going to post this paper in four parts here and then follow it with a final application post. I hope that by telling the truth about the past--both its ugliness and its hopefulness--we can begin an important conversation about our future, both in my own denomination and in evangelicalism at large.

From the time the Southern Presbyterian Journal was founded in 1942, it had stood steadily for several key commitments shared widely by southern Presbyterian conservatives. Best articulated by long-time contributor J. E. Flow, these commitments included the "old school" interpretation of Scripture and the Westminster Standards; the Presbyterian form of church government; the grassroots principle of church oversight, symbolized in the role of diaconal care; the spiritual mission of the church; and "the purity and integrity of the White man of North America upon whose shoulders are laid the burdens of the world."[1] Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the magazine had run scores of articles and editorials that had defended racial solidarity and segregation as part of a larger conservative religious and political worldview, which linked together anti-integration, anti-communism, and anti-centralization. Racial conservatism was a factor in the defeat of reunion with the northern Presbyterian church in 1954 and it continued to be an issue that divided the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in the years that followed.[2]

However, new winds were blowing in the church as well as the culture at large. In 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, southern Presbyterian favorite and Nelson Bell son-in-law Billy Graham announced that he would integrate his crusades, a promise he kept the following year at Birmingham, Alabama. Southern Presbyterian conservative Bill Hill continued to pursue an integrated ministry in his churches in Hopewell, Virginia. And a younger generation of conservative ministers was beginning to realize that racial segregation was a betrayal of the Gospel and served to undercut missions at home and abroad. That did not mean that the conservative worldview that had marked southern Presbyterians would change quickly; it did mean, however, that the future trajectory was toward racial inclusion and interracial exchange and away from racial solidarity. Sadly, the change has come slowly and has been betrayed at countless points along the way.

No one better embodied some of the contradictions and possibilities of this era than G. Aiken Taylor, who became editor of the Journal in 1959. Born in 1920 to missionary parents in Brazil, Taylor returned to the United States when he was fifteen to complete his education. He graduated from Presbyterian College in South Carolina in 1940 and spent the war years in the Army as a captain and company commander in the 142nd infantry. After the war, he graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary and then Duke University with a Ph.D. degree with a focus on John Calvin and religious education. When he was at Columbia, Taylor had served a church in Smyrna, Georgia, and while he was at Duke, he served the Northside Presbyterian Church, Burlington, North Carolina. After his graduation from Duke, he would go to serve the Presbyterian church in Alexandria, Louisiana, for five years before he was approached to take on the editorship of the Journal.

One of the questions that he had in taking on this role was whether he would have to agree with and promote the Journal's aggressive position on racial segregation. Growing up on the mission field caused Taylor to have a different attitude about segregation than most southerners. He told Nelson Bell, "I don't like agitation on the social question from either side. I am not an integrationist, neither am I a segregationist. My position on this issue is that a view point of whatever kind should not be made the criterion for determining the place or the worth of a man...or a church paper." In reply, Bell assured him that there was a range of opinions on segregation among the board of directors for the magazine and that he would not be required to hold to a particular party line. That said, the older man also counseled him not to push his more moderate racial views either: "I feel you would be utterly foolish to come to the Journal as editor and make race an issue--certainly at this juncture. There are so many more important things which need to be faced." As it would happen, Taylor's position on race, as evidenced in his writing and editorial practice, would largely harmonize with Bell's own racial views: downplaying forced segregation, dismayed by outside agitators who stirred up the racial issue, and concerned not to let racial politics divert attention from the largely doctrinal and social issues of the day.[3]

The first notice of race relations after Taylor became editor of the Journal actually came from Nelson Bell. Once again, he worried about the effects of "interracial marriage" and "mulattos," issues that he had raised many times over the past fifteen years. But there was a new note as well: "We believe that we who live in the South must come to terms with changes which, while having taken place gradually, are now actualities. To those who have made educational and economic progress to the place where they need public services, these should be granted, not grudgingly but as a matter of course." In addition, Christians needed to view blacks as those who have souls "as precious in God's sight as that of any other person." Evangelism was being hindered by the racial agitation; justice needed to be done.[4]

At the same time, conservatives needed to make sure that such racial moderation would not divide the church. Taylor urged the church to vote down to overtures coming to the 1960 General Assembly, seeking to reopen reunion conversations with the northern church. Among his reasons were pronouncements by the northern church on race issues: "Some of the pronouncements, such as those on race relations, have been sufficiently explosive to produce a wide-open split in a Church such as ours." Racial moderation did not necessarily mean advocacy for integration nor did it commit individuals to agitate the church on the issue.[5]

[1] J. E. Flow, "Positive or Negative?" Southern Presbyterian Journal (29 September 1954): 8-9 (hereafter SPJ). Strikingly, these issues, including segregation, were cited in a recent essay by a participant in these struggles: see Morton H. Smith, "The Southern Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America," in Interpreting and Teaching the Word of Hope, ed. Robert L. Penny (Taylors, SC: Presbyterian Press, 2005), 206-12.

[2] On this see, Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg: P&R, forthcoming), chapters four and five.

[3] Paul Hastings to G. Aiken Taylor, 17 March 1954, G. Aiken Taylor Papers, Box 114, folder 22, PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO; G. Aiken Taylor to L. Nelson Bell, 29 May 1959; L. Nelson Bell to G. Aiken Taylor, 15 June 1959, L. Nelson Bell Papers, Box 75, folder 16, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL.

[4] L. Nelson Bell, "One Southerner Speaks," Presbyterian Journal (hereafter PJ) (13 April 1960): 9, 18.

[5] G. Aiken Taylor, "Church Union an Issue," PJ (20 April 1960): 11.

John Owen was not a Presbyterian

In the last month or two on Reformation21, I think it's safe to say I have decisively proven once and for all that:

1. John Wesley was an Arminian.
2. John Owen was a Paedobaptist.

I have been challenged to prove other self-evident truths, such as "John Murray was a Calvinist" and "1775 was the start of an illegal colonial rebellion." But I wouldn't want to tax the patience of our readers too much.

We may come back to those later. But for now, let me rather just finish off this mini-series on the great John Owen. True, he was not a Baptist. And what's more to the point, his covenant theology was so thoroughly not Baptistic that he himself always considered it to demand, support, and promote infant baptism. But today, I also bring to you the shocking news that...

John Owen was not a Presbyterian.

I know. It hurts doesn't it? I want to extend a hand and reach out to my brothers and sisters in the PCA, OPC, EPCEW, IPC, URC, PCUSA, BPS, RPCS (and other entirely "catholic" and not at all fissiparous denominations of the Presbyterian variety). I feel your pain, my friends. A great theologian of the past that you know and love is about to be unmasked as not in "perfect harmony" or "practically identical" to what we think of as "sound."

Presbyterian Schisms.jpg
So, what evidence do I adduce for this startling claim, which will no doubt silence the Reformed world? None. I'm too busy. I leave it to the well-developed Presbie blogosphere to point out the perfidious nature of my nefarious misrepresentation. That'll be fun and entertaining! They can surely demonstrate how, since Owen agrees with them on a few things here and there, he must therefore have been "one of them." Though I will say this:
"It is only by a process of torture to which no man's language should be subjected that Owen can be claimed as a Presbyterian."
This from the editorial comments in The Works of John Owen, volume 16 page 2. From the pen of a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland! Outrageous.

I don't have time to go into how Owen thought silly, confused, control-freak, power-hungry Presbyterians were a greater threat to the Reformation and the church of Christ than even the nasty Laudian Anglicans had been.

You can't make this stuff up, but it's all there in Owen's Works if you care to read them. Who'd thunk it? I mean, what next? You'll be telling me Owen was an ordained Anglican who loved The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion next...

Revd Gatiss is still committed to that promised post on how John Owen was a good Anglican. But he's got to bombproof his windows and doors first, in case any nonconformists come a-calling.

Out of the mouth of babes

Mark's post about how Christian parents deal with their children raises some interesting questions to which I may, in due course, offer some answers. In the meantime, I will provide a hymn that I wrote primarily with our children and younger Sunday School classes in view. If nothing else, it may spare Mark some of the agony of finding something less potentially twee for his children to sing. That said, he has dropped his bombshell and fled to Brazil, so he may be eaten by Luis Suarez and never have the joy of this interaction.
I can assure you that ethnic/race issues will not be the only, perhaps even primary, area about which I write. (Take a deep breath). I am passionate about many other things (e.g., the gospel, my family, the church I pastor, working on my upcoming PhD dissertation). Nevertheless, I believe this is an area that requires discussion. I am aware that feelings will be hurt, additional questions raised, and positive progress in this area made, but I hope in all this God will be glorified.

I am convinced we need each other. God did not save us to be spiritual nomads. Besides saving us for his glory, for love and good deeds, he also saved us to be together. Addressing ethnic/race issues is my small way to highlight the pink elephant in the room, which very few people discuss, but needs to be addressed in order to draw us all closer together. Our intimacy will not result simply by pointing out the issues, however, but by emphasizing the one thing that changes hearts and brings us together - the gospel. I can assure you, contrary to a recent comment, I am not "a bitter black man with a victim mentality demonizing white people for their supposed racism." I am simply seeking to see us all grow together in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, which affects our relationship vertically (with God) and horizontally (with each other).

Recently I had the privilege to interview Jason, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a 34 year old white male. I was born in Charlotte, NC and have lived in the south most of my life. I grew up in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ at Clemson University for 5 years after college. I joined a PCA church while on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. Realizing my own need for further training and instruction and having regained a biblical understanding of the priority of the local church, I went to Covenant Seminary in order to move towards ordination and ministry in the context of the local church. I moved to Virginia after seminary for an internship that resulted in a call to be an Associate Pastor of that PCA church.

What is the ethnic and socio-economic make-up of your congregation? What is the ethnic and socio-economic make-up of the community in which your church is located? 

The ethnic and socio-economic make-up of our congregation is 95+ white and 99% middle-upper middle class. We have one inter-racial (white-asian) family that accounts for our racial diversity. This Asian man is also one of our elders, so our session is 75% white. Our community is 77% white and mostly middle class. The median household income is $82,000 with 5.6% of community living below poverty.

With the ethnic homogeneity of your congregation and your background, what caused you to begin looking into ethnic/racial issues in Reformed and Presbyterian circles?

During and following my college years the Lord began to convict me of my racism. I began to reflect more on my experience in church growing up and of racism and race issues in the church. I was writing a paper for ordination on the Image of God and was required to use some Presbyterian and Southern Presbyterian theologians. I was shocked to see some of the things that Dabney and others had written with respect to their views on slavery and the status of blacks compared to whites in the church. This seemed very inconsistent with their teaching on the Image of God in other places. I also was reading Anthony Bradley's blog which from time to time talked about his experience as a black man in the PCA and began to read more about Dabney, Thornwell, and others. I knew he wasn't making up his experiences because I knew quite personally that racism existed in Reformed Presbyterian circles. It was through this initially that I began to look more into ethnic/racial issues. 

How are you pursuing learning more in this area? Why would you encourage others to do the same?

I am pursuing learning in this area by listening to non-white brothers in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. Anthony Bradley was one of my professors in seminary. Any time he recommends a book on race and Presbyterian and reformed experiences I buy it. By now I have a lot of reading to do. I've done a lot of "virtual listening" by following lots of Facebook conversations that Anthony and others have had, and have just listened to their struggles and pain and sharing of their story. Through one of those conversations I read an article by Leon Brown (you) about his experience as a black man in Presbyterian and reformed circles. I hadn't met Leon, due to infrequent Presbytery attendance on my part, but sent him a quick note of encouragement. That later resulted in a meeting for brunch where we were able to talk. I really wanted Leon to help me listen, help me hear. I want to know more about what you have experienced, and how I and we and the church as a whole can grow. I had learned enough from reading his article and other writings to know that there are some things that white people have a hard time understanding and getting about the black (and non-white) experience. In the article Leon invited readers to walk in his shoes. My friendship with Leon began by me seeking his help to walk in his shoes. I don't know what it is like to be a minority in really any sense. I remember thinking one presbytery meeting as I looked around, especially after reading some of the articles and facebook posts..."Wow, Leon is the only black guy here. That has to be incredibly difficult. Why is it like this?" The church can't grow and change without conversations of understanding, listening by the majority white culture, and growing racially diverse friendships and communities and churches. Change needs to happen. Non-whites need to be heard and white people need to listen. 

Comparatively, do you have many non-white friends? If not, how does this affect your interaction and understanding of non-white ethnic groups?

Comparatively I don't have many non-white friends. Obviously this affects my interaction and understanding negatively. How can one grow in understanding those with whom you don't interact? 

This is kind of interesting. As I think about it I had more non-white friends growing up. My closest friends in elementary and middle school where non-white. I guess I was the minority in my neighborhood, I was the only white kid. I was friends with a lot of black kids in my neighborhood and in school, but we had no non-whites in my church. As I went into high school and some in middle school I said lot of racist things when with the majority culture (church, white friends) but I didn't have any racists attitudes towards my black friends. Sometimes I was ridiculed by my extended family for having black friends. I think maybe I used racial slurs to gain acceptance in the majority culture. But I did see my attitude and heart change in my racist thoughts towards those non-whites that I didn't know. The more I moved from being in the minority (my neighborhood) to being in the majority high school college etc... the less black friends I had. There seemed to be a lot more (voluntary?) segregation (cafeteria, clubs, parties) happening. Our high school was over 50% black. But my college was at least 75% white. I hung out with who was around me and those were mostly white people. In my experience, past childhood, inter racial relationships take effort, they just don't happen. In high school and in college most of the black students hung out together (black Christian groups, black frats and sororities, black engineering clubs etc...). I never bothered to ask why. I just accepted that was just the way it was. Now I'm understanding why more. The majority/minority culture experience is shedding some light on that.  I'm processing some as I'm writing....all that to say as one in the majority culture it will take effort on my part to move out of that experience and to engage and interact with non-whites. 

Have you had any uncomfortable situations in your church, or any other, where racism was overt against a non-white? If so, tell us about that situation.

Not in my present church, but growing up I was taught in Sunday school (not regularly but I remember it being taught) that slavery was a result of the curse that God placed on Ham. The decedents of Japheth were white people, Europeans. The descendants of Shem were Semites, Jews etc... and those who came from Ham were black. That is why they were in slavery. Also we were told that interracial marriages were a sin. The church I grew up in was adjacent to my neighborhood, (I could walk there). 

The church was over a hundred years old. The area changed from rural to neighborhoods. First it was an all white neighborhood, then slowly that began to change. The church never did. It was always awkward when a black family visited. Everyone's head turned to watch them walk down the aisle to their seat. This never would have happened if it was a white family. That had to be really uncomfortable for those families....they never came back. 

We used a lot of racial slurs in our youth group and told racist jokes sometimes....we were never corrected or rebuked. It makes me sick to my stomach to think I participated in that.

How does the gospel help us regarding ethnic/cultural/socio-economic issues in Reformed and Presbyterian churches?

It reminds me that I am a white-Gentile. I was an alien, a stranger, an outsider. Historically and as far as my heritage goes I was not part of the people of God. But Jesus has come and he tore down that wall and I have access as a full member, not second class, not provisional, not JV, but full status as an adopted son. What was once distinct Christ has made one in himself tearing down the dividing wall of hostility. The extent to which fellowship happens across ethnic/cultural/socio-economic lines communicates and demonstrates a glorious gospel truth. When this doesn't happen truths and implications of the gospel can be hidden or compromised. Christ is restoring the Image of God in man. All races and cultures reflect different and beautiful aspects of the image of God. Without each other we are missing out on experiencing and communicating to the world the beauties of our creator and redeemer. The gospel should remind me that I have no place whatsoever to view myself as superior to anyone else. It should also provide the context in which we can confess and repent of failures in the past to live out the gospel in light of racism and elitism. Jesus wasn't white, God isn't white. If the new heavens and earth only had white people or middle class people it would be imperfect. The gospel is bigger than white people. We are the minority as far as Christianity goes currently I believe, as far as the majority Christian world is in the southern and eastern hemisphere. The gospel is world wide and ethnic wide and cultural wide and socio-economic wide in its scope. That should help us see that these issues need to be addressed in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share?

I have a lot of growing to do. Thanks for walking with me in this.