Results tagged “Presbyterianism” from Reformation21 Blog

A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion

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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

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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).

Conclusion

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

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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).
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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

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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

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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.