Thoughts on an Impending Conversion (Which Should Have Been Foretold)

Thoughts on an Impending Conversion (Which Should Have Been Foretold)

The news of the seeming impending conversion of Jason Stellman to Roman Catholicism will no doubt come as a shock to many who, in the small world of confessional Presbyterianism, probably know of him best either as the man who led the prosecution of Peter Leithart in the PCA's Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest or as a vigorous advocate of Two-Kingdoms theology. Neither of these things would seem to indicate that he was leaning Romeward. If anything, his opposition to Dr. Leithart would have indicated the opposite. I suspect many of those who supported him on that issue will now wonder if their trust was betrayed and if the Rev Stellman already secretly held many of the views he accused Dr. Leithart of espousing.  

For some of us, however, his conversion is not so surprising.  

Jason Stellman was a man with a high ecclesiology; and high ecclesiology is important. In the last year, numerous friends at Sovereign Grace Ministries have expressed to me that they have come to the conclusion that many of the problems they are currently facing derive from having not simply a weak ecclesiology but no real, self-conscious ecclesiology at all. Further, many of us look on aghast at the rising influence of powerful conservative evangelical parachurch groups, not because we have any problem with transdenominational friendship and fellowship in the gospel and for the sake of mutual encouragement. Rather, we fear the rise of essentially non-ecclesiastical bodies which wield huge quasi-ecclesiastical power and influence. It is worrying indeed when such groups take on church-like functions and yet have no transparent procedures for wider accountability and also have one-way top-down power structures. Against such groups, a good dose of biblical ecclesiology is a necessary antidote.

If high ecclesiology is important, then one might also say that Two Kingdoms theology too has some importance: it is a healthy means of avoiding the excesses of Christian America, Theonomy, and the various social gospels - left and right - out there. Moreover, it guards against the kind of elitist view of the Christian mind and calling that generates pastors of the performing arts but really offers nothing special to street sweepers and toilet cleaners.

Having said this, however, there is a breed of Christian out there for whom the doctrine of the church and 2K are all they ever seem to talk about. They are, it appears, the number one priorities for Christians. Such advocates often seem, at least on the surface, to disdain the basic elements of Christian discipleship - fellowship, loving one's neighbor, protecting and honoring the poor and weak - and spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about their pet ecclesiological and 2K projects.

Now, Paul certainly thought ecclesiology was important: it is why he spends so much time talking about it in his Pastoral Epistles. He also had very little to say about arts pastors. He never seems to have identified the Christian mind with being taken seriously by secular academics, intellectuals, and people who throw paint at blank canvases. But he did spend rather a lot of time talking about Christ. Indeed, his primary focus was always on the gospel and - crucially - he never conflated the gospel with the doctrine of the church or with opinions about the Christians relationship to secular society. Ecclesiology is necessary to Paul in this end-time tribulation for the preservation and transmission of the gospel. For Paul, an understanding of believers as sojourners and pilgrims arises out of a correct understanding of what the gospel means; but neither of these are to be identified in itself with the gospel or to occupy more discussion space than the gospel.

The danger for high churchmen (and I consider myself to be a reasonably high churchman) is that we can forget that. We can end up thinking that the doctrine of the church is more important than the gospel or, worse still, that the doctrine of the church is the gospel. The tendency to make our issues - of which ecclesiology and 2K are just two examples -- into the gospel is always a danger.  Case in point, when you go to the Rev. Stellman's sermon page on his church's website,(  Accessed May 28, 2012) the sermons are not listed by date or alphabetically, but by topic.  Significantly, the first one is an old series on "Amillennialism and Two Kingdoms."  Worthy topics, no doubt; but what does it say when these are top of the list of things you want visitors to your website to learn about?   When we identify the church with the gospel, it would seem to me that Rome is the natural outcome, since, for Rome, the church is, in effect, the gospel.

Talk of ecclesiology and Two Kingdoms has its place. But if Paul's emphases are to be respected, both are to be kept strictly subordinate, structurally and emphatically, to the gospel, the good news of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. My concern is that, when ecclesiology and 2K are all some people ever seem to talk about, the gospel is eclipsed or - even worse -- ecclesiology and 2k ideology become not adjuncts to and inferences of the gospel, but the very gospel itself.
Given this and given the concerns and emphases of Jason Stellman's own thinking over the past years as stated on his blog, his move seems not so much a surprise as the logical outcome of a loss of Pauline emphases. Further, the problem with some of Machen's children is not that they are warriors. To accuse them of that would actually be to flatter them somewhat. Rather, it is that they have lost sight of Machen's (and Paul's, and, indeed, the Bible's) deepest concern, which was always the gospel and which concern was crystal clear in his life, his writings and his preaching.

We should pray for Stellman's congregation at Exile Presbyterian Church. I cannot begin to grasp the full extent of the confusion and the betrayal of trust which its members must be feeling at this time.And the rest of us need to examine ourselves to makes sure that our appropriately high ecclesiology does not lead us to identify our own pet issues with the gospel.