Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Christian Feminism? (XVIII)

Just Who is the “Gifted Leader?”

In our last installment, we continued to interact with Rev. John Smed’s article, “The Genius and Joy of Lay Leadership.” We ended last time by listening to his lamentation over those who are gifted leaders, but who are not ordained to any particular office. He is convinced that these congregants—male and female—are frustrated and “Frustration either leads to disconnection or to opposition” (p. 2).

It is clear from Scripture that each congregant should be a living, active member of the church of Christ.[1] That being the case, each is to use his or her gifts for the glory of God and for the good of the whole covenant family. It also seems that members should have their respective gifts discovered within the context of their fellowship with the other members of that covenant community rather than coming into the local church and more or less announcing what those gifts are. This seems a more biblical but less used manner of discovering and using gifts in Christ’s Church.

Besides, anyone who has been around the block a couple of times knows from experience that not everyone who is a “leader” type in the world is an effective biblical leader in the Church. The Church is not IBM or Exxon. It has leaders, but they submit to a higher authority and operate according to God’s revealed will and not according to what Donald Trump or Peter Drucker says. What is considered an asset in the world could very well be a liability in a local congregation. In what I’m describing about the context of the covenant community, for example, a “gifted leader” might be either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised to have other Christians point him or her in a very different direction vis-à-vis gifts than they had initially imagined. In other words, there might be some surprises and that should be considered a good thing.

We want to begin, therefore, by picking up the thread of Rev. Smed’s arguments. I want to point out again that the quotes are taken from Rev. Smed’s article. These are his words; the commentary is mine. In his article, under the heading of “Women in ministry and Leadership,” he writes, “When it comes to the question of ordaining women as elders, is it not possible that a significant reason for women seeking ordination to the office of elder is that the only alternative is constant frustration.” (Ibid. Italics mine. Actually, there should have been a question mark at the end of his sentence.) I take issue with Rev. Smed’s exclusive language. In some situations there can be more than one alternative and especially in the issue of the role of women in the local church there are more alternatives. Moreover, even though women and some men may be frustrated, they should be able to talk things out with the Session, but it’s a tough sell that their life is one of constant frustration. Less exaggeration would be helpful.

Within the realm of possibilities, I suppose that Rev. Smed’s question/statement could fall within that category—possibility—, but the question is too slanted and naïve to be actually plausible. Why do I say that? Allow me to explain. As I have written in previous issues, there have been concerted efforts made by Feminism in its radical and less radical forms to change our thinking. As often as not, this aim of the feminist movement came to us under the guise of “consciousness raising.” Mary Kassian has aptly chronicled this development.[2] Thus, since the 1960s men and women have been bombarded with feminist ideology. Within the realm of possibility it could also be the case that women have been seeking ordination as elder because both they and the men “bought into” the feminist agenda. Moreover, it is also within the realm of possibility that a significant number of the tenets of Feminism had made enormous inroads into the evangelical community as Wayne Grudem, Rebecca Jones, Mary Kassian, John Piper, the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and a host of others have pointed out. In addition, there has been a powerful influx of political correctness into society in general as well as into the evangelical community encouraging and supporting women who teach men on a regular basis.

In short, if we are talking mere “possibilities,” then the reasons why some women seek ordination to the office of elder are “legion”—for they are many. One thing is biblically certain, however, and it is this: for whatever reason/possibility a woman seeks ordination as an elder, it is an unbiblical, unwarranted one. To shore up his “possibility” argument, however, Rev. Smed cites Dr. Bruce Waltke, Old Testament scholar, who “agrees that women are victims of a neglectful power structure in many churches.” (Ibid. Emphases mine.) That is to say, he introduces the language of the victo-crat. Women are victims of a neglectful patriarchal power structure, which seems to be the modus operandi in many churches, which would, it seems, include PCA churches as well. Once again the accusation is that PCA churches do not take Scripture seriously nor does what its Book of Church Order describes concerning the elected church officers. Moreover, women share this frustration (frustrated victo-crats) with men who are leaders but not elders. (Ibid.)

As I have mentioned before, after 25-plus years of pastoral ministry in three different countries it is manifestly clear that not all leaders in secular life make biblically qualified elders and it should also be stated that some (a few) women act less like victims and more like jack-booted brown shirts than they do like godly women. What I have missed to this point in Rev. Smed’s article is an appeal to Scripture to bolster his arguments. Being an elder involves substantially more than mere leadership, although biblical leadership principles should be applied in every case (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

In any case, I will respectfully disagree with Dr. Waltke’s assessment that in many churches women are victims of a neglectful power structure. Do I believe that this occurs in some churches? Sure. As one who is on the “front lines” of ministry and who has frequent and good contact with the members that God has entrusted to him, I find the word “many” to be both an improper description and also an exaggeration. In addition, I also strongly disagree with Dr. Waltke that “The feminist perspective has rightly exposed this abuse.” (Ibid.)

The “feminist” perspective in its secular and evangelical forms has produced a number of disgruntled women. It may be said that Feminism shed some light on abuses in society, but when you read about the life of, say, Betty Friedan, then you realize that she is one bitter woman, who quite frequently distorted the truth because to do so served “the cause,” the feminist agenda. Within Christian circles I would say something similar about the PCA’s Carolyn Custis James.[3] When I began reading her book about women becoming good theologians and studying theology I was with her all the way. She lost me, however, about two-thirds of the way through her book when, to my mind, she went on a rant and ended up sounding like a very bitter woman—for whatever reason. The upshot of this is simply that there have been powerful influences in the Church coming from Feminism. And as we well know, any ideology with the suffix “-ism” attached to it is meant to give us a total life and worldview.

Feminism might have exposed some abuses in society and in the Church, but on balance, its net effects have not been positive, but rather negative in both. Feminists have succeeded in driving wedges between men and women and they are guilty of pitting the genders against each other and/or playing the “gender card” at key points. They have even succeeded in some modern churches in getting Christian women to believe that abortion is their “right” and that men are on testosterone overload and their sole goal is—to borrow a phrase from Rebecca Jones—to squash women.

But Rev. Smed points out to us that Dr. Waltke is critical of the designated headship of elder and husbands, “when they focus on ruling rather than loving” (Ibid.) What shall we reply to this?

In the first place, when it comes to being an elder there really isn’t a biblical choice about ruling in a loving manner. Rather than an “either/or” choice being a biblical elder entails a “both/and” proposition.

In the second place, do Dr. Waltke and Rev. Smed want to intimate that if a husband is out of balance at any given time that the wife no longer needs to be biblically submissive? It can be justifiably argued that Christian husbands, by and large, strive to lead their wives biblically although there is admittedly a great deal of room for improvement and, no doubt, some are derelict in their biblical duties. But do we want to build our case and establish our “rules” by the exceptions?

Rev. Smed quotes from Waltke again favorably who states: “We commend feminists for asserting the equality of women with men as equals in nature, dignity, gifts and ministry.” (Ibid.) My question to both Dr. Waltke and Rev. Smed is this: Why should we commend feminists for this when Scripture has already done it? Without a doubt I have an appreciation for Dr. Waltke’s Old Testament scholarship, but his statement would have been far better and would have come with more authority if had given us Old Testament and New Testament examples of how women were the recipients of a God-given nature, dignity, gifts, and ministry rather than appealing to secular feminists who are working from an ideological agenda.

Which feminists in particular are we to commend? Gloria Steinem? Betty Friedan? Lisa Scanzoni? Nancy Hardesty? Virginia Mollenkott? Simone deBeauvoir? Mary Daly? Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Germaine Greer? Kate Millett? Elaine Pagels? Waltke’s statement is a very unguarded one that creates more confusion and raises more questions than it does resolve matters and give biblical answers. It is equally disturbing that Rev. Smed would use such a general quotation. Truly, I am disappointed that Dr. Waltke would say such a thing and equally disappointed that Rev. Smed would use it favorably, for it detracts from his argument. At the same time, Rev. Smed does tip his hand slightly to let us know where he is heading with his article.

It appears that yet another “straw man” is being erected so that an agenda point can be met. Here is what seems to be the underlying thesis of both Waltke and Smed: Men in the PCA and other Christian men are so thick that they cannot understand that men and women are equally created in God’s image, endowing them with a particular nature, worth, dignity, gifts, and ministries that they need secular feminists to inform and enlighten them. Therefore, it is justified to cite secular feminists because they have proven to be so helpful in the past.

Dr. Waltke is convinced that the crux of the problem “is our own failure to interpret the Bible correctly. The mode of leadership is that of a servant.” (Ibid., 3.) I beg your pardon. To whom does the word “our” refer? Does he infer that conservative, orthodox Christian scholars have missed God’s point and that we need the secular feminists to help us out? These words are interesting for a number of reasons. First, much of the weakness I’ve observed in PCA church plants—and this is based on my observations over more than a decade in my own Presbytery as well as visiting other PCA church plants—has been in the area of preaching and teaching. I would call the sermons—at best—watered down. That is to say, in a attempt to engage the culture and reach Christianity’s cultured despisers the gospel message has been “softened”—sometimes substantially—and Presbyterian doctrine and church government completely left off the radar—intentionally. The sermons I’ve heard have been “sermonettes” often void of any real obvious exegesis, but that were “hip” and sounded more like a pep talk from Anthony Robbins than a sermon from Scripture.

Moreover, in the church plants that have gone “belly up” in our Presbytery it has been a rarity rather than the rule that the members of that particular church plant sought out another PCA congregation. In the majority of the cases, they went to something like a Calvary Chapel—and probably noticed little difference. I listened to a sermon at Grace Toronto once where I was told one hundred times in twenty-five ways (yes, there was a lot of repetition) that I needed to engage the culture more; better. Whatever the text was that morning, it was announced, read, and we never came back to it. I’ve also listened to a number of sermons on line dealing ostensibly with what Scripture says about biblical submission that contained long, long apologies that the text even existed. God must have had a bad day. There was a lot of nervous laughter, “spinning,” and “dancing.” My point here is merely this: I would have thought that both Dr. Waltke and Rev. Smed would have recommended the preaching of the whole counsel of God rather than us listening to feminists.

Fine. Let’s return to Dr. Waltke’s assertion that the model of leadership is that of a servant. Certainly, this is a partially true statement. We learn from the life, examples, and mandates of Jesus that we are to be conformed to his image and follow his example (cf. Rom. 8:28-29; 1 Pet. 1:21). This is our model, but must we distil Jesus’ leadership examples down to just one; the model? What Dr. Waltke is saying can be misunderstood in our modern egalitarian context in a wide variety of ways. As I stated in the last issue, in leadership someone is saddled with the final decision. The leader might avail himself or herself of wise counsel, but in the final analysis the decision is his or hers. For example, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower received all kinds of advice and strategies about the execution of Operation Overlord (D-Day) in World War II, but ultimately the decision to “go” was his.

Leaders must set the example and lead from the front, but all within the context of the fifth commandment. In Rev. Smed’s article and his use of Dr. Waltke there is no mention whatsoever of what, say, the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches about “inferiors,” “superiors,” and “equals.” (cf. Q/A 123-133.) Those statements might not fit into your egalitarian society or in a place where what the culture says, does, and thinks tends to dictate what the message of Scripture is—as in Rev. Downing’s congregation in Rocky Mountain Presbytery—but they are part of our heritage.

Dr. Waltke is correct that Jesus is the (suffering) servant king who loves his queen (bride) and died for her. Yet, when he writes, “The ‘servant’ empowers his wife to use her spiritual gifts to their fullest potential,” I would add a couple of qualifiers: First, I’m not certain that I understand practically how toe “empower” someone to do something. I might encourage them, train them, and provide biblical opportunities for them, but by and large I tend to think of “empower” as a word that is bandied about without it having enough specificity to be helpful. Rather, it tends to be vague such as words like “gravitas” or “charisma.” Second, I do have a little trouble with the phrase “…to their fullest potential.” I would insert the word “biblical” or “scriptural” between “fullest” and “potential.” It would seem, therefore, that our goal is for our wives to be the godliest women they can be, not just to see them reach their “fullest potential.”

Then Dr. Waltke adds this zinger: “I am a member of a church where I submit to women leaders because I’m called upon to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit until we come to the full knowledge of Christ (Eph. 4:1-13).” (Ibid.) I don’t know of which church Dr. Waltke is a member, but if he “…supports the designated headship of elders and husbands, and questions those who disregard this” (Ibid., 2.), then it seems that Dr. Waltke has a problem. If, on the one hand, he supports the designated headship of elders, then that must mean that he is in a church that has women elders. Otherwise, what he wrote would be a contradiction. In light of what he says later, as he is quoted by Rev. Smed, I’m convinced that it’s the former.

That is probably why he asks his church “and others like it,” which he is fully persuaded sincerely want to follow Ephesians 5:10 “to reassess whether their practice of ordaining women to rule them has been impacted by the feminist perspective or by the biblical.” (Ibid., 3.) So where are we in this article about the genius and joy of lay leadership? Rev. Smed is not in favor of ordaining women elders and yet he cites rather extensively from someone (Dr. Waltke), who is apparently in a church that does ordain women and who submits to their rule and authority.

For Dr. Waltke’s part, he praises certain aspects of secular Feminism (or perhaps even of so-called Evangelical Feminism), but then turns around and asks other churches to reassess their positions to ascertain whether they are motivated by feminist ideology or biblical truth. This is, at best, quite confusing.

In our next installment, we’ll attempt to follow Rev. Smed’s argument as he begins a new section entitled “A biblical and historical argument for reappraising the relation between elders and lay leaders.” What we shall encounter in this section are two more men who are pro-women’s ordination: John Stackhouse and his book Finally Feminist[4] and Miroslav Volf, who according to Rev. Smed, has written a very influential book called After Our Likeness. Stackhouse concludes that “After examining the scriptures and looking at both sides of the argument…we have no sound reason to exclude them from office.” (Ibid.). Dr. Volf, who is a student of Jürgen Moltmann’s and director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, also believes that women should be ordained. “Volf exegetes key New Testament passages (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4:1-6) to show that the church in [sic] ‘charismatically constituted’. This is an exciting and valid insight (see below). He differentiates between office holders and laity. However, he still advocates for women’s ordination to the episcopacy/eldership, arguing that office is a gift of the Spirit.” (Ibid., 3-4.)

It remains to be seen if Rev. Smed ever intends to get around to discussing, in a favorable light, those who oppose women’s ordination. And although he tells us that he is personally opposed to the ordination of women to the office of either Teaching Elder or Ruling Elder to this point in his article he has cited only men who are in favor of it. We shall have to wait and see if he can make good on his position. I promise that I will not spend much more time on this because I believe there is a much more positive way to view this issue. My own approach will be to take a look at a number of Reformed confessions and then examine one very trusted Reformed theologian: Dr. Herman Bavinck.

[1] Cf. 1 John 3:14, 19-21; John 10:27-28; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:20-27; 13:1-7; Phil. 2:4-8; & the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, Q/A 54 & 55.

[2] See Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel, The Movement to Unite Feminism With the Church, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992). Also, compare Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006).

[3] Carolyn Custis James, When Life and Beliefs Collide, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001). I also disagree with Mrs. James’ assertion that the Hebrew word translated “helper” in Genesis 2:18 (Hebrew: rz<[Eß;; Greek LXX: bohqo.n) that can and should be translated “warrior.” Can we detect a slight agenda there?

[4] John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Christian Feminism? (XVII)

The Bible “Messes” with Our Lives

Before I get back to what John Smed of Grace Vancouver has written about women in the PCA, I want to take an excerpt from a paper written by two former classmates from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: Tim and Kathy Keller. They were cited by another PCA pastor, Mark Bates, previously of University Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida, who is now in route to Village Seven Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Let me give you a lead in to what Rev. Bates said.

On the web site of UPC, Pastor Bates has written a piece entitled “The Role of Women in the Church” ( He begins by stating that “Few issues are as controversial in religious circles as the role of women.” (Role, 1). Really? I thought we just got through fighting about one the most historically controversial issues at the 35th General Assembly of the PCA: justification by faith. What about the doctrine of transubstantiation? Wasn’t that one a “biggy” too? We have argued about the nature of the Church from Roman Catholic and Reformed perspective, the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture (isn’t this one rather important as well?), creation vs. evolution, the doctrine of sin from Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, and Augustinian perspectives, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and which comes first faith or regeneration, just to give you a sampling of the historical controversies. But Pastor Bates is correct that the issue of the “role of women” is becoming an increasingly controversial topic even though at the outset the PCA was pretty settled about what it believed and taught on the issue. Times have changed.

Pastor Bates and his Session at UPC state that their desire is to be biblical above all else and that they are committed to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God (Ibid.). That’s good news. As a Session they investigated the controversial issue and “saw errors in both the ‘traditional’ and the ‘progressive’ views of women.” (Ibid.) That’s interesting—sort of. Since we’re not really told what precisely constitutes “traditional” and “progressive” we’re once again left with little more than vagaries. Each one of those words is a “loaded” term and can run a rather wide gamut of connotations. The description given by the Session at UPC doesn’t help much: “In the traditional model, women have been oppressed and marginalized.” (Ibid. Italics mine.)

Let me explain why this isn’t helpful. The word “traditional” has become a wax nose in this definition. It can mean anything or everything “traditional” so it ends up meaning nothing. In the definition given by UPC, however, it most definitely carries a very negative connotation. My home church, Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, CA, is a traditional church, but we hardly oppress and marginalize our women. Allow me to illustrate what I mean. We recently held a church car wash out on the lawn. The Session set up a collapsible awning to protect us from the sun while we watched our WIC Board and other women who volunteered wash the cars. One of my Elders noted that some of our women were slipping and falling down due to the slick nature of the grass. Within no time we had gone out and purchased football cleats for them so they wouldn’t fall down anymore. No one can accuse us of being traditionally insensitive. (I know I’m going to email and comments on my blog, so let me explain that I’m only kidding!)

On a more serious note, we are, at Grace, what would be termed “traditional” in many regards, but I cannot think of an instance where our women were either oppressed or marginalized. In fact, we value our women highly and support and encourage them in performing biblical works of service in the Kingdom of Christ. The negative language of what the Session of UPC decided is quite unfortunate because it paints all that might be considered or perceived to be “traditional” as those who oppress and marginalize women and this is simply fodder to encourage the “better” use of women and their gifts, but in what I’ve read recently this tends to mean going beyond Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the Book of Church Order. It happens in my own Presbytery.

According to UPC, “the progressive model obliterates the God-given differences of women and men.” (Ibid.) Okay. Next, there is a qualification: “While the traditional model fails to give women the freedom to use their spiritual gifts fully within the church, the progressive model ignores the Bible’s teaching on the different ways in which men and women may serve in the church.” (Ibid.) What precisely does it mean to give women the freedom to use their spiritual gifts fully within the church? Does it mean that if a woman says to you that she has the gift of teaching, or if a number of women come supporting this one woman’s gift to teach that she must then be allowed to teach men based on the notion that she has the gift? If that is what is meant then the Session at UPC has just nullified its statement about adherence to the mandates and commands of Scripture.

In one of the bullet points, however, Pastor Bates and the Session at UPC tell us what they mean: “Women may serve in any capacity in the church and may use their spiritual gifts in every way that any non-elder man may serve, except that women may not shepherd men.” (Ibid. Italics mine.) This is a mantra that is being “ohmed” more and more in the PCA. Bruce Ware, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Seminary has warned, “Today…the primary areas in which Christianity is pressured to conform are on issues of gender and sexuality.”[1] Ware continues, “The women have used Bible studies that are not consistent with the doctrine of the church. Strong personalities have led the ministry, and there have been significant numbers of women who chose not to be involved rather than risk conflict with these leaders. As a result our older women are not equipped to disciple, and younger women are unaware of their need to be discipled by older women.”[2] Finally, “When the elders realized the consequences of our neglect and tried to slowly and gently bring the women’s ministry back into the mainstream of the church, we were met with resistance and criticism.”[3]

These comments by Ware touch on another aspect of the issue at hand. Lig Duncan and Susan Hunt write that “The crisis of womanhood is too critical for the church to be passive. Scores of evangelical women are functional feminists, because the world’s paradigm for womanhood is the only one they have heard.”[4] My point here is that neither John Smed nor Mark Bates (and his Session) have pondered the possibility that the problem might not lie with those stodgy old traditional churches, but rather with women tainted with strong doses of feminism. I raise this point because UPC hosted Carolyn Custis James two months ago to teach Scripture on the subject of sexuality. I’ll bypass the notion of whether this was the scriptural thing to do in order to get to the point. According to Pastor Bates’ comments on his blog (Certain Hope), Mrs. James’ comments created some misunderstanding of UPC’s position on women within his congregation. That’s very helpful. Thank you, Mrs. James and yet another thanks to the Session for inviting her in the first place. Apparently James’ message “left some people with a number of important questions about the role of women at UPC. In fact, some may even have left with the impression that there are no distinctions between the roles of men and women in home or in the church.”[5] That just had to be such a helpful talk from Mrs. James. Thankfully UPC is not one of those traditional churches that oppress and marginalize but allow confusion to take its course!

All of this explanation by Pastor Bates is merely an introduction to an article written by Tim and Kathy Keller entitled “Women and Ministry.” Under the heading “The Problem of ‘Objectivity’” Tim Keller writes, “I (Tim) recognize that it may seem easy for me to talk in an objective, studied way about what this or that verse means about this subject. I have had women say to me in the midst of such a discussion, ‘For you this is a discussion, but for me this is my life you’re messing with!’”

There’s truth in the saying that you have to start somewhere and where better to begin a discussion about what the Bible says on any given topic than the Bible itself? (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9 & 10.) Moreover, if you’re going to discuss what Scripture says wouldn’t it be more helpful if we discussed it in a “studied” fashion rather than merely talking off of the tops of our heads or by pulling our opinions from the proverbial place? Let’s say for the sake of argument that Tim has done his homework and is presenting scriptural truth to his audience in a Bible study. Is it then correct and proper for a woman to say to him, “For you this is a discussion, but for me this is my life you’re messing with!”? No, it’s wrong for a number of reasons.

First, it’s incorrect because for Tim it isn’t merely a discussion. He is engaged in conveying biblical truth that he has derived from the Word of God. That being the case—and Tim as a Calvinist knows what Calvin taught about what occurred when a minister of the Word spoke truthfully about the content of Scripture—it really isn’t Tim who’s saying these things it’s the Holy Spirit speaking through Tim.

Second, when the Holy Spirit sanctifies God’s people he is doing a lot more that “messing” with their lives. He is conforming them to the image of Christ, putting the old man of sin to death, and causing the new man in Christ Jesus to come alive more and more. Is it difficult to hear what God says to me in Scripture? Sometimes, yes, it is; it is very difficult, but every time the Word of God cuts me (cf. Heb. 4:12), I must know that it is good (cf. Ps. 119:68). I believe that it is tawdry and cheap to assert that because another Christian speaks the truth to me that he or she is “messing” with my life. I suggest that such a statement comes not from a well informed Christian, but rather from one who doesn’t want to submit to God.

Look, I’m not saying that we never have to struggle with implementing God’s Word in our lives or that we always do it well or even willingly; but I am saying that submitting to the truth of Scripture is a matter of disposition, heart, and attitude. If I have a practical view of Scripture as infallible and inerrant, then I will comprehend that, like it or not, God is working in me to make me more like Jesus. That is my desire more than anything else and I must be willing to put myself aside and let him have his way.

Power and Decision-Making

In John Smed’s article that we began looking at in our last issue, one of his theses is “When authority and leadership are confused, power and decision making are concentrated in the hands of a few.” (The Genius and Joy of Lay Leadership, 2.) My first response as I read those words was that in real church leadership it isn’t about power. Perhaps to some it is, but that is not what Scripture, the Westminster Standards, or the BCO teach. By fiat Smed has placed us in the midst of a power struggle and whenever that occurs, someone is attempting to get the 51st percentile. But is this the image that Scripture gives us of biblical leadership? We are told of instances when members of Israel railed and groused against Moses and perhaps they perceived it to be a power issue, but they were wrong.

It surprises me that in these discussions I don’t hear much about how Session members, for example, are truly striving to do God’s will and to lead God’s people in a biblically humble fashion. I hear about oppression, marginalization, power, and decision-making in the hands of a few. Whether few or many, the Presbyterian form of church government clearly teaches that certain aspects of decision-making are in the hands of the Session and also the Deacons. What they do is not up for grabs unless it is believed that they are clearly violating biblical principles.

But if we allow Smed’s undefined and undefended thesis to stand, then it is possible that if it’s all about power then frustration is produced “for those who are gifted leaders, but not ordained.” (Ibid.) Is this a necessary result, consequence? Isn’t it true that there are a number of people with various gifts who are not ordained office bearers? In any congregation this will be the case. Are we to believe, then, that each of the members is frustrated to the point that it “either leads to disconnection or to opposition”? (Ibid.) Smed believes that a number of men and women struggle with precisely this. He writes, “There is not great challenge and opportunity for them to stay. Relegated to singing hymns and going to Bible study hardly resonates as exciting or worthwhile for anyone who is created and gifted to be a leader.” (Ibid.)

Let me see if I’ve gotten this right. Singing hymns to the Lord God Almighty is tantamount to being relegated to an unexciting and unworthy use of our gifts. I always thought that worshiping God was kind of a “big deal.” When I worship away from my home church I don’t think of that time as wasted simply because I’m sitting in the pew and not standing in the pulpit. I also take exception to the notion that leaders are created; I think, rather, that they are made and that their making is a long, sometimes arduous process of coming up through the ranks. Militarily, Second Lieutenants are not normally put in charge for a Brigade.

What does it mean to be “gifted” to be a leader? There are leaders and there are leaders. Surely, hopefully, Rev. Smed does not equate leadership in the world with the ability to lead Christ’s people in the Church. Book after book has been written about how disastrous this approach can be; about how having CEOs on the Session can be disastrous. But since Rev. Smed just leaves his statement hanging in the air, we are left to our own devices to decipher what he means. Once again, it can mean almost anything.

Is Rev. Smed suggesting that we allow people who are gifted leaders in the world come into the congregation and use their gifts in an unchecked manner? I was talking to a man not long ago who was attending Grace but eventually decided to leave. When I asked him why, he told me that he wanted his son-in-law to attend church more regularly and that he would not come to Grace. I thought the reason why was because we were a traditional congregation that oppressed and marginalized everyone not just the women. But that wasn’t the reason. His son-in-law, who had gifts of leadership, demanded that any church he would attend had to have at least 1,000 members on the rolls, be seeker-sensitive, and sing praise songs. This happens all the time with those who fancy themselves to be “leaders.” It also happens with both men and women.

In spite of this, Rev. Smed is convinced that “In spite of all the ‘sound and fury’ about women’s ordination, I would argue that this is not the most important leadership issue before the church.” I would add: not yet it isn’t. Lord willing, more next time.

[1] Bruce Ware, “Ethics in a New Millennium,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 91.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 92. Italics mine.

[4] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), p. 42.

[5] You can follow this more fully at and the article of July 2nd: “Feminist influences in the Presbyterian Church in America.”


Friday, July 13, 2007

Christian Feminism? (XVI)

Power and Decision-Making

John Smed from Grace Vancouver has written a paper that is disturbing for a number of reasons. Rev. Smed is (unofficially) the network leader for PCA church planting in Canada.[1] Formerly, Rev. Smed was with the PCA’s Mission to North America in Atlanta. He entitled his paper “The Genius and Joy of Lay Leadership.” If I thought Rev. Sam Downing’s paper pointed in the wrong direction with City Presbyterian’s hiring of a woman with the title of Minister of Congregational Care, I believe Rev. Smed’s paper is even worse and more far-reaching—but predictable. More and more we’re hearing about using women in the local congregations and a number of PCA churches have women performing all kinds of tasks during the worship service as well as serving as Deacons, some simply want to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to it hoping it will all go away. I don’t and it won’t.

In addition to resurrecting some of the worn-out texts that actually don’t address the issue and never have and giving us some examples that are, quite frankly, baffling, there seems to be a hidden agenda or underlying current throughout Rev. Smed’s paper. In short, what Rev. Smed doesn’t explain is often more disconcerting that what he attempts to explain.

Before I begin to walk you through this paper let me make a qualifying and clarifying remark or two. First, I can imagine that some might dismiss what I have written up to this point as nothing more or less than extrapolated “slippery slope” or “domino-effect” arguments. Let me take just a few moments, therefore, and explain why that is not the case. In my life I have served congregations in three different countries: Holland, Canada, and my native United States. As a member of the Reformed Church (art. 31) in Holland I watched as the older Reformed Church that Bavinck and Kuyper helped unify in 1892 went the way of all flesh. Whether you want to call it a slippery slope or a domino effect, there was a clearly defined, easily discernible progression—or better, regression.

It all started when members of that Reformed church became embarrassed about their Three Forms of Unity and viewed them as more of a liability than they did an asset. They were, in a word, stuffy, stodgy, man-made documents that placed more impediments in the way of Christianity’s “cultured despiser” than they did good. My study time in Holland was at the height of the feminist movement worldwide and a number of feminist notions had infiltrated the old Reformed Church. In addition, men refused to accept their God-ordained task of leading. Very gradually; quietly a movement began to have women serve as Deacons. A number of seemingly plausible arguments were put forward to have women serve—many of which are still being repeated today and even more upsetting being presented by Rev. Smed in his paper—and there were all kinds of qualifications to the effect that there would not come a time when the “boundary” of women as Deacons would be violated. The promise was made: it would be Deacons only and no farther. Voices of protest were raised, but ultimately they were stifled. After all, these were the voices of traditionalism; they didn’t really understand like the new enlightened spiritual intelligentsia did. Times had changed, the culture had changed, and the Reformed Church needed to become substantially more contemporary, hip, with it.

Two years later, the Reformed Church was debating the question of women Elders at its Synod. Within the shortest time, women serving as Elders was a “done deal.” From there it was only a small step to women serving as pastors. At each step there was a high degree of predictability. Each time the dictum was pronounced: This far and no farther! When I finally left Holland in the early 1980s they were in the throes of discussions about ordaining practicing homosexuals—most congregations permitted practicing homosexuals to the Lord’s Supper. This process; these steps can, I believe, be termed a slippery slope that anyone should have seen coming. Possibly they did, but just didn’t want to be bothered. Now they are more than bothered because the Reformed Church in Holland has long since gone the way of all flesh.

When I moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1984 I was a pastor in the Canadian Reformed Church. I also knew several Christian Reformed Church colleagues. It wasn’t long before the “women’s issue” raised its head in the CRC, but the CRC had already cut itself off at the knees in the 1970s when it tacitly denied the full authority and inspiration of Scripture. Things were set in motion and there was no turning back. The point here is this: What occurred in Holland recurred in the CRC in a parallel fashion that was quite eerie. In retrospect, there was an almost one-to-one correspondence between how the matters developed in Holland and how the CRC followed suit.

Many of these ecclesiastical happenings suffered from the law of unintended consequences; nobody expected them to end up where they did. One of the key issues involved, you guessed it, “women in office.” Things turned out badly in the CRC; so badly that the PCA severed its ecclesiastical connection with that denomination. When I spoke to my colleagues in the CRC about what I had just witnessed in Holland they smiled knowingly, patronizingly and accused me of the slippery slope argument. Homosexual ordination is next in line. In addition, it was fascinating to me that when I talked with some of my CRC colleagues early on they were very concerned about the disturbing issues in their denomination. Just before I left Canada in 1994 I conversed with a number of them that had stayed in the CRC polishing as it were the brass on the Titanic about the staggering spiritual problems and their reply was, “What problems?” Spiritual Novocain. They were numb and impervious to what was occurring.

What was the experience in the PCUSA except the same old thing? So what I’m saying is that there is perhaps an illegitimate use of the slippery slope/domino effect theory, but there is also a reasoned, historical version of it as well. To paint every argument that seems like a slippery slope argument with the same brush isn’t wise.

Second, it is being argued that that’s not what the PCA is all about and those who are just opening the door for women Deacons (deaconesses) and more female participation in worship have no intention of ending up with women Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. Perhaps, but in any case this approach sounds like Hillary Clinton’s health care program with an ecclesiastical sauce poured over it. You’ll always be able to find some who believe that as bad as socialized medicine is—and take it from someone who has lived in two countries that had it, it is bad—we can make it work here. That was Hillary’s approach. Sure, it’s been a dismal failure in Europe and in spite of Michael Moore and the Hollywood elite who think it’s great in Cuba, the idea is that we can make it work here. The Canadian, Bill Gairdner, describes Canada’s ailing, failing health care system this way: “regular cost overruns, long line-ups for surgery, experts leaving the country, patients dying as they wait for service, lack of equipment, wage clashes between professional staff and hospitals, fee-schedule battles between physicians and the government, Charter challenges…it goes on and on.[2] I believe it. One of my congregational members was found dead behind his chair one morning. He had waited eight long years for a heart transplant and finally died.

And like it or not, this is where some in the PCA want to take us with their “suggestions” on how we can do things better and involve our women more. Please don’t get me wrong: wherever Scripture clearly permits the use of the gifts of women and men, I’m all for using them. But to this point, neither Rev. Downing nor Rev. Smed have made a convincing case for what they envision as biblically permissible and allowable according to the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order. That is precisely what we will be investigating, then, for the next while as we wade through Rev. Smed’s suggestions and his exegesis of the pertinent texts—which, is meager. In fact, I came away from reading Rev. Smed’s paper with the idea that 95% or more of his objections could have been eradicated if he had simply read Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood[3] or Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism[4] or Kassian’s The Feminist Gospel,[5] which he might very well have done.

The Opening Salvo: A Personal Conversation

Rev. Smed’s paper begins by presenting us with an italicized narrative that describes a conversation he had with a young woman. His home church, Grace Vancouver,—not Grace Presbyterian Vancouver—had been meeting for about five years when this encounter occurred. The young woman walked into Rev. Smed’s office—not study—one Sunday after church and said, “I love the atmosphere of this church and all that is going on here. You seem to be doing a lot of good things in the community. The service was really encouraging” (p. 1).

Then the woman wanted to know about women leading in Rev. Smed’s congregation. “Can they be pastors?” she asked and continued, “You must get this question a lot.” Rev. Smed informs us that this was actually the first time in five years that he had heard such a question. She retorted by asking him why he thought the question of women’s ordination had not come up at Grace Vancouver. “Are people not free to ask?” she wanted to know. Rev. Smed’s answer was: “In a church where men and women are free to lead and participate in every aspect of ministry, the issue of ordination and church office does not seem to be hugely important.” We’ll leave the words, “free to lead and participate in every aspect of ministry” for later and simply move on for now.

The young woman informed Rev. Smed that she was following an ordination-track in seminary so that she could become an ordained pastor in her denomination—which remains anonymous in the article, but given that he’s in Canada, it could be the Anglican Church. Even though we never are told which denomination this actually is—which would have been helpful—Rev. Smed “had first hand experience with these churches.” (Ibid.) Well, that’s fine and I don’t really have to know which denomination it is, but what I found discomforting was Rev. Smed’s response to the woman’s statement. “I suggested that there might be important reasons for a woman to seek ordination in her church. ‘You are part of a clergy and elder dominated church. In a number of your churches very little significant ministry or leadership takes place outside the ranks of clergy and elders.’” (Ibid.)

Whoa! If Rev. Smed is convinced biblically that women’s ordination is forbidden—and we must assume that he is because he’s PCA—then why on earth would he make an exception for her particular denomination? If it’s biblically prohibited, it’s prohibited across the board, universally—period. Are we now going to make exceptions depending on the denomination? One gets the impression that according to Rev. Smed’s interpretive methodology women’s ordination might be a “no-no” in his denomination, but if you are ever a part of a clergy and elder dominated church then it’s okay. Besides, who decides when a denomination has reached the outer limits of being a clergy and elder dominated church? Is this hermeneutics on a sliding scale or worse yet a double standard?

Who decides what constitutes “significant ministry” or “significant leadership” in other churches? Does “significant” mean “the way I’d do it”? But there is more: “It is not only women, but non-ordained men who are left out of key leadership roles and responsibilities. Holding office is where all the action is. Everyone else is expected to be a spectator—waiting for ministry initiatives and decrees to come from on high. The elders become the narrow part of the funnel, blocking the leadership and giftedness of God’s people. I think I would feel the very same as you if I were a layperson in your tradition.” (Ibid.) Quite honestly, I find it hard to believe that statements like this would come from a PCA pastor. Please allow me to address why I’m saying this.

First, any pastor and Elders know that some non-ordained men are left out of key leadership roles and responsibilities for any number of reasons. Some may be brand new Christians, others might be struggling with various doctrines, still others might be derelict in their tithing to the congregation, and yet others might be under “silent censure” by the Session because of a particular egregious sin. At best, Rev. Smed’s statement was unguarded and un-nuanced.

Second, as a pastor I have rarely, if ever, thought of being an office bearer as “where the action is.” Other thoughts come to mind but “where the action is” isn’t one of them. I believe that the office entails enormous responsibilities and the spiritual requirements often, quite frankly, terrify me. Holding office often means spending hour upon hour trying to help a married couple keep their marriage from unraveling, going to hospitals and nursing homes to bring the gospel, conducting funerals, and a host of other “action” items. I’m not arguing that a man or woman in the congregation cannot visit someone in the hospital or in a nursing home. In fact, I think that’s a good idea. My problem is the manner in which Rev. Smed distorts the nature of the office by describing it as “where the action is.” I know with my own Session we spend a good deal of time attempting to shepherd God’s flock, in prayer for them, and striving to be biblical office bearers. I’m convinced that no one on the Session at Grace Presbyterian Church thinks of what he does as “where the action is.”

Third, I believe it is incorrect to suggest that PCA churches expect everyone who is not holding office to be a spectator. At least the churches I’m aware of are rather constantly encouraging others to be an active member of the church. In Lord’s Day 21 (Q/A 54) of the Heidelberg Catechism, the question reads: What do you believe concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ? Here’s the answer: I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life. And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it. (Emphasis mine.) Christians are called to be living and active members of the Church of Christ. This, too, is a misrepresentation on Rev. Smed’s part of how churches in general function.

Fourth, I’m unclear about what Rev. Smed means with “ministry initiatives.” If, for example, he means that a member of the congregation would want to begin a ministry to the physically and mentally handicapped I dare say not many Sessions would say No to that, unless the “ministry initiative” involved some really “squirrelly” or “off the wall” proposals. But what if the “ministry initiative” is to begin a “Christian Yoga” or “Christian Tai-Chi” class? That would be a different scenario. Other Sessions might object to the “ministry initiative” to install a Starbucks in the pastor’s study or the foyer of the church. The idea being floated—almost surreptitiously—by Rev. Smed is that the Session and the congregation are in a power struggle. This seems to me to hearken back to what Dominic Aquila was lamenting in an article he wrote. He correctly states that there is a mindset in certain sectors of the PCA that he describes as “an ecclesiastical egalitarian spirit.”[6] He also asserts that “There is a certain emotional appeal, as opposed to a rational one, that no one in the church should be over anyone else, or appear more important than anyone else. This is an anti-clerical spirit, a word that was even used a number of times in the course of the debate.”[7]

I say this because Rev. Smed chose to use the “spectator-motif” to illustrate the plight of those who are not where the action is. They are forced to wait for “decrees to come from on high.” (Ibid.) Again, I am both shocked and saddened that a PCA pastor would depict the church polity that he has given his word to support in such a fashion. Decrees from on high? Please! Is this what Rev. Smed believes PCA Sessions do? This juxtaposition of Elders and “serfs” is further portrayed this way: “The elders become the narrow part of the funnel, blocking leadership and giftedness of God’s people.” (Ibid.) Yep. That’s precisely why God placed Elders in both the Old as well as in the New Testament. There simply weren’t enough funnels blocking leadership and giftedness so God decided to erect a few more and call them Elders. Being a funnel, blocking leadership and the giftedness of God’s people, is where the action is; that and stopping, putting the kibosh on the elderly women in your congregation who want to exercise their ministry initiative by making a Muslim, Anglican, Tibetan, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian diversity quilt, make goat cheese by candlelight, or turn the nursery into a yak breeding farm in order to arrest global warming and decrease our carbon footprint.

What exactly does Rev. Smed mean that the Elders become the narrow part of the funnel—not a very flattering description that—blocking the leadership and giftedness of God’s people? How is giftedness determined? Who determines it? What if brother A is convinced that he possesses the giftedness to teach? Is that sufficient? Are there no criteria by which it can be ascertained if he actually is a competent teacher? I would add that in my own congregation if the man in question were not thoroughly Presbyterian—irrespective of giftedness—he would not be allowed to teach and that would be a Session decision. Rev. Smed’s sentence is so terribly vague that it is very unhelpful. At the same time, I would comment that this is precisely the problem I’ve run into with Rev. Downing and now Rev. Smed: unexplained generalities that just kind of hang in the air presupposing that everyone will both know and agree with what is being proposed.

Rev. Smed also explained to the young woman that “liberating the laity…is the preeminent value of effective church leadership.” (Ibid.) This story just doesn’t hang in the air, but rather is support for the thesis of his paper. (Ibid.) In our next issue we shall delve more deeply into what precisely Rev. Smed envisions for his church model. As a kind of “teaser” his concept looks like this: “In contrast to clergy and elder-centered leadership—where both ministry and leader decision are concentrated within and carried out by the formally ordained leaders of a church, the Biblical approach to effective leadership and a healthy church is for elders and deacons to multiply and deploy lay leadership. Liberating the laity is the genius and the joy of New Testament leadership.” (Ibid. Emphases his.) He’s convinced that what is needed is a “happy partnership of elders and lay leaders who work alongside each other in concert and fellowship is the key to building up the church and reaching the community for Christ.” (Ibid., 1-2.)

But what happens when the happy partnership needs guidance or a set of decisions have to be made where someone accepts the final, ultimate responsibility for what is being done? In other words, is anyone tasked or saddled with the ultimate decision-making in the process to ensure that what is transpiring is biblical and within the purview of what it means to be PCA? Or does this “happy partnership” simply march to its own drummer? I’m reminded of the “happy partnership” described in Nehemiah 3-4. There men and women worked side by side to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In Nehemiah 4 we’re also told that the male population of the “happy partnership” was armed, being members of the NSSA—the National Sword and Spear Association—, but that there were also leaders who decided what was to be done and how it was to be done, which explains, in part, why Nehemiah’s nickname was “Narrow Part of the Funnel.” More next time, Lord willing.

[1] I attempted to contact Rev. Smed by phone—as I did Rev. Downing previously—but he is on sabbatical until August 15th. In the case of Rev. Downing, I was connected to his voice mail and left a message explaining that I was planning to write about his article and that I would appreciate it if he could get back to me and discuss what I was going to write. To date, there has been no reply.

[2] Bill Gairdner, The Trouble with Canada, (Toronto: Stoddard, 1990), p. 299.

[3] John Piper & Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991).

[4] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006).

[5] Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel, The Movement to Unite Feminism With the Church, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992).

[6] Aquila, 1.

[7] Ibid. Italics mine. The debate to which he refers took place at the April stated meeting of Rocky Mountain Presbytery.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Christian Feminism? (XV)

What’s Wrong with Being Presbyterian?

Given the relatively recent trend to name PCA churches “community” churches or to drop the name Presbyterian, one has to wonder what is precipitating such moves. Then, once you decide the answer to those questions, you still have to deal with PCA churches that end up being Presbyterian in name only. Why is that?

At the 35th General Assembly of the PCA we had a lengthy floor debate about the Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, and the Auburn Avenue Theologies. The Ad Interim committee appointed by the 34th GA presented their report and the delegates debated it. Early on in the debate a motion was made and seconded to reinvent the wheel by adding members to the committee who actually represented the Federal Vision and then return next year and debate the exegesis of all the texts pertaining to the FV—as if that were possible. Even if it were a possibility in such a venue, getting the opposites sides of the aisles to agree on the correct exegesis would be an exercise in futility. But, the mover persisted—and others who supported the motion—, that way the committee could do the exegesis to determine if the FV crowd were truly out of step with the Westminster Standards.

At that point, my blood began to boil. Fortunately, R.C. Sproul stood up—and in over ten years of attending Gas, this is the first time I remember R.C. ever speaking on the floor of the GA—and settled the issue for us in his inimitable, clear, and pointed fashion. I was poised on the edge of my seat ready to head to the closest microphone to ask my colleagues a clear question: When you took your ordination vows hadn’t you already done the requisite exegesis before you said you agreed with the Westminster Standards? Had these men not read the almost five hundred years of exegesis between the time the Westminster Assembly finished its work and the present prior to the 35th General Assembly? Were they not thoroughly convinced that what they were doing in agreeing to the summary of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards was precisely the right thing to do? I know I had done my homework before I signed my name on the dotted line. I had done the same thing with the Three Forms of Unity when I was a pastor in the Dutch churches. How foolish it would have been for me to expect someone else to do the exegesis and necessary investigation of those forms without me doing mine first! I followed the same procedure in Canada.

I preface my remarks this way because it seems to me that as PCA pastors and Ruling Elders we ought to be consciously, consistently, unashamedly, and thankfully Presbyterians. Our churches, therefore, ought to be authentic replicas of what it means to be Presbyterian; to be PCA. Are we ashamed of who and what we are? Do we somehow think that if we “soft pedal” the fact that we are “Presbos” that the cultured despisers, egalitarians, Christian feminists will like us more, better? I certainly got that impression from reading Rev. Sam Downing’s paper on the rationale for hiring Sara Bartley as Minister of Congregational Care at his Denver, CO congregation that he did. Repeatedly (you can go back and check previous issues of Ethos), Rev. Downing tells us—and attempts to convince us—that it was societal pressure that, at least in part, caused City Presbyterian to follow the path it did. So does the culture dictate who and how we are or does being Presbyterian and signing on the dotted line and making a vow vis-à-vis the Scripture, Westminster Standards, and BCO? I understand the concept of contextualization—I’m getting about as weary of hearing about it as I am hearing our illustrious Governor called “the Governator”—but it really can be abused. Moreover, since we are “connected” as PCA churches there are some repercussions for our colleagues when we choose to go such a route. We often, I think, forget this and act in nearly independent or congregational ways.

A congregation in my Presbytery has twice invited a man to speak and then to preach for them who has openly criticized the PCA unfairly and who has leanings towards the Emergent Church and Brian MacLaren, as well as appreciation for aspects of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Personally, I find such a decision unconscionable, but at the very least it has and had a ripple effect for many who wanted to know from me why a PCA church was inviting such a man to speak and preach, especially to a young congregation that wasn’t all that solidly Reformed or Presbyterian in the first place. But this instance is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg as is Rev. Downing’s congregation. Even though were are “connected” as members of the PCA and even though we have vowed to be Presbyterian in our theology and polity it seems that we are more and more chasing after other things.

To clarify what I mean, I’m going to specify two areas where I think some in the PCA are sorely deficient, if not very naïve. First, I think that a number of churches in the PCA seem enamored of a terminally ill if not deceased form of evangelicalism. Second, I believe that another segment of the PCA—and maybe in some instances these are one and the same church—in a vain attempt to be “culturally relevant” or those who “engage the culture,” is falling into the theology of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.

On my flights back from the GA in Memphis I was reading the book Justified in Christ.[1] I’m one of those odd ducks who actually reads forewords and prefaces, and in this particular instance I was pleased to be odd because Sinclair Ferguson wrote a masterful introduction. It’s my intention to use a number of his words to convey—hopefully—to the world and to some of my PCA colleagues that we need to be more PCA and less evangelical rather than the other way around.

He begins this way: “One does not need to be a seer to recognize that evangelicalism today is experiencing a crisis in fragmentation.”[2] That’s a fascinating starting point because when I was working on my M.Div. (1973-1975) I had no problem with being called an evangelical. In fact, if I were allowed to qualify the word, I also didn’t have many problems with being called a Fundamentalist. Now, however, all of that has changed radically and I tend to fear irrevocably. Now, I don’t want to be called an evangelical. You can call me a Christian, Reformed, or Presbyterian—all of those are acceptable—but not an evangelical; not anymore. The word has come to mean everything, which means that it no longer means anything of substance.

In Ferguson’s words, “The map has now changed, perhaps beyond recognition and possibly permanently. The question, ‘What is an evangelical?’ would today receive a wide variety of answers, many of them much less robust than the historical definition.”[3] With all of the evangelical nonsense that is passing for substantive books in the 21st century, Dr. Ferguson wonders what Rick Warren’s sales and tenure on the New York Times bestseller list might have been if he had named his book The Cross-Driven Life.[4]

And yet I have one colleague in my Presbytery that when you called his church a year or so ago you received a voice mail reminding you that the pastor was preaching through The Purpose Driven Life or Forty Days of Purpose or some such other piece of nonsense. Silly old me. I thought we were to preach the gospel as it came to us in Scripture, yet in our desire to accommodate the culture some are willing to latch on to what’s popular in culture and to use that instead of grounding ourselves in the Word of God.[5] This to me is a clear indication that those who signed on the dotted line regarding the ordinary means of grace that God has given the Church of Jesus Christ are reneging. Why in the world would you ever want to preach anything except Scripture? Ferguson laments that many in evangelicalism have stooped to a low level in order to entertain the “troops,” “tribe,” “crowd,” or whatever else is trendy to call the audience today and have disregarded Luther’s cry, “Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Cross, cross’…”[6] Instead, they have substituted, “‘How to’ deal with fears, problems, pain, and low self-esteem, and having a good marriage and raising model children…”[7] This has become the new evangelical agenda and sadly some of the Presbyterians and Reformed have jumped on board.

If they haven’t followed the evangelical church by offering “how to” sermons, they certainly have capitulated to the whims of a society that for the longest time we’ve deemed to be corrupt and immoral. Part of the secularist agenda that crept into the seminaries and churches was that of Feminism. Not only do some women believe that men and society are to bow to them and to cater to them and their desires/requirements, but far too many men today tend to be less masculine than optimal and actually almost effeminate. Sometimes when I talk to some of my male colleagues I feel like I’m talking to a woman. Now hear me well! There is nothing wrong with talking to a woman. I thoroughly enjoy the opposite, gentler, and softer sex. As I’ve mention previously, I have had the privilege to have been in the company and to be in the company of some wonderful women. I just don’t like it when men talk and act like women.

I know, I know what you’re thinking. I hear it all the time. “Well, the reason you say things like that is because you went to a military college, you were a wrestler, you were in the Army, and you were a tank commander.” Wrong! Granted I did all those things, that doesn’t make me PCA-Macho. All the same, however, you don’t have to sound like Mr. Rogers on horse tranquilizers to let everyone know that you’re a pastor. You can still be a man! Plus, I’ve had pastors whine to me that I was too forthright in what I said and how I said it. That’s possible I suppose and I know I have a lot to learn in terms of communication, but those who really know me and who work closest with me don’t tell me that. In some of the instance where I’ve been criticized by young(er) pastors or even older ones I’ve honestly felt like I was conversing with a shrill, catty girl. I want my readers to know that this is not simply a criticism from my part. I’ve had a number of “real women” ask me what is wrong with some of the younger pastors who seem more like “girly men” than men. So I ask you younger pastors who are super-sensitive, “What is your problem?” By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, a man can speak directly, resolutely, and forthrightly without being macho. You also don’t have to be a doormat for every feminist doctrine, ideology, or persona that comes down the pike.

Schleiermacher in Modern Garb

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is rightly called the father of modern, liberal theology. Therefore it stands to reason that those who are “orthodox” don’t want to be aligned with him. But there is a kink in the cable when we are so enthralled with our “seeker sensitive” approach to “doing church” that we are hesitant if not reticent to call ourselves Presbyterian or lay our ecclesiastical cards on the table from the outset. The other problem, as I mentioned earlier, is calling yourself Presbyterian and not acting like you are. I’ll come back to what I mean by that statement in a moment. First, however, I want us to listen to a statement by Sinclair Ferguson that I think aptly summarizes what I’m referring to. He writes, “In his own way, Schleiermacher had patented and branded a ‘seeker sensitive’ theology that (he certainly believed) made the gospel relevant to his contemporaries—’the cultured despisers of religion’ who, under the spell of the Enlightenment had given up on the possibility that Christian doctrine could be true.”[8] Some modern pastors may eschew the Enlightenment, but are in bed with postmodernism.

As I read and re-read Rev. Downing’s article time after time it was evident to me that he was playing to the “cultured despisers” in Denver. It sounded like one grand scheme of accommodation all the while maintaining Presbyterian contours, but you had to wonder if he succeeded in really maintaining them. Rather, it sounded more like compromise and either an unwillingness or inability to articulate what it means to be PCA. I believe it is important to be culturally aware and astute (as much as you can be) as a Christian. We can discuss the ethos and themes of movies, literature, TV shows, all genres of music and a host of other facets of high and pop culture, such as Paris Hilton reading Scripture while in prison but not being able to remember what she read. But all of the cutting edge cultural stuff is penultimate to preaching the whole counsel of God in the gospel.

Ferguson rightly laments that in garden-variety evangelicalism, and especially in modern evangelicalism, “The knowledge of the person and work of Christ, clear thinking about the nature of justification and its grounds, and its relationship to and differences from sanctification—the issues to which Christians in earlier generations had given so much attention—were now regarded as of marginal practical relevance.”[9] That certainly seems to be part of the gyrations that City Presbyterian and Rev. Downing were willing to go through to get their woman “minister,” who, they would have us believe, really isn’t, afterall, a minister, but by calling her a minister City “eliminated a significant barrier…to the gospel.”[10] Rev. Downing is convinced that “we have effectively disarmed the women’s issue in our church[11] In point of fact, they really haven’t/didn’t because when Rocky Mountain Presbytery met on April 27, 2007 there had to be a substitute motion to the main motion. Here is how the main motion read: “That the Presbytery acknowledge that the title ‘minister’ as used in the BCO is synonymous with ‘pastor’ and ‘teaching elder,’ and as such none of these titles may be used to refer to any but ordained teaching elders.”[12] That sounds completely plausible and PCA-esque.

There was, however, a substitute motion to the main motionthat was worded in this fashion: “That the Presbytery acknowledge that the title ‘minister’ as used in the BCO is synonymous with ‘pastor” and ‘teaching elder,’ however (we didn’t have to wait long did we?—RG), that it also acknowledge that the title ‘minister’ has been used in a general or generic manner and in this general way can be used for unordained staff members.”[13] This is accommodation of a bad kind and we are becoming quite adept at it in some quarters of the PCA. All we have to do is “fudge” and “tweak” and we can do what we want to do—in this case a woman “minister”—and swear that we are unashamedly PCA and love the Westminster Standards, and the BCO in the process—generally—and we can make all the substitute motions we want.

This was part of the modus operandi of the FV folks as well wasn’t it? They repeatedly said that they were PCA and held unswervingly to the Westminster Standards—except justification by faith, the covenant of works, pædo-communion, and a few other minor problems.[14] When you talked with them or blogged back in forth with them you got an instant intuition that was crystal clear that you really weren’t talking to someone who upheld the Westminster Standards even though they tried to convince you that they did. It was so evident that, as the Dutch say, you could feel it through your wooden shoes.

Aquila correctly states that there is a mindset in certain sectors of the PCA that he describes as “an ecclesiastical egalitarian spirit.”[15] Moreover, he also asserts that “There is a certain emotional appeal, as opposed to a rational one, that no one in the church should be over anyone else, or appear more important than anyone else. This is an anti-clerical spirit, a word that was even used a number of times in the course of the debate.”[16] And this is precisely the problem. Someone needs to step up to the plate and address this because this anti-clerical spirit is playing to the “cultured despisers.” More than that, the willingness of Rocky Mountain Presbytery—and my own Presbytery—to bend the rules really means that the entire Presbytery is implicated in not holding to Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the BCO on these matters, but few seem to have a stomach to say so. Rather, we grouse behind closed doors and to our closest colleagues all the while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to what is really going on. You can do that—for a while, but the caveat is that eventually it’s going to come around and bite you. The other possibility is chilling: we are PCA, but all the rule bending doesn’t bother us; it’s an acceptable accommodation.

As often as not, we believe that we can bend the rules beyond recognition if we are trying to reach the lost, if we are building our little “empires,” or being PCA is simply a matter of convenience. I’m not certain which it is—if any of these—with Rev. Downing and City Presbyterian in Denver. That’s not for me to say. He has a Presbytery and his colleagues need to speak on the matter; in fact, they already have. I’m not certain that they made the right decision anymore than I believe Rev. Steve Wilkins’ Presbytery did. In fact, I think that they both were wrong. Only time will tell, but if we don’t clarify our position now, we’ll be doing something similar to the FV Ad Interim committee report in the not too distant future regarding women as “ministers” or women as “Ministers.” Given the history of this subject in Holland, Canada, and the United States, it’s not a question of if we’ll have to have this discussion, it’s more a question of when?

[1] K. Scott Oliphant (ed.), Justified in Christ, God’s Plan for Us in Justification, (Fearn, Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2007).

[2] Sinclair Ferguson, “Introduction: The Justification Crisis,” in K. Scott Olipant (ed.), Justified in Christ, God’s Plan for Us in Justification, (Fearn, Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2007), p. vii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., viii.

[5] I’ve also heard evangelical pastors preach on “Are you a type A or type B person?” or on the Mormon Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

[6] Ferguson, Introduction, viii.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., ix.

[9] Ibid., ix-x.

[10] Sam Downing, “The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment: Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic,” p. 3.

[11] Ibid. Italics his.

[12] Dominic Aquila, 1. Used by permission.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For a quick update, see Cal Beisner’s summary “Concluding Comments on the Federal Vision,” in E. Calvin Beiser, (ed.), The Auburn Avenue Theology, (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Seminary, 2004), pp. 305-325. Also, to get a flavor of the Federal Vision view on pædo-communion see George Knight’s excellent article in the same volume refuting it (“1 Corinthiians 11;17-34: The Lord’s Supper: Abuses, Words of Institution and Warnings, with an Addendum on 1 Corinthians 10:16-17,” and Peter Leithart’s rebuttal: “A Response to ‘1 Corinthians 11:17-34: the Lord’s Supper.”

[15] Aquila, 1.

[16] Ibid. Italics mine.