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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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’…” Instead, they have substituted, “‘How to’ deal with fears, problems, pain, and low self-esteem, and having a good marriage and raising model children…” 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.” 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.” 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.” Rev. Downing is convinced that “we have effectively disarmed the women’s issue in our church” 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.” 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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.”
Labels: Christian Feminism