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.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Aftermath of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly (IV)

Defining the Terms

Clarity and precision of language is rapidly becoming a lost art.[1] Modern culture revels in the destruction of the English language and it’s not uncommon to hear a younger person say to an older person, “Sup, dude.” It’s even worse when an older person says it to a younger person. I recently read a sermon by a younger theological who told his audience at least five times that God is “big.” Granted that he is, aren’t their many more biblical terms to explain God’s awesomeness, holiness, righteousness, infinity, eternity, and unchangeableness than “big”?

I say this because the language of the Strategic Plan suffers enormously from imprecision, and this is not something I expect from a committee of educated theologians. While we don’t want to engage in Reformed casuistry, it is substantially more helpful to fill in as many blanks and gaps as we can, especially if we are expected to pass a long-range strategic plan. Nobody wants to pass a proposal and then be told what it actually means, or entails. I call that the Nancy Pelosi approach: “We’re going to have to pass the bill first before we can find out what’s actually in it.” While not verbatim, that is a reasonable paraphrase of Madam Speaker. Is there any wonder the country is in trouble?

Currently, we are examining and trying to unpack the intent of Theme # 1 of the Strategic Plan (Civil Conversation). I noted in a previous issue that this theme is tantamount to breaking down an open door. Civil conversation and discourse must be inherent among those who are true and truly Christians. In other words, civil conversation is not an option, but rather part of the biblical ethos, lifestyle, and worldview. We’ve also investigated the Goal of Theme 1 (Establish places to enter into civil conversations about the best ways to advance the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission), but I want to make just a few more comments before we speak to the Means under Theme 1.

This Goal cannot possibly be as “open-ended” as it sounds. Let me tell you why. The first word in the Goal poses a problem. To “establish” something, anything can mean quite a few different concepts in a person’s mind. Since the committee did not take the time to define the term, let’s simply have recourse to a garden-variety dictionary to help us. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English (you know, like, ‘sup)—note that I’m “big” into current English—defines “establish” in this manner: “set up (a business, system, etc.) on a permanent basis,” “settle (a person or oneself) in some capacity,” “achieve permanent acceptance for (a custom, belief, etc.),” and “place (fact etc.) beyond dispute.” If any or all of these accepted definitions are what the Administrative Committee has in mind, then several questions come to mind rather immediately. First, who will be the person or persons who will “establish” the venues of civil conversation? One might think that what is meant here is something along the lines of the two discussions (certainly neither of these could qualify as debates by any reasonable stretch of the imagination) that were held between Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan. Both discussions were “civil,” but they were also rather like watching curling on TV. (I do like the yelling and broom work in curling. Exciting. Very exciting.)

Question: As “civil” as those conversations were, would there be any possibility of suggestions from other delegates about discussions or debates? Would the AC respond favorably, or does it have absolute authority to set the agenda and define the grounds upon which discussions/debates are to be conducted? I’m just askin’. In part because it has been my experience that the AC, as helpful as it is in other areas, and it is helpful, ignored every one of my emails requesting them to consider taping and putting the proceedings of what they taught stated clerks to do on CD of when I was stated clerk of South Coast Presbytery. It was an impossible turn-around for me, even taking a redeye out of LAX, but I was ignored.

I say this not to “diss” the AC. I’m sure they’re busy, but because it is part and parcel of what might be called a “bureaucracy mentality.” Naturally, those in favor of civil conversations want to avoid such a mentality at all costs—at least, I would think they would. In summary, the word “establish” needs to be tweaked or clarified to elucidate precisely who will establish the places.

This brings me to my next point: The word “places.” I take that word in the sense of venues. I have attended General Assemblies since becoming PCA back in 1995. In that time, quite a few issues have been debated, sometimes vigorously. While each side pressed its respective points, decorum was maintained. Brothers in the Lord may disagree and sometimes disagree sharply, but nothing has ever come to fisticuffs, name-calling, or foul language. It was all quite, well, civil. That being the case, it does make one wonder what is “behind” Goal 1. If we’re already holding civil conversations and have in the past, where is the AC going with this? Is there “more” they want to do? Possibly, yes there is more. In that case, it is incumbent upon those who ostensibly represent us (in some sense) and who represent the PCA to spell out what their ultimate aim is. Doesn’t that seem reasonable, civil, and Christian? If nothing more is meant than what we’ve already been doing, then this is a waste of time; if “more” is intended then the AC needs to give us a list—not a comprehensive list, but certainly a representative list—of what this will look like.

Now let’s focus in on an important phrase in Goal 1: “the best ways.” The AC desires to establish conversations about “the best ways” to the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission. Well, who could object to that? But have we not been aiming at “the best ways” of doing these things in the history of the PCA? If our history in that regard was a bust, then we obviously and clearly need to retool what we’ve been doing. The question, of course, is who gets to participate in the retooling process? Will this be a “top down” here it is, like it or lump it approach or will individual churches and Presbyteries be able to participate? What if some object that what is presented does not constitute “the best ways,” but rather smack of moving left-of-center ways, dubious ways, or pragmatic, non-biblical ways? Will there be representation to allow participation is what these “best ways” are? Or, will the determination be made with a view to Manhattan, Dallas, Atlanta, Jackson, or Birmingham, with total disregard for Rooster Poot, OK, Yellow Knife, Canada (There. I threw a bone to our neighbors to the north. “On, King! On, you big husky!” Remember that? No, some of you don’t. SGT Preston of the Yukon.), Somewhere unpronounceable, SD, or Yorba Linda, CA?

In other words, what are the ground rules that will guide the PCA into “the best ways” to advance the PCA’s desires? M. Stanton Evans once quipped, “The secret of winning a debate is to define the grounds on which it is conducted.”[2] With the necessary changes being made, I’m asking the question who will define the grounds concerning “the best ways”? In order to make a good decision, all the churches and Presbyteries need to have this explained to them.

On the other hand, a rather succinct answer to the definitive grounds of “the best ways” question is merely to answer by say, “The Bible and the Westminster Standards.” Do they not provide us with the grounds for the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission? Am I missing something here? It is both astounding and astonishing that not a word was mentioned about what we already have at our disposal in the Word of God and our creeds. I know, both of those are assumed. Okay, but we certainly don’t find either one mentioned in the Themes, Goals, and Means. If we want to declare that we have always held to Scripture and the Westminster Standards, then what precisely is the origin of our problem? Have we missed the mark so horribly that now we must seek other “ways”? How has leadership missed this for these many years?

Is that an accusation? You bet it is! When I served in the military, the leadership was responsible and the proverbial buck stopped with them. (And those of us who served remember that “it” all ran downhill.) This first Goal is, therefore, a tacit admission that the leadership in the PCA has not done its job or was incapable of doing its job. This combined with the AC’s admission that it has not been able to fix the deplorable financial situation for 36 years gives both pause for reflection and cause for deep concern.

In our next installment, we’ll begin to investigate the three Means in the first Theme. I’ll give you a little insight into what I’ll be discussing under Means # 3, when it speaks about “culture-changing” ideas. We’re going to ask some serious questions about the essential nature of culture and see if we can get a workable and working definition of what that is and what it is not. In certain quarters of the PCA, we are reminded that we are to be “engaging the culture.” What does that mean concretely and specifically? I have an upcoming article in the Festschrift that I am privileged to co-edit with Gary Johnson for David Wells. The article is on Herman Bavinck’s views on God’s revelation and culture. I will use excerpts from that article to firm up what culture is. I will also ask a number of pastors in the PCA precisely how they are training their congregations to engage the culture. It’s one thing to tell them to do it; it’s quite another thing to equip them to do it. If your pastor hasn’t told you clearly what culture is and how you’re supposed to transform it or engage it, invite him to teach a Sunday School class to explain to you what culture is.

[1] See John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, (NY: Gotham, 2003).

[2] M. Stanton Evans, Clear and Present Dangers, (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, Inc., 1975), p. 203.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Aftermath of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly (III)

The Church & Politics; Politics & the Church

I had a very liberal professor of ethics when I studied at the Free University of Amsterdam whose name was Harry Kuitert. Most of what he wrote and said was way left of center. He did, however, write one book that bore a fascinating title. Translated it was called Everything is Political, but Politics Isn’t Everything (Alles is politiek maar politiek is niet alles).[1]

There were many speakers from the floor of the General Assembly in Nashville this year who commented that the 2010 Strategic Plan read more like a piece of sociology than it did a biblical plan for moving forward in a conservative Presbyterian affiliation. In the case of “brothers dealing with brothers,” this problem would have been very easy to remedy of course. It seems to me that the request for more explicit biblical backing in the Strategic Plan was not unreasonable, especially in light of the fact that it was demonstrated that exceedingly scant scriptural reference was contained in the 2003 draft of the Strategic Plan. As I said, this was easy to remedy among brothers in the Lord. What came across—at least to me—was a somewhat heavy-handed, top-down response which, to my way of thinking was both unnecessary as well as uncalled for.

Read the Plan!

For those of us who read the plan (apparently, not all did, but rather were prepared simply to “trust the leadership” and vote as the leadership urged them), having some scriptural backing at key points would most definitely have enhanced both the plan itself and the process of discussion. One can only wonder why there was such resistance to going back to the “drawing board.” Without being ridiculous about simply adding Scripture or being overwrought, the plan could have been greatly enhanced by indicating that the intent and purpose of the plan was to point the PCA in a biblical direction moving forward.

Having been delegated by a local Session and failing to read the Strategic Plan is both unconscionable and irresponsible. In order to facilitate the delegate’s understanding of the plan, PCA headquarters even published a yellow highlighted version on the PCA’s web site. It really doesn’t get much easier or more accommodating than that! Knowing that this was going to be a major item on the agenda, some delegates failed (miserably) to do their requisite homework. I trust they will never allow something like this to happen again.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I refer to scriptural references: I am not referring to some “over the top” proof-texting mentality, nor do I think the other delegates who requested more biblical backing were requiring that either. In other words, we were not expecting a spate of Scripture quotes at the end of every sentence of the plan. On the other hand, it would have been helpful, for example, to explain Theme #3. “In God’s Global Mission. A summary of the proposed means is to provide internal means and will to make the PCA a significant contributor to God’s Global Mission (including learning from the global church, as well as unifying ourselves to minister to and with the global church).” (Emphasis added.)

Since I spoke to this particular “Theme” on the floor of GA, allow me a moment to recap what I said. First, some scriptural reference as to precisely how the PCA was going to provide means and will, internal or otherwise, to make the PCA a significant contributor to God’s Global Mission would have gone a long way. Are we simply going to accomplish that by fiat? By declaration? What are the means that are going to be used? Who is going to decide what those means are and are not? Hasn’t the PCA been striving arduously and manfully to be a significant contributor to missions in the past? How is this going to be different? What have we missed in the past that has caused us to be so derelict and delinquent in our duties as far as missions is concerned? Furthermore, as I stated at GA, who will determine precisely what the address of “the global church” is? Is there, de facto, such an address? If there is, why haven’t we been knocking on the door of the global church before? Who will determine what the PCA incorporates from the global church? Who will judge the judges who will decide what we keep and what we jettison from the global church? I’m just askin’, because it seems to me that these are very important questions than demand answers if we are to move forward together. Lord willing, I’ll come back to this in subsequent installments.

So the first general objection to the Strategic Plan is an egregious lack of scriptural support for a plan that expects and requires a great deal from the PCA moving forward. If this is to be a strategic plan of an ecclesiastical organization, which it is, then one could, and should, expect scriptural bases for what is being said and planned. In other words, as we all well know, there is a lot at stake in this plan. It has far-reaching implications and applications to and for the PCA. If the Administration Committee had been willing to recommit the plan for closer scrutiny, it would have gone a long way with the “large minority.” Besides, this plan verges on being one of the biggest “top down” movements since I’ve been in the PCA (1995). Besides, one has to wonder, “What’s the rush? Why this and why this now?” The unwillingness to take the plan back and tweak it raises suspicions. Those suspicions might be unwarranted, but a very large minority of the delegates were not pleased. Therefore, don’t continue to push forward. Go back, improve it, and bring it back next time.

Are We Missing Something?

After all, the country is in the midst of a rather large economic downturn and reliable economists, even within the Obama administration, are cautiously predicting that following the current economic path could have disastrous, indeed cataclysmic, effects on the U.S. dollar. Again, some are already writing about the “taxation” proposal included in the Strategic Plan, and, like it or not, the proposed plan includes a tax.

But there is another important point that the Administration Committee seems to be missing or ignoring, or both. What is that? I have in my possession—therefore I believe other PCA Sessions should have it as well—a document entitled “A Funding Plan Model for the PCA Administrative Committee/Office of the Stated Clerk.” The first step of explanation reads as follows: “Why do we need a new plan for funding the Administrative Committee?” That is a very good and honest question and most certainly one that deserves not only an answer, but also the input of a number of PCA congregations.

The second paragraph of this step-by-step explanation states, “In the PCA, only 45% of our churches currently give to the Administrative Committee and only about 16% give the full Partnership Share. After 36 years of trying to make the current funding system work reasonably, the PCA Administrative Committee has never made full budget.” (p. 1.) Those are major problems, so let’s carefully take them in turn. Less that half of all PCA churches give anything to the AC. That is a major concern. It begs the question: Why is that? Obviously, there could be a number of reasons for this phenomenon. The first one that comes to mind is that many PCA churches are relatively small and simply believe that they cannot afford to pay the full Partnership Share. Like many households, these smaller congregations of Christ have to make choices and, at times, these are hard choices.

Second, it could very well be that some churches are quite capable of paying but have paid so little attention to detail that they are not even aware that such a Partnership Share exists. If the remainder of Presbyteries are anything like the one I’m in, the interest level for such topics is practically nil. In fact, after over twenty years, a number of congregations in my Presbytery still don’t know where the checks go for the Presbytery fund and for the Presbytery Stated Clerk. Even if you take the time to explain that to every Presbytery, there are those who arrive late and others who leave early, and often these are the same people.

Third, there are churches that could pay but do not, not because they cannot afford it, but simply because they don’t want to pay or because they don’t feel all that “connected” in and to the PCA. For these congregations, “connectionalism” means little or nothing. This is a very serious problem and after 36 years, I would have expected the AC to have “blown the whistle” on those churches who were not willing to pony up anything (much) for the AC or the other PCA committees for that matter. Thus, my suggestion to the AC is that, for the sake of discussion at the Presbytery level, a list is published of established churches that are delinquent in paying their Partnership Share. This could be a very revealing undertaking. Until such a list is published and there is greater disclosure, the PCA is not served well. If we have this longstanding problem, we need to know where the problem areas are so that we can begin to deal with them more effectively at both the Presbytery and local congregational levels. Not to make this disclosure is simply to put more pressure on congregations that are at least paying something. When church planters attend the Assessment Center, how much time and attention is given to Partnership Shares in the course of time the planters and their wives are at the Center? I’m just askin’.

Given the gravity and magnitude of this dire situation (16%), I would have thought that more time would be devoted to remedying this untenable situation and encouraging the other 84% to make some concerted, measurable efforts to get on board, to get with the program. It does seem rather odd that those who are already paying are going to receive a heavier burden or be penalized for having been faithful in giving their Partnership Share. This seems like a good way to lose a great deal of support rather than garnering more. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, some Sessions might have very good cause for withholding part of the Partnership Share. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s worthwhile to mention it again: My Session has intentionally withheld a portion of our Partnership Share from a particular PCA committee precisely because that committee has repeatedly ignored us. We have sent emails and we get no reply. I expect that from Loretta Sanchez’s office, but not from a PCA committee. Therefore, the Session decided to give the AC double. Yet because of the “16% Rule” we still get letters from the AC near year’s end to send more.

It seems to me that this situation can be easily remedied and it is largely a budgetary matter. If my family budget has been operating in the red for thirty-six years I would be one very embarrassed head of my household. It would be totally justifiable for the elders to come and visit me and ask me why I had not asked for help or why I had not made lifestyle adjustments to protect my family against this circumstance. In short, I should have been mature enough to understand that something was dreadfully wrong and that I needed to make adjustments to rectify the situation. That’s the way households operate—at least the stable ones. Can a family have a few bad years and run up some credit card debt if they hit a “rough patch.” Sure. But thirty-six years just doesn’t seem right, does it? It seems all the more wrong and wrongheaded when item II in the Funding Plan Model discusses ways it would require Churches, Teaching Elders, and Presbyteries to give.

Would anyone at the AC be in favor of implementing this same type of plan at the Presbytery and congregational levels? I’m interested, because when I was Treasurer of my Presbytery hardly any congregation—except four—would have had any vote at all at the Presbytery level. Should “no pay, no play” be applied to voting for candidates on the floor of Presbytery? Or whether a church planter’s airfare to the Assessment Center” should be covered by Presbytery funds? How about if non-paying TEs can vote on BCO amendments sent by the AC? Should Sessions get a list from the church treasurer prior to a congregational meeting in order to ascertain who can vote and who cannot? Or, should the elders and deacons provide pastoral oversight so that those who are somewhat financially strapped can learn to be good biblical stewards with all that the Lord has entrusted into their care? The answer is obvious.

My financial advisor said to me one day that money is a very emotional issue. He was right. It tends to get less emotional when you’re spending someone else’s money. There were some pleas from the floor of GA for our PCA committees further to curb spending. This is not to say that they haven’t made efforts in that direction. They have; we all have, haven’t we? Sessions have pared back congregational budgets in attempts to save in this economic downturn. I would imagine that every congregation has had to do this to one degree or another. Rather than upping the ante in the “Pay or you don’t play” Strategic Plan, one might reasonably expect some efforts or discussion concerning how the PCA might attract more of those congregations not in attendance to attend. In addition, we might want to put our heads together to contemplate why so few PCA congregations pay any amount to headquarters vis-à-vis the “askings.” Which congregations are they and what is being done to get them prayerfully to (re)consider their unwillingness or inability to give?

Moreover, is there any provision in the Strategic Plan for those who have faithfully contributed in the past? Are they cut any slack? If not, why not? If so, what will that look like? Economically, this plan is a “flat liner” that has no provision for those who have contributed their fair share. In point of fact, there has hardly been a thank you expressed. What I gathered from the floor is that one member basically told us that the plan was fair, so be quiet and pay up. That’s crassly put, but honestly, that’s how it came across to me. The responses were rather heavy-handed, along the lines of “if you don’t pay up, it’s going to accumulate and maybe we’ll negotiate some sort of agreement with you.” Question: Where does the Administration Committee or any committee for that matter, derive the power and authority to withhold a properly ordained TE or RE from voting? Would someone please show me that in the BCO? I am willing to be corrected, but if I cannot be shown “chapter and verse,” I will not comply. If solid evidence for such a procedure is not available, then this is an egregious power grab and apologies to faithful pastors and other elders are in order.

[1] H.M. Kuitert, Alles is politiek maar politiek is niet alles, (Baarn: Ten Have, 19854).


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Aftermath of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly (II)

Items for Approval at the 38th General Assembly

The dust is settling over Nashville in the aftermath of the 38th General Assembly and those of us who attended and participated actively were given a lot to think about. My favorite theologian, Dr. Herman Bavinck, taught me that it’s quite easy to criticize, tear down, and critique, but if you’re going to do that, you really need to have a viable, workable alternative to what you’re being so negative about. Good, sagacious advice. Therefore, I want to take his advice to heart, along with the plea of my colleague and classmate from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Tim Keller, not to “lop off” one of the “branches” currently within the PCA. That is to say, as I reflect upon the various “Themes” that were presented in the Strategic Plan along with the attending “Goals” and “Means,” I want to work constructively.

The Strategic Plan presented the meeting with three “Themes”: “Civil Conversations,” (which replaced the wording to have “safe” places for conversations), “Increased Involvement,” and “In God’s Global Mission.” Let’s take a moment and rehearse the “Goals” of each of those “Themes.” Under the theme of “Civil Conversations” the goal reads as follows: “Establish places to enter into civil conversations about the best ways to advance the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission.”

Theme # 2: “Increased Involvement” explains its goal this way: “Increase involvement by providing more opportunities to utilize greater variety of people and life experiences (especially younger leaders, women, ethnic leaders, and global church representatives) in the discussions concerning PCA ministry direction and development.”

Finally, Theme # 3: “In God’s Global Mission” explains what it is aiming at with these words: “Find ways to participate corporately in God’s Global Mission with exemplary unity, humility and effectiveness, bringing sound biblical understanding to the largest expansion of Christianity in world history.”

Admirable Goals

These are certainly admirable goals, but as I stated on the floor of General Assembly as well as in my various writings, many of these goals constitute little more than breaking down open doors. That is to say, I would be surprised, shocked, and astounded if conservative Presbyterian pastors and their Sessions were not already attempting just these very things in their respective local congregations. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that some are derelict and/or deficient in their pastoral duties and undertakings and are not creating an atmosphere in their respective congregation where “civil conversations” can occur. What should be done?

A preliminary and obvious Christian response to such a situation should be: What is wrong in this congregation that civil, Christian conversations cannot be undertaken? Barring that, shouldn’t our first recourse be to allow the many biblical texts pass in review that speak so clearly to us about “civil conversations” and to form and inform us? In other words, in any an all situations, shouldn’t our first recourse be to Scripture?

In his commentary on Romans 16:17-20, John Stott gives us a piece of helpful advice in the form of three tests to apply. He writes, “Here then are three valuable tests to apply to different systems of doctrine and ethics—biblical, Christological and moral tests. We could put them in the form of questions about any kind of teaching we come across. Does it agree with Scripture? Does it glorify the Lord Christ? Does it promote goodness?”[1] This is very sound counsel and who in the PCA is not concerned about what the Word of God says? When I read the Administration Committees yellow-highlighted version of the Strategic Plan, I was well pleased to read that the PCA is faithful to Scripture, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.

It was a little ironic however that it was pointed out that this Strategic Plan seems to be lacking in scriptural references. Therefore, perhaps it can be bettered if verses from the Bible are present. This is a small request and I simply cannot imagine any PCA TE or RE not wanting to add such texts. I am also suggesting that PCA congregations that are struggling with the biblical application of conducting “civil conversations” among their members might benefit from this as well.

If, for example, a member of a local PCA church is somewhat flummoxed as to precisely how such a civil conversation might be conducted, we could point him or her to a biblical text such as Colossians 4:6 that reads, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” In fact, I’m convinced that this should be added as one of those pesky “proof-texts” that can help move us forward in more clearly defining the exact nature of a civil conversation.

Or, if youngish pastors thought it chic to employ crasser, fouler language in order to manifest just how genuine and transparent they are, we might suggest that they take a hard look at 1 Timothy 4:12, where Paul gives this pastoral advice to his friend and to the Church: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers and example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” If both of those attempts failed, we should point the entire congregation to what the Apostle writes in Titus 2:1-8.[2]

We might even add such texts from the book of Proverbs such as Proverbs 12:18, showing the effects of negative (uncivil) conversation, and how the wise use of one’s tongue brings “healing.”[3] Other texts in Proverbs and the Old Testament wisdom literature come to mind such as Proverbs 15:1, 26; 16:24; 17:27; 18:4, 8; 23:7-8; 29:20; Ecclesiastes 5:2; and 12:10, just to mention a few. In fact, TEs and REs will discover a veritable embarrassment of riches to aid them in teaching their congregations about biblical discourse. If I am not being presumptuous, I would suggest that these three texts be added to the final document of the Strategic Plan since these scriptures give a clear picture of what the rather vague phrase “civil conversations” actually means.

If I may add a personal note—and since I’m writing this, I give myself permission—it seems as if I must be missing something in the Strategic Plan’s appeal. I deal with all ages (we are truly multigenerational as opposed to mono-generational) in my local congregation, as well as with various ethnicities (Hungarian, German, Romanian, Canadian, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hispanic, as well as Caucasians from all over the United States) and we simply have not had to deal with uncivil conversations—ever. Without advertizing ourselves as an “all nations” congregation, the Lord has blessed us with a true biblical diversity.

These people came to Grace because of the Word of God and for no other reason. In other words, they want to obey the Lord and follow his revealed truth. They delight in discovering the will of God for their lives, and then applying that revealed will in their daily lives. We encourage God’s ways of living all of life. That is our practical wisdom. If I may cite the words of the Gospel of Moses—and I may because it’s my article—in the “song” that God gave him, he says the following in Deuteronomy 32:46-47: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” No, we don’t have those telling us that they’re seekers, because we’re convinced that not every unbeliever is a seeker. In fact, according to Scripture no one except those saved by grace is a seeker of the true and living God and his ways. (Cf. Rom. 3:10-11.)

Truly, we are blessed, but I cannot help but think that any pastor and Session worth their salt would not allow uncivil conversations to occur. Spiritual oversight requires such shepherding of God’s people. This doesn’t mean that we always have to agree on every subject. We don’t. But it does mean that there is a “civility” taught and demanded in Scripture, and that those claims must be impressed upon God’s people wherever and whoever those people are.

Let me humbly suggest that what is most needed in these (and all) circumstances is to instruct all of our members to have and to help them attain a thoroughly biblical life and worldview concerning God, man, society, truth, knowledge, and ethics and then to apply that biblical worldview in their daily lives. We must pastorally facilitate their efforts and spiritual growth/maturity if they are not aware of what constitutes “civil conversations/discourse.” Two of the most helpful extra-biblical books I’ve read on this subject is a translation of Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls[4] and Willem van ‘t Spijker’s The Church’s Book of Comfort.[5] Truly these works do not supplant Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, but rather they will supplement and augment it.

No Taboo Subjects & Civil Conversations

Is it possible to allow the members of your congregation to talk to you about anything, for you to take an opposite position from theirs, and still have a civil conversation? I believe it is. I cannot speak for all my colleagues, so allow me to tell you how I try to create such an atmosphere. My congregation knows that as far as I am concerned as their pastor there are no “taboo” subjects at Grace Presbyterian Church. They can talk to me about anything they want to. Our conversation will be both “safe” (the old term) and “civil.” They also know that as we talk about anything that my reply to them will be based on Scripture. Safe and civil does not mean that I must agree with them or condone evil. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Jennifer Knapp is a member of my congregation, which she isn’t.

She comes to me and wants to talk about being a Christian and being in an eight-year lesbian relationship. Can we talk “safely” and “civilly”? Of course we can. If Jennifer tells me that she is a Christian, I will press the claims of Scripture upon her and expect her to respond as a (mature or maturing) Christian. She might not like what I tell her, but it is incumbent upon me to point her to the Word of God and let her know that ultimately her beef is not with me, but with God. She needs to be reminded and warned that all of God’s judgments are just and done in faithfulness to the covenant of grace (cf. Pss. 96:11-13; 98:8-9; Rev. 19:1-2).

“But wait!” someone objects. “Don’t you run the risk of not being able to present the gospel to her if you follow this procedure?” My answer is a definite and emphatic “No!” By telling her what the Bible says—in this case about female homosexuality—you are already presenting her with the gospel, aren’t you? Can you not civilly speak to her and show her the pertinent scriptural texts and let her know that the Lord Jesus died on the cross to cover homosexual’s sins just as he did other sins? Doesn’t the Word of God clearly teach that whoever truly repents of his or her sins will be received by the Lord? Because the Lord Jesus Christ loves us and wants the best for us, he doesn’t want us to remain in our sins, but rather to repent of them and to live for him the way he prescribes.

The form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, taken from the church order of Dort, gives us a very good insight into what I’m saying. As it discusses true “Self-examination” prior to communing it says this: “Second let everyone search his heart whether he also believes the sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and that the perfect righteousness of Christ is freely given him as his own, as if he himself had fulfilled all righteousness.” The shorter version of this form says the following in the section dealing with Invitation and Admonition: “All who by the grace of God repent of their sins, desiring to fight against their unbelief and live according to God’s commandments, will certainly be received by God at the table of his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Then a warning follows: “But to all who do not truly grieve over their sins and do not repent from them, we declare that they have no part in the Kingdom of Christ. We admonish them to abstain from the holy supper; otherwise their judgment will be the heavier.” Heavy handed? Not really. It’s certainly neither sappy nor saccharine, but it is, simultaneously, truly the loving admonition and the right thing to say. Oh, sure. It would be easier just to “let it go” or “not to make waves,” but that would be the unloving thing to do and Jennifer would go happily into perdition thinking that her pastor is really genuine and understands the struggles of the man and woman in the pew.

Commenting on Romans 16:17, Thomas Schreiner reminds us that Paul’s motivation there and in the rest of his letters was that those who were at fault “will repent and be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).”[6] Schreiner continues, “Stern words of warning are not incompatible with a heart of love and compassion.”[7]

Along similar lines, Robert Haldane equates obedience with the reception of the gospel.[8] He goes on to assert that for bona fide Christians, this obedience applies “to their readiness in receiving everything taught by the authority of God.”[9] Moreover, “The same authority that requires obedience to the Gospel, requires also obedience to every ordinance and precept. It is the greatest praise to any church or individual to obey cheerfully, with a childlike disposition, whatever the Word of God teaches.”[10] Isn’t this exactly what we should say to Jennifer Knapp, her four golden dove awards notwithstanding? Civilly, of course.

[1] John Stott, Romans, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 400. Emphasis added.

[2] But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the Word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.

[3] There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

[4] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, (Peter Beale [trans.]), (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009).

[5] Willem van ‘t Spijker (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009).

[6] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), p. 802.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Robert Haldane, The Epistle to the Romans, (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 19664), p. 643.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. Emphasis added.


Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Aftermath of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly (I)

Response Rather Than Reaction

Now that I’m back in Southern California, where people are reasonable and normal, I have the time to reflect upon the proceedings of the PCA’s 38th General Assembly. In one sense, that assembly has the possibility of becoming a watershed, depending upon—in Sesame Street language—what happens next. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.

Since returning, I have benefitted greatly from articles written by Teaching Elders Don Clements and David Hall. I am privileged to call them both friends. Before I deal with their articles on this year’s GA, I want to give a bit of a “run up” to what transpired on the floor of the assembly. This part will be taken from my notes and will not stand the test of a verbatim record.

The Duncan/Keller Discussion

On Wednesday evening, June 30th, Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller spoke to a packed house about the need for the PCA to stay together. Apparently, someone was thinking that the PCA might split, so it was decided to have an amicable meeting where two leaders in the PCA discussed this need to remain as one body. Although I have not heard this type of overt speech (civil discourse) in the PCA, it is quite possible that some have been floating trial balloons on this issue.

Whatever the case, I am going to begin by giving you my impressions of the discussion, which, by the way , was quite civil and, at times, quite funny. My colleague and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary classmate, Tim Keller, began by citing three “theologies” described, if I’m not mistaken, by George Marsden. Those theologies are “doctrinalist,” “pietist,” and “culturalist.”

The term “doctrinalist” is somewhat self-explanatory. There are a number of these folk in the PCA and might very well be represented by the TR (Truly Reformed) crowd. As the description suggests, doctrine is very important to this group.

The pietists, Keller explained, stress “core doctrines” over “secondary doctrines.” This was said in passing and no specific examples were given of either category, which might have been helpful. But just like John Calvin’s reference to “fundamental” and “non-fundamental” doctrines in the Christian faith, this can be somewhat helpful until parties in the discussion attempt to pinpoint what is fundamental/core and non-fundamental/secondary. At least there is historical precedence I suppose.

Culturalists are open to the “new” and most recent scholarship. Since Keller mentioned that culturalists have an affinity with Anglicans, I took this as a veiled reference to N.T. Wright. Apart from the Anglican slant, not too long ago it might have been conceivable that the culturalists were open to the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, John A.T. Robinson, or Joseph Fletcher.

A plea was then issued for the current PCA not to move our “original boundary markers.” He called for us to stop impugning motives to each other as well as to learn from and “flavor” (Tim’s term) each other. This admonition/plea was accompanied by a request not to seek to “lop off” any one of these “theologies.” I took that message to heart and hoped that others did as well. Apparently, I was wrong, however. That is to say, I am not certain that everyone at this year’s General Assembly took it to heart, and I’ll tell you why.

A Kind of “Lopping Off”

In his July 2, 2010 article, “How to Deal with a Large Minority—My Opinion of the Strategic Plan Process in the PCA,” Don Clements cited the PCA Book of Church Order, Chapter 20-5, which reads, “On the election of a pastor, if it appears that a large minority of the voters are adverse to the candidate who has received a majority of votes, and cannot be induced to concur in the call, the moderator shall endeavor to dissuade the majority from prosecuting it further; but if the electors be nearly or quite unanimous, or if the majority shall insist upon their right to call a pastor, the moderator shall proceed to draw a call in due form, and to have it subscribed by them, certifying at the same time in writing the number of those who do not concur in the call, and any facts of importance, all of which proceedings shall be laid before the Presbytery, together with the call.” (Emphasis added.)[1]

Clements cites two crucial standing count votes of 507-366 (42%) to invite “younger generation leaders onto GA boards and committees and 425-409 (49%) dealing with alternative credentialing from “disadvantaged constituencies, enabling them to attain the same ordination standards expected of a traditional M.Div. seminary graduate. Even though 20-5 speaks about the election of a pastor by a congregational vote, surely the principle of “large minority” applies. Even if by some rigorous standard someone wants to argue that this only applies to a congregation electing a pastor, then surely Tim Keller’s request not to “lop off” one of the theologies existing in the PCA must come into play.

If the plea that was given to us on Wednesday applied on Wednesday, why didn’t it apply on Thursday? Given the percentages of 42% and 49% respectively, why didn’t some pietist or culturalist rush to a microphone and say something like this: “Brothers, given the large minority of the ‘doctrinalists’ (or whoever they were) voting against these proposals, I urge the meeting to cease and desist on these measures and reconsider recommitting this to the Administration Committee for further study”? Would that have been unreasonable? Put a different way: would it not have been in keeping with what Keller pled for on Wednesday evening? Surely, it would have been.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. Instead, the chairman leading the meeting in the Strategic Plan encouraged us, in the words of John F. Kennedy, to go to the moon, figuring out how to get there on the way. This was disconcerting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, one might have reasonably expected something more biblical than a quote by a womanizing former-President. I think we could have done a lot better than that. Of course, the quote was not impromptu, but rather was planned as it was thrown up on the “big screen.” Too bad it wasn’t in 3-D. That would have really been cool.

Second, that statement about figuring out how to get to the moon while we’re underway is chilling. In reality, it smacks of what our Congress has done rather repeatedly lately, namely, passing bills before reading them. Clements tells an anecdotal story that is quite informative. A Ruling Elder said to him that it appeared that a “lot of men…did not trust the leadership of the church.”[2] What he said next was quite disturbing; “He said that he and others he knew had not even read the Strategic Plan, let alone carefully [studied] it before coming to the Assembly, but rather were just voting because they trusted the leadership.”[3]

That sends a chill up my spine and not the kind of “tingle up the leg” that Chris Matthews used to get when talking about President Obama. So let’s break this down a little. Out of the 1,700 PCA congregations, less than half (750) attended General Assembly, with only 333 Ruling Elders present. How many of the delegates had read, studied, and comprehended the very far-reaching implications and applications of the 2010 Strategic Plan? I don’t know. I’m just askin’. But if the RE that spoke to Don Clements is in any way indicative and representative of the 2010 delegates we’ve got problems—big problems. We simply cannot assume things. Should we trust our leadership? Of course we should, but not to the extent that we do not fulfill our responsibilities to be informed delegates.

In our next installment, I want to take a look at a term that is being used in the PCA currently to describe a portion of pastors, elders, and congregations: progressive. I’m going to suggest that this term has political, historical underpinnings and involves quite a bit more, for example, than merely calling illegal aliens “undocumented workers.” I will further suggest that as the term was applied politically that it described a “top down” hierarchy that is beginning to typify some in the PCA “bureaucracy.” I noted to a friend during GA that since coming into the PCA in 1995 I have noticed that some in PCA headquarters are beginning to act with autonomy and impunity towards those who disagree with them or challenge. In some cases, these bureaucracies have taken on a life of their own and similarly to their political counterparts, seem to ignore those who have placed them in positions of leadership.

[1] This article can be located at

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid.