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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 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.



Blogger taiwanchurch said...

We have no authority simply because we pass a piece of legislation at a General Assembly getting a majority of votes. We have not the authority to hold people and churches accountable simply from passing a strategic plan.

The only authority we have is the Word of God and that precisely is what we must preach.

I think leaving off any Scripture references really does empty an plan of power, relevance or authority.

- Joel H. Linton

7:47 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Very well said. Thanks.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

Very, very interesting, as Arte Johnson used to say on "Laugh In." I am thankful that pastors like you are standing for truth and keeping a watchful eye open.

When reading about the "safe place" for conversation, one thing I immediately thought of was the way Marxist-style dialecticians worm their way into organizations (including church and parachurch groups) by insisting on "dialogue." By that, they mean endless repetitions of "thesis, antithesis and synthesis," all the while being "facilitated" and "moderated" into going the way the dialectician wants to go all along.

I am all for discussion to a point. I am happy to educate those who don't know what God's Word says on an issue. However, I am not willing to argue endlessly about it. After a time, debate, discussion and "dialogue" are over. You have to get to the point where "this is what God's Word says and means. Period. Now deal with it." Not having their "dialogue" sends the dialectician into a hissy fit, but it couldn't happen to nicer people.

As an aside, in reference to Jennifer Knapp, as she was a Christian singer for so long, one assumes that she knows what the Gospel is. If she doesn't, what an indictment!

7:40 AM  

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