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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

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

Theme # 2: Increased Involvement

This second Theme carries with it a Goal, a General Means, and 6 Specific Means. Therefore we might expect the type of precision we’ve been expecting from such a far-reaching document. We’ll have to wait and see.

Before with launch into a foray into what our leaders have presented to us, I’d like to make three anecdotal comments. Yesterday, the church received a package from MNA. It was quite informative, but what struck me was the color printing and size of the mailing. We, no doubt, received fewer copies of the mailing because of the size of our congregation, but the enclosed material had to be quite expensive to print. Now no one wants this material to look like it was put together by a kindergarten class, but simultaneously with PCA headquarters talking about running deficits, one might think that they’d consider a less expensive mailing.

This comes under the category of, “Yes, honey, we’d love to buy that Lear Jet, but we just cannot afford it right now. Just wait until the royalties from the Herman Bavinck biography start rolling in and I’ll write the check for $15 million.” There are those of us who would like to see evidence that since our congregations are feeling the impact of the economic downturn that our headquarters committees “feel our pain” and are also willing to tighten their spending belts too, rather than acting like a bureaucracy from a socialistic country that continues to spend even when there is no money, or when you’re operating at a deficit. That in the first place.

My second anecdotal comment is serious, but important, for a number of reasons. This comment has to do with an itemized list of PCA church-by-church giving to, among other things, the AC. Someone I know well collected the giving data for 2009 of all the PCA churches in all the Presbyteries. I was disheartened that the Administrative Committee had not given us these numbers themselves, because they are telling, to put it very mildly. In the columns designated “AC Committee Contributions” and “Total Contributions” there were excessive numbers of congregations with “$0.00” in both columns—many of these congregations vociferously “missional.” Someone needs to give the PCA a hard and fast definition of precisely what “missional” means, especially in light of these numbers.

The $0.00 is totally understandable for young, new church plants or congregations that are quite small, but substantially less acceptable for longer-standing congregations. Is it that those congregations just don’t know what they’re supposed to give, don’t open their mail from headquarters, or that they’re more concerned with being “missional” than they are contributing what the rest of the congregations contribute as those churches in good standing in the PCA?

My observation and conclusion in reading the 2009 “stats” was that many of the PCA that are the most vociferous about being missional give zero to the AC. Let me elaborate for a moment, because in some sense I have sympathy for some who refuse to contribute to certain PCA committees. In addition, I cannot from here decide why they are not giving to the support of the PCA committees. I have written this before, but it warrants repeating: My own congregation has withheld money to certain PCA committees precisely because of the manner in which they operate and refuse to communicate with certain local congregations. It was an unanimous Session decision to do so. Since we’re all big boys and girls (commissioned girls, mind you; not ordained!), why don’t we get this out on the table? I am convinced that getting this out for an open, honest, and frank discussion is a necessary step if we plan to move forward in working out our current dilemma.

A number of years ago, the Session of Grace became disgruntled with the manner in which MNA “parachuted” church planters into our neighborhoods. We were not informed they were coming or who they were. We were only informed that they had attended the Assessment Center and had the PCA Good Housekeeping seal of approval—which we learned was not always a good thing. In short, their arrival came as a surprise and sometimes they were not a good “fit,” tending to operate autonomously, were paid ridiculously high salaries for recent seminary graduates (close to six figures), and tended not to be very Presbyterian at all, and that’s just for starters. We tried to talk to MNA about the problem, but simply got the cold shoulder. We were dismayed by the way we were treated. As a result, we voted with money by withholding MNA’s portion of our askings, but we gave that portion to the AC. Even so, we get letters from the AC near year’s end asking if we give more askings. There’s a lot of asking going on.

Of the “failed” MNA church plants in our Presbytery, you can count on one hand the number of people that remained PCA—and have fingers left over. We attempted to explain to headquarters and the regional MNA rep that congregations on the Left Coast are, at best, “fledgling” and, as often as not, the parachuted planter landed between two congregations that were trying to become more established in a very difficult place to minister. Our pleas went unheeded. What is the current actuality now?

Well, of those churches planted by MNA in our Presbytery—one plant and 11-12 un-Presbyterian “site” churches, the grand total of donations to the AC for 2009 was a whopping $0.00. The total to all other committees in the PCA from these same churches totaled $4,800, or $400/congregation. The combined budgets for these churches approximated $4,000,000.00 (without TARP, bailout money, or any of the $26.1 billion the current administration just added to our tax burden). One might think that the AC would want to address this egregious, glaring discrepancy before embarking on a plan to tax those churches who have faithfully contributed in the past.

By God’s grace, my home congregation has contributed the required “askings” since we learned this was part of being PCA. How is that working out now? The actual figures for 2009 is that our congregation is $200.00 short of paying more to the AC than every particularized church in South Coast Presbytery combined. It is time to get all this out on the table and deal with it. I’m willing to wager that if we went back into the records to, say, 2005, we would discover these congregations didn’t contribute anything then. Now, the AC wants us to pay a tax. This is mass punishment. It would seem that the leadership might want to sit down and have a heart-to-heart, man-to-man, face-to-face conversation with some of these congregations before they threaten mass punishment in the form of an unfair and unwarranted ecclesiastical tax. What would the justification be for such a precedent? If the AC is having monetary problems, how difficult would it be for them to address these gaps in the “askings?” The AC could, for example, speak directly to the delinquent congregations, irrespective of pastor or congregation size. Certainly, it is not the case in the PCA that all are equal, but some are more equal than others, is it? Let me be very specific, precise, and crystal clear about what I mean. If you check the records of giving, one very prominent congregation in New York gave $0.00 to the AC in 2006. Interesting stat. There is something wrong when an established congregation cannot or will not contribute anything to a PCA committee, unless the Session of that congregation has good reason not to, as Grace believes it does with the MNA committee.

It is high time, indeed past time for our committees in Lawrenceville to stop acting like our local, state, and federal politicians and start acting like we actually exist and matter. Let me be specific and clear: When we call, we should not be treated as if we are an imposition. If we send emails, we expect answers. If we make requests and the request is unreasonable, a polite No will suffice accompanied by why it is unreasonable. Many of us are frustrated—highly frustrated and sometimes downright angry—with the way headquarters treats us.

Our PCA committees need to realize this, acknowledge it, and devise ways—strategic or otherwise—to deal with the congregations biblically. Listening would be a good start in the right direction. One of our “Themes, Goals, and Means” ought to be, I think, Lawrenceville acting like they appreciate us rather than acting as if we are a bother to them. This perception from a number of congregations is exacerbated by a condescending attitude. Most congregations are semi-literate and basically supportive—very supportive—of the PCA. I would add we are actually those who support the PCA with our prayers and our finances and would like to receive that kind of respect and trust. As I went through the 2009 contribution list it did seem to me that those congregations that gave zero get more respect than the congregations that contribute.

Third, and finally, (I’ll get around to Theme # 2 later!) I was listening to talk radio on my way home from my study yesterday (8.11) and heard Mike Gallagher talking about how many pastors and priests today are telling their respective congregations that we should welcome illegal aliens. I listened to this just after someone emailed me photos of Hispanics in AZ having spray-painted American and AZ state flags and then spread them on the ground and walked on them. I know. We should welcome all the illegal immigrants and pay for them too.

At least that is believed by some. I don’t share that belief. I’m also willing to believe that my home congregation does as much if not more than many churches who are “missional” when it comes to feeding Hispanics. We have a special pantry for them—and for anyone else, by the way—and they can always take what they need. We’re so “missional” we don’t even ask them to show us their “papers.” But I was thinking as I listened to Gallagher’s comments that we have a number of people at PCA headquarters that categorically refuse to call illegal aliens, well, illegal aliens. They prefer “undocumented workers.” When I called the MNA committee on this, I was totally ignored. One can only wonder how this kind of politically correct claptrap might play out in a local congregation.

The pastor confronts brother Smith and says, “Brother Smith, we have evidence that you are committing adultery.” Brother Smith answers, “Adultery? You’re kidding, right? That’s such an unsavory, unpopular, bigoted term! Are you a bigot, pastor?” Shocked by such an accusation, the pastor replies, “Why no, of course not!”I’m not like that Ron Gleason. Why, I don’t even own a gun, much less carry one! No, Brother Smith, I am the poster boy for toleration.” “Well,” Brother Smith responds, “that’s nice to hear, pastor. Therefore, let’s just say that I’m having undocumented sex. Why I’m just having the sex that many Americans will not have. The country needs me. I’m paying my taxes and helping the economy. I’m providing my church family an opportunity to witness the gospel.”

You see, it’s not just the Roman Catholic priests and the emergents that are guilty of ethical euphemism, but it’s also the PCA and it’s also at PCA headquarters that congregations hear politically correct language—oh, and did I mention that we also hear similar things from byFaith magazine, unless they want money and subscribers, and then they’re more pleasant. Maybe our ethical confusion has its origin in the expressed fact (see the Strategic Plan, pp. 1-2) that the PCA has not yet figured out precisely what it means to be Reformed. Maybe the PCA should solve that one quickly before it becomes too late—way too late.


Thursday, August 05, 2010

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

Means # 1: Encouraging Forums for New Ideas

We are sorting through the Themes, Goals, and Means of the Strategic Plan of the PCA: Theme # 1 (Civil Conversation), Goal # 1 (Establish places to enter into civil conversations about the best ways to advance the PCA’s faithfulness to biblical belief, ministry, and mission). Means # 1-3 will be the subjects of this installment.

The Administrative Committee proposes that—and this is Means # 1—the PCA “Provide public forums at GA to discuss difficult subjects or new ideas without vote, offering charitable judgments among elders in the fellowship of ministry.” I would like to raise a few questions, mainly of clarification. First, who will decide what the topics of these public forums will be? Will delegates who have paid their “ecclesiastical taxes”—more on this in subsequent installments—have any say whatsoever in the subject matter of these public forums? In addition, it might be helpful to know what both the “difficult subjects” and “new ideas” are and who will decide each category. Will there be a vote on difficult subjects and new ideas without vote?

Allow me a personal example of what I consider to be a difficult subject. I understand that among some in the PCA that there is an appreciation of Dr. N.T. Wright. Since I strive to keep up with trends, fads, and developments in theology, I have read large selections of Dr. Wright’s musings. In the area of the doctrine of justification by faith, I find Dr. Wright leaning more towards a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine than a Reformed one.[1] That’s my settled conviction. A few years back, a church planter in my Presbytery had new Christians reading N.T. Wright in a Bible study. In one sense, that was his prerogative, and since he had no Elders, there was no one to cry, “Foul!” or “Stop!” He charged ahead. If there is a rather wholesale appreciation for Dr. Wright, it is little wonder to me that the Strategic Plan writes that “Determining what it meant to be true to the Reformed faith was not as unifying, and created significant debates among us…” I’ll bet it did, especially if we have church planters putting forth N.T. Wright as opposed to, say, Herman Ridderbos and his classic treatise on Paul.[2]

Second, I would like to ask this: Don’t we already have forums where “difficult subjects” are discussed without vote? What is the purpose of seminars and what was the purpose of the last two discussions between Lig Duncan and Tim Keller? Both of those discussions were forums where no votes were cast.

Third, if “new ideas” are promoted at such a forum, will there be a representation of differing sides of these new ideas, or will only one side be presented? If it is to be only one side presented then there will, no doubt, be a civil conversation, but will also likely decide little or nothing. The delegates can walk away with the idea that they heard a civil discussion, but for the rest, it would be like kissing your sister. Since I’m an only child, I have no experience in kissing a sister, but it sounds rather, well… Moreover, who would decide precisely what constitutes a “new idea” and if it is worthy of a forum/seminar. Without active delegate participation and representation the likelihood of something like this “catching on” seems miniscule and could quite possibly end up being a “pep rally” for those anointed ones who want their “new ideas” to be heard and accepted. Only to encourage one side is to put undue pressure on the other side.

Fourth, where would the assembly find the time for more “forums” and “discussions”? Time is at a premium as it is. Adding more forums in the same time frame would only add pressure to a schedule that is already quite full. Would GA be extended by a day to accommodate these forums? Would they be mandatory? Would there be a financial penalty for not attending? Who would pay for the extra day’s expenses and time away from one’s family?

Finally, who will be the arbiter regarding “charitable judgments”? That is to say, if a delegate wishes to push a point in one of the forums, will there be a judge who will tell the TE or RE that he is out of bounds? Do we not expect elders to act with biblical decorum and to offer charitable judgments in the first place? Is pressing a valid point on a “difficult subject” or “new idea” not charitable? Is disagreement uncharitable? I was a commissioner on the Overtures Committee this year and thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I will add to that, however, that we certainly felt the freedom to object differing views and to express our disagreement as Christians. Out of order was out of order and out of bounds was out of bounds.

Means # 2: Similar Forums at Presbyteries:

Means # 2 suggests that we encourage similar forums at the Presbytery level. Here, I am convinced that the Administrative Committee is almost totally out of touch with what transpires in some Presbyteries. Understanding that the PCA tends to concentrate on what occurs in the Southeast of the United States, I’ll venture to use the example of my Presbytery: South Coast. While it may be somewhat atypical, it is not totally so. I know this from conversations I’ve had with colleagues from other Presbyteries.

While the AC addresses real or perceived “hot button” topics at the GA level, they do not seem to understand the dynamic at the Presbytery level. If they simply want “civil conversations” regarding “difficult subjects” I’ll supply two: The continuing strife over the Federal Vision and so-called New Perspective on Paul and the defiance by some in the PCA regarding unordained but “commissioned” female deacons.

At two successive GAs the motion was made to erect a study committee to aid and abet the TEs and their understanding of both of these issues. It was also suggested that some might have subscribed to the Westminster Standards without fully understanding what they were signing or that they needed help understanding what the Westminster Standards meant. I beg your pardon! Are we talking about seminary graduates here? Is it an insinuation or fact that there are some who “signed on the dotted line” who did not know what they were signing or getting into? I certainly hope not! That is simply inexcusable. When I was a member of the Reformed churches in The Netherlands (which is very close to Holland) and Canada I subscribed to the Three Forms of Unity. I did not sign them first and then read them. That would have been to have fallen into the Nancy Pelosi or Congress Fallacy. No, the actual signature came after I read, understood, and agreed with those confessional statements. Surely the same procedure applies to PCA pastors, evangelists, and church planters, doesn’t it?

But there are larger problems at the Presbytery level that mere “similar forums” will not address. First, there are a number of Presbyters that arrive late and leave early. In my Presbytery these tend to be the same folks. Apparently, they are busier and more important than the garden-variety delegate. I might add that these PCA TEs also tend to shy away from much participation in Presbytery. Committees are anathema to them as are serving as recording clerk, treasurer, or moderator. Stated clerk is a whole different animal when it comes to finding volunteers.

Second, even though our Presbytery only meets three times a year, some of the TEs schedule other events on those days and just like some businesses in America are deemed too big to fail, these events take precedence over everything.

Third, we have attempted on several occasions to urge those who see nothing wrong with having women serve as unordained deacons, lead in prayer, or read Scripture in the public worship of God to debate those issues, for whatever reason we simply cannot seem to find the time to have those debates. In a fashion akin to Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, the future remains eternally future. Thank you, Ernst Bloch.

Fourth, if these similar forums at the Presbytery level are to be, in some sense, a continuation of the discussions at each year’s GA, then some method will have to be found to encourage more delegates from each Presbytery to attend GA. Unfortunately, the current proposal from the Administrative Committee will, in all likelihood, have the exact opposite effect. Moreover, some method will need to be devised to encourage the delegates to GA actually to read the material before they arrive and then to be active participants in the various committees and discussions.

How does one accomplish that? In essence, the answer is simple: You don’t because you cannot. It is impossible for some committee to gin up a human method by which delegates become active. Is there a solution? Yes, I believe that there is, but it has nothing to do with a “top down” edict or “pay-to-play” tax. The solution is more of an attitudinal one that must flow forth from within and from a desire truly to be Presbyterian. I and every other TE must take joy and delight in being PCA and recognize that to be Presbyterian involves more than ministry in my local covenant community/congregation. Unless this happens, some will simply go through the motions of being PCA, but it will mean little or nothing.

It involves, among a host of other things, active participation at the Presbytery level as well as at the GA level. It means committee work and spending less time on our special events that supersede Presbytery and less time in wandering the halls and networking during GA. This is not to say that we cannot sit down and relax in the evening and have an adult beverage or ten and connect with friends. GA does entail, however, that we are there to work; to do God’s work; to do the work of the Church and that must take priority. Those are simply some preliminary thoughts. Let’s move on.

Means # 3: Encourage Gatherings of Non-Agreeing Enclaves:

This article reads as follows in its totality: “Encourage gatherings of non-agreeing enclaves to discuss major denomination-changing or culture-changing ideas, and how to live together with differences.” It seems that the AC means non-agreeing enclaves within the PCA here. What might constitute “major denomination-changing” ideas? Oh, I know! The Federal Vision or unordained female deacons. Both of these are major changing ideas, since they cannot be found in or substantiated by Scripture or the Westminster Standards. Or how about totally disregarding what the BCO says and going ahead and doing what you want to anyway? Might that, in some sense, be a major denomination changing idea? But, wait! How do we—or some higher powers—decide which disregard we will tolerate? Who will judge this? Might the AC judge that PCA congregations that insist on moving ahead with commissioning unordained women to the office of deacon is fully acceptable, while not paying the “pay-to-play” tax is unacceptable? That would be very interesting since a solid case can be made that the BCO is crystal clear on who might and might not be a deacon and “iffy” on congregations paying taxes to some bureaucracy. This could give the impression that the AC is being, well, “selective,” couldn’t it?

Another major denomination-changing idea might be paedo-communion. Yep, that would rate right up there. But the assumption from the AC is that there is a need, in the first place, to discuss major denomination-changing ideas. I, for one, would be very interested in seeing what might comprise that list. Obviously, someone must have it and I think it is incumbent upon the AC to let us all in on what the contents of that list are. If no such list exists, why are we wasting our time tilting at windmills?

Now, I am very interested in what might be on the “culture-changing” ideas list. It just so happens that I am contributing an article in the book I’m co-editing for David Wells’ Festschrift. The article is taken from Dr. Herman Bavinck’s Stone Lectures (1908/1909) at Princeton. The lecture is entitled “Revelation and Culture.” In all of our discussions and deliberations about “culture” and the need to “engage culture,” I have yet to read a satisfactory definition of culture and what a proper biblical approach to “engaging” it might look like.

Ostensibly, byFaith magazine writes a lot about culture, but I have yet to read an article that addressed the “essence” or ontology of culture. Lord willing, in the next installment, I’ll give you some insights from Bavinck. I will not give you the whole article because I want you to buy the book so I can pay for my Lear Jet, but I will provide some insights that I know you’ll find more helpful than the mere admonition to get out there and engage the culture for the Gipper.

Finally, Means # 3 wants us to discuss “how to live together with differences.” I’m not at all certain what that is supposed to mean in this context. It really would depend on what those differences were, wouldn’t it, and how large the doctrinal and ethical chasms between the sides became? Let me illustrate. When we lived in Amsterdam, we had male homosexuals living on both sides of us. We were quite civil in our conversations (the PCA would have been proud of us!) and we did civil things for each other such as getting each other’s mail while the other was on vacation, borrowing sugar, flour, and the like. We did not, however, allow them to babysit our sons, nor did we “buy into” their lifestyle. In fact, through our civil conversations we discovered just how devastating that lifestyle is. So, in that sense, we lived together with our differences. Had they wanted us to “buy into” (read: accept) their lifestyle, we would not have “lived together with our differences.”

Mutatis mutandis, the same would hold for “differences” within the PCA. If some “non-agreeing enclave” wished to revert to a quasi-Roman Catholic notion of the Eucharist there should not be a desire to live together with differences, should there be? The same would be true of the idea of infused grace in the sacraments, a moral view of the atonement, annihilationism, Open Theism, or a wide variety of other doctrines. What I said from the floor of GA I reiterate here. This “plan” is so terribly vague and open-ended I’m really quite surprised that theologians put it together. This plan does not serve the PCA well.

This plan has been put forward as the direction of the PCA for the future. That being the case, one might reasonably expect a great deal more precision than is on paper. One can only hope that the AC and the PCA leadership would and could do much better as we move forward. As I learned when I served as an armor officer, leadership means substantially more than merely telling people what to do. I keep hearing about “servant leadership,” which is a good thing, but I have rarely, if ever, had Atlanta confer with either Presbyteries or congregations about what they would like. What I have experienced, more often than not, is headquarters simply telling us what is going to happen and how much it’s going to cost. If we are truly concerned about all the congregations in the PCA, the various committees might consider consulting with the various congregations. Otherwise, PCA headquarters could very well end up looking and acting like Congress, which, at last look, had an approval rating of 11%. One can only wonder what a similar survey within the PCA regarding how headquarters is doing might reveal.

[1] See John Fesko, Justification, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2008); Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001); Cornelis Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006); & Guy Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2004).

[2] Herman Ridderbos, Paulus. Ontwerp van Zijn Theologie, (Kampen: Kok, 1966); E.T.: Paul. An Outline of His Theology, (John Richard De Witt [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.)