If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”

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One Week Ago in Belfast

Irish Presbyterians, a few Baptists, and an Anglican or two, endured me last week during a conference in Belfast, even though the setting and company energized me. I spoke about and led discussions of three of my books, which gave me a chance to revisit older writings. What follows is an excerpt from Recovering Mother Kirk that still seems pertinent:

Finally, however, the moment came. A man on the pastoral staff stood up and asked if Presbyterians are evangelical. He inquired not to put me on the spot, but because that was the question on most people’s minds. I could not duck it any longer even though I would have gladly tried to bluff my way through 1 Corinthians 14 for the rest of the hour.

Rather than answering the question, I did what most academics do in difficult situations — I tried to rephrase the question. So I responded that the better question to ask may be “are evangelicals Presbyterian?” At least this way of inquiring into the relationship between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism would not assume that evangelicalism is the norm for evaluating all forms of Protestantism, as if it is the purest or most biblical expression of Christianity. This question, I also explained, yielded a different answer from the one asking of Presbyterians whether they were evangelical. It might be obvious that certain Presbyterians are evangelical. But no one would expect evangelicals to be Presbyterian, for instance, to believe in limited atonement, baptize babies, or memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And the reason for offering a different perspective on the relationship between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism was precisely the point of my talks. However it had happened, the common expectation in Presbyterian circles was for the heirs of John Knox and John Calvin to adopt the ways of evangelicalism so that Presbyterians would be indistinguishable from the likes of Billy Graham, Charles Colson or James Dobson. But ironically, Presbyterians would never think of expecting evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today or Promise Keepers to advocate Presbyterian beliefs and practices. This situation not only seemed unfair — sort of like expecting immigrants to the United States to give up their culture for the English language, fast food, and popular sovereignty — but, I argued, it was odd for Presbyterians, proud of their theological heritage, to settle for non-Presbyterians dictating what was most important about the Christian religion.

Since that weekend conference I have become convinced that in order to understand the relationship between the Christian faith and its practices the question, “are evangelicals Presbyterian?”, yields more insight than the query, “are Presbyterians evangelical?” Other questions would work just as well, for instance, “are evangelicals Lutheran?”or “are evangelicals Episcopalian?” And the reason is that evangelicalism presumes a simple set of theological boundaries, mostly preserving the deity and supernatural redemptive work of Christ in history and the human soul, coupled with a set of religious practices that are virtually independent of the church as a worshipping communion. To spot an evangelical one only need look for someone who carries a Bible (often in some sort of canvas or vinyl cover), leaves tracts, wears some expression of devotion such as a WWJD bracelet or t-shirt, witnesses to neighbors and strangers, refrains from cursing, and avoids such delights as tobacco and alcohol (though this is changing). In contrast, Presbyterians (along with other churchly forms of Protestants) possesses a lengthy creedal statement of Christianity, and this understanding of the faith is nurtured through a distinctive form of public worship, relies upon the ministry of clergy who preach and administer the sacraments, reinforced s through a system of church government, and expects Presbyterian families to engage in family worship and catechesis that buttress the ministry of the church. To be sure, this contrast may border on caricature. But it does point out the problems of asking whether Presbyterians are evangelical. If asking Presbyterians to be evangelical commits Presbyterian adherents to religious practices at odds with or different from the Reformed faith’s churchly piety, then being an evangelical may actually be a curse rather than a blessing. The reason is that Presbyterians intent on being evangelical may end up abandoning the very practices that have been crucial not simply to marking Reformed Christians but also that embody the convictions of Reformed theology.

Of course, devout Presbyterians who delight in thinking of themselves as evangelical have generally not thought through the relationship between theology and practice. All they usually mean by being evangelical is something as valuable as taking Christian commitment and the Bible seriously. The habit of asking Presbyterians to be evangelical is not designed to ignore such matters as Sabbath observance, public worship, or memorization of the catechism. And yet, the evangelical stress on conversion and believing in the Bible has obscured the range of practices that various Christian communions not only believe the Bible to require but also that fortify believers in their pilgrimage. It would be wrong to say that evangelicalism emphasizes faith while other forms of Protestantism stress practice, since evangelicalism has its own distinctive set of practices that flow quite naturally from its conversionist understanding of the Christianity. But it would not be unfair to say that the contrast between evangelicalism and, in this case, Presbyterianism is one between practices geared toward the freedom and creativity of the laity to express their devotion as they see fit and practices oriented toward the corporate church through its ministry of word, sacrament and discipline.

Although he is neither a Presbyterian nor an evangelical, the Duke Divinity School ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, self-described as a high church Mennonite, has written insightfully about the relationship between faith and practice and the importance of embodying one’s religious convictions in visible and formal exercises. His basic point is that Protestantism, whether in evangelical or liberal versions, has become an abstraction, something that is disconnected from the communal life of the church, defined as a worshiping community. In other words, Hauerwas argues that doctrine, something dear to Reformed Christians, cannot be isolated from the practices of the church. He raises the stakes as well by asserting that the faith of Christians does not achieve genuine significance until it is embodied in the ways and patterns of participating in the life of the church. “What makes Christians Christian,” Hauerwas writes, “is our worship of God.” “Of course,” he adds, “the praise of God cannot be limited to ‘liturgy,’ but it is nonetheless the case that Christians learn how to be praiseworthy people through worship.” An evangelical rendering of Hauerwas’s point might involve the idea that the way Christians show their regeneration is by saving other souls. But this interpretation misses Hauerwas’s argument about the body of Christ as a worshiping community and the unique responsibilities given to those who minister word and sacrament. Identifying worship as the central and essential task of the church, Hauerwas observes, “counters some of the unclarity surrounding” ordination and embodies the presumption “that there is literally nothing more important for the Christian people to do than praise God.”

Reformed Christians may need to learn about the importance of the church and worship from a post-liberal Methodist ethicist because they have for so long thought of themselves as evangelical first and Presbyerian second. What is particularly clear is that Presbyterians who take their tradition seriously need to be reminded about the churchly and liturgical character of the practices that make good Presbyterians. Here it may be interesting to remember the answer to Question 85 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which reads: “What does God require of us to escape his wrath and curse?” Aside from showing Calvinism’s gruffer side with the language of God’s righteous retribution for sin, the answer is revealing for what it says about the relationship between faith and practice. The response states: “To escape the wrath and curse due to us for sin God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.” Most evangelicals and conservative Presbyterians are on fairly familiar terms with the first two parts of that answer, namely, faith and repentance. Salvation requires trust in Christ for redemption and sorrow for sin, and without those two marks of regeneration churches have difficulty spotting a genuine profession of faith. But this answer’s addition of diligently attending the means of grace is a notion foreign to many Presbyterians under the evangelical influence. And so when the Shorter Catechism goes on to explain that the “outward and ordinary means” are word, sacrament and prayer, some proponents of the Reformed faith are caught off guard because they have so emphasized either conversion or doctrine that they have abstracted the Christian religion from the Christian practices the mark the body of Christ. Yet, if the Westminster Divines have anything to say about the Christian life, participating in the churchly practices of the word preached, the sacraments administered and corporate prayer is as necessary to a credible profession of faith as are trust in Christ and repentance from sin. (242-45)

Something for All Commissioners to Consider before Heading Off to General Assembly (or Synod)

What’s true for liberals may also be true for Christians who think they have social justice covered:

Consider some ways liberals have used their cultural prominence in recent years. They have rightly become more sensitive to racism and sexism in American society. News reports, academic commentary and movies now regularly relate accounts of racism in American history and condemn racial bigotry. These exercises in consciousness-raising and criticism have surely nudged some Americans to rethink their views, and to reflect more deeply on the status and experience of women and members of minority groups in this country.

But accusers can paint with very wide brushes. Racist is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today, which means it should be applied firmly and carefully. Yet some people have cavalierly leveled the charge against huge numbers of Americans — specifically, the more than 60 million people who voted for Mr. Trump.

In their ranks are people who sincerely consider themselves not bigoted, who might be open to reconsidering ways they have done things for years, but who are likely to be put off if they feel smeared before that conversation even takes place.

It doesn’t help that our cultural mores are changing rapidly, and we rarely stop to consider this. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.

Within just a few years, many liberals went from starting to talk about microaggressions to suggesting that it is racist even to question whether microaggressions are that important. “Gender identity disorder” was considered a form of mental illness until recently, but today anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies’ room is labeled a bigot. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women. (Gerard Alexander, “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are,” New York Times, May 12, 2018)

Resist that temptation to feel good after a vote for the right side of history.

The Shelf Life of 2k — Part Two

This is part two of the interview David Strain conducted with mmmmeeeeeEEEEE:

Here’s the second installment. There’s more to come. Enjoy…..

1. Is there a connection between 19th century revival/revivalism and the kind of socio-political agendas often advocated by both the Christian Right and Left today?

Definitely. Many evangelicals and Reformed do not understand that the kind of evangelical activism they now promote or perform was first part of the Second Great Awakening – the bad one. Not only was Finney interested in converting people, but he also wanted a righteous and just society. Evangelicals responded by forming a ton of voluntary societies that did in many respects transform American society (if you were not a member of the Whig or Republican parties, you may not have appreciated all of these reforms.)

So the Second no-so-great Awakening drove a wedge between Protestants, those with a high view of the church (Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Old School Presbyterians) and those with a low view of the church and a high view of America. The ethno-cultural school of political historians has produced a body of literature on these ecclesial differences, and this work has actually informed my own writing on confessional Protestantism. The term “confessional” itself comes from political history and it stands for high church Protestants who are less concerned about social and political matters compared to the eternal realities of the gospel.

One other historical reference worthy of comment here is that the Second not-so-great Awakening was really the soil from which the Social Gospel sprung. I sometimes wonder why today’s “conservative” evangelicals are so willing to repeat the efforts and arguments that “liberal” Protestants were making a hundred years ago. Also, if you look at the books written by leaders of the religious right, people like Falwell and Ralph Reed, you see the Second not-so-great Awakening cited as a model or inspiration for contemporary political activism.

As the kids used to say, “What’s up with that?”

2. Should the church tell people how to vote for specific candidates, based on issues like abortion or gay marriage?

Definitely not. The church may and should speak to all the laws of the Decalogue, including the sixth and the seventh. Why the first four don’t receive more attention is anyone’s guess – could it be that social activism makes matters like worship and the Sabbath less important? But beyond explaining what God’s word requires, the church needs to let members apply them in their lives according to the callings and consciences. I mean, would anyone want the church to tell members never to eat meat offered to idols? It looks to me that if Christian liberty applies to the affects of idolatry, it also applies to electoral politics and the legislators voted into office.

3. Does the church have a prophetic voice, challenging sin wherever it finds it, even in politics and culture?

It depends what you mean. Expounding and teaching God’s word does involve challenging sin, obviously. But what people often mean is they want the church to apply the truths of the word to specific circumstances. I actually think this stems from a desire for the church to be relevant, to be doing something important. If the church is the place where the kingdom of grace is advancing, I don’t see why cleaning up pockets of cultural crime in the United States is more relevant than that. So people need to see how amazing the work of the church is, and how trivial, ephemeral, and fading the affairs of politics and culture are in comparison. But even so, the church has a prophetic voice simply by proclaiming the whole counsel of God. I wonder if people who say the church needs to be a prophetic voice actually appreciate that a minister standing in the pulpit each Sunday is representing the prophetic office of Christ.

4. Is there a place for para-church agencies and what are the boundaries of legitimate para-church work?

There has to be a place for the parachurch because the church can’t run everything. So everything that is not the church is parachurch.

The real question is parachurch agencies that engage in religious work. I don’t think a hard rule exists here except in those areas of evangelism and missions, work that the church is to oversee directly. But when it comes to educational endeavors, publishing, flexibility is in order

5. How do you respond to those who believe that the work of the church is to ‘transform society’ or to ‘bring in the Kingdom’?

First, I say that the coming of the kingdom is not evident in transforming society. As I’ve said, the church through word, sacrament, and discipline, is advancing the kingdom of grace, which is hastening the kingdom of glory (I’m using the language of the Shorter Catechism here). And because the church is not called to transform society – she already has enough on her plate – then she is not called to transform society. Individual Christians in their vocations are called to a host of tasks that do, I guess, contribute to social transformation. (I don’t like that language because it has a progressive political valence that I oppose for political and cultural reasons – both libertarian and localist and at times agrarian.) But the church doesn’t transform society nor should she as an institution (in distinction from her members’ callings).

This doesn’t mean that some of the aspects of social transformation, such as government, policy, and legislation are unimportant or “worldly.” They are worldly but in the good sense of the created order and the way that God superintends this world. Society is a good thing and Christians as citizens or in other capacities should be dutiful in their obligations to neighbors and magistrates. But social transformation is not where the kingdom of Christ happens.

6. If cultural transformation isn’t the church’s work, what is?

The work of the church is word, sacrament, prayer, discipline, catechesis, diaconal care and fellowship. It is not sexy and it does not generally attract headlines. But these are God’s ordained means for building his kingdom.

Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.

Another Difference between New and Paleo Calvinists

New Calvinists are mean but don’t know it.

Jonathan Merritt was an unlikely person to confirm a point made here before, namely, that when you define orthodoxy you also draw lines that to outsiders will look unloving and mean. (Think undergraduates at Oberlin seeking protection from disquieting perceptions.) For a while New Calvinists and their allies at the Gospel Coalition have portrayed Paleo Calvinists as mean. Now with Merritt what goes around comes around.

He observes that New Calvinists are full of criticism (and instructions on how to do it):

The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.

Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.

Then there is New Calvinists’ refusal to entertain criticisms themselves:

Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.

TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. . . .

A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”

Finally, Merritt points out the problem of belonging to a club instead of a church:

TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”

The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.

If the New Calvinists were more ecclesial and less parachurchian, they might not lose their critical side. And contrary to Merritt who thinks engaging culture is a positive, if New Calvinists were churchly they wouldn’t worry about the culture so much. Belonging to a church and working within its structures would not make them less critical, though Robert’s Rules supplies a structure for critique that takes away some of criticism’s sting. The best thing that might happen to New Calvinists if they looked to the church instead of the club, they would not be so doctrinaire about so many peripheral matters. The visible church has a way of focusing your outlook (not sure what happened to Pope Francis).

Sunday School as Open Forum?

Scott, Aimee and (here I tread in rake territory) Todd try to sort out the differences between Sunday school teaching and authoritative church instruction. I tend to sympathize with the point made (I hear) by Carl and Aimee that women can do whatever non-ordained men do (except of course when it comes to reproduction). And I think Scott’s points about the flimsy origins of Sunday school as a church institution should make all Christians re-think the mechanisms by which churches instruct the faithful. Need I remind folks of the fun that even H. L. Mencken had at Sunday school (even though the Christian religion didn’t really take hold):

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Not sure Sunday school is the best method of delivery for passing on the faith.

The problem however goes beyond the qualifications posed. What session wants to deal with questions and complaints that arise from non-ordained teachers providing instruction on subjects revealed in Holy Writ? It’s one thing for a woman or non-ordained man to teach math, plumbing, banking or baking. But what about a Christian view of math, plumbing, banking, or baking? Doesn’t the Christian character of the instruction indicate some kind of normative (hence authoritative) instruction? I mean, if I offer a Christian view of history, should Christians not feel a certain pull in the direction of considering this is THE way believers should think about history? Or are Christian views of subjects simply optional for Christians (that’s accepting the premises of w-w thinking).

How much more is instruction seemingly normative if a woman or non-ordained man is teaching the Bible or confession related material? Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? And if Sunday school is just a place for Christians to opine, is that a good way to prepare for worship (if services follow Sunday school)? Can I really get another member’s objectionable opinions out of my head simply because the pastor invokes God’s presence?

So the issue isn’t one of office, ordination, or even the history of Sunday school as an institution. The issue is the content of the instruction. If that content includes material that comes from the church’s standards — Bible and confession — then the setting involves some version of binding address. At that point, a session will likely want the teaching to reflect the norms of the communion. And at that point we are in the ballpark of having officers who have been vetted and approved for teaching up front behind the podium for — wait for it — Sunday school.

The Bible Thumper in MmmmmeeeeeeEEEE

So it turns out that Tim Keller has recommended to his pastors in the Big Apple that they use a Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher as part of their preparation for reaching Manhattanites:

Dr. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian has built his ministry very much on confronting the challenge. His books include “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.” He periodically teaches an adult-ed class titled “Questioning Christianity” and sometimes holds question-and-answer sessions with attendees after Redeemer’s Sunday worship services.

His decision to open a branch of Redeemer on West 83rd Street in 2012 — the first new church built in the neighborhood in decades — was a brick-and-mortar way of meeting nonbelievers where they live. And he prepared his young ministers and staff members for the Upper West Side by studying together such books as the philosopher Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.”

Imagine how hard it would have been to plant a church in Ephesus. Imagine also if Paul had recommended Lucretius to Timothy:

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:2-5 ESV)

As wise as 700-page tomes may be, sometimes you need to dance with the date that brought you. That goes double for Protestants who minister God’s word.

Vanilla Presbyterianism

Bryan Chapell serves a modest and healthy variety of Reformed Protestantism to Ed Stetzer:

Ed Stetzer: What are some of the distinctives that make you different than other Evangelical groups?

Bryan Chapell: The PCA affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and places a high value on biblical preaching and worship. This is because we believe the Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. By the design of the Holy Spirit, all that is necessary for a life of godliness are within its pages. The Bible was never intended to address every subject or science that we may confront in our world, but it does provide the standards for truth and life that we require to honor God in every situation.

While holding its Confessional standards secondary to the authority of Scripture, the PCA seeks to maintain its peace and purity by requiring ordained pastors and officers to subscribe to the theological doctrines detailed in the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms).

Those standards also indicate that we believe churches should be in accountability relationships with one another, just as individual church members are. So we have regional presbyteries (gatherings of pastors and elders that seek to do ministry and mission together). Local churches are governed by elders and pastors elected by the local congregation. We practice the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, as the Scriptures instruct. We believe the Scriptures teach that baptism is for adult believers and their children. We do not practice infant baptism out of tradition and sentiment, but out of the understanding that God pledges his faithfulness in covenant relationships that are consistently taught in the Bible.
The PCA affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and places a high value on biblical preaching and worship.

Our Reformation heritage is reflected in a “Reformed/Calvinistic” system of doctrine. The first thing most think of in this category is an emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation. We believe that a necessary implication of the Bible’s teaching about our all-knowing and all-powerful God is that he must elect and predestine those who will be saved. The Bible uses these terms and we accept them. We also affirm that God accomplishes our salvation without “doing violence” to our will. . . .

The subject of sovereignty is not exhausted in discussions about salvation processes. Our Reformed commitments teach the sovereignty of God over “the whole of life.” The Lord of all creation is not confined by the walls of the church. That means that there is no sphere of life, no occupation, no recreation, no craft or art that is beyond the bounds of his concern or without obligation for his glory. We believe that the church does not do its work on Sunday, if it is not preparing its people for Monday – and every other day. All occupations and recreations need to be considered as opportunities for glorifying God. There are no secondary callings.

The PCA has a commitment to the “regulative principle” of Christian worship (i.e., only what God instructs in his Word should be practiced in corporate worship). But, because this principle results in rather general requirements about practices related to the Word, sacraments and prayer, worship styles vary greatly between local churches.

That’s the skinny. If you want a “fatter” version of Presbyterian distinctions, see my autobiographical description in “Why I am an Evangelical and a Presbyterian,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds. Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

I guess that makes TKNY the Rocky Road and really fattening version of the PCA.

If only PCA leaders like Chapell could keep Presbyterianism that simple and that by the book. Is this a sign of an Old School Presbyterian return? Or is this how you distinguish yourself from a w-w Southern Baptist?

Can You Confess Sins To Yourself?

Rick Phillips’ post about corporate confession of sins got me thinking about the PCA’s proposed resolution on race and civil rights. That personal resolution from Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas confesses the church’s complicity with racial injustice.

Phillips attempts to find a biblical procedure for such confession.

But if he were to use the Book of Discipline from his sister communion, the OPC, he’d find judicial processes laid out quite thoroughly.

I imagine the General Assembly of the PCA would come as its own accuser:

When a person comes before a judicatory as his own accuser, the judicatory may proceed to judgment without full process, determining first, what offense, if any has been committed, and, if a serious offense (cf. Chapter III, Section 7.b [6]) has been committed, what censure shall be pronounced. (5.1)

Next comes the the work of the trial judicatory in establishing the seriousness of the sin and determining the level of censure:

In judicial discipline there are five degrees of censure: admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. Censures shall be pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of the whole church, by the moderator on behalf of the trial judicatory. (6.A.1)

This raises a real problem since everyone in this scenario would be guilty of the sin and so finding someone to serve on the trial judicatory could be difficult if not impossible. Everyone is guilty. Can the sinner determine his own form of censure? Would he not have mixed motives?

And then there is the question of the sin’s seriousness. What kind of censure will the PCA General Assembly apply to itself?

1. Admonition

Admonition consists in tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Rebuke

Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Suspension

a. Suspension is a form of censure by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or an indefinite time. Suspension of an officer from the privileges of membership shall always be accompanied by suspension from office, but the latter does not necessarily involve the former.

b. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end that he may be restored. When the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender, or when the time of suspension has expired, the censure shall be removed and the offender shall be restored. This restoration shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition. Restoration to the privileges of membership may take place without restoration to those of office.

c. When a minister has been indefinitely suspended, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

4. Deposition

a. Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It consists in a solemn declaration by the trial judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer in the church.

b. When a minister is deposed from his office, the presbytery shall erase his name from the roll of the ministerial members of the presbytery and dismiss him to a particular church or enroll him as a member of the regional church without membership in a particular church.

c. Deposition of a pastor or his suspension for an indefinite time involves the dissolution of the pastoral tie. The sentence of deposition or suspension shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. In case of suspension for a definite period the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard, shall decide whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved.

d. When a minister has been deposed, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

5. Excommunication

Excommunication is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ. (6.B)

Depending on to whom you listen, racism is pretty grievous sin. But if it were sufficiently serious that the PCA General Assembly pronounced a censure of Deposition on itself, the recent graduates of Reformed seminaries might be grateful for the new calls available, but is the Assembly really prepared to wipe out its entire set of elders and deacons? Depose Tim Keller?

But if the Assembly only rebukes itself, would those most offended by racism be satisfied?

I wonder if those who support this corporate confession of sin understand how complicated it might be.