The Point of Being Presbyterian

Yes, Presbyterianism is historic — it predates the conversions provoked by Jonathan Edwards. But that doesn’t mean that Presbyterianism uses whatever bits of Christian history that also qualify as historic. Presbyterianism says history doesn’t matter compared to something even more historic — God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments and the acts of redemption therein revealed.

This lesson from Presbyterianism 101 comes from awareness (supplied by our northern correspondent) that the Presbyterian pastor identified in the following article is part of the PCA, and therefore a man eligible to preach and administer the sacraments in our local OPC congregation.

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~Traditional Ash Wednesday Blessing

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

The thing is, praying before a meal, conducting family worship, attending worship every Sunday morning and evening is also a reminder of our limits and mortality. Ash Wednesday comes once a year. But you can hear “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8) every Lord’s day and remember that you are a finite critter who depends on God almighty.

The Presbyterian pastor involved in this Ash Wednesday service has his own justification for observing Lent:

Lent spans 40 workdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating on the Saturday before Easter. The Sunday’s within Lent are not counted part of the 40 day duration, but rather are called Sunday’s In Lent. The significance of 40 days can be traced to many things within the bible, but in this instance refers to and honor’s the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Within CVP, Lent is a time of preparation and prayer spent in readying for Easter and our Savior’s resurrection. As such, we don’t “give something up for Lent”, but rather if something is distracting from focusing on Lent and Christ’s sacrifice, we may set it aside temporarily.

As one gets closer to the end of Lent, we enter what is known as Holy Week. This is started with Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Passion Sunday, and observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where folks waved palm branches proclaiming him as the messianic king. The word passion refers to the final journey of Jesus to the cross and crucifixion. Next would be Maundy Thursday which refers to series of events that took place the day before Jesus was arrested. These events include the last supper where communion has it’s origins, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and ended with Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest to be taken before Caiaphas. Prior to the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples feet to illustrate the humility involved in servanthood. He also taught his disciples a new commandment quoted in John 13:45-45 NIV “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Good Friday and/or Tenebrae are one and the same day and come on the last Friday of Lent. The church observes the day of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Not even a week before on Palm Sunday, the people proclaimed Jesus king and now on this day, they demand his death. Tenebrae is a way the church observes the coming darkness of a world without God by selected bible readings and a growing darkness (either by turning off lights one by one, or extinguishing ceremonial candles). Tenebrae typically concludes with a loud noise symbolizing the closing of Jesus’ tomb. Lent concludes on Holy Saturday – the day Jesus rested in the tomb.

Nifty. I guess this points to something a little more mysterious, a little more cosmic, something with a little more umph than your average Protestant service which — oh by the way — only relies upon the inspired and infallible word of God, recorded, written, and given over five centuries before anyone dreamed of using ashes to put the sign for addition on someone’s face. The Bible, as common as it is, really is spooky. Of course, it doesn’t help when Protestants turn Scripture into a manual for everyday living, complete with instructions for thinking the right thoughts while you cross the street (unless you get distracted by a fast-approaching car).

Yes, low church Protestants messed up the awe and reverence that God speaking to you and memories of Christ’s death (in the Supper) should instill. Why and how Presbyterians contributed to this debasement of worship is a long and sorry story. But today’s Presbyterians who are trying to be historic should know better because Reformed Protestants did something to upend the direction of Western Christianity. You really can turn the clock back before Whitefield and Edwards without losing your Presbyterian self. Keep it simple, keep it biblical, and remember you are a sinner coming in the presence of a holy God. You don’t even need to wear dirt on your forehead.

But Larry Ball does not blame Ash Wednesday practicing pastors for problems in the PCA. He blames 2k. Easy peasy.


Is the PCA Big Enough?

The death of R. C. Sproul and the occasion of The New Yorker publishing Tim Keller provide the opportunity for further reflections on ecclesiology and parachurch agencies. For instance, Keller’s article in The New Yorker includes this byline:

Timothy Keller is the founder and Pastor Emeritus of the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches of New York City.

And here is how Christianity Today began its death notice for Sproul:

Late PCA leader influenced generations of Christians by filling the gap “between Sunday school and seminary.”

Both men belong/belonged to the PCA. But no one identified either man in his professional life with the PCA. Keller is his own church-planting guru with Redeemer City-to-City as the vehicle for funding church start ups in big cities around the world. Sproul made Ligonier Ministries his brand. Both are hugely successful authors who are/were known more for books than denominational affiliation. Neither man found it possible to work within the confines of denominational mechanisms. Could Keller have somehow made his church planting operation part of the PCA’s Mission to the World? (And what if Keller decided to put Crossway Publishing on his back and allow them to publish his New York Times bestsellers? Or, what if Keller became the face of the Gospel Coalition and transferred his energies from Redeemer’s many operations into the Gospel Coalition’s many operations?) Imagine what that might do for the PCA’s name recognition. Or could Sproul have operated Ligonier as an arm of the PCA’s Discipleship Ministries (the equivalent of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education)? The answer is yes. But that affirmative would have changed significantly the shape of what Keller and Sproul accomplished as expositors of God’s word and teachers of doctrine.

This is not meant as a criticism of either man. The intention here is simply to note the real limitations of denominations. Everyone faces them. Denominations are clunky, procedural, deliberative, slow. Presbyterian denominations even more so. So to take a non-profit and move it under the umbrella of another non-profit is a dicey institutional maneuver. At the same time, becoming the head of a denomination’s church planting operations or its Christian education agency is to give up space for personal initiative and take a back seat to supervising committees and denominational procedures.

And yet, not everyone conducts work that duplicates that of a denominational agency or committee. In the case of a church historian, for instance, a denominational committee may publish books that cover institutional or theological history but they don’t produce books on the arts and sciences. In which case, an academic historian needs to find other publishing outlets for non-denominational writing. At the same time, writers and authors constantly face the temptation to create their own media company. Think Rush Limbaugh. Then imagine Rush having to cooperate and even submit to the guidance of the Republican Party. Not gonna happen. But when Rush wants to achieve a higher profile, does he work with his own website and editorial services or does he seek a trade press that knows the ropes of getting books into bookstores and handles distribution and invoices?

Which comes around then to a question bigger than celebrity, namely, entrepreneurialism. To what degree should pastors and theologians be in the business not only of creating ideas and arguments that encourage the faithful but also the start of organizations for promoting their own initiatives? The related question is whether denominations or church government is compatible with entrepreneurial pastors. Communions like the PCA, from the outside, look fairly capacious. If the OPC has the reputation for helicopter Presbyterianism — which is so far from reality — then the PCA is a Presbyterian version of a confederation of congregations like the URC or the SBC. It would seem to be a perfect place to allow for energetic and industrious pastors to work out their gifts and callings.

But the examples of Sproul and Ligonier, and Keller and Redeemer suggest otherwise. Not even as vigorous, missional, and hands-off a denomination as the PCA is capable of employing the talents of men like Sproul and Keller.

So either denominations have run their course of usefulness, or gifted ministers need to turn down their talents to settings conducive to a communion’s normal operations.


See What Keller Did Now?

Tim Keller has made the history of Presbyterianism obsolete. Look at the way Jake Meador describes the challenges facing young pastors in the PCA:

… young Presbyterian pastors, many of whom are on university campuses with RUF or working in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, face enormous class-based pressure to conform to certain progressive cultural norms. These pressures make themselves felt in a variety of ways.

First, there is a strong and classic American pull toward being dismissive of the past, toward what is established, and to embrace what is new. This temptation exerts an even stronger pull than normal on many young PCA pastors because many younger pastors and RUF guys have strong entrepreneurial tendencies. While this is often a very good thing—indeed, it’s what makes it possible for them to succeed as church planters and RUF pastors—this same trait can make them naturally inclined to be dismissive toward established norms, policies, and beliefs, especially when they are surrounded by other young people with the same entrepreneurial sensibilities. It is probably not a coincidence, in other words, that the most famous “Kellerite” to go progressive is pastoring in San Francisco, the capital of Silicon Valley.

In addition to the disregard for things that are older, established, etc. there is also strong cultural pressure to embrace a kind of bourgeois bohemian lifestyle—buy a cute house in the gentrifying neighborhood, embrace the careerism, food and exercise regimen, lifestyle trends, and broadly progressive ethos of your neighbors. You can even say you’re just being outreach-focused as you do it. While none of these things are bad in isolation, taken together they’re all steps that involve embracing the norms of a younger bobo sub-culture. And if you’re embracing those norms out of a desire to be liked rather than a pure desire to make the Gospel sensible, it will be disastrous.

But, of course, it is all very complicated: Essentially, these are young pastors being handed different cultural scripts and asked to choose which ones to follow. But these clashing scripts cannot be simplistically labeled “good” and “bad” such that we can tell young pastors to follow the “good” script and avoid the “bad.” It is more complicated than that.

This is similar to the point that Ron Belgau made in his response to Rod Dreher earlier this week: It’s not that we have a legacy PCA script that is unambiguously good that we need to cling to. That script has problems—it’s awful on race issues, for starters. So figuring out the cultural scripts question in the PCA is challenging: The young white bobo script you’re pushed toward culturally and according to class is bad, but then you don’t necessarily have a good alternative script, particularly if you’re trying to plant a church or RUF in a more hostile environment. There simply aren’t good evangelical templates for how to do that because we have for the most part been really bad at it.

In such a situation, the draw toward Keller and the ham-handed attempts to mimic him are quite understandable. What other models do these pastors have? Driscollism? Straight-up progressive Episcopalianism?

Certainly, you can argue that there actually are other models out there—Calvin basically turned Geneva into a booming intellectual hub. Someone like Richard Sibbes was a very successful preacher in Cambridge at the university in the 17th century. Richard Baxter could be helpful in that we know more about his routines as a pastor than any other minister of his era. Bucer and his colleagues in Strasbourg did good and faithful work in a major intellectual, cultural, and scholastic hub. But these examples are all either from radically different cultural contexts, much more obscure, or both.

It isn’t unreasonable that these pastors would look to Keller and, being young and failing to understand their context, fail to mimic him well. But that isn’t Keller’s fault and it isn’t entirely the young pastor’s fault either. It’s a predictable outcome given all the factors I have mentioned already.

Whatever happened to vanilla Presbyterianism? A pastor ministers the word, administers the sacraments, catechizes the youth, shepherds the flock, and goes to presbytery. What does all this worry about culture have to do with it? Meador doesn’t think Keller is responsible for leading the PCA down a misguided path of Kellerism. That is mostly true. What happened it seems to meeeeEEEE, is that Keller fulfilled the aspirations of some PCA leaders who wanted to “engage” the culture — marriage is still up for grabs.

What is happening in the PCA is what always happens to denominations that Americanize and try to adapt to the culture. The Presbyterian version of this is not whether to be Baptist or Episcopalian — though why don’t the boho’s seem to notice that Keller’s urban ways draw him to Baptists at TGC and other urban pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever? The Presbyterian version of assimilation is New School and New Life. In the 19th century, those who wanted to Christianize the culture were the New Schoolers (Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney), and their opponents were Old School Presbyterians who tried to maintain creedal theology and presbyterian governance. In the twentieth century (let’s leave aside the modernists for now), the assimilationists were New Lifers (in the OPC mind you) who wanted Orthodox Presbyterians to join with the wider evangelical world and also reach the young people with long hair. In case no one noticed, Tim Keller’s origins are in the New Life wing of the OPC, with Harvie Conn supplying a theology of the city, and Jack Miller providing a relaxed Presbyterianism that could adjust to the culture (Miller’s tastes ran less to ballet and more to Jesus people. Keller went to New Life Glenside while he taught at WTS, if I am not mistaken.) Not to mention that the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (which goes back to the Bible Presbyterians) side of the PCA that gave it Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, is not the same slice southern Presbyterianism that produced Reformed Seminary and the original PCA.

In other words, the history is thick behind Keller and simply looking at the PCA from the perspective of Baptists and Episcopalians doesn’t take you very far into the weeds.

Yet, when you apply the categories of Baptist and Episcopalian, you wind up rendering Old School (or vanilla) Presbyterianism as a couple clicks away from strange:

During times when progressivism is ascendant, as it certainly is in our day, there is a natural temptation amongst conservatives to want to double down on their most strident rhetoric, add purity tests to protect their institutions, and to begin attacking people not only for holding wrong ideas, but for holding ideas which they suspect could lead to wrong ideas (even if they won’t inevitably lead to them).

Is this a plea for Erdmanesque tranquility so that the boat won’t rock? Ministry unites, doctrine divides?

Whether Keller is responsible or no, he has not helped to prepare the PCA for the predicament that Meador thinks the denomination faces:

You’re in this weird denomination that aspires to being the church that can reach secular bobo-types in upwardly mobile neighborhoods but that also aspires to be faithful to theological orthodoxy and even to be theologically evangelical, all the way down to not ordaining women. That is an awkward position to be in from the beginning.

If Keller had left the impression that working through presbyterian channels was not weird but normal, and had achieved his fame not as a pastor with one foot in presbyterianism and another in networked Protestantism but as a regular Presbyterian minister, he might have communicated an important lesson to young pastors, namely, that it’s okay to be simply a pastor. But that is not what he did. And his fellow Presbyterian Church in Americans are sorting out what the Age of Keller means.

Improving Disagreement since 2009

Old Life may not be every Protestant’s pint of IPA. But at least critics can’t fault Old Lifers for attributing the worst to non-Old Life Protestants (sorry if that sounds like the Pharisee’s prayer). Consider:

ad hominem is a problem, but if you watch cable news, or follow Twitter, or reflect on the way that Donald Trump engages with Democrats, or Democrats with other Republicans, you notice a style of argument every bit as pernicious. It consists of constantly elevating the very worst of the other side, attacking only the weakest rather than the strongest part or version of the ideas held by the other political party or ideological tribe or cultural identity group. As Scott Alexander puts it, “The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.”

To call a Presbyterian like Tim Keller an evangelical is not ad hominem. No either-or here. Old Life recognizes many shades of Christian. The question is whether Presbyterians really want to be Reformed or whether they simply want a better grade of Protestantism than Baptist or Christian & Missionary Alliance.

Presbyterian Polity 201

Presbyterian polity 101 is rule by elders.

201 is living in submission to the rule of elders within a communion’s assemblies unless a member or officer appeals the rules.

So imagine if Tim Keller were as particular about the rules of the PCA and NAPARC as Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, is about the PCUSA:

On the question of who can receive the award: anybody can. Again, this is a family argument within the Reformed communions between the PCUSA and the PCA. And as a Presbyterian seminary, it’s in our bylaws, we have to uphold the polity and the procedures of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So once the award became a matter of affirming a man who doesn’t believe women can be ordained, you know, that’s a problem for us. And that’s what the entire controversy became about. Not [about] what I wanted, which was just to have Tim Keller on campus to speak, because we have all kinds of people speaking.

We’ve had other people receive this award in the past who aren’t particularly Reformed, even. If you look at the list of previous recipients, it isn’t that we have criteria like that for the award. It’s just that this particular issue for Presbyterians against other kinds of Presbyterians — the award just became impossible to maintain, because we were, through the award, affirming Keller’s position on women’s ordination.

What do the rules of the PCA polity say about cooperating with Baptists and Pentecostals in the ministry of word and sacrament? Think The Gospel Coalition and City-to-City (partners for C2C churches are Acts 29 and Christian Reformed Church).

Not to be missed is that the Kuyper award has not exactly gone to people who battled modernism the way Kuyper did. Notice too that if you can’t tell the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists, you may have trouble with discerning modernism.

At Least It Makes You a Curmudgeon

Presbyterianism, that is.

Bill Smith a good on-line friend is kicking up a little dust of late against Reformed Protestantism or Presbyterianism and maybe a tad triumphal about his own communion (Reformed Episcopal Church) which, the last I checked, was where you still needed to kneel in order to receive grape juice – ba dop bop.

It’s time for pushback.

First, he starts with a legitimate complaint about Presbyterian worship and blames the regulative principle:

Across the PCA you can find strict regulative principle worship (few), traditional worship, contemporary worship, black worship, near charismatic worship, blues worship, revivalistic worship complete with the invitation system, gospel-driven worship, and all sorts of blended worship. You can find ministers leading worship in black Geneva gowns, suits with white shirts and ties, blazers and open collar shirts, polo shirts and sandals, khakis or jeans and sports shirts tucked in or out standing behind pulpits, sitting on stools, walking across and an empty stage. You can find pulpits, baptismal fonts, and communion tables prominently displayed, or entirely hidden. You can sing Psalms and historic hymns, gospel hymns, praise and worship songs, accompanied by nothing, organs, pianos, orchestras, acoustic guitars, and rock bands. Depending on your worship principles, preferences, and personality, you can find the worship in a PCA church comfortable, compatible, challenging, relevant, irrelevant, or offensive.

All of this is true. But you can’t fault the regulative principle which only identifies the elements (as opposed to circumstances and forms) of worship. Those are word, sacrament, prayer (song), and offering (never forget to collect the offering). The RPW does not guarantee uniformity in congregations. It should exclude silliness and frivolity. But if you have officers who are willing to tart worship up to make it relevant, convincing them of the RPW won’t solve anything.

Conversely, rule by one (episcopacy) is fairly effective in generating liturgical conformity. But then there’s Rome. Doh!

Second, he moves to the tragic death of Iain and the allegations swirling around it to argue that Presbyterian government doesn’t work very well. I actually wish Bill had not gone here. It’s still fresh and details are uncertain. But there he went. And his point is that harsh forms of discipline is what Presbyterians are good at:

it also set me thinking again, as I often have, about the way discipline of ministers was handled in my former connection. And it impresses me that it was handled in the way a particular kind of father might deal with his son. The son took the family car out on a Friday night without permission. The father becomes aware of what the son did because (1) the son confessed it, (2) someone who witnessed the son with the family car told the father, or (3) the father himself discovered it.

What does this particular type of father do? (1) He takes away the son’s keys and intends to return them (a) never or (b) after observing his son’s repentance for a long time. (2) He beats the hell out of the son. (3) He requires the son to confess his disobedience and avow his repentance at a council of the whole family.

Now the father may cry. He may even cry with the leaders of his church. He may pour out his heart to God about how he has gone wrong in the bringing up of his son. He may ask others to pray for him and his son. He may tell his son he loves him and that his heart is broken. Still, he takes the keys away forever or an indeterminate time. Still he beats the hell out of the kid. Still he requires the son to humiliate himself before his family.

Does Bill think that the threat of draconian measures were what drove pastor Campbell? Perhaps, but the analogy of a son taking out dad’s car without permission is not necessarily on the same order of a man who has taken vows to a wife and — wait for it — a church (can we get a little high church Reformed Episcopalianism here?). And what is Father Bill going to say to the wife of a man who has cheated on her or abused her? Has Bill Smith had to face down Valerie Hobbs?

Finally, Bill goes all in and defends Lent against its Reformed Protestant critics (“war”? On-line?). He notes that Banner of Truth once had to rearrange a conference because the Dutch Calvinist participants needed to hold Ascension services. He concludes:

Those who object to Ash Wednesday and Lent on principial grounds should recognize that that what they object to on principial grounds is the Christian year. For those who do not reject the Christian year, but allow for the observance of some parts of it, the issue of Lent is one of preference and discretion.

No problem. I’ve been arguing against the church calendar for years. The inter-advental liturgical calendar is 52 Sundays a year.

But at least, Bill still has a Presbyterian attitude.

Christmas as Old School Presbyterianism’s Coexist Moment

Mustafa Akyol’s column on Christmas in Turkey revealed that paleo-Calvinists share much in common with conservative Muslims and Jews during the holiday season:

Islamists in Turkey, every year, come out on the streets or in their media with the slogan, “Muslims do not do Christmas.” Of course, they have every right to not to celebrate a religious feast that is not a part of their religion. But they not only refrain from Christmas; they also protest it.

In fact, those Islamists of Turkey, and other likeminded Christmas-despisers, often “do not know what they are doing,” to quote the noble words of the very person whose birthday is at question here. They typically condemn Santa Claus costumes and Christmas trees as signs of “Western cultural imperialism.” But Christianity is not merely Western; it is also African, Asian and, in fact, global.

Hmm. Christmas as a global solvent of local Reformed Protestant teachings and practices. Go figure.

Jews — ya think? — have similar problems with Christmas.

Israel, too, seems to have a similar problem.

I read about this in an Al-Jazeera English story titled, “Israeli rabbis launch war on Christmas tree.” It reported how the Jerusalem rabbinate issued a letter warning hotels in the city that “it is ‘forbidden’ by Jewish religious law to erect a tree or stage New Year’s parties.” In Haifa, a rabbi, Elad Dokow, went even further, called the Christmas tree “idolatry,” and warned that it was a “pagan” symbol that violated the kosher status buildings.

At a time when New Calvinists heighten their sensitivity to Muslims and Jews, when will they show a little concern for Old Calvinists?

Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?

May Institutions Confess Sins of Persons?

The overture to the PCA General Assembly on racism continues to intrigue if only because this is conceivably a problem just as much for the OPC as for our sister denomination. After all, J. Gresham Machen was no integrationist but held a view of blacks (typical at the time) that anyone today would consider not simply micro but macroracist. So I wonder if the PCA adopts the following overture, will it also petition the OPC to repent for Machen’s sins (for starters):

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10) . . .

One of the arguments made in defense of overtures like this one is that as the continuation of the Presbyterian Church US, the PCA is institutionally in continuity with the views on race that afflicted its southern Presbyterian forebears:

why should we confess for the sins of a church that we were not a part of? Frankly, I do not really understand this objection. The PCA is a continuing denomination; we claim to continue the PCUS. We must publicly confess and repent for sins of those whom we share a covenantal relationship with. God holds our covenant community responsible for our actions, even our sins, collectively. That’s how God works. We must confess for our failures as a church during the Civil Rights Movement and wherever we’ve sinned.

If you peel back the onion layers of institutional/covenantal ties, where do you stop? Why for instance do the overtures not include slavery since the PCUS and the PCUSA both had church members that owned slaves?

In fact, when it comes to institutional continuity, one could argue that PCA is good since the PCUS adopted measures to condemn segregation and approve integration. In his book on the origins of the PCA, Sean Lucas observes:

In 1954, the PCUS General Assembly adopted a report that affirmed “that enforced segregation of the races is discrimination which is out of harmony with Christian theology and ethics” and that urged southern Presbyterian colleges, campgrounds, and churches to be open to all, regardless of race. (For A Continuing Church, 121)

Of course, resolutions like this prompted conservatives in the PCUS who also eventually led in forming the PCA, to oppose the centralization of church power and ecumenism. Some of the opposition also came from sessions and presbyteries. But as for institutional succession, PCA officers could regard themselves as standing in line with the PCUS’s disapproval of racism and segregation.

In fact, throughout Sean Lucas’ five-part series on race and the roots of the PCA, the overwhelming examples of questionable views about race come not from the institutional church but from persons or periodicals. Here is how Lucas describes G. Aiken Taylor:

He told Nelson Bell, “I don’t like agitation on the social question from either side. I am not an integrationist, neither am I a segregationist. My position on this issue is that a view point of whatever kind should not be made the criterion for determining the place or the worth of a man…or a church paper.” In reply, Bell assured him that there was a range of opinions on segregation among the board of directors for the magazine and that he would not be required to hold to a particular party line. That said, the older man also counseled him not to push his more moderate racial views either: “I feel you would be utterly foolish to come to the Journal as editor and make race an issue–certainly at this juncture. There are so many more important things which need to be faced.” As it would happen, Taylor’s position on race, as evidenced in his writing and editorial practice, would largely harmonize with Bell’s own racial views: downplaying forced segregation, dismayed by outside agitators who stirred up the racial issue, and concerned not to let racial politics divert attention from the largely doctrinal and social issues of the day.

Sometimes presbyteries might weigh in but in one case the condemnation concerned rioting not integration:

In 1961, East Alabama Presbytery declared itself against the mob violence that engulfed the Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery: “We express our deep regret and emphatic disapproval of mob violence for whatever cause.”

Even then, only four years later the PCUS took action that would seem to give its Presbyterian successor cover from charges of racism:

When the 1965 PCUS General Assembly endorsed a range of Civil Rights activities, including peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins, over sixty commissioners filed a dissent. Nelson Bell presented it to the assembly, arguing that “some of the methods sanctioned in the document are ‘contrary to or go beyond the jurisdiction of the Church.'” Even if the church desired to support “worthy goals” like racial justice, Aiken Taylor noted, that did not mean that it could do so through “radical measures” or “extremism or vindictiveness.” Later in 1965, Bell worried again that peaceful demonstrations were a small step from civil disobedience and “the step from civil disobedience to riots and violence is even shorter.” Willfully breaking laws, even for a worthy goal, is wrong: “No nation should permit injustice and discrimination to be a part of its accepted way of life. But no nation can survive which placidly allows people to make of themselves prosecutors, jurors, and executioners–and this applies to all citizens.” Means do not justify the end: breaking the law, whether to support segregation or integration, was never right.

Yet, interesting to see is that opposition to General Assembly resolve was not premised on race but on the value of civil disobedience. Yet, when church bodies did engage in explicit forms of racial bigotry, the response of the PCUS and many conservatives (who went into the PCA) was to object:

Second Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee, drew national attention for its refusal to admit mixed-race groups to corporate worship services. One of several Memphis churches targeted in early 1964 by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its “kneel-ins,” Second Church reacted the most negatively. The groups were refused admittance and church officers patrolled the narthex and the front of the church looking for those who would seek to “integrate” the services. The Second Church kneel-ins drew media attention not only because of their racial component, but also because the congregation was scheduled to host the PCUS General Assembly in 1965. As a result, several presbyteries and synods, along with the liberal Presbyterian Outlook, protested allowing the Memphis church to host the assembly; by February 1965, the assembly’s moderator, Felix Gear, a former pastor of Second Church, made the decision to move the coming meeting to the denomination’s assembly grounds in Montreat.

Lucas’ conclusion may be correct that the founding fathers of the PCA sinned, though his book and series show a lot more complications than simply the yes-no question of white supremacy (or not). But the theological question of institutional responsibility for personal sins is a theological question begged rather than answered. Lucas invokes the example of Daniel confessing Israel’s sins:

But his confession is strange–because he doesn’t confess his own private sins, but the sins of Israel and Judah that led to the judgment of the exile: “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listed to your servants the prophets, who spoke in you r name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but us open shame” (Dan 9:5-7).

This wasn’t simply lip synching or going through the motions. Rather, Daniel recognized his own covenantal complicity in what his fathers and forefathers had done and in bringing about the exile. And he confessed those sins and repented: “We have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Dan 9:15).

By that same exegesis, isn’t the PCA righteous for the way its parent body, the PCUS, condemned racism and segregation?

The Presbyterian Fix

Scott Sauls (thanks to our southern correspondent) bemoans the pressures that pastors experience:

Studies show that pastors experience anxiety and depression at a rate that is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the population. Due to the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, the freedom many feel to criticize and gossip about pastors with zero accountability (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage and family tensions due to the demands of ministry, financial strains and self-comparison, pastors are prime candidates for relational isolation, emotional turmoil, and moral collapse.

Studies also show that some pastors face unreasonable, even impossible, demands placed on them by their people. I am NOT one of those pastors, thanks to a church that both receives my gifts and embraces my limitations. All in all, the people of Christ Presbyterian Church treat me with extraordinary love and kindness. But, sadly, not all pastors are as lucky as I am.

Dr. Thom Rainer, a leading pastoral ministry guru, once conducted a survey asking church members what they expected from their pastors. Specifically, Dr. Rainer wanted to know the minimum amount of time church members believed their pastors should give each week to various areas of ministry, including prayer, sermon preparation, outreach and evangelism, counseling, administrative tasks, visiting the sick, community involvement, denominational engagement, church meetings, worship services, and so on. On average, the minimum amount of time church members expected their pastors to give to the ministry was 114 hours per week.

One solution to the problem is for congregations to adjust their expectations of pastors:

[I]t is time to once and for all remove your pastor from the pedestal where you and others may have been tempted to placed him. Under the right circumstances, we pastors can be some of the best friends and advocates. But we pastors make very, very bad heroes. Turning us into heroes not only hurts our churches, it also hurts us. When you put us on a pedestal and we fall, it hurts a lot more to fall from a pedestal than it does from the ground where everybody else is standing. Plus, only Jesus belongs on a pedestal. We pastors are shepherds…but we are also sheep just like everybody else. We have struggles and fears. We get depressed and anxious sometimes. We are at times unsure of ourselves, and we go through seasons wondering if we really belong in ministry.

I would have thought a Presbyterian pastor would have two solutions at the ready other than congregational lowered expectations. The first is a session that oversees a pastor and reminds him that the pulpit is not his show but a ministry shared by an assembly of officers. The second is a ministry based on word and sacrament so that what drives a church has less to do with the pastor’s charisma than with Word and Spirit. Pastors are only farmers — not public intellectuals. They only plant seeds. God waters, right?

Presbyterianism is the great antidote to celebrity pastors, if only people would stop looking at Presbyterianism as a social and cultural upgrade from being Baptist.