How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?

Liberal Presbyterianism before Erdman

Not science or naturalism but politics, community, social capital, and civility have weakened Presbyterian convictions way more than higher criticism or evolution. The situation in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution and the restoration of Presbyterianism in the Kirk:

This new urban sociability reflected and contributed to the pan-British and European shift towards latitudinarianism near the turn of the century. The clergy’s co-operation in pursuits that lay outside the narrow boundaries of theology fostered camaraderie among individuals from across the religious spectrum. ‘We perfectly agree with you in your sentiments’, the London Society for the Reformation of Manners wrote to their Scottish counterparts, ‘that however Christians may differ in opinion as to other things, yet they should all agree in advancing the common interest of Christianity in promoting the practice of piety and virtue.’ In turn, the Scottish Societies resolved ‘not to meddle with the particular opinions or practices of persons in religion, [for] although we differ in our sentiments as to some things, yet that we are united in our zeal for God, our charity for men, and concern for our country, do invite and entreat all’. When the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge sought donations to establish parochial libraries throughout northern Scotland in the early 1700s, they relied on English clergymen of all theological stripes for assistance. An analysis of the libraries’ catalogues reveals an interesting result from the joint endeavour. In addition to the expected staples of orthodox Presbyterians, English men and women sent discourses that were disproportionately comprised of moderate English Episcopalian bishops or archbishops, such as John Tillotson, Gilbert Burnet, Edward Stillingfleet and Benjamin Hoadly, as well as Robert Leighton, the former archbishop of Glasgow who had attempted to unite Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the 1670s. Furthermore, scientific and philosophical writings by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Robert Sibbald, Robert Boyle,William Chillingworth, Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Puffendorf, in addition to Cicero and Euclid, were also quite popular. Records for Inverness, Dumbarton, Dingwall, Dumfries, Sleat, Duriness, Kilmoor, South Uist and Bracadle all confirm this pattern to be the norm.

Against this trend of tolerance and intellectual innovation, a majority of Presbyterians vehemently resisted with protests in the General Assembly and legal depositions in the parishes. There was a noticeable dichotomy between the Assembly’s leanings and those of the Presbyterians who comprised it. How, then, did the moderates attain their victories and enforce their influence? They relied upon the Williamite state, which was committed to forging inclusive national churches in Scotland and England, to turn a numerical disadvantage into an opportunity via diplomacy and undemocratic means – namely, the strategic manipulation of key religious institutions. (Ryan K. Frace, “Religious Toleration in the Wake of Revolution: Scotland on the Eve of Enlightenment, 1688-1710s,” Journal of the Historical Association, 2008, 369-70)

Can You Write This After 2019? (finale)

Another entry under the category of timelines, to go with part one and part two.

What did the black church need roughly fifteen years ago?

We are now living in a generation of African Americans who are significantly unchurched. For three centuries, the black church stood as the central institution of black life. Its relevance was unquestioned and its moral and spiritual capital unparalleled. Now, the church is largely viewed as irrelevant by vast numbers of mostly young African Americans, despite concerted efforts to make the church a multipurpose human service organization with housing, child care, after school, health care, economic development and other social service programs. It seems the more the church does the less relevant it becomes.

The reason for this state of affairs is that the unbelieving world tacitly understands that the primary reason for the church’s existence is not temporal. Though the world is wracked with pain and suffering, it intuitively grasps the fact that the answers it longs for are transcendent, not earthly. So, the more the church appeals to the world’s felt needs and physical deprivations, the more irrelevant it becomes to those who lack a true and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [2007] 244-45)

This Would be Transformationalist(izational)

Imagine if Christmas songs started this way in the eighteenth century:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Man it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’
And I brought me some corn for poppin’
The lights are turned way down low
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

And the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, and snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you’d really grab me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

Oh the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Then, two hundred years later, most English-speakers were singing (or hearing in the convenience story, for example) this:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

That would be something on the order of taking a song with reference only to the affects of a holiday and giving them serious Christian significance.

Why, though, does transformationalism so invariably go the other way? Leigh Schmidt had a theory. It was commerce and no one did it better than (sort of) New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, founder and owner of Philadelphia’s great department store, Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s):

The store’s holiday slogan in the 1950s was “Christmas Isn’t Christmas without a Day at Wanamaker’s,” and the slogan contained a grain of ethnographic description along with its advertising hype. A Catholic nun and schoolteacher, for example, wrote warmly to the store in 1950: “I made a special trip, as many of us do, just to ‘see Wanamaker’s.'” These excursions to behold the Grand Court each year at the holidays had become, she said, part of her “Christmas ritual.” (167)

Schmidt added:

For more than a century, the American marketplace has displayed a striking capacity for consecration at Christmas. Christian symbols have been repeatedly brought into the public square and made a matter of public recognition through commercial institutions. . . . At no other time in the year have the tensions over religious pluralism been more evident: Christmas has been set up as an all-embracing cultural celebration often with only passing sensitivity to those whom the holiday marginalizes. (169)

That was 1996.

I Prefer Metrosexual Evangelicalism

But such a category is not available, apparently.

Instead, the one that “thought leaders” are adopting is “cosmopolitan” evangelical as opposed to its “populist” evangelical sibling (or cousin, or in-law, or neighbor — the relationship is unclear). Dan Hummel tries to explain cosmopolitan evangelicalism:

“Cosmopolitan” does not necessarily mean “liberal” or “progressive.” What cosmopolitan denotes are the priorities and practices of a subculture. Following Lindsay’s schematic, cosmopolitan evangelicals are sociologically distinct (they “travel frequently, are involved in the arts, and live affluent lifestyles”); they possess cultural power (often affiliated with universities, “have greater access to powerful institutions, and the social networks they inhabit are populated by leaders in government, business, and entertainment”); and they eschew large-scale action and mass politics in favor of invited or “exclusive gatherings” or at least ones that bring together “social and professional peers” that have as their aim not immediate conversions but cultural legitimacy and cultivating long term influence (Faith in the Halls of Power, 218-222).

Hummel goes on to locate cosmo eevees in a set of knowledge producing (or repackaging) institutions:

Perhaps drawing the circle beyond the “faculty lounge” to include study centers, independent artists, and a bunch of InterVarsity, Zondervan, Baker Academic, and Eerdmans authors doesn’t change the calculation much. But perhaps it is notable how much of the institutional infrastructure of evangelicalism is run by cosmopolitan types, from those Christian presses, to many of the Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries, to Christianity Today. Organizations like World Vision, the National Association of Evangelicals, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Made to Flourish fall into this category. And plenty of local churches craft identities that, to varying degrees, embrace some form of the above cosmopolitans.

Another marker is the knowledge cosmo eevee’s consume:

Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is fifth, and judged by numbers of reviews easily outperforms the book by Huckabee or books by Eric Metaxas. The new study by Robert P. Jones, White Too Long, is in the top ten, as is du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Du Mez’s book outperforms Al Mohler’s The Gathering Storm, a perhaps more useful comparison because they both were released in June 2020 (and Mohler is a subject in du Mez’s book). Others in the top echelon include Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, Giboney, Wear, and Chris Butler’s Compassion & Conviction, and Eric Mason’s Woke Church. Tisby’s forthcoming How to Fight Racism is already in the top fifty and does not release until 2021.

Decidedly missing is any recognition of the church or a Christian communion. These are places where cosmo’s might reasonably interact with populists (though it can go very badly) and where the two sides might recognize truths and practices each group has in common. Such unity could help to diminish the partisanship among evangelicals that often stems from differences in socio-economic status.

A recent read through Kenneth Woodward’s essay about growing up Roman Catholic in the Cleveland suburbs suggests that church and ecclesiastical life is pretty good at breaking down barriers that emerge from education, degrees, credentials, and salaries:

every religious group formed its own subculture, some more closed to the outside world than others. Lutherans, Adventists, and some (mostly Orthodox) Jews also operated their own religious schools, and in Utah, as in much of the South, Mormon and Southern Baptist majorities effectively determined the religious ethos of public classrooms. But at mid-century only Catholics inhabited a parallel culture that, by virtue of their numbers, ethnic diversity, wide geographical distribution, and complex of institutions mirrored the outside “public” culture yet was manifestly different. We were surrounded by a membrane, not a wall, one that absorbed as much as it left out. It was, in other words, the means by which we became American as well as Catholic.

Catholic education was the key. Through its networks of schools and athletic leagues, the church provided age-related levels of religious formation, learning, and belonging that extended through high school and, for some of us, on into college. Church, therefore, always connoted more than just the local parish: kids experienced it anywhere, including schools, where the Mass was said. In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community—not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship. In my adolescent years, for example, St. Christopher’s transformed its basement on Saturday nights into the “R Canteen” where teenagers from all over Cleveland’s West Side danced to juke-box music; a muscular young priest from the parish roamed the premises to prevent fights and keep the drunks at bay. Yes, Catholics felt like hyphenated Americans, but nothing in human experience, we also came to feel, was foreign to the church.

Perhaps this Roman Catholic culture was too thick for the good of finding a common enterprise in the wider society, though it is striking that when denominational consciousness was at it highest, national purpose was also clearest (at least during the twentieth-century). Forming religious ghettos could conceivably add to the fragmentation of national life that has only multiplied during the Trump presidency.

But, whatever thick religious identity that centers around the church means for the nation, worshiping together and belonging to the same communion is one important source for a common Christian identity. Of course, evangelicals do not have much of an ecclesiology so it may be asking too much of cosmo eevee’s to start now.

At the same time, the knowledge class of evangelicals might have acquaintance with scholarship on religious identity and awareness of other groups to prevent the creation of yet another stripe of evangelical.

Machen Day 2020

Ages well.

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” (Patton, in the introduction to William Hallock Johnson The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlight, [1916], p. 7.) Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. (1-2)

The Stumbling Blocks Whom You Should Read for Edification

Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania could do a better job of teaching the public about the significance of historical monuments, the reasons behind them, and how to sort through the defects and achievements of figures that past generations esteemed.

The church has a different and better tool kit. Unfortunately, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, did not use it. The officers there have decided to remove the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, two southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery, from lecture series, walls, and publications. In the pastoral letter sent to congregation members, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote the following:

Some, seeing the wanton destruction meted out by mobs elsewhere in our society, may worry that we, too, are effacing our history. I do not think that is the case. There is much more to learn from Thornwell and Palmer in
their writings. Thornwell’s four-volume Collected Writings is still available in our church library and for purchase on the internet. His works on the nature of God, creation, the Scriptures, and justification will continue to be taught and read, whatever the names of our buildings may be. The same is true of Palmer’s works, in particular his superb The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. In any case, I doubt very much whether either man would wish his name assigned to a church building. 

I have been an admirer of both James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer ever since I was introduced to their writings at seminary in mid-1970’s. To mention but one issue, Thornwell’s contribution to the understanding of the office of ruling elder shaped my direction into Presbyterian convictions (I was a Baptist) and continues to be important. Palmer’s The Broken Home and Theology of Prayer are two very fine works. I fully intend to read them again.

For years, I believed that we could honor the good while conceding to the bad. But their views on slavery and race were not just bad and wrong, they are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. I recall a black preacher, some forty years ago at a Banner of Truth conference in England, saying, “I love Thornwell on this issue, but he was horribly wrong on race and slavery.” That narrative does not work anymore. The names now are a “stumbling block” to our ability to witness to our African-American brothers and sisters. They are an impediment to enable us to witness on college campuses. And they are hurtful to our African-American members.

I can only imagine the pressure a congregation like this one senses in the current climate and do not intend to pile on from one side when they are likely receiving lots of pressure from the other. But I still have trouble understanding how you recommend Thornwell and Palmer as theologians while also declaring they are stumbling blocks. Who will pick up their works now? Even more, who is better situated to defend the value of their theology despite their objectionable political views and the doctrine they used to support them? If not officers and members at congregations at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, don’t expect the folks at Redeemer New York City or Christ Presbyterian Nashville.

Another puzzle is the timing. The names of Thornwell and Palmer are objectionable now? They haven’t been since the Civil Rights’ movement? Or since 2016 when the ARP General Synod confessed “the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism”? As in the case of Princeton and Penn, the action of removing a name or a statue does not make up for the years that your institution was content to live with those names and figures. Simply admitting your fault does not create a new institution with new officers and staff. It’s the same people today making apologies who yesterday were unmindful of anything wrong.

The thing is, the defense of good theologians who got social institutions wrong is not all tricky since it involves the very word of God. Christians who read their Old Testament, maybe not as large as they once were, know that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was not necessarily the man most fathers desire as a spouse for their daughters. He deceived his own father to acquire Esau’s birthright, and later deceived his father-in-law about livestock (for starters). He played favorites with his sons and should have exerted more control in the unseemly retribution for Shechem’s sexual infidelity with Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34). The patriarch was no saint as some communions evaluate sanctity.

And yet, the Old Testament authors did not cancel Jacob. His name occurs over and over again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — thirty-four times in the Psalter alone.

If any Old Testament figure qualified as a stumbling block, it was Jacob, not to mention that if you were looking for parts of the Bible over which to stumble, the Old Testament has to be considered.

All of which is to say that Christianity, even the very Word of God, has lots of challenging material for contemporary believers. In our time of safe spaces, certainly the likes of Thornwell and Palmer have little appeal. But if you start to jettison figures long regarded for their insights and contributions, how do you protect the Bible itself?

Transcending Partisan Politics is Sectarian

Evangelical Protestants suffer from a tic. It is an unwillingness to identify with a political party. Evangelical writers about politics can spot the defects of both the left and the right, though they don’t often calculate which side has the most flaws. They act as if Christians really are above politics. When believers follow the Bible, they will not have to settle for either what liberals or conservatives propose.

A couple examples: the first on race.

The danger is that Christians who rightly reject the first (conservative) view as sub-biblical will merely pick up the second (progressive) view uncritically and use the terminology that it provides. But both are secular, reductionistic and simplistic. The Bible’s account of justice includes both individual and systemic dimensions—and more. We are not merely individual and social, but also soul and body. Indeed, the term “world” (kosmos) in the New Testament has not only a material reality (as in God loving the world of human beings, John 3:16), but also a spiritual reality, an inevitable tendency to make counterfeit gods out of good created things (1 John 2:15-16). “Doing justice” on the basis of the biblical view will include extraordinary prayer and evangelism along with everything else. The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.

The second on communism.

Liberation theology, which puts a Christian face on Marxist social analysis, retains an enormous mystique on the Christian left. This isn’t because left-leaning Christians admire Stalin but because they are profoundly skeptical of the alternative to communism: economic systems built on property and contract rights protected by the rule of law. These systems produce economic growth, but as wealth has grown we’ve also seen a growing worldliness and materialism in our cultures. Christians on the left (most famously Gregory Paul) point to the radical economic community of the church in Acts 2–5 and ask if this doesn’t implicitly delegitimize market systems of price and exchange.

Right-leaning Christians, meanwhile, often seem indistinguishable from secular conservatives. They rail against communism, yet almost none of them seems to have read serious theological analysis of communism—not even from anti-communist Christians like Chambers. In almost every case, their top priority is to protect free markets and economic growth rather than oppose the atheistic inhumanity of the communist worldview. And their zeal to defend free markets often leads them to downplay, or even celebrate, the worldliness and crass materialism that have been associated with economic growth.

Why is the church haunted by communism, even though in Christ crucified we already possess the real answer to the world’s suffering and injustice? Because the church hasn’t put a Christian economic ethic into practice systematically. We need, but don’t know how to develop, an organized and operational Christian economic life.

Actually, the Amish have developed an economic system by some measures. But even their herculean efforts to retain Christian solidarity depends on the “English’s” society of property, currency, a legal system, and the political process that functions in, with, and around economic systems. Talk about systemic.

This does not mean that Christian academics should refrain from connecting dots between revelation (general and special) and politics or economics. What it does mean is that Christians trying to be Christian about everything, including politics and economics, separate themselves from the institutions most responsible for those areas of society. Christian w-w thinking is really a product of a ghetto that is isolated from bodies of learning and institutional structures in which political and economic decisions are made.

It is functionally Amish. Is that where New Calvinists want to be? Sectarians on the margins?

Will the PCA Repent of Homophobia?

I have not read the PCA report on sexuality, but from reading and listening to comments about it, I am inclined to think that leadership in the PCA thinks about racism differently from same-sex attraction, that one is something the church needs to condemn vigorously, the other is a condition around which the church needs to tread delicately.

Consider the following expressions of repentance:

As an organization, we need to more deeply self-examine and change. While there have been some strides over the last eighteen months, we haven’t been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing, supporting and developing Black and Latino leadership in the US. We repent. Though we have aspired to be a trans-denominational ministry, our training materials and events in the US have lacked the rich presence and leadership of Black and Latino theologians and are still largely distilled through a majority culture theological lens and ministry practices. We repent. A significant portion of our time, expertise and resources in the ministry have been focused on educated white leaders in center cities, and we could have done more as it relates to the historic and systemic segregation in the American church. We repent.

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); …

In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.

If, as the Confession of Faith has it, sanctification is “imperfect in this life” and part of “a continual and irreconcilable war” (13.2), these repeated expressions of repentance make sense. Less plausible is how they fit with the idea of private confession of sin, as in, “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” (15.6)

First Part of Review of PCA Statement on Same-Sex Attraction

Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:

Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One

The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”

Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.

In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.

Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.

Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”

Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.

The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.

Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.

The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.

The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.

The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:

The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:

What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?

How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?

How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)

So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:

Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.

Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)

The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.

Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.

This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.

But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.

Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference

clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)

Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.

This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.

Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.

I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.