Who’s Afraid of Orthodox Presbyterians?

I may have asked this before, but do Hasidic Jews or Amish engage in the wailing and gnashing of teeth that afflicts white Protestants in America? Where are the Hasidic Jews coming out in support of Trump because we need a president to appoint the right Supreme Court justices? And Amish on Twitter? Oxymoron doesn’t cover it. But the Amish do have a record of carving out their own existence in the United States without any ambition to take over “English” society.

Samual Goldman’s review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe, prompts a repeat of the question: do Jews and Amish engage in the same sort of outrage about America’s decadence as Christians (and relatedly, why don’t Christians, if they really are strangers and aliens, act more like Hasidic Jews and Amish?)? Here’s one part of Goldman’s review:

Why do Jews escape the opprobrium to which traditionalist Catholics or Baptists are subjected? Partly because they have never been more than a tiny minority, but also because they make few claims on political and cultural authority. Apart from a few neighborhoods in and around New York City, no one fears that religious Jews will attempt to dictate how they live their own lives. As a result, they are able to avoid most forms of interference with their communities.

There is a lesson here for the Christian traditionalists for whom Eberstadt speaks. They are more likely to win space to live according to their
consciences to the extent that they are able to convince a majority that includes more liberal Christians and non-Christian believers, as well as
outright secularists, that they are not simply biding their time until they are able to storm the public square. In addition, they will have to develop institutions of community life that are relatively low-visibility and that can survive without many forms of official support. The price of inclusion in an increasingly pluralistic society may be some degree of voluntary exclusion from the dominant culture.

Keep that in mind when thinking about Camden Bucey’s post about the differences between the OPC and PCA. Two quotations stand out in that piece. The first goes to the transformationalism to which the PCA aspired from the get-go well before the elixir of TKNY. According to Sean Lucas:

The PCA has sought to be evangelical Presbyterians and Presbyterian evangelicals, which has given the church a voice to the broader culture. Holding the church together has not been easy. For some, frustrations have arisen from the church’s tendency to opt for an identity that is more comprehensive than pure. Others are disappointed that the church often spends a great deal of time on relatively fine points of Reformed doctrine instead of focusing on mission, cultural engagement, or evangelism.

But the OPC has functioned on the margins of American society and whether intentionally or not, its lack of size and financial resources has nurtured a communion with the outlook of a pilgrim people. According to Charlie Dennison:

While everyone in the OPC understands our opposition to liberalism, some have had trouble understanding the aversion that others have to evangelicalism. They have been unable to accept the conclusion of Cornelius Van Til and others that evangelicalism, as a system, is Arminian. They have been unable to accept the criticism that modern evangelicalism’s view of regeneration is subjective, incapable of rising above a personal experience of sin and grace to the level of the covenant and the federal headship of Adam and Christ. Further, they have been unable to accept the growing historical and social evidence that contemporary evangelicalism is worldly, individualistic, and adolescent, craving acceptance and desperately wanting to make an impact.

I (mmmmeeeEEEE) discussed these differences with CW and Wresby at Presbycast this week (feel the love).

What I have trouble grasping is the appeal of transformationalism and changing the culture. On the one hand, that is so Moral Majoritarian. Haven’t we seen the colossal failure of such efforts, not to mention how self-defeating they are if you want a hip, urban profile in the cultural mainstream? On the other hand, if you want to pass on the faith, which is lower-case-t transformationalism, do you really think you can do it in the public square? Didn’t Mary lose her son in the marketplace?

As Goldman writes, it won’t be easy giving up on Francis Schaeffer’s Christian nationalism. But at some point you need to adjust to the hand you’ve been dealt:

There is no doubt that this will be a hard bargain for adherents of traditions that enjoyed such immense authority until recently. As Eberstadt points out, however, it will also be difficult for progressives who resemble Falwell in their moral majoritarianism. The basis for coexistence must be a shared understanding that the Christian America for which some long and that others fear isn’t coming back—not only because it was Christian but also because it involved a level of consensus that is no longer available to us. There are opportunities for believers and nonbelievers alike in this absence.

If transformationalists finally recognize that Schaeffer and TKNY are in the same Christian nationalist orbit as Falwell, will they finally say “ewww”?

UPDATE

Postscript: In other words, you don’t pray in the public square (even if it’s in the hallowed city):

Mainline Presbyterians and later, evangelicals, may once have been the Republican party at prayer. There may once have been an easy alliance, an assumption of shared religious values between those entities but Ms Dhillon’s prayer last night illustrates how that alliance is coming to an end. This is not a lament. The alliance should never have been. Christians as individuals and private societies (groups) may affiliate as they will but Christians as a group and certainly the visible, institutional church should never become utterly identified with any political party. If evangelicals and other Protestants (e.g., confessionalists) were uneasy with Ms Dhillon’s prayer, I can easily imagine how awkward it must have been for Ms Dhillon to witness the closing prayer and imprecation. Watching it on YouTube last night made me uncomfortable and he professes to be a minister of (some version) of the faith I confess.

Both the opening and closing of last night’s events are a good argument for doing away with public, shared prayers in such, common, secular events. It’s not that delegates to political conventions should not pray. They should. It’s not that candidates should not pray. They should. It’s not that voters should not pray. They should. The question is not whether but when? It is dubious whether it is appropriate to open a common, secular, assembly with prayer. To whom are we praying? In whose name? What are we praying? As a Christian minister of the United Reformed Churches in North America I am not free to offer prayers to God that he has not authorized. I am not free to pray to any other deity than the Triune God of Scripture, to the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not authorized to approach God in any other name than the name of Jesus. It is not a matter of bigotry. It is a matter of truth, eternal life, and salvation. Jesus was raised from the dead. He is the truth (John 14:6). There are not multiple ways to God. Religion is not multifaceted expression of a common religious experience. It is revealed by God to us.

Does the Tie that Binds Extend to Old Life?

I wondered after reading this:

Jevon is a Pastoral Resident and Church Planting Intern at Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. What that means is that Jevon is a Bible-believing Christian who has devoted his life to serving Jesus Christ vocationally within the same denomination that we’re a part of. Jevon and I have a whole lot in common. Though we’ve never met personally, I can say with a great deal of confidence that our fellowship would be sweet.

But there is one observable difference: Jevon is black, and I am white. Because of the color of his skin, Jevon faces fears that I don’t face. That fact alone is profoundly disturbing to me, and it should be disturbing to all Christians. For at the foundation of Christianity is the belief that ALL men and women (no qualifications) are made in the image of God and deserve the dignity and treatment consistent with that reality.

I too like to think (all about mmmmeeeeEEEE) that I am a Bible-believing Christian who serves Christ and who has fellowship with Pastor Shurden through ecumenical ties between the OPC and PCA. And yet I wonder if the sweet, sweet fellowship that he assumes he has with Jevon Washington also includes confessional, spirituality-of-the-church Presbyterians like moi.

Or in this post-Ferguson era does Pastor Shurden feel more affinity with Michelle Higgins than with Chortles Weekly? If the basis for fellowship among Presbyterians is biblical teaching summarized in the Confession of Faith, then creed matters more than blood. After all, it takes more than being human to belong to a Presbyterian communion (though being human is pretty good).

How Far Will Racial Reconciliation Go?

Michelle Higgins and her father want it to go far:

Perhaps we evangelicals are silent – some refusal to acknowledge the whole identities of LGBTQ+ people – because we are bigoted terrorists too.
Our propaganda: circulating a petition to boycott Target. Our victims: image-bearers whose souls conditions are neither revealed to or controlled by us. We live as if faith gives us the right to direct people’s bodies. This is not faith-filled living. It is oppression.
And much like the realization breaking upon us in the current political climate: this is not evangelicalism. At all.

Evangelicals are a diverse group, thankfully some of our circles include the LGBTQ+ family. Many of us are showing up in solidarity with queer communities around the world, grateful for the invitation to grieve together. But many others in our evangelical family walk a dangerous path of passing judgment before showing compassion. If we readily proclaim that LGBTQ+ people are sacred image-bearers, we must also confess and dismantle our participation in the long history of hatred that has them scared. It is easy to express sympathy for our fellow humans. But we are called to a greater task: to confess that the lives of our gay, lesbian, queer, and trans friends are sacred. We must be willing to say that the lives of queer people of color matter to God.

What if Muslims are people of color?

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?

If Only the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Would Join

This Day in Presbyterian History has the remarks of Richard Gray in 1965 at the merger of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Synod which became Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (the tree that bore the fruit of TKNY). Several themes stand out.

First, the trauma of 1937 was not the death of J. Gresham Machen:

I sat on that day in June in the New Century Club in Philadelphia with a group of people known as the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. There the constituting act for the Presbyterian Church of America was adopted. There stepped to the platform the young professor of philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, Gordon H. Clark, and in “Clarkian” style he took from his pocket two 8 1/2 x 11 pages and delivered a terse but brilliant nominating speech which made J. Gresham Machen moderator of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America.

It was like standing upon a tower. There was a great vista before us. I felt as though I was a part of church history and in my bones were some of the great convictions of the Reformers and of the early Christians. But within one year I was to know something of the disillusionment and the discouragement that causes the Psalmist to cry out in the first three verses of Psalm 60. This initial group split and each side tagged the other with labels which it has taken about 25 years to wash off.

Second, Dutch-American Calvinists did not own w-w rhetoric:

I believe we are still in the warfare and we still have the same banner. The banner raised in the cause of truth was raised for the turth against compromise inecclesiastical matters. We were standing for the purity of the visible church. We felt that the organized church had been instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ and it was not simply an association of convenience, or an organization that one joined because he wanted to get ahead, or even merely to give one the opportunity of preaching the gospel.

Also the banner of truth was raised against compromise culturally. We believed that Christianity was not only a fire escape from hell, so to speak, but it was a life-and-world view. We still believe this. We held this against the encroaching secularism of the day, against the deadening formalism of the church, and against the contaminating worldliness with which the church had become tainted.

Third, the OPC needed to join the RPCES to add forces to the culture war:

“There is a great need on the American scene for a sturdy, conservative Presbyterian denomination. The union of the EPC and the RPC is an important step in achieving this. If next the OPC can be brought to join forces, a truly impressive denomination would resutl. Numerically they would form a pretty good network of churches across the country. Separatist movements usually carry in themselves the seeds of further division as shown again in the days of 1936. The new denomination has learned these lessons it may be hoped.

“If the OPC should come along, too, there would be adequate number of experienced men with balanced judgment to keep the denomination on a sound course, one to encourage steady growth by local progress in attracting to the new church our Presbyterian groups seeking a happy spiritual home.

“To assist” (and I think this is a very important paragraph) “this last suggested development to occur the new denomination should follow a statesman-like policy toward the USA and the Southern church. They might well feel that their role in the south should be to testify without derogating. Criticisms that have to be made in faithfulness to Scripture could be offered in an evident spirit of loving concern, in sorrow not condemnation. It might be indicated that the line of separation that sometimes has to be drawn is often very difficult to decide upon, one man’s conscience not having received the same education as another’s, and Biblical interpretation on the issue of separation not standing out sharply and obviously clearly.”

The OPC is still on the outside looking in. Will the PCA show the same respect for conscience among “southerners” as Gray mentioned?

Even When Doctrine Doesn’t Change Doctrine Changes

Changes in pastoral practice indicate changes in understanding of doctrine:

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on.

Changing doctrine is better than ignoring doctrine. Ignoring doctrine is a bigger change than changing doctrine.

Y B O P C

I have already raised the question about whether belonging to a denomination like the OPC is a good thing. Now as I sit through a prolonged and valuable procedural debate at General Assembly, I wonder again why pastors who want big, contemporary congregations that appeal to Protestants without great biblical or theological discernment and who prefer up-tempo Christian songs led by praise bands (without brass instruments, mind you) — why do these officers endure the deliberations that consume sessions’, presbyteries’, and assemblies’ time and talents. What do you gain by being a minister in a Presbyterian communion like the OPC? It is not as if the OPC is a brand that attracts visitors and new members. You don’t put the OPC logo on your church signs to watch the parking lot fill. So why put up with the often baroque dealings of church courts and committee reports when you are not so particular about worship, the fine points of the confession, and the rigor of Reformed piety (e.g. Sabbath observance)?

I have come up with three reasons for people who come into the OPC and stay there.

1) Tribalism: Someone whose father or grandfather left the PCUSA in 1936 with Machen. The notion would be something like, “this is the church where my family has worshiped for three generations and so out of loyalty to my kin and I remain a true blue Orthodox Presbyterian.” Other Reformed communions, those with ethnic identities, like the CRC (Dutch-American) or RPCNA (Scots-American) have ethnic attachments that generally elude the OPC. But in some cases, you do see how family keeps some Orthodox Presbyterians Orthodox Presbyterian. (Of course, the nature of covenant nurture itself is a form of tribalism since a child baptized and nurtured in an OP family and congregation, who remains OP, does so in part as part of generational succession.)

2) The Cause: People who identify with Machen and the battle against liberalism in the church and who defend the authority of Scripture come to the OPC and stay there because the denomination is the embodiment of that cause that J. Gresham Machen led throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This was a big factor in my own joining the OPC and continuing to serve. This understanding of OPC identity has sometimes run up against a view of the OPC as a church committed to the Great Commission in which polemics and debate distract from evangelism and edification. The problem with this view is that you wouldn’t have the OPC without polemics and debate. So seeing the very pieces of the church’s DNA as antithetical to evangelism and mission is to be in denial about the denomination’s origins. For these OP’s, evangelism and edification occur in the context of polemics and debate.

3) The Reformed Faith is Pretty Good Great: Another way to identify with the OPC is to look at the central dynamics of the Reformed branch of Protestantism and try to find them in existing communions where you live. Then find and join the one that is most interested in a ministry reformed according to the word of God. Any number of communions could qualify as following in the larger footprints of the Reformation, but judging which one is most reformed according to the word determines which one you join. (Since having to think about the global history of Reformed Protestantism, I have come to regard and identify with the OPC on these grounds.)

I’m willing to lengthen my list.