Presbyterianism In Secret or in Private?

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness Presbyterianism before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

2“Thus, when you give to the needy commission deaconesses, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

So what does it mean when a pastor is Presbyterian in name but known nationally and interdenominationally by his own evangelical brand? You could say, he is practicing his Presbyterianism in secret and God, who sees in secret, will reward such Protestantism. He keeps his Presbyterianism to himself. Likewise, it could be that the critics of parachurch evangelicalism on Presbyterian grounds are the hypocrites who practice their Presbyterianism in public by identifying with a particular denomination or communion and letting that shape their reputation. This is a form of practicing Presbyterianism for others to see.

But what if practicing Presbyterianism in secret also cuts you off from practicing evangelicalism in public? Isn’t the point of the Sermon on the Mount partly to avoid hypocrisy? In which case, ministering in a Presbyterian church is inconsistent with ministering in an interdenominational setting. And avoiding an evangelical ministry because of Presbyterian convictions is a version of practicing Presbyterianism in secret since the confessional Presbyterian’s absence from the Gospel-Industrial-Complex conference is invisible — no one knows the Presbyterian isn’t there or why he or she is not.

So isn’t an application of Christ’s warnings about practicing piety in public that you better mean what you believe (and oh, by the way, vow)? And if you mean what you confess as a Presbyterian, why and how can you minister with non-Presbyterians?


At Least It’s Not a Conference about Lent

Redeemer Big Apple is sponsoring a conference during this Lenten reason not about repentance and abstinence but about work:

When we see that work is created to glorify God, our work doesn’t necessarily get easier, but it does become more meaningful. The pain in our work is faced with greater honesty, where the brokenness can finally be named and seen. The unseen potential of our work is faced with greater imagination, where an innovative spirit can unleash what yearns to be resurrected. In short, when we discover that we’re formed to work for God’s glory, we find that our small tasks aren’t so small, and our big tasks are in better hands. Work becomes desirable. Rest becomes possible. Faith becomes essential.

Join us for a two-day experience where we’ll investigate how we are formed to work for the glory of God. Artists and educators, designers and technicians, homemakers, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everyone in between are welcome.

Plumbers? Janitors? Bakers? The only non-professionals included in that list are homemakers.

But the oddest part of the conference is its “Glimpses,” or “exciting opportunities throughout the city to participate in diverse experiences centered around work, culture and sabbath.” These include:


In this thrilling urban scavenger hunt, you’ll experience New York City as you never have before. Within teams, you’ll work through city-centric challenges and puzzles and learn new things about the Big Apple along the way.


Join us for a stand-up comedy performance followed by an in-depth look into how the gospel intersects with the entertainment sector.


Have some ice cream and see this newly opened and highly lauded East Village shop that blends a great product with a powerful mission.


Come visit one of the largest real estate firms in New York City, where we’ll see how urban homes are found and made, and hear from a broker about the inner workings of the vast and complex NYC market.


Learn a simple and practical method for bringing God’s beauty into your personal space. Together we’ll learn a new restful hobby and the spiritual importance of fostering beauty in your daily life.


How can running be a form of practicing rest? Come find out and run through a guided path with a group.


Get an inside look at the excitement and energy of a trading floor. We’ll also hear from a panel of finance industry employees to hear about the shifts, values, and complexities of the financial sphere.


With more than 400 years of history, come see the Lower Manhattan neighborhood where what once were cow paths and trading posts are now skyscraper lined streets.


Knowing His great care for our bodies, how can we invite God into our physical workouts? Through meditation and prayer, we’ll discover how to connect God to breathing and movement in this meditation that will also include an hour long yoga class and journaling.

Aside from blessing Goldman Sachs at a time when I would have thought progressive-leaning, Ta Nehisi Coates-reading evangelicals were woke about neo-liberalism (not to mention the 2008 financial collapse and the federals’ bailout), could this list of consumption, tourism, and entertainment be any more of a cliche? It would be like the OPC selling shirts that can’t be tucked in, pocket protectors, and slide rules at one of its pre-General Assembly conferences?

Or could it be that when you are this cool, you don’t worry about optics?

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.


Irish Presbyterians are Exceptional

If you take that word, exceptional, as synonymous with unusual. In other words, the Presbyterian communions in Ireland don’t line up with the mainline vs. conservative brands that we know in the U.S.

Here‘s one piece of evidence. Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have issued a statement opposed to abortion. If you didn’t know better, you might think the PCI is the mainline equivalent of the PCUSA. The PCI is closer to the mainstream of Irish life than the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a communion that started with some inspiration from J. Gresham Machen and set up a rival communion to the PCI. But I can’t imagine this ever happening in the PCUSA:

Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have written to all TDs and Senators expressing grave concern at recommendations that unrestricted abortion be allowed in Ireland up to 12 weeks and for health reasons thereafter.

In their letter, Rev Dr Trevor Morrow and Rev Dr Norman Hamilton have said “our church holds a strongly pro-life position, while recognising that there can be very exceptional circumstances when the termination of pregnancy may be necessary”.

They continued: “However, we are very gravely concerned about the [Oireachtas] Committee’s recommendations to introduce abortion with no restriction as to reason until the 12th week of gestation, and beyond 12 weeks on health grounds.

“Even if the recommendation of abortion on request is excluded, the health proposals on their own will create similar provisions to those in Britain, which have, in practice, brought about abortion on request (we note that one in five pregnancies ends in abortion in Great Britain and that of the 190,406 abortions in England and Wales in 2016, 97 per cent took place on health grounds).”

For some reason, apparently, Irish Presbyterians do not stumble over Orwellian language like “women’s reproductive health.”

Another indication that Irish Presbyterians are exceptional odd comes from this recent announcement:

True Christian Piety

Speaker: D.G. Hart

Subject: “True Christian Piety”

Dates: 2-3 August 2018

Times: 10am-4pm

Venue: Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church

Darryl Hart teaches at Hillsdale College, USA, and is a well-known writer on historical and ecclesiastical matters. On 2-3 August 2018, he will lead a workshop that will explore major themes in his work, teaching and leading discussions on such themes as the Sunday gatherings, marriage as a means of grace, and sanctified work. Attendees should prepare for the workshop by reading Darryl’s books, “Recovering Mother Kirk,” “The Lost Soul of American Protestantism,” and “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”

Cost: £40 for both days, including lunch and refreshments.

For some reason, Irish Presbyterians do not consider “Old Life” and “True Christian Piety” oxymoronic.


What would He Think of Machen?

This is about the reporter who has had many fruitful interactions with Tim Keller:

The late writer Christopher Hitchens had what you might call an intellectual jumper cable routine: he would wake up in the morning, open the New York Times, read its front page motto “All the News Fit to Print,” and allow that hackneyed boast to enrage him into carrying out his polemical duties. Lately I’ve found myself accidentally mimicking Hitchens, but with the Washington Post, which since Trump’s election has been running with the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” So long as that shamelessly self-aggrandizing, wokeness-overdosed, low-rent Dashboard Confessional refrain-cum-greasy fortune cookie slip remains the ethos of my local paper, it’ll only take one cup of coffee to wake me up, thanks.

This week, though, it’s the Times that’s got my goat, probably because, unlike the Post, I read as much of it as possible every morning (for its excellent foreign coverage, not its masthead). Last week the Gray Lady published a column by op-ed page fixture Nicholas Kristof, the Tom Bergeron of liberal internationalism, titled “Trump’s Threat to Democracy.” Kristof cites two political science academics at Harvard who list four omens as to whether a “political leader is a dangerous authoritarian”: he “shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules,” “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” “tolerates violence,” and “shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.” “Donald Trump,” the profs ruefully announce, “met them all.” And then the clincher: “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.”

Come again?

That timespan easily covers Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, during which the mildly anti-civil liberty policy of rounding up 120,000 Japanese Americans and interning them in camps was implemented. But you don’t even need to go back that far to refute Kristof’s professors: events still in the public memory can provide. The George W. Bush administration instituted a surveillance regime that stretched the Fourth Amendment into cellophane, and then tried to browbeat a hospitalized (and possibly addled) John Ashcroft into granting it his approval; it allowed prisoners to be indefinitely detained and tortured, and even mulled using the military against terrorism suspects on U.S. soil. Barack Obama assassinated American citizens with drones, invoked the Espionage Act to spy on reporter James Rosen, launched a war against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi without congressional authorization, and set a record for the most Freedom of Information Act requests denied in American history. Bush and Obama didn’t just “show some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media,” to use the academics’ soupy words; they rammed right through them with the brunt power of the federal government.

With friends like these. . .


What If Redeemer NYC Were Big Enough?

Some big changes at the most influential PCA congregation IN THE WORLD!

Here is the text of yesterday’s announcement:

The Center for Faith & Work (CFW) is pleased to announce the newest phase of its fifteen-year history as its staff joins Redeemer City to City (CTC) and continues to serve the Redeemer churches and New York City, while over time broadening its reach to global cities.

“Redeemer is changing with CFW because Redeemer is now not one church, it’s a family of three churches, which means it’s immediately looking outward to bless the whole city,” says Redeemer’s founding pastor Tim Keller. “Redeemer has become centrifugal; that is, it’s starting to push out to start new churches and help others start new churches. And so Redeemer is actually looking outwards, just like CFW will be looking outward, beyond Redeemer. They’re both making the same change at the same time. If CFW stays locked in Redeemer alone, then I don’t think a lot of its wisdom will be as available to the world. This is why now is the optimal time to do this.”

So apparently, Redeemer NYC is too New York to be of use to the rest of the world, unlike Redeemer CTC which is apparently global in orientation and structure. Do the folks who are New York Presbyterians really mean to imply that understandings of vocation in New York are parochial and cannot work in other parts of the world, unless integrated into a global organization? Since Tim Keller recently explained his worries about nationalism, what must he make of metropolitanism, something like the hyping of the Big Apple above the needs and realities of the rest of the world?

As the announcement explains:

Throughout its existence, CFW has encountered New Yorkers of all backgrounds facing a decidedly more global vocational culture. In our quickly changing world, the need for new tools, curriculum, and communities that help Christians wisely and meaningfully bring their faith to bear at work, across all spheres, is paramount.

City to City provides a developed network and infrastructure to strengthen CFW in its three-fold aim of equipping, connecting, and mobilizing Christians around the world in faith and work integration. City to City ensures a centralized effort towards that global expansion, while continuing a close and collaborative relationship with the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches.

So being a Christian banker in Beijing is decidedly different from banking on Wall Street?

Aside from vocation, this announcement raises questions about organizational footprint of Redeemer’s operations and Keller’s alliances. Are we really supposed to believe that Redeemer NYC — whichever congregation — was too inflexible a platform for the Center for Faith & Work? When did ecclesiology or administrative restrictions prevent Redeemer NYC from expanding its reach, or starting new programs? Heck, I suspect the PCA’s Mission to the World could have incorporated the work that the Center does if New York’s administrators had decided to work with PCA missionaries and their offices in different parts of the world? Is the Center’s activity really so special that the PCA’s structures can’t handle it? After all, the reading list available at the Center’s website is very, oh so very neo-Calvinist, with Al Wolter’s Creation Regained occupying the “advanced” understanding of vocation:

Few contemporary books have been cited as often by those who are writing about taking up callings and vocations faithfully. This this serious little book walks us through the key Biblical themes of the goodness of creation, the seriousness of the fall into sin, the decisive redemption gained by Christ, and the implications of working out the promised hope for a creation-wide restoration. With the keen eye of a philosopher and the passion of a Bible scholar, Wolter’s offers one of the definitive, concise books about a Christian worldview. One of the most important books for those of us in CFW and highly recommended to understand a uniquely Christian view of cultural and vocational engagement.

Granted, the neo-Calvinists never took root in NYC after the English displaced the Dutch colonists about two-thirds into the seventeenth century. But what is distinctly global about a set of readings that come largely from Christian Reformed writers living in North America and published Dutch-American editors in Grand Rapids?

And what about The Gospel Coalition? Is it parachurch chopped liver? Don’t the Allies have branches all over the world? If Redeemer can partner with TGC on The New City Catechism (TGC has a link at it’s menu page), why can’t the Center for Faith & Work collaborate with the Coalition in it’s own Faith & Work work?

The word that comes to mind is marvelous. But the marvel experienced here is that anyone in Presbyterian ministry has time for all of these structural niceties even when the bells and whistles of Presbyterian polity don’t seem to be all that important.


Imagine if the PCA were Big Enough

Then you wouldn’t need the Gospel Coalition.

So why don’t the leaders of neo-neo-evangelicalism acknowledge that a parachurch organization with a public profile generated largely by the world-wide interweb used by celebrity pastors who sometimes go to conferences and meet with ordinary neo-neo-evangelicals is a capitulation to contemporary culture? Where is all the discernment that comes from reading sociology, history, and cultural and art criticism?

What if limiting your ministry to the confines of a communion is counter-cultural? Is being counter-cultural simply a pose or does it also require subtraction — rejecting (at least some aspects of) culture?

Then, these reflections might lose some of their pietistic earnestness (sorry for the redundancy):

“If they are not controlled by Scripture and confessionalism, then of course [evangelicals] are going to fit into the grid of the broader and more secular culture,” Carson said. “By and large, these cultural evangelicals work out their cultural bondage in more conservative ways than their agnostic counterparts, but it is difficult to believe that racism is less evil than sexual promiscuity.”

Exactly. And if pastors let confessions and church polity control their ministry, they might put their own communion, the one in which they vowed to minister God’s word and the holy sacraments, ahead of all other extra-denominational activities. In other words, can you really act like you are being counter cultural when the rest of the culture is turning from denominational Christianity to none (denominational) Christianity?

“I see TGC as occupying the same space that evangelicalism’s founding fathers—like Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and Billy Graham—occupied,” Keller said. They wanted to be evangelicals, not fundamentalists; to engage with non believers and with society, and not just to withdraw, Keller said.

“We don’t want to be pietists, but we don’t want to be captive to the spirit of the age either,” Keller said. “But that is actually a hard place to be. It’s a lot easier to retreat to your fortress or to just go along with the crowd. But TGC, from the very beginning, wanted to avoid going in either direction. We wanted to be prophetic from the center, as Don [Carson] says.”

What would really be counter-cultural would be commitment to word-and-sacrament ministry when the spirit of the age, thanks to Henry, Ockenga et al, is to overlook considerations like baptism, the Lord’s supper, ordination, and the sufficiency of Scripture (which would limit pastors from dabbling in sociology and cultural criticism).

In point of fact, creating a brand though social media, the way the gospel allies do, is about as beholden to the zeitgeist as someone could imagine. When I think of being counter-cultural, I don’t think of the Gospel Coalition. I think of the Amish.

Post-script: notice that evangelicalism didn’t start with Luther, the Puritans, Edwards, or Finney. It began in the 1940s. What I’m saying.


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.



Morality Divides, Coalitions Unite

That is, as some may tell, an riff on the old line used during the fundamentalist controversy to counter conservatives — “theology divides, ministry unites.”

Our friend, Chortles Weakly explains how officers in NAPARC communions who also hold official positions in The Gospel Coalition — can anyone identify the Allies? — are looking the other way when it comes to the Second Commandment, the bedrock of the Regulative Principle:

As the cultural exegetes must surely agree, an organization’s use of images, technology, and messaging strategies is fair game for critics. What follows is my attempt to critique some of the ways TGC uses images and innovates. The standard will not be something I learned in business school, the standard will be the confessions of the Reformed churches.

My concern here is not really with Reformed churches as such (which cannot actually align with TGC) or with members (who are free to consume as they will). It is with the officers (elders and pastors) of confessionally Reformed churches who participate in TGC leadership, given the fact that TGC’s content so strongly influences the one culture that really matters, the one culture that truly ought to be ordered according to the Bible – the household of faith, the church of God.

My concern is that the officers of confessionally Reformed churches (basically those from denominations affiliated with the North American Presbyterian & Reformed Council – NAPARC) who sit on the TGC council are giving their stamp of approval to some things that are specifically forbidden by the Bible, the Reformed confessions, and the historic practice of the Reformed churches.

The TGC web page over the recent Thanksgiving weekend provided a notable example of TGC-endorsed aberrant practices. The front page of the site used an image of a nativity scene (with the second person of the Trinity supposedly represented) in support of an article on “8 New Resources for Advent”. This is not an isolated instance. Pictures of Jesus and commendations of movies and materials depicting him are nothing new at the TGC web site.

What specifically is wrong with images of Jesus? Well, simple logic tells us that any image of Christ is necessarily a lie – the Bible is not a picture book. No image of Christ can be accurate. Can inaccurate images be a help to those who view them? Some will argue that serve an essential pedagogical use when it comes to children. Some, as were heard at the last General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, will argue that we cannot appreciate the humanity of Jesus without images.

The Westminster Larger Catechism, to which the presbyterian ministers on the TGC council have taken vows of subscription, would seem to speak both to images of Christ and things like Advent in question 109:

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed. (

Now, I am aware that there are officers who take exceptions (where allowed) to portions of this section, especially concerning mental images. I am aware that some presbyterian bodies have in the last few decades allowed loose or “system” subscription to confessional documents. Still the question must be raised: Should a NAPARC church officer sit on a quasi-ecclesial body’s board when that that body condones and promotes violations of the second commandment as defined by the confessional standards of the officers’ own denominations?

At a time when America is leading the crusade for obedience to God’s law, do Gospel Allies really want to be caught on the sidelines?


Rod Reading Tim

Rod Dreher doesn’t detect much daylight between the Benedict Option and Tim Keller even though I’ve tried to describe it. Here’s Keller (from Rod) on the West:

The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Here’s Rod’s rendering:

Does it surprise you that I agree with this? I’m still looking for ways in which Tim Keller and I substantively disagree on cultural engagement. If you know of any, please let me know — I’m serious about that. What I emphasize in The Benedict Option is that if we Christians are going to do that in a hostile, post-Christian public square, we have no choice but to take a step back from the public square to deepen our knowledge of the faith, our prayer lives, and our moral and spiritual discipline.

One difference right off the bat is that Keller is not pessimistic about the contemporary world, the way Rod is. That’s why it had to come as a surprise when Princeton Seminary thought Keller was too conservative and should not receive the Kuyper Prize.

Yet, Keller has other readers. Rod quotes one:

I’m somewhat favorably disposed to Tim Keller’s ministry, and even attended his church for a season. But that movement is likely to head off in its own direction. The current alliances that make up evangelicalism were forged in an era before liquid modernity. There is no reason why we should expect those alliances to continue to make sense in the very different social context that we face today. And we have to avoid the trap of conflating Christian orthodoxy with practical Christian wisdom. Families raising kids need something very different from a church community than what I need, as a 30-something professional who travels 50% of the time, usually in Asia….

Liquid modernity poses a certain challenge to Western rules-based cultures. Things change faster than our ability to develop rules to address certain situations. And that places a degree of stress on existing institutions, requiring them to be thicker than they were in the past. But it’s hard for institutions to be both thick and broad. For thickness to work, there has to be a high degree of overlap in people’s life situations. Demographic differences matter more.

I’m actually an advocate of an evangelical break-up. I believe that the Benedict Option is necessary. But the Benedict Option is going to look very different for different people. My fear is that evangelicalism ends up targeting the largest market, middle-class white suburbanites with kids, and castigated everyone else as a sinner. One need not look to hard for criticisms of Tim Keller’s efforts to reach out to people like me. And it disappoints me that Keller is largely silent in the face of those criticisms. If Christianity is to survive in an age of liquid modernity, it’s going to take more than suburban mega-churches.

Another difference then is that Rod thinks modernity is a force that hurts Christianity while Keller, like Pope Francis, tries to come along side moderns.

Still one more reader of Keller that Rod should enter into his Redeemer NYC spreadsheet:

Over the past decade or so, evangelical millennials like myself and my peers (and possibly even you), could be found across the country, repenting of our former fundamentalist ways.

We’ve put away our moralistic understanding of Christianity. We’ve reclaimed what is essential: Jesus, and his gospel. We’ve tossed aside our simplistic, and less than nuanced answers to those who criticize our faith and worldview.

Aided by an Internet-powered, Information Age, we have set out to re-engage culture in a fresh new way, following Tim Keller and Russell Moore on one end of the spectrum, or Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans on the other.

As those who will soon lead the church, we are convinced that we are called to a new vision of cultural engagement and mission. . . .

Therefore, we’ve raised our sensitivity to xenophobic nationalism, misogyny, gay-bashing, microaggressions, and anti-intellectualism. For us, being uninformed and un-’woke’ is shameful and most harmful to our Christian witness.

Instead, we have taken up the mission to winsomely engage the brightest of thinkers in order that they might believe, and to prophetically rebuke the most narrow-minded of evangelicals in order that they might think.

We see far too little cultural influencers operating out of a biblical framework. And we’ve seen too many of our friends leave the faith due to overly simplistic, unsatisfying, and stale apologetic answers to their genuine contemporary questions.

We want to articulate, in a Keller-esque fashion, an attractive “third way,” between the liberals and the conservatives, between the irreligious and the religious. And in doing so, we hope to find a better place to stand, where we are neither apostates nor anti-intellectuals, neither prodigals nor older brothers.

So we continue to study Scripture and affirm its absolute authority, while still paying close attention to contemporary culture, the media, and the academy, seeking common grace insights from them, and wrestling with how to interpret and make sense of their findings.

We heed Peter’s exhortation that we be prepared to make a defense to all, while reminding ourselves of James’ admonition to be quick to listen, and slow to speak, even when it comes to a secular culture such as ours.

We don’t settle for just being Christians, but we seek to be informed, knowledgeable, and sensitive Christians. And by God’s grace, we sometimes do find a way forward, a third way, in which we actually become “believers who think,” equipped to interact with “thinkers” who don’t believe.

And discovering a “third way” feels good. It’s the rewarding feeling of progress, and confidence — confidence in the fact that we’ve found more thoughtful and persuasive answers than the ones our Sunday School teachers gave us 20 years ago. But it’s also the feeling of transcendence, and if we’re not careful, arrogant superiority.

Thinking Christians engaged with the world. That may not have been Paul’s advice to Timothy but it’s a page right out of Harry Emerson Fosdick:

Already all of us must have heard about the people who call themselves the Fundamentalists. Their apparent intention is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions. I speak of them the more freely because there are no two denominations more affected by them than the Baptist and the Presbyterian. We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere. . . .

Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

For anyone who detects an example of the genetic fallacy, please write a note to Pastor Tim and ask him to explain how he avoids the errors that modernists like Fosdick committed.