Do Senior Christian Market Church Leaders Talk?

With the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020 (which may turn out to be the political equivalent of Dave and Busters), some political commentators have observed that Democratic and Republican leaders have not served the American voters well. Party elites continued to play by old rules of analysis and missed the effects of economic and cultural changes on the electorate. The same point could well be made about leaders of the PCA — leaders, that is, who emerged as such through the platforms created by big evangelicalism.

Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell have emerged as pastors whose assessment of the church and its relationship to the world matters. Like E. F. Hutton, when they speak, people listen.

But why? When it comes to assessments of the culture and what Christians should do in response, consider the following. Remember in 2015 when during what was approaching peak intersectionality awareness, Chapell identified pluralism as the major challenge facing the PCA:

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

Without clear identification of the external enemy’s magnitude, the dynamics of a largely homogenous social and doctrinal association will only make us less patient with our differences. We will also become increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Two years later, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Keller corrected course. Uniting in response to a perceived enemy — looking for denominational cooperation — is part of what produced evangelical support for Trump:

In a book published earlier this year, “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis,” the historian Kenneth J. Stewart makes the case that the evangelical impulse in Christianity has been with us for centuries, taking on many different forms and bearing many different names, while maintaining substantially similar core beliefs. Many have analyzed the weaknesses of the current iteration of this movement. The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory. This has made present-day evangelicals more vulnerable to political movements that appeal to their self-interest, even in contradiction to Biblical teachings, for example, about welcoming the immigrant and lifting up the poor.

The lesson appears to be that a broad interdenominational cooperation by post-World War II evangelicals made born-again Protestants more political and less ecclesiastical.

It is at the very least, advice with a mixed message and could raise questions about the capacities of pastors to assess culture and society.

It is also a tad ironic for Keller to critique downplaying denominational differences when City-to-City is hardly a program of the PCA’s Mission to North America or Mission to the World.

The PCA’s Strategic Plan Was So “Sleep”

It can be a cliche to say that the church’s task remains the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But more Presbyterians may be tempted to adopt that somewhat stodgy outlook if you look at what has become of the PCA’s Strategic Plan from a decade ago. Finding it on-line is a challenge, but a video of Bryan Chapell introducing the Plan gives a fairly good indication of the concerns that animated its authors:

About six minutes in, you will see a list that includes:

Strangled secularism

Loss of Piety

Loss of the Young

Loss of Mature Members

Longing for Biblical Responses

Those concerns contrast with those that motivate Presbyterians in pursuit of social justice (from Covenant Seminary’s website):

While some branches of liberal theology have erred gravely by equating issues of social justice with the gospel and downplaying or eliminating the call to repentance and personal faith in Jesus, we must ensure not to make the opposite mistake of removing the biblical call for social righteousness and justice from our understanding of the gospel.

What situations do our neighbors find themselves in as they hear this proclamation that require tangible acts of Christ’s love that flow out of that gospel? Today, we face a wide range of issues that are matters of neighbor love expressed in biblical social justice. These include but are not limited to abortion, human trafficking, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, abuse of women and children, misuse of power, criminal justice, and lack of educational and economic opportunity for the marginalized in our society. The Bible starts with creation and ends with new creation, and the impact of the fall affects everything, including the creation itself and the structures of society. The gospel of God’s saving and restoring grace is set into this framework. Love for God and love for neighbor are always to be held together by the people of God.

Covenant Seminary is the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with our main campus located in St. Louis, Missouri. As the denominational seminary, we exist to serve the denomination and its churches as we prepare leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. A key current issue in the PCA is racial reconciliation and justice . . .

That way of looking at the church’s current ministry is distinctly different from Chapell’s remarks a decade ago.  If some thought the Strategic Plan sounded New School Presbyterian — somewhat uncomfortable with confessional narrowness, the old Strategic Plan looks downright Old School compared to the advocates of social justice.  What a difference a decade makes.

But now, Bryan Chapell is back with a statement about the PCA’s current predicament as he explains how he will serve as Stated Clerk if chosen by the upcoming General Assembly:

I believe our beloved PCA is at a crossroads with regard to her influence in both the wider church and surrounding culture. We carry a unique calling as a Reformed church with a missional zeal. Our historic strength has been maintaining a Bible-centered mission that does not yield to the singular pressures of Reformed fundamentalism, distinction-less Evangelicalism, mere social progressivism, or strident political conservatism. Each of these emphases have sought ascendency in our ranks, yet we have continued to evaluate ideas and establish priorities based on Scripture. Most in our movement remain committed to respect those among us who differ in perspective but prioritize God’s Word. Still, as our culture polarizes and our denomination becomes more distant from her roots, it becomes increasingly difficult for the strands of our biblically Reformed rope to stay woven together for the purposes of our original vision and our future calling.

All things considered, Chapell looks like a moderate and the advocates of the 2010 Strategic Plan look conservative compared to progressives in the PCA.  That is actually encouraging to other churches in NAPARC.

But it does cast doubt about the wisdom of calculating the church’s mission in relation to changes in the culture.

Vanilla Presbyterianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Mohler To the Rescue

I have often thought of the PCA as Southern Baptists who sometimes baptize infants. The autonomy of PCA congregations, the convention-like atmosphere of the General Assembly, and the original southerness of the PCA are reasons for the comparison. To be fair, the OPC is likely the Presbyterian equivalent of Reformed Baptists. Our assemblies work twelve hours a day (minus meals and devotions), we take doctrine seriously, and we can be ornery about baptizing infants (just as Reformed Baptists can be tenacious about dedicating babies). The difference between the PCA and the OPC is like that between the superintendent of schools in a county outside Birmingham and a plumber who fixes toilets in the suburbs of Toledo.

If this comparison has any merit, then perhaps the most famous Calvinist in the SBC can work out what ails the PCA. Once again the theological doctors have taken out their thermometers and found the patient in need of some program either for six-pack abs or foods that counteract stress. The rest of the ecclesiastical world seems to receive these reports every five years or so. Word of encouragement to other denominations: if you’re not asking what’s broke, you’re probably okay in a church militant sense. What is curious about Bryan Chappell’s assessment and Rick Phillips’ reply is how much the culture matters to each side of the PCA.

For Chapell, the division between traditionalists and progressives breaks down precisely along culture-war lines. His desire to avoid the culture wars is precisely why the BBs confuse the PCA hipsters with 2k even though 2kers avoid the culture wars not to avoid embarrassment but for spirituality of the church reasons. Chapell writes:

The generation that is 50-plus years old was raised in a time of perceived Christian-majority culture; according to Francis Schaeffer it was the time of “Christian consensus.”

The priority of many evangelical Christians who matured in that cultural context was to mobilize this “silent majority” in order to control the religious and political processes of the nation to halt cultural erosion (e.g., Schaeffer’s “A Day of Sober Rejoicing” delivered at the General Assembly marking the RPCES’s “Joining and Receiving” with the PCA). These dynamics created a “Halt” mission for Christians of that generation. The goals: Halt abortion, pornography, drugs, promiscuity, tree huggers, socialism, liberalism, and illegal immigration.

By contrast, Christians in the generation that is 40-minus years old have never perceived themselves as a majority but always as a minority in a pluralistic culture. As a consequence, this generation’s calling is perceived not as gaining control, but as gaining credibility to deal with an already eroded culture.

The need to win a hearing for a credible faith has resulted in a “Help” mission for this generation’s church leaders. The goals: Help orphans (to counter abortion through adoption), AIDS sufferers (to win a Gospel hearing from gays and a gay-sympathetic culture), sex-trafficking victims, addicts (enslaved by chemical, gambling, gaming, body-image, or sexual brokenness), the environment (to teach the world that we are stewards of God’s creation), and poor and oppressed foreigners within our borders.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these generational differences than the way many Christian leaders feel about major figures in prior conservative Christian movements. To mention Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson is to identify the heroes of the 50-plus generation. Church leaders of that generation are shocked to discover that younger leaders consider these figures exemplars of failure, representing attitudes and approaches that have led to the church’s cultural ineffectiveness.

Phillips responds:

“But we are being culturally isolated!” progressives respond! Our answer is that we are indeed, just as the Chinese Christians were culturally isolated under Maoism and as the early Christians were culturally isolated as they were marched into the Coliseum to be fed to the lions. Both of those groups ended up doing pretty well. Now, we do lament this isolation, mainly because we earnestly expect that we will soon be fed to the lions, so to speak, or at least excluded to cultural gulags. What we do not understand is why cultural persecution is a cause for cultural accommodation, as if Christ had anything to fear from Caesar or the cultural elites. The confessionalist concern is whether we will stand with our fellow courageous Christians who are being slaughtered around the world because they will not bend the knee to an imperious pagan culture and with the saints of the early church as they were urged by Christ in Revelation, or whether we will cringe before the powers of cultural elitism in the media, government, and entertainment structures. A statement like this may come across as religious arrogance, and for this we are sorry, but we simply want to join the ranks of those who conquered “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,” not loving our lives even to death (Rev. 12:11). We want this not because we have embraced a traditionalist martyr complex but because we sincerely believe that this is the best way both to love God and to love the world.

This is not at all to say that Christian courage and reliance on divine grace are the exclusive province of the confessional wing of our church. We know that this valor is shared in all factions of the PCA. What we do not understand is how this leads to a strategy of cultural engagement in which the assumptions of a spiritually rebellious culture are embraced as an evangelistic starting point.

Parenthetically, let me pause to ask where these cultural attitudes put TKNY. If the culture is so broken (Chapell), and so hostile (Phillips), then why is it that the culture thinks so well of Redeemer Presbyterian Church? Or why has that NYC congregation to which professionals, artists, journalists, and movers and shakers in the culture — as we constantly hear — become the model for PCA church planting in North America? Would Tim Keller share either Chapell’s or Phillips’ assessment of “the culture”? Or should more pastors in the PCA join Bill Smith in the REC?

But this is where Al Mohler can help. Chapell is truly troubled by the pluralism that he sees in the United States:

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Does Chapell want to return to 14th-century Italy or 16th-century Massachusetts Bay colony? “Enemy” sounds hostile, war-like, more Benedict than Eusebius.

In effect, Phillips agrees that pluralism is a danger, whether it’s tolerating wrong views about race or sex:

Confessionalists note with concern the different strategies taken by progressives today regarding homosexuality versus our past strategy concerning sins like racism. One of the better moments in the PCA took place when our denomination boldly repudiated and rebuked racism, without seeking permission or giving apology, an action in which you and I were actively joined. On that occasion, no one complained that we were alienating the racists by speaking so forthrightly from Scripture. So why is that charge made when we seek to speak biblically regarding homosexuality and other sexual perversions? Is it because while racism is reviled by the culture, homosexuality is celebrated by the culture? Do we, then, only confront boldly those sins which the culture also hates, while accommodating those that it loves? Why would we do this? Where does this assumption come from that we must blur the Bible’s anathema of sexual perversion and concede ground as an initial stage in our witness to homosexuals?

But since Al Mohler is on THE council of the Gospel Coalition with Bryan Chapell and Tim Keller, an organization that Phillips supports, and since Al is also part of Together for the Gospel with Lig Duncan, one of Phillips’ associates among PCA conservatives, perhaps the difference between the two sides is not as great as each man thinks.

The parachurch, with help from Southern Baptists, will lead them.

That Tears It, I'm Joining the Gospel Coalition

There I may be appreciated finally (since it is all about me, after all).

First it was Bryan Chapell video”>saying something very 2kish about the United States as a Christian nation. His answer was essentially, no. And that answer goes well with the 2k idea that the only Christian nation that ever existed was the state of Israel before the coming of Christ. Since that political order is no longer part of God’s redemptive plan, and since the institution God is now using to establish his kingdom — as in the WCF’s assertion that the visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (25.2) — Chapell seems to give 2kers room to maneuver within the Gospel Coalition without fear of being fear mongered.

Now comes an interview with Tim Keller where he encounters “This is Your Life” in a long interview. Part of his reflections on his theological formation includes the influence of Meredith Kline’s covenant theology for a redemptive historical understanding of justification by faith alone. Of course, Keller’s testimony is not solidly 2k since he also affirms Richard Lovelace’s scientific historical explanations of how revivals happen and Jack Miller’s pastoral practices in the New Life Presbyterian movement. But he does not flinch from affirming an Old Testament scholar who will in some conservative Reformed circles merit a thirteen-part series on how some Reformed authors are abandoning the faith once delivered to Kuyper.

So in conservative Reformed circles denying America’s Christian origins and affirming Meredith Kline’s teaching can get you sentenced to neo-Calvinist jail, but over at the Gospel Coalition the allies seem to think such ideas are neat.

Have I found a home, or what?

Westminster Seminaries’ PR Problem (and Covenant Seminary’s Teflon)

Now that Glenn Beck seems to have moved on from the faith of the founders to the faith behind the Pledge of Allegiance, taking stock of the minor celebrity of a Westminster Seminary president courtesy of the talk-show enfomationist is possible. What stands out is how little controversy Peter Lillback’s ideas about the faith of George Washington or the Christian origins of the United States created.

One looks in vain through Google’s various search oppositions for a blogger or writer who questions Lillback’s interpretation. Sure, some have emerged. The folks over at American Creation have given serious attention to Lillback’s claims on behalf of Washington. Also, another student of the founding history professor, Brad Hart (no known relation) subjects Lillback’s Washington to the kind of inspection you’d expect from an Orthodox Presbyterian. But aside from the efforts of your humble oldlife servants, the conservative Reformed world seems to be willing to give Lillback a pass. (By the way, of some interest in this regard is the absence of news about Lillback’s appearance on the Beck show at the WTS website. When one of your faculty or administrators appears on a nationally televised broadcast – or even in the pages of the London Times – your institutional public relations engines generally rev, not to mention when one of your faculty member’s books ascends to number one at Amazon.)

Meanwhile, the folks at Westminster California can’t get off their beach blanket to enjoy the surf without the anti-2k bullies kicking sand, talking trash, and heaping scorn. (Many of these kerfuffles have received comment at oldlife. Curious readers should take advantage of the search capacity and look for “Westminster.”) Whether it is Machen’s Warrior Children, two-kingdom theology, the framework hypothesis, the republication doctrine, or natural law, the faculty at WSC have the reputation of being viral among many people (or is it a vocal minority?) who lead and flock to conservative Reformed and Presbyterian communions in the United States.

One can plausibly conclude that Lillback’s ideas are much more acceptable than those, for instance, of Meredith Kline, the apparent font of WSC’s worst features. For those who are genuinely concerned about the insights of biblical theology – and Kline was certainly in the tradition – this is a depressing even if unsurprising conclusion. Change happens slowly and convincing American Protestants, with habits of considering the United States as the New Israel, that their nation is not the site of God’s redemptive plan but that his work of salvation takes place in the church, an institution that transcends races, nations, and languages, is a hard sell. Even so, it is surprising that more people who have a background with WTS, another institution where biblical theology runs deep if not in the same direction as Kline, would not be more vocal in raising questions about Lillback’s understanding of the United States’ religious meaning and its first president’s faith.

What makes this lack of interest in Lillback’s understanding of Christian America all the more remarkable is that it goes beyond how to read George Washington to how to interpret the Bible. Lillback’s non-profit organization dedicated to faith and freedom in America, the Providence Forum, has published a Faith and Freedom Guide to Philadelphia in which the city’s top fifty historic sites are paired with biblical texts that illustrate the religious significance of the history made in the United States’ first capital. For instance, the nation’s first Supreme Court building comes with these remarks: “The Bible’s teaching on the importance of the judges maintaining justice is declared in Deuteronomy 25:1, ‘When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.’” This may seem harmless enough but it is likely not the best way to divide rightly the word of truth.

When the guide comes to the Masonic Cathedral, across the street from City Hall, the brochure goes off the rails:

The Masonic Order is an international, secret fraternity that played a significant role among the officers of the American revolution. The most famous member of the Masonic Order was George Washington. While their history is debated, the tradition argues that Masonry can be traced to Hiram, who helped build the temple of Solomon that is recorded in 1 Kings 6-7. Their classic symbol is a builder’s square with a compass and the letter G. This symbol is called “GAOTU,” which is an acrostic for “Great Architect Of The Universe” suggesting the geometric orderliness of the universe that argues for a creator and designer of all things. Genesis 1:31 says, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (KJV).

Not only is an effort to find a biblical origin for Free Masonry highly dubious on historical and theological grounds, but the guide seems to have little awareness that Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Europe and the United States have staunchly opposed to membership in Masonic Lodges as activity worthy of discipline. The only explanation for this intellectual construction of Masonry would appear to be George Washington’s membership. So instead of using Masonry against Washington as something that would raise questions about his orthodoxy, his identity as a Mason becomes a reason to delve into the Free Masons’ biblical origins. This raises an important question for WTS and her alumni – if it is wrong to read the Old Testament through the lens of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, is it any better to read it through the squint of contemporary America’s culture wars?

And through it all, Covenant Seminary goes on its merry way with a president who has shepherded through the PCA’s Strategic Plan and takes a very different estimate of the United States founding from Lillback. The lack of response to Bryan Chapell’s video about America’s Christian identity, combined with his slugging percentage in PCA politics, suggests there is hope for WSC faculty who would like to enjoy the waves.