At Least It Makes You a Curmudgeon

Presbyterianism, that is.

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

It’s time for pushback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at least, Bill still has a Presbyterian attitude.

If Anglicans Read (more of) Jesus

Alan Jacobs continues to defend himself from charges that his leniency on priests who grant membership to same-sex couples and baptize those couples’ children is a failure to adhere to Christ’s condemnation of false teachers. For some reason, he argues, Christ’s repudiation is irrelevant:

“Didn’t Jesus denounce false teaching?”” He sure did, but that’s not relevant to my argument. “We can’t abandon church discipline.” We sure can’t. Etc., etc., etc. I won’t go off on a “social media have killed reading” rant, but you know, social media really have killed reading.

Anyway, my argument is simply this: The determination of who is and is not a Christian is above your pay grade, and expressly forbidden to you by Jesus.

Jacobs does not seem to be aware that determining how to read Jesus’ words may be way above his own pay grade (though he does get paid to read for his living — not Hebrew and Greek, mind you). How can you be so absolute in ruling out the relevance of Jesus’s or Paul’s or John’s condemnation of false teachers and of wayward Christians and then say that the bottom line is ” We must be patient, humble, gentle, not quarrelsome, encouraging and upbuilding — and must exhibit all those traits even when we believe people are wrong and are striving to correct them? It’s hard work, and I stink at it. But that’s what we’re all called to.”

If we are supposed to follow Christ and the apostles, who were examples in some way, aren’t we also called to condemn false teachers and wayward Christians. At least try to wrestle with the tension between the parable of the wheat and the tares (pro-patience) and Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers (impatient).

And simply reading Dante for instruction on Hell and Purgatory isn’t going to do much for Protestants who think the Bible is above Dante’s pay grade (nor is Dante a doctor of the church exactly, speaking of pay grades):

In the Purgatorio Dante dramatizes the extended period of waiting that those who have been excommunicated must undergo before beginning their purgation, but they will eventually begin it because they are saved. Of course, excommunicated people can indeed be damned, but that’s neither the result nor the intention of excommunication in any church that I know of. To think that you can determine someone’s salvation or damnation by their inclusion in or exclusion from a given church community would be the very highest level of hubris.

Why did Jesus give Peter the keys of the kingdom, then? To be patient in locking the gates of heaven to unrepentant sinners?

I wonder too if Jacobs notices the restraints that come upon him as an Anglican. Can he really call everyone a Christian who professes Christ and who is not in fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Why does all of this matter? It matters because when someone in my church, or within the Christian fold more generally, says or does things that I believe terribly wrong, or terribly mistaken, I have many options available to me but among them is not the declaration that “You are not a child of the kingdom, you are a child of the evil one.“ That is, if I am going to obey the teaching of this parable, I have to treat this person as a brother or sister, as one of my fellow children of the kingdom — and they have to do the same to me.

By that logic, worshiping at any Reformed Baptist or Free Methodist church should do. Why cut yourself off from ecclesiastical communion by becoming an Anglican? If “his” church matters, that mattering cuts off any number of Christians from fellowship.

Can we have a little respect for tradition, ordination, and hierarchy, please?

It's Not Exactly Growing the OPC

Jeff Gissing worries about the decline of doctrine and graying of hairs in the PCUSA. He also wonders if the loss of theology is connected to the loss of members:

Theologically, the PC(USA) made the calamitous choice of choosing to abandon consistent doctrinal standards—of even the most elemental type—in favor of an ad hoc, case-by-case approach, in which no belief is out-of-bounds as long as you can get a majority to vote for it. In a denomination that has come to value niceness as the zenith of the Christian virtues, simply appealing to one’s private, subjective interpretations or experience is generally sufficient to pass muster.

The PC(USA) is a denomination full of well-educated people, but at times it evinces a peculiarly petulant stupidity. Take, for example, a recent conversation in which it was claimed that should Presbyterian pastors be required to believe and follow our confession’s he would immediately be fired since he does not observe the Lord’s Day in the fashion envisioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The trouble is, requiring pastors and congregations to adhere to the Westminster Confession, as the OPC does generally, isn’t exactly a “winning” formula as Charlie Sheen used to count victory. The small conservative denomination grows at a very modest rate, maybe 2 percent annually, and hovers just above 30,000 members. Some might say that taking theology too seriously is the problem. If people go to a church where they have to parse the active and passive obedience of Christ, instead of receiving tips on living a well-adjusted, Spirit-filled life, then why bother with all the theology?

The silver lining is that the greatest nation on God’s green earth affords freedoms of association that allow pastors, elders, and church members to commune with a measure of the seriousness of purpose that used to characterize Reformed Protestants. Would it help to have the magistrates requiring Americans to go to our churches? Yes, if you are interested in numbers and statistics and fancy buildings. But no, if you look at the established Protestant church of Europe.

For Roman Catholics who can’t help relishing the divisions and pint-sized denominations that Protestantism yields, please do keep an eye on the ball of “doctrine will never change.” The PCUSA hasn’t changed doctrine. Keeping the Sabbath holy is still on the books. The books require someone to enforce what’s on them. I thought that was what made the hierarchy special. What exactly does it take to disqualify as a Roman Catholic? Garry Wills may still be wondering.

Can You Confess Sins To Yourself?

Rick Phillips’ post about corporate confession of sins got me thinking about the PCA’s proposed resolution on race and civil rights. That personal resolution from Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas confesses the church’s complicity with racial injustice.

Phillips attempts to find a biblical procedure for such confession.

But if he were to use the Book of Discipline from his sister communion, the OPC, he’d find judicial processes laid out quite thoroughly.

I imagine the General Assembly of the PCA would come as its own accuser:

When a person comes before a judicatory as his own accuser, the judicatory may proceed to judgment without full process, determining first, what offense, if any has been committed, and, if a serious offense (cf. Chapter III, Section 7.b [6]) has been committed, what censure shall be pronounced. (5.1)

Next comes the the work of the trial judicatory in establishing the seriousness of the sin and determining the level of censure:

In judicial discipline there are five degrees of censure: admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. Censures shall be pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of the whole church, by the moderator on behalf of the trial judicatory. (6.A.1)

This raises a real problem since everyone in this scenario would be guilty of the sin and so finding someone to serve on the trial judicatory could be difficult if not impossible. Everyone is guilty. Can the sinner determine his own form of censure? Would he not have mixed motives?

And then there is the question of the sin’s seriousness. What kind of censure will the PCA General Assembly apply to itself?

1. Admonition

Admonition consists in tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Rebuke

Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Suspension

a. Suspension is a form of censure by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or an indefinite time. Suspension of an officer from the privileges of membership shall always be accompanied by suspension from office, but the latter does not necessarily involve the former.

b. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end that he may be restored. When the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender, or when the time of suspension has expired, the censure shall be removed and the offender shall be restored. This restoration shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition. Restoration to the privileges of membership may take place without restoration to those of office.

c. When a minister has been indefinitely suspended, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

4. Deposition

a. Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It consists in a solemn declaration by the trial judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer in the church.

b. When a minister is deposed from his office, the presbytery shall erase his name from the roll of the ministerial members of the presbytery and dismiss him to a particular church or enroll him as a member of the regional church without membership in a particular church.

c. Deposition of a pastor or his suspension for an indefinite time involves the dissolution of the pastoral tie. The sentence of deposition or suspension shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. In case of suspension for a definite period the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard, shall decide whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved.

d. When a minister has been deposed, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

5. Excommunication

Excommunication is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ. (6.B)

Depending on to whom you listen, racism is pretty grievous sin. But if it were sufficiently serious that the PCA General Assembly pronounced a censure of Deposition on itself, the recent graduates of Reformed seminaries might be grateful for the new calls available, but is the Assembly really prepared to wipe out its entire set of elders and deacons? Depose Tim Keller?

But if the Assembly only rebukes itself, would those most offended by racism be satisfied?

I wonder if those who support this corporate confession of sin understand how complicated it might be.

Do Celebrity Pastors (like TKNY) Have Authority?

Or is fame the primary aspect of aspect of celebrity? And if a celebrity actually tries to use his fame or influence to restrain someone, does he lose his celebrity?

I generated these questions when reading a response to City Church‘s (San Francisco) decision not to discriminate on the basis of sexual identity and behavior:

It’s also untenable to say that God has not made His will plain in the Word. Look at the extreme candor and clarity of the scripture about intimacy. The bible is very blunt and clear about sex. Going on to ignore all of that is kind of like saying “Not only am I not liking this air stuff, I’ve had it with gravity too.” The irrational position of this letter is another part of the growing fallout.

Someone might respond and say I’m wrong to lump City Church into Romans 1, that it’s obvious your church still believes in God. Of course they do, and there are many earnest and sincere believers in your community. That’s abundantly clear. That isn’t what I’m claiming. What I’m saying is this – in this particular letter it simply isn’t the God of our ancient writings, our ancient witnesses, and our ancient creeds anymore. This isn’t the God of Romans. And my fear is now this. Where there is a new god, there must always be a new gospel.

I think Keller put it well: a god you create, where you pick and choose what you think is “flourishing,” is just a Stepford god. Like the robot women in the old sci fi B-movie The Stepford Wives, where husbands are quietly getting rid of their wives and replacing them with obedient, pretty, and servile android spouses. It’s just a god who does what pleases you, can never offend you, and in the end can never save you.

Imagine if Tim Keller wrote that letter. Imagine even if he called on the phone pastors who either worked with or were inspired by him. Imagine if he spent some of his considerable capital. Might the Gospel Coalition then actually do something more than inspire or impress?

And then Kathy Keller’s B-S detector goes off . . .

Church Reformed

The archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone (gotta love that name), is kicking up a lot of dust in Roman Catholic and California circles for the policies he has initiated within his parochial schools. Here‘s an example of what Cordileone has in mind:

We, the Archdiocesan High Schools, Acknowledge that some of our administrators, faculty or staff may not be Catholics and some may be Catholics who are struggling to achieve fidelity to some of the teachings of the Church, but we are all nevertheless called and required to stand as effective and visible professional participants and proponents of truly Catholic Education. As effective professionals in a Catholic School setting, we all – administrators, faculty and staff – are required and expected to avoid fostering confusion among the faithful and any dilution of the schools’ primary Catholic mission. Therefore, administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or of no faith, are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths. To that end, further, we all must refrain from public support of any cause or issue that is explicitly or implicitly contrary to that which the Catholic Church holds to be true, both those truths known from revelation and those from the natural law. Those of us who consider themselves to be Catholics but who are not in a state of full assent to the teachings of the Church, moreover, must refrain from participation in organizations that call themselves “Catholic” but support or advocate issues or causes contrary to the teachings of the Church.

Some Roman Catholics wonder if Cordileone is in line with Pope France:

Cordileone suggests that he is in line with Pope Francis. In one way, he may be correct: It doesn’t appear that Francis is going to be changing any doctrine in the near future. But the whole world knows we have a pope who is focusing on Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness and who has told Cordileone and his fellow culture warrior bishops to quit being obsessed with the sexuality issues. Our archbishop doesn’t even appear to be listening to his boss.

And if Pope Francis wants the church to come along side people who struggle with Roman Catholic teaching on marriage and sex, how is Cordileone helping the cause:

Cordileone stated that Catholics who endorse contrary views “create toxic confusion about our fundamental values.” But if Catholic couples, in the spirit of the pope’s recent comments, limit the number of children they have, is that toxic? If you are a little girl who is only here because science helped her mom and dad conceive her, is that toxic? If you are a 10 year old abused child and the only adoptive parents who want you are a loving, qualified gay couple, is that toxic? If you think that the civil rights of gays and lesbians should be protected, is that toxic?

Meanwhile, eight California legislators, mainly Democrat, are challenging the archbishop’s policies even as they raise questions about separation of church and state. In response, Cordileone wonders if the politicians would hire as campaign managers people who side with their political adversary in an election.

What may be the most provocative aspect of this controversy is what the archbishop’s reforms mean for the capacity of the Roman Catholic Church to achieve discipline. Isn’t this a case of an archbishop actually laying out policy in line with church teaching? If he can do it, why can’t others? And if others don’t follow Cordileone’s lead, why don’t Jason and the Callers reflect more on what this says about their communion where truth with a capital-T prevails (at least in theory)?

Competing Paradigms and Church Politics

First, a paradigm that Bryan Cross has not considered — the Italian one:

Anyone who knows the inner reality of Catholic life is well aware that at the retail level, there’s always a sort of negotiation that goes on between what the rules say and what actually happens. It’s not about hypocrisy or disobedience, but adapting universal norms to the infinite complexity of real-life human situations.

I was once at a talk given by a senior Vatican official when a questioner said he had a sin he wasn’t ready to confess but still felt drawn to receive Communion, even though the rules say he shouldn’t.

“The law of the church is clear,” the official responded. “You have to go to confession first.” Then the official said, “But now let me talk to you person to person. As a priest, I can’t substitute my conscience for yours. I can’t tell you to go or not to go. You have to make that choice in conscience, always bearing in mind that it must be a well-formed conscience.”

That’s the Italian view of law, which permeates the psychology of the church — law is an aspiration, not an absolute, which must be adapted to individual circumstances.

Second, the people’s paradigm in contrast to their bishop’s or the pope’s:

Medjugorje: On Monday, a commission created under Benedict XVI and presided over by Italy’s powerful Cardinal Camillo Ruini submitted the results of a four-year inquest into the alleged apparitions and revelations of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will be up to Francis to decide what to do, though some felt he tipped his hand in mid-November during a homily in his morning Mass in which he said that Mary “is not a postmaster sending messages every day.” In the Jan. 23 edition of Corriere della Sera, famed Vatican writer Vittorio Messori said it’ll be a painful decision whichever way it goes: If Francs rules the apparitions are false, millions of faithful who flock to Medjugorje will feel deceived and betrayed; if he says they’re authentic, it would be “devastating” for canon law, which leaves to the local bishop the right to judge such phenomena in his diocese, and two bishops in a row have said no. For that reason, Messori predicted the ruling will be that “for now” there’s no proof these events are supernatural rather than the more definitive, “there’s proof they’re not supernatural.”

Last, the transparency paradigm (which isn’t necessarily the one to use with the “millions of faithful” when it comes to apparitions):

This week, Scarano faced another arrest warrant on charges of money laundering, as prosecutors charged he paid around 60 people in cash to write checks to him for roughly 10,000 euro, then used those checks to create a false paper trail to cover as much as $10 million stashed in various accounts, including the Vatican bank. . . .

Faced with the clamor these two storylines are generating, the Vatican response so far has been a deafening silence.

Not so long ago, one could have counted on somebody loudly questioning whether civil investigators were overstepping their boundaries by intruding on the Vatican’s sovereign autonomy. One recalls, for instance, that when former Naples Cardinal Michele Giordano learned his phone had been wiretapped as part of an investigation of a real estate scam orchestrated by his brother in the late 1990s, the cardinal testily snapped, “I could have been talking to the pope!”

It’s also easy to imagine that someone might have implied, if not stated outright, that these investigations are part of a political, media, and judicial campaign to drag the church through the mud, that the charges themselves are false or exaggerated, or that the Vatican’s role in the story is so negligible as to make even mentioning it gratuitous.

This time around, however, Vatican officials seem content to allow the criminal probes to play out without protest or perceptions of interference.

While Francis has not put out a formal gag order, people who otherwise might have been inclined to pop off seem to have gotten the memo: If transparency and accountability are the new watchwords, then doing or saying anything that smacks of obstruction of justice is probably not a good career move.

Toxic Religious Assets

Americans don’t pay much attention to the National Council of Churches anymore. In my classes when I ask students if they have heard of the NCC I usually receive blank stares. (For what it’s worth, not many students or Americans pay much attention to the National Association of Evangelicals.) Back in the day, memos from the NCC were even more important than blog posts at the Gospel Coalition are today. After all, the NCC’s membership consisted of all the largest and historic Protestant denominations, and most of the nation’s political officials, corporate executives, and professors were members of those denominations.

One NCC publication that still merits attention is the annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. It not only contains useful information on denominations — their history, location, contact data — but also it reports the latest membership statistics for practically all denominations (someone needs to buy a copy to see if they include Networks).

Here are the latest figures on the top 25 denominations in the United States:

1. The Catholic Church, 68,503,456

2. Southern Baptist Convention,16,160,088

3. The United Methodist Church, 7,774,931

4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6,058,907

5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875

6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc, 5,000,000

7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,542,868

8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000

9. Assemblies of God, 2,914,669

10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2,770,730

11. African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000

11. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000

13. The Lutheran Church– Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,312,111

14. The Episcopal Church, 2,006,343

15. Churches of Christ, 1,639,495

16. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000

17. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000

18. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000

19. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., 1,310,505

20. Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1,162,686

21. United Church of Christ, 1,080,199

22. Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), 1,076,254

23. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ , 1,071,616

24. Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 1,043,606

25. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. 1,010,000

Two observations:

1) So much for transformationalism: the next time the emergents, hipsters, missionals, urbanists, and neo-Calvinists want to talk about how they are change-agents in both the church and society they should look at the numbers and sober up.

2) Trust but verify: how many of these figures are accurate? I mean, how do you have a nice round number, like 5 million in the case of the National Baptist Convention, and expect people to suppress doubt? In fact, one of the consequences of the separation of church and state is that no government agency keeps statistics on churches. That means that compilers of data like the NCC depend on churches to supply accurate figures. As if.

Not only is it possible for churches to inflate their membership statistics for the sake of self-justification, but how many communions actually purge their membership rolls, let alone practice discipline? Even on my session we find we have members still on our rolls who have moved and either have not sent in new church information or have moved on because they are no longer active in church. Since erasing someone from the roll is a serious matter, we make every effort possible to inquire with someone about their current church affiliation or level of religious observance before erasure. But since finding a member after several moves and changes of address is very difficult, church rolls tend to be larger than the real number of members even in congregations where officers try to have accurate numbers.

One can only imagine the bloat that afflicts membership in denominations like the United Church of Christ that claim the mixed heritage of John Winthrop, Lyman Beecher, John Williamson Nevin, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jeremiah Wright.