If Lecrae Can Leave, Why Can’t Orthodox Presbyterians Get Out

Some of us have been saying for a while that Reformed Protestants are not evangelical, but the standard scholarship puts conservative Presbyterians squarely in the evangelical camp. Those different assessments of Presbyterian and evangelical relations make the recent discussion of Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism seem partial and shortsighted. But they should give confessional Presbyterians sympathy with black Protestants.

For instance, notice what happens if you change words in Raymond Chang’s defense of Lecrae:

We need to be aware of how we bring unconscious biases to our own litmus tests of whether people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are theologically correct enough based on their emphasis on justice doctrinal issues. Often times, people of color are viewed with greater scrutiny simply because of their skin tone dress. We need to be concerned with the ways our political commitments co-opt our faith commitments. The fact that people equate Christians with a particular political party is problematic, especially if we consider how both parties are deeply flawed. We need to redefine our understanding of organizational fit. This means we need to reconsider what it means to be equipped. For example, is someone equipped for the pastorate if they have racist heterodox tendencies or beliefs? And who gets to decide if they do, white people or the people they disparage?

We also need to be mindful of how networks and credibility is established. Consider who is promoted within evangelicalism through publishing deals. If a Christian publisher looks through their catalogues and white people overwhelmingly occupy the authorial space, it is likely because the people they have come across were developed through their white evangelical network. Consider who speaks at conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel and you’ll see how people who had local or regional platforms, now have national or international ones. Whether you are aware of it or not, we normalize whiteness in evangelicalism by having an overwhelming majority of white speakers and only one or two plenary speakers of color Orthodox Presbyterians. Consider the ways in which people get mentored. There are tremendous barriers to mentorship felt by Christians of color Orthodox Presbyterians who would say they hold the same faith commitments and convictions as evangelicals do, but don’t either know or have an entry point into these networks (I fortunately, had people who helped me navigate in, but I am a part of the exception, not the rule). Consider who is appointed the most senior level leadership roles and how they are found and determined upon. It cannot be true that only white people are “called” to these positions of authority and influence and people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are not.

If white evangelicalism is serious about representing the unity Christ calls us to in this world, this means you cannot find successors who preach like you do, see the world like you do, and share the same skin tonefashion as you. This means Thabiti Anyabwile or Bryan Lorritts (or any of the small handful of others) Carl Trueman cannot be the only black preachers Orthodox Presbyterian in your conferences (despite their his wonderful gifts). This means that conferences need to provide substantial opportunities for Asians and Latinos and Native Americans Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Reformed to speak as well. This means that senior leadership at churches cannot be satisfied with a disproportionate percentage of white pastors/elders to non-white confessional pastors/elders.

Further, we need to look deeply into the reasons why leaders of color Orthodox Presbyterians who occupy the top spots in Christian (evangelical) organizations and churches do not last. This means we need to have the humility to listen, but not just listen, and act upon the problems we see. This also means evangelicalism needs to allow people of color Orthodox Presbyterians to speak for themselves and on their own terms. We also need to create pipelines for evangelicals of color confessional Protestants to grow in leadership opportunities (see what Intervarsity did with the Daniel Project) because we know that leadership matters and that leadership shapes organizations.

Of course, the difference is that Orthodox Presbyterians already have their own institutions and structures. That institutional basis means that OP’s aren’t necessarily jonesing for leadership in TGC. Since that is true, and since the freedom of religion means that all Protestants have the opportunity to form their own structures (which the black church already has), then why is it that Christians of color or some Orthodox Presbyterians aspire to receive the imprimatur of John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller?

The Mystery of Dialogue

Another blog is up and running and it targets yet again Calvinists for ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics (most of whom converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism). This ecumenical endeavor, however, is different from Bryan and the Jasons Called to Communion. In fact, Bryan Cross would likely be fairly dismissive of “Catholics and Calvinists” (CaC vs. CtC). Cross once identified two kinds of ecumenism, one false, and one true. The former is wrong because it is — well — liberal:

That is because it seems to seek its goal of achieving general agreement about doctrine by way of compromise. So those who think a particular doctrine is essential feel pressured to drop their belief that this doctrine is an essential doctrine in order to attain some unity with those who think that that doctrine is adiaphorous (i.e. indifferent, non-essential). The very nature of the goal of this type of ecumenicism makes this kind of compromise essential to ecumenical progress. As someone said to me a while back, “True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise.” And the necessary result of such a methodology is a least-common-denominator minimalism regarding doctrine, an acceptance as sufficient of something far short of the unity in communion to which Christ calls all His people.

In contrast for Cross, true ecumenism comes from recognizing the truth and unity of Roman Catholicism:

. . .this ecumenicism has complete agreement on doctrine as its goal, or more precisely, complete agreement on what each person believes to be essential doctrine. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, it rejects compromise regarding what anyone believes to be truly essential as a means of achieving its goal. As a result, there is no pressure to compromise in order to attain this ecumenicism’s goal. Instead of proposing compromise as a means to reaching a watered-down unity, this type of ecumenicism recognizes that we are not fully united until we are doctrinally united on every doctrine about which anyone believes to be essential. In this ecumenicism we do not sweep our essential doctrinal differences under the rug. We even straightforwardly, and in genuine charity and sincerity, remind each other that the other person’s position, from the point of view of our own tradition, is nothing less than heresy.

That is not exactly a conversation starter and explains why discussions with Bryan and the Jasons generally descend to Dr. Dave Bowman’s conversation with H.A.L. 9000.

How then is CaC different from CtC? Put simply from this observer’s perspective, it’s the difference between the pre- and post-Vatican II church. While Bryan and the Jasons reflect a no-salvation/truth-outside-the-church outlook, CaC seems to embrace Vatican II’s ecumenism:

Our refusal to engage in “sheep stealing” is not merely a rhetorical front, as if that posture itself were a guise under which to carry on a still-deeper project of effecting conversions. It is also not a bracketing of theological questions for the time being, as if we will for a time carry on a project of “ground-clearing” only to then change gears and begin bringing in the sheep. We recognize that this a pervasive – and deeply problematic – style of Catholic and Reformed engagement, and we repudiate it in no uncertain terms.

Rather, our approach is rooted in the ecclesiological vision articulated by the Second Vatican Council and by other leading ecumenists that there are genuine gifts cultivated by the Holy Spirit outside the boundaries of those churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome that are genuinely beneficial to the churches which are in such communion, and which lead these churches into a deeper desire for union. We want to understand those gifts more clearly, and we want to help other Roman Catholics understand the under-appreciated richness of the Reformed tradition more deeply. We do this while seeking, of course, to have our own views as Roman Catholics – devoted first to Scripture and then to the Roman Catholic tradition expressed in such thinkers as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the great theologians of the twentieth century – come to be better understood by our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.

An initial observation is this: why don’t CaCers engage in dialogue with CtCers? After all, it sure looks like Roman Catholics are on different pages when it comes to church unity and what to make of Reformed Protestants.

That conversation might then include discussions of Vatican II and the apparent rupture of the church’s understanding of its relationship to those outside the church (both other professing Christians and non-Christians). In fact, since CaC is interested in the shared use of scholasticism by Roman Catholics and Protestants, the dialogue it promotes might include trying to reconcile a church that was for much of its modern intellectual history committed to Thomism and then after 1965 opened itself to non-scholastic methods (and more). In other words, I don’t understand (maybe a dumb Protestant) how you invoke both scholasticism and Vatican II on theological discussion since the former achieved remarkable clarity and the latter was purposefully equivocal.

That difference between Vatican II and scholasticism also brings up the tricky matter of the Council of Trent. Why is it that the church that relied on scholasticism as its method for articulating theological and dogmatic truth did not open dialogue with but condemned Protestantism? Trent was not an invitation to dialogue. It put an end to it. So the challenge for CaCers is how to read 16th- and 17th-century theological sources as a way to pursue what Vatican II had in mind when those old sources drew clear lines between truth and error and pursued ecumenism far more along the lines that Bryan Cross advocates than what Pope Francis embodies.

The larger point here is one about Roman Catholics understanding Roman Catholicism. Instead of trying to understand Calvinism, making sense of Rome’s fits and starts and changes might be much more useful for dialogue (whether ecumenical or academic). For Protestants like mmmmeeeeeeEEEE, Roman Catholicism looks like a moving target. That is a mystery that needs much more attention from Roman Catholics than appreciating Luther or Calvin. In fact, as Mark Massa has argued, it is a mystery up to which the post-Vatican II church is still catching:

. . . the widespread acceptance of the seemingly self-evident truth that things change will make it increasingly difficult to propound or defend Church teaching and practice by appealing to timeless, static categories of propositional truth. This applies most particularly to the intellectual tradition of scholastic natural law, which the Catholic tradition has relied on for presenting its most important teachings since the thirteenth century. The fractious nonrecption of Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, if nothing else, illustrates this with startling clarity. Whatever the truth of Paul VI’s teaching, the massive noncompliance accorded his encyclical shows that the great majority of American Catholics did not form their consciences along the lines of such moral reasoning, and have not since. There are of course many possible reasons for this lack of compliance on the part of the vast majority of practicing Catholics on an issue that the hierarchical Church has termed “serious matter.” Some of those reasons may indeed involve personal ignorance, sinful willfulness, or just plain selfishness. But an important reason for that noncompliance, what I would label as the main reason, is that the classical unchanging world it presupposes no longer makes sense to the vast majority of the faithful in the United States. What Bernard Lonergan so elegantly called the “transition from a classicist world view to historical mindedness” in fact describes the intellectual revolution that mainstream Catholics underwent during the sixties.

Whatever the strengths of that older classicist worldview — and it served the Catholic Church extraordinarily well for centuries — it can no longer provide plausible explanations for Church teaching . . . . The older intellectual categories of scholastic natural law, first enunciated so brilliantly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, appear unable to accomplish that now. Perhaps the intellectual justification offered in its place to explain Catholic teaching will represent the most important long-term fruit of the intellectual revolution sponsored by historical consciousness in Catholic Christianity. Time will tell.

Some of us are still waiting for converts to Roman Catholicism to have a conversation with clergy and academics like Massa. It sure doesn’t seem like a meaningful conversation can take place between confessional Protestants and Roman Catholics as long as one side is so uncertain about that for which it stands.

Postscript: Comments should be open at a cite committed to dialogue.

Could This Happen in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod?

Would confessional Lutherans have ever fallen for the Alex Marlarkey story of dying and going to heaven and coming back to life? (Wasn’t the last name a tip-off?) Would confessional Presbyterians be so gullible for that matter?

Here’s one account of what happened:

Tyndale House Publishers has stopped production of the book and DVD of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven after the book’s coauthor and subject, Alex Malarkey, released a statement retracting the book’s contents.

In an open letter, the self-described “boy who did not come back from heaven” wrote:

Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.

I did not die. I did not go to heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.

It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of heaven outside of what is written in the Bible . . . not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.

In Christ,
Alex Malarkey

This isn’t simply a question of good or bad theology, pietist or confessional piety, someone who naively thinks Christians don’t intentionally mislead or someone who has a healthy respect for the ongoing effects of original sin. It is a question of ecclesiology. Belonging to a communion where pastors and others vet who gets admitted to fellowship (the Lord’s Table), where pastors receive scrutiny before being ordained, where church officers monitor what seminaries teach, and where education committees subsidize instructional materials for church members — all of these structures contribute to an identity for church members that prevents individual Christians from being at the mercy of the market and its hucksters (and the editors who enable the hucksters).

Which is to say that not only does evangelicalism lack ecclesiology. In place of the church evangelicalism has the market. The publishers, parachurch agencies, magazine promoters, conference sponsors — these are the structures that “minister” for a price to your average born-again Christian who worships at some independent tabernacle, celebration center, or even a local congregation. And without any shepherds to police the sheep and the wolves, your average Christian has to figure out for himself whether other Christians really do manipulate best-seller lists or turn the NFL into a sacred cow.