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?

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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.

Selah.