Presbyterian Polity 201

Presbyterian polity 101 is rule by elders.

201 is living in submission to the rule of elders within a communion’s assemblies unless a member or officer appeals the rules.

So imagine if Tim Keller were as particular about the rules of the PCA and NAPARC as Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, is about the PCUSA:

On the question of who can receive the award: anybody can. Again, this is a family argument within the Reformed communions between the PCUSA and the PCA. And as a Presbyterian seminary, it’s in our bylaws, we have to uphold the polity and the procedures of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So once the award became a matter of affirming a man who doesn’t believe women can be ordained, you know, that’s a problem for us. And that’s what the entire controversy became about. Not [about] what I wanted, which was just to have Tim Keller on campus to speak, because we have all kinds of people speaking.

We’ve had other people receive this award in the past who aren’t particularly Reformed, even. If you look at the list of previous recipients, it isn’t that we have criteria like that for the award. It’s just that this particular issue for Presbyterians against other kinds of Presbyterians — the award just became impossible to maintain, because we were, through the award, affirming Keller’s position on women’s ordination.

What do the rules of the PCA polity say about cooperating with Baptists and Pentecostals in the ministry of word and sacrament? Think The Gospel Coalition and City-to-City (partners for C2C churches are Acts 29 and Christian Reformed Church).

Not to be missed is that the Kuyper award has not exactly gone to people who battled modernism the way Kuyper did. Notice too that if you can’t tell the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists, you may have trouble with discerning modernism.

Instead of a Shrug, Concern

James Schall has a concern about Pope Francis’ apparently intentional ambiguity:

The “concern” is not so much to “prod” the good Holy Father into answering his mail. Others have tried this approach and failed. Rather it is to articulate the core “concern” that many normal people have about their Church under Pope Francis’ leadership. The Argentine pope certainly attracts crowds and generous media attention. He is seen kissing little babies, waving, smiling, and talking earnestly with almost anyone from scientists to politicians to mullahs and rabbis. We all recall his visit with the late Fidel Castro.

Pope Bergoglio has been on some twenty travels out of Italy and all over the known world. He dutifully attends to papal liturgical, diplomatic, bureaucratic, and ceremonial functions. At almost eighty, he seems full of energy and zest. He appears in public to enjoy being the pope. He even gets annoyed. He is human. The people he seems to like the least are practicing Catholics and the poor ecclesial bureaucrats who have to do all the thankless grunt jobs in the Church. He certainly has a good press. The crowds at papal audiences seem down, while observers do not yet detect any remarkable “Francis effect” in increased vocations, conversions, or Mass attendance.

But none of these issues seems to be what most concerns people. We are used to maintain that the principle of contradiction binds us to the truth of things. Catholicism is a religion that takes mind seriously. Revelation and reason do not contradict each other. These affirmations about reason and revelation indicate a certain confidence in our Catholicism. When spelled out, what the faith teaches makes sense in all areas. We can articulate what we are talking about without claiming that we grasp absolutely everything about the mystery of being. In fact, we claim that we do not understand everything in all its intelligibility. We do not confuse ourselves with the gods.

What we can figure out by ourselves makes sense also. We hold that what was revealed by Christ still holds and was intended to do so over time. Among these teachings and practices that were revealed was that of the consistency over time of the content of revelation.

Given Roman Catholicism’s understanding of reason and revelation, why put all of your eggs in the papacy basket? Schall’s understanding of Christian truth is one that Protestants share (mainly). His papalism does not follow in practice or theory:

In this tradition, the Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, at least considered the problem of a hypothetical pope who did not affirm what had been explicitly handed down. In general, they held that a pope who might enunciate any heretical position would cease ipso facto to be pope. But this was an opinion. The one or two instances in the history of the Church, when a given pope did state something dubious, were usually considered, on examination, to be merely private opinions or not taught infallibly. So the consistency record over time is pretty impressive from that angle.

In this light, the “concern” that exists today is whether the promise to Peter that what Christ did and held would be kept alive in its fullness. The Church thus must avoid contradicting itself; that is, teaching one thing in one generation or area and its opposite in another. We are not concerned here with equivocation or impreciseness. If some pope did cross this line, we can at least suspect that he would not admit it or see the point. If he had the issue pointed out to him and saw its import, he would simply acknowledge what is the truth and be done with it. Otherwise, a drawn-out struggle would follow to decide who is right.

In other words, if reason and revelation are such (relatively) reliable guides, why then glom the bishop of Rome on top of such reliability? Does Father Schall really need the papacy’s help to tell what’s true or to be faithful to the truth? Or is the pope like the English monarchy, something you trot out when you need pomp and ceremony?

Own that great pretty good intellectual tradition.

Today's Lesson in Ecclesiology

From the far right:

After Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there was a near-universal agreement among Church leaders that his successor should make it a top priority to bring the Roman Curia under more effective control: that is, to govern the Vatican well. In the daily conferences leading up to the 2013 conclave, one cardinal after another spoke out in favor of administrative reforms. Not surprisingly, after his election Pope Francis soon pledged himself to the cause of Vatican reform. It is not an easy task, and to date we have not seen the fruit of his efforts (except in Vatican financial affairs, where the reforms driven by Cardinal Pell are taking effect), but it will be fair to judge this pontificate on the Pope’s success or failure in streamlining and taming his own bureaucracy.

But the problems of Church governance do not stop at the Vatican walls. Especially because Pope Francis has indicated a desire for decentralized leadership, the Church will need bishops who govern effectively.

How often have you heard complaints about a bishop’s prayer life? Not often; very few people are presumptuous enough to judge the quality of another man’s prayers.

Have you heard complaints about a bishop’s teaching? Yes, occasionally. Frustrated Catholics will sometimes say that a bishop’s public statements on doctrinal issues have been confusing or misleading. Far more frequently there will be laments that the bishop remains silent when a clear teaching statement is necessary.

Still, by far the greatest source about a bishop’s performance will involve his governance. The appointment of pastors, the decisions to close parishes or schools, and the diocesan budget priorities will always be easy targets for critics. But even beyond that, the most common complaints involve not the bishop’s acts of governance, but his inaction: his failure to respond to complaints about liturgical abuse or parish mismanagement; his unwillingness to rebuke prominent Catholics who flout the teachings of the Church; his acceptance of religious-education programs that mislead young people and leave them ignorant; his tolerance for priests who have lapsed into complacency or worse.

Granted, lay Catholics should spend less time complaining about their bishops, and more time praying for them. Nevertheless it is instructive to see the nature of their complaints. We certainly need bishops who pray fervently and preach effectively. But we also need bishops who govern well. Above all, we need bishops who want to govern.

From the Protestant left:

You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by discipling other church members.

Remember Ephesians 4:15–16. The church builds itself up in love as each part does its work. You have work to do to build up the church. And part of that includes the ministry of words. A few verses later, Paul says, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (v. 25). Speak truth to them, and help them to grow. Our words should be “good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, make yourself available to be spoken to. Are you willing to listen?

Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. It is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. Speaking of . . .

If through union with the second Adam God has reinstated you as a priest-king, your whole life should reflect the gospel in word and deed. You are an ambassador. Paul’s charge and example is worth repeating here:

He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)

Every Christian has been reconciled, and thus every Christian has received this message of reconciliation. Therefore, we plead and we pray for sinners to be reconciled to God.

This, too, is a part of your job. The command to “Go and make disciples” belongs to you (Matt. 28:19).

From the moderate Calvinist middle:

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

As always, the one, the many, or the few.

You Can't Spell Presbyterian with "Me"

My personal advice to any American Protestant is never to interrupt a debate between two English dissenting Protestants about celebrity pastors, but when one of them, Paul Helm, calls the other, Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian perfectionist, afflicted with “Bannerman’s Disease,” and “the zeal of a convert,” I can’t resist.

There are books of Church Order to be read, the contents of which are mastered by the lawyer-types of the church, and I confess that I do not find these a very satisfying genre. But besides this, I know without looking, that presbyterianism, like any such human system, leaks all the way. It leaks through nods and winks, through unattributable comments, through what is said and what is not said. Human society cannot be otherwise. We all know of poor people who have to protest their innocence all the way up, in courts of law and in Christian denominations, and that have been ruined by the attendant exposure, quite apart from the weeks and months of strain while documents are prepared and friendly counsel advised and the day of judgement awaited…. I say, in such circumstances thank God for religious consumerism. At least the aggrieved party can walk away, find another place of worship, and still earn a living.

I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. A cynic might say that he has the zeal of a convert. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. And as I said in the post, I agree with critiques of the Big Men such as his. But not with the cure-all of Presbyterianism. The Black Book does not solve the bugbear of accountability. And the point is, if there’s nothing better in the Church of Christ that presbyterianism, let’s at least acknowledge its flaws. Carl recognizes the imperfections of the human natures of those that thumb the Black Book, and this is welcome. And this was my point. A perfect system administered by those with imperfections is de facto imperfect. Spurgeon famously said (from memory) ‘For me “lead me not into temptation” means “keep me off the committee”’.

Helm is right in a general Protestant church-is-imperfect sort of way that Presbyterianism leaks. But the system of church government that Calvin developed has real assets that Helm too readily ignores. Imagine, for instance, a faculty meeting where provost, department head, senior professor, and lecturer are all equal and you have some sense of the dynamics of session or presbytery. Or imagine a meeting of politicians where queen, prime minister, and back benchers are all equal, with the same authority, same access to debate, the same number of votes — 1. Presbyterianism is the great leveler and is no respecter of celebrity, age, fame, or Facebook friends. And because the meetings of elders are regular and absences must be excused by the wider body, to be Presbyterian is to be involved in a regular pattern of attendance where you are just one more member with no more rank or privilege than the guy sitting next to you. You have 12 books. He doesn’t have a Masters degree. You have journalists from national publications seeking an interview. The guy next to you fixes leaking toilets. In Presbyterianism, if you both are ordained you are both equal.

For the sake of the temptations that had to accompany his fame, Spurgeon should have said, “committees, put me on more of them.”

And even in those odd circumstances where a single officer has broad power thanks to the consolidation of finances and administration — say in a denominational committee — in Presbyterianism that rule of one becomes a secretary of a committee. The head of the foreign missions committee, does he have powers of the purse and can he influence votes? Maybe. But he’s merely a “general secretary” in Presbyterian church government. That means he is doing the bidding of the committee on foreign missions, which is a sub-committee of the whole assembly.

You want to knock the pride out of celebrity pastors? Make them Presbyterian.

If Presbyterianism checks the sort of privilege to which bishops are prone, it also beats congregationalism. To be sure, the democratic nature of congregational polity could also restrain the kind of egotism that afflicts celebrity pastors. But more often than not, the politics of local congregations witness large clans or members with large wallets having more sway than other members or families. And pastors of independent churches often resemble bishops since they function in a capacity above the rest of the church and have no formal peers in ministry.

What Helm fails to see is that Presbyterianism, if all officers go to meetings and submit to their fellow presbyters (if they don’t, they’re not Presbyterian), by its very nature humbles the proud. And face it, famous preachers are prone to pride as much as any other celebrity. But among those churches where Presbyterian government is most evident and Roberts Rules most consulted, celebrity is hardest to discern in the deliberations of assemblies.

Presbyterianism is not a perfect solution to either the parachurch (Gospel Coalition) or helicopter church (Rome), but it has its moments.

I Feel His Pain

And I imagine that Boniface could feel mine even though the Tiber separates us.

Boniface explains why conservative or traditional Roman Catholics are worried about Pope Francis and the recent public foot washings are just one example. People prone to view conservatives as folks who don’t care for the poor or oppressed, or who think that critics of the pope are nostalgic for Pius X should think about the actual nature of the papacy. On the one hand, the pope washing the feet of prisoners is no big deal. But doing so on Holy Thursday sends a very different signal, one that shows the pope as Bishop of Rome is neglecting his duties to his own diocese:

The Holy Thursday Mass, which inaugurates the sacred Triduum and which (until 1642) was a holy day of obligation is in a totally different category than, say, a daily Mass. This is why when Benedict XVI wanted to celebrate Mass in the Casal del Marmo, he did so in a daily Mass, not the Holy Thursday Mass, which as part of the sacred Triduum, is of a much more solemn and public nature than a mere daily Mass.

Remember, the pope is also Bishop of the diocese of Rome. This means that for the past three years, the faithful of that diocese have been deprived of access to the celebration of one of the most sacred Masses of the year by their bishop. I admit this is not a huge issue or a monumental scandal – but it is something.

Boniface also explains that foot-washing on Holy Thursday was designed for bishops to serve their clergy (not as a photo op):

It must be remembered that though foot washing in general is a sign of service (cf. 1 Tim. 5:10), the Holy Thursday foot washing in particular is much more than that. Christ did not just wash His disciples’ feet as a sign of service to mankind in general, but of the service the hierarchy renders to the clergy in particular. This is why most liturgical foot washing in the Church’s history has always focused on the bishop’s service to his clergy; priests, canons, deacons and subdeacons have been the recipients of foot washing; this was true of diocesan bishops as well as the pope. It is an ecclesiological ritual relating to the clergy and their superiors, not a general sign of service to mankind.

. . . If the Holy Thursday foot washing is supposed to signify the service of the hierarchy to the Church – and to the clergy in particular – then we can easily understand why it is totally inappropriate that non-Christians should be the recipients of the ceremony. In what fantasy land can a Muslim or atheist in any way represent the Church?

And to the papal supremacists who defend Francis by citing his power to change church law (not doctrine) as he sees fit, Boniface observes that procedures exist for such changes and they don’t include merely breaking existing law:

. . . it seems lost on many that to say one has an authority to change a law is not the same thing as suggesting he can simply break the law. We all understand this. If the Holy Father does not like the current legislation, he has the power to change it. He can promulgate new rubrics or new norms if he so chooses. But for law to be law, this is accomplished by an act of law; i.e., the lawgiver changing the law by an legitimate exercise of his legislative power. The law is not changed by the lawgiver simply breaking the law.

Suppose the speed limit in your town was 30 mph. Suppose your small town Mayor decided he did not like that speed limit. Suppose, on the premise that he was the “supreme authority” in your small town, he just decided to start breaking the speed limit with impunity. How would you react? You would be indignant! You would say, “If the Mayor doesn’t like the speed limit, then change the law, but for heaven’s sake, don’t just break it!”

Since the rubrics for Holy Thursday have not changed, the fact remains that Pope Francis is simply violating the rubrics. You may say the law should change. You may applaud his inclusiveness. You may affirm that he has the power to change the law. But you cannot deny that he is breaking the law every time he washes the foot of a female on Holy Thursday. There’s no other way to explain it.

Aside from the merits of Boniface’s points or what Francis may indicate about the current magisterium, the post is instructive for a couple reasons:

First, Bryan and the Jasons seem to have no awareness of these nuances of significance in the public face of Roman Catholicism. Their conversion is a full-on embrace of Rome no matter what anyone does or says. And because the supremacy of the papacy is crucial to their conversion, they will never be in a position to raise the concerns that Boniface does. Why? Because ultimately their conversion is not about the pope or his infallibility but about their own certainty. It’s all about (not me) them.

Second, Boniface raises concerns about Francis that Old Lifers raise about the Presbyterian Pope, TKNY. Fans of Keller cannot understand critics because TKNY does so many good things that look so lovable and cuddly. But if you take Presbyterianism at all seriously, and ordination vows should suggest a degree of seriousness not to mention an entire chapter in our Confession of Faith devoted to oaths and vows, you might actually see that despite all of TKNY’s good intentions, he isn’t playing by rules that he agreed to follow. Maybe the rules are bad or need to be changed. But breaking those rules doesn’t change them. It only breeds license, an indifference to forms and structures that allows anyone to define Presbyterianism as he or Kathy sees fit.

Update: Pope’s prayers on Easter:

Continuing his blessing Sunday, the pope asked and several times implored God to stop violence in many places of the world — mentioning particularly Iraq and Syria, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and Ukraine.

The pontiff also asked for “peace and freedom” for men and women “subject to old and new forms of enslavement” and for “peace and liberty” for those who are victims of drug dealers, who he said “are often allied with the powers who should defend peace and harmony in the human family.”

Mentioning Christians suffering persecution, Francis asked: “Jesus, the Victor, to lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for his name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence.”

Following with the list of nations suffering violence, the pope also prayed for a “resumed” peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

But what about Betty Falconi, member of Rome’s St. Clement’s parish, who is going in for foot surgery on Thursday?

Overseer Overload

Do bishops who claim apostolic succession have it this rough? (I am, by the way, according to the Form of Government for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a bishop: “Those who share in the rule of the church may be called elders (presbyters), bishops, or church governors. Those who minister in mercy and service are called deacons. Those elders who have been endued and called of Christ to labor also in the Word and teaching are called ministers” (FoG, V.3)

Last Friday after teaching a regular load, I got in the car and made the 3 and 3/4 hour drive to Cincinnati to give the first of three lectures at the conference, Reformed in America. I gave two more lectures the next day and then taught Sunday school at Good Shepherd OPC on — get this — Sunday. It was a very pleasant time with a lot of enjoyable folks. But it was a long weekend and I couldn’t even benefit from the company of Cordelia and Kabbigail.

Last night, in preparation for today’s session meeting, I finished minutes from our last gathering — the longest set of minutes I have yet to produce, mainly because the correspondence was thick and heavy. That process took almost two hours and I followed it up with a nightcap of filling out the statistical report for the Statistician of the OPC’s General Assembly. It’s not rocket science but neither is it as easy as surfing the web in search of hardware for shelves in the newly renovated bathroom.

Today’s meeting should not be overly long, but at 9:00 tonight I have the honor and privilege of participating in a conference call for the sub-committee of Christian Education that is working on the production of a Psalter-Hymnal with folks from the United Reformed Churches.

With all this avocational work, how would a Presbyterian elder ever have time for this?

My father-in-law, a Baptist minister, would have called all of this a glorious privilege. I am more inclined to think of this as something completely different from the sort of episcopal chores that lead some bishops to talk about a “poor church for the poor.” In the OPC’s case, it’s more like “middle-rank church officers volunteering for middle-class Presbyterians.”

If only we had bingo (but that would also bring the Bishop of Bling).

The Gateway Drug to the Gospel Coaltion

Peter Dietsch gets off to a great start about the importance of ecclesiology to being a Christian:

As you can hopefully tell from the language of the confession, the Westminster Divines had a decidedly high ecclesiology. I’ve found that a good way to test whether or not someone has a high ecclesiology (what they believe about the importance of the visible church) is to ask a question that try to ask of every candidate who comes before presbytery for ordination: “What do you think about this statement: The visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

This question really strikes at the heart of what one believes about the importance of the visible church, whether or not they have a high ecclesiology. For, as the confession here teaches (and Jesus and the Apostles taught), the visible church is the institution through which God ordinarily confers salvation. The Great Commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands is given to the visible church (Matthew 28:18-20), preachers are sent to preach the gospel by the church (10:15), the sacraments are administered in and by the church (Acts 2:41-42; Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), church discipline and the corporate sanctification of God’s people takes place in the church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

But then he takes most of it back when he makes the invisible church more important than the visible:

More could be said and I could go on; however, as one who professes to have a high ecclesiology, I wish at this point to say how my high regard for the visible church was arrested and challenged this week. Being a baptized member of the visible church is important, but it of far greater importance that one be a member of the invisible church!

This point was struck home to me with particular impact this week as I’ve been preparing for the sermon this coming Sunday. The text for our sermon is from John 1:19-34. John the Baptist testifies before some Jews who come as a delegation from Jerusalem as to the nature of his ministry – why he is preaching and baptizing. He says that he is voice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23) and that he baptizes in order that Jesus might be manifested (or revealed) to Israel (John 1:31).

And then, in order to clearly delineate between his outward and temporary ministry and the inward and eternal ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist makes the point: I baptize with water, but Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, He baptizes in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).

Fine, but who is akin to Christ today? The Holy Spirit? But why does God give to the visible church the ordinances other than to connect the visible with the invisible, the Spirit’s call with the word preached?

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 25.3)

Folks who think they are members of the invisible church need the visible church to confirm that thought. Otherwise, they will think that visible church membership is optional and choosing the right one is merely a matter of preference.