Would Moderates Let Slavery Split the PCA?

Maybe it was a different time. It was at least before Mike Brown, Carter Paige, “both sides” in Charlottesville, Robert Mueller, Volodymyr Zelensky, Brett Kavanaugh, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Anthony Fauci — June 2010 to be precise. But it is hard to imagine any moderate or progressive in the PCA today, after George Floyd, describing the place of slavery in the Old School vs. New School Presbyterian split (1837) the way Tim Keller does. This is from his essay about his positive regard for the PCA:

There is a third reason that we should learn to live together. Because we are brethren, we need each other. Let’s recount a sad case study that illustrates this–the issue of 19th century African slavery. The New Schoolers lacked doctrinal robustness but they were strongly abolitionist. The Old Schoolers saw the danger of the New School’s intense campaigns to reform society—they saw how they could distract from the ministry of the Word, evangelism, and the sacraments. They saw how the New School’s cultural accommodation was leading to doctrinal decline. As a consequence, much of the Old School, especially in the South refused to denounce African chattel slavery as being the evil that it was. Mark Noll has shown in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and America’s God that the church’s inability to agree that slavery was evil directly led to the disaster of the Civil War and that was the reason that evangelicalism has never again had the cultural credibility in the U.S. that it had before the 1830s. Old School leader Charles Hodge was caught in the middle of this, perhaps because he was one of leaders who tried to achieve a balance of confessionalism and revivalism in the Presbyterian church. On the one hand, he saw what poor theological reasoning lay behind the arguments of the abolitionists and the New School. On the other hand, he rightly sensed the danger that ‘the spirituality of the church doctrine’ could lead to cultural captivity in the other direction—the conservative one. Noll points out that Hodge began to criticize slavery too late to have brought about unity within Presbyterianism on the subject. In short, the Old School’s fear of cultural engagement caused it to fail this great test. And yet the New School’s overinvolvement in politics and social reform did indeed lead it later to doctrinal compromise. So both schools were right in their criticism of the other.

Can anyone imagine a PCA pastor today arguing that opposition to slavery resulted in theological decline? For that matter, has anyone but a few conservatives recently worried out loud that Christian support for defunding police, wearing masks, or mocking elected officials could actually be at odds with biblical teaching and church conviction? To his credit, Tim Keller did.

But eleven years later, that same argument against splitting the PCA is part of the set of convictions that run along with Revoice. If slavery shouldn’t have split Presbyterians, surely Presbyterian pastors who identify as homosexual in orientation (not in practice) will never break up the PCA.

Only Professionals Have Licenses to Conduct Historical Science

Michael Haykin seems to deny the doctrine of vocation when he argues that every believer needs to be a good historian:

history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.

This is a tad sloppy and betrays that evangelical earnestness so often eager to find in every-square-inch Neo-Calvinism that magic wand to integrate everything. Everyone, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can now see historical significance, perform algebra equations, and tie boating knots. Well, not really. All good believers, even the most gullible, won’t come to my door in hopes of finding a cure for that nagging pain in the sciatica. Maybe to be a good historian it helps to go to graduate school and obtain a license.

But, when Haykin writes this:

Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.

He has a point.

Imagine the pain Tim Keller might have avoided if he had known better the struggles between Machen and Old Princeton, between Old School and New School Presbyterians, or between New York and Philadelphia presbyteries. For that matter, why doesn’t the Gospel Industrial Complex have a better memory of Carl Henry, Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Fuller Seminary?

Selective skepticism? Heck, selective memory.

A New Calvinist becomes a Regular Calvinist

Danny Hide Hyde may not detect sufficient earnestness, but Todd Pruitt makes clear the limitations of New Calvinist awakenings among the Babdists (which is a big world but for every Southern Baptist Seminary there are three Furmans, four Baylors and six Wake Forests):

As I reflect on the past year as a Presbyterian several things emerge for me as sources of regular gratitude.

1. The Westminster Confession of Faith
The Westminster Confession of Faith is one of the most helpful and beautiful theological documents outside of Scripture. As a friend of mine once said regarding confessions of faith: “They need to have a lot of words.” Indeed. Many churches have built a sort of unity around a common set of “core values” or a mission statement. And while those things can be helpful, they are no substitute for a comprehensive and clear confession of faith. For the body of Christ, unity based on shared values, while good, is no substitute for unity based upon doctrinal convictions.

Likewise a unity based on the merest sort of Christian confession is not robust enough to navigate the confusing waters of contemporary evangelicalism. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was perhaps an evangelical center. That center was anchored to men like John Stott and Francis Schaeffer. This has changed of course. Once men like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell were tolerated within evangelicalism’s big tent the foundations of the once unified center could no longer bear the weight of its own contradictions.

Certainly there are many contributing factors, but the idea of a mere Christianity in today’s evangelicalism is, I believe, not possible. We need, and beyond that, ought to desire, a confession that carefully guards the church from being carried off by every wind of doctrine. For the denomination to which I belong the Westminster Confession of Faith is that confession. If you are a Baptist then perhaps you ought to investigate the London Baptist Confession.

2. The Book of Church Order
The Book of Church Order (BCO) is used by the PCA as a guide for governance and polity. It is a thick three ring blue binder. Some of my friends who attended a Presbyterian seminary refer to it as the “big blue sleeping pill.” It is true that the BCO does not always offer the most compelling reading experience. However, for this man raised in an autonomous church tradition, the BCO has been a welcome source of clarity and security. No more entering elder meetings with fear and trembling not know what will be done or said. No more making things up on the fly. No more trying to navigate issues of discipline without properly constituted church courts. No more ordaining nice but manifestly unqualified men for church office.

Also, the BCO makes things blessedly less efficient than a CEO model of church leadership. And while that will frustrate the entrepreneurial pastor, it is a source of protection for the church (and the pastor!). It means that there are clearly defined ways of running meetings, exercising discipline, administering the sacraments, ordaining and calling pastors, installing elders, running meetings of the session and congregation, ordering congregational worship, etc.

Does the BCO protect against every conceivable contingency? Is it a guarantee that nothing will go wrong? Of course not. Do things go wrong in Presbyterian churches? Of course! But I am convinced that the Book of Church order is the best game in town for properly, wisely, and biblically ordering the church.

This is of course what they said — they being the Old Side and Old School Presbyterians who always had to try to convince the enthusiasts (Gilbert Tennent) and moralizers (Lyman Beecher) that just because they thought they had the Holy Ghost (feathers and all) or the Decalogue, the rules of being a Reformed church were still in place. Maybe after two years, that penny will drop for Pastor Pruitt.

Between Whitefield and the Vatican

A winsome Oldlifer reminded me yesterday of how troubling the First Great Pretty Good Awakening was and is. He was referring specifically to George Whitefield’s sermon on Romans 14:17, “The Kingdom of God.” There Whitefield does exactly what John Williamson Nevin detected when he experienced a revival, namely, the outlook of revivalists that the church and her ordinances “are more a bar than a help to the process” of becoming a Christian.

Here are three points that Whitefield makes:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.

. . . neither does [the kingdom of God] consist in being baptized when you were young. . .

. . . neither does it consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.

These are sentiments that explain why Whitefield can express the sort of disregard for denominational differences that would become common among Protestants in the so-called ecumenical movement and continue to afflict The Gospel Coalition (and which by the way would make mid-twentieth-century mainline historians and ecumenistsfans of the First Great Pretty Good Awakening):

. . . there are Christians among other sects that may differe from us in the outward worship of God. Therefore, my dear friends, learn to be more catholic, more unconfined in your notions; for if you place the kingdom of God merely in a sect, you place it in that in which it does not consist.

Whitefield is arguably one of the biggest problems facing confessional Protestants because his effort to do justice to the Spirit winds up doing an injustice to the Word and the ordinances the Bible prescribes. Consequently, when confessional Protestants become sticklers about worship or church government or even doctrine (as we tend to do with Gospel Coalition types), then followers of Whitefield construe us as as being liberal Protestants (only protecting the order of the church) or even Roman Catholic (having too high a view of the church).

Seeing support for Whitefield among conservative Presbyterians (Iain Murray, for instance, but the vast majority of Presbyterians in the U.S.A. after the Plan of Union, 1758) who subscribe the Westminster Standards, is equally frustrating since the evangelist took dead aim at the confession’s teaching (whether he knew it or not):

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. 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. (ch. 25)

So the line confessional Protestants walk is the real via media, between the enthusiasts who justify what they do by appealing to the Spirit (without the Word) and the Romanists (who rarely let the Spirit get in the way of the magisterium). The Reformation was about Word and Spirit, about ordinances and godliness, about a churchly pattern of piety. It is too formal for Whitefield and too loose for Rome. But that’s where we are — in the moderate middle, plain, vanilla, simple, buttoned-down (but never perfect).

One Way to Tell the Difference between Two-Kingdom Theology and Its Critics

Two-kingdomers want Reformed ministers to avoid compromising entanglements like those surrounding chaplains in the U.S. military. Critics of 2k want to keep women out of the military. That difference says a lot about the way each side views the church and the nation.

Thanks to Tim and David Bayly for reminding me of this important difference. In their typically slash-and-burn manner, they demean David Coffin, a well-respected PCA pastor and long-time defender of the spirituality of the church, for an interview in which Coffin said that mixing religion and politics was a “kind of apostasy.” The nerve.

It should be noted that the man who advocates a strict separation of Church and state in this interview is the same man who told my brother Tim, during the 2002 General Assembly debate, that the PCA should not oppose women serving as combatants in the U.S. Armed Forces.

So here’s a minister of the Word of God pedantically parsing his Biblical obligations in such a way that he can justify turning an official blind eye to one of the most depraved aspects of our culture’s destruction of women–almost as bad as urging them to kill unborn babies in their wombs.

To lodge his Uriah Heapish kowtowing to our culture’s attack on motherhood in the Westminster Standards is ludicrous. Has David read Reformed history–any at all?

Umm, the answer would be, yes. In fact, I’m betting Dave has read more Reformed history than the Bayly boys put together.

Mind you, I’m not wild about women serving in the military, nor about men for that matter who have to fight in places that would not matter to the United States if our nation had not super-sized its republican form and become an empire. I can certainly understand how mixing men and women in military situations could be a problem for tactical purposes. But I’m not sure that the Bible has a lot to say about the matter such that the church would call it “sin.” And I’m not sure that you would want to tell grandma Machen that she was wrong to defend her northern Virginia farm from Union soldiers who had designs on her chickens and cutlery during the Civil War. May not women defend themselves, their homes, or even their nation if circumstances warrant? Would the Baylys really conclude that a German woman, who could have saved the lives of her Jewish neighbors by shooting a Nazi soldier, should not pull the trigger because such an act would degrade her womanhood?

Meanwhile, the brothers B, who know about the pressures upon Reformed chaplains to compromise their convictions, don’t seem to mind ordained pastors serving as chaplains. The 2k objection to chaplains does not stem from anti-military prejudices or indifference to the spiritual needs of soldiers who are honorably and courageously serving their country. The problem for 2kers is that Reformed chaplains are having to submit to rules and work not only with liberal Protestant chaplains but also officers (some of them women — look out Tim and David!!!) from other faiths. Conservative Reformed churches would never allow this kind of cooperation in ecumenical or parachurch organizations. Some Presbyterian churches will not even join the National Association of Evangelicals because such membership would mean turning a blind eye to Arminianism. But the Baylys remain surprisingly calm when it comes to Reformed ministers serving alongside female Methodist chaplains in the military of the greatest nation on God’s green earth.

So once again, the anti-2k side takes an absolute stand on a debatable position, doubling down on the sex front of the culture wars. Meanwhile, 2kers avoid the culture wars for matters that directly bear on the witness and integrity of church officers.

If the Baylys actually knew Reformed history, they would understand they are on the wrong side of the Old School-New School controversy.

Why Do Reformed Think They Are Evangelical?

If Reformed Protestantism is basically evangelical then how do you account for the major divisions that have occurred among American Presbyterians? The fundamentalist controversy apparently has nothing at stake for the Reformed/evangelical consensus since Machen and other conservative Presbyterians were fighting liberalism and EVERYONE knows that liberalism is bad. (Of course, the problem here is that Machen’s evangelical colleagues at Princeton were some of his biggest opponents – the revival friendly Charles Eerdman and Robert Speer.)

According to this consensus the Presbyterian opposition to revivalism during the Second Pretty Good Awakening is also easy to explain. Charles Finney and company were delinquent on theology and possibly practice (revivalism and new measures instead of just plain revival). So the Second Pretty Good Awakening proves nothing.

Then there is the First Pretty Good Awakening where Calvinists promoted revivals. This is the golden-age for the Reformed/Evangelical consensus. But what about the Old Side critics? Well, as I learned at Westminster and from Leonard Trinterud, the Old Side were proto-liberals, propounding a rationalistic theology with Enlightenment echoes, and they were drunks, falling off their horses on the way home from presbytery thanks to a heavy elbow.

In the recent exchange with Ken Stewart over at the Christian Curmudgeon I came across another explanation for the apparent tension between Reformed Protestants and evangelicals – which is, blame the Dutch. In response to differences of interpretation about revivalism, Stewart wrote to the Curmudgeon:

I think we disagree is in our estimation of the danger posed by Hart and his school of writers. Westminster Escondido, in a strange continuity with Calvin Seminary Grand Rapids (these schools are usually at loggerheads) are centers from which revival is disparaged. So important a church historian as George Marsden (raised in the OPC) termed Darryl Hart’s book on American presbyterianism “anti-evangelical” because of its steady misrepresentation of the Great Awakening. So, while from your vantage point, you are aware of Hart, from mine – I think he and his allies represent a danger so great that it needs to be countered.

When pushed on the fact that George Marsden, who studied with Cornelius Van Til, who was very critical of evangelicalism, Stewart responded:

I don’t dispute CVT’s anti-evangelical posture; in fact I would suggest that the influx of CRC faculty into WTS in the 1930’s fundamentally shifted the young WTS away from its Princeton heritage, which had been decidedly the other way. When one stands back from this, it makes us realize that the whole conservative Reformed tradition in this country has been influenced far more by Grand Rapids theology than is generally acknowledged. I am not demonizing the CRC in this particular respect; I am simply highlighting the fact that throughout the 20th century, there have been rival versions of the Reformed faith jockeying with one another for dominance.

What is fairly amusing about this reply is that the Dutch-Americans at Calvin Seminary were responsible for printing a review that Stewart wrote of Recovering Mother Kirk, which was hardly flattering of the book’s author or his interpretation of the Reformed tradition. If the Dutch-American Reformed mafia wanted to enlarge their control of the interpretation of American Protestantism, they fell asleep when reading Stewart’s submission.

Stewart and others who reject the argument that Reformed and evangelical are at odds gain a lot of traction by suggesting that Reformed critics of evangelicalism construe Reformed and evangelical Protestantism as fundamentally at odds or separate entities. The proponents of an evangelical-friendly Reformed faith also like to point out that Reformed churches have made lots of room for evangelicalism and even revivalism. So both conceptually and historically, supposedly, the Reformed critics of evangelicalism are flawed.

But for this critic, it is obvious that evangelicals and Reformed are both Protestant and so overlap at certain points, both religiously and historically. Experimental Calvinism arose in the context of Reformed churches (especially when the prospects for reforming the national churches were looking bleak) and Reformed and Presbyterians churches have been friendly to evangelicalism (though I wish they were not).

What the proponents of the consensus are incapable of doing is accounting for the splits that have occurred within Reformed churches over evangelicalism (even without the presence of Dutch Reformed). The Old Side and the Old School split from their Presbyterian peers because the pro-revivalists believed subscription and polity were secondary to conversion and holy living. And so it has always been with evangelicalism. It is inherently anti-formal in the sense that forms to not matter compared to the experience of new birth or ecstatic worship. Evangelicals are also inherently inconsistent about this because since we exist as human beings in forms (i.e., bodies that are either male or female), we cannot escape formalism of some kind. Either way, on the matter of forms – creeds, worship, and polity – those who promote revivals or consider themselves evangelical are indifferent. The Spirit unites, not the forms. The same goes for different shades of evangelicalism: for the Gospel Coalition it is the gospel not the forms that unite; and for the Baylys and other “do this and live” types, it is the law not the forms that unites. Sticklers for the regulative principle, the system of doctrine, or presbyterian procedure are simply ornery obstacles to uniting Protestants on what is truly important.

What should not be missed either is that when Presbyterian particularists insist that forms matter, that the word reveals forms, and that the word and the Spirit work in conjunction, the response is invariably that the particularlists are mean and lack the fruit of the Spirit. Why? Because they do not recognize the presence of the Spirit.

And so to bring a little more light on the matter from one of those nefarious Dutch-Reformed types (though he is actually German), here is a useful reflection from Richard Muller on the impulses within evangelicalism that lead away from the insights of the Reformation(if only he had been editing the Calvin Theological Journal when Stewart reviewed Recovering Mother Kirk):

Even more than this, however, use of the language of personal relationship with Jesus often indicates a qualitative loss of the traditional Reformation language of being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ and being, therefore, adopted as children of God in and through our graciously given union with Christ. Personal relationships come about through mutual interaction and thrive because of common interests. They are never or virtually never grounded on a forensic act such as that indicated in the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works – in fact personal relationships rest on a reciprocity of works or acts. The problem here is not the language itself: The problem is the way in which it can lead those who emphasize it to ignore the Reformation insight into the nature of justification and the character of believer’s relationship with God in Christ.

Such language of personal relationship all too easily lends itself to an Arminian view of salvation as something accomplished largely by the believer in cooperation with God. A personal relationship is, of its very nature, a mutual relation, dependent on the activity – the works – of both parties. In addition, the use of this Arminian, affective language tends to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has its own indigenous relational and affective language and piety; a language and piety, moreover, that are bound closely to the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Heidelberg Catechism provides us with a language of our “only comfort in life and in death” – that “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (q. 1). “Belonging to Christ,” a phrase filled with piety and affect, retains the confession of grace alone through faith alone, particularly when its larger context in the other language of the catechism is taken to heart. We also have access to a rich theological and liturgical language of covenant to express with both clarity and warmth our relationship to God in Christ.

Even so, the Reformed teaching concerning the identity of the church assumes a divine rather than a human foundation and assumes that the divine work of establishing the community of belief is a work that includes the basis of the ongoing life of the church as a community, which is to say, includes the extension of the promise to children of believers. The conversion experience associated with adult baptism and with the identification of the church as a voluntary association assumes that children are, with a few discrete qualifications, pagan-and it refuses to understand the corporate dimension of divine grace working effectively (irresistibly!) in the perseverance of the covenanting community. It is a contradictory teaching indeed that argues irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints and then assumes both the necessity of a particular phenomenology of adult conversion and “decision.” (“How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 posted at Riddelblog)

Social Gospel Coalition

I have sometimes wondered if the appeal of organizations like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, Acts 29 Network, Redeemer Global Network, Desiring God, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is their extremely chummy atmosphere. At the various blogs of these outfits, the posts are usually flattering of the other participants in the organization. If criticism comes, it is always as a punchline to a joke. Readers must conclude that only a fool would disagree with anything written at these blogs.

This makes parachurch organizations very different from the church where officers at synods and assemblies need to be on their toes and prepared to be challenged. A General Assembly is not a love-fest, though the sorts of activities that take place there are loving in the way that changing the oil in your Chevy is a form of care. Granted, I have never been to one of these organizations’ conferences (except for the initial launch of ACE in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1996). But the feel of these association from their blogs is one of encouragement, uplift, inspiration, earnestness, and occasional comic relief. You wouldn’t know from reading these cites that a Christian could actually grow through discouragement, criticism, and rebuke. (When will someone start the Iron-Sharpening-Iron Fellowship of Evangelical Whiners?) (Update: Justin Taylor may have the clue on the lack of criticism among the allies of the gospel.)

To Kevin DeYoung’s credit, he did take a modest swipe at one of the Gospel Coalition’s constituencies and, because members are not used to disagreement, he caused a minor imbroglio. DeYoung’s original comments came at a Desiring God National Conference about the difference between “mission” and “missional,” and later became part of a video and a post at the Gospel Coalition’s blog. What DeYoung had the temerity to do was suggest that social justice and neighbor love were not the same as building the kingdom of Christ. Word and Deeders from the Acts 29 Network took a measure of umbrage and DeYoung wrote a second post, trying to clarify and while sidestepping toes. He doesn’t want churches to abandon the social aspects of missional. He simply wants the proclamation of the gospel to be the basis for all the church does.

Most recently DeYoung interviewed Tim Keller on his new book on justice and even asked the New York pastor if he had misconstrued the relationship between word and deed. Keller’s response was to affirm an asymmetrical relationship. Keller said:

. . . the first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “believe in Jesus,” not “do justice.” Why? Because first, believing in Jesus meets a more radical need and second, because if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have that gospel-motivation to do justice that I talk about in the book. So there’s a priority there. On the other hand, for a church to not constantly disciple its people to “do justice” would be utterly wrong, because it is an important part of God’s will. I’m calling for an ‘asymmetrical balance’ here. It seems to me that some churches try to “load in” doing justice as if it is equally important as believing in Jesus, but others, in fear of falling into the social gospel, do not preach or disciple their people to do justice at all. Both are wrong. A Biblical church should be highly evangelistic yet known for its commitment to the poor of the city.

Never mind if your church happens to be in the suburbs or the country. Move on to the next blog in your Google Reader account.

Now the confounding aspect of DeYoung’s valuable even if timid point about the priority of word to deed and Keller’s notion of an asymmetrical relations that prioritizes the gospel over justice is that nowhere does the Bible say that the church is supposed to do justice. Of course, a distinction may need to be made between the church as Christians and the institutional church, and I believe Keller needs to make this one the way contestants on “Wheel of Fortune” often buy vowels. But with that distinction in mind, where does Scripture talk about the corporate church as an agent of social justice or social anything? (Warning: if you appeal to the Old Testament you are entering a world of theonomic pain.)

Jesus and the apostles did not engage in social justice. Paul’s instructions to Timothy about preaching did not include telling Christians to do justice. In fact, the New Testament call to submit to rulers and to live quiet and peaceable lives is not the basis for social justice Sunday or word and deed ministry.

And what happens when we look at the creeds of the Reformed churches – nothing on the church as an instrument of social work? It is all about redemption 24/1.

Article 29 of the Belgic Confession says:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

Because of the centrality of word and sacrament in establishing the kingdom of Christ, the Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 18) describes the duties of ministers without mentioning social justice:

The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments. For it is the duty of the ministers to gather together an assembly for worship in which to expound God’s Word and to apply the whole doctrine to the care and use of the Church, so that what is taught may benefit the hearers and edify the faithful. It falls to ministers, I say, to teach the ignorant, and to exhort; and to urge the idlers and lingerers to make progress in the way of the Lord. Moreover, they are to comfort and to strengthen the fainthearted, and to arm them against the manifold temptations of Satan; to rebuke offenders; to recall the erring into the way; to raise the fallen; to convince the gainsayers to drive the wolf away from the sheepfold of the Lord; to rebuke wickedness and wicked men wisely and severely; not to wink at nor to pass over great wickedness.

And, besides, they are to administer the sacraments, and to commend the right use of them, and to prepare all men by wholesome doctrine to receive them; to preserve the faithful in a holy unity; and to check schisms; to catechize the unlearned, to commend the needs of the poor to the Church, to visit, instruct, and keep in the way of life the sick and those afflicted with various temptations. In addition, they are to attend to public prayers or supplications in times of need, together with common fasting, that is, a holy abstinence; and as diligently as possible to see to everything that pertains to the tranquility, peace and welfare of the churches.

The word-and-sacrament character of the church is also part and parcel of the Gallican Confession:

27. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.

28. In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments.

Notable here is that social justice is neither a mark of the church nor of the Christian person.

One last example comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith which describes the purpose of the church without mentioning society, economics, or politics – at all:

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. (25.3)

I understand that the confessions do mention the poor as part of the diaconal work of the church, and I also understand that this is the crack through which most conservative Presbyterians will pour every conceivable faith-based humanitarian project. But diaconal work in a state-church environment is a very different animal in a secular society environment where the state has BILLIONS of dollars ready for the poor. Of course, if no one were attending to needs of the homeless, the hungry, widows, and orphans, then the church conceivably could step in and even extend diaconal care to non-believers. But unless I missed the federal government adopt a Weight Watchers regimen, I’ll need to be convinced that the church can match the modern state for social justice output.

Diaconal work aside, the conviction of the Reformed churches has always been that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends. New School Presbyterians came along and tried to conceive of the church in activist terms. But the Old School Presbyterians shot back with the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and the related teachings of the marks of the church and the keys of the kingdom. All those Presbyterians – Tim Keller included – who owe their conservatism to the Old School tradition as taught at Old Princeton, reiterated at Old Westminster, and carried into the OPC and the RPCES precincts of the PCA really need to be clear that the institutional church has no mandate from Scripture for social endeavors or activism. They may want to side with the New School. But then they will really need to explain how the contemporary asymmetrical relationship of word and deed will not turn out differently from the asymmetrical relationship maintained briefly during the nineteenth century by Union and Auburn Seminaries before blossoming into doctrine (word) divides but ministry (deed) unites.

Hey, wait a minute, that bloom may already be on the rose of interdenominational parachurch ministries where words about sacraments matter less than ministries about deeds.