Sovereign Grace Ministries is not Neo-Calvinist

Someone needs to issue a correction:

While sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church made headlines in the early 2000s and were the focus of the critically-acclaimed film Spotlight, Evangelical Protestants have had their own share of child sex abuse allegations. In 2013, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), a network of about 80 evangelical Neo-Calvinist churches headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, faced a an amended class action civil lawsuit filed by 11 plaintiffs alleging church leaders of covering up child sex abuse crimes through the 1980s and 90s, and requesting about $50 million dollars in damages against SGM (a judge dismissed nine of the eleven plaintiffs based on an expired statute of limitations, and the other two on a question of jurisdiction).

New Calvinism is not Neo-Calvinism. It’s easy to tell the difference. New Calvinists don’t use Queen Wilhelmina Mints during the preaching of the word.

Al Mohler To the Rescue

I have often thought of the PCA as Southern Baptists who sometimes baptize infants. The autonomy of PCA congregations, the convention-like atmosphere of the General Assembly, and the original southerness of the PCA are reasons for the comparison. To be fair, the OPC is likely the Presbyterian equivalent of Reformed Baptists. Our assemblies work twelve hours a day (minus meals and devotions), we take doctrine seriously, and we can be ornery about baptizing infants (just as Reformed Baptists can be tenacious about dedicating babies). The difference between the PCA and the OPC is like that between the superintendent of schools in a county outside Birmingham and a plumber who fixes toilets in the suburbs of Toledo.

If this comparison has any merit, then perhaps the most famous Calvinist in the SBC can work out what ails the PCA. Once again the theological doctors have taken out their thermometers and found the patient in need of some program either for six-pack abs or foods that counteract stress. The rest of the ecclesiastical world seems to receive these reports every five years or so. Word of encouragement to other denominations: if you’re not asking what’s broke, you’re probably okay in a church militant sense. What is curious about Bryan Chappell’s assessment and Rick Phillips’ reply is how much the culture matters to each side of the PCA.

For Chapell, the division between traditionalists and progressives breaks down precisely along culture-war lines. His desire to avoid the culture wars is precisely why the BBs confuse the PCA hipsters with 2k even though 2kers avoid the culture wars not to avoid embarrassment but for spirituality of the church reasons. Chapell writes:

The generation that is 50-plus years old was raised in a time of perceived Christian-majority culture; according to Francis Schaeffer it was the time of “Christian consensus.”

The priority of many evangelical Christians who matured in that cultural context was to mobilize this “silent majority” in order to control the religious and political processes of the nation to halt cultural erosion (e.g., Schaeffer’s “A Day of Sober Rejoicing” delivered at the General Assembly marking the RPCES’s “Joining and Receiving” with the PCA). These dynamics created a “Halt” mission for Christians of that generation. The goals: Halt abortion, pornography, drugs, promiscuity, tree huggers, socialism, liberalism, and illegal immigration.

By contrast, Christians in the generation that is 40-minus years old have never perceived themselves as a majority but always as a minority in a pluralistic culture. As a consequence, this generation’s calling is perceived not as gaining control, but as gaining credibility to deal with an already eroded culture.

The need to win a hearing for a credible faith has resulted in a “Help” mission for this generation’s church leaders. The goals: Help orphans (to counter abortion through adoption), AIDS sufferers (to win a Gospel hearing from gays and a gay-sympathetic culture), sex-trafficking victims, addicts (enslaved by chemical, gambling, gaming, body-image, or sexual brokenness), the environment (to teach the world that we are stewards of God’s creation), and poor and oppressed foreigners within our borders.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these generational differences than the way many Christian leaders feel about major figures in prior conservative Christian movements. To mention Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson is to identify the heroes of the 50-plus generation. Church leaders of that generation are shocked to discover that younger leaders consider these figures exemplars of failure, representing attitudes and approaches that have led to the church’s cultural ineffectiveness.

Phillips responds:

“But we are being culturally isolated!” progressives respond! Our answer is that we are indeed, just as the Chinese Christians were culturally isolated under Maoism and as the early Christians were culturally isolated as they were marched into the Coliseum to be fed to the lions. Both of those groups ended up doing pretty well. Now, we do lament this isolation, mainly because we earnestly expect that we will soon be fed to the lions, so to speak, or at least excluded to cultural gulags. What we do not understand is why cultural persecution is a cause for cultural accommodation, as if Christ had anything to fear from Caesar or the cultural elites. The confessionalist concern is whether we will stand with our fellow courageous Christians who are being slaughtered around the world because they will not bend the knee to an imperious pagan culture and with the saints of the early church as they were urged by Christ in Revelation, or whether we will cringe before the powers of cultural elitism in the media, government, and entertainment structures. A statement like this may come across as religious arrogance, and for this we are sorry, but we simply want to join the ranks of those who conquered “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,” not loving our lives even to death (Rev. 12:11). We want this not because we have embraced a traditionalist martyr complex but because we sincerely believe that this is the best way both to love God and to love the world.

This is not at all to say that Christian courage and reliance on divine grace are the exclusive province of the confessional wing of our church. We know that this valor is shared in all factions of the PCA. What we do not understand is how this leads to a strategy of cultural engagement in which the assumptions of a spiritually rebellious culture are embraced as an evangelistic starting point.

Parenthetically, let me pause to ask where these cultural attitudes put TKNY. If the culture is so broken (Chapell), and so hostile (Phillips), then why is it that the culture thinks so well of Redeemer Presbyterian Church? Or why has that NYC congregation to which professionals, artists, journalists, and movers and shakers in the culture — as we constantly hear — become the model for PCA church planting in North America? Would Tim Keller share either Chapell’s or Phillips’ assessment of “the culture”? Or should more pastors in the PCA join Bill Smith in the REC?

But this is where Al Mohler can help. Chapell is truly troubled by the pluralism that he sees in the United States:

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Does Chapell want to return to 14th-century Italy or 16th-century Massachusetts Bay colony? “Enemy” sounds hostile, war-like, more Benedict than Eusebius.

In effect, Phillips agrees that pluralism is a danger, whether it’s tolerating wrong views about race or sex:

Confessionalists note with concern the different strategies taken by progressives today regarding homosexuality versus our past strategy concerning sins like racism. One of the better moments in the PCA took place when our denomination boldly repudiated and rebuked racism, without seeking permission or giving apology, an action in which you and I were actively joined. On that occasion, no one complained that we were alienating the racists by speaking so forthrightly from Scripture. So why is that charge made when we seek to speak biblically regarding homosexuality and other sexual perversions? Is it because while racism is reviled by the culture, homosexuality is celebrated by the culture? Do we, then, only confront boldly those sins which the culture also hates, while accommodating those that it loves? Why would we do this? Where does this assumption come from that we must blur the Bible’s anathema of sexual perversion and concede ground as an initial stage in our witness to homosexuals?

But since Al Mohler is on THE council of the Gospel Coalition with Bryan Chapell and Tim Keller, an organization that Phillips supports, and since Al is also part of Together for the Gospel with Lig Duncan, one of Phillips’ associates among PCA conservatives, perhaps the difference between the two sides is not as great as each man thinks.

The parachurch, with help from Southern Baptists, will lead them.

Southern Baptists and Jason and the Callers Together

SBC Today continues to press hard against Calvinism, this time by sponsoring a conference with four former “Calvinists” under the theme, “Leaving Geneva” (hello! Geneva is not in the South):

Please join us for supper! We will explore the journeys of four former Calvinists who have each found a spiritual home within our tradition. Afterward, we will entertain a brief Question and Answer Period. The cost is $20 and includes supper and books! Each registrant will receive:

Reflections Of A Disenchanted Calvinist: The Disquieting Realities of Calvinism by Ronnie W. Rogers

Chosen or Not?: A Layman’s Study of Biblical Election and Assurance by Doug Sayers

God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism by Fisher Humphreys and Paul E. Robertson

The Return of Christ: A Premillennial Perspective by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke

Between the SBC at one end and Bryan’s logic at the other, Reformed Protestantism looks pretty darned moderate.

(All that coalition building, so few SBC Calvinists.)

Postscript: Calvinism in the SBC is like slavery in the SBC:

There are those today who take the view that the founders of the Baptist denomination (the ones who were right, anyway,) were Calvinists – and therefore all Baptists ought to be as well. This might be called the historical argument for Calvinism. If I were to argue that since many of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed God ordained slavery, all Baptists ought to do so today, would you buy that historical argument? Or would you rather go to the scripture and try to see how at a particular time and in a particular culture, such a doctrine could actually be expressed as revealed truth? History, as I say, is debatable. Just for the sake of debate, why don’t we look at an interpretation of certain facts of history, and see if we can find some historical reflections that will help us in our conflicted present?

Is Carl Losing His Edge?

We had counted on Carl Trueman, the left-leaning emoticonoclastic Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, to continue to see through the hype and gauze of America’s celebrity culture and warn about its danger for the church (not to mention society). But a recent trip to the Together for the Gospel Conference has changed his tune (or at least prompted him not to sing so loud):

Yes, the men at the plenary sessions are ‘celebrities’ in our small world; but they were not on the platform simply because of that fact. There was no swagger in evidence; all, in their different ways, spoke powerfully about the gospel; nobody indulged in magnifying their own name; and my guess is that none of these men will do anything which embarrasses T4G in the next twelve months. Yes, T4G needs names to fill the venue; but just being a name with 500 000 twitter followers and a knowledge of Calvinist patois is not going to get you the chance to speak. The swaggerati were nowhere to be seen.

My general conclusion on this point is that celebrity is clearly here to stay; the key point is that those who have such celebrity cachet acknowledge it and leverage it for good. By ‘good’, I mean direct people back to their own churches and set examples themselves as those who are committed first and foremost to their own people, congregations and denominations. T4G was quite a contrast to the recent reports of an extra-ecclesiastical high-profile meeting of Christian evolutionists, where celebrity appears to be being leveraged to set the agenda and impact the doctrinal testimony of churches. Nothing I heard at T4G indicated that anyone here had that kind of ecclesiastically subversive ambition.

I am not persuaded. I do think Trueman is right to remind us that celebrities are human beings too. But I am not sure that recognizing the good intentions or basic humanity of people who use a platform capable of abuse prevents that platform from being as abusive as it really is.

The problem is that people whose appetites have been whetted by celebrity pastors will have great difficulty recognizing the worth of their pastor’s pale imitation of Lig, C.J., Al, or Mark. It would be like telling Carl, back in the 70s, to go to the local pub more and listen to Gary, Mike, and Joe croon and play instead of going to the Led Zeppelin concert and buying the band’s albums. How are the Swindon Boys ever going to compete with the Rolling Stones or the Who? The answer is, they can’t.

But the stakes of believers and their undershepherds is far weightier than any rivalry between celebrity musicians and local indie bands. Will Lig, C.J. or Mark come to the hospital to visit with Joe-wine-box who lives in Fremont, Nebraska? Will they come to Defiance, Ohio to counsel a husband and wife who need a referee for their Christian marriage?

Can conferences and speaking engagements be valuable? Sure they can. It is part and parcel of professional life. Attorneys go to conferences. So do nurses. But when so many downloads are available and so many broadcasts are a turn-of-the-dial away, using celebrity to nurture a taste for average pastors is little bit like going to Citizens Bank Park to groom fans for the Doylestown, Pennsylvania’s American Legion team.

Adolf, Justin, and Mark

This is a pretty amusing video, if not for the abuse of a profoundly good movie. But the juxtaposition may supply needed perspective on all the coalitions, alliances, and group hugs going on out there among celebrity pastors and their enabling bloggers.

Why Does Mahaney Get More Slack Than Nevin?

The answer appears to be that if you I have spoken at conferences with C.J., shared a meal with him after one of those sessions, or sung Sovereign Grace Music songs on stage with him, then it is possible to stand in the gap with C.J. in the current difficulty that SGM is experiencing. But if you have not done any of those relationship-building things with J.W., then it is not possible to give Nevin the benefit of the doubt.

This is another way of saying that personal knowledge and friendship appear to be significant elements in the reactions from famous evangelical Reformed figures to the news about C. J. Mahaney and the difficulties besetting SGM. Al Mohler has issued a statement of full confidence in Mahaney and so Ligon Duncan has recently issued a statement over at Reformation 21 which includes this:

It is clear that far from a scandalous cover up, our brothers at Sovereign Grace are taking these matters with utter seriousness and are endeavoring to walk in Gospel repentance and humility and fidelity. C.J. knows of my complete love and respect for him. And my brethren at Sovereign Grace know of my support and prayers for them. . . . I want to emphasize that we fully respect the process that SGM is taking to review the entire situation and that we have no intention whatsoever of joining in the adjudicating of this case in the realm of the internet – a practice as ugly as it is unbiblical.

Here’s the problem. For schlubs like me, who have had no personal interaction with Mahaney, the only information I have to go on are those formal statements that describe SGM’s work. And when I go to the website of SGM I discover that Sovereign Grace churches are weak on the sacraments, have no presbyterian polity, and also include statements friendly to charismatic views of the Holy Spirit. These official teachings and practices have nothing to do (as far as any of us know) with the current difficulties at SGM. C.J. may be guilty or innocent no matter what SGM teaches and does.

But those formal statements would be enough for me not to have personal knowledge of C.J., at least the kind that comes from parachurch conferences, networks, and alliances. All serious Reformed church members and officers, of course, may and do participate with non-Reformed in a host of voluntary organizations. You cannot exist in civil society and not participate with Baptists, Mormons, or Roman Catholics at the Parent Teachers Association, or at the committee for expanding the local library, or on the Chamber of Commerce. You might even participate with non-Reformed in religious endeavors like a college or a magazine.

But if an association or organization calls itself a ministry, I am not sure how such cooperation can exist. The reason has to do with the word “ministry” itself. It invariably goes with “the word” as in minister the word of God (except for the neo-Calvinist/evangelical clutter of “every member ministry”). And when we talk about ministry in this way, we are in the ballpark of ordination, ecclesiology, sacraments, worship, and doctrine. Ministry as such should be confessional. Cross-confessional ministries undermine confessionalism. (And if an organization has the word “gospel” in its name and does not call itself a ministry then it should cease its activities because ministering the gospel is of the essence of ministry.)

So again, I am in a dilemma regarding the current situation at SGM. I have a knowledge of C.J. that only comes from formal statements that would prevent me from entering into ministry relationships with him. And not having those ministry relationships I have no personal knowledge that he is a worthwhile friend and colleague. At the same time, I have friends and acquaintances who are assuring me that everything is basically okay with C.J. and this advice stems from personal knowledge that is grounded in a cross-confessional ministry. Reassurances about C.J. would not be coming from evangelical Reformed types if those Reformed and Baptist figures were as particular in their understanding of ministry as anyone who takes seriously the visible church should be.

Of course, it is commendable for people to stand by their friends and I commend Duncan and Mohler for not doing the self-righteous thing of throwing Mahaney under the bus simply at the accusation of misconduct. Innocent until proven guilty works in both kingdoms.

But if friendship is really a function of fellowship and such fellowship is misbegotten on confessional grounds, then standing by one’s friend may really be a form of standing by a fellow minister while having no ecclesiastical basis or status for doing so.

So I remain ignorant of C.J.’s personal charms because I remain separate from Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Feed My Sheep — With Fast Food?

Over at Mere Orthodoxy a couple of posts have tried to identify two wings of the Young, Restless, and Reformed “movement” by applying the labels Old School and New School. Since many members of the PCA and OPC would even be unaware of this nineteenth-century division among American Presbyterians and what it meant, I was naturally intrigued by the diagnosis. I am also unpersuaded.

Both posts start from the premise that in an age of Facebook and blogging, social institutions and structures have become radically voluntary. I am not sure if this is true, especially when it comes to Christianity in the United States. Ever since the Constitution and ecclesiastical disestablishment, faith in America has been voluntary. Granted, the suppliers of religious services have expanded considerably and the golden age of Protestant denominationalism is no more. But even during the first half of the twentieth century, conservative Protestants were awash in a cornucopia of religious institutions, from Bible schools (as graduates of BIOLA should know, rights?) and faith missions, to independent congregations and celebrity revivalists.

Then comes the application of Old and New School categories by Kevin White to the Young, Restless, and Reformed:

The “Parachurch” or “New School” prefer more informal church networks and more emphasize the big conferences as the anchor points for the movement. They are more likely to identify as missional and to be part of independent churches or newer church connections. (e.g., Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29, Mohlerite Southern Baptists) The parts of Reformed Theology that they emphasize are sovereignty and the doctrines of grace. You might call them the “Evangelical Reformed.”

The “Church” or “Old School” have a stronger emphasis on confessionalism and formal church polity. They more emphasize the visible church as a covenant community. The conventions are more of a supplementary fellowship opportunity. Like the 19th century Old School Presbyterians, they think revivalist, pietistic evangelicalism is a good thing, that can go hand-in-hand with the best of Protestant scholastic theology. They are more likely to emphasize Reformed ecclesiology as the context for the doctrines of grace and election. You might call them “Reformed Evangelicals.”

I sure would have thought that Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace were about as churched as the Young, Restless, and Reformed get. Those are communions of some kind. Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition would appear more New School than Old School compared to the networks of congregations headed by Driscoll or Mahaney. In other words, I’m puzzled by this notion that an Old School element exists among the Young, Restless, and Reformed. Neither post mentions any examples of such an Old School contingent, a figure, or set of churches. I even wonder if the authors know about the communions that comprise the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

Mind you, the hope for a well grounded account of the church to counteract voluntarism is a welcome sign. White writes, for instance:

Once entered, membership and fellowship become a holy obligation and a familial bond, not to be broken lightly. The visible fellowship of the church is made (ideally) a living critique of unstable, self-defined voluntary culture.

Matthew Lee Anderson adds:

. . . voluntary associations of an arbitrary sort simply do not provide the stability and depth that we need for human flourishing. For that, we must look elsewhere, to God Himself, which is the first movement of the church and the fountainhead of virtue.

But when Anderson talks about the dangers of localism as a kind of nostalgia, I am not sure he understands the nature of the church. He says:

It would be easy to dismiss voluntarity and pine for a return of immobility and a small patch of land with a picket fence. But the promise of localism needs to be tempered by the perils as well. The soil is just as fallen as the pavement, and electing to reject the easy, voluntary associations of our late modern world for the involuntary ones of the local community may offer just as false a hope as the social networks did.

Well, actually, when it comes to food production, a patch of land is much better than pavement, superior in every respect. And spiritual food is best produced locally rather than corporately. It is easy to sound elitist when promoting the values of slow food over McDonald’s, and the work of a pastor is much closer to that of a slow food chef than a teenager flipping burgers at the local store of an international company. But closer to the truth is the similarity between a local pastor’s work and a mother’s. These officers prepare food (whether spiritual or physical) with a sense of what is good for the eaters. They use good ingredients and do so with a sense of what the sheep or children need nutritionally.

In which case, when Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, our lord likely did not have in mind Peter going to the spiritual equivalent of McDonald’s to purchase burgers for the flock. Care, discernment, and preparation were as important to the feeding as the actual cooking. That leaves the megaconferences like TGC or T4G or even the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology much more in the position of providing fast food than a home cooked meal since the cooks are not dining with the eaters, or spending time in between meals to see how the digestion is going or if the diet needs to be modified.

I an very glad to know that some Young, Restless, and Reformed are aware of Old School Presbyterianism. But I’d sure like to know which cooks they have in mind and what authorities are overseeing the kitchens.