Denominational Renewal? Part 1

Posted by Bob Mattes

Apparently, there was a small Denominational Renewal conference back in February. Not many noticed, so someone decided to have a blog conversation based on the original talks in February. Some noteworthy PCA figures have accepted the invitation to respond to the talks one at at time between Sept 15 and Oct 17, with one week dedicated to each presentation. Each week’s responses include one individual deemed sympathetic to the talk, one critical, one minority/woman, and one from outside the PCA. Others may respond to these posts on the blog site.

One warning about the Common Grounds site. Comments are processed using a cross-domain script. These are dangerous and typically used to hijack browsers, plan malware on sites, or steal personal information. In order to post with a secure browser like Firefox with NoScript active, you’ll have to disable XSS protection in NoScript to register that comment on the site. The fact that I did so speaks volumes on my loyalty to the PCA. This is a poor setup by the Common Grounds folks, and dangerous to your browsing security. They should eliminate the redirection script. You’ve been warned. And don’t forget to reenable XSS protection after your comment has been accepted.

This week’s topic is “Renewing Ethos” by Greg Thompson. If you’re wondering what a “Renewing Ethos” might be, so am I after listening to the talk. I posted a comment on the latest post asking a number of questions about TE Thompson’s talk requesting some clarity. The site there doesn’t seem all that active, so I’m posting my comment here verbatim in the interest of starting perhaps a wider discussion on a more popular theology site. Before reading further, I encourage you to listen to the series introduction, listen to the first talk and read the posts by the major players. Without at least listening to the original presentation (which runs about 30 minutes), my comments will be out of context because I do not directly recapitulate his talk in my comment:

Many thanks to Dr. Duncan, Mrs. Jones, and Dr. Doriani for their insightful comments. While I believe that Greg Thompson made some interesting points, I share many of these reviewers’ concerns.

First the talk lacked in specific fruit to be picked. One of the keys to any success is to have measurable goals against which to gage progress and success. If you don’t have these, then how do you know we are being successful in our quest? I’m not suggesting that we break so-called “denominational renewal” down to a set of metrics, but nor do I see any specific remedies in TE Thompson’s remarks. Becoming more like Jesus is a wonderful goal, but what specifically does that look like for the PCA in TE Thompson’s opinion? Especially in light of the real challenges that we face, multiple sides claim to be more faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

For instance, as others have pointed asked, to what specific ugliness does TE Thompson refer? He bypasses specifics at every point by saying something like “you know what I mean.” Well, I for one don’t. A Federal Vision proponent will take a completely different meaning than someone who backs the PCA’s actions against the Federal Vision errors. The specifics should not be left to our imagination.

Second, I do not see the things in my church or Presbytery as we engage the world about which TE Thompson seemed to have so much angst. We work in and with a local coalition that includes many evangelical denominations. We are very active in materially and spiritually supporting several local charities helping those most vulnerable in our society. We have an international congregation and active outreaches to international students studying locally, as well as prominent local minorities. And, we preach the gospel of grace without fail and without apology while doing all this. God has blessed us with a physical location that enables us to serve Him in this way. I don’t believe that a mid-west or other area congregation to have the same local opportunities outside of missionary support. Thus, I don’t see some of TE Thompson’s critiques about being insular as having any real basis. None were offered. Perhaps he was speaking to his own context in his own church or Presbytery, I don’t know.

Third, the PCA faces real issues that demand real answers and actions. Beauty without truth is pornography. Which means, of course, that there is no beauty apart from truth. The gospel is being challenged by the Federal Vision, real churches have been corrected by the GA for “commissioning” women deacons in violation of our polity. Real people and churches are being hurt and divided by these and other theological challenges. That’s not paranoia, that’s reality. I didn’t hear TE Thompson address any of these specific concerns. What specifically should a church or Presbytery do, in his opinion, when confronted with false teachings?

Proverbs tells us that iron sharpens iron. Physics tells us that butter does not sharpen iron. While I agree that we should be as gracious as possible when confronting threats to the gospel, our confessions, and/or our polity, we should not be butter but stand with spines of iron. Jesus was tender with the lost, but not so with the religious leaders of his day who taught and lived error. There’s a difference.

I’m not advocating witch hunts or search and destroy missions. All things should be worked out within the context of our Constitution. But we should work them out to conclusion, whatever that conclusion may be, not agree to disagree on the gospel or our polity. I’m left unsure of exactly how TE Thompson proposes that we handle these serious issues.

Lastly, I don’t know anyone in the PCA (and I do know a few) who doubt God’s gracious provision for His church and our denomination. Even at the most challenging times, I have seen men and women put their trust in Christ, that he would preserve us from error, splits, challenges to our church’s very survival, etc. As humans, we always have doubts and concerns arising from our sinful natures, but as the elect we know that God will ultimately prevail. At the same time as we trust in the Lord, we also must go about the building of His kingdom here, not because it ultimately depends on us, but because he has both commanded and privileged us to take part in this work with and for Him. What is it that prompts TE Thompson to doubt that all this is so and that somehow we are all cynical or hopeless with or without iPods? Maybe I’m the only one, but I don’t see it.

So, I’m left wondering exactly what is “denominational renewal” and what does it specifically look like? How specifically should we confront and overcome real errors in our midst under the umbrella of “denominational renewal”? What specific steps should we take today and specifically how will we know if we are succeeding? Looking more like Jesus in certainly the overarching goal of sanctification, but there wouldn’t be denominations at all if we all agreed what that goal looked like and how to work it out in this fallen world.

We all individually and covenantally need renewal and are being renewed day-by-day, nanosecond-by-nanosecond, through the work of the Holy Spirit. How does this specific call for “denominational renewal” fall within that context? Philosophy and generalizations won’t solve anything, only specific and focused action will. So, what actions should we take in this context?

Again, I appreciate TE Thompson’s thoughts and was challenged by some, but I cannot be either comforted nor challenged by others until he puts them into the specific context of the real, fallen world in which we live. Maybe that was too much to do with 7 points in 30 minutes. Perhaps that’s why Dr. Chappel teaches that we should limit our sermons to three points.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

25 Comments

  1. September 18, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    While I’m at it, I believe that Dr. Duncan’s essay here asks some good questions. His follow-up comment here is the most insightful analysis that I’ve seen on the PCA situation today. Must reading.

  2. David Gilleran said,

    September 18, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Bob, I read yours and the others posts.The topic was was to broad to be covered in 30 minutes. Nor did hit on what I consider some of the problems of the PCA are and have been from the start. Nor did it give the solution which I would give to help move the PCA forward.

  3. September 18, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    David,

    I agree. I’m still trying to garner the point, beyond just consuming air and electrons. The lack of specificity in this first round is a bit frustrating. I haven’t listened to the other sessions yet because I don’t want to confuse them in commenting. Maybe more meat comes later.

    But, this is a free forum. I’d be interested to hear your cut on problem(s)/solution(s). We can do here what they seem unable to do there so far–carry on a meaty conversation.

  4. David Gilleran said,

    September 18, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I will start with what I believe the first and longest standing problem is in the PCA. That is identity. Both Kennedy Smartt and Sean Lucas have written about this from different views and different points in experience within the Presbyterian community. The point that Dr. Lucas make in his book, On Being Presbyterian, about the OPC is true. They have, after 1937, know who they are and a very comfortable in that skin. They see themselves as a Presbyterian church. As one who has been in the PCA from the start as member and now a TE, I do not think that we can say the same thing. After all these years, we are still searching to find out who we are.Despite the FV vote, if you read across the various blogs in the PCA world, you can only say that the PCA is more split today in various positions than it was at her founding.

  5. September 18, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Hard to argue with that. I have a post in my head about the continuing destruction caused by Federal Vision in the PCA. The flagrant flaunting of the BCO by churches openly commissioning female deacons and the defiance with which they proclaim their “right” to do so is another example. I am optimistic because it takes years to get the perps before the SJC and we haven’t seen the next wave yet. Look how long it took with Wilkins.

    What do you propose as a good direction for us?

  6. David Gilleran said,

    September 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Bob, that is only the first issue/problem which I would point out. There are several others.

  7. Benjamin P. Glaser said,

    September 19, 2008 at 6:33 am

    I believe the point is to be vague. That way you can practically do what you want.

  8. September 19, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Benjamin,

    At this point, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. However, I now have two comments over at Common Grounds and have yet to get an actual answer. If this is just an exercise in venting and fluff, then I’m not going to waste any more time on it.

  9. September 19, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Greg Thompson has responded to the essays and comments in accordance with the format of this exercise. You can read his essay here. I appreciate his clarification of his intent, which is pretty clear in this response. I am tossing around my forthcoming comment there in my head at the moment. I wish to do justice to Greg’s response. I will hopefully have my response solidified by this evening. I’d be interested in anyone else’s thought here as well.

  10. David Gilleran said,

    September 22, 2008 at 8:09 am

    Bob,

    I sorry that I haven’t posted my second issue yet. That issue is theological emphasis or direction. When the PCA started there was what I will call “first wave” and ” second wave” Teaching Elders. The “first wave” were teaching elders who had gone to seminary in the 40’s and 50’s. They had gone mostly to PCUS schools. Their concern was taking a stand against theological liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. Kennedy Smartt brings that point out in his book. I had a conversation once with one of the founding fathers of the PCA on this issue. He was a student in the late 50’s and early 60’s at a PCUS seminary.One summer, while being a student supply in a small church, he found a first edition copy of Christianity and Liberalism by Machen. When he read it, it was if Machen was saying everything he believed about what was going on at his school but also what he believed personally about his faith in Jesus Christ.

    Also for this generation C.S. Lweis’ Mere Christianity was very important. In fact Dr. Horton’s recent article in Modern Reformation is a very good picture about what many of these men believed. That we need to be in the hallway and not shut up in our rooms.

    The “second wave” were teaching elders who for the most part had gone to seminary at RTS.(Back then there was only one RTS campus) They has studied under Dr. Smith in Systematic Theology. Many of them were called “TR”. Sean Lucas has a section in his book about this. They believed that the issue of the day was not just preaching the fundamentals of the faith but as the PCA was formed to go forward with the Reformed Faith in their teaching and preaching. Many of these men, when they came out of RTS, did not understand that many of the churches to which they were going to pastor had not had a solid theologically grounded ministry in decades. Needless to say, there was much controversy over what was preached and how it was preached.

    Though much has changed in the PCA over the last 35 years, I would submit that the basic currents of theology have not. This leads into the next issue, which is what do we do with the Westminster Standards?

  11. David Gilleran said,

    September 23, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Bob,

    Before I get to what do we do with the Standards, I would like to tell a of an incident which took place in a PCA presbytery in the mid-70’s. A church in this presbytery had several young men to come before the presbytery to be enrolled as candidates. They went through the required questions and were enrolled as candidates for the gospel ministry. A TE got up and after saying how great it was that one church has so many young men going into the ministry. Then he gave a word of caution to some of the young men who used a term which, in the mind of this TE some of the ruling elders may not have heard of before. The term which was used was “doctrines of grace.”

    I would trust now that there would not be a RE in the PCA who would not have heard of therm doctrines of grace.

    I am going to just list my concerns about how the Standards are being handle in the PCA.

    1. Are the Standards being applied equally across the board? The remark was made to me after the 2007 GA that we had decided to be ” strict subscription” on the chapter on justification but “good faith subscription” on the chapter on creation. Some will say that is not fair because the issues are different. I can only say for myself that both are equally important. BTW, the person who said this voted in the majority for the study committee report. It was not some one on the losing side of the debate.

    2. Have we in the PCA adopted a plan in “good faith subscription” which allows each presbytery to change the Standards to fit the presbytery? What I mean by this is the fact we have for a number of years both before and after the change in the BCO on how we handle exceptions, most exceptions to the Standards are on the chapter and questions dealing with the Lord’s Day and the Fourth Commandment.

    With the number of people who have taken exceptions, it would seem reasonable to say that either the Divines were wrong on their understanding of the Lord’s Day and we should amend the standards to reflect that the Holy Spirit has given the church a great understanding into the Scriptures and the Standards should be changed to reflect that greater understanding.

    The other chapter which people seem to take exception with these days is the chapter on Marriage and Divorce. The exception is that it is unfair to lump, in the language of the chapter, “papists, infidels and idolaters” together. That Catholics should be separated from this group.

    The question I would raise for further discussion and edification is this: Are we amending the Standards by wink and nod and not by the provision laid out in the BCO?

  12. September 23, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    David,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I can only offer mine from what I’ve seen or believe as well.

    1. Yes and no. Part of the clause that enabled “good faith” subscription said that exceptions could not strike at the vitals of religion. Pretty much any departure from the Biblical definition of justification (like Federal Vision) strikes at the vitals, while according to a PCA study committee, a framework-hypothesis position on creation does not. I agree with the justification side, nobody asked me about creation. :)

    2. There is no doubt that there are differences across presbyteries. I was shocked two years ago to find out that paedocommunionist TEs were accepted in some presbyteries as long as they didn’t preach or practice it. That would never happen in my presbytery. Theoretically, all these exceptions are recorded in the presbytery minutes which are then reviewed at the GA level. It was this review that caught the fellow in N. CA. who was “commissioning” men and women to the diaconate. Two GAs in a row now have rebuked that presbytery.

    Looking at two major Federal Vision figures in Missouri, one in Ohio, and one in NW Presbytery, makes me think that the Standards fall secondary to personal feelings and friendships on a matter. That was certainly the case in Louisiana until outside presbyteries forced the issue. No human system is perfect, but I do believe that God has blessed the PCA over the long term, and that those who betray their vows will be dealt with eventually. Either that, or some presbyteries will be labeled as “sanctuaries” for certain errors and it will be very difficult for TEs to transfer out of them.

    I saw a case like the latter. A TE that wanted to transfer to my church couldn’t even answer simple questions on sanctification, so never came up here. But it turned out that his presbytery knew about him. His church threatened to leave the PCA if the fellow wasn’t approved there, and the presbytery caved. I would have let them go. He thought that he had beaten the system, but now realizes that is his life’s work down there because he ain’t goin’ anywhere else.

    Republic-like systems tend to be self-correcting over time if the members at large stay with their original standards. That’s just my observation.

    So, are we amending the Standards by wink and nod? Yes, I think so in some ways at the moment. As I said above, some presbyteries accept what others will not. I’m very blessed to be here where no significant deviation is tolerated. I could probably not live in some others without filing charges every meeting. That’s life in the fallen world.

  13. Scott said,

    September 23, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Mr Mattes,

    Yours is a great summary of what I have understood our PCA system to be for “doctrinal subscription.”

    It is especially encouraging that subscription requires affirmation of every single “statement and/or proposition” of the Standards. It seems we could not be protecting the integrity of our Confession any more conscientiously than requiring that while still allowing for peer-reviewed “exceptions” of conscience.

    My understanding is that a process for exceptions is necessary to show that our Confessional Standards, while very very good are not infallible like Scripture. It is also in line with much of Presbyterian history to have some process for scruples, conscience in this.

    Having said that, I realize they can can and will be abused. We cannot debate perfection in a vacuum. Fallen human beings will in some sense be tasked with adjudicating these matters and there is risk in that, no matter the system, as you pointed out. In order for our system to survive, exceptions must be few and far between or the particular point must amended in the Confession after very careful deliberation and a very high level of agreement.

    It is also especially beneficial that these are reviewed at the General Assembly Level and that the courts of the church are open for enforcement of the Standards.

    Maybe we could have slightly stronger oversight by General Assembly, and be more explicit about recordation of exceptions (including those to the Book of Church Order). Also, we may need to clarify whether someone can hold the “exception” view and be required by Presbytery not to teach it or allowed to teach it. But these are all “fine tunes”- I do not believe they reflect substantial defect in our system.

    Candidates are rejected in our presbytery, which means to me the system is working.

    While whole presbytery majorities can succumb to false doctrine in granting or ignoring exceptions, there are even mechanisms to correct that as the Louisiana case shows. Now the Presbytery majority has not only repented but is anxious to ferret their previous error out in their own midst as well as elsewhere.

    While many are still getting used to the relatively new system sometimes called good faith subscription and the procedures we have attached to it, so far, in my limited exposure, it seems that in general, this system is working well to protect the standards.

  14. September 23, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Good to hear from you again!

    Maybe we could have slightly stronger oversight by General Assembly, and be more explicit about recordation of exceptions (including those to the Book of Church Order). Also, we may need to clarify whether someone can hold the “exception” view and be required by Presbytery not to teach it or allowed to teach it. But these are all “fine tunes”- I do not believe they reflect substantial defect in our system.

    Great inputs. According to the BCO, all exceptions to the Standards must be recored and categorized by presbyteries. However, there’s no such thing as an exception to the BCO. Elders only answer to “Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity?” They don’t necessarily agree to every detail, only the form.

    The whole issue of being required not to teach an exception is a bit of a can of worms. I don’t know whether that requirement is recorded or not. There’s nothing in the BCO that talks about it.

    it seems that in general, this system is working well to protect the standards.

    I agree. No human system is perfect, but the PCA system has worked well for over 30 years.

  15. Scott said,

    September 24, 2008 at 6:56 am

    I could be mistaken in this but it seems some presbyteries have taken a practice of taking only the exceptions taken as a whole in the categorizing. For example, taking two exceptions and saying that the two combined, do not “strike at the vitals.” Maybe this could be clarified so each exception must be individually recorded and individually categorized even though the granting is taken as a whole, i.e. one semantic, one not striking at the vitals, exceptions granted. Maybe this is not happening in many presbyteries, but I am getting a sense this is the practice in a few.

    Also, with “exceptions” to doctrine evidenced in our BCO, maybe there can be a requirement they are explicitly recorded in the minutes. I don’t sense there is consistent practice on this now.

    Again, these are fine tunes of a relatively recent procedures being followed.

  16. David Gilleran said,

    September 24, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Bob,
    Thank you for your response. Just a few things:
    1. BCO 21-4 speaks of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards. The doctrinal standards are the WCF along with the LC and SC. These standards define the system of doctrine. Later it says this system or vitals of religion. An exception cannot strike at either the system of doctrine (WCF or LC or SC) or the vitals of religion. Unlike the term system of doctrine which is defined, the term vitals of religion are not. I do not believe it is helpful to have an undefined term in a section of our BCO dealing with a candidate stating his differences with the doctrinal standards of the chruch. What may be a vital of religion for one presbytery may not be for another.

    2. I was taught in seminary that while exceptions could be granted, every exception struck at the organic whole of the Standards. That is why each chapter is not a separate confession of faith but it is one confession of faith.

    I understand the need of asking for differences and granting them due to the fact we are dealing with a human document. However, when the same exception is granted over and over, you are changing the Standards. The honest answer is always, if you believe the Standards are out of accord with what the Bible teaches, then bring an amendment to the Standards to your presbytery to be debated.

    If we are going to say we need to grant exceptions, because we are dealing with a human documentary, then when we should be willing to listen to the exegetical augments that would accompany an amendment to change the Standards.

  17. Scott said,

    September 24, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    >An exception cannot strike at either the system of doctrine (WCF or LC or SC) or the vitals of religion. Unlike the term system of doctrine which is defined, the term vitals of religion are not. I do not believe it is helpful to have an undefined term in a section of our BCO>

    Actually, if I am understanding the language correctly it says the exception cannot violate BOTH the system of doctrine and the vitals of religion.

    BCO 21-4d

    “The court may grant an exception…if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

    This seems to me to give added protection to the integrity of the Confession in that an exception may neither be hostile to the system of doctrine (specific) nor strike at the vitals of religion (general). That being an even broader level of scrutiny.

    The more I read this (recently added) language the more I appreciate the conscientious way in which it is writtent to protect the standards and Scripture.

  18. September 24, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Scott,

    I can’t say what the practice is in other presbyteries, but we look at each exception on its own. We haven’t had a case where we’ve needed to look at a number of them together, but it may be possible that a collection of exceptions could do what no one of them does. However, I’d be inclined to wonder about the suitability of someone who had enough exceptions to make that a possibility.

  19. September 24, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    David,

    However, when the same exception is granted over and over, you are changing the Standards. The honest answer is always, if you believe the Standards are out of accord with what the Bible teaches, then bring an amendment to the Standards to your presbytery to be debated.

    Absolutely agree. I made that exact point later in the discussion over there.

  20. natrimony said,

    September 24, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    “Cynicism is just paranoia with an ipod.” That’ll preach!

  21. September 24, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Yep, better bumper sticker theology than verifiable facts and solid proposals!

  22. natrimony said,

    September 24, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Wow, I thought some of the material was pretty gutsy. He didn’t provide any solutions (other than Jesus) but I several points resonated with my experience with the PCA (which I’m sure is limited).

  23. September 24, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Gutsy, yes. But gutsy is a poor substitute for substance. I personally found little in the remarks that I recognize from my PCA experience. Some of the comments were thought-provoking, but the devil’s in the details. Without solid proposals, there’s no meat to sink our teeth into. As I said in my comments, definitive proposals backed up by action solves problems, not hand-waving.

  24. natrimony said,

    September 25, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    I guess sometimes a problem has to be identified (i.e. the handwaving) before a consorted effort may be made to fix it.

  25. September 25, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    If a problem really exists, then it shouldn’t be hard to provide concrete examples of it.


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