Racism, Guilt – Other People’s, and Our Repentance

by Reed DePace

“How am I guilty of sins committed by others, sins I had nothing to do with since I was not even there?!”

Regarding the issue of our denomination’s repentance for sins in the Civil Rights era, this is the most common objection raised by those who sincerely disagree with actions taken at the PCA 2016 General Assembly (last week, in Mobile, AL). It is not that they don’t agree that such sins should not be repented from. It is that they do not agree with what we might call corporate-historic repentance.

I am beginning work on a D-Min dissertation devoted to this topic, and hope to study this subject a bit more fully. Here I am not able to delve into it as deeply as it needs. Instead, for the sake of our congregation (and maybe others as God chooses), I want to do two things:

  1. Provide background on this issue in terms of its application to our local church and our denomination.
  2. Provide an outline of the reasons why I believe corporate-historic repentance is biblically valid, and so does apply in these kinds of situations.

My prayer is that the Spirit will see fit to use this pastor’s reflections to lead our congregation to the freedom in Christ from this history, and equip them for greater service in the gospel in our community. And, since we are covenantally connected to the Church outside our local church, I also pray God will use it to honor the gospel’s advance amongst brothers and sisters not a part of First Presbyterian Montgomery.

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Historic First Presbyterian, downtown Montgomery

Our church is prayerfully moving toward the next step in the fruits of repentance (cf., Luke 3:8) for our history of racism in the Civil Rights era and since. Neither the majority of the members of our church nor myself were present during any of the occurrence of the sins documented in our church records (session, diaconate, and congregational minutes). And those records also show that those few members who were part of the church during these events did actively try to address these sins. Here are a series of links giving background on this topic, both from a local and a denominational perspective.

I urge you to read all the links in these posts. For our denomination, the PCA, particularly read the referenced overture (full statement and the amendment.) For our local church, particularly look at the powerpoint at our church’s website.
As noted above, a problem for some is the inference that someone is personally guilty for sins which that person never participated in. “How am I guilty for sins of racism committed by others in the past?” As understandably difficult and frustrating is this question, a beginning answer is not that hard to find. The issue is not personal guilt for the sins of others, but the corporate experience of that guilt. Maybe asking this question differently can help show this:

How am I guilty for sins of racism  committed by others Adam in the past beginning?

The answer is that we are not. That does not mean that the guilt of Adam’s sin do not effect us. The doctrine of sin in Scripture makes it abundantly clear that while each Christian is not personally responsible for Adam’s sin nevertheless the guilt of Adam’s sins have effected their lives, and disastrously so. Just consider Paragraph 3, Chapter 6, from the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.”

[Biblical references for the italicized phrase: Genesis 1:27, 28; 2:10, 17; Acts 17:26; Romans ROM 5:12, 15-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45, 49. See WCF 6, beginning on page 26.]

Here we see what we might call the original corporate imputation of guilt. We are not guilty of Adam’s sin, but the guilt and its results are imputed to us. In principle then, we already recognize that the guilt of one generation’s sin effects a subsequent generation who had no participation with the original sin. Even more, we depend on this principle, if Jesus’ obedience and its results (something we also did not participate in) are likewise going to be imputed to us (cf., Romans 5).

Corporate-historic repentance is simply an application of covenantal principles that are the foundation of our faith. Yes, we individually are not guilty for each other’s sins (cf., Ezekiel 18). And yet, we are covenantally connected to one another. In some manner, the guilt of our forefathers, material and spiritual, has an effect on us. This is nothing more than the necessary continuing application of the warning in the second Commandment, Exodus 2:5 (4-6):

…”visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” … (iniquity: sin, with its guilt).

This is a warning repeated so frequently that we don’t need to make extended arguments about the fact and nature of the ongoing consistent application of ALL God’s law to every generation:

Exodus 34:7; Leviticus, 20:5; 26:29, 39, 40; Numbers 14:18, 33; Deuteronomy 5:9; 7: Joshua 7:24, ff.; 1 Samuel 15:2-3; 2 Samuel 21:1-6; 24:10-17; 1 Kings 14:9-10; 16:1, ff.; 21:21, 29; 2 Kings 23:26; Job 5:4; 21:19; Psalm 79:8; 1106:6,7; 09:14; Isaiah 14:20-21; 65:677; Jeremiah 2:9; 32:18; Daniel 9:8; Matthew 23:31-32; 27:25.

[For extended arguments of the ongoing application of ALL God’s law, see the Westminster Larger Catechism question 99, with its biblical references, beginning at page 234.]

At the very least, there are covenantal applications with reference to the guilt of sin. These covenantal applications cross both space (trans-spatial) and time (trans-temporal). This does not mean personal culpability, responsibility for the sin. It does mean personal experience of the consequences of such guilt. Yes, the parameters and details of this need to be worked out, but it can hardly be argued that the Bible does not teach this principle.

Now ask this question of Scripture: would God who in Christ frees us from all sins and its effects not particularly provide an application of the gospel to address this covenantal aspect of the guilt of sin?
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First Presbyterian Montgomery, the Church @ Chantilly

Corporate-historic repentance, what the PCA and First Presbyterian Montgomery are applying to these circumstances, is an application of the Covenant of Grace, the gospel promises fulfilled  by Jesus our Christ. Here is a partial list of factors involved:
  • Corporate-historic repentance is exemplified in the circumstances of Jeremiah (14:20), Daniel (9:6-8), Ezra (9:6-7), Nehemiah (9:2), and the Apostolic Church (Acts 7:51-52, 58, 60; 8:1; 9:176-20).
  • Corporate-historic repentance does not say I am personally guilty for the sins of my forefathers.
  • Corporate-historic repentance instead acknowledges the truth of God’s word that my forefather’s iniquities (sin with its guilt) are a burden that only the gospel can remove.
  • More, corporate-historic repentance declares to the ones offended by my fore-fathers’ sins that I recognize they were sinned against.
  • Finally, corporate-historic repentance declares that Jesus Christ will cover and remove these sins and their offense.

Whether you find yourself quibbling with the details of these things, at the very least I pray you will find yourself agreeing that corporate-historic repentance does have a biblical mooring and that it is the means God gives us in Jesus to remove the effect of the guilt of corporate-historic sins.

May He so bless us, to our joy (John 15:11) in His glory (John 15:8).

by Reed DePace

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Women’s Issues in the PCA

This year’s General Assembly passed a recommendation from the Administration Committee (who got it in turn from the Cooperative Ministries Committee) to erect a study committee on women’s issues. Here is the text of the recommendation minus the RAO and BCO references:

That-
• The Assembly form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church. The Assembly authorizes the Moderator to appoint the study committee. The study committee should be made up of competent men and women representing the diversity of opinions within the PCA.
• The committee should give particular attention to the issues of:
(1) The biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination;
(2) The biblical nature and function of the office of deacons
(3) Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses
(4) Should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, the study committee will propose such changes for the General Assembly to consider.
• The committee will have a budget of $15,000 that is funded by designated donations to the AC from churches and individuals.
• A Pastoral Letter to be proposed by the ad interim study committee and approved by the General Assembly be sent to all churches, encouraging them to (1) promote the practice of women in ministry, (2) appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and (3) hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.

Grounds: The Cooperative Ministries Committee may not make recommendations directly to the General Assembly but must do so through an appropriate committee or agency. The CMC has had a subcommittee on the role of women and has sent several recommendations to the AC (including a proposal for a study committee on the issue of women serving in the church) and CDM to bring to the Assembly. End of recommendation.

We were told by many men of integrity on the floor of GA that women’s ordination was not on the table. By this, they probably meant ordination of women as elders, either ruling or teaching. However, by the recommendation’s own wording, ordination of women to the office of deacon is definitely on the table with this study committee. It is explicit in the recommendation in two places. The first is section 3, which says “Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses.” How, precisely, could this be clearer that ordination of deaconesses is on the table with this study committee?

Actually, far more alarming to me now is the wording of the suggestion regarding the pastoral letter. The language of women serving alongside elders in the pastoral work of the church already suggests that the substance of what elders do is something that women can do. It is not a long step from that perspective to one of giving the ordination of elder to women because, after all, they are already doing that work anyway.

It should be acknowledged from the get go that there are two denominations that ordain women as deacons that have (so far) resisted egalitarian impulses to ordain women to the office of elder: the ARP and the RPCNA. However, as it seems to me, the impulse for this recommendation in the PCA comes from a different source, a more progressive source.

It was pointed out on the floor of GA that the CMC has no authority to initiate anything. This is true. The recommendation should have been ruled out of order as not properly before us.

Interestingly, the makeup of the committee has a majority of complementarians on it. My concern, however, is that a minority egalitarian report will be filed. If that happens, many people will rush to say that such a minority report legitimates egalitarian practice in the PCA, whether or not the minority report is adopted. Of course, this is not sound reasoning, but that hasn’t stopped the progressives in the past. This conclusion will, in turn, prompt the progressives to push the boundaries by having women preach (or other ways of pushing the boundaries), and thus, BCO changes will follow practice, instead of the way it should be, which is the BCO change first.

No doubt many will cry foul, claiming that I am misreading motives, reading in an overly suspicious manner, and impugning men of good character. The fact is, however, that I devoutly wish I was wrong, but am very much afraid that I am right. If the intent of this recommendation was merely to explore the ways in which non-ordained women can engage in ministry without violating the BCO, then this recommendation chose perhaps the most exceedingly poor way of communicating that idea. It communicated this so poorly, in fact, that there is a profound disconnect between what is said in this recommendation, and what was said on the floor of GA.

I am willing, of course, to wait and see, which is what I advise all conservatives who are alarmed at this development. A study committee, after all, does not actually effect changes. They can only recommend. I pray that people on this committee will study the peace and purity of the church, and not push the boundaries. Pushing the boundaries here will be an inherently divisive action, which will be a violation of vows taken before God.