Are Sacraments Fundamentals?

It seems rather common these days in the PCA for folks to deny that sacraments are gospel issues. The way the intinction debate went is an excellent example showing us how the PCA tends to think about the sacraments. So many people claimed that intinction does not threaten the gospel, so why should we bother? In fact, rather unkind words were thrown in the face of anyone arguing the opposite case (legalistic, Pharisaic, overly narrow, etc.). I have written a fairly comprehensive (all of the most important secondary literature was consulted) paper on intinction, arguing that the Bible is against the practice, because of the symbolism of separating body and blood being closely connected to death. Even intinction is a matter of the clarity of the gospel being preached in the sacraments.

The matter of the recipients of either sacrament is a fundamental of the system. We obviously hold that this is true with regard to the recipients of baptism, since we do not ordain credobaptists in the PCA. Yet, inconsistently, most of the PCA regards the age of the recipients of the other sacrament as non-essential. Why would the age of the recipients of baptism be essential, whereas the age of the recipients of communion not be essential? The only reason I can think of in this regard is that we have let pragmatics and precedent take over. The single most cited reason why we should allow people to believe and teach this (even if they are not allowed to practice it) is that we have allowed this in the past, and that, going back to Wolfgang Musculus, it has been “part of the Reformed tradition,” whatever that nebulous standard implies. To respond, there is nothing in the BCO that establishes past precedent as constricting future action.

As I have written in the past, there are 17 places in the PCA Constitution that assume credo-communion, such that an advocate of PC CANNOT claim a difference with only one part of our standards. The difference is FAR more fundamental. The PC advocate has a completely different view of how the sacrament works. Reformed theology has always claimed an active component in the reception of the LS, unlike what is required in baptism, which is wholly passive. The PC advocate denies the distinction between the sacraments, ironically demonstrating that he has not thrown off his Baptistic assumptions enough.

If the sacraments are not gospel issues, then why should we not ordain someone who holds to transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Memorialist? Usually, we’re not willing to go there. But then, that would mean that we view some sacramental issues as gospel issues, and other issues as not gospel issues. Perhaps this is true. I, for one, am not willing to die on the whole grape juice versus wine debate, though since Jesus used wine, I see no reason why we should ever have switched to anything else. But this is a different question from the recipients of the sacraments.

So, this blog post is addressed to the evangelical middle of the PCA: I plead with you to consider the evidence, dig through the material, and recognize that the Reformed tradition has always viewed the sacraments as fundamental to the system. They are not peripheral. Our forefathers were willing to die over differences regarding the sacraments. That is because the sacraments preach the gospel. They are gospel issues.

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Shaking Things Up: Hebrews 12:26-29

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another Hebrews puzzler for you! In our study we have finally made it to ch. 12, and I am contemplating possible readings of 12:26-29, where the author exposits Haggai 2:6 re. the “shaking” of the earth and the heavens. In his 2010 commentary Peter O’Brien sums up the general consensus on this passage when he writes in a footnote:

The shaking that God will do ‘once more’ is usually taken to mean that the whole universe will be shaken to pieces and the only things to survive will be those that are unshakeable. It is understood as the eschatological judgment to be visited upon the earth at the end of the age, when the material universe will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev. 21:1). At that point only the kingdom of God will remain, the kingdoms of this world having been utterly destroyed (Guthrie, 422). (O’Brien, p.495n.262)

This eschatological reading seems largely to be based on the phrase “ὡς πεποιημένων,” usually translated “that is, created things.” But John Owen points out (in an appendix of Calvin’s commentary) that this could also be read as “things that are completed, accomplished, finished,” allowing us to read as the object of “shaking” the Old Covenant, or the Jewish religion, instead.

I am wondering whether there is any legitimacy to the suggestion that the author has in mind here NOT the final eschatological transformation to new heavens and new earth, still pending; but rather the completed, accomplished, finished “shaking” of heaven and earth that occurred when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and inaugurated the New Covenant, new kingdom, new world order by the sprinkling of His blood (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This event would still have been future in relation to Haggai’s time, but (in contrast to the eschatological reading) would have already been accomplished by the time Hebrews was written.

Although I have not encountered it in my resources outside of Owen, I find this possible reading compelling in light of the stress in this epistle on the dramatic and decisive change from Old Covenant to New; and it is also in keeping with the author’s assertion in v.28 that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” indicating that this unshakeable kingdom is already an accomplished state of affairs.

What do you think? Does this passage give us information about a future event involving the material universe, or is it conveying the earth-and-heaven-shattering nature of the already-accomplished work of Christ?

Thanks in advance for your perspective!

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

Anthropocentric Moralizing?

Our Sunday School is going through the book of Daniel, with the ruling elders doing a fine job of teaching the text. I preached through Daniel while I was in North Dakota, but I wanted to freshen up and sharpen up my understanding of the book, so I got two newer commentaries to read through as we went through the book. One of them is by Sidney Greidanus, and it is entitled Preaching Christ From Daniel. Now, I have benefited greatly from Greidanus’ careful and nuanced approach to seeing Jesus in the Old Testament. The various ways in which a reader can do that are very helpfully spelled out by him in all his books. However, there can sometimes be a hesitancy to apply the text. It can be so much about Jesus that it is not about us much at all. This is a bit of an over-generalization, I realize, but I am merely pointing out what I see as a trend.

For my prime example, I will point out that he does not seem to like Iain Duguid’s commentary on Daniel much. Now, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found Duguid the most helpful commentary of any that has been written. I haven’t finished Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary yet (that’s the other one I got to read through), and it is outstanding as well. However, when I was preaching through Daniel, I found the most help in Duguid. Duguid is well-known for a Vossian progressive-revelation approach to Scripture that sees Jesus Christ as the climax of the story, and the main point of the Bible. However, Duguid, unlike Greidanus seemingly, also believes that the text can be about us precisely because it is about Jesus. In other words, if we are in Christ Jesus, then the text will always apply to us precisely because it applies to Jesus first. Greidanus, however, accuses Duguid of nudging “preachers toward anthropocentric moralizing” (84). After a quote from Duguid, Greidanus says, “This be true enough, but it is not the point of the passage.” If there were anyone out there less deserving of this censure of “anthopocentric moralizing,” that person is surely Iain Duguid. Furthermore, Greidanus is guilty of reading Duguid uncharitably and out of context. Duguid was not making his point the main point of the passage. It was an application of the text. I have not found much in the way of application in Greidanus. He gets to Jesus responsibly and well, but what to do after that or because of that, he does not seem to make clear.

The question really boils down to this: can we apply the text to our own lives even if we do not explicitly mention Jesus every time we make an application of the text? On one question at least, there would surely be agreement: the main point of the Bible is Jesus. Greidanus and Duguid would both whole-heartedly agree with that. The disagreement surfaces when we ask the question of whether the Bible also talks about us. Surely it does, since God did not just give the text to the people to whom the writing was originally given. The Bible was given to the entire church of all ages. Yes, historical context is important. But so is the fact that God gave the whole Bible to the whole church. Greidanus is rightly reacting against a mentality that bypasses Christ entirely, since this means there is no exegetical control over the application, and the application is usually wrong when we yank a text out of its progressive salvation-historical place. However, if we place the text correctly in its time and place, and correctly and carefully get to Christ, there still remains application, which flows from that whole understanding. If we cannot do this, then preaching is hamstrung. Greidanus seems to me to be throwing out the correct-application baby with the moralizing bathwater.

Receiving Rebuke

There is an issue in the blogosphere (and not only here!) that needs addressing. It is rather pressing. I have seen it over and over on my blog. No doubt many who read this post will think, “Physician, heal thyself!” Some who are less charitable might be thinking, “You two-faced hypocrite!” I will attempt to forestall such thinking by admitting that I am the first person who needs to heed Scripture on this, and that I often fail. By God’s grace, I do not always fail. I have admitted mistakes on the blog before when they have been pointed out. But there is no doubt that I can do better. Please (and most especially if you hate my guts!) pray that I will do better about that. So I am preaching to myself first, folks.

The problem to which I refer is the problem of people not receiving correction very well. There can be a number of reasons for this. Undoubtedly the first and foremost problem is pride: Rule 1- I am always right. Rule 2- If I am not right, see Rule 1.

Pride can be present for a number of reasons. One is that God has given some people many gifts, and it is easy to be very complacent (not to say proprietary!) in our contemplation of those gifts. A second reason we are often proud is that sometimes we are often correct. And when we are, we can often think that our personal worth is tied up in being right. That harmful unity of self-worth and correctness must be severed. Contrary to what we might think, it is not the end of the world if we are wrong. It does not mean that we are worth less (or worthless, for that matter!) if we are incorrect on something. It does mean we are human.

Proverbs 9:8 is critical here. I will put it up in several translations:

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you (ESV). Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you (HCSB). So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. But correct the wise, and they will love you (NLT). A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you (NRSV).

One could go so far as to say this: if there is one Bible verse that is being ignored/transgressed more often than any other in the blogosphere, this would have to be that verse. At the very least, it would have to rank pretty high up there. The reason we ignore this verse is because we think that disagreement equals personal attack, and that rebuke is an even worse assault. But the verse says that part of wisdom is receiving rebuke well. It means that rebuke does not immediately send the wise man into ecstasies of thin-skinned apoplectic rage. Instead, the first question a wise man asks himself upon receiving rebuke is this: “Despite my initially irritated response, is there any merit to this rebuke? Is there any way that I can put myself into the other person’s shoes, see it from their angle, and acknowledge that there might be something in this?”

Full disclosure: to a certain extent, I am writing this post out of a strong sense of self-preservation. The amount of moderation might be significantly reduced if we all took Proverbs 9:8 to heart! And then my blood-pressure might return to normal, and the stress level lessen, and I might worry a bit less about what happens here at the GB.

Embracing Kantian Divides in the PCA

Overture 22 is asking a question that embraces the Kantian divide. What do I mean by this somewhat cryptic comment? The overture asks for a study committee on whether a person can hold to women’s ordination as an exception while agreeing not to practice it. The Kantian divide is the idea that what we believe is in a completely different realm from what we do. Put another way, the realm of belief is not an object of knowledge in the way that the realm of what we see is. We can’t know what is “up there” in terms of belief. We can only have faith. We can have knowledge about the world that we see. That is the Kantian divide: stuff “up there” can only be believed, whereas stuff “down here” can be known. Kant wound up with the categorical imperative: It has resulted in many other divides that have been hurtful not only to the church, but even to entire fields of knowledge. It has resulted in the increasing fragmentation of knowledge.

The overture asks if we can allow someone to hold to a belief without practicing it. The very question of whether we can do that on any issue is a highly problematic assumption that is not spelled out in the overture. The Puritans would never have dreamed of separating doctrine and practice in this way. The apostle Paul makes it crystal clear that the commands for us to do something are always based on doctrine. The imperative (the command) is always based on the indicative (what has already happened in Christ). Overture 22 would separate this biblical connection, and allow us to hold a belief that we agree not to practice.

Of course, the other major example of this in the PCA is the issue of paedo-communion. Many Presbyteries allow men to hold (and even teach!) paedo-communion without practicing it. I would strongly challenge whether we can separate belief and practice this neatly and this completely. Sooner or later, the age of children allowed at the table gets earlier and earlier until they are playing footsie with their vows. It is utterly naive to think that a person’s beliefs will not affect his practice. Besides the fact that paedo-communion actually runs contrary to about 17 places in the Westminster Standards, our current practice in the PCA is Kantian, and not biblical. Kantianism is the underlying assumption of all modernist philosophy and the secular West.

Some Thoughts on General Assembly

These thoughts are not in any particular order. But I did want to address some of the issues, and try to explain them in such a way that the average ruling elder in particular would be able to understand and follow the important things that are going on.

First up is the evening of confessional concern and prayer being held on Monday night. One thing I had not noticed about it the first time I read it was that it is an RSVP event. So please remember that and RSVP if you are planning to attend. The second thing I want to say about this (a thing which isn’t entirely clear in the Aquila Report) is that this evening of confessional concern and prayer is a shot across the bow of “wake-up call” for the PCA. EDIT: I have changed this language at the request of people I respect, as it is liable to misunderstanding: what I mean by it is simply that we are concerned about the direction the denomination is going, and we are going public with that concern. This is not merely a discussion of the major issues facing the denomination at the General Assembly. This is a group of people who are seriously concerned about the direction the PCA is headed. This is the beginning of action being taken about that direction. CWAGA folk (“Can’t We All Get Along?”) and liberal progressives take note. Now, this might not be the intention of everyone who will be there, or even everyone who will be presenting. I cannot speak for them. However, the design and original intention of this meeting is as I have outlined.

The second issue I want to talk about is the Insider Movement report. The Insider Movement (IM) is a missiological trend whereby people are being encouraged to identify themselves as both Christian and Muslim. Closely associated with this is a trend in Bible translation that removes references to the sonship of Jesus to the Father in favor of other terms like “Messiah” or “highly favored one.” The intended or unintended (not to prejudge!) consequence of this action is seriously to jeopardize the Scripture’s witness to the eternal sonship of Jesus to the Father. The report exposes these errors. This is not a peripheral issue of doctrine, but one that is absolutely central to the Christian faith, as the doctrine is present in every single creed in Christendom that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of the eternal Father. If Jesus is not the eternal Son of the Father, then He cannot bear the infinite guilt of our sins on His shoulders. Why did this trend get started, you might ask? The alleged reason, according to the report, is that translators were discovering that Muslim people tend to think of biological sex being involved when they hear the phrase “Son of God.” They find that offensive, and so the move to eliminate references to Jesus’ sonship in the Bible.

The third issue is the request by Philadelphia Presbytery to have a study committee report on women’s ordination. Now, the request is specific. It is asking about whether a person can believe in women’s ordination if he is not willing to practice it in order to conform to our BCO. I should note that one of the “whereas’s” reads as follows: “Whereas, our constitution does not clearly delineate or define ‘the general principles of biblical polity or their relation to male only eldership.” I had to scratch my head on that one. I thought our BCO clearly said that the offices of elder and deacon are open to men only. The BCO is part of our constitution. So I’m not quite sure how they came up with this statement, which seems on the face of it to be completely false. To be perfectly blunt about this, if we open this question we are denying everything the PCA has stood for since its inception. This denomination was founded in part because of liberalism on women’s issues (the other major piece being the doctrine of Scripture itself; the two are intimately related, of course, because of how one has to twist and distort 1 Timothy 2 or deny its authority in order to achieve women’s ordination). So, if we open the question of women’s ordination, then we also need to open the question of Scripture’s authority, since the only way you can get women’s ordination is to deny that Scripture has the authority to prevent it.

The fourth issue I wish to talk about is theistic evolution, being brought up to the GA by means of Overture 32. There are some in the PCA who deny that theistic evolution is being taught by anyone in the PCA. I would say that such people have their head in the sand. According to a Christianity Today article, Tim Keller believes that it is the job of pastors to promote a narrative for Biologos:

Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups. But less formal, grassroots educational initiatives, often centered on homeschooling, have won over the majority of evangelicals. “We have arguments, but they have a narrative,” noted Tim Keller. Both young earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists tell a story tapping into an existing cultural narrative of decline. To develop a Biologos narrative is “the job of pastors,” Keller said.

Unofficially connected with Redeemer Church (as in, he has no official connection, but has done many Sunday School seminars and the like) is Dr. Ron Choong, a man who clearly espouses theistic evolution, and opines that no one at Redeemer has had any problems with his teaching.

Fifthly and lastly, there is the issue of the Standing Judicial Commission and the lack of oversight of that commission that currently exists. No doubt many will want to point out that the SJC is often dealing with cases that are extremely complex. No doubt that is true. However, no organization or group of people in the PCA should be without oversight and accountability. Reports of Presbytery commissions have to be approved. Therefore, what the SJC does needs to be approved or rejected by the body as a whole. This is true even if there is a difference between judicial commissions and other commissions.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

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