Clearing Out the Fog

TE Reed DePace

Some months ago, I realized I was going to have to come to some conclusions about the nature of same sex attraction (SSA) and its interaction with the question of ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. Up to that point, I had sought to stay on top of the wide variety of conversation on relevant topics. From social media chat, to blog posts, to online magazine articles, to podcasts, to private digital conversations, I made time to delve deeply into this topic. My calling as a pastor and a presbyter demanded this of me.

And, some months ago I acknowledged to myself that I was hopelessly in a fog about all this. One brother from one side makes a credible challenge. Someone from the other side offers a credible response. The former gives a valid pushback I hadn’t considered. Chalk up another “who’s right/who’s wrong” moment. Tally up months and months of exchanges, pro and con, for and against, yea and nay, and I think many can appreciate my fog imagery in these events and subjects.

About a month ago, in preparation for our forty-eighth general assembly, I determined to try and boil things down into a set of vital issues to be addressed. While neither exhaustive nor exclusive, these are:

  • Is there credible information validating TE Johnson’s orthodoxy on the issues before us?
  • Is a man with an ongoing struggle with SSA ordainable to office within the PCA?

It seems to me that these are the crux of the matters before us. Thus, if I was going to be able to navigate the churning fog of these issues to safely land on the biblical runway, answering these was essential.

On the first question, with sadness, my conclusion is a no.

To be sure, TE Johnson expresses a noble missional focus: to bring the gospel to a community at best ignored by the (evangelical) church, and at worst (often) stigmatized by Christ’s Bride. To this, I affirm with a willingness to invest some of my ministry in the same missional focus.

Also to be sure, TE Johnson expresses an understandable commitment to the need for contextualizing his gospel witness to this community. Again, while there is no common ground between God and the sinner, there is common ground between we saint-sinners and the LGBTQ-sinners we’ve been sent to reach. Of course, some contextualizing is a necessary part of our apologetic introduction to them. Even if this means nothing more than entering into deeds of love that “earn” trust within this suffering community, this is entirely understandable, and indeed, biblically sound.

Yet it is here that I’ve (again, sadly!) concluded that there is not sufficient credible information validate TE Johnson’s orthodoxy on the issues before us. Without seeking to prove these observations (since I expect these are rather common amongst many of us): TE Johnson’s contextualization involves adopting critical parts of the metanarrative (the worldview) of the Side-B community. To be specific, TE Johnson clearly and succinctly agrees that the Side-A position (SSA men/women identifying as Christians may engage in homosexual acts in the context of homosexual marriage) is biblically condemned. Yet in seeking to minister to those affirming the Side-B position (SSA men/women identifying as Christians engaging in celibacy), TE Johnson all too frequently adopts the words, the language, and even the dialogical constructs used by those in this community. That is, he adopts the hermeneutic of Side-B.These words, language, and constructs are at times sub-biblical, and at other times contra-biblical.

To be sure, over the years since these issues arose (circa 2018) TE Johnson has offered clarifying language to us inside his doctrinal camp. And most often, sometimes after a bit more questioning for clarity, he has offered expressions that are biblically sound.

Yet then, in another venue, speaking to those outside his doctrinal camp, TE Johnson will yet again offer contextualized expressions that fit with Side-B sub/contra-biblical positions! This pattern has been repeated again, and again, and…

It is not unreasonable for me to ask, “Wait a minute, that contradicts your previously clarification of what you first said that contradicted our biblical convictions. What gives?” It is not reasonable for TE Johnson (or those who defend him) to respond with: “See my prior answer; asked-answered, nothing new here, move on now, drop it.” To be sure, I’ve grown increasingly grateful for what I see as growing gracefulness in TE Johnson’s response to his interlocutors. Yet, my hope for unity then gets smacked in the face when I hear of yet another interview/comment, etc. in which he once again offers contradictory comments. It is entirely reasonable for someone to ask, “Since he continues to offer confusing and contradictory information, what, then, are TE Johnson’s real beliefs on these issues?”

Yet, seeking to cut through the fog, I’ve concluded that I simply do not have the time, resources, and maybe even the ability, to adequately answer such questions. Thus, following the precepts of assuming the best of a brother (1Co 13:4-7), I’ve chosen to conclude the best in these circumstances: TE Johnson is most likely confused on how to apply our doctrinal standards to his apologetic to the Side-B community. Whether this is due to a defective understanding of biblical contextualization (my sense), or something else, does not matter. A TE is called to speak with clarity, not be a fog machine. (To be sure, I’m not suggesting I’d do any better; but then, I’ve not sought to engage at the level TE Johnson has.)

Let me be clear: my answer to this first question does not resolve to saying TE Johnson does not have a credible faith, or even that he is not orthodox on these issues. Rather my conclusion simply states that his lack of clarity, based on this repeated pattern, yields a fog making it impossible to validate his orthodoxy on these things.

That leaves me with the second question: is a man struggling with SSA ordainable? My answer is a qualified no.

My answer revolves around the issues of what does it mean to be above reproach, and the issue of what the Bible describes as sexual immorality contrary to nature (i.e., “unnatural” desire, Jude 1:7; Rom 1:26-27). Rather than repeat myself, I’ll let my words at this prior post offer more explanation. Suffice to say here, a man affirming that he has an ongoing struggle with same sex attraction (homoerotic desire as suggested by a fellow TE supporting TE Johnson), is NOT above reproach, and therefore not ordainable.

How this applies to the situation of TE Johnson is still in the fog for me. As implied above (necessarily inferred by me), I think TE Johnson might not be as he presents himself to those outside the PCA, as a man who is in effect a “gay” Christian as they are, i.e., someone firmly in the Side-B camp. It may very well be that TE Johnson is better described according to the past tense language of 1Co 6:11 (in the context of 1Co 6:9-10). Yet, as long as he continues to adopt the Side-B hermeneutic in his apologetics, it is unclear (i.e., the fog machine issue) whether he has experienced the degree of mortification that would make him above reproach.

To simplify here: a man with SSA in his life is ordainable depending on whether a present tense or a past tense applies to this issue in his life. If a man demonstrates that his struggle with SSA is past tense, then he has experienced the mortification that makes him above reproach on this issue. If however, this man demonstrates that SSA is a present struggle for him, then mortification has not yet qualified him as above reporach on this issue.

I get my expressions here may be frustrating to some, even on both sides of these issues. Yet my purpose has been to help any I might to the degree they too feel like they’re in a fog on these issues. With malice toward none, mercy and grace toward all, may God grant the PCA purity and peace on these issues.

reed depace

SSA Identification is Not Above Reproach

<rdp> As the Presbyterian Church in America draws closer to this year’s General Assembly, we’re beginning to focus a bit more on the core issues around the question of same-sex-attracted (SSA) men and ordination to sacred office. While there are lots of variables and permutations in front of us, the focus is rightly placed upon the one instantiation (the concrete example) of a teaching elder’s identification as a SSA (homosexual, gay) – (hyphenated) Christian (professing believer in Jesus Christ).

In a previous post I provided a simple summary of why I believe that men so identifying themselves are not above reproach. Accordingly, following the Bible’s rationale here, such men are NOT qualified for sacred office. More, in saying that they are not qualified, this is not a mere declaration that they don’t check off the boxes in a biblical qualifications checklist. No, reading these qualifications via the Bible’s idea of evidence of the Spirit’s work, what I am more fully concluding is that such a man’s lack of the biblical qualifications demonstrates that God has not called him to sacred office. Hence, in submission to the Head of the Body, the Church, we cannot place hands on him in ordination to sacred office.

Of course, these opinions generate some questions, most quite understandable and reasonable. I don’t propose I am the person to answer all these questions. I am not equipped to answer some of them, nor do I have the time to answer all of them. Suffice to say, I strongly recommend reliance on resources from others. Among those, let me highlight a few that presently are drawing my attention (in hopes that you may find them useful too):

Following my previous behavior, this past week I’ve sought to carefully listen to those interacting with my blog post, especially those who’ve disagreed with me. As of today, I am even more persuaded that an SSA-Christian man is not qualified for/not called to sacred office. He is not above reproach. Such a man has established as part of his identity a sin that is against nature (Jude 1:7; Rom 1:26). This identification may be nothing more than a confusion of a worldly-informed identity matrix (complex of principles). Yet at the very least such an identification marks him as one who has not (yet) secured the blessing of living in the language of 1Co 6:11:

“And such were some of you.” (e.g., formerly identifying with your SSA, rdp). “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Co 6:11 ESV)

reed depace

No SSA Clergy in the PCA

<rdp> So for me, this has been a bit of a difficult decision to arrive at. Others I respect got here a lot sooner. Some I respect still decline to even travel in this direction. But, as the headline says above, I am convicted that same-sex-attracted men are not qualified to serve as ministers (teaching elders, pastors) in any denomination that seeks biblical fidelity in their ordination practices. As this is one of the biggie issues in our circles, allow me a few words to explain, support, and defend my conviction.

Background

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, is the Sr. pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. He has publicly identified as a man who is both a Christian and gay. That is, he affirms that both labels are essential in describing his core identity. He affirms all of the PCA’s doctrinal standards, including that same sex attraction (SSA) is sinful, both in desire and practice.

Sounds like, “what’s the problem?” at this point, I know. Indeed, when this first came to my attention (as best I recollect, sometime in 2018), after the first few months’ flurry of interaction and discussion I was inclined to think that, while there may be some minor problems, nothing rose to the level of reaching the conclusion I am affirming in this post. I made a connection with Greg (via Facebook). He graciously accepted my friendship request. He engaged in a number of private messages with me, even when he was being bombarded with people wanting a slice of his attention. (Out of care for him, I decided to not take advantage of our social media “friendship”. At best, we’re acquaintances, showing respect and kindness toward one another via social media’s limits.) Greg has treated me with nothing but the best of Christian kindness. I’m grateful to count him among my brothers in Christ, whom I will see around the throne of Christ in glory. Writing this blog post, then, grieves me.

The Nutshell

God requires men to be ordained as ministers in his church (1Ti 2:12). Further, he requires such men to be above reproach:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you–if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” (Tit 1:5-6 ESV)

I recognize others will have different opinions as to what this means. For me, as God has grown me in the wonders of his perfect grace and mercy in Jesus, his comforting kindness and secure love has led me to a deepening desire to not lean on my own understanding, but align my beliefs and practices as closely as possible to what his Bible says, without variation (Pro 3:5-6). I’ve learned to take quite seriously God’s warnings to neither add to or subtract from his Bible (Dt 4:2; 12:32; Pro 30:6; Rv 22:18-19). I’ve become increasingly cautious that I neither get off-track to the right or to the left in any matter the BIble addresses (Dt 5:32; 28:14; Jos 1:7; Pro 4:27).

This has led me to conclude that identifying as a (SSA) gay-Christian makes a man not above reproach. He may indeed have a credible profession of faith. His life may in every other way be an exemplar of Christian virtue. Yet in the one vital area of sexual ethics, such a man has declared that he is not above reproach. At best, his life is marked by an ongoing struggle with a sexual perversion that both those inside and outside the church identify as debauchery:

“TNDT Dictionary: 112
ἀσώτως aÃsoÒtos [dissolute],
ἀσωτία asoÒtiÃa [debauchery]
The original sense is “incurable”; then we have the ideas of dissipation, gluttony, voluptuousness, and indiscipline. The only OT instances are Prov. 7:11 and 28:7. The reference in Lk. 15:7 is to the prodigal’s life of dissipation, and in Eph. 5:18; Tit. 1:6; 1 Pet. 4:4 to a disorderly life (rather than voluptuousness). [W. FOERSTER, I, 506-07]”

Such debauchery is not limited to the actions of those who indulge their SSA, but it certainly includes such things:

“For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” (1Pt 4:3-4 ESV)

Let me be clear at this point: Greg declares that he has never engaged his SSA. He declares that he continually fights this temptation of his fallen flesh with the resources of Christ. And I believe him! Let no one misread me and infer that I’m suggesting Greg is guilty of SSA practice. I am most certainly not!

Instead, Greg’s own resolute self-identifying as a gay-Christian marks him as one who is ever suspect. His conviction that his SSA is an integral part of his personal identity means that both those in the church and outside the church will always wonder if Greg is free of any and all charges of debauchery. This is even the case for those who believe SSA is not condemnable. Certainly they will never think Greg is chargeable with debauchery, but that is only because they do not believe SSA desire or practice is sinful!

Thus, a Christian man who ongoingly identifies as a gay-Christian is, by that self-identification, declaring himself to be disqualified for sacred office in the church of Christ. All the debates about concupiscence, mortification, etc. (as important as they are), do not remove the disqualifying effect of the self-identification as a gay-Christian. Such a man will, as fine as he and his life may be in all other ways, always be marked this side of eternity as one who may be guilty of a debauchery attached to his SSA. Disappointing and discouraging as this conclusion may be, it is the only one that respects the integrity of Scripture, that takes it exactly at it’s word, neither turning to the left or the right, but maintaining God’s sole authority.

Notwithstandings

I recognize that the discussion on these matters has left many with frustrations. Men on both sides may feel like those on the other have not listened to them, or are guilty (even inadvertently) of equivocation. Yet, in the providence of God, we’ve not seen much progress in collapsing the gaps between us.

I also recognize that the motivations of Greg (and those agreeing with him) are dominated by concerns for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Even where I’ve been deeply and personally offended by some things found among those supporting Greg’s position, I recognize that the motives have been consistent with the desire to lift up Christ that all the lost elect might be drawn to him and be saved. Nevertheless, the gay-Christian identification is a compromise with the world’s system of thought. It is a syncretism that in time will yield a destructive harvest in the churches that adopt it. Rather than be helpful to the cause of Christ, the insistence that identifying as a gay-Christian is consistent with biblical fidelity is a pernicious error which can only bring dissoluteness.

For such considerations, as much I wish no harm to Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson, I believe we cannot affirm his calling as a minister in the PCA. Rather, I think we have no choice but to take the actions necessary to make sure no man identifying as a gay-Christian is ordained to sacred office. He is not qualified because he is not above reproach.

Offered with prayers for God’s blessing in the hearts of my fellow elders in the PCA,

Rev. Dr. Reed DePace

[Postscript, 4/24/21: thank you to the brother/ministry that made a way for me to attend GA this year after all. See you in St. Louiee!]

Overture 2 – A Quick Word

by reed depace

This may be too late for the debate, but since I can’t be at the PCA GA this year, I thought I’d post here in hopes that some at GA might pick it up. Consider it if you think it is valuable.

Overture 2 would give constitutional authority to chapter 59, On the Solemnization of Marriage, of our BCO. That is, it would require all office holders (TE’s, RE’s) to live by the practices outlined in this chapter.

The primary reason for opposing this overture appears to be a well-meaning desire to not confuse and clutter our doctrinal standards with unneeded repetition. Since the other constitutional standards, in this case WCF 24.1, fully affirms that marriage is solely for man and woman, there is no need to add BCO 59 to our constitutional requirements.

While I sympathize with the motive here, I think this misses a critical observation. The Westminster Standards cover our required beliefs, our doctrine, our orthodoxy. BCO covers our required doing, our practices, our orthopraxy. While the former clearly affirm hetero-marriage alone, the latter merely recommends it.

This is a hole big enough for even a first year law school graduate to drive a truck through. I can just hear the cross-examination in the trial, “Let me make sure I understand this right Rev. PCA pastor. You require your officers to BELIEVE that same-sex marriage is a no-no. But you only recommend they don’t PRACTICE it?! Other chapters in your BCO are required, but NOT this one on marriage?! How serious is your opposition to same-sex marriage? Certainly it is not an essential in your faith.”

Less legally tenuous inconsistency than this has been used to affirm the most egregious abominations in our civil courts. Time for us to listen to Jesus’ command to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Matthew 10:16

Overture 2 should be approved simply because it makes our practice convictions consistent with our doctrine convictions. I pray even that it would be unanimous.

by reed depace, te
The Church at Chantilly, PCA
Historic First Pres MGM, AL

Facts and Myths for the PCA on Racial Reconciliation

Posted by Bob Mattes

The PCA will consider a host of overtures at the 44th General Assembly that purport to deal with racial/ethnic reconciliation, although most merely parrot Overture 4.  I believe that all but a couple of the reconciliation overtures are seriously flawed. I hope to briefly explain a few of the issues.

Let me make clear up front that racism is sin. Exegesis that states or implies that ALL men do not equally bear God’s image is wrong and self-serving, not God honoring. Not loving ALL of our brothers and sisters in Christ as John admonished in his first letter is sin. Let’s get that off the table up front.

The Ninth Commandment

Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 144 says that the 9th Commandment requires in part:

A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever…and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth…studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

I contend that in regard to the duties required by the 9th Commandment in the WLC Q/A 144, all overtures requiring the PCA as a whole through “covenantal and generational involvement” to repent of events related to or following the Civil Rights Movement causes the PCA as a whole, presbyteries, and the bulk of the current PCA particular churches and members to violate many, most, or all of the above excerpted requirements in regard to their own history and sins, depending on individual circumstances. And while anecdotes and stories are interesting and tug nicely at the emotional cords, it is hard data that should inform all decisions and votes.

The PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era to which many overtures refer, commonly pegged as 1954-19681. The PCA’s first constitutional assembly was in December of 1973. How can the PCA confess and repent of something that happened before its founding? How could the PCA as a whole be complicit in something that happened before it existed? Individual churches in existence during the Civil Rights era that later joined the PCA may or may not have something of which to repent, but not the PCA as a whole as called for by these overtures. To do so would fail to tell and uphold the truth, maintain the good name of the PCA, or practice what is true, at the least.

According to Dr. Sean Lucas’ book on the history of the PCA2, the PCA was explicitly created to be open to all races and ethnicities3. There were no organizational, polity, or policy barriers raised to prevent reconciliation4. That’s not to say that individual churches could not or did not raise such barriers, and we know that some certainly did so, but such was not and is not the PCA’s either informal or formal policy. In fact, Dr. Lucas points out that there was a significant contingent of younger pastors who joined the PCA that actively opposing segregation5. Many proposed overtures appear to do these men, their congregations, and the overall design of the PCA a serious injustice.

Further, the PCA had 260 congregations with around 41,000 communicants at the initial founding in December of 19736. Many of those early officers and communicants have gone to glory. By God’s grace, the PCA has grown to 1,534 churches with over 370,000 communicants as of the 44th GA7. In 1973, the PCA was primarily a regional denomination. Today, by God’s grace, the PCA has spread throughout the entire country. The bottom line is that – without passing any judgement whatsoever – the PCA of today is quite literally not the PCA of 1973, and even that PCA did not exist during the Civil Rights era. Even if all the original communicants were still with us, they would constitute just 11% of the current PCA. Just 11%. These are hard facts.

The PCA membership today is significantly different than at its founding. For example, God graciously placed my church, and indeed my presbytery, in an ethnically diverse community. Our membership literally spans the globe. Our annual Lessons and Carols service features readings in Urdu, Lingala, Spanish, Mandarin, Dutch, German, and others as well as English. We have first and second generation legal immigrants from around the world who and whose ancestors had nothing to do with the 60’s Civil Rights issues in this country. To ask them to confess and repent as a church of such issues amounts to asking them to bear false witness to their and their families’ history and sins, and fail to preserve their good names or the truth.

Corporate Repentance and the Continuing Church

While there are a few examples of corporate repentance in the Old Testament, recall that only a tiny fraction of Israelites remained faithful to God at those times, 7,000 out of at least several million in Elijah’s case. That’s clearly not the case in the PCA according to our own statistics.

Yet even in the Old Testament just prior to the Exile, when faithfulness was at an all-time low in Israel, God deals directly with so-called “sins of the fathers” in Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. The issue in those passages bear similarity to the bulk of the proposed overtures. From Ezekiel 18:

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

God’s sums up His admonition, which covers all of Ezekiel 18, with His declaration in Ezekiel 18:20:

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.

In Jeremiah as well, God clearly states that each man will be judged for his own sin, not for those who came before. That’s black and white Scripture, not anecdotes or convenient interpretation. I believe that these passages negate the corporate and/or covenantal argument as applied in most of the overtures.

We are a “continuing church” in regards to Reformed doctrine, missions, and church government as TE Jack Williamson made clear at the first General Assembly8, but God makes it clear that sins are individual unless that sin is encoded in our governing documents and/or policies, which demonstrably isn’t the case in the PCA. Anyone who sins against their brother or sister is violating our constitution and should be challenged, and if appropriate, brought up on charges in accordance with BCO procedures. That negates any “institutional racism” by policy or construct. To say that the PCA as a “continuing church” bears the sins of those from which it separated says more than most would want. That would make us liable for the sins of rejecting the authority of Scripture, which led the old church to a host of fatal theological errors. Does the PCA bear the guilt of those sins as well? Where do we draw that entirely arbitrary line? Who gets to decide?

One advantage, of course, of the corporate approach is that it diffuses the responsibility away from individuals and courts who actually did sin. Just like the old saying “Be a team player, it diffuses the blame.” If we blame everyone, practicality speaking, we blame no one. It takes courage to hold individuals, sessions, and presbyteries specifically accountable, but it’s easy to make broad pronouncements that make us feel good but ultimately hold no one accountable. That’s exactly what the bulk of the reconciliation overtures do.

Burden of Proof

I was blessed through my military service to live and travel across our great country, worshiping with many congregations. Although trained through 30 years of military leadership to spot and address these kinds of racial and ethnic issues, I’ve not seen widespread evidence of a systemic or institutional racial or ethnic problem in the PCA. The burden of proof – not personal anecdotes or catchy liberal buzzwords – falls on those making these accusations – the 9th Commandment demands it – but I haven’t see any hard data offered. It is easy to make broad-brush claims, but where is the evidence of wide-spread racism in the PCA? Any argument using statistical demographics must be accompanied by evidence of malfeasance at their root as opposed to cultural or sociological patterns unrelated to wrongdoing by anyone in the PCA. Sociology can not usually be boiled down to a few numbers.

Though there may be some individuals and churches now in the PCA who have something along these lines of which to confess and repent during their previous membership in other denominations prior to the PCA (I’ll mention one shining example later), they are a very small minority in the current PCA as the numbers clearly show. Even if ALL the founding officers and congregants of the 1973 PCA were still in the 2016 PCA, which we know isn’t the case as many have gone to glory, and if ALL of them required such repentance, and we also know isn’t the case, they would only make up only 11 percent of the current denomination. Should an entire denomination repent of the sins that something much less than 11 percent of their members MAY have committed before the denomination even existed? That doesn’t make sense to me, nor does it agree with God’s explicit commands in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.

I know that there continue to be racial/ethnic issues in isolated cases in the PCA, just as there are in society at large. Those involved must repent of these sins and rely on Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins, as do we all. That’s what the disciplinary processes coded in the BCO should be used to address where necessary, as it was in Western Carolina Presbytery a few years back. The process was painful for the faithful, but it worked. But, it hardly seems appropriate for an entire denomination to repent for the sins of a relatively few – at most way less than 11%. Again, God’s commands in Jeremiah and Ezekiel relative to the sins of the fathers clearly argues against this.

Back to the Ninth Commandment

The 9th Commandment issues come clearly into focus when using set theory and logic to examine the overall situation. Every communicant member of the PCA falls under the shepherding of their session, their local court. Every PCA session is wholly contained within the set of its presbytery. Similarly, all presbyteries are collectively and wholly contained within the set of the PCA. Think of this as a set of concentric circles with the individual communicant in the smallest inside circle, wholly contained in the larger session circle, itself wholly contained in the presbytery circle, and the largest PCA circle wholly containing the presbytery circle. So, when the PCA as a whole confesses and repents, as most of the overtures require, the entire set of the PCA includes successively every presbytery, every session, and every communicant member. When the PCA repents of anything, that carries through to the every communicant in the pews, which causes them to violate the 9th Commandment when they have not sinned in that way. It’s logically a package deal.

Where do we go from here?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as observing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. The PCA passed overtures and personal resolutions in 20029, and a pastoral letter in 200410 at the GA level, a 2002 paper in Potomac and Chesapeake Presbyteries, and others as well. Yet, there we were in 2015 and here now in 2016 proposing to do the same thing. Such overtures are not binding, but considered deliverances of the Assembly, to be given due and serious consideration in the denomination according to BCO 14-7. How did that work out in 2002 and 2004? Apparently not so well since here we are again.

The PCA needs a different approach, which Potomac Presbytery has proposed in Overture 45. We believe that it is time to break the cycle of overtures and resolutions based on emotional anecdotes and generalities – called information-free decision making by my boss – and approach the subject of racial and ethnic reconciliation in a deliberative manner to garner specific facts and issues to be resolved, resulting in specific actions to be taken as we saw in Western Carolina. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the PCA must address specific sins with specific measures which presbyteries and sessions may implement without ambiguity. The Civil Rights Act didn’t just say “Stop that,” it addressed specific wrongs with specific, implementable solutions. That’s exactly what Potomac’s overture recommends that the PCA do.

After all, how can we solve problems if we cannot state specific, identifiable, perhaps quantifiable issues that must be addressed? How can we learn about those specific problems if we do not take the time to ferret out the details and perform something like a root cause analysis? And how can we reach a final resolution and put these issues behind us if we don’t propose specific, implementable solutions? How can we know what success looks like unless we make the effort to define a measurable and achievable desired end state? The answer to all these questions is that we cannot, as recent PCA history demonstrates.

Specific Recommendations

Potomac Presbytery has put forth an alternative overture which corrects the defects in most of the other related overtures to the 44th General Assembly. Potomac’s Overture 45 asks for specific, concrete actions to affect lasting change, something that most of the overtures lack. I say this with an eye firmly on the peace and purity of the PCA, basing my position on Scripture, hard data, verifiable history, and logic, while seeking analytical rigor. I encourage the commissioners to the 44th General Assembly to perfect and approve Overture 45.

At the same time, I also encourage the commissioners to approve Overture 53, as it puts forth specific, concrete actions to be taken in accordance with our polity to hold those guilty of racial/ethnic sins accountable. The men of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, set the bar by taking concrete action to repent of specific past actions of the church and deal directly with specific issues in specific past session minutes. This leading by setting the example by taking concrete steps to repent of specific past actions, is also true of First Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, AL, and Independent Presbyterian Church, Memphis TN11. Every church court and individual who so sinned must do the same.

The commissioners of the 44th General Assembly should reject any and all overtures that purport to address racial/ethnic reconciliation, yet do not hold anyone or any church court accountable under BCO procedures. Let us not repeat the errors of the past by passing feel-good overtures that diffuse the blame, sounding pious but accomplishing nothing. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in 10 years doing the same thing all over again. It will be déjà vu all over again.

Posted by Bob Mattes


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68). Accessed Dec 13, 2015

2 Lucas, Sean M., For a Continuing Church, The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015

3 Lucas, p.296

4 Lucas, pp. 307-308

5 Lucas, pp 323-324

6 PCA Administrative Committee website, http://www.pcanet.org/history/. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

7 Administrative Committee Report for the 44th General Assembly of the PCA, p. 253

8 Lucas, p. 313, Derived from Jack Williamson’s opening sermon at the first PCA GA: “We have committed ourselves to be the rebirth and continuation of a Presbyterian Church loyal to the Scripture, the Reformed faith, and committed to the spiritual mission of the Church as Christ commanded in the Great Commission.”

9 PCA Historical Center, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/race.html. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

10 Ibid, http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/racism.pdf. Accessed Dec 13, 2015

11 Haynes, Stephen R., The Last Segregated Hour, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.228-245.

An Overture to Racial Reconciliation

Review and Comparison of PCA 2016 GA Racial Repentance Overtures

by Reed DePace

UPDATE#2: Overture 43 has passed. Read about it here.

UPDATE #1: The Overtures Committees has overwhelmingly passed a resolution regarding these overtures. 85-3, they are recommending to the General Assembly that Overture 43, as amended, be approved.  See here for details: OC Recommendation.

It appears that the amending includes three parts:

  1. Adding a list of sins (copied from the Whereas section).
  2. Referencing Overture 55’s “presbytery letter” as advice on how presbyteries can help local congregations involved with these sins.
  3. Referencing the local level action overtures’ (#50, 53) direction toward the use of BCO provisions (31-2, 38-1) for the procedure for handling repentance from these sins.

As with any combination overture, I do not expect this will satisfy all. Indeed, I am a bit concerned about the charge that this will all turn into nothing more than another meaningless expression of (empty) words. If passed by GA, it will be up to Presbyteries and local churches to implement this Overture.

I’ll listen to the floor debate that is sure to follow, and will most likely learn some things of value from the fathers and brothers gathered. At this point, my initial reaction is that maybe there is some sound wisdom at play in the Overture Committee’s recommendation.

As a pastor who has no personal racial sins to repent from, and who is shepherding a congregation whose history is full of some of the most heinous of these sins, I am grateful for the advice and direction. I pray God will lead us all to see His wisdom and find His blessing in these things.

==================

I’m getting ready to head to General Assembly (my denomination’s annual meeting where all our churches discuss/decide on issues relevant to our denomination). In preparation, I reviewed the overtures (requests for action) that will come before us. The big topic this year is repentance for racial sins in our denomination going back to the Civil Rights era. This is not a discussion about the civil (secular) matters of this subject (although they are related). Instead it is a discussion about how to repent of these sins, sins which impinge upon or outright deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such issues are ALWAYS the purview of the Church as they deal with the honor, integrity, and glory of our Lord God and Savior.

This is an issue particularly relevant our church and me. We have such a history. Last year, our elders led our church to express repentance for the sins of our fathers in this regard. We are now seeking the Spirit to lead us in bringing forth “fruits of repentance,” acts consistent with our verbal profession (see Matthew 3:7; for details on our repentance, see: http://www.firstpreschantilly.com/repentance).

There are sixty-three overtures before us at this meeting. Forty-two deal with the topic of repentance for racial sins. Clearly this is the topic most pressing in our hearts.

You can find the overtures listed here: http://www.pcaac.org/general-assembly/overtures. Click on the title of each to read the details.

I haven’t been able to find a summary and guide for all these, so I thought I’d put together one myself. Some of these overtures are simply affirmations of support for another overture. Yet others include particular details, different from all other overtures on this topic. Without going into too detailed an assessment, I found it helpful to arrange these into three generalized groups:

  • Those (mostly) calling for denomination level action: four (#s 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 17, 19, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 35, 34, 41, 42, 43, 46, 47, 51, 52, 57, 58, 60, and 63. Note: most of these are the same or similar to Overture # 4. The italicized are more or less different.),
  • Those (mostly) calling for local church/presbytery action: two (#s 50 and 53), and
  • Those calling for both levels of action: seven (#s 1, 16, 48, 49, 55, 56, and 59).

Overtures calling for denominational level action follow the pattern of repentance seen in the biblical teaching on corporate-generational repentance (Leviticus 26:49; Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 1:3-10; 9:1-10:39; Daniel 9:1-20). Rooted in the continuing application of the Ten Commandments (see C#2, Exodus 20:4-6) and the trans-temporal and trans-spatial nature of biblical covenants, these overtures propose our denomination acknowledge and express repentance for the racial sins in view.

Overtures calling for local action follow the pattern of repentance seen in the biblical teaching on personal repentance (Psalm 19:13; Matthew 26:75; Luke 19:8; 1 Timothy 1:13, 15). These overtures propose that churches and presbyteries apply the discipline procedures from our Book of Church Order (see particularly BCO 31-2, and 38-1).

Overtures calling for both propose we take action at both the denominational level and the local level. I find myself in favor of this approach. Admittedly without offering an extended defense of my opinion, let me briefly highlight the key considerations persuading me. First, I believe the covenantal considerations found in Ezra and Nehemiah’s examples are still applicable. Second, I believe the personal repentance considerations are still applicable. In other words, I believe the Bible teaches that, when and where appropriate, God’s people are to express both corporate-generational repentance AND personal repentance.

There are two overtures don’t quite fit into this scheme (#s 32, and 45). Let me draw your attention to Overture #32 in particular. If we did nothing else, given the circumstances of our church in our nation, I believe this overture is in order. My prayer is that we will do both: take action regarding racial sins and join together in asking God for deeper and wider repentance and its fruits. Our members, churches, presbyteries, denomination, the Church in America, and America herself are in desperate need of such salt-and-light gospel ministry (Matthew 5:13-14). I pray we will not prove worthless (Luke 13:34-35).

by Reed DePace

 

 

 

 

An Irenic Conversation

by Reed DePace

Last year after GA I made a post expressing concern about the apparent unwillingness to discuss differences. Here is a post from TE James Hakim making the same point in a gentle and peaceful way:


An Irenic Conversation

Husband: as you know, I like to hear your concerns and address them.
Wife: I’m so glad, because I have this list of concerns, based on our current situation
Husband: I’ve reviewed your list, and note that we addressed some of these things 37 years ago and others 15 years ago. Since we said the correct things at those times, it would be out of order for me to reaffirm similar things again. Besides, if we talk about it again, I might get into trouble for saying the wrong thing this time.
Wife: Oh… well… I’d really still like to talk about
Husband: [interrupting] I’m sorry, that discussion is out of order at this time
Wife: Well… there’s this other issue that matters much to me. There is a wrong decision that we have made that threatens our marriage entirely. Here’s my report on that…
Husband: I see. Yes, that might have been the wrong decision, but we made it in the right way.
Wife: Well, can we revisit it?
Husband: No, the right way of making decisions like this is to never revisit them.
Wife: I’d like to change what we call “the right way” of making decisions. Here is my proposal…
Husband: Even though this is something totally new, it incorporates one element of the way we used to make decisions, which I didn’t like back then. Besides, this would be very inconvenient.
Wife: But if doing things rightly in a way that saves our marriage is inconvenient, isn’t it worth a little inconvenience?
Husband: If we talk about this more we’ll be late for lunch. This part of the discussion is over.
Wife: It is? Well, could we thank God and pray together?
Husband: If we do that, you might think that I was approving what we were thanking God and praying for.
Wife: Is that bad?
Husband: Well, if we approve things that God approves of, but the people that hate Him disapprove of them, we might offend those people, and then they wouldn’t like us enough to stop hating God.
Wife: But… isn’t it the point that we thank God and pray to Him because He is the One who makes people stop hating Him, not they themselves?
Husband: No. It makes it hard to get a hearing from them.
Wife: Are you really against thanking God and praying to Him?
Husband: uh… er… ok, let’s do it real quick
[short prayer]
Husband: I’m glad we could have such an irenic conversation. I feel great about how good our marriage is.

Disclaimer: any apparent resemblance to recent ecclesiastical events is intentional, but the author is grateful for any discrepancies between the analogy and the reality. In fact, the author hopes that there are many, many more of these discrepancies than he has so far been able to identify.

We are Salt & Light, Yes?

If the PCA says NO! to Child Sexual Abuse,
Why Not NO! to All Sexual Immorality?

by Reed DePace

The latest general assembly (GA) of my denomination, the PCA, passed an overture (no. 6) that: 1) resoundingly condemning child sexual abuse, and 2) urging member churches and denominational bodies to take this issue seriously and address it in their day to day practices. Given that this horrifying expression of the dominion of Satan is indeed sweeping our nation, I wholeheartedly support this condemnation and admonition.

Yet this same GA struggled to pass another overture, even more mildly worded, with less stringent condemnation and less sweeping advice. This overture, no. 43, addressed two additional satanic horrors capturing the hearts of our nation: abortion and same-sex marriage. It only offered one small and insignificant call to action: expressing prayerful thanks for those striving to bring the gospel to bear on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

The GA committee assigned to pre-review and advise on how to respond to overtures before GA, recommended that Overture 43 be declined (by a vote of 45-28). This is the same committee of men who recommended the GA approve the Overture no. 6 on child sexual abuse. It was only upon the significant efforts of a minority of this committee to bring an alternative recommendation (to affirm) that Overture 43 had opportunity for some consideration. (I’m pretty sure current assembly rules only allow for GA for an up or down vote, no debate, on the committee’s recommendation.) This substitute motion from the minority of the Overtures Committee reads:

“Be it resolved that the Presbyterian Church in America expresses its gratitude to the Lord for sustaining by His grace ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians serving in the public sphere who are experiencing ostracism, penalties, and persecution for taking a Biblically faithful stand for the sanctity of human life and declining to participate in the cultural redefinition of marriage;

“Be it further resolved that the General Assembly pause and offer prayer to the Lord on behalf of such ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians.”

And even then this rather mild expression passed only by a small majority.

If this leaves you scratching your head, I understand. Let me offer some explanation (informed by similar “decline” decisions of previous general assemblies).

The Overtures Committee (i.e., the majority) gave a list of four reasons for recommending to decline Overture 43. The first reason appears to be the most substantive:

“This overture is not needed. There is no lack of clarity regarding the PCA’s stand for the sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life, biblically or constitutionally (WFC 24.1). Furthermore, we do not need an overture such as this to pray for, or encourage, those who suffer unjustly.”

This reason applies to the subject of Overture 6 as well. In fact, remove the words “sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life” from the reason listed and substitute the words “child sexual abuse” and you can see what I mean. Indeed, the remaining three reasons given for declining Overture 43 could also be applied, with little tweaking, to Overture 6. So why was the latter easily passed and the former barely?

I expect the difference is to be seen in the application of a doctrine called the spirituality of the church to Overture 43 but not to Overture 6.  While a sound and wise doctrine, it can be easily co-opted for use in denying the Church’s responsibility to speak prophetically to the nations in her witness of the gospel. “We’re not supposed to get involved in politics,” ends up becoming an excuse (even unintentionally) to defend an unwillingness to obey God in speaking as:

A watchman to the Church:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. (Ezk 3:17 ESV)

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  (Col 1:28)

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  (1Th 5:14)

And prophetically to a nation:

But if any nation will not listen, then I will utterly pluck it up and destroy it, declares the LORD.” (Jer 12:17)

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. (Jer 18:7-8)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything excepx to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:13-16)

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Ps 2:10-12)

I get not issuing political opinions. I agree completely that this is not only NOT the Church’s calling, to engage in it actually diminishes Her calling to proclaim the gospel.

Yet I fear we can become misguided in our efforts to apply this doctrine. I sincerely cannot quite fathom why the GA would speak clearly, “child sexual abuse is wrong!” and then hesitate to speak clearly, “abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong!” Neither is a statement of political policy. When intentionally connected to the gospel (something without which we should not speak), both are expressions consistent with the command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and warn them of judgment to come.

For the record, I’d be grateful to see some Presbytery propose an overture which simply:

  1. Identifies a laundry list of sexual immorality that is defining our national character,
  2. Affirms that the Scripxures are clear on the condemnation of these,
  3. Reminds that the only hope for the rescue from the deadliness of these soul honey-traps is the gospel,
  4. Acknowledges in repentance and faith that we ourselves are not without guilt save Christ in these sins,* and
  5. Admonishes our churches to prayerfully re-affirm our calling and commitment to go and rescue those trapped in sexual immorality through the ministry of the gospel.

For those who will admonish me, “but our standards ALREADY (in effect) say such things; there is no need to repeat ourselves,” my response will be a simple, “and where would you and I be if God did not repeatedly, page after page, remind and admonish us of our sin and need of Jesus Christ?” If God sees fit to repeat Himself, why should not His Church follow His example?

[*Edit: a friend in a comment below brought up the concern of the appearance of hypocrisy. Sexual sins are so potent in terms producing guilt and shame that speaking openly about them immediately provokes all in hearing to respond, in force. Unless one has a good grip on Jesus and His cleansing the tendency is to marshal one’s own fleshly resources to a defense marked by attack (often all out). It helps them if the Christian identifies his own culpability. Then they have hope you are not just a hypocrite, but one who does indeed love them.]

by Reed DePace

Theistic Evolution and the PCA

by Reed DePace, TE, PCA

O.k., I know this is a touchy subject. Yet it is important. I’m not going to name names, as to do that with the respect owed to brothers would take up much more space than I have here. I am however, going to say that I am persuaded that the teaching of theistic evolution is occurring within the PCA.

Some of this is overt; those involved know that this is what they are teaching. Some of this is under layers of rationalizing that hides the connection to theistic evolution (sometimes even from those supporting the rationalizations). Either way, there is support for theistic evolution going in our denomination.

So what! Right? Well, mark me as a trouble maker if you wish, but theistic evolution is deadly. It is a doctrine that presupposes the validity of an origins theory that fundamentally denies the Biblical origins doctrine. And in doing so, it proves a fatal poison to the gospel.

We can spend our time trying to parse out what “death” is, but we doomed to fail up front because evolution in theistic evolution is antithetical to the Bible. Evolution is fundamentally opposed to the Bible’s explanation of death. We may think we can wall off some limited form of death that protects the historic credibility of the Fall into sin and the ensuing curse of all creation. Yet beginning from a position that affirms that in any manner, to any degree, the reign of death now being experienced throughout the created order is actually how God created things in the first place leaves us with no hope.

Evolution calls good everything the Bible says is God’s judgment on Man’s sin. It truly is a matter of darkness denying the light. There is no compromise with it that will succeed. We don’t have a choice if we are to maintain the Bible’s integrity. Whatever the natural processes before the fall (biological, geological, astronomical, et.al.) they cannot partake of what God calls the reign of death. They cannot be a variation of it or a perfected form of it.

To so argue makes biblical interpretation no more than metaphor. If first Adam is nothing more than a metaphor, then last Adam is likewise nothing more than a metaphor. You agree in even a small way that the reign of death IS NOT exclusively a result of the fall and you lose the gospel. No fall, no judgment; no judgment, no atonement; no atonement, no gospel.

It is that simple.

by Reed DePace, TE, PCA

POSTSCRIPT: here is a good starting article to consider problems evolution: What Are the Top Ten Problems with Darwinian Evolution? This is a scientific perspective, not a biblical perspective. For those interested in an informed and reasonable critique of evolution from a science perspective, I recommend this site.

It Comes Down to This

by Reed DePace

It seems to me that the results of the Meyers, Lawrence and Leithart matters have the effect of focusing the issues involved. In all three situations Presbyteries have concluded that teachings which appear consistent with FV teachings denounced by the PCA Study Report are in fact not out of accord with our doctrinal standards.

The common threads seem to be that each of these men:

1. Affirms the Westminster Standards (WS), and
2. Their teachings in question do not contradict the WS, and
3. [Therefore] their teachings do not conflict with the PCA FV Study Report.

The rationale that seems to logically support these conclusions centers is the claim that the teachings in question are only about the benefits of salvation which the reprobate church member receives. As this is not (supposedly) something addressed by the WS (which only addresses the benefits received by the decretally elect), therefore these teachings do not conflict with our standards. E.g., this is usually heard in the FV claim to be speaking about salvation (or any other ordo salutis benefit) in different way than the WS, but in a way that the Bible also speaks.

I’m thinking that this is pretty much the heart of the rationale rested upon by the presbyters in three presbyteries when they decided to find these men “not guilty” (in the case of Lawrence and Leithart explicitly, Meyers implicitly). That is, this argument for the defense sounds both reasonable and biblical to the men tasked with determining whether or not these men’s teachings are out of accord with the WS.

If I’m right, then it comes down to this,

Does the Bible teach a secondary way of salvation, a way of salvation that is experienced by the reprobate church member that is parallel but different in terms of duration than the way of salvation experienced by the decretally elect?

If yes, then the FV is not out of accord with the WS? If no, then it is.

It would seem to me that future efforts to demonstrate the biblical errors of these teachings must deal with this dual salvation scheme. It must deal with demonstrating that this is not the biblical teaching. It will not suffice to argue exclusively from the WS, as men teaching these things can simply respond, “amen, and also …” It must be shown that the Bible does not support the FV’ers parallel secondary way of salvation for the reprobate church member.

If this can be shown then the elders having to make the judgments in these matters will be greatly supported.

Well?

By Reed DePace

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