Sunday, June 17, 2018

Final Reflections on PCA GA 2018


There is no particular order to what follows.

It was a very short assembly. The opening worship service began at 1:30 Wednesday afternoon and, except for the closing devotional at 8:00 Friday morning, everything had been done by 10:00 or so Thursday evening. I think part of the reason the Assembly moved so well was that Irwyn Ince was a very effective moderator.

The Overtures Committee is to be commended for their excellent work. I just wish that all presbyteries had sent commissioners.

The informational reports are a waste of time. The information is in the Commissioner’s Handbook. Let the commissioners read those. Then the various committees wouldn’t have to spend money making infomercials.

The Committees of Commissioners for the various permanent committees and agencies have become rubber stamps for the committees and agencies. They are supposed to function in a checks-and-balances fashion, but they have long since ceased to do so. I was embarrassed for the Covenant College CoC with regard to the issue about putting women on the board. It struck me that the CoC in that case served as the advocate for Covenant College, rather than the devil’s advocate.

This assembly began the process of making consistent our constitutional statements on the nature of marriage.

The ratio of TEs to REs remained about 4-1. I don’t entertain any real hope of this changing anytime soon, though I continue to pray for a change.

I am becoming more convinced that we don’t need an annual GA. It didn’t strike me that there was anything done this year that would have been damaged by being put off to next year.

I still think we need a delegated assembly. As it is, “grass-roots Presbyterianism” looks more and more like the Southern Baptist convention with wet babies.

Perhaps, with 87 presbyteries, it is time to start thinking about synods. If presbyteries need to divide (or “multiply” as apparently the new buzzword is), that could be handled at the synod level without the need for the GA to render a judgment on it. As it is, the Assembly usually rubber stamps those requests.

Perhaps we could improve the TE to RE ratio if only the following TEs were allowed voting privileges: TEs who are currently serving as pastors, associate pastors, assistant pastors, RUF ministers, and those serving pastoral callings on the mission field. As a seminary professor, I would happily give up my voting privilege to someone who is actually pastoring a local church.

I’ll revisit these issues next year.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The PCA: A Connectional Church?


At the congregational level, there is not much difference between a congregational church and a PCA church. Congregational churches are often ruled by a board of elders, elected from among the members, which is also the case with Presbyterian churches. But, as far as church government goes, that is where the similarity ends. Presbyterians hold to the idea of a connectionalism through graded church courts. The “courts” language is unfortunate, as it gives a certain twist to the meaning of those bodies, and their purposes, that is not intended in the name. But that is a consideration for another post.

Unlike congregational churches, Presbyterian churches are partially defined by their identity as “connectional” churches, that is, congregations of the same denomination are vitally connected through the church courts. In the PCA, the session is the court of the congregation. The presbytery is the court of the churches in a defined area. The General Assembly (GA) is the court of the denomination as a whole. The difference between these courts and, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the SB Conventions in the various states is that decisions of the higher courts are determinative for the policies and practices of the lower courts. In other words, a decision by the presbytery affects all the congregations in the presbytery. A decision of the GA affects the presbyteries and the local congregations.

The question is whether the PCA is functionally a connectional church. My experience is limited both by time and area, in that I have been an ordained teaching elder (TE, minister) in the PCA for only a little over twenty-two years, and all that time I have served in Calvary Presbytery in the Upstate of South Carolina. But I was raised in the UPCUSA (now the PC[USA]) and served in various capacities in that denomination until I joined the PCA in 1981. My experience there was not much different from what I have experienced in the PCA. And my experience tells me that most PCA congregations are functionally congregational. Unless the area is saturated with PCA churches, one local congregation is at most vaguely aware of other PCA churches. There seems to be little cooperative work among them. The existence of presbytery and GA is acknowledged, but the existence of those courts seems to be more theoretical than practical (at least in the minds of congregational members).

How do we, as TEs in the PCA, change that reality in order to make the church connectional in practice as well as in theory? First, we can attend presbytery regularly (along with the allowed number of ruling elders [REs]). Then we give our congregation a report on the actions of presbytery. Did the presbytery take candidates under care? Did the presbytery license or ordain a man to ministry? Is the presbytery planting a church? Were decisions made at presbytery that will affect our congregation? It will benefit the congregation to know these things, to remind the congregation that they are connected to other congregations with similar goals. Second, we can make the concerns of presbytery a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists that most churches make available to members. Third, we can attend GA (with our allowed number of REs) and again inform the congregation about the actions of GA, particularly regarding things that will affect our congregation and/or the character of the denomination as a whole. Fourth, we can make the concerns of GA a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists we make available to our members. Fifth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of presbyteries. In this practice, it can be particularly helpful to contact the stated clerk of each presbytery to ask if there are particular concerns of that presbytery that we can pray for. Again, this keeps church members reminded that we are a vital part of a much larger national (and international) church. Sixth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of the committees and agencies of the GA. These committees and agencies regularly publish newsletters that include prayer requests. Seventh, we can in our prayer meetings particularly pray for upcoming meetings of our own presbytery and the annual meeting of GA.

These practices can accomplish two things. First, they will regularly remind the congregational members in a tangible way that they are not alone in their gospel labors. Second, we are reminded by James that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 CSB). Such prayers, along with the Word and the sacraments, are the very lifeblood of the church.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

RE, TE, BCO, RAO, RRONR, and PCA GA


The time has rolled around again for the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA GA). It is made up of REs (ruling elders, members of the ruling boards on local congregations) and TEs (ministers). The meeting and its purposes are briefly defined in the BCO (Book of Church Order—the policies and procedures manual for the PCA) and much more thoroughly treated in the RAO (Rules of Assembly Operations—the policies and procedures manual for the GA itself). The meeting itself is run according to the RAO and RRONR (Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised—the guide to orderly discussion for meetings, especially necessary for a meeting as large as the PCA GA, which generally has 1,200-1,500 commissioners).

The meeting can be, and usually is, overwhelming for first-timers. I suggest that any TE or RE who is attending for the first time attend the workshop that is scheduled for first-timers. It will help you get a handle on things, and the meeting will not be quite so overwhelming. But to get you started, here are some guidelines. First, if you have a laptop, download the Commissioner’s Handbook. That contains all the necessary information. If you don’t have a laptop, you can get a hard copy, but you will want to get it ahead of time (you’re pushing your luck at this point). Second, look through the docket. That will orient you as to what happens when. Third, read the key elements of the Handbook. Some people want to think that every page of the Handbook is equally important, but that’s not true. The budget material, for example, is largely opaque to those without some experience in accounting. Even if you have experience in accounting, there is no way to tell, just from looking at the numbers, whether these budgets make sense or not. From my perspective, the important parts this year are the Overtures (true every year). If you don’t understand the overtures, find someone to explain them. Next is the report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial Reconciliation. The report has been two years in the making and deserves careful study, whether you agree with certain portions of it or not. Third is the report of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). There is no opportunity to debate the decisions of the SJC, but you ought to at least know what the cases and issues are that have risen to the level of the GA.

The last things to read are the informational reports of the committees and agencies of the GA. This information will be repeated on Thursday afternoon. After that, you can read the budget reports. In total, there are some 634 pages to the Commissioner’s Handbook, but not all of it will need to be read closely. Having at least read the key elements and skimmed over the rest will prepare you to take part in the Assembly and not feel completely lost.

A note about speaking at the Assembly. If it’s your first meeting, it’s probably best just to sit quiet and listen. If you decide to speak, 1) Make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you’re not sure, be quiet. 2) Speak briefly and to the point. Don’t ramble. Prepare some notes to keep you on task. 3) Remember that you’re not the only one desiring to speak, so don’t hog the microphone. 4) Pay careful attention to men such as Fred Greco, David Coffin, and a few others. These men know what they’re talking about and they present a good model for anyone else to follow.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The PCA and Confessional Integrity


In 2002, the PCA adopted what is usually called “good-faith subscription” to the denomination’s doctrinal standards—the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger (WLC) and Shorter Catechisms (WSC). This required changes in the Book of Church Order (BCO) and thus in the practices of presbyteries when examining a candidate for ordination. The amended section of the BCO now reads as follows: The presbytery “shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions.  The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.” (BCO 21-4.f). If such an exception is granted, it is to be noted in the minutes of the presbytery using language prescribed by the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) as follows: “Each presbytery shall also record whether:  a) the candidate stated that he had no differences; or  b) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be merely semantic; or  c) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be more than semantic, but “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4); or  d) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be “out of accord,” that is, “hostile to the system” or “strik[ing] at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4).” (RAO 16.3.e.5).

Since that time, it has become common for candidates to express differences from the standards in three areas: creation, Sabbath observance, and visible representations of Christ. These stated differences have become so common that it seems it is almost expected for candidates to express those differences. (Whether candidates have actually studied the issues involved or have consulted any works defending the confessional statements is another matter.) Those differences are also commonly allowed as exceptions by presbyteries under category (c) above: The difference is “more than semantic, but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine.”

As stated, the matter sounds innocuous. But the denomination has reached the point where a sizeable minority (at least) of the denomination’s ministers believe the confessional standards of the church to be wrong in at least three specific areas. Put another way, these men believe that the confessional standards of the church misrepresent the teaching of the Bible in these areas.

The Westminster standards are not inerrant. The version of the standards used in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America differs significantly from the original formulation regarding the relationship of church and state. Those changes were introduced in the late eighteenth century when the Presbyterian Church in the USA was first formed. There are provisions in the BCO for emending the confessional standards. Yet there has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the standards. Perhaps they believe that the approval of the presbytery for their exceptions is sufficient. But over time, as more and more men take these exceptions, and have them approved, there is a de facto change of the confessional standards. When these kinds of de facto changes take place, there is a muddying of the doctrinal waters.

Now it is likely the case that at the time the PCA was formed (1973), and again when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the PCA (1982), there were men who held these same differences. The matter of confessional change was not brought up at either of those times, though it probably should have been. But another generation or so has passed and there has still been no action. Perhaps, for the sake of our confessional integrity, it is time to begin.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Burning the Bones of the Dead


John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century reformer who is largely credited with one of the first translations of the Bible into English. This activity, and many of the theological views he espoused, were contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. His influence, however, was so widespread that forty-three years after his death, his bones were dug up by church authorities, burned, and the ashes scattered in the river Swift. In his day, that made sense. Heretics were burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s death prevented that. A space of forty-three years between his death and his burning does seem excessive. Luther, born almost exactly a century after Wycliffe’s death, shared many of Wycliffe’s theological views. One supposes that if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to get hold of Luther, he would have met the same end as Wycliffe’s bones.

The church in the West no longer burns heretics. In fact, given the plethora of Protestant denominations, the disagreements among various Catholic orders, and the vast numbers of non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects, and non-denominations, it seems impossible any longer even to identify a heretic, let alone burn one. Yet we have, perhaps, a more effective way of dealing with those whose views do not fit the spirit of the age. If not more effective, it is at least more satisfying to the heresy-hunters of our day. We burn those with theological failings on social media. We denounce them. We denounce their views. We point out, with a fair measure of glee, their shortcomings and their foibles. We hold them up to mockery and ridicule. Like the French Revolution, we lead them to the guillotine and lop off their heads.

But perhaps we ought to rethink our approach. After all, those who began the Reign of Terror in France ended up as its victims. Times had changed. Views had changed. The former revolutionaries were now considered oppressors, rightly to be beheaded. It may well be that, as times and cultural commitments change, those who are now leading the pack in decrying the failures of their forefathers will become the victims of a new social media purge. They, too, may be hanged, drawn-and-quartered, beheaded, burned at the social media stake.

True heresy is rightly opposed. But who defines the heretic? The non-denominations, and most of the non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects have no way of defining heresy, because they have no confessions that define the limits of orthodoxy. It is only those churches that have theological confessions that are able to define heresy. Thus heresy, since it to be opposed, ought rightly to be opposed and condemned, not by individuals with their differing individual standards, but by the church courts, properly called. When the shortcomings of our forefathers are examined in light of our confessions, it may be that their views are properly called heresy, and that heresy is to be condemned. But let it be done decently and in order, not by the rabid pack of social-media hounds who madly tear to shreds that which they often do not even comprehend.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Presbyterians and Order


One of the regular frustrations of teaching is trying to teach students how to do a paper properly. We give them instruction in a class on rhetoric and writing. We tell them to use Turabian for instructions on proper formatting of subheadings, footnotes, and bibliography. We have a seminary style sheet that gives them footnote and bibliography examples for some of the (very few) kinds of things not covered in Turabian. Yet consistently students will write papers in their final year of seminary in which they still will not footnote or do a bibliography in proper form. They seem to make up the format as they go along, because they are often not even consistent with themselves. The reason is that they don’t consult the style sheet or Turabian. They just wing it. From what I’ve heard, this problem is not unique to my school. The sources are available, but unused.

Presbyterian churches are very concerned with order. It is sometimes joked that the “life verse” for Presbyterians is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Presbyterian denominations have a book, usually titled something like Book of Church Order. It explains the principles and structures of the church and lays out guidance for how things are to be done. For example, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has chapters on how candidates for gospel ministry are to be licensed, how they are to be ordained and installed, how congregational meetings are to be conducted, and how church discipline is to be carried out. There are sixty-three chapters in the book, covering just about anything that might be involved in keeping order in the church. Men coming to be licensed are even tested on their knowledge of the BCO.

However, the testing is not usually taken very seriously. I heard of one examination (perhaps apocryphal) in which the examiner asked the candidate if he had a copy of the BCO. The answer was yes. The examiner then asked if the man knew how to use the index. Again, the answer was yes. At that point the examination was concluded. Clearly, the assumption was that if the man ever met with a situation, he would look it up in the index and read the appropriate chapter(s). Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, many ministers do not do that. There are Facebook pages for PCA ministers, and sometimes questions are asked that cause me to ask myself, “Did this man bother to read the BCO?” It seems from the ensuing discussion that he had not. (I serve on the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records for the PCA General Assembly. The review of these records also demonstrates every year that things are often done “indecently and out of order.”) The minister simply “goes with his gut” on how to do things. The result is that he often acts in a manner contrary to the BCO.  The issue gets much more complicated than it should have. This is especially damaging in cases involving church discipline.

Students who don’t consult the recommended style guide for writing papers get marked down, and, in some sense, no real damage is done. But when the BCO (or similar guides in other denominations) is ignored, real damage and real hurt can be the result. Perhaps it is time for ministers to take their vows more seriously and realize that keeping the peace and purity of the church requires them to understand not only the Bible, and whatever confession of faith the church uses. They also need to understand and apply the agreed-upon principles and processes for governing the church to maintain both its peace and its purity.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Moving Fences


I grew up in what I thought of as a very traditional Presbyterian church. The ministers wore robes. The choir wore robes. There was an organ. There was a split pulpit (lectern on the left of the congregation, pulpit on the right). There were stained-glass pictures of Jesus around the church, especially the large one up behind the choir loft. We had Sunday school and youth fellowship. There was no Sunday evening service. There was no Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

When I got to seminary, I began to discover that my home church was not a very traditional Presbyterian church. Or it was a very recently developed tradition. I did not make that discovery based on the assigned readings in my classes. For the most part, nothing I was assigned to read had been published before 1950. (I was in seminary from 1977-1980, so that would be the equivalent today of being assigned nothing written before 1988.) But, driven by my own curiosity and the encouragement of fellow students, I read well beyond what was assigned. I learned about traditional Presbyterian practices, such as the singing of psalms exclusively without instrumental accompaniment; the eschewing of any visible representations of any of the persons of the Trinity. I learned about the history of Sunday school (initially developed as an evangelistic outreach to unchurched children). I learned about midweek prayer meetings. I learned about, and even attended, a church that had a Sunday evening service (though sparsely attended) as well as the Sunday morning service. I read, and read about, the Reformed confessions of faith (I was never required to read any of them in my seminary classes). I read about the history of Reformed liturgies. I developed a very different idea of what “traditional Presbyterian” meant. Some of the changes to the tradition that had occurred in the four centuries between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century I thought were good and valuable. Others I thought (and still think) unsound and unhelpful, and actually damaging to what being Presbyterian means. But I was able to evaluate those changes because I had made a study of them.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” (The Thing, “The Drift From Domesticity,” 1929)

I once sat in a presbytery meeting and heard a young recent seminary graduate express a scruple about the prohibition of images of Jesus that is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 109. He said that he didn’t believe it was correct. When asked if he had ever read anything defending the Catechism’s view, he said that he didn’t need to. He further said that he wouldn’t read anything defending it unless the presbytery required him to, because the view expressed by the Catechism was so obviously wrong. The presbytery declined to require him to read anything and granted him an exception on the matter. He struck me as the type of “modern reformer” referred to by Chesterton. He didn’t see the use of the fence and wanted it removed. Perhaps it is uncharitable of me, but it appears to me that many of the debates in the PCA are between the two types of reformers mentioned by Chesterton. Some want to do away with the fences without having any idea why the fences are there. Would that all of us would be the second type of reformer, knowing not only why the fences were put there in the first place, but also why now it makes good sense to move them (or not).