Dialoging with the Doc

For me this summer is to be one of engaging Martin Luther.   Next Friday I am to be the token Schwaermer at a conference on the Word of God for Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors and theologians.  In August I am giving the Moore Theological College Annual Lectures on ‘Reformation Preaching and the Modern Mind,’ in which I will attempt to articulate a theology of preaching by drawing extensively on the writings and insights of the Doc.  Luther’s concept of the theology of the cross and of the theologian of the cross was, and remains, one of the most powerful articulations of the connection between the content of the gospel and the form of gospel ministry as set forth by Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians.  It is note the church needs to hear struck again and again.

Then, in the autumn Baker Academic will publish Between Wittenberg and Geneva, the fruit of the last few years of theological, historical, and ecclesiastical conversation between myself and my friend, the great scholar of the Lutheran Reformation, Bob Kolb. 

This latter work has a deeply irenic character.  I have made no secret over the fact that I believe confessional Lutherans are the more natural partners for ecumenical dialogue for the Reformed than are the Evangelicals.  We hold a similar attitude to church, confessions, the classical doctrine of God, and justification.  When Luther’s pastoral thought is studied carefully, the distance between Lutherans and Reformed on ethics is negligible and his model of ministry is exemplary.  Preaching is central to both communions.  Sacraments are important and, although the historic point of dispute, I find Luther’s Small Catechism on the Lord’s Supper to be an acceptable way of describing the matter.  Further, we have a common belief in a connectional polity which sees true church unity as more than merely a matter of spiritual affinity between autonomous congregations.  In short, we can have real ecumenical discussion with Lutherans that we cannot have with Congregationalists of whatever stripe because congregational polity rules out by definition any real churchly ecumenism.  Informal friendship is all that can ever be achieved.

2017 is a significant anniversary.  Hopefully it will be used by Evangelicals to re-engage with historic Reformation Christianity, including its polity and priorities.   For the Reformed and the Lutherans it offers the opportunity of re-engaging in full and frank discussion of both our shared creedal heritage and our principled confessional differences.  Luther has much to offer the Reformed, especially on the issue of the theology of the Word, the Cross

As a postscript, I spoke at a Reformation conference with T. David Gordon last week.  To celebrate the occasion, the church brewed a special beer. But it is pointless to check your local beer store.  Only 24 bottles exist, shared equally between the two men on the label…….

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

A Report on PCA General Assembly 2017

During the week of June 12, 2017 the Presbyterian Church in America held its annual General Assembly in Greensboro, NC. The following is my attempt to summarize my thoughts from the week.

1. I continue to be grateful to the Lord for the PCA. I am grateful that the founders of our denomination had the courage and conviction to break fellowship with those who no longer held to the Scriptures and orthodox confessional standards. For one raised in broad evangelicalism, being part of a denomination which holds to the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order is a great blessing. The PCA still holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The Mainline denominations are dying precisely because they abandoned the Scriptures. And while modest, the PCA continues to grow.

2. As always I greatly enjoyed my time with brothers. The Lord has given the PCA many faithful pastors. I was encouraged, as I always am, by my time with these men.

3. Every pastor and member of a PCA church ought to be thankful for Presbyterian polity. To the uninitiated, Presbyterian church government may seem rather archaic and inflexible. Indeed it is and thankfully so. This rather complex and slow-moving process helps to ensure that men do not highjack the church. It helps protect the church from unruly pastors and sessions. It helps protect pastors from unruly congregations. Presbyterianism is not perfect. But it works remarkably well when actually practiced.

4. The moderator for GA has a tough job. It requires a complex of particular skills and knowledge that few possess. It is important that each year the Assembly elect as moderator a man who has those particular skills. I was impressed that this year’s moderator handed over the gavel to a more experienced man to lead the Assembly through a particularly complex debate.

5. The Overtures
This year the Assembly considered 25 overtures. I won’t go through the entire list. There were however several overtures that I considered to be of particular significance.
a) Overture #2
This overture would have granted Book of Church Order (BCO) chapter 59 constitutional authority. Chapter 59 of the BCO deals with the solemnization of marriage and makes clear that marriage is exclusively to be between a man and a woman. So far so good. The problem is that chapter 59 belongs to that portion of the BCO which does not have constitutional authority. That is, it is part of the BCO which churches are not required to practice. Overture 59 seeks to give constitutional authority to chapter 59 thus giving it binding authority. You may be wondering how that could be controversial. Unfortunately, it was.

It was clear from the start that Overture 2 faced strong opposition. It made it through the Overtures Committee by a very narrow margin. From the assembly floor it was recommitted for consideration next year. I understand that there were some conservatives who, though agreeing with the spirit of Overture 2, nevertheless believed that the wording needed perfecting. Others were opposed to Overture 2 for reasons of which I can only speculate.

The new sexual revolution is yielding a terrible harvest in the land. Many churches and denominations have wandered from the truth and embraced all manner of sexual immorality. It is important in times such as these that the church give public witness to the truth. Overture 2 is an opportunity to do that. It is also a means by which we remind the laity in PCA churches that we must not capitulate to the spirit of the age. Also, by adopting Overture 2 we will provide further legal protection for PCA pastors and chaplains who will be increasingly pressured to perform same-sex weddings. By making BCO 59 constitutional we can do these things.

I am mystified by any principled opposition to Overture 2. Perfect the wording? Fine. But oppose the Overture outright? For what purpose? Are we embarrassed by our position on homosexuality and marriage? Are we afraid to confront the civil authorities when they bless what God calls an abomination? Will such a move make us less winsome? If the only sins we are willing to condemn are the same ones condemned by popular culture then what has happened to us?

Pray that Overture 2 will be approved next year.

b) Overture #7
 “Remove Long Range Planning from CMC by deleting RAO 7-3 c”

As amended, Overture 7 changes Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) 7-3 so that long-range planning for the PCA come to the Assembly through overtures from the lower courts not the Cooperative Ministries Committee.

The passage of Overture 7 was a very good thing for our denomination. The PCA was designed to be a grassroots denomination. That is, it is not supposed to be ruled by committees but through the lower courts – sessions and presbyteries. Committees, therefore, exist to execute policy not to propose policy. This helps to protect the denomination from special concerns who may “fill” committees with “our people.” The liberal drift of the Mainline denominations was often times aided by the empowering of committees thus eliminating the proper oversight of the lower courts.

c) Overture #18
“Amend RAO 9 so that ad interim committees may only be formed in response to presbytery overtures.”

So, paragraph 9.2 in RAO now reads: “Recommendations for the appointment of ad-interim or study committees shall arise only by way of overtures from Presbyteries, which shall be exclusively submitted to the Overtures Committee for recommendations to the General Assembly.”

Like Overture 7 the passage of 18 was a very good thing for the future of our denomination. It helps to ensure that the lower courts propose overtures rather than specially appointed committees. Further, this will ensure that overtures submitted to the Assembly will go through proper debate in the Overtures Committee.

6. Very, very (I mean VERY) few men look good in a tank top.

7. More Ruling Elders need to attend General Assembly. The numbers aren’t even close. If I’m not mistaken, there were about 220 Ruling Elders in Greensboro in a denomination with about 330,000 members. The problem of course is expense. It’s almost an entire week and it ain’t cheap. Churches ought to do their best to budget toward enabling their maximum allotted number of commissioners to General Assembly each year.

8. The Committee on Review of Presbytery Records
This year there was a controversy over the application of the 2nd Commandment.

A six page minority report from 8 members of the Committee was adopted by the Assembly. The substitute for recommendation 52 was adopted: “Exception: January 30, 2016 (Ex. 20:4; WLC 109) – Presbytery distributed to worshipers in the Worship Guide the cover of which included an apparent representation of the second person of the Trinity, thereby introducing that representation into worship.” A copy of the cover was included in the report.

Allow me to translate. Each year the minutes from presbytery meetings are reviewed by the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). This committee exists to help ensure that presbyteries are following proper procedure. During the review process this year it was noticed that a particular presbytery distributed a worship guide which included a picture of Jesus. An objection was raised but a majority of the RPR concluded that such an image was not problematic. In response a minority report was composed.

Our confessional standards are quite clear regarding the use of images in worship – they are prohibited. I understand that some men who affirm our standards differ when it comes to the use of images of Jesus for pedagogical purposes (Sunday School, Children’s Bibles, etc.). But I am troubled that the PCA seems divided over the use of images of God in services of worship. Some of the comments from the floor opposing the adoption of the minority report reflected the Nestorian error that the picture was only of the human nature of the Son. Other comments treated those wanting to hold to our doctrinal standards as weaker brothers, as though such a commitment to our standards is reflective of spiritual immaturity.

Thankfully, the minority report was approved by the Assembly.

9. The Report of the Ad Interim Study Committee on Women in Ministry
Not surprisingly the debate dedicated to this report took a lot of time and seemed to get bogged down in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure. The report of the Study Committee can be found HERE.

I was not in favor of the formation of the Study Committee. I believed last year and still believe that it did not come to the assembly in a proper way. I also believe the breadth of the committee’s mission was far too wide.

That said, the committee was served by honorable men and women who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I commend them for what must have been a difficult task considering the disagreements on the committee. There are some very good things about the report. For instance, the section on ordination is quite good. It clearly upholds the fact that ordination is authoritative. In other words, when elders and deacons are ordained there is a certain level of authority being conferred upon them. This matters because it helps explain why most of us oppose ordaining women to the office of deacon. Ordination inherently confers authority and the responsibilities given to deacons in the BCO involve the exercise of authority.

The report is also clear that God has given the task of spiritual leadership to men. The report, though acknowledging differences in ordaining women to the office of deacon, was uniform in holding to male-only ordination to the office of elder. Any pastors in the PCA who hope for a pathway to see women ordained to the office of elder will find no support in this document or the words of the committee members.

During the committee report Kathy Keller, a committee member, stated emphatically that she in no way supports women holding positions of authority over men in the church. She went so far as to say that if anyone in the PCA does support women in positions of authority then they are in the wrong denomination. That clarity was helpful.

It is a good thing to have conversations about the God-designed role of women in the life and ministry of the church. Those discussions ought to go far beyond merely asserting those things women may not do. So, the report is helpful insofar as it helps churches that may need assistance in clarifying in a positive way the contributions the church needs from women.

The Assembly adopted the eight recommendations from the Study Committee. For many of us, the recommendations, at least most of them, were the real problem with the report.

The recommendations are as follows:

1. “That Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery, to ‘Declare that the 44th General Assembly erred in the formation of an Ad Interim Committee on the role of women as not being properly before the court, and dismiss the Ad Interim Committee with apology,’ be answered in the negative.”

There was an attempt from the floor to dismiss the committee with thanks but to not receive the report due to procedural irregularities. The motion failed. Next Dr. Joey Pipa moved that the report be received and sent on to presbyteries without comment. That motion failed.

2. “That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.”

3. “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.”

The key phrase here is “appropriate committees and agencies.” This is too vague in my opinion. There are committees and agencies that involve responsibilities open only to those in spiritual authority. The PCA must maintain clear boundaries around those committees which exercise authority and spiritual oversight lest we violate biblical principles.  

4. As finally amended reads, “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.”

The recommendation, as originally proposed, read, “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. Though The Book of Church Order does not specifically prohibit the practice of going without ordained deacons, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.”

During the debate the proposed recommendation was amended to read: “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. The practice of going without ordained deacons is poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.” This amendment improved upon the original by making it clear that the practice of not ordaining deacons does not merely “seem” to be but indeed “is poorly aligned with the spirit of the two church offices outlined in the Book of Church Order.”

Sadly, this improved wording was stripped from the recommendation. To make matters worse the original wording was almost entirely demolished. I would have been able to support the recommendation as worded originally and especially after the improvement of the first amendment. As it stands the recommendation means virtually nothing.

Why does this matter? It may surprise many reading this that some PCA churches do not ordain deacons. In at least some of these cases it is because, according to the BCO, only men are to be ordained as deacons. In response some churches have chosen to not ordain deacons at all – “If we can’t ordain women then we won’t ordain men either.” That is a clear violation of the spirit of the BCO and should be rebuked. It robs the church of an ordained diaconate. Recommendation four was stripped of any language acknowledging that this practice is contrary to the standards which elders in the PCA vow to uphold.

5. “That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in Chapter Two).”

One of the problems with this recommendation is the lack of clarity. To what extent may women and unordained men take an active role in leading the church in worship? It seems to me that the committee’s recommendation is too broad to be helpful.

There was an attempt to amend this statement to read, “That sessions, provided their consciences allow it, consider how to include…” Unfortunately that recommendation was not approved by the Assembly. That action suggest to some of us that TE’s who are convinced by their reading of Scripture that women and unordained men should not be taking an active role in leading the church in worship ought not to have a conscientious objection.

6. As amended, “That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.”

The recommendation, as proposed, read, “that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses.”

The problem here is that the BCO already provides for deacon assistants. So I am not sure why this was included in the list of recommendations. Perhaps because it gave members of the study committee to recommend the office of deaconess.

7. “That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.”

This recommendation is deeply troubling for at least three reasons. First, it comes too close to establishing a third office of the church. There is simply nothing in Scripture that establishes the office of “Commissioned Church Worker.” Assurances were given that there was no possibility of confusion between ordination and commissioning. I remain skeptical of this claim for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Second, how important is a title? I am happy to serve alongside many men and women who have absolutely no interest in being given a title at church. Certainly we have elders and deacons for Scripture establishes those offices. But is the desire for a title so great that we would create a de-facto church office in order to provide it?

Third, this recommendation will ultimately lead to dishonesty. One of the justifications for this recommendation is that the title of Commissioned Church Worker will provide the holder with tax benefits reserved for ordained ministers. In other words, the IRS would recognize those who hold this title as “clergy” and thus eligible for tax benefits. Yet, the PCA would not consider them clergy nor would they be called ministers, elders, or pastors. Do you see the conflict? On the one hand we would tell the IRS that these commissioned church workers are clergy while denying to our churches that they are.

8. “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.”

I believe that this recommendation was amended to include the words “and men.”

In summary, I believe the report itself was good for the most part. It is a document that would be rejected as barbaric in our culture. I point that out only to reassure you that the report clearly affirms the differing roles between men and women and protects the clear teaching of Scripture that leadership in the home and church is given to men. The recommendations however are largely unhelpful or worse. My hope is that our churches will dismiss most of those recommendations.

10. Ad Interim Study Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation
The Ad Interim Study Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation (TE Kevin Smith, chairman, TE Carl Ellis, RE Alexander Jun, TE Sean Lucas, TE Jonathan Seda, TE Richie Sessions, TE Alex Shipman, voting members; RE Sylvester Brown, RE Otis Pickett, TE Russ Whitfield, advisory members) offered the Assembly a brief initial report and the Committee’s recommendations were adopted.
1. That the Committee and its funding be continued for another year.
2. That a budget of $50,000 be approved to secure the services of Life Way Research to “Assess the current situation in the PCA concerning racial and ethnic reconciliation.”
3. That there be a follow-up study in three years to assess the growth and progress of the PCA in biblical racial reconciliation practice.

11. When will GA be held in Charleston (shrimp and grits) or Memphis (bar-b-que)?

Concluding thoughts:
I have appreciated much of my correspondence and conversations with some of my brothers on the other side of our denominational debates. Such conversations matter in part because it may help reduce the polarization we are presently experiencing. It may help break apart the “voting block” mentality and make way for brothers to vote according to consciences captive to God’s Word rather than party loyalty.

My mind is not changing about things like the 2nd Commandment and ordination. My mind is not changing about the need for pastoral piety, the ordinary means of grace, missional clarity, and confessional subscription. But I think I can hold to those things without vilifying my brothers. Don’t misunderstand. I will continue to oppose efforts to broaden the PCA into progressive evangelicalism. Such efforts, I believe, will prove deadly to our denomination. Indeed, that’s been the result of all such efforts in other denominations. I will continue to encourage those who want to change the PCA to seek out fellowship in one of the denominations which already affirm their views.

However, I believe this can be done between brothers in Christ without seeing one another as the enemy.

Were there things about GA 2017 that discouraged me? Of course. Any gathering of sinners like me will at times be discouraging. But by the end of the week I was, for the most part, encouraged. I understand that some brothers, believing the PCA has drifted too far left, are seeking a way to lead their churches to a more confessional Presbyterian denomination. I am certainly sympathetic to their perspective. However, I believe it is far too early to abandon the PCA. This is not 1936. We are not the PC(USA). Not even close. Has there been a troubling trend in recent years? I believe there has been. Do we have brothers who desire to significantly broaden the PCA to something less than robustly committed to the Westminster Standards and the BCO? It certainly seems that way. But I am convinced that the clear majority of the elders and laity of the PCA are not similarly committed to that project of reinvention.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

A Listener Response to the Maddi Runkles Podcast

I’ve received a handful of emails regarding the latest MoS episode on Maddi Runkles, the pregnant teenager who could not walk with her fellow graduates at Heritage Christian Academy. They were pretty much divided in half between those who agreed with the school’s decision and those who did not. This thoughtful reply by a listener got to the heart of a matter about whether a school administration, even a Christian school, has the same authority that church government does in handling personal sin. I am posting it with permission of the the sender, Lori Seaman:

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the conversation about the Christian school shaming the pregnant teen. One thing it got me thinking about was the unique role of the church, and what happens when other institutions try to take on that role. Christian schools can and do play a very good, important role in the formation of Christian children, but they are not churches. I’m not sure, once they created a code of conduct that did not just address academic- or school-related issues, but personal sin. 

There are things that are not sin that schools can reasonably prohibit and punish. It is not inherently sinful for a boyfriend and girlfriend to kiss, but a school can have a policy against PDAs, and give a detention to students seen kissing in the hallway. A pastor, on the other hand, would be (as least as far as I can tell!) wildly out of line if he were to discipline a serious boyfriend and girlfriend for not waiting until their wedding day to have their first kiss. Failing a class is not a sin, but a school can deny graduation to a student who fails. Whereas, I’d say, a church can discipline a member for sex outside of marriage, but a school should not. 

A school, even a Christian school, has no real mechanism for dealing with sin, nor is it their role to do so. If they have a code of conduct with that includes both not having premarital sex and not plagiarizing, then they are in a bind. If a student plagiarizes or cheats, are they now bound to allow that student to walk at graduation if they repent? But if they won’t allow that, then they are also in a position where extending grace to the pregnant teen but not the plagiarizer would seem unfair. A church can embrace and forgive and be again in full communion with both the repentant pregnant teen and the repentant plagiarizer, because dealing with sin is the job of the church. Dealing with sin is not the job of the school, and they cannot do it well.

Anyway, great show, and I think the school really could not have come up with a good answer once they decided that they should have student’s private sexual behavior (behavior that did not take place on school grounds or at school events) in the code of conduct. It doesn’t belong there, because even Christian schools are not there to discipline and forgive sinners. That’s the church’s job. I’m not sure, once they created a code of conduct that did not just address academic- or school-related issues, but personal sin, they could have responded well.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

What in the world is the church for?

Once again I am writing from Greensboro, NC and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Today was the fourth annual Gospel Reformation Network GA luncheon. If you are not familiar with the GRN you can read about it HERE.

The speaker for this year’s luncheon was pastor and author Kevin DeYoung. His topic was the mission of the church. This is a subject of timeless relevance given our capacity for mission drift. Why is the church on earth? Are we here to do good deeds? Are we here to aid the poor or call for justice in society? Is it the church’s job to proclaim the gospel? Part of the challenge in thinking through the nature of the church’s mission is learning to distinguish, from God’s Word, between the many good things that Christians ought to be doing and that mission which God has entrusted to His church. While these are complementary they are not identical.

DeYoung gave an excellent address navigating these questions. Once the audio is available I will post a link. It is something you will want your church’s pastor, ministry staff, and elders to listen to.

Clarity on the mission of the church is greatly needed in the PCA. This is not because there is anything unusually wrong with the PCA but precisely because like any denomination we need regular reminders of what God has given us to do.

If you want to explore the question in greater detail I highly recommend What Is the Mission of the Church? by DeYoung and Gilbert.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

A Big Moment for the PCA

I am currently in Greensboro, NC for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

As a denomination we are facing what I believe is a watershed moment. Overture 2 which was submitted by Calvary Presbytery will grant full constitutional status to Book of Church Order (BCO) 59 which states that “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman, in accordance with the Word of God” (59-3), and that ministers are required to obey the civil laws of the community regarding marriage “to the extent that those laws do not transgress the laws of God as interpreted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America”

I can imagine all sorts of reasons why this overture would be opposed. But I cannot conceive of one good reason for it to be opposed by elders in the PCA. And yet that is the situation we are facing. Overture 2 was narrowly approved by the Overtures Committee yesterday. It will surely be vigorously opposed when it comes before the Assembly for a vote.

Some say that Overture 2 is unnecessary given the existence of BCO 59 in the first place. In other words, the PCA already has a clear statement that marriage must only be between a man and a woman. But by granting BCO 59 constitutional status the PCA would be offering additional protections to pastors and chaplains who are being and will continued to be called upon to perform homosexual weddings.

There is another reason to support Overture 2. In a time when the cultural winds are blowing so strong in support of the normalization of homosexuality and other forms of sexual perversion Christians do well to articulate God’s standard all the more clearly. To paraphrase one pastor, “When you are in a tent and a thunderstorm is battering you, extra tent pegs are necessary.” Overture 2 is an extra tent peg which will further help our denomination clarify our commitment to the biblical standards of sexual ethics and marriage.

If you are a commissioner at this year’s GA I urge you to vote in favor of Overture 2. If you are a member of a PCA church I urge you to pray that it passes. In recent months we have become aware that those opposing such actions as Overture 2 are well organized, ready to “fight,” and “win every vote.” The conservatives in the PCA have no “political arm.” We have no organization comparable to the National Partnership. We tend to find such politicking unseemly. But now is not a time for naivety. That Overture 2 is facing strong opposition is an indication of the challenges before us as a denomination.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

General Assembly Pre-Reading

Let’s face it, General Assembly can be spiritually and emotionally taxing. This is especially true when there are disagreements between us as there are this year. God tends to use situations like this to expose the sins in my own heart. It has been a painful but good process.

As we approach a week together in Greensboro I hope you will take time to read the following four pieces as they have been quite helpful for me…

Maintaining Unity in the PCA by Nick Batzig

Slow to Speak by Fred Greco

The Godly Commissioner by Jon Payne

Missional Clarity in the PCA by David Strain

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

My Hopes for General Assembly 2017

There is no avoiding the fact that there are deep divisions within the PCA. When “us versus them” language is used routinely it is clear that we have separated into competing camps. That is sad but certainly not unprecedented. These sorts of divisions and competing visions seem to always happen within denominations. I also know that all of us in the PCA, regardless of which side we find ourselves on, truly desire the denomination to be God-glorifying.

General Assembly 2017 will be gathering in Greensboro, NC next week. Committee members will begin arriving Sunday and Monday to begin their work. On Tuesday evening the Assembly will gather to worship and begin its business. Please pray that the Lord’s church will be well cared for during those days.

The following are a few hopes I have for myself during that week and beyond:

That I would pray before I speak.

That I would take my thoughts captive for Christ.

That I would be hopeful and not cynical.

That I would assume the best about my brothers with whom I disagree.

That I would rejoice in any news that the gospel is being made known.

That I would not see any of my brothers as an enemy.

These are all things in which I need to grow. I will keep this list before me during the week. I trust that by God’s grace I will continue to see progress in my life.

I am a conservative. That’s no surprise. I don’t want the PCA drift leftward as most denominations tend to do. In order to keep that from happening, strong stands will have to be taken. People will need to be willing to be accused of being strident and harsh. Certain overtures will need to be opposed or championed. I understand that. I hope to contribute whatever may be helpful and carefully avoid being counterproductive. Most of all I hope to, along with our Lord’s church, be more thoroughly conformed to Christ.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Summer Reading

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks
I’m a few chapters into this and am already hooked. It is the story of how these two men, so different from each other, found a common cause in the defeat of tyranny. The author also demonstrates the power of ideas when they are clearly and compellingly spoken and written.  

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees
I’ve read the first chapter. Already the author is exploring the origins of the antisemitism which fueled the Holocaust. What is emerging is the troubling portrait of a sophisticated and resilient people who allowed themselves to accept or ignore unimaginable evil.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King
My plan is to begin digging into this by July.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert Caro
I began reading this in early May. It is the first of Caro’s three-volume masterpiece on the life of Lyndon Johnson. If you are wondering whether Johnson’s life is all that interesting, I understand. I had the same suspicions. But interesting would be an understatement. This is a thick, dense and utterly readable book. I look forward to each night that I am able to open this one up. It is shaping up to be one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I have had in a long time. 

In Search of Churchill by Martin Gilbert
I have never attempted to trek through Gilbert’s massive 13 volume biography of Churchill (yes, 13 volumes). In this book Gilbert recounts his thirty year trek to understand his subject. Along the way Gilbert provides a look at Churchill through the eyes of fellow statesmen, soldiers, correspondents, and close associates.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Rethinking School Contractual Pledges after the Maddi Runkles Case

The MoS team just finished a prerecording discussing Heritage Christian School’s handling of the teenage pregnancy of Maddi Runkles, a senior with a 4.0 grade point average and the now former president of the student council. It will air on June 14th. Maddi, along with the rest of the students at Heritage, signed a contractual pledge that she would abstain from premarital sex, drugs, and alcohol. So the pregnancy reveals that not only did Maddi sin by having premarital sex, she also broke her pledge to the school. 

Runkles is repentant for her sin. She is a young woman who professes Christian faith and is active in her church. She asked her school board for forgiveness when she confessed her sin and revealed her pregnancy. One understandable way the school reacted to the news of her pregnancy was by stripping away all of her leadership positions. Being that this is a Christian school with high moral standards, I can see how a moral failure like this would disqualify her for a time from leadership in the high school. But the further actions of the school seem beyond the scope of how to treat a repentant young woman who is taking responsibility for her actions. She was not allowed to be on the school campus at all during her pregnancy. This means that she could not even attend her brother’s games, she would have to complete the rest of her class work at home, and although she would receive her diploma, she could not walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony. She has, however, after confessing her sin to the whole student body and asking for forgiveness in great humility, regained the right to attend her classes and I think attend her brother’s sports events as well. But she still cannot walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony. 

We discuss all of this on the podcast, so I’m not going to go into all those details here. But there was one thing that we brought up during the podcast that I would like to continue to discuss, and that is this contractual pledge that the students sign. This is nothing exclusive to Heritage. Many Christian schools require students to sign such a pledge. On one hand, it makes sense to want to have an official way to distinguish a Christian school and show that they are serious about moral behavior. Many parents send their children to Christian schools because they expect them to uphold Christian morality. Of course none of us want our children to be engaged in premarital sex or in the use of drugs or alcohol. It’s good to see that school administration actively promotes making good decisions.
However, I’ve never been comfortable with these kinds of school contractual pledges, and this recent news of how it was enforced with Maddi Runkles made me want to question the function and effectiveness of them. I’m all for a school promoting purity. But these pledges, and the way they are enforced, go beyond what a healthy church even requires from its new members. In the OPC, we do take vows to join the church, which are solemn promises. Here they are:

Vows of Church Membership

1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?

3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?

5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

Vows Church Members Make When a New Congregation is Organized

In reliance upon God for strength do you solemnly promise to walk together as a church of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God and the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?

Notice that we are confessing important elements of our faith here, including the fact that we are sinners. We hate sin, and fight to live the life of faith and obedience according to our confession of hope in the Lord. Fellow members also vow to help us. The ministry of the church serves us by the appointed means of grace as we are being discipled and sanctified. We don’t sign a paper listing particular sins that we promise we will never commit. That’s pretty reductive. But, there is a mode of discipline set in place under the shepherding care of our elders for the aim of the glory of God and our restoration.

And that’s the thing about these signed school pledges: they validate condemnation of particular sins without providing a way of restoration. They don’t promote repentance. They leave a teenager in their shame because they are immediately cut off from their “Christian” community. And when we are talking about Maddi Runkles’ case, we are reversing over 2,000 years of Christian influence on the transformation of the moral sanctioning of sexual morality from the category of shame to sin. Runkles’ growing teenage belly is a shame to the school and its “Christian” ethics. But the power of the cross tells us that Maddi isn’t permanently shamed. Christ has pursued her, and through her faith and repentance his blood covers her sin. She is restored. Both her body and her soul have dignity and honor. 

Yeah But…

Even if the institution says, “Yes, you are forgiven, but these are the consequences you signed onto,” this highlights my very issue with such a contractual pledge. By having students sign such a pledge, the sexual sin all of the sudden becomes an act that she is committing primarily against the school. Maddi Runkles, and this horrifies me, went before her student body tearfully confessing her sexual sin and asking for forgiveness. What is the school forgiving her for—committing the sexual sin or for breaking her pledge? Because her sin was first and foremost against the Lord, and she has assurance that he has forgiven her. It would be one thing if she was caught having sex, drinking, or using illegal drugs on school property. Public schools would also be handing out the consequences there. That would be a public, criminal act within the institution. But that wasn’t the case. And yet even Maddi’s tearful confession and repentance was not good enough to restore her to her Christian school after committing a private sin.

So what is the effectiveness of the contractual pledge? It isn’t to restore the sinner. It is to warn others. It tells the parents, this is a “clean” Christian community and your children will not be contaminated by these three sins. Or will they? What does this pledge and the executing the breaking of it communicate to the students at Heritage Christian Academy? Maddi commented that she knew, even while she was coming forward and confessing her sin, that other students had broken their pledge and were still lying—even after being caught. Many of them knew. The message is that what’s most important is appearances and the reputation of the school. Some sinners against the pledge will be able to work the system. A growing belly will never make it. This perpetuates an environment of sneaking and lying. But Maddi Runkles revealed the fruit of her confession of faith by repenting and treasuring life, resisting the temptation to abort and pretend like she was someone else.

Promoting Purity

What message does a pledge like this and the consequences of breaking it really proclaim about purity? Instead of purity being rooted in Christ and the proper ordering of all of our desires in offering to God, it becomes something you lose and never regain. It’s a physical status, a commodity that can keep you in a school, an act of abstention that can later be exchanged for a “Christian” husband. But purity isn’t only about abstention. It is preeminently about our communion with God that overflows to our other relationships so that we love as he loves. We love as he loves us. 

God is the one who has made a pledge to us in Christ. So rather than a contractual pledge, I would love to see Christian institutions asking how they can better promote this truth and how our communion with the Triune God affects our other relationships. And when Christians fall, I would love to see the culture in Christian schools be one where they help them come forward in honesty and lift them back up again, rooted in their faith. 

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Dr. Trueman Goes to Princeton

Congratulations are in order for our own Carl Trueman.

He will be the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University for academic year 2017-18.  It is part of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. The Director of the program is Professor Robert P George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. If you are not familiar with the work of Robert George you ought to be. He is one our finest thinkers on issues of religious freedom, religion in public life, marriage, and gender.

Carl is writing a book that is at least provisionally entitled Christianity and Its Discontents. The aim of the book is to help Christians understand why things like transgenderism have gained the upper hand in the public square and why religion, or at least traditional religious ethics, have become not simply intellectually implausible but morally offensive in the contemporary Western world.  

Carl tells me he will be drawing on a number of older authors (Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal) and also on key contemporary thinkers – Alasdair Macintyre, Philip Rieff, and Charles Taylor – to see how the understanding of human personhood as both a psychological and a social construct now dominates the cultural landscape – and, indeed, is even starting to pervade Christian circles.

This is an exciting opportunity. Protestants desperately need learned and effective voices addressing these issues in the public square.

I’m hoping to get a Princeton coffee mug or sweatshirt out of the deal. I’ve always wanted to pretend I was a Princeton graduate.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.