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Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ By Matthew Barrett, Michael A. G. Haykin cover imageFor years now I’ve been reading a volume in the Crossway series “On the Christian Life” while on vacation. That means I read two a year. This summer I decided to read Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ in light of the many references to him at General Assembly, particularly in discussions of sexual sin.

Ironically, in Carl Trueman’s foreward he references the pastoral problems that we share with Owen and his time, including sex (a perennial problem though with different manifestations at times). These problems require the making of fine distinctions, which, Trueman asserts, are difficult to do when we are emotional. Debate ignores these distinctions, and I’ve seen much of this in my denomination in recent days. Trueman continues:

“Owen distinguishes between external temptations and internal. Thus one might pass a suggestive poster outside a shop that tempts one to have a lustful thought and yet resist temptation and not sin. Or one may be sitting at home daydreaming and start to have inappropriate thoughts about a neighbor’s wife. The one represents an external temptation; the other, internal.”

Both temptations involve our sinful nature, but in different ways. External temptation often hooks us because of our sinful nature and our particular weaknesses. But to be tempted in this way is not necessarily a transgression (entertain it, and you do). But if the temptation arises from inside, the source is our sinful nature. We are responsible for that temptation and have transgressed.

These distinctions have been flattened and ignored, even by people who bring up John Owen to prove their point. Yes, Owen was used on both sides of the Nashville Statement debate, for instance. It is like Calvin on the sabbath, you can likely find a passage (often without context) to defend your point of view.

John Owen on the Christian LifeI am neither a novice nor an expert on John Owen. Previously I’ve read Sinclair Ferguson’s book John Owen on the Christian Life (which I regret selling) for a seminary class taught by Jerry Bridges. I’ve read most of volumes 6 and 10 in his works. In particular his books on Sin and Temptation, and the Mortification of Sin, I’ve read more than once. In some discussions I’ve resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to those who suggest I read them as though I were utterly ignorant. I experience an external temptation that my pride has interest in pursuing but the grace of God taught me to say ‘no’.

This is a dense book filled with Owen’s distinctions and working through his treatises. It is highly theological. I have no problem with that at all. But this is a series “On the Christian Life”.

At the end of the book the authors refer to Of the Mortification of Sin.

“This small work encapsulates Owen’s vision of the Christian life as lifelong warfare with indwelling sin and how the indwelling Holy Spirit is the believer’s great strength in this war.”

That is the book I wanted to read! I wanted a book focused on how we live as Christians. This necessarily involves theology, and this was much of Owen’s focus. But I felt like they generally settled for the theological controversies and how Owen responded to them instead of how that theology was intended to play out in our personal experience- something Owen thought was the essence of the Christian life.

Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin are the authors. Here is the chapter listing:

  1. Being John Owen (23)
  2. Living by the Scriptures (35)
  3. Communing with the Trinity (53)
  4. Beholding the Glory of Christ (89)
  5. Crushed for Our Iniquities (121)
  6. Salvation Belongs to the Lord (145)
  7. Justification by Faith Alone and Christian Assurance (185)
  8. The Indwelling Spirit, the Mortification of Sin, and the Power of Prayer (219)
  9. Living the Christian Life as the Church under the State (237)
  10. The Legacy of John Owen (253)
  11. Owen as Pastor to Pilgrims (261)

The latter chapters which are more focused on how we live as Christians as the shorter chapters. Those focused on the theological controversies are the longest chapters. At different times Owen found himself engaging Roman Catholics, Quakers (primarily regarding the Scriptures), Socinians, and Arminians. These controversies were the impetus for many of his treatises. In some of the chapters, like Justification, the authors cover the divergent views of the Roman Catholic Church, Arminians and Socinians and offer Owen’s refutations of each. The problem is that those refutations are often very similar or even identical. You find yourself reading the same thing repeatedly. This makes for a longer book. A more thorough book, but a longer book.

We can see that the Christian life should be rooted in the Scriptures, pursuing communion with the Trinity, meditating on the glory of Christ, being assured of our justification because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement so that we mortify indwelling sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. But they don’t seem to cut to the chase and say that. I felt like I was lead to the water, but not helped to drink from it. I can make those connections, but the people most needing to read this may not be able to.

I guess this left me think this was a book for people like me- theologically oriented elders and pastors. Other volumes in this series, I thought, were more accessible and practical. Don’t misread me. I like the book, but didn’t think it was what it needed to be in light of past experience with the series. Make sense?

In the preface, however they say “while we do not pass over or ignore the weightiness of Owen’s theology, nevertheless, the book is written with a very practical and pastoral focus in mind.” I would beg to differ. I think it was lost in the weightiness of his theology.

One of the places where it is pastorally helpful is the distinction between union and communion (or fellowship). Our union is accomplished monergristically and does not change. Our communion is rooted in this union, but calls us to action so we enjoy this communion. It grows or diminishes along with our obedience as a result. We can lose our sense of communion, but we don’t lose our union with Christ. In union we receive the fulness of Christ with a particular focus on the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. In communion we return His love and delight in God.

One problem with losing sight of this distinction is a faulty understanding of faith and regeneration. Union is part of our effectual call. Deny that and you are left with conflating union and communion so faith precedes regeneration instead of fellowship.

The following chapter on meditating on the glory of Christ is one of the more helpful. They show us the role in turning to Jesus in affliction and temptation, as well as gratitude feeding our desire to obey. Here the main opponent was Socinianism since that alone denied the deity of Jesus which ultimately, as they say, unravels all of Christianity.

In the chapter Salvation Belongs to the Lord they focus on the relationship between predestination and the Christian life. Here is the distinction between decrees and commands, his secret will and his revealed will. Lose sight of this and you confuse providence with your moral duty. They balance divine sovereignty and human responsibility. This includes the distinction between duty and ability. Pelagianism and Arminianism generally conflate them so that our salvation ultimately rests on ourselves and not the Lord. Owen reminds us that ” the command directs our duty, but the promise gives strength for the performance of it.”

In this chapter we also see the distinction between regeneration and sanctification. Socianians conflated the two so that regeneration was an “ongoing process of moral transformation.” The Christian should rest in God’s work for and in him/her as the basis for our efforts in sanctification. We labor as new creations, men and women made new.

“To abandon the doctrine of perseverance is to unleash havoc on the Christian life. Without the doctrine of perseverance, there can be no assurance that the God who began this work of salvation will bring it to completion.”

Justification brings us to the distinctions of between the active and passive obedience of Christ. The active obedience was denied by the Socinians, Catholics and Arminians though in different ways. For the Arminians, there was an embrace of neo-nomianism. Faith was not the instrument of imputed righteousness but was imputed as righteousness. The new law was faith, so Christ didn’t obey on our behalf. The distinction between imputation and impartion is important as the first is connected to justification and the latter to sanctification. Positionally righteous in justification thru the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we become personally righteous as Christ imparts righteousness to us in sanctification until we become like Him in glorification.

There is much to understand regarding justification so we can live a healthy, God-honoring life as a Christian. But to err here is disastrous for the Christian life. More space could have been spent unpacking that. It is important to get this down before moving to indwelling sin, temptation and the mortification of sin. That chapter could have been longer, with more discussion of the process of temptation and the distinctions Trueman noted so that it would be easier to unpack the Westminster Standards regarding the movements of the corrupted nature as sin: condition or transgression? This plays into the discussion of “sexual orientation” and transgression. Clearly SSA is a lack of conformity to the law of God, but at what point does it also become a transgression of the law of God (temptation ==> lust including dwelling on it in our thoughts ==> commission or act)? We don’t hold to the Roman doctrine, yet …. I don’t want to digress too far. This is not simply about that particular sin. We all experience temptation, and that temptation must be mortified. That desire does not conform to the law of God and is “sinful”. But have I transgressed the law or sinned because I experienced a temptation? I see an important distinction there that others seem not to see.

“It is in the death of Christ that we find the death of sin.” Sinclair Ferguson

So, this is a theologically weighty book rooted in the controversies that Owen addressed. Those controversies remain important today. They do affect how we view the Christian life. Yet, they aren’t the Christian life. Do you get that distinction? In my opinion this book could have focused less on theology in some spots (more in others) and explicitly drawn out those pastoral implications for the Christian life. This book could have been more for the average person in the pews that the pastors in the pulpits.

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I’m grateful I made it GA this year. It seemed like it would be easy. Dallas is a non-stop flight from Tucson. This would be the easiest GA for me to attend short of a car ride. But then CavWife and I talked vacation schedule. I thought they’d join her family on the Jersey shore that week and and I’d just fly to NY to meet them. Nope, the Shore was the week before. I would fly to GA from NY meaning connections.

AImage may contain: grass, tree, plant, outdoor and natures we drove to her parents’ home, on a dead end in the middle of proverbial nowhere, we saw the road would be closed beginning Monday, the day of my flight to Dallas. There was a question as to at what point it would be closed: near the top or the bottom of the hill? Thankfully they started the work at the top and we could drive to the airport easily. I had a few delays for my connection so I arrived in Dallas an hour late. Thankfully, the airport was only 15 minutes away so that was no big deal.

If I’d ever get my bag. Baggage service was interminably slow. Painfully slow. But after finally getting my bag I used Lyft successfully for the very first time. Yes, I was a ride-sharing virgin. Rabin, my driver, was quite talkative. Hearing I was from Arizona he brought up that he’d just binge-watched Breaking Bad thinking it was in Arizona, not New Mexico. As an immigrant, you can pardon his geographical faux pas. A friend thought it was a docudrama. I assured him it was fiction but that the workings of the heart it portrayed were real.

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These needed to be in the assembly hall, not the exhibit hall.

Tuesday morning I participated in the Committee of Commissioners for Covenant College. We heard an address from President Derek Halverson about the state of the college. They have no long term debt. They are one of 5 ranked Christian liberal arts colleges. There is some concern about lower birth rates during the Recession and their impact on college enrollment. They want to build the endowment in anticipation of the end of federal plans like Pell Grants and student loans if the religious exemptions on the issues of homosexuality and gender are ended. They also mentioned an issue they brought up 2 years ago: that today’s students seem more emotionally vulnerable than in previous generations.

In the afternoon I attended two seminars. The first was Two Questions Every Church Must Ask by Mark Lowery (Director of Publishing, GCP). He provided a framework for analyzing, evaluating and setting a strategy for ministry. Those two questions were: What is their relationship to Christ and the cross? And What is their relationship to the church? That developed 4 groups of people a church seeks to minister to. Each has different needs and require different approaches. It was good, and helpful. It was also information overload. In my mind I went back to a Greek/NT prof who I swore was a fire hydrant of information.

I then attended The Politics of Ministry by Bob Burns and Donald Guthrie. It addressed the reality of how things get done, recognizing power dynamics and learning how to negotiate relationships and institutions. Thankfully they summarized the themes in their book of the same name. I would recommend that book. In the seminar they listed the differences between a relaxed/calm system and an anxious system. It is immediately obvious that the PCA is an anxious system. We are defensive and reactive, suspicious of one another. Grace seems but a dream at times. They also spoke about generational differences which play into some tensions in the PCA: Do what I say <=>  Listen to me. These would play out over the the course of the Assembly.

Tuesday night I sat with people at a picnic table talking. Meanwhile, a large number of elders were sitting around talking, smoking and having some whiskey. The scooters we’d seen available were used as the night wore on. People were enjoying the times of fellowship some seem to want to erase.

Wednesday morning I attended two seminars. The first was Mentoring Ruling Elders led by Larry Hoop and Richard Dolan, who is a friend of mine. This was actually geared more to ruling elders mentoring ruling elders. Older ruling elders should be helping younger ones to grow in understanding who they are and how to work within a Session. They talked about “on ramps” or doors into deep relationships, the qualities of mentors and ways in which mentoring takes place.

The second seminar was Relational Wisdom for Crucial Pastoral Issues by Ken Sande. He applied the principles of RW to church leadership. He spoke of leaders as necessarily relational, and marked by transparency and accountability. Ministry is intensely relational. When we lose sight of that, bad things happen. We aren’t simply applying theology to situations, but to … people. I saw a quote by Francis Schaeffer the other day that boils down to orthodoxy without love is a rotting corpse.

“Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is the ugliest thing in the world.” Francis Schaeffer

After lunch we had the opening worship service. The choir was backed by a small orchestra and the service included the Lord’s Supper. Out-going moderator Irwyn Ince preach a sermon on 2 Cor. 4:2-6 called Grind on for Glory. It was an excellent sermon. During the Supper, music was played during the distribution of each element, and then a song was sung before partaking of each element. Thankfully there was no mini-sermon before the Table as is frequently the case.

We then voted for a new moderator, electing RE Howard (Howie) Donahoe. He did an excellent job keeping us moving forward and applying the Rules of Assembly.

We then heard greetings from delegates from the RPCNA, OPC, URC, ARP, the Korean and Brazilian Presbyterian Churches. The URC delegate chided us regarding Revoice, and implied that if people really repented they wouldn’t struggle with SSA (at least that is how it sounded to me). The Korean delegates expressed similar cultural normalization of homosexuality. In light of the large number of overtures (requests for action) and how the Overtures Committee handled them as well as the number of minority reports (5) which requires more time, it was moved that we meet Wednesday night as well. Due to previously planned events, that was voted down.

We did vote to remain in the NAE (National Association of Evangelicals). We remain pretty much the only evangelical voice left in the NAE, and we don’t seem to be having much influence based on their positions. I was among those who thought we should cut ties, but good people like Roy Taylor disagree with me. Speaking of whom, he announced his retirement during the meeting, and search for a new Stated Clerk begins.

After dinner, we enjoyed fellowship with a number of elders over cigars and whiskey in the courtyard. In the courtyard the divisions in the church didn’t seem to matter. We weren’t arguing with each other, but enjoying one another’s company and discussing more personal matters.

TImage may contain: one or more people and shoeshursday began with an all-assembly seminar called Christian Civility in an Uncivil Age: Speaking the Truth in Love about how we interact with one another, particularly in the assembly and on social media. The panels were Sean Lucas, Irwyn Ince, Bryan Chapell and David Richter. They brought Scripture, the BCO and our confessional standards to bear on how we talk to and about one another. It was a great panel and discussion that sadly seemed to have been ignored by many as the “us/them” language on FB was present throughout the rest of General Assembly.

Thursday morning was taken up mostly with Report on Presbytery Records. The issue of the year seemed to be exceptions and requiring men not to teach their views on that subject. Good Faith Subscriptionism permits exceptions. Most of the time those are such that teaching on them is not a problem. Some, like paedocommunion, are commonly permitted but the pastor is prohibited from teaching their views. Calvary Presbytery expanded that area of prohibition. A long, confusing debate occurred. The bottom line is that this issue is best addressed through overtures addressing the BCO than RPR.

These populated the area for some reason.

We voted on the changes to the BCO that had been approved by presbyteries. The important ones like the marriage issue passed, but a few of lesser importance didn’t (the ones dealing with excommunication, counsel for discipline cases. Also passed was extending the notice time for a congregation meeting held to leave the denomination. I don’t get the opposition. It is just about the notice of the meeting. This is not about using property to hold congregations captive. There isn’t even a “period of discernment” like in some other Reformed denominations. I’ve seen congregations caught up in the moment and consider leaving over a decision that didn’t go their way.

Wednesday lunch was an RTS alumni lunch. We heard from 3 professors including Kevin DeYoung about the challenges in seminaries. Today’s students really struggle with social media and the resultant inability/unwillingness to study or express diligence.

Wednesday afternoon was mostly reports from the various boards like Covenant College, and Seminary, MNA and the rest. The one matter of significance was in the MTW report. After some complaints of gender/sex abuse they hired GRACE to investigate. About 10% of the women feel unsafe at times. There were instances of disparaging comments about women, some sexual harassment and abuse. They are taking the recommendations from GRACE seriously and seeking to implement them. We do need to take better care of the women and children under our care.

After dinner we had another worship service. This time the choir was backed by a small band including Sandra McCracken. The lead male vocalist had quite the voice. David Cassidy preach on Psalm 145, A Brief History of the Future. It was well-received. Many are still raving about it. He is dynamic in his style, but I thought it lacking some in substance. He rarely referred to the text. It was more motivational than exegetical & practical. My two cents, and it is highly unlikely anyone will ever ask me to preach at GA.

We then worked (yes, this is work) until midnight as we began addressing the Overtures at last. Rather than simply beginning with the requests for a study committee on matters sexual, some members pressed for a statement now so we can tell our people what the PCA believes on these matters. I thought our confessional standards still held. Scott Sauls brought up this pertinent fact, so I didn’t feel the need to speak as encouraged by others. In my opinion most of the presented statements lacked pastoral sensitivity.

WLC Q. 138. What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?
A. The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto.

WLC Q. 139. What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.

One TE mentioned that our debate is not doctrinal (speaking of the PCA more than Revoice since there is some breadth of theology there) but cultural. I would add generational. The dynamics of politics in ministry are evident to me. The PCA is an anxious system, and very defensive. How the different generations and cultures approach ministry differs as well. Revoice, for instance, is largely younger people who want to be heard in their struggle, to be open and receive help. Those who are (generally) older are focused on the doctrine and expect people to follow the traditional methods of ministry to homosexuals.

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

Some seemed to indicate that pastoral sensitivity was somehow opposed to doctrine. No, not at all. Paul here advocates for pastoral sensitivity or discernment. There are three groups in mind: the idle (rebellious), the fainthearted and the weak. They are to be treated differently. There are people who struggle with SSA in our midst who are not rebellious, but rather fainthearted and weak. To admonish them instead of encouraging or helping is to practice orthodoxy without love.

Two TEs who struggle with SSA spoke against approving the Nashville Statement. TE Johnson from Memorial in Missouri Presbytery expressed his impression that this statement didn’t just delineate sin but so focused on it that many with SSA will feel rejected and pushed out. Another TE mentioned that the sentiment of the group he’s in online, is that those people will feel unsafe in the PCA if the Nashville Statement was passed. It was passed. There are people like this who are greatly affected by our decisions, negatively, and wonder if they are welcome in our churches as a result.

There are key moments when we can choose whether or not to listen to those most directly affected by a decision. Sadly, in my opinion, we consistently refuse to listen to them. This doesn’t mean that listening determines what you should do, but empathy is in important part of being a pastor and elder. We struggle with this.

Additionally, the RPCNA’s Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis was commended to the denomination, but not referred to boards for instruction. It was already available on the PCA Historical Center website. A series of affirmations and denials was rejected. A minority report with a series of statements was also rejected which I thought was far superior to the Nashville Statement.

No photo description available.Longer term, a study committee on the subject was approved. Also approved was a change to the BCO to permit video testimony. An overture to permit additional RE participation in GA was rejected. This last one is another I wish we’d listen on. The overture maintained a majority of each board has elders. But some boards could greatly benefit from others with expertise. This need for only elders on the board of Covenant College, in my opinion, unnecessarily turns people off. I’ve talked to some of these people. How we practice our complementarianism, at times, drives people to egalitarianism. I don’t think only men, and ordained men at that, are capable of running a Christian college.

My flight Friday morning was at 9:30 so I did not participate in the worship service or business on Friday. I did not want to arrive in NY at midnight, and usually business wraps up on Thursday. But with the extraordinary number of overtures that didn’t happen. The two main issues were the approval of a study committee for domestic violence and sexual abuse, and the rejection of non-ordained members of the boards of the church as an expression of elder rule.

 

2020: Birmingham

2021: St. Louis

2022: likely Memphis

2023: possibly Orlando

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I was at lunch recently when someone asked if I’d blog on the overtures (requests for action) at the upcoming PCA General Assembly. He was curious as to what I thought of them. So, I’m taking a shot.

I’m not part of the National Partnership. I’m not part of the group that is critical of the National Partnership. I’m not a Conservative Cultural Warrior. I’m an Average Joe and part of the so-called “squishy middle” mostly because my middle is a bit squishy these days. I’m theologically conservative and confessional. I’ve also mellowed over the years and try to use discernment about what hills to die on, or kill others on. I’m hoping that’s maturity. Some would disagree. But I’m not important, and not a genius.

TImage may contain: one or more people and crowdhis year there are 48 (yes, 48!) overtures. I’m not sure if this is a record but it seems overwhelming at first sight. Good news, though. One of the more controversial ones has been withdrawn. I’ve already blogged on that one so I’m not touching it here.

While there are 47 remaining, most of them revolve around a few issues. As a result, I’m going to handle them under those issues.

Ruling Elder Participation

2 Overtures are attempting to increase participation by Ruling Elders (RE) at General Assembly. As a denomination we hold to the parity of elders though we distinguish between Teaching Elders (TE) and REs. The E or elder part is what matters. We want both engaged in the life of the denomination, and not just the local church.

Our Book of Church Order (BCO) does call for equal representation on GA committees (14-1.9). Overture 1 asks to amend 14-2 to increase the number of REs allowed to represent churches at General Assembly.

I will vote NO on this. The issue, generally, is not enough men allowed to attend but not enough REs able to attend. Men work and have families. Taking vacation time to go to GA is an obstacle for many men. In two decades of ministry I’ve only had an RE do that once. Early in my ministry, a retired Naval officer regularly attended Synod (the ARP version of GA). As an TE, I’m expected to go. For REs it is a huge sacrifice to go.

What this would permit is larger churches to be overly represented at GA. Since churches are supposed to help defray the costs of attending, the larger the church the more men they can afford to send. This means that such churches, which generally send more TEs, can also send more REs.

This may increase participation by churches geographically near that year’s GA, but the same issues of vacation and cost apply.

We seem to have confused parity with participation. In other words, we think that unequal participation means we don’t actually have parity. We risk making an idol of RE participation as we focus on endless ways to increase it.

A (possibly) better solution is represented by Overture 27. It requests we study remote voting for General Assembly. It cites the costs to attend which place a burden on smaller churches, and the lack of RE participation.

The technology exists to view remotely. We already stream the proceedings. Perhaps there is a way to vote remotely while we vote electronically at GA.

This will help TEs who are in smaller churches, and churches with multiple TEs for them to watch and vote. REs who work should not be doing this while working. It may get some men who are retired engaged. I suppose this is worth looking at, and I might vote YES. Would we charge those men the full registration fee?

Covenant Theological Seminary

Overture 2 seeks to develop a plan to make Covenant independent. It recognizes that it can’t happen immediately. It seems to imply that CTS wants to be independent. Rather I hear elders complaining about CTS and its perceived liberal views. Some want to be done with them and this overture will appeal to them.

I have not such desire for us to be free of CTS. If they wanted to be be free of us, I’d consider this. But they don’t, so I’ll be voting NO on this.

Corporate Prayer at GA

Last year some were offended by some of the language/topics in the corporate prayer and worship at GA, particularly at a separate time of prayer prior to and for GA. Corporate confessions of sin will inevitably include some sins that a particular person is not guilty of, but a community is. I have no problem confessing our sins and the sins of our fathers, as we see in Nehemiah. I‘ll vote NO to this.

Issues Related to Sexuality

Overture 4 is the first of a large number of overtures (11) touching on sexuality. This and Overture 22 want the PCA to adopt the Nashville Statement that was produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

I’ve read thru the statement a few times. It is generally acceptable. However, I share the concerns expressed by Todd Pruitt. This statement was produced by a parachurch organization, not as the result of a denominational study committee or cooperation between like-minded denominations (similar to an ecumenical council). CBMW also has the baggage of affirming the Eternal Submission of the Son, which many (including me) view as a heterodox view of the Trinity. I’ll vote NO if these two reach the floor.

Overture 11 is the return of an overture from 2018. Last year they wanted us to adopt the RPCNA’s Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis. This year they want us to “commend and distribute it”. You may notice that the link above is from the PCA Historical Center. This document has a good reputation. I’ve been wanting to read it. But the Overture locates it in their minutes for distribution. There are practical problems at work here, not theological ones. Because it is readily available, including on a PCA website, I will likely vote NO.

Overture 28 is a series of affirmations and denials regarding homosexuality. Some of these call out for clarification or nuance. For example, the denial that “unnatural sexual orientations are fixed, permanent, and unchangeable.” Some people experience orientation change and some do not. Does this mean we say those who don’t aren’t truly converted? This creates pastoral problems. I will likely vote NO as a result.

Three overtures request study committees to address these questions and provide pastoral wisdom. I think we should study this and identify the areas we all agree upon, as well as those we can disagree on as well as those we should not disagree. We should also help churches sort thru the best ways to pursue evangelism and discipleship of those who struggle with SSA or gender identity issues. Surely the RPCNA document would be part of the material studied. I would vote YES on forming a study committee to help us better understand the implications of not only sexuality but also the gospel for ministry to people in these areas. We do need to identify the boundaries more clearly and define terms more clearly (and use them more consistently). The online discussions among elders have demonstrated how necessary this is. The fact that the Central Carolina and North Florida reports disagreed on the question of whether to be tempted is to sin indicates we need to study this.

Some want us to re-affirm previous statements on homosexuality. I have no problem with that. But I do think we need to spend time thinking about how to apply this theology to the very different social context we live in now. I think this is not enough. As a result, I will likely vote NO unless someone changes my mind.

Domestic and Sexual Abuse

Many of our members have been victims of domestic and sexual abuse. These are not simply problems out there in the world. We see scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Church, New Tribes Missions,Sovereign Grace Ministries, independent churches like Willow Creek and more. These are issues we cannot ignore.

There are 9 overtures that call for the formation of study committees. I’m sure that these will be pared down to one. I will vote Yes that we form a committee to examine these issues and how to prepare our churches to prevent, recognize and address these issues affecting “the least of these”.

Dissolving Pastoral Relations

Overture 5 seeks to amend BCO 23-1 to clarify the various pastoral relationships and how they are to be dissolved. I generally agree.

I’m conflicted, however, because I am no fan of the Assistant Pastor (not Assistant to the Pastor) designation. This change would clarify that the congregation is not required to accept or request the dissolution of the pastoral relationship. We speak of parity of elders and yet we treat Assistant Pastors as 2nd class pastors or elders. They are called differently, fired differently and are not on the Session of the church they serve. They can be invited to Session meetings (or not), and given voice but no vote. I have serious issues with this “class” of REs.

Since it is currently a designation, I will probably vote YES. I also probably need to start working on eliminating the Assistant Pastor distinctions, or make them temporary and less radical.

Eliminating Memorials

Memorials are notifications of the death of elders which often include their influence and activities for the kingdom and denomination.

Overture 6 seeks to eliminate them. The issue is that they cannot be edited, approved or denied. They need to be heard. Last year there was some controversy. One of the PCA founding fathers passed away, and his teaching on a subject was controversial and many (like me) think foundational to a heterodox view that is contrary to the gospel.

I’m not as concerned about the fact that Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave. We aren’t talking about graves here, but honoring others. The problem comes when a man was controversial.

I lean toward voting YES.

Non-Ordained Members of Committees and Boards

This is the return of an overture from last year. Two similar overtures reflecting the overture from last year.

This is a controversial issue. I hear about how elders are charged with the oversight of the church. Yes, they are.

However, in our congregations committees are not comprised only of elders. They contain unordained men, and women as well. No one freaks out (at least I haven’t heard of anyone). People understand there can’t be enough elders in a local congregation, or that we’d kill the ones we have by overworking them. People understand that committees report and recommend. They are not to act unilaterally but are under the authority of a particular church court.

When it comes to presbytery and GA, people suddenly become adamant that only elders serve on committees and boards. These overtures provide for a minority of seats granted to unordained members. They are still committees and boards and are under authority.

If we ask elders to serve on local congregation committees, presbytery committees and GA committees we will likely overwork them. The REs in my congregation are very busy with work, family and church responsibilities. To serve on a GA committee would include travel to meetings, and how are they going to do that while they work, especially since we want them to show up to GA too?

Some boards and committees could benefit from members with particular expertise. There are times when REs (and more so TEs) lack the expertise necessary.

Like last year, I will vote YES.

Abortion

As our nation continues to polarize on the issue of abortion and the boundaries being pushed to birth (and beyond) in some states, there are 2 overtures regarding abortion and the sanctity of life. One requests reaffirmation of past statements. The other requests strengthening our statements. I would vote for either. It is important that Overture 48 includes not only the heinousness and guilt of the sin but also the sufficiency of grace.

Miscellany

Overture 9 wants to update the rules for filing cases. I’m not sure what they have against faxes and email, but rejecting the use of modern technology seems to be a big mistake. Okay, faxes are outdated. Why are we prejudiced against email? I’ll vote NO.

Overture 12 addresses floor nominations. Floor nominations would be accepted only if there were no nominations properly filed ahead of time. I have no clue or strong opinion.

Overture 17 seeks to allow video testimony of witnesses. At times they are far away. Video testimony, like using Zoom, allows people to see their accusers and cross-examine them. I’ll vote YES.

Overtures 15 and 18 seek to change the Rules of Assembly to end contradicting actions by overtures. They look identical at first glance. I’ll probably vote YES, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

Overture 23 is another request for the PCA to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals. There seems to be little theological and political alignment (they have embraced social issues in a way that sounds more SJW than simply biblical justice) with the NAE. We have little to no influence on the NAE and I will vote for us to leave.

Overture 33 wants to add a question affirming the Trinity to the membership questions in BCO 57-5. I’m torn. I agree that one should affirm the Trinity to be a member of a PCA church. While I was in the ARP they had a question affirming the Scriptures as the written Word of God, the only perfect rule of faith and practice; and another affirming the doctrines and principles of the denomination, as far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God.

We should be clear about our doctrinal boundaries as a denomination when it comes to church membership. We should be clear that we recognize the Scriptures as authoritative. I’m not sure we need to specify the Trinity while ignoring what supports it- a doctrine of Scripture. I lean toward voting NO as a result. I’d prefer questions addressing our doctrinal system rather than a specific doctrine.

At this point my brain is starting to hurt.

Overture 40 wants sessions to acknowledge and support women leaders without delay or divisiveness. Our study committee concerning women and ministry in the local church was controversial for some. This overture is not about ordination but encouraging women to use their gifts. It wants us to remember that focusing on what they can’t do (or spending much time debating that) often means women feel like 2nd class citizens in the Church. During that GA I interacted with some women I know who were there, and it was painful for them to have things lorded over them (that’s how they feel fellas). This is to provide some counterbalance. It is unfortunate we need to do this, but I think we do. I’ll probably vote yes.

Overture 41 is a swing in a different direction. They want the Committee on Mission to the World to only permit ordained elders to serve in the roles of team leaders, regional directors and International Diriector. This is in response to CMTW guidelines which include a section on valuing women in MTW. They think these guidelines hinder women by creating a crisis of conscience. I don’t understand this at all. If you have a crisis of conscience, don’t serve in a particular role. I don’t know enough about this to have a very solid opinion on the matter. People seem to have very different ideas about the meaning of ecclesiastical authority. Some are very broad, and others narrow.

Update on 41: I’ve heard from someone who struggled with his conscience as a man under the authority of a woman in a position of authority over him as he served as a missionary. There is no problem with a man in the office being under the authority of a woman regarding accounting or other positions. The issues come into play on the field as missionaries and evangelists are under the authority of a female regional director. Would we want a pastor under the authority of a female bishop? Perhaps that is what this looks or functions like and needs to be reexamined by MTW. This is a difficult one for me to sort out. We have to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the men and women involved.

And so it goes. Now we see what happens.

Keep in mind when you hear the results in a few weeks. Voting against the overture regarding the membership questions doesn’t mean you disagree with the doctrine. Too often I hear those comments: we aren’t committed to x, y or z as a denomination when the issue is not the doctrine or conviction itself, but the mechanics or implications of an overture. Don’t over-react if an overture you love (or hate) fails (or passes).

 

 

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While I was in a Presbytery meeting our denomination “dropped” the study report on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church that is going to be presented at General Assembly this June. I’ve seen some very critical statements about this report. I wonder if we are reading the same report. I am not done reading it, but so far I’ve found it to be edifying. In light of that, let’s look at the first chapter which serves as an introduction.

The report begins by laying out their commitments and affirmations that form the presuppositions of our denomination and this study report.  This includes:

  • Confessional commitment to the complementarity of men and women.
  • The full dignity of men AND women as created in God’s image.
  • The Scriptures teach that eldership is comprised of qualified men (they embrace this “humbly and happily”).
  • Marriage should display mutually-edifying complementarity.
  • Male headship is to be expressed in sacrificial love to his wife.
  • It is expressed when a wife “welcomes her husband’s headship with respect”.

This means they are laying out the boundaries, biblical and confessional, that exist for our denomination and this study. The purpose is not to examine things outside of the boundary markers, or to change the boundary markers. The purpose is to examine questions that lie within these boundaries. Within these boundaries there are some differences of opinions. Another way of saying this (as I’ve said before) is that complementarianism is not a monolithic movement. There are a continuum of views that exist within the bounds of biblical and confessional complementarianism. These are the differences in view. The goal was not to ordain women elders as some have asserted (and have intentionally or unintentionally stirred up fear).

At least half of the adult membership of the church are women. How they can serve, and how we can empower them, are important questions to ask if we actually want to see them serve God to the fullest as God permits.

They note that in BCO 9-7, both men and women may be appointed by the Session to assist the diaconate in their work. There are elders in the PCA who think that the PCA should permit women to be deacons. Some others favor an office of deaconness which supports the diaconate particularly in its ministry to women. Some see this as a position, not a church office. Others have an unordained diaconate so women may be deacons. So, recognizing these big differences in opinion we ought to consider the question more carefully.

“The committee is not recommending any Book of Church Order changes.” page 2, line 44

Historically they note that the PCA was formed during a time in which the women’s rights movement was popular, and many denominations, including the PC (US), were beginning to ordain women to the office of elder (including teaching elders). The PCA affirmed complementarianism then and still does now. However, “members and ministers are asking how to equip, encourage, and utilize women in the church’s ministry in ways that are consistent with our confessional and theological commitments to complementarianism.” This, I think, is a worthwhile project.

I recently saw some of the Overtures that have been made to the upcoming General Assembly. One is Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery which calls for the dismissal of the study committee. The report responds to this overture recommending that GA answer it in the negative. It deals point by point with the objections (except that it has reported disturbed the peace in Westminster Presbytery which was vague- are they fighting among themselves or just in existential agony because we’re considering how women may serve within the boundaries of our biblical and confessional commitments?).

One idea put forth by the Overture is that it is improper for women to serve on voting committees since this might involve “having authority over men.” I’m confused. Don’t women vote in congregational meetings? While we don’t recognize it as a court, congregational meetings function like a court and decisions are made by vote, like whether or not to call a particular man as teaching elder. Additionally, as the Study Report notes, committees made recommendations that must be voted on by the Assembly. It has no authority, the authority lies with the Assembly to approve or deny the report  and its recommendations.

To summarize: this report is addressing questions within our denominational boundaries, and not trying to make us PC(USA)-lite. This study committee was properly called, and women may serve on such a committee.

May God use this process to further the purity, peace and prosperity of the Church (and churches) through this process.

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This year General Assembly was in Chattanooga, TN. This presented some unique opportunities for the PCA. Chattanooga is where New City Fellowship is, one of the far too few churches that is multi-ethnic. It is also the 50th anniversary of the events in Selma, AL (if you haven’t, WATCH the movie!).

All Presbyterian denominations have struggled with issues of race, particularly southern ones. There are a number of reasons for this. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Notable Southern Presbyterian theologians tried to justify race-based slavery that was the result of man-stealing (a death sentence sin in the OT and condemned in the NT as well).
  • The Southern Presbyterian church supported the Confederacy in the War Between the States. The Confederacy defended state’s rights, but one of those rights was to own slaves.
  • The Presbyterian Church refused to stand against the Jim Crow laws, and stand with their brothers and sisters of color for their basic human rights.
  • The Presbyterian Church did not protect the lives of defenseless and innocent African-Americans from racists individuals and organizations like the KKK.
  • At least one of our “founding fathers” has taught (at least) proto-kinism which is a false doctrine that rejects the reality of the dividing wall of hostility being torn down in Christ so that the vision of Revelation 4-5 is not just eschatalogically true but intended to be ecclesiastically true today.
  • Many of our churches have tolerated kinism.
  • Many of our churches and private schools were founded to avoid the move toward integration in some churches and in public school districts.

A little over a decade ago, the PCA admitted the sins of our fathers with regard to slavery. But there are other issues that keep African-Americans, who remember the history better than we white people do, out of our churches. It is time for us to address these additional issues.

There were many things I found encouraging about General Assembly. For instance, the 3 worship services were all very different. Prior to Bryan Chapell’s excellent sermon from Psalm 32, the music was very traditional including a choir, organ/piano and strings. The second service was led by the worship team of New City including James Ward and some incredible singers, both black and white, in what was a very different vibe for GA. Then their pastor Kevin Smith delivered a powerful sermon on the 6th commandment tying it in to Southern Presbyterians failure to protect the defenseless and innocent in those dark days we want to forget about. It is only my fourth PCA General Assembly but Kevin is the only African-
American I’ve seen preach so far. (During my years in the ARP I don’t remember any African-Americans preaching to the synod.) In the final worship service, I think the worship team from Lookout Mountain lead us in a southern folk style that was quite interesting. The sermon by Rankin Wilbourne on Union with Christ was very good as well. Unfortunately, during the liturgy there was a line that created some offense by thanking God for the particular founding father who paved the way for kinism.

Bryan Chapell led an assembly-wide panel discussion entitled How to Advance Ethnic Outreach and Ministry in the PCA. We heard from 4 brothers: 1 African-Americans, 1 Hispanic-American, 1 Asian-American and 1 Caucasian who works among the generational poor. It was a much too short conversation though a good one.

During the seminar times, there were opportunities for us to learn more about this subject. Lance Lewis lead one called Moving Forward: Actively Engaging Issues of Race/Ethnicity from a Biblical Point of View which argued for a proper ecclesiology that expressed the multi-ethnic character of the church. I also sat in on Duke Kwon’s Building a Racially Inclusive Church which was excellent as well. Unfortunately I missed Jemar Tisby’s seminar The Image of God and the Minority Experience. I bought the CD and plan to listen to it soon.

People could avoid these opportunities if they wanted to. But they could not avoid the personal resolution that was put forward by Ligon Duncan and Sean Michael Lucas with regard to our sins against our African-American brothers and sisters during the civil rights era.

Initial reports were that the Overtures Commission was quite divided on this issue. Before it returned to the floor they had met with some key members of the African-American Presbyterian Fellowship. The unanimous recommendation was to prepare a much improved version which would also include specific suggestions as to the fruit of repentance. This would allow time for those unaware of the history to learn, particularly from Lucas’ upcoming history of the PCA. There was also a desire for overtures to come thru the lower courts. In many ways they encouraged a year of reflection and repentance by our Sessions and Presbyteries leading up to next year’s GA in Mobile.

On the floor, things got … interesting. Some saw the need to do something NOW. I agreed with that sentiment. We do need a perfected statement with the kind of fruit we are looking to see. But we needed to start now. This discussion was long and heated. Parliamentary procedure once again made like more confusing and frustrating. If you go down the wrong path you can’t go back. There is no room for “repentance” with parliamentary procedure. One of the remaining founders of the PCA stood to speak. While he disavowed racism as a motive for founding the PCA, he confessed sins of omission during the years of the civil rights movement. This was very important.

What did happen after the vote was positive. First, the moderator opened the mics for a season of prayer, focusing on repentance. There were many men on their knees, literally, praying for mercy and for God to work in our midst to bring repentance and fruit in keeping with it. He initially said about 5-6 guys would pray at the mics. I lost track of how many men were able to pray at the mics. Someone (wink, wink) noted that we offended our brothers in our worship that very evening because we don’t listen to them and learn from them.

Then there was a protest of the decision which allowed those who wanted to do something now to register their names up front. There was a very long line of men wanting to register their protest. God is at work to deal with these issues. Hopefully within a generation we will be an integrated denomination filled with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in the pews and positions of power and responsibility.

I asked a friend about the ARP. I am delighted to say that they also have begun a similar process. The Theological and Social Concerns Committee has been tasked with this matter. There was no apparent opposition to this. May the Father heal these denominations for His glory.

Here is the text of the resolution:

Whereas, last year and this year mark significant anniversaries in the Civil Rights movement: 2014 was the sixtieth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education and the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and Freedom Summer, and 2015 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma-to-Montgomery March; and

Whereas, many of our conservative Presbyterian churches at the time not only failed to support the Civil Rights movement, but actively worked against racial reconciliation in both church and society; and

Whereas, the 30th General Assembly adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation that confessed its covenantal, generational, heinous sins connected with unbiblical forms of servitude, but failed to deal with the covenantal, generational, heinous sins committed during the much more recent Civil Rights era (cf. Daniel 9:4-11); and

Whereas, the 32nd General Assembly adopted a pastoral letter on “the Gospel and Race” that was produced under the oversight of our Mission to North America committee, but that also failed to acknowledge the lack of solidarity with African Americans which many of our churches displayed during the Civil Rights era; and

Whereas, our denomination’s continued unwillingness to speak truthfully about our failure to seek justice and to love mercy during the Civil Rights era significantly hinders present-day efforts for reconciliation with our African American brothers and sisters; and

Whereas, God has once more given our denomination a gracious providential opportunity to show the beauty, grace and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ by showing Christ-like love and compassion towards the greater African American community;

Be it therefore resolved, that the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize and confess our church’s covenantal and generational involvement in and complicity with racial injustice inside and outside of our churches during the Civil Rights period; and

Be it further resolved, that this General Assembly recommit ourselves to the task of truth and reconciliation with our African American brothers and sisters for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel; and

Be it finally resolved, that the General Assembly urges the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America to confess their own particular sins and failures as may be appropriate and to seek to further truth and reconciliation for the Gospel’s sake within their own local communities.

TE Sean M. Lucas

TE J. Ligon Duncan III

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Last year CavWife set the wheels in motion. She was envious that I got to spend time with some of our best friends from Florida. With Greenville the site for this year’s GA, she believed she and the kids should travel with me and spend time with some of our friends.

We tried various permutations. But like Jerry to Babu, it was looking like the wheels were just spinning, not going anywhere. I was not excited about the prospect of driving across the country for General Assembly, heading north for vacation and then driving back to the AZ. Not restful at all, and I had a bad back experience in April. Thankfully we found a flight deal that was only slightly more expensive than if we just flew to the Northeast for vacation.

We would fly into Atlanta, rent a van to drive to Greenville and then return to Atlanta to fly into Newark and begin our vacation. Sounds great, right?

The kids couldn’t wait. They wanted to pack about a week ahead of time. We had to keep putting them off. That is always fun.

But the magic day arrived. I had much to do to prepare for that day: liturgy for the entirety of my time away, most of my sermon prep for the week I got back … and so on.

We had an afternoon flight out of town, so we had a good lunch at home before being driven to the airport by a friend. We had a short layover in Denver that concerned me. We had 30 minutes to get from one flight to another with 2 car seats and 4 kids. I was losing sleep over this.

And then our flight out was delayed. And delayed again. This wasn’t good. But we were assured that our flight would be held since it was the last flight out of Denver for Atlanta and 17 of us were making the connection. Okay.

Though we left late, the flight was essentially uneventful. Thankfully our departure gate was not far from our arrival gate in Denver. We even had time to go to the bathroom since that flight was delayed. Soon we were in the air for the relatively short flight to Atlanta.

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I should stop reading blogs. But then I’d have less to say on this blog. Then again, who cares what I say.

Yes, I’m in a cranky mood. There are reasons, but not ones I want to share.

Will we fall for a lie too?

A number of people are of the distinct impression that the PCA should have issued a statement denying theistic evolution, or affirming the reality of Adam and Eve as special creations of God in His image. They believe the only way to confront the increasing popularity of this sub-biblical, and gospel-destroying view point is to issue a statement, hang a sign saying “not welcome”. There are some in the PCA who think this, and some outside the PCA who think this. I’ve even heard of a family that left the PCA because we didn’t make this statement.

As a member of the court who voted in the majority, I guess I take this a little too personally. I am not sure why this bothers me so much. Perhaps it goes back to why I’ve generally been in cranky lately. But there is the implication that either I don’t understand the gravity of the problem or don’t care about the problem. There is somehow the suspicion on the part of some that the PCA is moving closer to apostasy because we didn’t do something.

But we did. It is easy to look at the ruling, but not think of why people ruled. Some critics have stated why some of us voted the way we did- but still aren’t happy.

I get the seriousness of the issue. The issue of evolution was instrumental in my conversion. I am a young earth, 6 day creationist. I know this makes me a small-minded, caveman in the minds of some people. But I recognize that God’s Word is perfect (though our interpretations are anything but), and that science is not perfect. What they say today is not carved in stone because they always come up with new data, new methods of collecting data and new interpretations of data. It is foolish to think that the majority view of science supercedes Scripture. How’s that Ice Age predicted in the 70’s working?

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