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Posts Tagged ‘RPCNA’


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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Recently new of the overture from Metro NY Presbytery has been burning up the internet and PCA pastor & elder groups on Facebook. I assume the same is true on Twitter and other social media.

Image result for phoebe in romansFor many this is a very controversial request for the General Assembly to consider this June in Dallas. The issue of women deacons has been churning since before I entered the PCA back in 2010. The issue has more layers than an onion, and just as many presuppositions that drive the (lack of) discussion. Sadly, the discussion quickly degenerates into accusations of being feminists or egalitarians, modernists, progressives etc. and people are told to leave for a denomination that permits women deacons. It is kind of wearisome for me as I grow older (wiser?) and read more John Newton. It is wearisome because we never really get to the root of the issue (those presuppositions) like the nature of ordination and authority, particularly in connection with the office of deacon.

My first decade in ministry was spent in the ARP, which allows each Session to decide if they will have women deacons. As a result, much of this overture is familiar with me. It is not forcing women deacons on churches, but permits those having that conviction to exercise it. This does not affect the courts of the church since women elders are not (and should not) be up for discussion. The issue of the courts of the church is precisely why most of these ‘women deacon-loving’ guys don’t go into denominations like the ECO and EPC as advised by some.

To the overture!

 

  • WHEREAS there has long been a sincere diversity of views among Reformed churches as to what Scripture says about the role of women in diaconal ministry…
  • WHEREAS conservative, complementarian scholars differ in their understanding of biblical texts that touch on the role of women in diaconal ministry, specifically 1 Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16:1…
  • WHEREAS there seems to be strong evidence that the word διάκονον in Romans 16:1 is used in a technical manner to describe an office Phobebe holds rather than in a general descriptive manner…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession does not specifically address the office of deacon…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession 20.2 does speak of Christian liberty and not unnecessarily binding the consciences of men…
  • WHEREAS it is in line with the historical spirit of the PCA to be a grassroots denomination and to defer to the judgment of local sessions in decisions regarding congregational ministry…
  • WHEREAS several conservative, reformed denominations within NAPARC allow women to serve as deacons (i.e. Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), and The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America)

The rationale for the overture begins with acknowledging that for quite some time there has been a diversity of opinion in the PCA and Reformed churches as to what the Scriptures teach regarding this issue. That is a key point, “what Scripture says”! This is not about culture, but about trying to rightly divide the Word.

The WCF in the first chapter recognizes the following:

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is an issue that is not as clear as whether or not women may be elders. To me that is crystal clear. Deacons is far less so, which to me means we should be less dogmatic. This is a topic that is not necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation. This hits the well-being, not the essence of the church. It is important we put this in the right compartment so we don’t treat those with whom we disagree as heretics or unworthy of our fellowship. This isn’t the hill worth dying on. But we can discuss it, challenge each other and see this in the ‘reformed and reforming’ category as opposed to the ‘faith handed down by the saints’ category.

Image result for r.c. sproulConservative complementarian scholars do differ on this question. Some live in some sort of denial on this issue. John Piper is surely not a feminist. R.C. Sproul was not a liberal (though he thought the PCA should not have women deacons because of its views of deacons and authority). There are others as well. For instance, you can read the OPC Minority Report on this issue. You can’t get more conservative and complementarian than the OPC (yes, it was a minority report and was not approved, but some there held to that view).

TImage result for john calvinhe rationale brings up Phoebe in Romans 16. It mentions that she may have held an office rather than merely being a servant of the church. This is because of a lack agreement in gender; Phoebe being feminine and the word for deacon being masculine. That great liberal egalitarian John Calvin (tongue firmly in cheek) says about Paul’s mention of her: “he commends her on account of her office, for she performed a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church…” (Commentary on Romans, chapter 16, verse 1). Chrysostom, according to the footnote, considered her a deaconess (as did Origen which isn’t so great).

In his practice, Calvin did have a separate order of deaconness to assist the deacons. Through most of church history they were separate, with the deaconnesses helping the widows, poor women and quite early instructing female catechumens prior to baptism. Some have mentioned this, and perhaps this is a better option that will result in less upheaval.

The PCA currently has provision for assistants to the deacons (9-7), both male and female to be appointed by the Session. I wonder how many churches utilize this provision. I suspect not many do. When I mentioned this as an option for our congregation, I heard crickets. It seems to be another layer of bureaucracy. And it reminds us of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott going round and round about assistant to the manager vs. assistant manager.

Women deacons, this rationale asserts, is not contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith. We are not violating our confessional standards if we do this. We are merely changing our BCO which while is also part of our constitution is about how we enact our polity, not the system of theology to which we subscribe. As a result, while there are theological presuppositions at play this is a polity shift, not a move to reject our Confession of Faith, or Scripture (as noted above). This is a different category of disagreement.

The issue of binding the consciences of others is important. Currently, those congregations which believe the Scriptures permit women deacons are not able to practice their beliefs and convictions. Unlike issues like paedocommunion, this is not a confessional issue and perhaps more leeway and charity ought to be practiced. A solution similar to that of the ARP “principled compromise” may be a good way to move. Congregations opposed to women deacons don’t have to have them. Their freedom of conscience is preserved, though that of an individual may not. This argument can cut both ways, and should be only a supporting and not a main argument.

Because this issue is not directly related to the courts of the church- who gets to exercise judicial authority- it is about how a local congregation goes about its ministry (women elders necessarily affect the higher courts and aren’t simply about how a local congregation functions), it should be handled as a local matter. If your church has women deacons, it doesn’t affect mine unless people shift from one to another on the basis of that decision. As a grassroots denomination, this may be best made a local decision.

While not addressing the ‘slippery slope’ argument explicitly, they do by mentioning other NAPARC denominations which have women deacons. Those denominations have not slipped down the slope. Those that did previously rejected the authority of Scripture (for instance the CRC which rooted their decision in the giftedness of women despite what Scripture said) or just jumped off (the PC(US) which permitted both women deacons and elders at the same General Assembly). Yes, there are some in the ARP and RPCNA who would like to get rid of them.  Not too long ago, however, the ARP affirmed their ‘compromise’. We cannot know what will be, but only what has been and is. And those denominations have had women deacons for decades without slipping down that slope.

That is the rationale for the requested changes to the Book of Church Order. I’ll address those changes in future posts.

 

 

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You will note two common letters in those initials, in sequence.  RP.  Both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, North America trace their roots back to the Covenanters who withdrew from the Church of Scotland so long ago because Arminianism and an Episcopal form of church government had infected the Church of Scotland.

What came up at the ARP synod was our future.  If you were to put this in courtship terms, we talking about spending some time getting to know one another.  Our hands probably haven’t even brushed accidentally.  But in the interest of biblical unity, we are talking.

The ARP has about 27,000 members which means it is smaller than the small city in which I live and serve.  We are over 200 years old and have not caved in to liberalizing forces.  On the theological map, I guess you could say we are between the EPC and the PCA.  As a pastor, I would be in the segment adjacent with the PCA.  We are found primarily in the Southeast, though we have a new Presbytery in Canada.  There are more ARPs in the Pakistani synod than here in the US.  There is also an ARP synod in Mexico.  Not bad for a small, largely rural denomination.

The RPCNA is about 6,000 members in churches that are primarily in the North and  Midwest.  There is a congregation in Orlando, FL.  Many of you have probably heard of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA.  It is their denominational college.  Their seminary is The Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary  in Pittsburgh.  (We, of course, have Erskine College and Seminary in Due West, SC.)  The primary difference would probably be that they are exclusive Psalm singers.  The ARP has a few congregations that sing only Psalms.  But this is the one issue that decides whether or not we ever consummate.  There will have to be lots of conversations before that ever happens.

I was duly impressed by their representative who spoke to our synod last week.  He was struck by the enormity of the issue, referring to the Gordian Knot.  But repeatedly went back to the biblical passion for unity purchased by the death of Jesus.

None of us knows how this will pan out.  But it would be great if there were fewer Presbyterian denominations out there- not because of decline, but because of union.  I think that would be a great testimony to the power of Christ, the love of Christ to lay aside peripheral issues when we have all the BIG issues in common (after all, we are Reformed and Presbyterian).  So, perhaps we’ll go out together and decide we really like each other, and can do more for the kingdom together than apart.  That would be a great thing.  But it may take awhile.

7 Years Later, an Update: The ARP has issued an invitation for the RPCNA to join them at Bonclarken for a joint meaning. I am not sure of all the logistics, but the ARP has agreed to only use the Bible Songs book and without instrumentation in deference to the convictions of their brothers. I say “their” since I am no longer an ARP pastor but serve in the PCA now.

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