Monday, May 08, 2006

Presbyterians Together, No. 1

[Note: in the light of comments I have received, I've edited one of the paragraphs to express more accurately and fairly what I was trying to say. So, some of the comments made before I edited may not make sense.]

There has been a statement circulating for several weeks now entitled, "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together," which now has several signatures and which you can read here. There has also been at least one fairly frustrated response to this paper on the Ref21 blog, which you can read here.

I must say that I tend to agree with the substance of the response on the Ref21 blog--it does strike me that, for the peace, purity, and unity of the church, these issues should be settled in the courts of the church. After all, the resurrected Christ has granted his church authority to declare its doctrine. In the PCA, we have done that by claiming the Westminster Standards as our confession of faith and then by requiring our ministers and elders to subscribe to those standards in good faith. In addition, we require men to owe up to where they differ from the Standards and presbyteries are required to rule on whether those "scruples" strike at the essentials of the system of doctrine contained in the Standards. And, when we have challenges to our understanding of those Standards, as a church we have shown ourselves willing to examine those issues by way of a study committee and deliver the church's wisdom on those matters.

While this document doesn't appear to conflict with the idea that doctrinal issues should be dealt with in the courts of the church, it does feel as though there is an attempt to influence that future discussion through the invocation of a call to "charity." In times past, such appeals were very influential (note, for example, the 1923-4 Auburn Affirmation in the PCUSA). However, such extra-ecclesiastical appeals aren't the best or "Presbyterian" way of dealing with doctrinal issues--that way is to hear the voice of the whole church, guided by Word and Spirit, speaking to these issues.

At the same time, we must recognize that the issues at stake are important. Some of the issues under discussion concerning the nature of the covenant, election, justification, union with Christ, the nature of the church, and the sacraments. That is a pretty comprehensive list of "essential" doctrines and helps to explain why so many people are so worked up over these matters. There are two different "visions" (at least) at stake in these matters; we shouldn't pretend that the differences, at times, aren't substantial. And while I believe that the Missouri Presbytery committee report did a good job dealing with these matters, and should be received by the General Assembly as a definitive word on these issues, I also believe that it is the privilege of the church in its collective voice at the General Assembly to call for a committee to study these matters.

At the end of the day, what we really need are people who are committed to Presbyterianism--which means working issues through the church courts and its processes and expressing a deep commitment to remaining together in visible unity as we wrestle with difficult theological issues. Too many people these days jump ship to other churches, rather than listening to and heeding the church's voice (which they had promised to do in their ordination or membership vows). Only by honoring our own rhetoric about the centrality of the church in God's purposes will we truly be those who are Presbyterians together.


David Shedden said...

Sean, thanks for another interesting post alerting me of another movement in the Reformed Evangelical world. Isn't this just another example of the fragmentation within our community? Our evangelical church structures (especially Presbyterian structures) simply cannot cope with our fast moving world. Movements and conferences that deliver statments, like Together for the Gospel, simply illustrate the problem. (I am sure you are aware of the blogposts reacting to T4G's recent statement.) And yet, all the people involved in these things are 'churchmen'!

Are we not beyond the tight organisational unity that defined 18th and 19thC church? I think we are beyond any meaningful confessional unity. The debates over the doctrine of justification, and the supposed confessional stances of seminaries bear this out, I think. The two recent articles on Ref21 reviewing P Enns' book on the OT are interesting for this reason - isn't Enns a lecturer at Westminster TS? Did he not subscribe to the Confession? And yet his work has been severely criticised by Ref21, to the extent that an uninformed reader would question whether Enns is 'Reformed evangelical'.

Sorry for the rant, but I do find myself a bit at sea at the moment when it comes to church - in the Scottish context, the Church of Scotland has been unable to define the 'fundamental doctrines' of the Christian faith since 1929, and the free Presbyterian churches have splintered over interpretations of confessional statements. America simply adds a well developed evangelical parachurch level to this fragmentation.

Patrick Miller said...

Sean. Thanks for a great update post to this seemingly inevitable clash. I was curious as to your opinion on how TE Myers name can at the same time be on the MV report and the Presbyterians Together petition/document considering Carl's response that the two affirmations (by virtue of the MV report being a court document in line with confiessional interpretation) are mutually exclusive? Your post indicates that you see these two documents/affirmations as either/or proposals as well.

Does the trending of this controversy suggest a future fracture/break within the PCA?

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Patrick:

I'm not sure how Jeff Meyers would react to your question; I think perhaps you should ask him that question. I don't think they are mutually exclusive--one is a church document that has been sent to the General Assembly as an overture (at its April 06 meeting, MO Presbytery approved an overture with the report at the heart of it), the other is an extra-ecclesiastical document that has no force of church law.

I actually think that the large majority of the church wants no part of the FV positions; and so, no, I don't think there will be a future break in the PCA.


Sean Lucas said...

Hi, David:

I can understand something of your frustration in your context. But don't despair. I do believe in the church and in Presbyterian polity; and above all, I believe in a God who can bring revival and renewal to nominal and wayward children. And when we believe in a big God who can work big redemption, then anything is possibile! In the mean time, we need to work while it is still day--these internet debates and flare-ups are nothing compared to the life-changing Gospel that transforms real-lives in my own congregation. So, don't give up hope!


pduggie said...

"In virtue of the church’s mission, we purpose together to seek truth, all the while bearing patiently with and listening carefully to one another. We thereby seek to resolve our differences in the bonds of peace and unity, as is befitting those who confess the name of Jesus Christ, seek to live the Christian story, and work to advance his kingdom."

It doesn't seem to me that such a statement rules out the use of courts. Are courts NOT a place where patient listening takes place, or a place where the church seeks to resolve differences in the bonds of peace?

Maybe I'm confused.

Justin Dombrowski said...

I've seen the document. I think your concerns should be allayed by its content. It really has at its core the desire to preserve agreement in the sorts of essentials you mentioned and premit disagreement in others with the goal of preserving unity. Nobody wants to reject presbyterian polity, but they do want to call those of us in the reformed tradition to lovingly and openly permit the diversity it historically has, even when we disagree.

But at any rate, please wait until you read it to come to a judgment. It was bad form for Ref21 to publicly smear something that has not been made public. They're out of control.

The document will be available for all to view soon at

Mark Traphagen said...

Greetings. I'm one of the first signers of Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together. I am a member in good standing of a PCA church and a student (M.Div.) at Westminster Theological Seminary.

I appreciate pduggie's quotation from the document, which I believe gives the heart of P&PT. It saddens me that it has been (unfairly) characterized as an attempt to "subvert church courts." It makes no call whatsoever upon church courts, to act or not to act. In fact, we would encourage any or all of the current hot issues before the PCA to be brought through the proper ecclesial courts as proper authority deems prudent and necessary. The document merely calls for all Presbyterians to exercise Christian charity and consideration as we work through these difficult issues. We saw it as a sad but necessary call to make because these issues are already being tried and judged outside the proper courts, particularly on the Internet.

Our call is not a call to silence anyone, nor to subvert any proper due process. Rather it is a personal committment on the part of all of us who sign to approach our brothers and sisters with the respect and benefit-of-the-doubt until proven otherwise that is our debt of love in Christ.

Mark Traphagen

Clay Johnson said...

As you read the text of the document do you think it "tr[ies] to prevent the church from" excercising its right, and indeed duty, to "declar[e]doctrine"? Is this document an attempt to "deal[] with doctrinal issues" that are instead the proper purview of the church courts?

That is, do you think the text of the document advocates avoiding full consideration by the church courts of what constitutes the doctrine of the church?

If not, do you think the tenor or the context of the document seeks or tends to accomplish the same?

If not, do you think that the identity of some, many, or most of the signatories necessarily implies the same?

I guess I read the document as

(1) stating that some level of acceptable diversity on the listed issues has historically been established within and by presbyterian polity, and

(2) advocating that when the "gathered presbyters" gather to make their "judgment[s]" it is important for them to be committed to seeking truth, bearing patiently, listening carefully, and resolving differences over what is hostile to the system as a whole or strikes at the vitals of religion "in the bonds of peace and unity."

To me, the bonds of peace and unity imply faithful submission to the processes of Presbyterian polity and their results.

Yes, these issues are very important.

Yes, it is the privilege of the church in its collective voice at the General Assembly to call for a committee to study these matters.

Yes, we need people "committed to working issues through the church courts and its processes and expressing a deep commitment to remaining together in visible unity" both in the process AND once actual judgments are reached.

We need the confidence that God is faithful to His own Word, and that He expresses that faithfulness through the outworking of the ecclesial polity to which we have bound ourselves in mutual submission and trust that the polity itself is faithful to His Word.

Thanks for your fine post that states many of the truths unstated in the document at issue. The question is whether the document is really about those truths, and unfortunately the cynics' answer (not necessarily yours, Dr. Lucas) appears to be, "It depends on who you ask."