Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Should We Hold All the Truth with Equal Tenacity?

Short answer: We should not.

Long answer: Picture a man living in a city-state. This man is opposed to two things currently against the law: smoking in public buildings, and human trafficking.

There are several groups in the city, working for change. One group thinks it is wrong to ban smoking --that it ought to be up to the business owners, and not the city, to make that determination. The other group is working to make human trafficking legal.

The man who opposes both --should he equate the two issues? Should he be at every city council meeting arguing, "Smoking in public is a tantamount evil to human trafficking." Should he spend his fire on both issues?

To my fellow PCA conservatives: not all issues are created equal. Yesterday, at Presbytery, tearful arguments were made that the PCA was founded to stand against two things: alternate views of creation days, and prohibiting women deaconesses.

Really? Because if I thought those were the issues behind the PCA's founding, I would have stayed in the RCA, thank you very much. I thought the issues were, oh, I don't know, the inerrancy of Scripture, the resurrection, the doctrines of grace.

It is a sad character flaw to treat all issues as if they were equally ultimate. B.B. Warfield, the champion of inerrancy and doctrinal fidelity, believed in deaconesses. J. Gresham Machen, the champion of the fundamentals and truth of Scripture, was not a 6/24 man. Neither was Charles Hodge.

The truth is: we are losing the battles for what is important by fighting battles over what is unimportant. And, quite frankly, it is tearing at the fabric of the PCA.

I will fight battles. I am involved in one now, over an issue that I believe pertains to the gospel of free grace itself. But, that is an important battle. Far more important than these little ones that invite scorn and derision, and drive thoughtful men away from, and not towards, the conservative cause.

God help us all.


  1. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."

    While this poem is reflecting back upon a (literal) World War, and you and I are only commiserating about one particular season in the life of one particular denomination in God's Great Big World and Great Big Church, still my fear for us is precisely this, "The centre cannot hold."

  2. Hi Ken,

    I disagree for a number of reasons brother.
    1) Dick Gaffin used to analogize the process of shedding doctrines that were non-essential to "skinning an onion". We can both agree that the inerrancy of scripture is at the center of the onion and the deaconess issue on the outside, but once you remove the outer layers, the layers that were closer to the center now become outer layers themselves and less important.
    2) We can't go on with a mixed polity. I couldn't serve in most of the churches in NY Metro because I don't believe in women deacons and they couldn't serve in my church for the same reason. We have effectively created sub-denominations with different criteria for ordination. This can't continue. Eventually, as in the case of the SBC church up the road from me, we'll have congregations forcing out orthodox men because they refuse to have female officers.
    3) The current conflict in the ARP, the free-fall of the CRC, and the difficulties of the SBC in getting the genie back into the bottle should be all the argument we need that theological declension once tolerated inevitable spreads until the cancer becomes irreversible.
    3) History brother - it took the PCUSA 40 years to crack the women deaconess nut, but once that had happened it only took 8 to get women elders. The first step is the big hurdle. In a denom our size, if we elect women deacons, we WILL elect women elders. The CRC (our closest analog) claimed in the early 90s "Don't worry it's just a study, we'll never have women officers."

  3. Andy,

    I don't think the deaconess issue is unimportant. I think it is less important.

    Gaffin is right, in some sense. The tricky line is always between unity and uniformity. I don't think complete uniformity can exist in a fallen world and church. So, we all have a baseline for how much diversity we can handle. My line is to the left of yours.

    History is instructive, but not determinative. The CRC went crazy for a number of reasons, not least of which is the thoroughgoing nature of their Kuyperian hermeneutic.

    The RCA said, "We don't care what the Bible says, so let's ordain women." The CRC said, "The Bible says, "ordain women." Thus women's ordination has advanced at a far faster rate in the CRC.

    I'm a Banner of Truth Calvinist. Why? They keep the main things the main things. I am all in for the FV battle. But, perhaps I only have enough powder for one battle.

  4. Ken,

    Again you forgot the man's view on women being able to read Scripture in public worship.

    Just saying. Get all the details in there now.

  5. Barnes, I know that you and Andy Webb disagree with all "special music," so this isn't directed at you.

    But I am continually fascinated by the fact a woman can sing "How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them" from Handel's Messiah in worship.

    But for some reason she cannot read those words.

    NB: I am NOT saying I am in favor of women reading Scripture in gathered worship.

    I just find it interesting.

  6. I too find it interesting and contradictory.

  7. BTW, Yankee, do you recognize the man above?

  8. You are right Ken. While I disagree with you on the issue of women in worship, the prioritizing of the law is not only possible, it appears to be biblical.

    In Jesus' day the Pharisees had begun to prioritize the law and established the idea that the saving of a human life superseded all other commandments. Rabbinic literature is full of examples of Jews breaking OT laws for the sake of a larger ethic. Jesus appears to have continued/expanded on this idea.

    The parable of the GOod Samaritan comes to mind, in which the Priest and Levite follow the law at the expense of doing what is ultimately right. In some ways one of the messages of this parable is exactly your point isn't it? Jesus is not suggesting that purity laws for the priests are not important, but only that they are less important in certain situations.

    I am in no position to tell you what theological concepts should be weighted more or less in your denomination, but your examples are contentious ones. I am sure that you have plenty of ministerial candidates (and ministers) who do not hold to every single matter presented in your BCO. For me the question is not "do we" hold all truths equal, but rather "which ones" should we prioritize as a community.

    Take this for what it's worth as I am an RCA pastor who apparently does not care what the BIble says :)

  9. Thanks Rev. Dr. Cousin....

    You know I didn't mean that all RCA ministers don't care what the Bible says, but that the denomination itself has a more laissez faire attitude than its schismatic daughter.

    And that has actually helped the evangelical cause in the RCA!

  10. Radical Lamkin writes....

    Thanks, Ken.
    I, too am saddened by our ability to honor Christ as we FIGHT the good fight and our inability to honor Christ as refuse to fulfill the law of John 13:35.

    I oppose the ordination of women and I hold to a 6/24 view of Creation. But, I am not fool enough to think that my views are 100% ironclad. Nor am I fool enough to elevate these two areas concerns to the level of "first priorities."

    Seriously, how likely is it that a radical liberal is trying to infiltrate Miss. Valley Presbytery?

  11. Just two cents from a female who believes in a literal 6 days of creation but thinks maybe the earth had already fallen once with Satan so that darkness reigned over its formless mass (I know that all probably disqualifies me from having a valid opinion):

    I am Protestant through and through, but sometimes I wonder if the end of Protestantism, which started in protest, is schism after split after splinter. Where is "and by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" in all this? "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." This doesn't sound like the Church I know.

  12. Oh, Jennifer, where does one begin? ;-)

    The sad fact of church life in a fallen world is that it is always a trial. I preached on Acts 15 for presbytery the other day. That early on the church was having to struggle through truth.

    Look at the trouble Paul encountered in the various churches.

    Then there are the letters to the 7 churches, which I believe are pretty clearly both the problems of those literal churches in AD 90, and the struggles of every church throughout the ages.

    Sinners sin, even redeemed ones. And the best of men are shortsighted, very often.

    It's a miracle that any kingdom work happens.

    Which I think is the point. We fail. God succeeds.

  13. Well . . . *shrugs* whatever then :-)

    On a semi-related note, have you ever had opportunity to pass the Laodicea Baptist Church up between Holly Springs and I-55? I am not lying, that is the name of the church--the most honest church ever? Or just picked a name out the Bible?

  14. Ken,

    I finally understand what happened. Your sermon 'caused' the Presbytery to vote as they did. Or maybe it was God and His grand plan...or both...

  15. Dear Ken -

    I was ordained into the PCA when it was less than twenty months old. I would be happy if it did not grow either more liberal or more conservative than it has been. There has always been freedom to believe in literal 24-hour creation days or not, to allow women to read Scripture in public or not, to allow unordained deaconesses or not. That's been the way it has been for 30-35 years. I hear some people saying, "Those folks are trying to make the PCA more right wing than it has been" and others saying, "Those folks are trying to make the PCA more left wing than it has been." I think the right response to both groups is to say--keep things in the PCA as they have been. Don't become more restrictive or less.

    Tim Keller

  16. JVO B,

    Well, there is a church in Seattle called "Scum of the Earth Church," -- That's pretty honest, and even Biblical, cf I Cor. 4:13. Well, if they are part of the apostolic band.

    So, Ken, after reading Andrew's report of your presbytery meeting on the Aquilla Report, it doesn't sound like I could transfer into MVP. Wow.

    Chris H.
    Blacksburg, VA

  17. Ken,

    P.S. I worked through all this in seminary by an unpublished ms by my college PCA pastor, David Bowen, in Durham, called "John Calvin's Ecclesiastical Adiaphorism." I thought Bowen may have made things a little too neat, but I wish every PCA pastor could read it. For the most part, Calvin knew how to major on the majors.

    Chris H.

  18. Chris, we all know what a radical liberal you are. Don't even think of coming to MVP! It really makes me long for Blue Ridge Presbytery --I never thought I would say that. I wish I could get a copy of Bowen's work.

    Tim, as a center-right man who can live with a fair amount of diversity (at least in my own estimation) I tend to agree with you. The Golden Mean is a very hard thing to achieve and to maintain.

    It is a strange thing how I could go from being on the "right" in one presbytery to being on the "left" in another --I still marvel at that.

    Jennifer: That is classic. In South Alabama (near Jackson, AL, I think), is an old African-American church called, "Rock Babylon." I could never quite figure out that name.

  19. Andrew,

    For their sake and mind, I am glad the sermon came before the exam.

    Now I know exactly what sort of soil upon which it fell, generally speaking, of course.

  20. Ken --
    I'd never say the PCA (or any denomination) can strike the perfect Golden Mean. I'm saying that the PCA has had a historial 'mean' that has allowed the current breadth of ministries for decades. If we begin to now alter that mean, it will mean a drastic change. I don't want to make the PCA either broader or narrower. Having said that, the FV is (in my view) a new development, and so I agree that the PCA needs to address it. But the occasion of your post was this brother that MVP turned down this week. If his positions would have been accepted in the past in MVP but are not now, that's changing the historical mean. Nor would I want to change it in the other (broader) direction.

    Tim Keller

  21. Tim,

    Excellent point, and the very thing that drew me to the PCA (versus the OPC, no disrespect towards them) when I felt called to ministry.

    I wish I knew better how to combat the ossification that appears to be occurring in our presbytery. But, I fear it is just a symptom of increasing polarization out of fear --where positions actually harden and become more unreflective and extreme as if that in itself buttresses one against a supposed encroaching enemy.

  22. FYI, here's the brother in question's gracious response (on the blog of my in-laws' pastor):

  23. Ken,

    Not really knowing the story, but reading between the lines, is it possible that the opposition to this brother's exceptions were based on the larger picture of what is happening in the PCA, rather than on his specific case? You know, how folks decide we need to start taking a stand and here's the opportunity to do that?

    In other words, if it is true that these same exceptions have been granted in MVP before, this may be worthy of appeal. But again, I am not privy to the details.

    Chris H.

    P.S. Where *confessionally* did presbytery claim that women cannot read Scripture aloud in worship? I understand an argument can be made from I Tim and I Cor against it, but where does our Confession state it? WLC 156 just doesn't say it. How is that an exception?

  24. P.S. Ken, I would be happy to mail it to you (Kirstan got me a copy for my birthday years ago), upon a solemn covenant from you that you will mail it back when you are done. In the meantime, someone made use of it here:

    Man, that's quite a link! Just google "David Bowen Calvin adiaphora"!

    Are you going to GA, btw? I guess I could email you but that seems so 2000's.

  25. Chris,

    Thanks! I will be at GA. You mean you're actually going? I am on Overtures, interestingly enough. Okay, enough out in public. I'll email you!

    I can't remember just now how MVP confessionally disallowed that, but you are right --it is nowhere explicit (Take that, Andrew Barnes).