Sunday, October 18, 2020

Diotrephesism

When I took ancient Church history in seminary, I had a hard time keeping all the heresies straight. (Not straightening out my own heresies: that's another story.) In historical theology, heresies are not identified by their doctrinal content, but instead by the names of the persons most identified with them. Therefore, instead of modalism (the belief that the three persons of the Trinity are not distinct, but instead are really just one person appearing in three different modes), we have Sabellianism. When I was asked to identify Nestorianism, Manicheanism, Arianism, Montanism, ad infinitism, I had to remember the historical figure, then remember what he taught, and then explain why it was wrong. While I have no problem explaining what's wrong with modalism, I'm not entirely sure what Sabellianism even is.

Since I've learned I can't fight the historical theologians, I've decided to join them and thereby go to my grave satisfied to have made life more difficult for future seminarians. Centuries from now, the twentieth century will be known for Diotrephesism, in recognition of him who desired preeminence and so would not receive the Apostle John (3 John 9). 

In my opinion, at the root of many of the controversies which consume confessional presbyterianism today is the fact that in the 20th-century struggle with liberalism, presbyterians lost their sense of denominational identity along with a grasp on the historical and Biblical reasons for our distinctives. That absence has led to a sort of faddishness, in imitation of the sin of Diotrephes, which emerges in two different ways.


Certain elders (especially teaching elders) do not see themselves as guardians and teachers of the presbyterian tradition. Because many of them came to a reformed understanding of the Christian faith from other traditions, they see themselves as set apart by virtue of study and continue to seek to set themselves further apart by further study. These tend to maintain traditional worship practices, but the liturgy becomes merely a setting in which they can use the sermon to position themselves as experts on all things "reformed." Wishing to be preeminent in the eyes of their peers, they keep up with the latest theological controversies emerging from the seminaries and set these issues before their congregations as though they were as essential as the doctrines on which our Confessions focus. This obsession with “theology,” when it comes over and against a focus on the simple Gospel of the Cross, stokes up much furor on the interwebs and feeds division in the Church.


Others in leadership, who have never been taught why our traditions are our traditions in the first place, worry that presbyterianism is about to become irrelevant. These keep a watchful eye on the latest developments in evangelicalism and seek to imitate them while keeping the preaching Calvinistic. In these circumstances, members are deprived of the riches of our presbyterian inheritance and the blessings of catechetical instruction. As evangelicals drift ever further into worldliness (in all its forms), this group may drift right along with them.


The discerning reader will observe that this faddishness does not necessarily lead to heresy, but it certainly produces division. Athanasius fought the heretic Arius with Biblical doctrine. In imitation of John, the beloved disciple, we must fight Diotrephesism with Biblical charity.


I believe we should respond by learning our confessional standards along with our government, discipline and worship, and the Biblical warrant for them. I believe we should be extremely careful in preparing men for ordained office and not be too hasty to lay on hands (1 Timothy 5:22). I believe we should strive to present and live out presbyterianism for what it is: the most Biblical form of the Church and the one which should most demonstrate to the world the Church as our Lord formed her to be.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Regarding "The Bible and Black Lives Matter"

  I was extremely disappointed by the article “The Bible and Black Lives Matter” in the September 2020 issue of New Horizons. The author writes to explain BLM to Orthodox Presbyterians, but as he introduces his theme he demonstrates a lack of understanding of the issues and terminology which inform it. In discussing whether the death of George Floyd represents an instance of “systemic racial injustice,” he objects that we cannot know the heart of the police officer who killed Floyd and, therefore, whether that man was racially motivated. At the article’s very beginning, then, there is a confusion between “systemic racism” and “individual racism.” This is unfortunate because the two are very different things: as all the relevant literature notes, systemic racism can exist in institutions and societies even when the individuals in them have no racist beliefs.

This error is distressing because it undermines the reader’s confidence in the author’s ability to explain BLM. If he does not understand a concept central to the movement, can he be relied upon to clearly represent anything else about it? This problem is doubly distressing because the reader looks to New Horizons for pastoral guidance on social, ethical and theological issues. Pastoral guidance founded on ignorance may be well-intentioned, but neither can nor should be trusted.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Towards a theory of Church names

 I remember the day in seminary when Scott Clark introduced the chapel speaker, a Lutheran pastor whose congregation was called "Beautiful Savior." "Why do the Lutherans have all the good Church names?" Professor Clark asked rhetorically, and I have wondered frequently. Confessionally presbyterian Churches are notorious for pulling from an extremely short list of names. Leaving aside those with geographic or numerical indicators (i.e. "First," "Greater Sandusky"), there's "Covenant," "Faith," "Grace," Trinity" and "Providence." For those hoping to project a softer image, there's "Harvest," "Emmanuel," "Redeemer" or "Hope." Honestly, that's about it. Despite literally years of my campaigning for it, there's still not one "Big Happy Rainbow Church (OPC)."

This relentless monotony makes sense when one considers the place of confessional presbyterianism in the broader ecclesiastical landscape. While that landscape is littered with Lutheran congregations, there's relatively few from the Presbyterian Church in America or one of her sister denominations. When new OP Church plants are launched, an extremely common reason given is that there are no nearby reformed congregations. While a new evangelical Church can just be itself in all its own idiosyncratic glory, any given OPC congregation feels a burden to represent the entirety of the presbyterian and reformed stream of the Protestant Reformation.

This sociological reality prompts a conservative approach to naming. Employing a "traditional" (i.e., "boring") name sends a clear, if unstated, message to the potential visitor: "You can trust us to be safe: nothing too flashy or evangelicalish here! Just good old hymns and reliable Calvinist doctrine!" Even as I've been openly crusading for more interesting names, I am suspicious of the outlier congregations which use them. Before my family recently visited "Means of Grace Church," I couldn't help wondering what they were trying to say and what potential weirdness lay ahead of us. (Thankfully, it was just as boring as any other presbyterian congregation. We all breathed a sigh of relief!)

One obvious solution is to plant so many confessionally presbyterian congregations through vigorous evangelism and discipleship that individual names won't seem so weighty. Unfortunately, that would require leaving the house and talking to people, so it will be a while until we get there. In the meantime, I suggest a new name which should immediately reassure any presbyterian looking for a new Church home: "Boring Conservative Presbyterian Church (OPC)."

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ahab's peace

When he was my pastor, Joseph Pipa would sometimes greet me with "Is that you, oh troubler of Israel?" He meant it (and I took it) as a back-handed compliment, as that is how Israel's king, Ahab, greeted  the prophet Elijah. Especially during seminary, I had a tendency to question everything about presbyterian doctrine and practice, which meant I challenged Dr. Pipa with some frequency. Far from bothering him, I think this rather pleased him. Dr. Pipa was, and remains, supremely confident in the Biblical fidelity of the Southern Presbyterian tradition and so was more than happy to give its answers to a pesky seminarian. He also believed that if the tradition really had a problem, it could be reformed according to Scripture. The system could not be troubled, for even its most serious challenge would merely be an opportunity to reform and improve.

That, of course, was not Ahab's attitude toward Elijah. By the time of 1 Kings 18, Israel had long been suffering the drought Elijah prophesied in 1 Kings 16. Elijah had ruined things for Ahab and Israel, destroying the peace for which any king might hope. We can all imagine Ahab's immense irritation when Elijah replied, "I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals" (1 Kings 18:18). From Ahab's point of view, the problem wasn't Israel's idolatry: it was a prophet who couldn't leave well enough alone and kept ruining his peace of mind.

I've been saddened to realize that Ahab's idea of peace is shared by any number of presbyterian pastors and elders. Take, for example, Jennifer Greenberg's "Open Letter to the OPC." While her account of neglect and indifference in response to her attempts to report physical and sexual abuse was met with sympathetic concern in many circles, reactions in private and on the Twitter and other social media were mixed. I've seen attempts to minimize ("she's exaggerating; she's taking things out of context") and to condemn ("whatever may have happened, she's at fault for airing her concerns in the wrong way and should apologize"). These responses echo those of sessions and presbyteries on other occasions: the problem isn't the abuse which is being reported, but that the report of the abuse troubles the Church's peace.

In other words, too many in presbyterian circles enjoy Ahab's peace and become quite upset when it's disrupted.

I learned a great deal from Dr. Pipa, especially when disagreeing with him. A system which is founded on Scripture and continually strives for greater fidelity to it enjoys a peace which cannot be disrupted by a report that it has failed because such reports indicate that the system is working and can be improved. I think I share Dr. Pipa's confidence in confessional presbyterianism.

I wonder why those who cling to Ahab's peace do not.



Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: "Jezebel & Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard" by Francis Dicksee

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Blame the shepherds

I was ordained and installed as an OPC pastor in 1999. A few years in, I started getting calls from members of other congregations.

I'm not sure why I got these calls, or if it's common for most pastors to get them. (One time, it was because I was serving as moderator of my presbytery.) These members (a few of them ruling elders) were concerned about their pastors' conduct. The issues were varied: the quality and doctrinal soundness of the preaching; a high-handed leadership style; an inability to resolve conflict; dishonesty; general manner of spiritual abuse. In all these cases, the individuals had already spoken to their pastor and/or session, but felt their concerns weren't being addressed. In a few cases, the individuals felt targeted for reprisals. Sometimes they wanted to know what to do; on a couple occasions, they wanted to know whether it would be sinful to transfer to another congregation. 

If I remember correctly, concerns were raised about five or six pastors. Nearly everyone who reached out to me wanted me to take their concerns to the presbytery so it could take action regarding the pastor in question. Each time, I had to tell them that I could not do anything on the basis of one person's report (because, as an individual presbyter, I lack the authority to launch an investigation, especially on the basis of a single testimony) and encouraged them to contact a presbytery officer or  committee directly. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever did and they all eventually left their congregations. I found this frustrating, if for no other reason than that if their allegations were correct, other members would also suffer under these pastors.

Through these years, I also got calls from ministers in other OPC presbyteries about pastors in my presbytery. (Again, I'm not sure why they reached out to me in particular.) Once it was about a distressing visit to a worship service while in the area on vacation, another was because of controversial comments made on the interwebs and podcasts. The bad manners and lack of common decency of one man in my presbytery were frequently commented on throughout the denomination: an older minister once advised me, "You'll have to forgive him; that's just the way he is." In most of these cases, I was asked, "Is your presbytery doing anything about him?" In each case, I asked the minister to communicate his concerns in writing to the session of the pastor in question and/or to the presbytery so that these bodies would not be asked to rely on a second-hand account from me. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever did.

In the Venn diagram of the fellow presbyters in question, the two circles overlap considerably but not entirely. What unites them completely, of course, is the unwillingness of those who called me to take formal action, and this I blame on the OPC presbyters. Presbyters, especially ministers of Word and sacrament, are far better-equipped than ordinary Church members to raise concerns in the Church courts and get inquiries begun. Members, especially those who have suffered under spiritual abuse, are naturally timid around those with greater expertise and often feel that their voices will not be heard. Before they speak up, they need to see that allegations of abuse are taken seriously by those with authority and that presbyteries will respond wisely and justly to them.

If presbyters will not act to protect the sheep of other congregations, we should not be surprised when those sheep act to protect themselves without taking necessary and appropriate action regarding shepherds who do not conduct themselves in a manner worthy of their office. Don't blame the sheep for not reporting abuse: blame the shepherds.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The heart is deceitful above all things

A couple years ago, my presbytery was debating whether to proceed with the trial of a minister who had been charged with what amounted to tax fraud. (In presbyterianism, Church courts also function as judicial courts in which allegations of sin are tried in order to determine whether Church discipline is necessary.) For at least a few men, it seemed that before they could weigh the evidence, they first had to grapple with whether it was possible for the accused to commit such a sin. In fact, another pastor made a speech stating, "We all know in our hearts that [X] couldn't do this thing."

This episode is now being writ large for the entire Orthodox Presbyterian Church because of Jennifer Greenberg's recent "An Open Letter to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Regarding Abuse." Amongst other things, Mrs. Greenberg explains how she was abused by her father and (as a teenager) propositioned by an OPC minister. In this letter, her concern is less with the abuse itself and more with how her reports of it to pastors were met with inaction, excuses or milquetoast attempts at sympathy. There were no (to the best of her knowledge) reports to civil authorities or initiations of Church discipline. She finds this grievously offensive.

In the OPC as a denomination, it seems her officers and members are wondering to themselves (and out loud to others) whether such behavior and inaction is possible amongst our elders and presbyteries. I don't know whether anything Mrs. Greenberg has written is entirely accurate, since I've only read her side of the story. But I have been a minister of Word and sacrament in the OPC for twenty years, and I know from experience that everything she has written is entirely plausible: this is the denomination I have come to know reasonably well.

I hope those who interact with Jennifer Greenberg's blog won't get hung up on whether or not such things as she reports can happen. I don't know my own heart or the heart of any other person, but I do know the heart is wicked and deceitful and capable of all things (Jeremiah 17:9-10). What she reports could very well occur in the OPC: for those of us who are this denomination's officers, it is for us to determine what exactly occurred, what redress is necessary, and how to do much better in the future.

I know that anyone, even another pastor in my presbytery, is capable of great sin. Every presbyterian should not only confess the same, but act accordingly.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Skip

George Scipione died yesterday.

He was my counseling professor in seminary and let me sit in on sessions one summer even though I wasn't enrolled in the official program. Skip had a strong personality and was kind of a piece of work, but he was always kind to me (which is not universally true of my seminary professors). Not just me, but as far as I could tell, to everyone. He had a natural gift for rubbing people the wrong way, but that was never his intention.

The last time I talked to him was a couple months ago, when he called me out of the blue. (This was before the cancer diagnosis; he was talking about plans for starting a retreat center for pastors in his retirement.) He had heard the rumors about the train wreck which is my pastoral career and just wanted to encourage me and pray for me. I wasn't surprised because that was Skip. I wish everyone knew that about him.

I was praying for him yesterday morning. I knew he was suffering, but I also knew he had spent much of his life struggling with various physical ailments. Suffering was something he knew how to bear. I thought about what I might tell people about him, and I realized the most obvious and important thing about him was that he loved Jesus. Really, really loved Jesus. At that moment, I was sad he was suffering, but even more I was happy for him because pretty soon he would be seeing Jesus in person. For Skip, I knew that would be as good as it could possibly get.

I am so happy for him now.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Whose hope of blessing on the Lord his God is stayed

One of my favorite Psalms is 146, which came to control my understanding of the world through Lowell Mason's paraphrase, Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, O My Soul (which is to be distinguished from Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, a paraphrase of Psalm 148:1-13; try to keep up). As the impeachment trial of Great Leader gets underway, I keep thinking of those American Christians who feel compelled to support him because all possible alternatives are worse and he defends their political interests. I am reminded of Psalm 146:3,
Do not put your trust in princes,
Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
I am once again grateful to be a Christian in these United States, founded on the remarkable premise that government exists to secure the rights and liberties of the citizenry. In these United States, said citizenry need not put its trust in princes or presidents, but in the rule of law as it is fundamentally expressed in the U.S. Constitution which secures a more perfect Union. If the rule of law is maintained in this nation, it is maintained by the insistence of said citizenry that its government officials must be accountable to the Constitution they are sworn to uphold.

I can't say I have an overabundance of trust in the massed citizenry of these United States, but I trust their confidence in our Constitution more than that of our current president, who described the emoluments clause as "phony." I hope my fellow Christian citizens will recognize that Donald J. Trump is the greatest existential crisis to the rule of law and any hope of restoring the Republic since Richard Nixon (which is saying something, given the presidents in between). Our hopes for the Republic and our standing in it cannot rest in the current president, but must be in the good providence of the Lord our God
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea, and all that is in them;
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners.
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
The LORD raises those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. (Psalm 146:6-9)
The Lord loves the righteous. Let us not love the unrighteous because we fear some unknown alternative. After all, "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Hallelujah, praise Jehovah,
O my soul, Jehovah praise;
I will sing the glorious praises
Of my God through all my days.
Put no confidence in princes,
Nor for help on man depend;
He shall die, to dust returning,
And his purposes shall end.

Happy is the man that chooses
Israel's God to be his aid;
He is blessed whose hope of blessing
On the Lord his God is stayed.
Heaven and earth the Lord created,
Seas and all that they contain;
He delivers from oppression,
Righteousness he will maintain.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Fantasyland


Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History) is an entertaining presentation of the thesis that the culture of these United States tends to encourage the citizenry to entertain views and lifestyles not well-tethered to reality. In broad strokes, Kurt Andersen makes his case.

As a researched document, though, "Fantasyland" disappoints. Andersen has an annoying tendency to mention persons without giving their names. For example, this occurs twice on page 333, where he cites a "Pentecostal Christian author" and "the co-host" of the television program 20/20 without naming either. Obviously, these omissions make it difficult to check on his use of sources.

With regard to my areas of expertise (things Biblical, Christian and Church historical), Andersen disappoints still more. In footnote 12 to chapter 31, he describes Ephesians as having been "translated from ancient Hebrew to ancient Greek to Old Latin to New Latin to Middle English to Modern English…," which demonstrates breath-taking ignorance of Bible translation methodology and of the New Testament itself. In an earlier chapter, he identifies Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist, as an Episcopalian. Because his errors are so gross and unnecessary in this area, I suspect him of similar problems in the other fields he discusses.

Andersen has a provocative and fun argument to make, but I doubt he has backed it up very well. I'll continue to mull over his descriptions and ideas, but am not persuaded he writes from the realitiy-based perch which he seems to think he occupies. American may not actually be as haywire as he believes.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The sooner, the better

As always, my countrymen have been waiting with bated breath for an unemployed presbyterian minister of Word and sacrament to weigh in on current events, and I must pay heed to their wishes. Great Leader having been impeached by the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate must now hold a trial to determine whether he shall be removed from office. Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, has published an editorial which advises American Christians that they should favor such an action. Galli's thoughts have been met with cries of outrage and more measured criticism from the First Things website. Peter Leithart seems to view Great Leader as a ruler with whom we may not be entirely happy, but whose rule we should continue to accept. Carl Trueman finds Galli kind of judgy
and thinks the alternatives to Great Leader argue for his retention.

From the start, Trueman irritates me because of a deeply held belief that while foreigners have every right to criticize the foreign policy of these United States (since it does affect them), our domestic affairs are none of their business; doubly so when said foreigners are subjects of a hereditary monarchy. Writing not as a xenophobe but a jingoist, said foreigners have houses of their own to get in order before they start airing opinions about ours.

That's not just a cheap shot against the Windsors and their vassals, but an introduction to a more substantive issue: I was struck by how the three editorials discuss evangelicals as Christians, but not really as Americans. While our Christian identity is paramount in making our political decisions, we must make them as Americans. Englishmen must reckon with the fixedness of a monarchical parliamentary system without a written constitution in making their prudential policy judgments, but citizens of these United States live within a Constitutional republic.

This is where Peter Leithart goes astray. He writes, "…there’s a difference between selecting a president and retaining him. Once a ruler is in power, the demands of Romans 13 kick in." No they don't. In these United States, we owe allegiance to the Republic, not to any of its elected or appointed officials; our nation's officers swear to preserve and protect our Constitution, not our President. As Christians who are citizens of these United States, then, we must never submit to any particular official, for to do so would be to betray our primary loyalty (as citizens, not as Christians) to our Constitutional Republic. Instead, we submit to the Constitution and laws of our Republic, and are obliged, when necessary, to obey its provisions by calling to account and removing government officials who refuse or fail to faithfully discharge their duties.

For his part, Trueman asks what the alternatives to Great Leader might be, and can only find them amongst those currently contending for the Democratic party's nomination for the presidency. This is odd, since the most likely successor to Great Leader, in the event of his removal from office, is the current Vice-President (although it may not be entirely fair to fault a benighted monarchist for his ignorance of the arrangements of a constitutional republic). More broadly, it seems to me Trueman's argument belongs to a species which I find particularly annoying: we must vote for the lesser of two evils lest the greater prevail. The consequence, of course, is that we end up supporting evil, which is something I prefer to avoid.

I've been told this view is not practical, but so what? If Christians find themselves without influence in public policy because they refuse to cooperate with those who would co-opt them without honoring their convictions with anything other than empty words (looking at you, Republican party), it wouldn't be the first time since our Lord ascended. What practical ends are achieved by giving political power to someone who uses it for his own ends, not in faithful service to the citizens of these United States? What does it profit a man to retain some political influence if he must countenance or even endorse evil-doing?

This is where Galli's arguments are strongest.
If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?
…So we have done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view, to see the prudential nature of so many political decisions they have made regarding Mr. Trump. To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern. 
Like Carl Trueman, I'm not an evangelical; as a presbyterian, I maintain a bemused distance from those who appear to have a rather confused sacramentology and no ecclesiology whatsoever. Indeed, I tend to suspect "evangelicalism" describes a political disposition as much as it does a set of religious convictions, a suspicion sadly reinforced by the pronouncements of Jerry Falwell Jr. and the like. Still, I think that, as a group, they love these United States and want to know more about Jesus, which are sentiments I share. As fellow believers and countrymen, I assume they want what's best for this nation of ours.

Donald J. Trump is not that. He may not be the objective absolute worst, but he (and the Republican party's servile willingness to fall in line behind him) poses an existential threat to the future of the Republic. The sooner we are rid of him, the better.