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September 19, 2008

Comments

Greg,
Thank you so much for being brave enough to allow a talk given in one medium to become the catalyst for a discussion in a much more public and much less personal medium. I admire your bravery and willingness to sacrificially lead in this way.

If I am hearing (and reading) you correctly you would like to see a renewed focus in our denomination on orthopathos. Particularly from those who believe they are in the right when confronting an issue of orthodoxy. It reminds me of the late Jack Miller's warning that you're most dangerous when you are right. "The moment you realize that you are right," Jack used to say, "you need to begin praying because the chances you're going to love the person that is in the wrong have gone to about zero."

And this is an important point you're making. After all Jesus himself warned us about the importance of log removal before attempting to remove the specks from our brothers' eyes. Paul too warns us in Galatians 6 that when we catch our brother in a sin we need to pray because we too will be tempted at that point (toward self-righteousness I suspect).

Jesus taught that the world would know that we are Christ's disciples by our love for one another. So how we treat one another in public forums like congregational meetings, Presbytery, (the webcast) General Assembly, and online forums like this one really matter. Just Google the title of your talk and you'll find that this discussion is being observed by thousands of people on a wide variety of blogs.

But Bob Mattes raises a good question on the Doriani thread. How are we to think about people within the denomination whom we disagree with theologically particularly if they are Teaching Elders? Are we to treat them them as Christ treated the Pharisees and the New Testament letter writers treated the false teachers in their midst? Or are we to handle them in a Acts 15 type of way with a desire to find some Common Ground (pun noticed) we can work unite around that allows for diversity in the Body of Christ?

Dr. Keller suggested that we learn to speak one another's languages identifying three different camps within the PCA. I, however, am not as smart as Dr. Keller so I'm not sure I'll be very successful at becoming trilingual in the denominational jargons. With great trepidation I'd like to differ with Dr. Keller on this one and suggest that we try to communicate in the one common tongue we all share - Biblical exegesis.

This is where I think your original talk could have been improved a bit. I thought it was well aimed but a bit heavy on theological jargon and a bit light on exegesis. In fact, I have to admit that it was hard for me to follow when you were using words like parousial and Christoform. It was a little bit like reading Shakespeare (compliment intended) same language, but almost out of my reach.

I liked your call to live out of our promised, unified future instead of living out of our sin stained, divisive past. But I understand that people want more meat on that bone so again, with some trepidation I'll suggest that we begin treating people we think might be teaching something false the way Jesus and the apostles treated Judas.

First, Jesus washed his feet even though he knew he was going to betray him. Practically I think this means that we need to think about ways we can serve those we are concerned about rather than merely seeking to expose them or shame them. We need to be very respectful of their dignity even as we are seeing something we are concerned might be coming from their depravity. We need to be careful about labels and to seek to help someone clarify their teaching before we make a judgment of it.

Second, when Jesus told the Apostles one of them was going to betray him they each responded with "Surely, not I." Now I'm not sure if in the original this was meant as a question or a defense but we know from Peter's life that they all eventually learned that it surely could have been them. Practically, this means we need to focus on log removal before proceeding to speck spotting.

Third, we need to allow them to betray us with a kiss before excommunicating them. So no slippery slope arguments. Instead we wait until a real betrayal of the Gospel has occured and then actually weep over it as we remove them from their place among us.

Fourth, we need to be open to the possibility that the sin will be of the Peter type instead of the Judas type. Satanic, really significant, heartbreaking but not final. So no "one strike and you're out" thinking. We must long for restored relationship with even those who've been found to be significantly out of accord with the fundamentals of the faith.

Finally, we need to pray seriously for discernment. Not every disagreement is a fundamental. Often we'll find ourselves in an Acts 15 situation or even Galatians 2 situations where we need to disagree in a manner that is more conducive to reconciliation than a parting of the ways.

I say all this (and if you're still reading this I'm amazed) because many in my congregation of new Christians and even a few non-Christians are watching this discussion. I'm a little nervous about how next weeks talks are going to go given the push back you've received so far on your call for repentance. So thanks for saying it, modeling it, and improving it. My prayer is that it will be lived out in new ways by your hearers and readers in the weeks ahead (myself included).

Greg,

Thank you for your follow-up and clarification. I am heartened by your emphasis on truth AND beauty together and complementary. Your summary provided an appropriate challenge for all of us and I thank you for taking time to bring greater clarity to the discussion.

Having said that, it sounds like this "denomination renewal" is more like a philosophical discussion than an action plan, other than working through the Spirit to live out especially James 1:22 and Mt 5:16. Fair enough, but I'm not sure if a philosophical discussion will be all that helpful. Nonetheless, I look forward to the next installment in hopes that this early assessment is in error.

I appreciate your willingness to continue the discussion and your pastor's heart for Christ's bride.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

This is a post on behalf of two individuals, Dan Gilchrist and John Gullett. In our own discussion of Greg’s talk and the responses and comments that have been posted this week, Dan wrote what you’ll read below, which I am copying here with his permission. I thought it was really helpful and asked him if I could post it for the benefit of others.

“The folks to whom Greg was explicitly referring in his talks as "paranoid" and "schismatic" were those of us in the room (namely, those of us who were smugly and self-righteously sitting in the room "humbly" intending to create a plan by which "the tax collectors" might repent and pursue denominational renewal - i.e., in our own pride and arrogance, he wasted no time in calling US to repent of our paranoia and schismatic pride. Ouch.)

In addition to that, the other point I wanted to highlight was related to the repeated criticisms of Greg's "ambiguity." I must confess that the press for specifics seems to miss the point that he is concretely calling us (i.e. beginning primarily with those in the room that day) to repent of the "ugliness" of our own "schismatic pride". For example, you (JG) and I (DSG) knew immediately of specific attitudes and circumstances in which WE have been guilty of the very character from which Greg was prophetically calling us to repent. In other words, "schismatic pride" is a pretty specific and identifiable sin -- for those who have ears to hear. In short, isn't naming the particular patterns and habits of sin of which we are guilty and in need of repentance pretty specific? And in the context of a public, recorded, and distributed forum, wouldn't getting more specific require that he say, for example, "Dan Gilchrist, confess and repent of your arrogance by which even at this moment you sit in self-righteous judgment over those who are not here?" In fact, it was in the surrounding "So What?" discussions that this was the very call: for each of us to repent of our pride and seek out our brothers. Alas ... Ah, Lord God, come quickly; let your work on earth be done!”

Again, Dan's words are an accurate summary of some of my own thoughts and feelings this week, and I thought that perhaps they might be helpful to others.

Thank you, Greg, for a comprehensive and helpful reply to your responders. Your willingness to engage all comers is beautiful.

Would you clarify one sentence for me? You write, "I believe the Scriptures teach that Christian truth is found in the place where true theological ideas converge with beautiful moral character (what I’m calling ethos). And that either of these in and of itself, separated from the other, cannot be fully regarded as Christian truth."

True enough, beautiful moral character may exist apart from Christian faith and Biblical truth. And on the other hand, statements of Biblical truth coming from one who lives a life of moral ugliness, at home or in church, presbytery, or General Assembly are offensive to God and to others. The actions of such a person deny the truth he proclaims. But the truth still stands; the person falls. So I don't understand what you mean, that truth is found in the place of the convergence of "true theological ideas" with "beautful moral character." Isn't God's revealed truth eternally, unconditionally true? Whether lived-out of nor? "Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar." (Romans 3:4 NET))

Perhaps you would be wililng to expand on your statement. Perhaps I misconstrued your meaning.
Thank you.


We all have concerns about the conflicts that arise among sinners who set about to do the Lord's work. And it's hard (and at times unwise) not to bring those into discussions about renewing the PCA. In responses to Greg, I see an occasional sense of unease about an agenda that his words might be used to advance. I wonder what that says about our level of mutual trust. That's not to accuse or single anyone out-- we all want to know where something like this is headed-- we keep one eye open so that no one smuggles anything past us. For some, the fear might be that committing to "beauty" means losing the right to object when the PCA is turned into a theological mosh pit by those indifferent to our heritage. Some fear giving doctrinal rigor an unbalanced emphasis will precede denominational rigor mortis, as those who would expand and clarify the Reformed vision are purged from our ranks.

A talk giving more specifics may not solve the problem or advance the debate, because the kind of specifics we're itching for may really be clues as to which side Greg is taking in partisan squabbles. Our prior commitments would then tell us whether to cheer or boo.

I think Greg has very little to say about ethos as a way of providing answers to current disputes because that isn't its function. Rather, it's about cultivating virtues-- growing in grace under the Spirit's guidance. That cultivation will change us into the kind of people that are better equipped to minister to each other in controversies.

Growing in grace may at first seem like an awfully weak answer, but that may be precisely what our Lord intended.

Maybe some of our conflicts are evidence not of bad theology or faulty procedure first of all, but that we haven’t prepared ourselves well enough beforehand. Like a terrorist or criminal, the enemy exploits our subtle vulnerabilities instead of mounting a full frontal assault. Viewed from that angle, I think there is a fair amount to work from in Greg's words. I have to admit– asking myself to look for the beautiful side of God’s truth isn’t something I habitually do. That’s one area among several that Greg suggests we may have neglected in our sanctification. Attention spent there may pay dividends well beyond the immediate answers it provides.

Mark,

I appreciate your thoughts about the levels of disagreement. I respectfully disagree with your characterization, but only under limited circumstances.

First a word on categorizing people. Like you, I don't believe that it's helpful to categorize people in a general way based on our impressions of them or perceived theoretical differences. I believe that communication on this basis fails to respect them as individual creations of our Lord and devalues what they have to say. It allows us to dismiss His children with a label that we artificially assign based on our fallen perceptions. On the other hand, I do think that it is appropriate to associate individuals with movements or specific theological stances because they have already self-identified in their remarks or writings. I think that there's an important difference between the two situations.

As I said in a previous comment which you kindly reference, I believe that Jesus makes an important distinction in how to handle people based on their position, authority, and knowledge. As I said and we all know, he minced no words with the Pharisees and priests who should have known better. The human authors of the NT follow his example in handling false teachers. In contrast, Jesus gently handles the common folk who were not teachers or in ecclesiastical authority. As I suggested before, we should learn to make those same distinctions.

While I believe that we must be discerning and prayerful in our handling of controversy, we must also be willing to make distinctions on the character of the underlying issues. To give a specific example, I believe that the current discussion about women deacons and the BCO, though important to the life of the church, falls under what you characterize as an Acts 15 situation. It seems genuinely analogous to the issues in Acts 15. Most of our denominational challenges fall in this bin.

On the other hand, we do face controversies which the 35th GA agreed threaten the gospel as reflected in our denominational standards, which themselves are founded directly on the Scriptures. These include the New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision. Congregants who have been so misled should be helped in same tender way that Jesus helped the woman at the well in Sychar and tax collectors like Matthew. However, teaching elders purveying these errors should be confronted more strongly in accordance with Jesus example with Pharisees. Jesus tells us that teachers and ecclesiastical officials should be held to a higher standard. I believe that we must make that distinction as Jesus taught us by example. We have denominational processes for these circumstances, the proper use of which upholds truth and beauty.

I do not believe that Judas falls into either of these two categories, and hence that situation is not an example to follow. Judas was not an ecclesiastical authority nor a common man. He was a special case with a special, ordained mission that has no parallel in the NT.

Back to truth and beauty, I believe that the posters and commentators so far agree that there is no beauty without truth. We must hold those given the special trust of preaching the Word to a high standard in keeping the gospel pure. Jesus shows us how that is done in numerous incidents recorded for us in the gospels. If we are going to do "denominational renewal", then we must ensure that we show Jesus' flock in the pews that we will not compromise the truth for the sake of a false beauty or false peace.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Greg,
Thank you very much for your fine article and thoughtful response. I am not a part of the PCA, but I have watched the debate as an interested outsider. I actually attended Trinity when I was a student at UVA and was greatly blessed by the ministry there.

I have to admit that it is troubling to me to read the above comment by Bob Mattes. Again, I emphasize that I am an outsider to the specific controversy, so I have very little standing to speak into it; but it seems that the comparison of those who hold a different theological stance to the Pharisees is misplaced. It is true that Jesus reserved many of his sharpest rebukes for the Pharisees, but those rebukes were mostly on the grounds of a lack of moral beauty and not because of a lack of theological rigor. The Pharisees were the recipients of Jesus' correction because they were full of pride and a lack of charity. They were depicted as white-washed tombs because their hearts did not match their teaching. It would be possible to argue that the reason the Pharisees were dealt with harshly was because they held to their denominational standards and biblical interpretations without humility or charity. Whenever a Pharisee (Nicodemus) came to him humbly, Jesus received him gently and led him to the truth.

I do not know any of the parties involved in the ongoing theological controversy in the PCA, so please do not hear me attaching the term Pharisee to either side. My only point is that I believe it is inaccurate to say that Jesus was primarily concerned with theological rigor when dealing with the Pharisees. I believe it is more helpful to recognize that we are all Pharisees and at the same time we are all the woman at the well. We all have areas in our lives where we are full of pride and self-righteousness, and we all are in desperate need of God's grace.

Respectfully,
Gary Peil


Gary,

Thank you for your comment. I believe that you misunderstood my previous comment. If you read it carefully, you'll see that I never called anyone a Pharisee. I simply said that we shouldn't coddle elders who preach and otherwise dispense teaching that compromises the truth of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures. In the PCA, we take an oath that our Confessional Standards contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scriptures, while at the same time that those Standards are secondary to the Scriptures themselves. That's pure, objective, eternal truth from which and upon which the beauty derives.

The bottom line is that there are non-negotiables in the system of doctrine held by every evangelical denomination. For the PCA, it is that system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures and contained in our Standards. Without that truth, we have nothing but dust in the wind. Or to put it Scripturally, a valley of dried bones. Since iron sharpens iron and butter does not sharpen iron, we must not coddle with butter elders who teach error. Jesus teaching is clear as applied in this scenario. He did not coddle those in ecclesiastical positions who taught error, and neither should we today.

I must differ with you on your belief that the Pharisees were not rebuked for their theology. They were rebuked for both their theology and their lack of application of the same. Consider Jesus short conversation with Nicodemus as just one example. This is in perfect accord with Greg's point that truth and beauty must go together. Jesus never accepted what some teachers in his day passed for beauty if they did not have truth behind it, hence the white-washed tomb analogy. They looked good on the outside (faux beauty), but there was no truth behind the facade. We should guard against the same. Jesus was/is concerned with both, and so should we be.

Nor am I suggesting anything new. The GA has, over the years, spoken clearly on controversial issues within the context and constraints of our polity. We must deliver these decision with love and humility, acknowledging and mindful of our own sinful pride, but we must deliver them. Those affected by the same must submit to their brothers as they have sworn to do or face the consequences. That's beauty derived from truth.

So there's no name-calling stated or implied, only a plea for us not to lose sight of the fact that we in the PCA do have, in fact, non-negotiable truths entrusted to us. Without these, there is no beauty to be had. We must hold elders accountable within that context.

By His grace,
Bob Mattes

Bob,

Quick question: you said that the deacon issue is an "Acts 15" issue, and the the NPP and FV debates "threaten the gospel". How do you know which is which? What if I think that deacons is a gospel threatener and NPP and FV is Acts 15? Not everyone agrees with your characterization of the three issues. This is of course the problem. All one needs in order to justify treating fellow bondservants in the gospel is to characterize their error as "threatening the gospel". Now I do not think that you are doing that - I am sure that you genuinely believe that NPP and FV threaten the gospel. Thats fine. I think you're wrong though. So how do we decide? We could point to GA and the decisions regarding FV and NPP, however we don't get much help there. After all the study committee report refers to FV and NPP proponents as "brothers". Brothers don't threaten the gospel. Also, does everything which is alledged to be against the WCF have to be a "gospel" issue? It seems like ministers in the PCA certainly think so, but that would damn much of the rest of the church to hell. Is a credobaptist threatening the gospel? We would agree that a credobaptist teaches something which is against the fundamentals of the doctrine of Scripture taught in the WCF, but I would certainly not say that a credobaptist was going to hell. What is the gospel? Can you find a Biblical passage which defines the gospel? What does it mean to "threaten the gospel"? Is that like "teaching a different gospel" or is it something different? Is is like teaching something that might at some point possibly be in some way be against the gospel?

Well that actually turned out to be more than a "quick question". I got on a role. I hope I haven't come across as condecending or rude. As you say "iron sharpens iron", and so I hope I've challenged you in a helpful way which sharpens you. Of course I expect to be "sharpened" by you shortly! :)

Peace in Christ
Peter Green

Peter,

Thank you for your note. Your ask some excellent and difficult questions. Certainly serious prayer, study, and spiritual discernment is required in coming to a conclusion about what may be an Acts 15 issue as opposed to one that strikes at the vitals. The heart is wicked and deceitful, who can know it? Individually, we should be reluctant to try to draw these lines. But, praise the Lord, we do have help.

At the base of Presbyterian polity is the idea that any one of our sinful natures wars with the Spirit working in us to color our judgment. But, in a Session, we believe that the truth may be more likely to be discerned through prayer, Scripture study, and the Spirit's illumination in a number of us, using each elder as a check and balance in the group. At the Presbytery level, even more checks and balances with more men working and praying together in the Spirit to sharpen one another. And how much more when those men number in the thousands at a General Assembly. Against the Roman church, we believe that no gathering reaches infallibility, that councils can and do err, but the likelihood of error diminishes as more elders work together in prayer towards a solution, checking and balancing each other. That's where true beauty arises from real truth.

I used Federal Vision as a case in point because it is a clear example. Over a period of several years, learned and prayerful men wrestled with the issue. In the end, about 95-98% of the 35th General Assembly voted to affirm the study committee report, agreeing and deciding that specific tenets of the Federal Vision strike at the vitals. And while councils may indeed err, one has to believe, if one accepts the form of government of the PCA (which all PCA elders swear they do), that the chances of error becomes vanishingly small.

Further, six other Reformed denominations, virtually all if not all of NAPARC, decided the same way and most (if not all) by similar margins. So, even if one were to believe that the 35th PCA GA erred, what about the other six denominations? The case at this point crosses any reasonable threshold of human doubt.

So, when I used the Federal Vision and New Perspectives on Paul as my example of an issue more serious than an Acts 15 one, I was not speaking out of my own sinful heart. I was accepting the judgment of thousands of my brothers who prayerfully considered the issues. Thus I can state with high confidence that key tenets of the Federal Vision strike at the vitals.

As to the beliefs of other denominations, their decisions differ to the extent that their confessional basis varies from the Westminster Standards or Three Forms of Unity. Things that strike at the vitals in the PCA or another NAPARC denomination may not do so in, say, an Arminian Baptist denomination or Vineyard fellowship. That's not the same thing as saying that they will all go to hell because they don't agree with our Standards. I don't know anyone who believes that. As I said in another post, we work closely with a number of churches in our area, of which only ours is PCA or even Presbyterian. But that in no way excuses elders in the PCA, who swear that they accept our Standards as containing the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture. At the point where they find themselves on the wrong side of a decision like the 35th GA's, it's time to either submit to the brothers as they swore to do or move on to a denomination where our Standards are not their standard. To stay and continue to fight against such a decision by the GA defies their vows and represents ugliness, not beauty.

I hope that I have answered your concerns. I apologize for not being clearer on this in my earlier posts. I agree with you and, I believe everyone, that we should be cautious in discerning how to engage those we believe to be in error. If we act within the polity which we accepted at our ordination, I believe that we can prayerfully discern with greater confidence on which side of the divide a particular issue lies.

By His grace,
Bob

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