« Ligon Duncan Responds to Greg Thompson's "Renewing Ethos" | Main | Dan Doriani Responds to Greg Thompson's "Renewing Ethos" »

September 17, 2008


Glenn, thanks for arranging this forum. What a great opportunity to discuss some of the needs of our church. I am being challenged and encouraged by listening to these messages and reading the feedback of my fathers and mothers. Thank you.

I am especially excited to get to interaction with the substance of the messages and the responders. What do others make of the assessment that we sometimes respond with quarantining sectarianism instead of with Pentecostal charity? Or that parousial ambition rightly worked out in our body life will determine the trajectory of our mission? Do people think Thompson’s seven critiques of our body’s ethos are accurate or not? Are there other more important ethos considerations than these?

Rebecca, (if I may address you by your first name—my wife still raves about you as the best conference speaker she has been blessed to hear) thank you for your clear address of the issues Greg raises. Sometimes I think we pastors fall into the provincialism of addressing concerns among other pastors and neglecting the struggles of sleepless nights, wandering children, battles with cancer, or unemployment (although surely these can be issues that we pastors deal with too).

What I am trying to do in response to Greg’s message is to evaluate in my own life, our congregation, presbytery, and participation in General Assembly, are these concerns manifest in our ethos?

Covenantal Resolve—do we really love the church as we ought? No, but neither am I tempted to bolt. But how do I allow my frustration with others in the PCA with whom I disagree to simmer as schism below the surface? I need to see how the gospel shows me my need for these whom I so easily discount in my own thinking and actions.

Incarnational Humility –do I think of others as more important than myself? Are we willing to see those more “narrowly confessional” or those more “missional” or those more “pietistic” than we see ourselves as necessary to the body of Christ? Are we willing to express that through living life together with them rather than merely biting our tongue and not attacking them?

While we may think that Greg’s analysis is too dark or too generic, let’s look at what he is saying and allow the Spirit to work in us to reveal where we have participated in a wrong ethos wittingly or not. What are those ramifications of a proper Christ-like ethos in our local congregations? How can we faithfully minister in ways that God might use to make us more and more like Him together as a denomination?

Thank you TKeller, LDuncan, and RJones and all who’ve posted.

I've learned a lot both in the manner and content of your posts. Both how we get each other and miss each other. Let's keep talking--even disagreeing--with love and respect: maybe even covenant resolve ;-).

Here's my problem with much of what we've done so far on this topic. I think we keep talking around Greg's talk. We keep mentioning about a possible/even probable misapplication by some "other". Certainly wrong use is an option. But that is not critique.

This fact saddens me. I’ve heard all the talks at the Den. Renewal and I thought Greg’s was the least controversial and most personally and institutionally convicting. I know that no one disagrees with the fact that one of the central components to continued renewal of our denomination is sanctification and resolve. But we don’t seem to be responding like we believed it. We are too ready to get to what we disagree on: the way we do Mission, Justice Seeking, Cultural engagement, Piety, and theology.

As I’ve, even feebly, tried to understand where so many are coming from, it seems we have forgotten/abandoned/avoided/or just are not thinking about the relationship between sanctification and the rest of Christian life.

Greg is talking about sanctification as a means of addressing:
Mission (whether evangelism or church planting)
Justice seeking (whether abortion or corporate greed)
Cultural engagement (whether you are bent against or transforming culture)
Piety (whether it's in healthy debate or yielding to the greater church)
Good Theologizing (whether you believe that things need to tighten or loosen to reflect our commitment to Sola Scriptura).
Worship (whether Puritan or Liturgical or...)

My assessment of Greg’s talk is that he wants us to operate with more love and wisdom—-mind and heart. James 3 comes to mind. Wisdom as an adverb—a manner of pursuing the King and his kingdom, purity and peace, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Here, here Greg. May we all concentrate on the manner of our messages—ready with resolve and repentance as we fight for what we see the Spirit doing in our midst—which will be embody the hard reality of both truth and beauty.

Mrs. Jones, thank you for your thoughtful response. I too wonder sometimes whether some critics within and without the PCA are talking of the same denomination as the PCA I know. Do you see an inherent confusion between the orthopraxy often discussed by the denomintation's critics , and that most often practiced and strived for by the local church and its members? You describe very real issues, such as "a Christian’s daily suffering: cancer, wandering children, difficult marriages, unemployment, jail time for Christian beliefs", and these are the issues I see facing most local churches and members. How do you respond to some critics who would call these issues mundane and too locally myopic, and thus not useful for fulfilling a proper orthopraxy?

I would like to give a hearty three-cheers for so-called "doctrinalism" and suggest the ironic possibility that the apparent doctrinalists here are in fact, at heart, culture warriors, and thus ultimately 'cultural-transformationalists.'

In fact, Rev. Duncan centered in on the culture war: "Two, it completely ignores one of the two dominant cultural realities in which we all live and minister – relativism. There is nobody out there in the culture championing the importance of truth, doctrine, theology and confession in the hearts and lives of our people. If we don’t. We lose." So, it seems at least in this line of thinking that doctrine is important because it is a matter of "winning" or "losing" the culture war. A number of the other things Rev. Duncan says and and a number of comments affirming Rev. Duncan's statements seem to echo this line of thinking.

Really, I ask, must we all be cultural-transformationalists? Can't some of us at least begin with the beauty of the Gospel and see what fruit it might produce in our lives? It is really that critical that we always gauge our approach to doctrine over and against "dominant cultural realities"?

Similarly, Mrs. Jones states, "My main critique of Greg’s plea for a new ethos is that it seems to ignore the cultural shift to esoteric, experiential spirituality. My work with truthXchange (formerly, CWiPP, which began in 2002) has shown me the real threat of a vibrant paganism that influences our cultural power centers."

According to these critiques, Rev. Thompson is apparently too insensitive to our cultural context and the war in which we are engaged to reclaim "our" cultural power centers ("our"? America's? The West's? The World's?).

I'd rather just be a doctrinalist: sink into the truth of Scripture (both as content and form, or 'doctrine' and 'ethos'). Doctrine, in my judgment, should not be read against 'cultural realities' to be discerned, judged, and made more or less pressing, but read as self-sufficient, transcendent, reality-generating, life-producing, beauty-consumed Truth.

To heck with the culture wars. God's truth, I believe, can take care of itself.

Is Greg talking about the local church or the leadership of the local church gathered together in Presbyteries and in Assembly?

In other words whom does he view as the focal point for renewal. I can recall several experiences of 'ah-ha movements' inside churches as a lay leader when things in the leadership culture of the churches came out. Unfortunately I do think when we move away from the more general Orthopraxy of the church to the more specific Orthopraxy of her leadership the two can be different. And things can have a surface level expression of healthiness...still I feel the weight of Mrs. Jones comments. Its been my experience in PCA churches in the Northeast and in the South that many of our churches exude a fuller gospel-oriented nurture of repentance and faith than the therapeutic fixation mainstream churches seem to be on.

As I listened to Greg's piece and considered his audience the impression I was left with was that he's talking about leadership, not local community embodiment. Can we draw a line between the two's vitality? Of course not entirely, but I think many have stories where the curtain was swung back and we were surprised.

Having had some time to re-listen to Greg's talk and reconsider my comments on Lig's criticism I do think Greg should have been given a two-part lecture rather than a single one. Prescription without a clearly documented diagnosis is going to leave things blowing in the wind. Greg's talk 'works' with those who share that unspoken diagnosis, but it also appears that it doesn't work with those who don't.

As a reader here, and listener there, I'm left with a simple yet direct question: why the difference in perception (a healthy ethos, a sick ethos)? I'm left wanting clear diagnosis from both positions which I haven't seen in the responses or in the original lecture (in fairness, though, I don't think that was his goal as a speaker or the goals of respondents here: ie TK, LG, RJ).

Bravo, Becky Jones! This beautifully-expressed essay afforded me the most enjoyment yet. I am sure that my rave review has nothing whatever to do with my happening to share the author's gender.

Mrs. Jones,

Thank you for participating in this dialogue and sharing your thoughts with us.

I do not think that Rev. Thompson's lecture was meant to address pastoral theology or apologetics in as direct a way as you desire. Instead, he's addressing the battle to love one another within Christ's Church (esp. the PCA), with love for pagans implied. Your concern is a topic we must continually address! Indeed, Greg mentions the preaching of the gospel as something we should be happy for about the PCA currently.

You ask whether we can enter into the heavenlies without resistance. That is not what Greg is asking. He's asking whether we can enter into the heavenlies without being a united and sanctified body. The answer to both questions is, "No."

How do you believe (more specifically) Greg's talk contradicts your sense of the Church's mission?

(I am glad that things are well in California. Praise God and may he strengthen his saints there!)

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write and to put your thoughts out there for everyone to see, interpret, and critique. Your post clearly comes from a heart that cares deeply not only for our denomination, but also for the Gospel.

I do want to take issue with your apparent surprise towards Greg's summation of some of the problem areas in our denomination. You are not alone in your incredulity in this conversation, many of the commentators on all three posts have seemed sort of mystified that there's any problem at all. You state above, "I belong to a church that I think (italics added) is in the same denomination as Greg’s." One commentator above states, "I too wonder sometimes whether some critics within and without the PCA are talking of the same denomination as the PCA I know."

Well, does not this very disagreement demonstrate some level of division and disunity? When you have a fairly well connected, mainstream PCA Pastor making observations that you have a difficult time imagining as reality, is this not suggestive in and of itself that there are, if not competing visions of the PCA, at least competing assessments of our health? Rebecca, it's not like you and Greg are representative of the "far right" and "far left" of our denomination, and yet when you both "compare notes", you are each coming up with fundamentally different assessments. One is identifying some serious pathology (my words, not Greg's) and one is saying, "what's all the fuss about?"

Then, if you look at the comments on all three of the posts so far, there is good evidence of deep differences of opinion as it concerns the "State of the PCA." Additionally, if you have a denomination where 1/4 (just an educated guess) of the ministers are saying, "I see some fundamental dysfunction" and another 3/4 are saying "huh?", isn't that sign of pathology and division? If an outsider were to read these posts, especially the comments, they would have a hard time believing that they were all from people within a similar culture, certainly not from a healthy, like-minded organization.

We are a young(ish) denomination, founded in controversy, that spreads across the country and is doing ministry in highly different cultural contexts. In our midst, have ministers who have grown up in a southern, homogeneous culture who can't imagine anyone even wanting live in a place like Seattle or San Francisco. But we also have ministers who have grown up in these places and are trying to learn what it's like to be a Presbyter in denomination rooted in a culture they are totally unfamiliar with. And, we have hybrids, like me. So, with these factors (and many others) in place, of course we are going to have competing assessments of our denomination, competing visions of the significance of our founding, competing understandings of our theological documents and our subscription vows, competing ideas of how to work out and articulate our common theological framework in vastly different local contexts. It would be much more worrisome if we did NOT have some diversity and problems we have yet to solve.

The question is how we will seek to solve them. Is there a way to frame theological discourse in a manner that presumes the honesty and integrity of those we are debating? Can we debate theological, ecclesial, and cultural issues without "guilt by association" type arguments or questioning one's commitment to biblical authority? Can we allow someone to question whether or not the BCO is more restrictive in places than is the Bible without it being suggested that they should find a different denomination? Can we extend love to those who see things differently?

There are some greatly encouraging signs of life that theological debate AND consensus can happen even in the new demographics of the PCA. For example, we've produced in the last number of years superlative documents and general agreement on divorce and remarriage, on permissible views of Genesis 1 and 2, on subscription. But there is a feeling among many, born out by reading these comments, by listening to the the CDR Keynotes, and by reading "Machen's Warrior Children", that parallel to some examples of rigorous yet charitable theological conversation, that far too many of us see doctrine as a wall rather than a cornerstone. We far too often utilize our Confessional documents as instruments to actually stifle theological debate rather than a solid foundation on which conversation can take place productively.

While I'm sure there will be calls for specifics, names, and examples, let me stop there. My comment was not initially meant to be prescriptive, but simply designed to convey surprise at your surprise.

Thanks to those who have responded to my post. Since I'm not an experienced blogger, I havent' figured out how to respond to one at a time, so here goes for a general response:

To Doug Warren: Of course we can all be determined (whether leaders or laymen) to treat one another with respect and kindness; not to harbor suspicion but to go TALK to people we think we don't agree with; to do all in our power to avoid schism if it is based solely on personal hurt. Of course, the problem is that schism is inevitable (I don't know if Paul's comment in 1 Cor. 11:9 about schism is meant to be sarcastic, or is an expression of a principle at work in the church - all you exegetes out there can go after that one!). Sometimes schism is due to sin, but sometimes it has to be done in order to keep the church pure. I think the problem I had responding to Greg is that I am just not aware of the difficulties he is seeing. And I know that in a public forum, no one wants to talk about individuals, because we really ARE rather gracious with one another, praise the Lord! So without knowing exactly the things that are bothering Greg and the others, one has to make rather general and perhaps useless statements! Is this forum, thus, very worthwhile??? All of Greg's appeals for us to be more Christlike are certainly necessary. But why do they take the national stage instead of being the subject of sermons within each congregation? If there's a public forum like this, it's because someone is seeing a pattern they think is a general pattern, and they are troubled enough to bring it to the surface. So where is this problem, how should it be dealt with, and is this kind of forum helpful or unhelpful?

To Tom Ganz -
Leaders certainly have difficulties that we in the pews do not need to face (I'm so glad that as a woman, I usually only have to make peace one person at a time!). This is probably where I've had something of a disconnect with the discussion. When I do women's seminars, I try to show women the cosmic gospel implications of the smallest things that they are doing. Ephesians 3;10 gives us the goal of the church: To make known the manifold wisdom of God to the [wicked] rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. We do this in our unity (Eph. 4), in our acceptance of God's creation structures (Eph 5) and in the battle against the evil one (Eph 6). This calling is as much to the mom experiencing sleepless nights over a sick child as to the pastor experiencing sleepless nights over a broken marriage in his congregation, as to a seminary president experiencing sleepless nights over theological divisions at his school. I do think it's important for us all to realize that whatever battle the Lord has called us to is OUR place to conquer the wicked authorities in the heavenly realms, by applying all the gospel power Jesus gives us to that particular problem. Nothing in God's kingdom is provincial. We are each called to a place, to a body of believers, to a language group, to a city, to a country. No one should feel guilty about being provincial, unless it is a deliberate decision based on selfishness or fear. Now when it comes to showing the wisdom of God - that's what Greg is talking about, I think - doing it in a way that truly honors the Christ who suffered for us in humility. I should think Greg would agree with all of this!

To Ned O'Gorman
I'm afraid I may have said some things poorly. The "our" culture just means "where we live." I do NOT mean that in recognizing and resisting the enemy we will reclaim our cultural power base. I do not believe that God loves America more than any other country and we all deserve to have a predominantly Christian country. The battle is a spiritual one, and God's favor rests on different countries in different times and different ways. But since the devil has no foothold in the heavenlies, he can only battle using social and political power, which he is eager to do. So we should not be surprised to see him hard at work in our culture, trying to grab control of whatever bases he can, whether the schools, the legal system, medicine, the fire department, or our churches. We fight his limited spiritual force with the force of THE SPIRIT; I put no faith in politics. Of course, Christians at work in all these institutions help resist wickedness. The answer to Satan's schemes is the gospel, but until Christ comes again, the declaration of that gospel will always be an apologetic one and will meet resistance. God's gospel always speaks into and against the power of paganism. In the OT: "When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there." In the NT, as Jesus said, "When you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans," and as Paul says, "you must no longer live as the Gentiles do." Part of our task as a church is to examine the seductive lies the devil is using in our times and to denounce error courageously and antithetically, as well as kindly and humbly. We need to discover where pagan principles are affecting our thinking as Christians and help our young people to know how the Scripture answers today's problems. (Some of the devil's favorite attack points right now are spirituality, the family, sexual identity, and created differences - male/female; animal/human; right/wrong; etc.). Our kids are lost when they go off to college, for we are either not teaching them apologetics at all, or we're giving them answers to questions that are no longer being asked. Beauty alone will not announce the gospel. There are beautiful witches out there, ready to proclaim the peace and freedom of a life without guilt. This may seem off topic, but because this is the particular area in which God has called us to work, I sense a greater urgency than some to make this a part of our calling as a denomination. Perhaps if we were a little more focused on combatting the enemy, we'd have less time and energy to shoot our own troops.

To Barrett Turner:
Hmm. The church's mission. I don't think Greg's talk really contradicts my sense of the church's mission. I just feel he may be moving a little too quickly to the parousial triumph. Believe me, I'd love to move to the parousia tomorrow! Having recently been at the bedside of both my dear father and my loved mother, I'm more and more eager to leave the fight and get home soon - to run into the very real and physical arms of my all-loving Savior. That sounds as if I'm weary, and perhaps I am a little--as we all are, living in this world that is groaning under the weight of our immorality. The fight rages and we still see through a glass darkly. I'm an old OPC realist (my kids would say "pessimist"). We can't bring in the kingdom in all its beauty and love until Jesus comes to judge the world and rid it of sin. Reading McLaren recently makes me so immune to the notion that Bill Gates, Rick Warren, the UN, ecologists and emerging Jews can all happily join with Christ's church to create heaven on earth, that I'm a little skittish on plans that are so long on beauty that they miss the ugly battle. I know this can't be what Greg is talking about, but I was surprised at the absence (Not only in Greg's talk) of the notion of enemy, battle, deception, wiles of the devil, etc. My thinking is obviously affected by my husband's calling (which I support with full-time work myself), which has him attending conferences sponsored by self-identified pagans and reading books written by the truly eschatological, intelligent and socially powerful pagans, who have a mind of their own as to what to do with Christians and the church! How many pastors in the PCA know such groups are out there and out to destroy us? (No, they will not succeed.) The New Spirituality is flooding into the vacuum created by Postmodernism and we are still using... what??? as an apologetic answer?
As you say, I may be dealing with apologetics more than the discussion does, but at the risk of repeating myself, our lack of love for one another, if it is weak, could only be strengthened by concentrating on engaging the enemy.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Welcome to CGO

  • Welcome to Common Grounds Online. Readers of Common Grounds have suggested a website to continue the explorations they began in the book. In keeping with the interactions of Professor MacGregor, Brad, Lauren and Jarrod, the theme of this site is ‘learning and living the Christian story.’

    I have invited friends, and a few friends of friends, to communicate aspects of the Christian story that have been significant in their own lives. We’re all trying to find joy and pleasure in this life and the next, but often we forfeit the joy that could be ours by living out foolish, competing scripts. What distinguishes Common Grounds Online Contributors is not our own goodness, achievement or service, but rather the recognition of our need of God’s grace abounding in our lives.

Follow Us

CGO Contributors