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October 08, 2008

Comments

Diane,

Thank you for making so many excellent points in such a limited space. I'm humbled by your ability to express so many truths so clearly and succinctly. I greatly appreciate your keen insights from your experience in missions.

I did not make the assumption that TE Brown encouraged his audience to "try to work with other presumably biblical churches" because he explicitly included the clearly unbiblical RCC in his example. This leads me to question where TE Brown would draw the line between working with apostate churches and true churches, and to what end. I found no answer to this in his talk. I hope that TE Brown addresses this explicitly in his closing essay.

If I may unwrap another layer on that onion and tie it to your excellent comments, the early councils of Acts 15, Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon all occurred because of striking disagreements on key biblical truths. While their result looks like unity from today's distance, most of those factions continued to exist after the councils. Some continue to this day.

To take a prominent example, I recall that Pelagius held sway in the church of his era for some time. Pelagius absolutely thought that his teachings were biblical, cutting-edge theology. It took a concerted effort by the initially unpopular Augustine to turn the tide. I wonder how Augustine's efforts would be graded under a "denominational renewal" umbrella, though. Would he have been labeled with a paranoid ethos? An oppressive ethos? As schismatic or non-missional? Would he be accused of suppressing cutting-edge theology and thus rendering Christianity irrelevant in that modern day? Would he have been tagged as an "evangelical nihilist" (I still loathe that phrase) for knowing that a church division was inevitable and non-reversible if the Truth were to be preserved? Let me be clear--these are not sarcastic questions. From what I've heard here over the last three weeks, I'd have to conclude that the answer every one of those questions is "yes", and that greatly saddens me.

I welcome with joy anyone to show me where I'm wrong in this using specific current examples of where they think that the line should be drawn under "denominational renewal".

Diane, I greatly appreciate your love for God's Truth and your sacrifice on the mission field for His gospel. May God continue to bless your work to His glory.

By His grace,
Bob

Glenn,

You are to be commended for the time and effort it must have taken to organize this format. I have been reading faithfully these past few weeks and it has been well worth my time.

The four presenters are to be commended for asking for loving correction. Matt Brown and the other presenters have been (or will be) given four tremendous gifts in these Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday responses, and they are each being faced with a deep question: Am I basically on the right track, or am I in need of a significant Spirit-given, Word-informed, Christ-centered (and thus grace and truth centered) course correction from my Heavenly Father?

By my lights, this response from Diane Poythress has all the marks of a Spirit-given, Word-informed, Christ-centered (and thus grace and truth centered) course correction from our Heavenly Father.

Dr. Poythress, Bob and Jeff;
Your comments all seem to me to be unified in assuming that the PCA is not in need of reforming, but rather we are in a position of needing to protect ourselves from forces of change represented by the denominational renewal folks. It appears to me that you do not think we need further reflection and debate in this area of mission. From your comments it appears to me that you see our denomination as well equipped as she now stands to grapple with the challenges of the current cultural situation. My question is, "Has the confession fully spoken as a guide to us on the issues of mission we now encounter as it has for other areas of our doctrinal life?"

Dr. Poythress, you quote WCF 25-3 as proof that the confession "does speak of the church's mission." That section reads:

"Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto."

This is a fantastic starting point to be reminded of the essential nature of the church's work in mission, and of it's character as the means for proclamation, gathering and perfecting the saints globally. But how are we to understand the nature of this "catholic visible Church" in the face of massive fragmentation of the church into thousands of denominations? In many missional settings (as with mine in Utah) I am daily confronted with the claims of a powerful false church gaining credibility because it can point to our division as evidence of our lack of a unified witness. How do we flesh out a theology of Christian unity that addresses our fragmentation and lays out a path for true reconciliation and respect among brothers of various branches and yet also clearly helps us define non-Christian works?

These are a few questions I have that I would love to have the church's wisdom on as a guide for my work in this mission field.
Sam

Greetings, Sam.

Speaking only for myself (but I would imagine that Dr. Poythress or Col. Mattes would say something similar), when you write that one of my assumptions is that "the PCA is not in need of reforming," and another is that I "do not think we need further reflection and debate in this area of mission," you have misunderstood me.

I am glad you wrote that it "appears" to you that I have those assumptions, but I guess I am confused as to how anything in what little I wrote would even give that appearance. Why does disagreeing with Matt Brown's prescriptions get so quickly interpreted as me thinking the PCA is not in need of any corporate sanctification from the Spirit? Oh well, the limits of the blogosphere strike again, I suspect.

However, when you write, "From your comments it appears to me that you see our denomination as well equipped as she now stands to grapple with the challenges of the current cultural situation," you have understood me quite well. By His grace we have His Spirit and His Word and so we are most certainly well-equipped. May He continue to bless your ministry in Salt Lake City by His Spirit and Word.

Diane, your essay is refreshing--a deep drink of clear, cold water.

You cite numerous Scriptural passages that would have made this expositon more persuasive. As I recall, the same criticism was made about the opening address of Greg Thompson. (True, Biblical phrases and language are scattered throughout these talks, but that is different from building a careful, cogent case from Scripture.)

Is this characteristic of the talks incidental, or the sign of something deeper? Does it not accompany an emphasis on a human-centered view of ethos, theology, worship, and ecclesiology? Thus, our ethos is changed for the better not by repeated encounters with the living Beautiful Savior, in His Word, effected by His Spirit, but by our encounter with "beauty." The same experential emphasis is found in Greg Thompson's statement: "Christian truth is found in the place where true theological ideas converge with beautiful moral character."

When Theology is the topic, the focus is on our sectarian spirit--the problems it causes, rather than the sin of the heart. In Worship we are to move from the Lecture Hall to the Banquet Hall. (Much time in this talk is devoted to the pleasures of good food and good drink, with good friends.)

And there is truth in this: true Christianity makes us experentially full of inexpressible joy as we grow in our true knowledge of the triune God, and experientially transformed to be more like Christ, and this works out in ever-spreading circles, starting with our famiy, then our fellow members of the Body (both of these are emphasized in the epistles), and on to all peoples.

But given the charge of this conference, the call for denominational renewal, it is a half-truth. Where is the call to go ever more deeply into the unchanging Truth that informs our experience and calls us to heart-repentance when we need it?

To me, the most disturbing aspect of the overall thrust of these talks, as engaging and fresh as they are, is the very human view of sin. The main sins are ugliness, because they harm our witness, and sectarianism, because it keeps us from getting along, and our being enamored of preaching because it keeps us from enjoying the banquet, and, again, sectarianism, because it gets in the way of unity. I am not arguing against the truth of any of this, just asking where is the view of sin as an offense against a holy God? One has only to contemplate the Father giving up his beloved son to cruel taunting, torture, and death to know how seriously God takes sin.

If I dare to raise the name of N. T. Wright, I will no doubt bring down a hailstorm on my head, but I cannot help but feel his influence. The real excitement today is the spread of the peace and justice of the inaugurated kingdom; we don't have to talk much about the wrath of God and our being spiritually dead. It's not the way we preach to our culture.

Yet it is what I find when I turn to the Word of God.

Dr. Poythress,

I celebrate your passion for Truth, and your acknowledgement that Jesus is Truth embodied. However upon reading your critique I was compelled to listen, once again, to Matt's offering because my initial, and eventual conclusion was that it seemed that what you wrote and what I heard were two distinct treatises. While Matt used the Nicene Creed for the shell of his outline it was obvious, both in what he said in the substance of his talk, and in the scriptures he quoted, that the Word of God is at the heart of his passion for unity in the Church.

Consider these quotes from the talk:

"The Church cannot be missionnal and contextual if She's not also biblical"
"If we are going to be missional we must be biblical"
"In so far as we are biblical it will drive us as a denomination..."

While Matt did not cite the passages you offered, he did refer to Jesus' words in John's gospel and to Paul's in Ephesians.

Here is what these observations led me to believe regarding your response:

1. Your first sentence departs from Matt's actual purpose and it seems to lay the thesis for what I would consider to be a misguided critique. While I don't agree at all points of Matt's offering, and I agree that there is room for some clarity (as there is each Sunday with my messages...), I don't see yours as a critique of his essential premise. I believe that the sentence, "The Church is sent to proclaim and embody the Gospel of Christ" seemed to be his central theme as he took us by the hand in the journey to a desire for church unity. Your response, to my thinking, came across more as a statement of what you might have said differently had you been asked to speak to the subject.

2. You seem to be more concerned with any possible connection Matt's vocabulary may have with some other ecclesiastical nuance ('emergent church movement') than what he might actually have meant in his plain language. Matt employs the writings of Bosch, Frame, Miller, Hunsburger, Jenkins, Newbigin, Luther and of course, Calvin. While there is something refreshingly 'Catholic' in his words, there is nothing remotely 'emergent' in his intentions.

3. I have learned that a critique completely vacant of any positive feedback usually speaks to a deeper concern that often is not voiced or written. That was my sense in your response.

peace.


Sam,

Thank you for your comments. I can only speak for myself here. I believe that the PCA is perpetually in need of growing in its walk with our Savior. This will be the case until our Lord returns. This is as true for our denomination as it is for each of us individually. We see now though a glass darkly, and we strive in humility and prayer to be faithful witnesses to our Lord and His gospel, and to glorify Him only.

As for "denominational renewal", I haven't seen two basic things yet. First, I haven't seen hard evidence that the PCA needs a wholesale renewal as I understand the discussion to mean and the speakers seemingly advocate. I've heard and read lots of what we call in my business "glittering generalities" but that's all. We can't fix what we cannot concretely identify with specifics. If we don't have specifics in mind, we cannot hope for any kind of success.

Second, absent the above, I haven't seen a single, concrete, votable, implementable proposal over the last three weeks on how to "renew" our denomination. Anybody can call for generic renewal. Leaders, however, propose both a strategic vision and the specific goals, objectives, and actions required to implement their vision--or at least a strawman from which to build said goals, etc. For example, the former PCA Strategic Planning Committee proposed specific changes to the BCO and RAO which the GA approved and implemented a few years back. Concrete proposals with solid objectives to address specific issues, good and specific debate, then voted upon, accepted, and implemented. The implementation is still being tweaked in minor ways through follow-on overtures. That's how change is done correctly and successfully through our polity. I haven't seen that here. No one seems to be proposing any overtures to the General Assembly on which we may act. No one seems to have a specific plan. "I want it to be better" is not a plan. If I missed something, then I sincerely desire correction on the matter.

On your question: "Has the confession fully spoken as a guide to us on the issues of mission we now encounter as it has for other areas of our doctrinal life?" I believe that both Diane and I already addressed that question. To put it in different words, my short answer is yes. We have the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Great Commission. We have the promised Holy Spirit to strengthen us and illumine the Scriptures to us. We have the Standards, which we swear contain the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture, to unite and guide us. To the best of my knowledge, both the MTW and MNA have strategic plans for mission work here an abroad. (Whether we agree with these plans is a separate matter.) Both have selection processes, training programs, and ongoing assistance to missionaries. What else would you specifically like to see that you now lack? If you do have some, have you made those known to the appropriate committees?

At one point not many years ago, the home churches in Communist China identified specific problems in growing the Kingdom across China. They met to consider how to resolve those issues. Do you know what they did? The wrote what amounts to a confession in 1998 (Statement of Faith of Chinese House Churches which is available on the web) to which they all could agree. They voted for unity of doctrine. How ironic that a church under severe persecution sought a common statement of doctrine to support their mission work, while some here seem ready to discount doctrinal standards, or set them aside, in the name of missions.

Again, I thank you for your thoughts. I doubt that you will be happy with my response, but it is as honest and straightforward as I can be. I pray that you find it courteous as well, for that is my intent in this imperfect medium.

By His grace,
Bob

Jeff - there are great limits to this form of dialogue. Thanks for clarifying where I read you correctly and where I missed the mark. The essence of what I am trying to say in regard to mission is that IMHO there are two basic views about the PCA -- one is that we're doing fine and the other is we're doing poorly in regard to mission.

I don't think we're doing so hot for the following reasons:
1. We're quick to be suspicious about folks (internal critics) who raise a question about our practice. The responses to these talks have been filled with questions about the motives of the speakers, also the movement of the arguments quickly goes to technical issues that to me avoid the main point and focus on the small details. The main point is we have a trust problem and that's affecting how we treat each other within the denomination. It also breeds a fear of saying something I ought not to rather than an aim to be clear and honest. It's why I'm re-reading this point for the 4th time :)

2. Our mission is faltering, because too many of us think things are going to be settled by staying the course -- keeping our focus and conversation and our evangelistic methods the same as always. I'm not talking about changing our theology, but I am talking about a need to articulate that theology to a culture within and outside of our churches in vocabulary, embodied action and language they can understand. I'm also talking about hearing the arguments people are marshaling against our faith and answering those questions directly rather than with reference to old fights and debates of the past -- every issue is not the fundamentalist controversy revisited.

3. Our mission is weak in what I would call "new America." What I mean is the areas of our country where the majority of people have a non-Christian background and an active pagan world-view (pagan not being pejorative, but descriptive). In my context, Utah, has been post-modern before the term was invented. In 1847 this place consciously left the American Protestant framework and crafted it's own path forward. As someone who was not from here, it took a great deal of work to understand and then begin to frame an approach to ministry here that grappled with the key issues of that mindset and brought those into an encounter with the Biblical witness. What I found is that many ministries here have not done that work and so continue to be huddled outposts and not transformers of this culture for Christ. I am afraid that such a situation may befall our denomination as increasingly more and more areas of our country drift from a memory trace of Christianity.

Jeff, I've gone on beyond my intention -- I hope we get the chance for a face to face dialogue sometime in the near future,
Grace,
Sam

Jeff - there are great limits to this form of dialogue. Thanks for clarifying where I read you correctly and where I missed the mark. The essence of what I am trying to say in regard to mission is that IMHO there are two basic views about the PCA -- one is that we're doing fine and the other is we're doing poorly in regard to mission.

I don't think we're doing so hot for the following reasons:
1. We're quick to be suspicious about folks (internal critics) who raise a question about our practice. The responses to these talks have been filled with questions about the motives of the speakers, also the movement of the arguments quickly goes to technical issues that to me avoid the main point and focus on the small details. The main point is we have a trust problem and that's affecting how we treat each other within the denomination. It also breeds a fear of saying something I ought not to rather than an aim to be clear and honest. It's why I'm re-reading this point for the 4th time :)

2. Our mission is faltering, because too many of us think things are going to be settled by staying the course -- keeping our focus and conversation and our evangelistic methods the same as always. I'm not talking about changing our theology, but I am talking about a need to articulate that theology to a culture within and outside of our churches in vocabulary, embodied action and language they can understand. I'm also talking about hearing the arguments people are marshaling against our faith and answering those questions directly rather than with reference to old fights and debates of the past -- every issue is not the fundamentalist controversy revisited.

3. Our mission is weak in what I would call "new America." What I mean is the areas of our country where the majority of people have a non-Christian background and an active pagan world-view (pagan not being pejorative, but descriptive). In my context, Utah, has been post-modern before the term was invented. In 1847 this place consciously left the American Protestant framework and crafted it's own path forward. As someone who was not from here, it took a great deal of work to understand and then begin to frame an approach to ministry here that grappled with the key issues of that mindset and brought those into an encounter with the Biblical witness. What I found is that many ministries here have not done that work and so continue to be huddled outposts and not transformers of this culture for Christ. I am afraid that such a situation may befall our denomination as increasingly more and more areas of our country drift from a memory trace of Christianity.

Jeff, I've gone on beyond my intention -- I hope we get the chance for a face to face dialogue sometime in the near future,
Grace,
Sam

Jeff - there are great limits to this form of dialogue. Thanks for clarifying where I read you correctly and where I missed the mark. The essence of what I am trying to say in regard to mission is that IMHO there are two basic views about the PCA -- one is that we're doing fine and the other is we're doing poorly in regard to mission.

I don't think we're doing so hot for the following reasons:
1. We're quick to be suspicious about folks (internal critics) who raise a question about our practice. The responses to these talks have been filled with questions about the motives of the speakers, also the movement of the arguments quickly goes to technical issues that to me avoid the main point and focus on the small details. The main point is we have a trust problem and that's affecting how we treat each other within the denomination. It also breeds a fear of saying something I ought not to rather than an aim to be clear and honest. It's why I'm re-reading this point for the 4th time :)

2. Our mission is faltering, because too many of us think things are going to be settled by staying the course -- keeping our focus and conversation and our evangelistic methods the same as always. I'm not talking about changing our theology, but I am talking about a need to articulate that theology to a culture within and outside of our churches in vocabulary, embodied action and language they can understand. I'm also talking about hearing the arguments people are marshaling against our faith and answering those questions directly rather than with reference to old fights and debates of the past -- every issue is not the fundamentalist controversy revisited.

3. Our mission is weak in what I would call "new America." What I mean is the areas of our country where the majority of people have a non-Christian background and an active pagan world-view (pagan not being pejorative, but descriptive). In my context, Utah, has been post-modern before the term was invented. In 1847 this place consciously left the American Protestant framework and crafted it's own path forward. As someone who was not from here, it took a great deal of work to understand and then begin to frame an approach to ministry here that grappled with the key issues of that mindset and brought those into an encounter with the Biblical witness. What I found is that many ministries here have not done that work and so continue to be huddled outposts and not transformers of this culture for Christ. I am afraid that such a situation may befall our denomination as increasingly more and more areas of our country drift from a memory trace of Christianity.

Jeff, I've gone on beyond my intention -- I hope we get the chance for a face to face dialogue sometime in the near future,
Grace,
Sam

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