Saturday, June 22, 2013

Post-Mortem on the 41st General Assembly of the PCA

After a couple of days to reflect on it, and to seek to explain it to friends who weren't there, I have concluded that the event was not as bad as it seemed at first. There is a brief factual report of the main actions of the Assembly at

First, with regard to the paedocommunion issues in the PCA, there were some encouraging developments. The minority report from the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR) regarding Central Florida Presbytery was adopted. Central Florida is now required to come back and report to next year’s assembly. That’s another opportunity for the assembly to address the issue. Second, Pacific Northwest Presbytery had to temper the language that it has used in the past when they approve someone who holds to paedocommunion. Those folks will no longer be told that they have full liberty to preach and teach their exception to the standards. Second, PNWP had to make it very clear that no one in the presbytery is now practicing paedocommunion, and no one will be allowed to practice it in the future. If evidence comes forth that it is being practiced, that will provide sufficient rationale for charges to be brought. In addition, though Overtures 19 and 23 were ruled out of order, Overtures 20-22 were referred to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). They will have to deal with those overtures at their October meeting, and that report will be dealt with at next year’s assembly. While many hoped that the CRPR minority report on PNWP would be adopted, it was not. But we cannot conclude that the PCA has decided that paedocommunion is an allowable exception (in the sense of men being allowed to practice it). Thus it behooves us to pray that the SJC would favorably regard the overtures sent to it for consideration.

Second, with regard to the “Insider Movements” (IM) report: the entire report was sent back to the committee for reworking. My hope is that whatever strengths were in the minority report can be worked into the majority report in such a way that the author of the minority report will be satisfied. I was pleased to see that the proposal to accept the whole thing—majority and minority reports together—was defeated. The minority report has some good intentions in giving practical direction to converts from Islam to Christianity who still live in a Muslim context. But it was seriously undermined by less than careful theological thinking and expression. It probably would have flown in the PC(USA). I was glad it did not fly in the PCA.

Third, I was also heartened by the fact that the Committee of Commissioners for the Interchurch Relations Committee (ICR) pressed the issue regarding membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE is a seriously flawed organization. The ICR Permanent Committee will have to be more diligent in the coming year in reporting on what the NAE does. Perhaps when all those actions are put together in list form, it will become apparent to the PCA that we as a denomination have no business being part of that association.

Fourth, I was thankful for Mr. Sloan’s personal resolution regarding child abuse in the church and our pastoral responsibilities. It was given to the Overtures Committee for perfecting, but what they submitted gutted Mr. Sloan’s resolution. I was glad that it was sent back again, and will come before the assembly next year.

I conclude with three general observations. There were something over 1,200 registered commissioners at the assembly. Not great attendance, but better than the past couple of years. However, on the occasions when counted votes were taken, the total ranged from around 750 to about 900. That means that for the most part one fourth to one third of the commissioners were out doing something other than attending to the business of the assembly. Those of you who registered and did not attend the business sessions, shame on you! Particularly, shame on you if you led your church to believe that you would be going to do the work of the assembly!

I do not want to cast aspersions on Mr. Terrell. Moderating the GA is a hard and thankless job.But Mr. Terrell did not seem to be ready to be moderator. I am sure he is a fine executive, and a faithful ruling elder. But the moderator of GA ought to be adept enough at parliamentary procedure that he should only be glancing desperately in the direction of the Stated Clerk and the parliamentarians in particularly difficult situations. It seemed that the assembly ran more smoothly on the couple of occasions when there was a substitute moderator at the podium.

Now is not the time to be looking to leave the PCA. Now is the time to be devoting ourselves to prayer for our denomination and the substantive issues that are facing us, and that will face us in the coming years. I wonder how many of us spend as much time praying for our church as we do complaining about our church.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Introspective Questions on the Eve of PCA General Assembly

Have I read, prayerfully, the Commissioner’s Handbook? The Commissioner’s Handbook hardly seems like something to be read prayerfully. After all, it isn’t Hind’s Feet on High Places. But this is the work of the King that we claim to be about. His business, as well as his worship, needs to be approached prayerfully.

Have I been praying for those with whom I disagree? Every year there are issues that divide commissioners. For the most part, we know what those issues are, and we have our opinions about how those issues should be decided. But we should also recognize that well-intentioned men of good conscience can disagree on these things without being heretics. We need to be praying for one another that we would be men after God’s own heart, happy to lose “our cause” for His.

Am I working at being a churchman, or playing at it? Is GA week vacation for me, or is it a work week? Admittedly, given the way that GA is structured, it can be very tempting to spend a good part of the week attending anything but the Assembly sessions, especially the information segments that largely repeat the material in the Handbook. Perhaps wise changes there would make for a better and more useful assembly. For the time being, we should commit ourselves to being there for the boring parts, as well as the times when there might be exciting debate.

Am I here seeking God’s agenda, or my own? This relates to #2 above. We need to remember that God cares more for his church than we do. He has demonstrated that he is more than willing to give up denominations for the sake of the overall health of his church. This ought to scare us, at least a little.

What is my relationship to the constitution of the PCA? As a reminder, the Constitution of the PCA consists of the Westminster standards and the BCO (minus some specified chapters). Constitutions can, and sometimes should, be amended.

But given their current state, is my doctrine in line with the doctrine of the Westminster standards? Or do I have to engage in a certain amount of mental gymnastics in order not to be a liar when I say that I “sincerely receive and adopt” the standards as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”? If the latter, shouldn't I, regardless of what the cost might be to myself and the local church I currently serve, move a denomination where I can be honest in my vows?

Given its current state, is my practice in line with the BCO or do I make it up as I go along? The PCA BCO is far from perfect, as is attested by the fact that it is amended almost every year. Yet do we make it our aim to carry out our practice in line with its prescriptions. We might find it would save a lot of difficulty if we did. It would also be easier to follow the practice of the BCO if we made ourselves more familiar with its content, rather than relying on Roy Taylor and David Coffin to tell us what it says.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On Lamenting the State of the Church

In 1984, Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster. In 1993, David F. Wells published No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? In 2008, Michael Horton published Christless Christianity. These are merely the tip of the iceberg of jeremiads lamenting the current state of the church. These three are focused on the evangelical church, but dozens of others could be added lamenting the state of the Reformed church, the Lutheran church, the Roman Catholic Church, and any other church you care to name. All of these authors decry the problematic state of the current church.

For some people, it provokes a desire to go back to some period when the church was pure and things were good. For some, that was the seventeenth century, the period of the Westminster divines and the rise of Puritanism in England. For others, it was the previous century, with the rise of the Reformation. For others it was the period of the early church fathers, when such greats as Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome roamed the earth. (Almost everyone agrees that the Middle Ages were a complete mess.) For others, we need to go back to the purity and simplicity of the New Testament church.

But a little historical investigation demonstrates quickly that these are all chimeras—illusions or fabrications of the mind. The Puritan authors consistently decry the problems of the church in their own day. The Reformation writers likewise display the unfortunate difficulties of their time—problems caused by radicals, disagreements among reformers, and lawlessness throughout the land. With the early church fathers, the situation is no different. Doctrinal disputes, theological laziness, rampant antinomianism or legalism among believers. Even the New Testament church is only a testimony of the same set of problems. Consider all the problems Paul dealt with in the church at Corinth, or the serious doctrinal problems among the churches of Galatia. Even Philippians, which reflects no serious doctrinal issues, shows serious relationship problems among the members of the church.

What, then, are we to think about the church? Should we just give up? Should we simply refuse to publish such works as those listed above, since the problems are real, but they are long-standing, and are not going away any time soon? No, we should take a hint from the Old Testament. The Old Testament can easily be read as an ongoing lamentation/critique of the state of the church. The failures of the patriarchs in Genesis; the failures of Israel in the wilderness in Exodus through Deuteronomy. The brief success of Israel under Joshua followed by the woeful collapse recounted in Judges. Then the other books of history, retelling a story of long decline with an occasional bright light here or there. The Psalms are full of lamentations regarding the state of the nation. Then there are the prophets. They decry against the failures of their days, while at the same time proclaiming the hope of their saving God.

That is our work today. Decry the sins of the church. Call both the church and the world to repentance. Show them the beauty of the gospel of God in Christ Jesus. Then trust in God to do his saving work. For it is his purpose “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Notes on Jeremiah, 1: The Trouble with Tribbles

There’s no way of proving it of course, but Jeremiah may be the least read book in the Old Testament. There are at least three major problems with the book (from the would-be reader’s perspective). It is long. It is disorganized. It is dark.

First, with regard to the length of the book: the reader is right that it is a long book. By word count in the Hebrew text, it is the longest book in the Old Testament, longer even than the Psalms. It is somewhat shorter than the Psalms in English, but that has to do with the matter of translation requirements. So yes, it is a daunting book from that perspective. Strike one.

Second, with regard to the organization of the book: the would-be reader may page through the book, looking at the subheadings in their Bible. There are about ninety of these in the ESV. Some of the sections are extended, some are brief. But reading them one after the other doesn't give the reader any sense of the development, the order, of the book. So once again, the would-be reader is right. Strike two.

Third, from reading the subheadings, and just from the general reputation of the book, the would-be reader has the impression that the book is all about judgment. Note the first few subheadings in the NIV (2011): The Call of Jeremiah; Israel Forsakes God; Unfaithful Israel; Disaster from the North; Not One is Upright; Jerusalem Under Siege. And that’s only through chapter 6. The book is dark. It is grim, The would-be reader is once again right. Strike three.

So we close up Jeremiah and go read Psalm 23 or some other comforting passage.

Why should the Christian read Jeremiah? Why is it even in the Bible? I don’t know the answer to the second question. But the answer to the first question is, we read it because it is in the Bible. It was not written just for Israel, but for God’s people through all ages. It has a message for us today as much as it did for Jeremiah’s contemporaries. It will take some patience. It will take some work. But persevering through Jeremiah will produce fruit in the end.

Over the next several posts, I hope to give the reader rationale for reading Jeremiah, and then some guidance through the book, so that it might be read with profit. Just as a starter, Jeremiah (in the KJV) has 42,654 words. That’s about half the length of the average romance novel. It falls into the long novella, or very short novel category. So you see, Jeremiah is really not as long as you thought it was.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Keeping Your Church Growing: Some Thoughts on the Prayer Meeting

First, there are many good resources on the church prayer meeting. The following three are good for starting: 1)

The church that does not pray as a community is as surely dying as is the church that is not inviting and welcoming. The power of the church comes through its use of the means of grace: preaching, administering the sacraments, and prayer. Yet many churches seem to think that only the first two are necessary.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the decline in the church prayer meeting, some of which are dealt with in the first link I listed. Part of the difficulty may relate to the size of the church. For large churches (just as a suggestion, any church larger than 250 members) the chief problem is making it possible for the entire congregation to pray together. That is probably impossible. So for larger churches, I would suggest dividing the church into smaller groups for prayer. To some extent this may be accomplished by the “community groups” that many larger churches have. For smaller churches, gathering the church for prayer should not be a problem.

The problem is twofold. It is first in convincing the congregation that congregational prayer is essential for healthy church life. This must be addressed from the pulpit and by the leadership in the church. Where church leaders do not attend the prayer meetings, the congregation at large will consider that the prayer meeting is not necessary.

The second problem is in the way the prayer meeting is run. Too often, the prayer meeting is hijacked by Bible study and too much time sharing prayer requests. The primary purpose for the prayer meeting should be prayer, and nothing else should get in the way. A brief (5 minutes maximum) devotional on some aspect of prayer may be used to open the prayer meeting, but the remainder of the time should be devoted to prayer. A prayer list may be distributed at the beginning of the meeting. The people should be urged to make their requests known ahead of time so that they may be included on the list, avoiding using prayer time for sharing time.

Further, prayers should be short (see the first link above). It is very difficult for people to join in prayer if the prayers are long and (as is too often the case) incoherent. Also, though some prayer time should certainly be devoted to various health concerns among the members, this should not be the bulk of the prayers.

The prayers of the church should be for the work of the church. That is, part of the prayer time should be for the preaching, teaching, and outreach of the local church. Part of the prayer time should be for the preaching, teaching, and outreach of the wider church—for example, the work of missionaries supported by the church.
One place at which many churches fall down on the job is praying for other like-minded churches in the same area. For denominational churches, the prayer meeting should regularly include prayer for other churches of the same denomination that are in the same area. How often are denominational churches ignorant of the work and needs of other churches if the same denomination in the same town? It ought not to be so. Even non-denominational churches usually have like-minded churches in the same town that they can pray for. The pastors of churches should be regularly informing their congregations of the needs of related churches, so that members of the larger body might be praying for one another. Unfortunately, too many churches, in their prayer meetings, act as if they are the only church in the world. Do not your sister churches have financial needs, struggles of various kinds, difficulties among the members? You should be praying for them as well as for yourselves.

But in any case, the church should gather as it is able for prayer. Prayer is the lifeblood of the individual Christian, and it is the lifeblood of the church.

Come, my soul, thy suit prepare;
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay.

Thou art coming to a king,
Large petition with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.

(John Newton, 1779)

The Sin of Forgiveness, Edward F. Mrkvicka, Jr.

A search on Amazon books under the subject “forgiveness” produces a list of 8,374 works. Obviously, forgiveness is a big issue. What that search won’t tell you, though, is that there is a great deal of disagreement among those authors as to many aspects of forgiveness. In particular, there is serious disagreement about whether forgiveness should be conditional (that is, forgiveness granted on the basis of repentance by the offender) or unconditional (forgiveness granted regardless of whether the offender repents). Mr. Mrkvicka’s book takes the former position. The latter position is what gives him the title of his book—that forgiveness granted apart from repentance is sin, damaging both the offender and the one offended.

Mr. Mrkvicka’s main point is clear: forgiveness must be given only on the basis of demonstrated repentance on the part of the offender. To do otherwise results in the abuse of the one offended, and the escape from responsibility for the offender. However, very little else in Mr. Mrkvicka’s book is clear. The “Table of Contents” looks clear, but the content of the book is muddled. The argument of the book remains undeveloped. By the time the reader has finished the book he may or may not have been convinced that Mr. Mrkvicka’s view is right. But the reader is left with many unanswered questions, as Mr. Mrkvicka gives no guidance regarding how this works out in real life. The book itself is simply an extended insistence that forgiveness depends on repentance.

Forgiveness is an important issue in the life of the Christian. Understanding how and when we are to forgive, and what that looks like demands a thoughtful, careful treatment. Unfortunately, Mr. Mrkvicka has not given us that book.