The Importance of Attidude in Confessional Subscription

Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman asks,

I wonder: do good churches go bad because they appoint closet liberals to the ministry? Or do they go bad because they appoint good people to the ministry who do not understand the nature and importance of confessional subscription and who will therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, help to water down the very mechanisms established by the church to preserve the gospel for the next generation?

Trueman highlights a very important detail concerning confessional subscription that is often left out of the discussion – the attitude with which one subscribes. Subscription should be a matter of conviction, not convenience.

Check out his essay here.

>Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Position on Current Debate Concerning "Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses"

>In addition to meeting to discuss the “PCA Strategic Plan,” the Session of Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain also met to discuss the current debate in the PCA concerning commissioning (not ordaining) deaconesses, since there are several overtures being presented at General Assembly next week that have to do with this controversy.

In discussing the overtures and the ongoing debate as it has continued since last year’s GA debate between Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan, the Session determined that the heart of the current debate in the PCA on deaconesses is that there are some in the PCA who want local congregations to have the freedom to commission women to an unordained office of deaconess (for more details on the issue and recent developments with some of the overtures, see this post).  Although some are framing the debate in terms of the gender issue, we believed it best to address the issue by looking at it ecclessiologically instead, and have sought to address the idea of commissioning men or women to an unordained office, regardless what you call those men and women.  The issue is not about whether or not women can be referred to as deaconesses, but whether or not it is possible or necessary to commission anyone to an unordained office.

So, the position that the Session of Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain is adopting is:

Whereas, we affirm that as a member congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America we are subject to the Church’s Constitution, consisting of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order, and that the Church’s Constitution sufficiently addresses the various roles for men and women in the church (BCO 26-1); and

Whereas, we affirm that as elders we are to exemplify and lead the Church to be subject to our brothers in the Lord and are to strive for the purity, peace, unity and edification of the Church(BCO 8-3, 21-5, 24-6); and

Whereas, we affirm that both male and female are created in God’s image and have equal redemptive standing before God (Gen. 1:27; Gal. 3:28), and that all believers are gifted and called to participate in certain aspects of the ministry of the church (1 Cor 12, 1 Pt 4.11-12); and

Whereas, we affirm that the Bible and our Church’s constitution provides a structure for how this shared ministry should be carried out, which consists of office holders, “rulers,” and the laity, “those ruled,” which the two working together constitute it a “spiritual commonwealth” (BCO 3-1); and

Whereas, we affirm that the New Testament offices of the Church consist of teaching and ruling elders and deacons (1 Tim 3, Acts 6; BCO 1-4, 4-2, 7-2); and

Whereas, we affirm that the nature of an office as it is a special charge representing Christ to his body entails that one holding an office has been inducted to it by ordination, which is the authoritative admission of one duly called to an office in the Church of God, and that apart from ordination, one cannot hold office in the Church, and therefore that there can be no such thing asan unordained office or officer (Acts 6.6, 13.3; 1 Tim 4.14; BCO 17, 21); and

Whereas, we affirm that the New Testament does not teach or support by way of direct command or example the concept of “commissioning” that is not tied to “ordination” and the Church’s Constitution does not refer to, provide for, or define “commissioning;” and

Whereas, we affirm that by God’s design only men are called to hold office in the Church since only men are to be ordained according to Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1, Tit. 1:6; Acts 6; BCO 7-2, 9-3, 4-4, 12-5, 16-2, 24-1); and

Whereas, we affirm that since the only offices of the Church are teaching elders, ruling elders and deacons, and to hold one of these offices one must be ordained, to speak of an office other than teaching elder, ruling elder or deacon, or to speak of an office or officer that is not ordained, regardless of one’s gender, is contrary to the nature of an office, and is not in accord with the Scripture or the Church’s Constitution; and

Whereas, we affirm that there is already a sufficient provision for lay persons, both men and women, to help in the diaconal work of the Church in BCO 9-7, which reads:

It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men andwomen of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.

Therefore, the Session of The Reformed Presbyterian Church is resolved to reaffirm to our congregation, the Church and the watching world that (1) until or unless there are constitutional amendments to change our BCO with regards to the role of men and women in ordained or unordained office, we are to be faithful to uphold the constitutional views of the Church; and (2)it would be sinful for the Church to amend her Constitution with regards to establishing an unordained office of deaconess or in establishing a provision for “commissioning” women as unordained deaconesses since that is not in accord with what the Scripture and the Church’sConstitution teaches concerning the structure of the church and the nature of a biblical office; and (3) that it is unnecessary for the Church to amend her Constitution with regards to establishing an unordained office of deaconess since there is already a sufficient provision for unordained persons of both genders to participate in such service.

Let us all strive to fulfill our vows to be subject to our brothers in the Lord (#4) and to zealously maintain the purity, peace and unity of the church (#6).  And may we do so graciously, humbly and speaking the truth in love.

>"An Alternative Plan for PCA Renewal" from the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia

>Coming from the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia of the PCA is an overture I can support.  The men of the NWGP have provided 17 points for renewal in the PCA–points that promote reformed practice in addition to Reformed theology.  Kudos to the men of the NWGP for stating such a clear, biblical and confessional response that is irenic and profitable.  There is no need to leave confessionalism behind in order to do Reformed ministry, rather, what is needed is a robust commitment and engagement in Reformed theology, piety, and practice in the life of the church in worship, nurture and missions.  We have a rich perspective–why not put it to use?  We don’t need to be less or other than what we are, and how can we reproduce Reformed churches if we are less than Reformed in the process?  Our ministry should reflect the God-centered, covenantal theology of our standards,

 . . . the remedy to our denominational maladies is not the implementation of what some see as a fairly complex, mildly therapeutic, sociologically savvy strategic vision. Rather, what the PCA needs – in fact, what every NAPARC denomination always needs – is a clear, uncompromising call to biblical and confessional renewal, renewal that is on God’s terms, not man’s.

The preface is helpful in explaining that those who disagree with the Strategic Plan do not disagree because they are not in favor of missions, but because they believe that God has promised to bless certain means, so the ministry of the church should be focused on those things, and not on things that God has not promised to bless,

Many believe that the current problems in the PCA have less to do with cultural irrelevancy and insensitivity, and more to do with a lack of confidence in the sufficient, efficacious means that God Himself has promised to bless for the health and extension of His kingdom. Perhaps we – the PCA – should examine ourselves, and ask ourselves some searching, even convicting questions – questions that may help us to recognize our current problems: Why the upturn in topical, loosely textual, media/story driven sermons? Why the downturn in exegetical, Christ-centered, lectio-continua Bible preaching? Why the upturn in focus upon missional broadness, social programs and eco-gospel ministry? Why the downturn in substantial prayer in public worship? Why the absence of congregational prayer meetings? Why the upturn in focus upon women possessing greater roles in worship and denominational leadership (“direction and development”)? Why the downturn in sessions boldly calling men to lead their families and Christ’s Church (i.e. public worship, family worship)? The main goal or plan of the PCA for the next forty years should be a courageous, God-centered, joyfully reverent return to Reformed Faith and practice, as set forth in the Westminster Standards and her sister confessions (e.g. The Three Forms of Unity). This is a call to renewal that we should all be able to get behind.

 It is not new in the tradition of American Presbyterianism to want to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy, a la, the “doctrine divides but ministry unites” chorus of the new school/old school debates of the nineteenth century, so no one should be surprised to see this manifested again.  But it is because this is not new that we must understand that it apparently is not going away and there is once again a need for a loving, irenic and faithful response.

You can read the entire overture here.  Let me add my “Amen!”

>Strategic Plan/Identity for the PCA?

>The Cooperative Ministries Committee has unanimously approved its “Strategic Plan” for understanding, evaluating and responding to the slowed numerical growth of the PCA (even the apparent frightening reality that there was even numerical shrinking),

This Strategic Plan seeks to address these realities by helping the PCA identify its challenges, address them with strategies that are consistent with our biblical values, and build denominational support for implementing these strategies. The overall goal is to enable the church to work together to steward its blessings and resources to advance the cause of Christ according to the principles and priorities of his Word.

If one does not wish to read all the analysis and evaluation and get right to the “strategies,” a helpful overview can be read here.  You can find an article in byFaith Magazine here.  You can also find a series of videos presenting the CMC’s plan here.

At the heart of the issue here, is the question over identity, or in the words of the committee “a proposed plan for the future of the PCA.”  There is much that could be said about this plan and there are many points that could be addressed.  But, given that this proposal concerns identity, I would like to address a couple of big-picture issues rather than specific details.  So, in my mind, a foundational question that must be answered is, “Is the identity that is assumed in these strategies and will be further entrenched by these strategies biblical/confessional?”.

First, the plan further centralizes power for making decisions in the PCA’s ministry.  Centralization of power, even in the church, is never a good thing, but especially within a Presbyterian denomination.  Presbyterian is not a top-down ecclessiology, but rather a representative ecclessiology where men ordained to exercise the keys of the kingdom exercise them on behalf of Christ for the church.  Presbyterianism spreads the authority equally, where as, centralization takes it away from some and puts it in the hands of fewer men.  And this is particularly dangerous given what the Bible says about who is participating in governing the church.  Presbyterianism is a representation consisting of sinners saved by grace who still sin.  This fact of the ongoing presence of sin and struggle with it further under-girds why centralization is wrong headed.  Presbyters already have a impossible calling as is–is it very wise to make that calling even more precarious?  Do we want to temp men to abuse power?  No matter how godly leadership is, it is still a leadership consisting of sinners who can be easily tempted to abuse authority.  If you think this concern is unfounded, then you may want to read more history, yes, even church history. Centralization will put the church in harm’s way by creating an environment for authoritarianism, where the will of the few powerful and elite will be forced on the many.  And the few powerful and elite always seem to be those with more money.  Is this the direction we want to take things?  To put the smaller and the weak in a position to be furthered looked over and ignored?  Centralization, then, is contra Presbyterian.

Secondly, the plan calls for the PCA to withdraw from NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.  Theme #3, specific means #4 states:

Means (Specific) #4: Partner with national and international ministries with whom we can most effectively participate in God’s Global Mission by: (a) seek union or appropriate levels of cooperation with Reformed movements making Gospel progress and in harmony with our ethos and goals; (b) withdraw from organizations with whom we share doctrinal history, but not ministry priorities, currently draining our ministry energies (e.g. NAPARC); (c) find new ways to give away our knowledge and resources to bodies of believers being spiritually blessed, [emphasis mine].

NAPARC is a group of churches that represent different denominations with whom the PCA has fraternal relations for the purpose of assisting one another for building the church of Jesus Christ rather than just focusing on individual denominations.  This group represents those with whom the PCA shares the same doctrinal heritage and represents the truest of fellowship and ecumenicism.  These are the guys who are standing with us.  These are the guys with whom we can participate in clear conscience in church planting and missions because we know they believe what we believe.  The reason stated for withdrawal is that even though they do share this doctrinal history, they don’t share the PCA’s ministry priorities.  Because of this, the strategy says that NAPARC is draining the PCA’s resources, so to be more effective in planting reformed churches and doing world-wide reformed missions, the plan says we need to stop participating with the other reformed bodies who are striving do the same.  What priorities aren’t the same?  In essence, by withdrawing, it would appear that we are limiting ourselves in ministry. 

Unless, by withdrawing from those with whom we share a doctrinal heritage, we join in with groups with whom we don’t.  Is there a move here to be aligned with non-reformed groups to accomplish reformed evangelism, church-planting and foreign missions for the sake of having greater “influence and growth.”  What will we be growing?  There is already a serious issue in the PCA with the use of non-reformed worship practices and non-reformed church growth strategies.  Will we now just go ahead and join in the work of the  groups whose methods have already been adopted?  According to Theme #3, the answer is yes.  The strategy would prefer the PCA learn from and work with the non-Reformed and the Reformed not part of NAPARC.  Which is interesting, given that there are no conservative churches in North America that are not part of NAPARC.  So who are these Reformed groups?  Who is it that makes up the “global church”?

O.k., so this has already gone much longer than originally intended, so I will stop for now.  But these two issues are very important.  The strategy calls for the PCA as a Presbyterian and Reformed church to pursue evangelism, church planting and missions in a non-Presbyterian fashion that centralizes power and to do so by no longer participating with other conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  So, the strategy seems to suggest that the PCA needs to develop a less Reformed, maybe even, non-Reformed identity in order to do Reformed ministry.

Now, please don’t come away from this thinking that the whole thing is bad and awful and the plague.  But, on the big picture, I am very concerned.  For critiques that deal with more specific details, you can read here and here.

The next step is for the “Strategic Plan” to be brought to the floor at GA.  It will be interesting to see what the PCA decides to say about herself by her vote.

>Update on "Tim Keller and Confusion Over Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses

>Since I first wrote about the confusion at Redeemer PCA on the ordination of a woman as a deaconess, more information has become available to fill out the story. In addition to Keller’s apology, the minister who made “the mistake” has also provided a public apology. The apology letter was apparently originally sent to his Presbytery and then made public at his permission. However, rather than clearing things up, things continue to get muddier.

First, I was glad to read of the apparent sincerity of the apology of Scott Sauls, the minister who mistakenly ordained a woman as a deaconess. However, he provides information about himself and past ministry that is further confusing to me. While the minister was certainly newer to the staff at Redeemer PCA, he is by no means a young inexperienced minister. He has been in ministry for around 13 years in which he has served two former congregations, one in the PCA and then one in the EPC (a denomination that ordains women). His call to Redeemer PCA brought him out of the EPC back to the PCA. He states in his apology that while in the EPC he did ordain women as deaconesses. Saul does not state in the apology sent to his Presbytery that he has changed his convictions about ordaining women. It seems as though from his perspective, his mistake at Redeemer was not so much that he transgressed biblical teaching and in turn inadvertently broke his ordination vows; rather, his mistake was in forgetting that he was back in the PCA where they don’t do that sort of thing.

Second, the situation becomes more confusing given that just months prior to the mistake, one of his jobs at Redeemer was to communicate the termination of a fellow pastor at Redeemer who was not “the best fit ideologically and ecclesially,” (you can find a copy of the letter here, but in providing the link I am in no way endorsing the content of the blog entry in which it is found, it is just a place where you can read the letter). It has been made known that one of the reasons for the ideological and ecclessial differences rested in the fact that that pastor was not in step with Redeemer concerning its position on women deaconesses. It would appear,then, that Sauls is not a green inexperienced minister who was confused one time, this was a minister who believes in women’s ordination and who participated in the removal of a fellow pastor who was not in agreement. This is not to suggest maliciousness and dishonesty. It just seems to me that when you have a man on staff who believes in and has practiced women’s ordination and a man on that same staff that gets fired because he does not, then it is not much of a surprise that this kind of mistake could happen. The muddier things get, the more potential there is to slip.

Third, the apology letter also heightens the concern I raised before about the lack of objection in the video displayed by the session and congregation of Redeemer. No one balks at what is happening, even when the congregation is charged to submit to “Deb.” In the apology, he states that he didn’t even know about his mistake until he saw the video just “last week.” That means from the time the service took place in May until late November when the video was pointed out to him, no one had said anything to him about his mistake! Maybe nobody else realized the mistake just as he didn’t. Maybe nobody thought it was a mistake. Maybe some people caught it but weren’t sure how to respond. Look, every minister and every session and every congregation is going to make mistakes, but I personally believe that this just underscores the importance of clear instruction and practice. When things are muddy it is easier for mistakes to be made, but more importantly, it makes it easier for mistakes to be missed. Any mistake can be fixed–but only if the mistake is recognized. If there is no clear instruction and practice, then by what standard do you assess what happens?

Lastly, in the apology he refers to the service where he made his mistake in two different ways. Sometimes he refers to it as a “commissioning done in error,” while in the same letter admitting that he ordained the deaconess. Which is it? Was it a commissioning done in error or an actual ordination? It seems that he and Keller just don’t get the seriousness of what happened that day. Even though it was not intentional, he and Redeemer PCA ordained a woman as a deaconess, which is a clear violation of the PCA‘s interpretation of the Bible concerning women’s roles in the church and a clear violation of the practice of PCA polity. This mistake is quite serious and needs to be corrected by more than “apologies.” Has “Deb” and the congregation been led to renounce the vows they took? Have they redone the service so as to actually commission her? Or is she and the congregation still functioning under those erroneous vows? The Bible never speaks of “apologies,” it speaks of confession of sin, repentance and loving constructive discipline. Will Keller, Sauls, and the Redeemer Session and congregation be afforded that form of Christian love?

The bottom line for me is that the apologies of Keller and Sauls are not alleviating concerns, but rather aggravating and compounding them. If you are interested in a more in-depth critique of Keller’s argument for commissioning women deaconesses, especially concerning some of the sources he has used to support his position, then you can read a six-part series (one, two, three, four, five, and six) over at the Bayly Blog (this is not an endorsement of everything found on their blog, but there is much helpful material).

>Tim Keller and Confusion Over "Commissioning" (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses

>*You can also find an update here.

Back in the summer at the General Assembly for the PCA, there was a discussion held between Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller concerning the role of women and the diaconate. You can listen to the first installment of the discussion here, and to the second installment here. The discussion was a follow up to articles that Duncan and Keller had published last year in the PCA periodical By Faith Magazine. Duncan’s article, “The Case for Our Current Policy on Female Deacons” can be read here. Keller’s article, “The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses” can be read here.

Keller believes that a woman in the church can do anything that a non-ordained man can do, therefore, he says that at his church Redeemer PCA, they have non-ordained women who serve on the diaconate. He says he does not believe in ordaining, but commissioning. In an article titled “Women and Ministry, Redeemer Presbyterian Church,” Keller summarizes what takes place at Redeemer PCA:

In a nutshell, our position is this: whatever a non-ruling elder male can do in the church, a woman can do. We do not believe that I Timothy 2:11 or I Cor.14:35-36 precludes women teaching the Bible to men or speaking publicly. To “teach with authority” (I Tim.2:11) refers to disciplinary authority over the doctrine of someone. For example, when an elder says to a member: “You are telling everyone that they must be circumcised in order to be saved–that is a destructive, non-Biblical teaching which is hurting people spiritually. You must desist from it or you will have to leave the church.” That is “teaching authority”–it belongs only to the elders. Thus, women at Redeemer will be free to use all the gifts, privately and publicly. There are no restrictions on ministry at all. There is a restriction on the office of elder… The Deaconesses will be women elected by the congregation who will do discipling, counseling, and shepherding in the church, particularly among the women. Spiritual maturity is the qualification. They will probably also exercise a teaching ministry in the church, depending on their gifts.

Keller says that women will be commissioned not ordained and therefore, the only service from which they are restricted is the office of elder. So he is fine with them “discipling, counseling, shepherding and teaching.” It may be “particularly among women” but not exclusively. The result of Keller’s position is that the waters are muddied and Presbyterian doctrine and practice concerning women and the office of deacon have become confused.

This confusion can be seen in how the roles between men and women have been equated in the diaconte. When one looks at the description of the diaconate at Redeemer’s website, there is no distinction between male and female deacons in how they become a deacon/deaconess, “The Diaconate, a group of men and women nominated, elected and appointed by the Redeemer members . . .” Further confusion is created by the fact that the men and women nominated to office go through the same training. And to add even more confusion, the director of the diaconate is a woman.

The egalitarianism has not only introduced women into roles that are not biblical and confessional, it is also keeping men from theirs. In an attempt to keep men and women deacons on an egalitarian level, not only are the women not ordained, but neither are the men. At Redeemer, therefore, there is no biblical office of deacon since there is no one ordained to that office. All the deacons/deaconesses are commissioned.

Keller has spoken out against those who desire to maintain the PCA’s understanding of women in office, claiming that their fear that commissioning will lead to ordaining is unfounded. Yet, by reducing the office of deacon to something it is not by not ordaining any of them, he has in effect already moved things in the direction of egalitarianism, which, many believe will eventually encroach on the office of elder, as well.

All this confusion seems to have even affected the Teaching Elders at Redeemer, and the PCA confessionalists may have been proven right. This week a video has been making its way around the blogosphere that seriously calls Keller’s position and practice into question. In the video, there is a woman named Deb who is ordained as a deaconess. Wes White provides a detailed analysis of the video over at Johannes Weslianus and shows that it follows the procedure for ordaining someone to office in the PCA Book of Church Order. It gives the appearance that Keller may not being forthright.

Well, yesterday over at Green Baggins, Bob Mattes posted a response that he received directly from Keller, in which he tries to clarify the confusion surrounding this video and the apparent ordination of a deaconess. Keller responds by saying the ordination of a woman deaconess “is not our practice,” that they do not “ask our congregation to obey and submit to them,” and that it would not be their practice in the future. Keller chalks it up to a mistake made by a “newer minister.”

Yet, with this being a mistake and out of line with normal practice, I am surprised that there didn’t seem to be any negative reaction. No elders provide a correction to what happens. None of the other persons that are being installed seem surprised by the mistake. Deb herself does not question what the minister is leading her to do when he asks her to confirm her ordination vows. And no one in the congregation seems to question what is happening. In fact, when the congregation is charged to “acknowledge and receive Deb” and to promise to yield “all that honor and encouragement and obedience in the Lord to which the Word of God and the constitution of this church entitles them,” no one is looking around, no one seems puzzled, and there is a clear, unqualified affirmation from the congregation.

My point is not to suggest that Keller is lying or covering up some secret cabal, or to maliciously draw attention to the minister’s mistake. My point here is that clear water becomes muddied when something is added that shouldn’t be there. Keller and Redeemer’s novel understanding and practice concerning the diaconate has not helped to instruct the body on a proper understanding of polity and doing things in good order, instead it has created a context in which a woman can be ordained (by mistake) and no one seems to blink. And this raises the question, what if there is a time when it is not a mistake? Will they go right along with it like they seemed to this time? When the shepherds try to bend the lines, it is the sheep who pay the price.

It is always important that the Church establishes her order based on the scripture. If there are some with differing opinions about what the scripture teaches, then there is a proper place to have that discussion. But once the Church speaks, then it is incumbent on the officers to instruct the congregations and align their practices with those standards. If one finds that the decision of the Church goes against his conscience, then he is free to disagree and has the liberty to serve in a Church in which he does not have to go against conscience. But if he chooses to stay, then it is best for everyone that the decision of the Church be maintained with as much clarity as is possible. Let us pray that amidst this confusion that clarity will prevail.

*Read on to an update of this post here.

>OPC, PCA, EPC, PCUSA: What’s in a Name?

>Over at Of Trout and Men, my friend and mentor Dan Knox has a helpful little synopsis answering an inquiry concerning the difference between the different Presbyterian denominations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

The person posing the question to Dan did not include the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but the PCA is quite similar to the OPC, so you can include the PCA with the OPC in that article.

But the OPC and PCA are still distinct. You can read of these distinctions in a helpful article by Peter Wallace. Wallace is uniquely qualified to answer this question given that he is an OPC pastor who has been serving a PCA congregation for over six years. As such, Wallace attends both Presbytery meetings for the OPC and PCA, as well as serves on the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, where his duties have included serving as a fraternal delegate to the PCA General Assembly, as well as some face-to-face discussions with representatives of the PCA’s Interchurch Relations Committee. Wallace provides a helpful, fair and balanced perspective that doesn’t get caught up in the extremes.

You want to know the difference, then check out these articles.