Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Pew Controversy-A Primer

Southern Baptists are a cantankerous lot. As the SBC approaches each June, word of possible resolutions begins to wind its way out of the 40,000 churches of the Convention. This year promises to be no exception.

Over the Founders blog, JBuchanan, who is leading the current opposition to the use of theater seating in the churches, has proposed the following resolution on Pews:

Whereas, our Baptist forefathers, both of the Sandy Creek and Charleston
traditions, upheld the use of pews in the church, and

Whereas, Noah and his family sat upon benches hewn from wood in the ark,

Whereas, the pew generates a sense of community and unity in the church,

Whereas, the pew by its uncomfortable nature lends itself to the resistance
of slumber, and

Whereas, the theater style seat represents a heretical gnostic influence
upon the church, and,

Whereas, Leonardo Davinci painted Jesus and His disciples seated upon
wooden benches in the "Last Supper" thus conveying the secret message that all
true churches use pews, and

Whereas, theater style seating represents the decadence and wordliness of
Hollywood, and

Whereas, if pews were good enough for Paul they ought to be good enough for

Let it be resolved,That this convention call upon all of our churches to
burn all existing theater style seating in our churches, andLet it be resolved
that we publicly repent of our pewistic tendencies, andLet it be resolved that
any church that continues in pewism be removed for the fellowship of this

I thought I would make a few observations about the resolution here and provide some background into this controversy for our Southern Baptist readers.

As I pointed out to JBuchanan, Da Vinci was a paedopewist, so he may not want to go there. In addition, I believe Jeff Young put it well when he wrote,
“...BFM2000 was purposely drawn up in such a way as to leave room for Pewites
and Chairists. To narrow the parameters of cooperation in our convention to only
followers of Pewism is to go beyond your authority as a SBC messenger.”

We must be careful about this resolution. I do, however, laud JBuchanan for bringing this issue before the Convention after so long, and, for the most part I find it agreeable.

The Pewist Controversy has been going on since around 1900. At that time, the Landmark pews, who affirmed that the use of pews in churches goes back to John the Baptist, left the Convention to form their own denomination, the Landmark Pewist Baptist Church of America (LPBCA). The difficulty sustaining this historical thesis is quite evident. In what pew did John the Baptist sit? Did he hew pews out of trees for his listeners? How did he transport his pews? Jesus was a carpenter, did He make them for His own listeners? Where is that in the Bible?

In addition, most the groups using pews in the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene church were heretical groups. Will anybody actually consider the Pewlicans orthodox Christians?

This gets us to the early middle ages, in which the Fifth Slateran Council declared that sitting on pews made of oak slats is a means of grace, as they represent the rock on which we have built our houses and actually become the rock when the priest speaks the right words. However, as Zwingli, the great Reformer, pointed out so well, the pew is only a pew. It does not become the rock when we sit on it just because the priest says a few words over it ex operate pewterato. Luther, of course, with his doctrine of multivolipewsence (aka conpewstantiation), took a position between the traditional Catholic view and Zwingli. Calvin took yet another view, and agreed that the pew retains its natural properties, but it does become the rock with respect to the faith of the church when they sit upon it.

Traditionally, Baptists get their theology of pews from Zwingli and Bullinger. From this point to the 19th century and the Landmark Pew Controversy, there was little, if any disagreement, though the General Pewists believed that Christ wanted everybody to sit on them; but Particular Pewists believed that they were only made for the elect.

The Controversy occurred as a result of the rise of two movements. First, the hyper-pew controversy and then the Pewist Disciples of Christ movement, both of which nearly wiped out 19th century Baptist churches.

Hyper-pewists are still with us today. Essentially, they affirm that any pews that are not made from particular kinds of wood are all inventions of men and should be rejected. Largely a result of the reaction to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, the hyper-pewists came to reject all mass produced pews. Today, the Primitive Pewists maintain the tradition of making their own pews. However, the Progressive Baptist Pewist Associations generally allow mass produced pews into their meeting houses. However, neo-Gnostic hyper-pewism is still with us today, and we must guard against it closely. This group believes God has provided no common pews for men and that only hyper-pewist are saved! In addition, many affirm one must have a warrant to sit, as if one can peer into God's electing decree to see if you are one of those elected for the pew.

The Pewist Disciples took a more free position on the use of pews, introducing the padded pew in the mid-19th century. As you might expect, many Baptists gravitated toward them, since they had more comfortable seating. Unfortunately, some of them have come to believe one must be baptized in a pew in order to be validly baptized. We strongly disagree with this as contemporary orthodox Baptists!

The Landmark pewists were the last on the scene until the late 20th century. Folks needed to know what church had the one true seating arrangement. Many Baptist churches had been devastated by the Pewist Disciples. The Landmark Pewists accepted mass produced pews into their churches and adopted the padded pew. This effectively wooed many back from the PD’s. However, when the Landmarks tried to take over the mission boards, saying that only those baptized in churches with their type of seating were validly baptized, the ensuing controversy caused a split in the SBC. We generally know this as the Down Pew Controversy or the Landmark Pewist Controvery.

The rise of theological liberalism largely served as a buffer between the pewists and non-pewists in the Convention until the Conservative Reformation, with the exception of the Back Row Incident of 1963, in which folks swore that a pew was hewn from a tree on the Grassy Knoll and placed in FBC Dallas shortly before the Kennedy assassination. Dr. Criswell was not amused.

In the late 80’s, Paige Padderson and Judge Pewsler began calling on messengers to elect more and more conservative pewists into leadership. The result was the development of two factions. The conservatives believed in a very wooden pew that had no flaws in the original blueprint. The more moderate faction accepted the padded pew and some affirmed that some designs may have some flaws. Because of this, they were often called “soft” by the followers of Dr. Padderson. If my memory serves, there was some controversy over the pews installed at SEBTS under Dr. Padderson as they seemed to have seats covered with animal skins gained from African safaris. In addition, many in NC and later in TX expressed concern that Padderson may be hoarding SBC cooperative pews in the presidential homes on each campus.

However, the two groups came together to oppose theater seating in the churches, issuing a joint proclamation of unity called the Pewist Peace Report. In the late-90’s, Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Pew and the follow up book Seeker-Sensitive Seats, set off a storm of controversy across evangelical Christianity. As a result many Baptist churches got on board with seeker-sensitive pews, seminars for more effective seating arrangements, and then, following the new pragmatism, began fund-raising drives to raise money for installing theater-seats in their churches. The anxious bench made a reappearance in some smaller churches as well, angering the hyper-pewists, since this implied that serious Finneyism had reemerged, much to their consternation. This is where we are today.

So, for those of you uncertain about the history of this movement, I hope this primer has helped. Remember this, and sit up straight this coming Sunday.


  1. Gene,

    Excellent research as always, but I feel that I have scooped you with a contraversial image.

    Some may see in this image that John Calvin is in study for his sermon with a chair immediately behind him.

    Now, some will say that since Calvin is not depicted as sitting in the chair, there may be room to presume that he does endorse chair sitting over pews. Others may argue that this was not the place of worship, but the study, and therefore Calvin's chair is no endorsement either of a chair tradition for elect posteriers.

    Occam's Razor, however, begs us to look at the image for what it simply is: John Calvin with a chair. None can deny the impact of such an image.

  2. That's a good point. I had forgotten to discussion Calvin on pews. I understand there is conflict among Preby's over the chair. The OPC affirms chairs for ordained ministers if I recall correctly. The PCA has more moderate stand, and the PCUSA, well, they aren't in the pulpit long enough to bother.

    All pews in Prebyterian churches are all connected, however.

  3. Brother you have done an excellent job in recounting the history of the pewist controversy. I appreaciate the attention that you are bringing to this issue.

    To correct brother Rogers it is well know that Calvin was an avid pewist and that this was one of the charges that led to the execution of Savonorola.

    I also agree that the BF&M is borad enough to include both pewists and seatists, but this is due to the doctrinal downgrade that has occurred during the last 100 years. I sincerely hope that we will see the day when we will ammend the BF&M to include and article on seating.

  4. This is a joke is it not?

  5. Very good, except that I wish you had bothered to trace the resurgence of the Chairismatics in the late 20th Century, who continue to posit that the flashier, more awe-inspiring seats did not, in fact, die out with the last of the apostles.

  6. How could any possibly think that this is a joke? Pewism "is" the true historic Baptist position on church seating and to compromise on it represents a downgrade. What will be next, would we allow bald headed ushers or warm water to be used in our baptistries?

  7. I have a question, well actually several questions: What if a person does not believe that pews were originally hewn from wood? However, this person loves pews and believes in them passionately. Is this a major problem? Does this belief affect most of whatever else this person does? Does this belief mean that this person has all sorts of flaws as a teacher of pewism? Can we still consider this person to be a pewist?

  8. Brother Buchanan,

    I know it is hard to see our predispositions challenged, but the picture clearly depicts Calvin before the chair. It speaks for itself.

  9. I find no comment from Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch, Joel Osteen or other
    "popular theologians"
    whose disciples number in the multiplied thousands!

    Nor did your "researched" article list any of the
    current "big name" leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention!

    How could you expect anyone
    to give much attention to your commentary when you have omitted their insightful statements?

  10. Farmboy,

    It is not essential that one believe that the first pews were hewn from wood, however, it is difficult to imagine what other materials that they could have been from. Additionally the Q2 documents found at Qumran clearly state that Noah spent nearly 50 years crafting the hand hewn benches upon which he and his family sat in the ark. Now obviously the ark is a picture of Christ and if Noah sat on hewn pews in the Ark we must take this as a direct assertion that God desires all those in Christ to sit upon pews.


    Your picture is interesting but I think your interpretation is incorrect. Calvin is standing in front of the chair indicating supremacy and that he is leaving it behind.

    As for our current convention leaders, I can only say that is sad that so many are unwilling to take the Biblical stand. The few devout pewists that stood in our major pulpits are passing away or retiring i.e., Dr's Criswell, Rogers, and Vines. During the conservative resurgence there was talk about only electing Presidents who were pewists and that they would only appoint pewists to the committee on committees, but in order to broaden the tent they compromised. But it is all in God's timing. We have won the Battle for the Bible but now it is time to fight the "Battle for the Pew."

    I wonder what Johnny Hunts position is on this and whether or not it will make it onto Baptist Fire?

  11. Dear Gene,

    I almost fell out of my chair (thankfully it has arms) when I read that Dr. Padderson had accused his opponents of being "soft."

    Joe, when I read that Calvin is leaving the chair behind him I couldn't breathe for 5 mintues. I'm still trying to get my breath.

    You two really need to publish this as a book. What a hoot!

    Anyone remember where I posted the 5 points of Pewism?

    Love in Christ,


  12. Brother Buchanan,

    I have, with incredible foresight, perceived your objection and adressed it in my first comment.

    Again, we must apply Occam's Razor and see that Calvin is pictured with a chair.

    Moreover, if your interpretation is to be borne, he must be pictured walking toward a pew. He is not. The absence of a pew in the picture clearly shows us that Calvinistic tradition must include a stream of chairism. To deny it is to do violence to the clear history we now have.

    Moreover, the stream of chairism that we have traces its roots all the way to John Calvin himself, the esteemed reformer.

    Can it also not be argued that the reformation from the Catholic church might also been from its propensity for pewitsic thoughts?

    Come, brother. Reason with me.

  13. I only have onecomment: [holding my nose] Pew!

  14. Dear Art,

    I don't believe the Roman church in the era of the Reformation even had seats at all. Didn't the people stand?

    You gotta know your facts if you're gonna play with the big boys!

    Love in Christ,


  15. OUCH!

    Touche' Jeff. You got me back.

  16. Just reading that made my back hurt.

  17. We used to have pews, but when the cushion came into the church, it just lead us to chairs, cushioned and connected.

  18. Jay,

    Your comment is a perfect illustration of the downgrade occuring in the church. First, we abandon the God honoring natural wood pew and accomodate the "soft" Christians that fill our churches by providing them with cushioned seating. The next thing you know they want even more comfort and we give in to the chair. Obviously, the spiritual destruction brought about by chairism has been well documented.

  19. Art,

    You have a point but I am afraid that you are being blinded by the Chairists and their modernistic tendencies. I still contend that Calvin is reading from the Scripture in the picture and having been enlightened by Scripture is turning his back on the chair. But we must be careful and remember that this is not and issue between Calvinism and Arminianism. Even Arrminius himself held the pewist position, although he did allow for the addition of padding.

    The charge that Pewism is a carry over from Rome is simply not true. As our esteemed brother has pointed our the Roman Catholics of the day all stood during the services. This had been the case from the Great Schism all the way to Second Vatican which not only allowed the mass to be delivered in the vernacular of the people but also allowed for the accomadation of local seating customs.

  20. For more sanctified satire, visit my blog for "aspiring Pharisees" at

    Excellent controversial topic.