Monday, January 14, 2013

Recovering the Reformation: A Response to Sam DeSocio

I’m just a common tater. I don’t hold a church office; I’m not an elder or a deacon or a scholar. In fact, I couldn’t have made it limping through the last year, while my wife was ill, without the help of the elders and deacons of my own PCA church.

It wasn’t long ago that I was working with Sam DeSocio, then the Assistant Pastor at our five-year-old church plant, setting up chairs and toting heavy things in order to prepare for worship services in our rented gymnasium.

Given that history, I was surprised to see that Sam, now the pastor of a start-up church himself (two years old?) has made the big time, getting response blog posts from both Darryl Hart and Scott Clark for his suggestion that it may be practical to think about dividing up the PCA into three smaller denominations.

He gives a couple of reasons:
1. First it seems obvious that our current structure and theological positions are not likely to move very much. A line here, a sentence there, but that’s about it. Many people are happy where the lines have landed, but many others seem to be frustrated by this stalemate.

But why do you want things to move a lot? The church should have a much longer vision than “year-to-year”. The earliest church (apart from Acts 15) didn’t hold a council for another 275 years. There were many battles, there were many persecutions, and yet the church as it was spread itself throughout the Roman empire and beyond.

Clark notes in his response, “What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.”

2. The PCA has no national identity anyway. “Depending on where you are in the country and with whom you’re talking, the PCA will be honored or shamed to some degree or another. The PCA has a muddled reputation, and this problems extends into the Kingdom as well.”

As for the PCA’s “identity”, “conservative Presbyterian” was enough for me when I was looking for a church. Descendant of Calvin, of the WCF, of “old Princeton”, of Machen – that was the path that I followed. I didn’t look for a “muddled reputation”. I looked for the history. And presenting that history will be a challenge enough.

3. “We are/or have outgrown our structural connections. In our current undelegated structures, maybe we are just too large of an organization to work effectively. We’ve decided year after year not to shorten our assemblies, we’ve decide that we all want a vote. I’ve yet to met anyone who really loved the idea of an Overtures Committee.”

As Hart noted, it is hard to imagine that the PCA is large. Hart puts the PCA into historical comparison:

I know that it looks big from the perspective of the OPC (30,000) and the RPCNA (6,000). But 300,000 (the PCA’s rough membership) makes them a piker in American Christianity. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (one of the U.S.’s top ten) has roughly 5.5 million members (last I checked). The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has about 2.6 million. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has approximately 400,000 members. The ELCA is to Lutheranism what the PCUSA is to Presbyterianism, just at the LCMS is the Lutheran equivalent of the PCA, which leaves the Wisconsin Lutherans the Lutheran version of the OPC. In other words, the small Lutheran denomination — WELS — has 33 percent more members than the PCA. And I bet the Wisconsin Synod folks think of themselves as small. So why is the PCA so impressed with its size?

Here are some of his “benefits” that might be obtained from such a split:

A. An amicable split “might be a catalyst for greater cooperation and unity within the presbyterian tradition.”

But it might not. As Hart cited Keller, “Splitting a church over an issue of truth and conscience can sometimes lead to theological and spiritual renewal.” But on the other hand, splitting because you want more of a voice at the GA is another.

B. The chance for local church leaders to assess their hopes for the church at large. “Quite honestly, I believe that many of the problems of the PCA come down to ostrich-itis. Local church leaders are unsettled with certain things going on in the PCA (shifts to the right or to the left), but many shrug their shoulders and give up. They see the stalemate. So, they simply give up participating at a denominational level.”

This is human nature. Again, isn’t it rather the job of “local church leaders” to focus on preaching the Gospel, and taking care of their local congregations? You talk about a “stalemate”, but why, again, is movement (theological or otherwise) a good thing?

C. “The opportunity to refine and simplify our denominational organization. As I mentioned above, it is hard to participate in the General Assembly, and each year it seems to get harder. Additionally there seem to be dozens of competing organizations connected to and supported by parts of the denomination, all with overlapping administrative costs.”

These are really superficial things. Just recently, I was noting in some comments to Steve on his Crispianity post yesterday that seem appropriate here:

There are some evangelicals and even some Reformed folks who have no concept of their own situatedness in the history of the church. People like Jason Stellman, for example, who, though he had a WSC education, [felt he was] totally unprepared for what he called the “sucker-punch” that was delivered to him by aggressive Roman apologists.

I know other young Reformed (pastors!) who are enamored with things like liturgies and clerical collars, and who, for that reason, seem very unprepared to me to make that “evangelistic, outward thrust” that you mentioned, much less to put their theology “at the service of the church”.

That could be you Sam.

But I’ll go with Hart and Clark’s appeal to confessionalism and then raise them one.

Clark said:

To be sure a denomination’s history is essential to its self-understanding and its maturity but let me suggest a bottle of win of an older vintage: 1648. The roots of any confessional Presbyterian church pre-date American Presbyterianism by about 80 years and the formation of the PCA by 325 years. The application and reception of the confession is local and unique and influenced by a denomination’s history but its ultimate identity is in God’s Word as confessed by the churches. If there is, in reality, no longer any unity of confession then division will become inevitable

Westminster is vintage 325 years ago. Calvin’s institutes are vintage about 450 years ago. The Martin Luther and the Reformation are vintage 500 years ago. And Christ and the Apostles are vintage 2000 years ago. There is a lot of water under the bridge; there is a lot of history to explore, in which you can understand where in the world you are, and where your church should be situated.

Just yesterday, our church prayed for your church, to grow and become financially more secure. It seems as if that [without my going into specific details here] should be your focus as a pastor. Not your seat at the GA.

Mike Brown was recommending a book yesterday on Facebook, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609. That won’t bee the end-all to the problems in the PCA, but how familiar are you with that history? What were the goals and intentions of these church leaders? That may be a place to start looking how to re-shape “denominational identity”.

It really seems to me as if history is the place to learn where an how to run a denomination today. If you don’t like that, why not look to how leadership functioned in the earliest church. Or to the history of Constantine (who ran the first “Ecumenical Council”). Or popes Gregory VII or Innocent III, or the “Conciliar” movement and the Council of Basel (1431–1449) to see how to really run the church?

There’s really a lot of precedent to look at, before you start worrying about how difficult it is to participate in the General Assembly.


  1. My comments are:

    I dont believe that DeSocio said he wants the lines to move. He made a statement of opinion: he doubts your current denominational lines (whatever he means by that) can or will move very far from where there are right now.

    His thesis does imply that that he is dissatisfied with that state of things, and wants a more-unified national government so that everybody is doing the same things in the same time. Not sure that's an answer, either. It sounds to me like some in the PCA are already too lashed to each other, emotionally speaking, as it is.

    Scott errs by excluding a third option, which is to stop harassing each other. His thinking promotes quarreling -- it sounds as if he thinks as if the Bible has something authoritative to say about everything, and as if belonging to a larger group equals endorsing what every member of that group says or does. Where is Romans 14?

    But there are people who define themselves by what they are against. For instance, even if Keller changed in every way that has been demanded of him, I believe the same people attacking Keller would go on and find somebody else on whom to furiously gnaw. There is an animating spirit behind the give-and-take that matters as well as the critiques themselves.

    You're correct, the PCA is not large. I think you guys are roughly the same size as the Evangelical Free Church, which isn't a large denomination either.

    As an outsider, I don't think any Christian denomination splitting up into ever-tinier pieces is a good idea unless heresy or the countenance of immorality is involved; but portions of your essay don't help. It is not wrong for any young pastor to apply his mind to the goings-on of his own denomination, even if his musings might be mistaken. Your command to him to mind his own home-fires, as if he wasn't, comes across in print as very pompous. It makes me want to dismiss everything you wrote.

    1. Jack -- I doubt that I "command" him anywhere in this article. First, it is an opinion piece, and as well, I did disclaim any authority that I might have at the beginning. So at the very least, you exaggerate a bit.

      As well, my line "it seems as if" is hardly of the nature of a "command".

      Presbyterians have fractured enough over the years (as I have read), that it seems (IT SEEMS, JACK, AND THAT'S AN ORDER!!!) that the mere premise "we should split, because ..." deserves some scrutiny.