The RPCNA and Church Union, a rough game plan

This is the final part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda

Let me end with some suggestions as we think about how to pursue unification.

We should unify bigger and not smaller. With the exception of a short-lived entente with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, we have only seriously considered absorbing micro-denominations, not merging with a larger one. The humble thing to do would be to pursue absorption by a larger Presbyterian body.

We should carefully reduce and revise the Testimony of the PRCNA to be once again historical and theological in nature, and no longer to be a vehicle for piecemeal revisions of the Confession. The current iteration of the Testimony has excellent content, but the need of the hour is something “portable”. Wouldn’t it be better to put much of the content of the Testimony into a series of position papers, and reserve the document itself for those claims of the Covenanters to Christ’s kingship that we still hold dear?

Related to the above, the larger body with which we unify would need to accept the doctrine of mediatorial kingship and the basic validity of our historical testimony to it (though not every historical action of the RPCNA or its predecessors) as part of the terms of merger.

We shouldn’t worry very much about preserving exclusive psalmody or a cappella worship. This suggestion will make a lot of people flinch, I know. Please consider two things. First, our worship distinctives became distinctives by default; we never set out to make them such (though we hold them to be true and treasure them). Second, as one of my professors at RPTS was fond of saying, the truth is tough. If we believe that psalmody is something that has to be “preserved” we are shortchanging it as a practice. Crown & Covenant publications sells more Psalters each year than the entire membership of the RPCNA. Psalmody is on the rise, and does not need our protection.

Questions on office (two issues: delineation of offices – two, two-and-a-half, three – and women deacons) need to be dealt with but must not derail the process.

Any one of these sets of questions and issues could halt reunification, and must not be allowed to. We are in serious danger of death by committee when discussing union more than in any other area, since it does not seem urgent on the surface. We must not allow the flesh to make us simply fear non-existence. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is a potential area for leadership in the wider Reformed and evangelical world by the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Who will take the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ to heart if not those who claim to most dearly love his kingship?

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Presence

I’ve been looking at some key concepts in thinking about how a culture (and ultimately a world) change. First I looked at “vision,” expanding on Zechariah 8. Next I examined “justice,” taking some points from Isaiah 58. Last I’d like to take a concept from Jeremiah 29.

The context of this passage is very important. At this point in the book of Jeremiah, Jerusalem has been besieged and taken by Babylonian forces, and its royalty, nobles, and ruling class taking into exile. Jeremiah (always the bearer of bad news, at least in the short term) not only has to set forth the Lord’s word to the exiles, but also combat the teachings of certain false prophets, who were claiming that the exile would be very short in duration – and so the exiles should remain uninvested in their new homes. They may well have been living in temporary housing – akin to refugee camps – on the outskirts of Babylonian towns and cities. They were certainly refusing to involve themselves in the civic life of the Babylonians. And understandably: these were their killers and captors! Through Jeremiah, God does promise a return from exile – but not for nearly two generations.

4“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

I want to make a couple of basic notes about the content of God’s commands to the exiles, and then step back and make some more general observations about their situation and ours.

The exiles are to literally invest in the cities of the Babylonians. They were to put money and energy into urban real estate. They were to plant gardens. These are economic activities that entwine them deeply with the well-being of these Gentile cities and their inhabitants.

The exiles were to live for the long term in cities that were not their own. There is permanence here. Build – don’t rent or tent. Plant – don’t just buy your food.

The exiles were to multiply and not decrease, in the midst of their captors and enemies. There are echoes of God’s commands to Adam and Noah, his blessing of Abraham, and even Exodus 1 and its record of the Israelites thriving in Egypt. In a Christian context we might extend this to include multiplication through both childbearing and the making of new disciples.

The exiles were to work and pray for the common shalom  – even understanding their shalom to be wrapped up in the shalom of their Gentile neighbors! The promise to Abraham that in him all the nations would be blessed is to shape the lives of his exiled heirs.

This new life-in-exile is an urban life. “Houses … gardens … the city.” I suspect there are a few reasons for this. For one thing, this is what the exiles were used to. These were inhabitants not just of Judah but of Jerusalem specifically. Second and more importantly, cities were the only places that could absorb exiles in this way.

The RPCNA and Church Union, a note to my colleagues

This is the fourth part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda

An additional reason for church unity and union presents itself for members and officers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America: our historical testimony to the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ. Since Jesus is king, it is his kingdom (which is not from this world) and no earthly empire (Roman or American) that unifies the world. Every worldly institution that does not acknowledge him is a challenger and a cheap imitation. This kingdom is a kingdom whose power is humility and love, which in the resurrection of Jesus led not to defeat but utter triumph over death and every other power. Apostles and martyrs died for the sake of their loyalty to “another king, Jesus”. If we hold Jesus to truly be king, then the Church is a mighty empire with marvelous diversity, bound together by a common Gospel and a common Spirit to worship one God. It is no accident that at the very point in history when Jesus was recognized in a public way to be the true king, the ecumenical councils of the Church began to meet. I would argue that it is also no accident that in the 20th century, as the splintering tendencies of the Reformation have metastasized in the Western world, the Christian faith has been marginalized and its influence on wider culture and public life shriveled. Do you want to see Christ glorified in public? Pursue church unity. It should have higher priority for us than working for a Christian amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It is important to note that in this matter we are as a denomination ignoring the obligations we brought out ourselves 136 years ago. The Covenant of 1871 reads in part:

… Believing the church to be one, and that all the saints have communion with God and with one another in the same Covenant; believing, moreover, that schism and sectarianism are sinful in themselves; and inimical to the true religion, and trusting that divisions shall cease, and the people of God become one Catholic church over all the earth, we will pray and labor for the visible oneness of the Church of God in our own land and throughout the world, on the basis of truth and of Scriptural order. Considering it a principal duty of our profession to cultivate a holy brotherhood, we will strive to maintain Christian friendship with pious men of every name, and to feel and act as one with all in every land who pursue this grand end. And, as a means of securing this great result, we will by dissemination and application of the principles of truth herein professed, and by cultivating and exercising Christian charity, labor to remove stumbling-blocks, and to gather into one the scattered and divided friends of truth and righteousness.

So why aren’t we making this a high priority? Why doesn’t it occupy the minds and conversations of Reformed Presbyterians at least as much as do more trivial matters like head coverings and home schooling? Are we afraid of losing “our place” as others have been before us? Is there a certain appeal to remaining small?—after all, in a small denomination it is easier to maintain uniformity and control, and easier for good men to attain prominence. It is time for self-examination by the RPCNA and her members as to what our priorities as a denomination are and how the glory of Christ can best be served.

The RPCNA and Church Union, part 3

This is the third part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda

I briefly want to think about some of the ways that a refusal to earnestly pursue denominational reunion hurts the ministry of the Gospel:

It tells lies about Jesus that contradict the ministry of reconciliation. Paul speaks of his ministry as one that brings people from every tribe and tongue and both genders together. He minimizes the importance of some theological debates and nuances and blasts those who spend time on others, all the while maintaining the centrality of the apostolic faith.

It presents the world with no credible alternative to its own voluntary organizations and friendships. If evangelicals spent less time sitting around wishing the world was paying attention and realized that the world is paying attention we would be much better off. The world is looking to the Church to show it what real human relationships are supposed to look like.

It belies the proclamation of free grace and forgiveness. We claim justification by faith alone, but we practice justification by theological perfection. This is perhaps the hardest of our reasons for disunity to fault, because the motivation seems so noble. But fault it we must. We like to be right, and we judge the rightness of others by our own opinions. When they are weighed and found wanting, we divide. There are other, patently stupid reasons for disunity: we dislike the “tone” or culture of another denomination; we have an ancient grievance for which we demand satisfaction; there is some particular action by a denominational court that we refuse to acknowledge. I can name denominations where each of these is a reason for separate existence. “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

It presents a tremendous apologetic barrier. Disunity is at least a symptom of sin and arguably a sin itself. A Muslim high school student asked me, “If there’s only one truth, then why are there so many different kinds of churches?” I had no answer, beyond pointing out that there are great similarities of teaching and practice, some interdenominational fellowship, and that despite our sins God had not allowed the destruction of his Church. But there is no way around Jesus’ promise: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we don’t have practical love for one another, they have little reason to think that we follow Jesus. “Lord, Lord!”

The prophetic spleen is almost vented … hang in there, because I do hope to offer some constructive ideas!

Justice

A few weeks ago I shared a first concept, riffing off Zechariah 8, that I think is key in understanding and seeking deep, real cultural change. That was vision: seeing what a good city looks like.

A second concept comes from Isaiah 58, and provides the name of this blog:

6“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

The term “social justice” gets abused pretty freely. But in the Bible the concept of justice includes not only just procedure (the barebones Western view of justice) but also the attainment of a certain state of affairs. When the poor are housed and clothed, justice is at work – just as much as it is when evildoers are punished. If the poor are ignored, injustice is being done.

Two things jump out at me in this passage of Isaiah. The first is that justice is to be everyone’s pursuit, not just government’s. Now, it should be government’s, and a special onus is on the powerful and wealthy. But there is no one whose job it is. Take the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked, cover him. The specific audience for the prophecy is God’s faithful people – his church. We are all to pursue justice, practically (not just “raising awareness“).

The second is even bigger: ruins are rebuilt, and foundations raised, counterintuitively through self-sacrificial service to the lowly. I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the importance of this. As James Hunter recently pointed out, politics doesn’t do as much as most American Christians think. It cannot really “change the world” in the deep, God-honoring way we desire. Political action cannot repair the breach, restore the streets, rebuild the walls, or water the desert! To do great things, God’s people must go down, not up.

Next concept, some time soon: presence.

The RPCNA and Church Union, part 2

This is the second part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda

At this moment the disunity of the Church in North America is ever increasing. There are more than 22,000 Protestant denominations on the continent, and the Presbyterian denominations alone must number in the dozens. At the same time the urban areas that serve as fountainheads of culture and leadership are overwhelmingly non-Evangelical. By some estimates, unchurched Americans comprise one of the largest mission fields in the world, and the single largest English-speaking mission field. As English missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin pointed out, mission is the mother of church union. With radical fragmentation in the church comes a tremendous hindrance to her witness.

Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one, even as You and I, Father, are one.” I have never met a Christian who disavowed the Lord’s request or said it was unimportant. But I have met many, not least within the RPCNA, who become uncomfortable at the thought of pursuing visible unity, demurring that the unity of God’s house is “spiritual” though not necessarily “organizational”. Protestant denominations, they reason, may operate separately but those that are orthodox are bound together in the same Spirit. Besides, they point out, look at the mess of the “ecumenical movement”, and look at its participants: theologically liberal mainliners and Roman Catholics. And look at the terms to which they will agree: joint statements that simultaneously gut doctrinal commitments and do nothing to help individual Christians live faithful lives!

This discomfort is not baseless. But is it a good enough excuse for disunity? Think of the fellowship of believers in Christ in terms of a marriage relationship. If a man says that he has spiritual unity with his wife, and generally speaks well of her, but is never seen in her company, doesn’t live with her, and doesn’t share a bed with her, what would you think of that “unity”? If he admits that his marriage is unwell but makes no serious effort to mend it, what would you say about his commitment to wife or marriage? The label “Gnosticism” has been overused by Reformed writers in recent years, but if if ever applies then it applies here. Claiming spiritual unity and refusing to seriously pursue visible unity in ministry and worship is inconsistent at best and false at worst. A person in a broken relationship with someone he loves doesn’t rest until it’s fixed.

Are we taking this seriously? We cannot believably profess unity with other believers and maintain separation from them over non-essential issues.

The RPCNA and Church Union

This is the first part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda

A dozen or more years after the ascension of Jesus to his place of rule, the young church faced a crisis of identity and unity. Having been birthed among Jews and grown through the conversion almost exclusively of Palestinian and Syrian Jews, worshippers of the Jewish Messiah were confronted with a very happy problem: how to think about followers of “the Way” that did not start out as ethnic children of Abraham or proselytes to Judaism. At this point the Church had not gained a discernibly distinct identity: it was only when the Gospel reached a truly Hellenistic city (Antioch) that the believers began to be called “Christians” to distinguish them from regular Jews.

After the conversion of some Gentile believers in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas (themselves Jews from the Diaspora and therefore comfortable in a Hellenistic social setting) took an unprecedented step: they willingly set out on a journey to bring the Jewish Gospel to Gentiles, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah that Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles” and “My witnesses … to the ends of the earth,” mandates that had been repeated with new meaning by Jesus prior to his ascension. The church having set them apart for this work, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, the two made a trip through the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, preaching and establishing communities of believers along the way.

It seems odd to us, members of an almost entirely Gentile 21st century church, that anyone would think it wise to impose Jewish regulations on Gentile Christians. But it was quite natural in the first century for Jewish followers of Christ to think of themselves as “Jews the way they ought to be” and of Gentile converts as at best Jews in the making. By the time we reach the crisis of Acts 15, believers from a Pharisaic background have been telling Gentile converts in Antioch and later the Asian churches that they must be circumcised and follow Jewish law in order to please God. Even Peter had joined the fray (on the wrong side, though he seems to have taken Paul’s rebuke to heart by the time the first council of the church comes together).

We could walk through each step of the Jerusalem meeting but I want to cut to the chase. The Holy Spirit led the leadership of the Church to see what He was doing in and through the conversion of the Gentiles. This potential crisis of unity and diversity is resolved through “laying on” the Gentiles in Antioch and elsewhere “no greater burden than these essentials”. What follows is a simple list: abstain from idolatry, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. Although the Jews will continue to follow the Mosaic code in appropriate detail, they do not impose it on Gentiles.

I want to point out that in a weighty debate, unity in Christ was not understood to demand uniformity of practice. The standard established for fellowship and mutual recognition was not “minimalist” in the sense of finding out what believers could “get away with”; rather, it was “essentialist”—it sought to uphold what was required of all and to demand no more.

In the next few posts I want to talk about what applying the deep unity of the church might look like, practically, for the Reformed Presbyterian Church.