About five years ago, a self-appointed group of churchmen decided that what the Presbyterian Church in America needed was a Statement of Identity-an extra-Constitutional document which would delineate the parameters of what was and what was not acceptable in the denomination. A Proposed Statement of Identity was produced, and an invitation was sent out, asking ruling and teaching elders across the theological spectrum to come to Knoxville in September, 1994, for a discussion.
At that gathering, those who had proposed this document got, well, bombarded. Quite a few observers at the meeting were under the impression that the proponents of the Proposed Statement had to lick their wounds from the encounter.
It had been widely assumed that a Statement of Identity was going to be proposed as a position paper for the General Assembly. After the experience in Knoxville, those pushing this notion discovered that there was insufficient interest throughout the Assembly for such a course of action. Within a few months, talk of the Statement of Identity had died down. The transfer of one of the key supporters to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a less conservative denomination, seemed to many to seal the fate of any such document seeing the light of day again.
In the last few weeks, however, a revised version has been circulated throughout the PCA. Coming from a post office box in Oakwood, Georgia, A Statement of Identity for the Presbyterian Church in America is an attractive booklet which sets forth a concern over current struggles within and a vision for the denomination.
Ruling and teaching elders are encouraged to attach their names in support of this document. The initial sponsors total twenty-nine.
Who Are They?
An analysis of those twenty-nine reveals some fascinating facts. Almost one-fourth (seven) are from Philadelphia Presbytery. About half (thirteen) have or have had a significant connection with Westminster Theological Seminary. Virtually two-thirds (nineteen) were born outside of Dixie. All but two of the twenty-nine are ministers.
But what is particularly interesting is their involvement in the General Assembly. The current document professes fear that "a growing cynicism and apathy about the higher courts in the church . . . can only lead to atrophy in this great work of God." The sponsors state: "we are discovering that too many of our elders are ill-advisedly opting to absent themselves from active involvement in the higher courts rather than exercising their gifts for ministry."
Well, by our count, twelve of the twenty-nine absented themselves from the 1998 General Assembly. Of the seventeen who were present, several apparently were there only for a brief period. Most did not make their presence known or felt. As a matter of fact, other than two members of the Standing Judicial Commission who were called upon to present a majority report, we do not recall a single member of this group who participated in the debate on the floor of the Assembly at all!
Their document suggests that the present structure of our church, with its focus on the "administrative, programmatic, constitutional, and judicial aspects of our life together," results in "unnecessarily trivializing our presbyteries and assemblies." It's no wonder, then, that many of the twenty-nine would choose to spend their time doing something else.
We do not intend in this editorial to give a detailed analysis of the Statement of Identity-a document containing many statements with which we can agree. However, we believe it is important to point out some of the more problematic sentiments found therein.
Subscription to the Standards
The second chapter tackles the issue of theological subscription. Here, we would suggest, there is some confusion in the way the document formulates the matter.
What is being advocated is a "system" subscription-that is, that the subscription to the Confessional Standards is to a system of doctrine, rather than to particular propositions.
There are at least two difficulties with that position. One is that the fundamentals (that is, the constitutive parts of the system) are defined by the particular propositional statements. Another difficulty is manifest in what the Statement itself sets forth: "We deny that our vows commit us to a position in which elders must profess to receive every detail of the propositional statements within the Confession. We further deny that men who are actively examining and trying to reform their faith according to scriptures [sic] should be denied ordination and/or the privilege of ministering in the PCA due to exceptions they may have to our standards, provided that their exceptions do not bear on the system of doctrine contained therein . . . ." Well, if subscription does not necessarily involve the particular expressions of the Confessional Standards, then there's no reason for a person to take exception to them.
Women in Leadership-Not a Big Deal?
Chapter 3 urges that theological reflection is necessary for the life and ministry of the church. But this chapter also states that "such matters as . . . the areas of service for women in the church (which does not include the eldership)", while important, "should not be treated as though the very foundation of Christ's church at large, or the Reformed church in particular, were threatened by them."
In other words, it's O.K. to ordain women as deacons.
But the public declaration of the PCA at its founding would give the lie to that notion. Part of the evidence for apostasy in the Southern Presbyterian Church, and one of the explicit reasons for ecclesiastical separation, was the ordination of women. "A Message to All Churches . . .", adopted by the First General Assembly, definitely regards female ordination as un-Biblical; and no distinction is made between the eldership and the diaconate. We trust that the vast majority of the denomination, in contrast to the authors of this document, clearly see the threat which female ordination would pose to the peace, purity, and unity of our beloved church.
Chapter 4 posits that "with proper means of accountability in operation, we need to allow our leaders to lead." Of course, whether or not this is an acceptable statement depends upon what is meant by leadership.
No one questions that people in positions of responsibility have a degree of flexibility in carrying out their mandates. But from our perspective, far too often the "leaders" have gone far beyond what has been warranted; and sometimes have even defied perspicuous instructions from the Assembly.
Chapter 5, on worship, suggests that a variety of "somewhat controversial" practices-"use of musical instruments, vocalists, drama and dance, lifting or clapping of hands, regular use of women in liturgical leadership, use of kneelers, and use of various forms of art"-are matters up for discussion. We have no problem with discussing such things. However, what is not acknowledged is that the Presbyterian faith, via the Westminster Standards, already has the answers on most, if not all, of those practices.
Yes, we all agree with searching the Scriptures, and with making the Bible the touchstone for our views and practices. But corporately, the Presbyterian Church has already reached the proper conclusions. Unless and until the confessional standards are changed, then we must submit to our heritage.
Women Leading in Worship
With regard to women leading in worship, the past two General Assemblies have spoken decisively, in taking exception to the minutes of Southern Florida Presbytery for having women read Scripture and lead in prayer in public worship. The authors of the Statement of Identity have written that "individual presbyters who hold 'minority opinions' should be careful to raise their opinions or objections in a respectful manner that maintains the peace and dignity of the church court and, further, that those individuals should humbly submit to, and seek to support, the majority view of the church court after closure on the issue (at least until a considerable time has elapsed or until new circumstances or a new consensus warrants revisiting the issue), unless it involves issues of moral conscience, in which case the formal procedures of protest, complaint, appeal, or disfellowshipping should be peaceably pursued." It appears to us that there are two possibilities: either women leading in worship is a matter of moral conscience, or it is not. If it is not, then the signers of this Statement should humbly submit to, and seek to support, the majority view. If it is a matter of conscience, then the signers of the Statement who wish to have female leadership in public worship should follow the formal procedures in the Book of Church Order; and, if they fail to persuade the majority, should peaceably withdraw, in accordance with their own ideals.
One of the more curious aspects to this document is its disclaimer. The Introduction states: "While each of the signatories may not agree with every statement or the precise wording of every thought, we do believe that this statement represents the general thrust and desired priorities of the Presbyterian Church in America." The December, 1998, letter which accompanied the booklet invites others to subscribe their names, with this appeal: "You may not agree with every statement in this 'Statement of Identity' (all of us may have our own quibbles at this point)."
With this loophole, the whole enterprise becomes almost comical. Not only are the propositional statements of the Westminster Standards too much for these sponsors to handle-they can't even endorse (or expect others to endorse) wholeheartedly and undividedly the statements in their own document!
Losing all force, it becomes a farce. Although it is designed to reflect a "consensus", how can anyone know what that consensus is? For example, some folks might think that because they can agree with ninety percent of the Statement, they'll go ahead and sign it. But would that signal that they approve of female ordination or female leadership in worship? The sponsors of the document might like to think so-but the disclaimer causes the Statement to die the death of a thousand quibbles. (We suppose that "exceptions" to the Westminsiter Confessional Standards are henceforth to be known as "quibbles.")
What Does It All Mean?
We are aware that some in our church are discouraged about this phoenix-like statement; they are afraid that its resurrection, after it seemed buried and gone, is indicative of renewed vigor to impose an extra-Constitutional understanding on the church. We are far more sanguine, however.
The sponsors themselves disavow making the document quasi-Constitutional. Their letter says: "By this 'Statement of Identity' we have no intention of adding to the Constitutional documents of our church nor of overturing any assembly or presbytery of the church."
Even without that disavowal, we do not believe that the "Oakwood Affirmation" was destined to have much effect. In the final analysis, the Statement does not hold together very well. A friend of ours commented that the document appeared to be like that proverbial horse designed by committee; at points, it seems as if what the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away. We doubt that this complex set of affirmations and denials is likely to become a rallying cry for the grass roots.
A Modest Proposal
This Statement of Identity claims that the denomination presently has a "cumbersome structure and process, which have caused us to place our focus on the administrative, programmatic, constitutional, and judicial aspects of our life together rather than the doxological, theological, edificatory and relational aspects of our communal life (thus unnecessarily trivializing our presbyteries and assemblies)." Since the sponsors disagree with the present structure and process, we take it that they are in the minority on those points, too.
However, we would like to propose a way to accommodate those who regard the usual discussions and debates as distasteful and/or trivial. Since they find the theological "skirmishes" in the church courts "too often make [them] wish [they] had not attended a presbytery meeting or General Assembly," we would suggest that those brethren be allowed to attend seminars of their choice during the time that these courts are conducting business. Although this would not solve all of our problems, it would allow those particularly interested in and gifted in areas of constitutional and judicial matters to exercise appropriate leadership. Those who are particularly called to the doxological, edificatory, and relational aspects of church life would not feel encumbered by having to deal with administrative details.
If the sponsors of the document will embrace this idea, we believe that the tension on the floor of our church courts would be lessened considerably, and everybody would be much happier. We commend our proposal to them most heartily.
[For related stories see Sunday Afternoon Dance Fever in New York City, Sunday Disco Dance, and Woman Delivers Messages at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church]
for Christ's Sake
Philadelphia-the "City of Brotherly Love"-often does not live up to its name. Violent crime is rampant in most neighborhoods, whether they consist of rowhouses, brownstones, or Victorians.
In this issue of P&R News, we have detailed the life and ministry of a man who has determined to demonstrate Christ-like brotherly love in the City of Philadelphia. Bill Devlin has shown that he is willing to pay a high price for discipleship. His commitment to urban dwelling almost cost him his life.
We featured the Director of the Urban Family Council because his is an interesting story. We also believe that his messages represent a series of challenges on a number of fronts which the church needs to hear.
Of course, the fact that we respect and appreciate him does not mean that we totally agree with him. For instance, we would respectfully disagree with his stances on gun control and capital punishment.
We also have some questions and concerns regarding the way he conceives of cooperation with non-evangelicals, particularly Roman Catholics. We have no problem with making common cause with 'co-belligerents,' to use Francis Schaeffer's term. But we think that applying "the gospel" to a situation is difficult if not impossible when done in cooperation with people who, officially, are indeed committed to the Council of Trent.
We would respectfully submit that a true profession of faith normally leads to affiliation with a manifestation of the church which maintains that salvation is by faith alone and by grace alone. Or, to put it another way, we know that high Catholic officials could find a PCA church to baptize and receive them, upon credible confession. We are also quite certain that that sort of renunciation of idolatry and superstition by one or more Catholic leaders would have a dramatic effect on many in the Roman Church. Rome has had a history of beguilement; and one must beware those who refuse to leave her while professing faith in Jesus.
But having said that, we admit that we have not walked in Bill Devlin's shoes. Nor have we been stabbed with a dagger for Christ's sake. But Bill Devlin has.
And so we esteem Bill Devlin as a godly example for all of us. And we're very sure that he would welcome anyone-including those who disagree with him on some of these matters-to join him in the city.