To our faithful readers and supporters I beg your indulgence as I offer to you my first editorial since becoming Editor-in-Chief. Occasionally, my day job allows me to visit with churches who receive Presbyterian and Reformed News and which, for whatever reason, have not supported us in our ministry of reporting on the happenings within the Reformed and Presbyterian community and the PCA specifically. For those who offered a reason for not supporting P&R News, the primary concern seemed to revolve around content.
Sometimes we are taken to task because of the positions articulated on the editorial page. I was told that at times they were disappointed in the "spirit" or tone of our articles. I have heard some take issue with our objectivity in reporting the news.
I believe I understand why some of you may have these concerns. Dr. Frank Smith, who many of you know (I am amazed how many of you know Frank and how many of you are known by him), has been the driving force behind P&R News since its inception. The difficulty has been that he has had to wear so many hats, all at the same time.
Some of you may remember the man in a children's story, who, in order to peddle his wares of caps, stacked a variety of them on his head as he walked from village to village. Like that proverbial character from Captain Kangaroo, Frank has had to wear many hats during the history of the newspaper, from Editor, to reporter, to photographer, while also being a pastor, presbyter, and historian, and also a Commissioner to the PCA General Assembly. These roles, while related, are difficult to balance-more difficult than is apparent. (How many caps can you carry on your head simultaneously?)
We are not used to a reporter being a trained and competent historian (which is often reflected in parenthetical remarks in our articles). And while we know that the media has its bias, we don't usually expect reporters to take the floor at a meeting and propose a course of action. And how does a reporter objectively report upon his own actions? Problematic at best. Which is where I see my role.
I hope to bring an informed layman's perspective to both the editorial page and to a few articles, as time permits. I bring a new perspective and a new set of eyes. I, like Frank, am committed to the Westminster Standards as the purest expression of the teachings of the Scriptures. But unlike Frank, I have far fewer hats to wear.
I want to ask those of you who have withheld your support for P&R News to take another look. We are improving the layout and the photographs, and our Ministerial Advisors serve as our content compass. And, we are not done making changes.
We want your support and participation in providing news, your perspectives on the issues, and your feedback on how we're doing. "As iron sharpens iron," so I feel that together we can become a better publication with your help and support. I hope our gracious Savior provides me an opportunity to deliver this message in person to some of you in the not too distant future. -Bob Shapiro
or Closed Case?
I have been in sales most of my adult life and I always try to draw a distinction between the product or service that I am offering and what is available through my competition. In sales, we call them "exclusives", features or benefits that are only available through my firm. In matters of faith there are "exclusives" as well. In Reformed circles we call them "distinctives".
At Georgia Tech. I joined a Greek fraternity (before I was a Christian) that had a distinctive from the other Greek fraternities on campus. Other Greek fraternities were "secret" fraternities, their meetings being closed to those outside the brotherhood. My fraternity, sporting the motto, "Justice Our Foundation", was an open fraternity, inviting all to come and observe how we conducted our business. I felt then, as I do now, that openness in conducting business reaffirms our own personal integrity and commitment to seek both fairness and truth.
Recently, I was jolted into realizing that I had taken open deliberations for granted. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Book of Discipline Chap.4:2, it states, "the judicatories of the church ordinarily sit with open doors. In every case involving a charge of heresy the judicatory shall be without power to sit with closed doors." Open deliberations are customary throughout the history of the Church, especially when discussing doctrinal matters, and are patterned after the Great Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-29).
When the Tennessee Valley Presbytery (TVP) met for their July stated meeting to discuss two issues of doctrinal import, the Presbytery voted to go into Executive Session and then permitted those not belonging to the Presbytery (noncommissioned elders, licentiates, and men under care) to stay, leaving only one person excluded, a visiting teaching elder in good standing in the PCA. He happened to be there, in my place, after I had received an invitation to attend from a teaching elder in the TVP and was unable to go. He was there to report on the Presbytery generally, and on those two matters in particular.
The action of TVP to invoke Executive Session, while not unknown when personal reputations may be unduly damaged from open hearings and while not improper from the PCA Book of Church Order, strikes at the heart of representative government, which is what Presbyterianism is, in essence. That there be secret conclaves and members under the ban for breach of confidentiality on matters of doctrinal concern goes against the principles of Scripture, the numerous Church Councils, and the Westminster Assembly itself. That the TVP would be so blatant and shameless about excluding the press from their deliberations, regardless of the personalities involved, certainly cannot but undermine the integrity of the Tennesee Valley Presbytery, to call into question the objectivity of the deliberations, and compromise the witness of the Church.
When I spoke with one presbyter about the secretiveness of the Presbytery, he took issue with my use of the word and explained that they just wanted to be "free of outside pressures during the debate." I'm sorry, but that sounds monastic, not reformational. When a Presbytery is able to cloak its deliberation and position on women preaching and "infant dedication" rather than the sacrament of infant baptism, they become stealth churchmen, unworthy of the name Presbyterian.
I would remind those of you who happened to be fans of the original Star Trek series, the Romulans, known for their cloaking device, allowing them to render their starship invisible while they sneaked up on the U.S.S. Starship Enterprise, were known as "the bad guys." Even Hollywood appreciated the morality of a fair and open fight. You can count on one thing; I won't be including "openness" as a PCA distinctive anytime soon. -Bob Shapiro
Often, in the midst of an event, there comes a defining statement which captures the essence of the occasion. Such, in our estimation, was the case in the waning moments of this year's PCA General Assembly, when a young ruling elder from Wilmington, North Carolina, stood at a microphone and boldly declared: "A double-minded General Assembly is unstable in all its ways."
It was the first Assembly for this young man, but that lonely figure there at the microphone in the back of the cavernous room had expressed more wisdom than we had heard from most of the rest of his fathers and brethren-put together-over the course of the meeting. In that pithy sentence, the elder from Eastern Carolina had summed up the profound problem facing the denomination: Can two walk together if they are not agreed?
To cite just one example, consider the worship offered at this year's Assembly.
We will assume that the people who planned the evening services acted in good faith. However, their actions did not take into account the fact those who adhere to historic Presbyterianism would be offended by what they perceived to be sensualism coupled with an entertainment orientation. At least some members of the Assembly who could not stand the spectacle, walked out.
On the other hand, the Administrative Committee, reacting to an overture from Central Georgia, ensured that the 1000 copies of the Trinity Psalter donated five years ago to the Assembly were available for use this year. More psalm singing was heard at this Assembly than probably any previous one.
However, the two approaches to worship clash. One cannot simultaneously hold to a "contemporary" and sensualistic view on the one hand, and to simple, Puritan, regulated worship on the other. The church will either cling to the one and despise the other, or else it will embrace the one and hate the other. A church cannot consistently serve both views.
Perhaps the honorable solution to this problem would be for a negotiated peace plan, allowing the various "parties" to practice "voluntarily realignment." For instance, the church's left-wing could join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while the rest could continue the church which men of principle founded in 1973.
Of course, the chances for such a peaceful solution are virtually nil, meaning that we are left with the prospect of continued internal fighting until the "liberals" prevail, or until the conservatives succeed in invoking sanctions against those who refuse to abide by our venerable standards. But that makes for an ecclesiastical body which, for the foreseeable future, will remain unstable.
In an address to the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly, Robert Lewis Dabney, the quintessential nineteenth century Southern Presbyterian theologian, maintained that the church must sound a certain trumpet, rather than setting forth a cacophony of sounds. For, if the church sounds an uncertain trumpet, the people will be confused, and orthodoxy will be compromised.
Dabney, of course, was right. Or, to change the metaphor, "A double-minded General Assembly is unstable in all its ways." And until the Lord grants deep repentance and sends revival, such will be our lot in the PCA.
Evaluating the Assembly
After last year's Assembly, we placed an upbeat editorial in our pages, declaring the annual event to be "A Really Good Assembly." It had been our hope, prayer, and expectation that we would be able to continue and to build on that theme this year. We were keenly disappointed to discover, however, that we would be hard pressed to give high marks to the 27th General Assembly.
At any such gathering of a church court, of course, we would not expect to agree with every vote. And, in point of fact, there were several decisions with which we were well pleased. The most noteworthy was the passage of the personal resolution offered by Dr. Joseph Pipa regarding creation. The General Assembly has clearly indicated that evolution has no place in the denomination, and that the historicity of Adam and Eve dare not be questioned.
But the problem with this year's Assembly was the evident attitude-an attitude that was almost as palpable as it was pervasive. In the opinion of many observers, the court manifested a cavalier approach to truth, justice, and righteousness. This evaluation was shared by a wide variety of people, ranging from veteran commissioners and respected churchmen, to first-time commissioners, to visitors.
One particularly egregious example was the handling of the personal resolution with regard to Mission to North America (MNA) approving a woman to address a church planters' conference in California last February. This action seemed to violate clear instructions given to MNA two years ago. In 1997, the Assembly decreed: "Seminars led by women on biblical and theological exposition will have women as the intended audience. The Scriptures and the subordinate standards are clear that only men are to be appointed as elders. The subordinate standards are clear that the preaching of the Word in the public worship on the Lord's Day is to be conducted by elders, under the oversight of the Session. The GA recognizes that the ministry of women within the church, including MNA, must be exercised within the bounds of Scripture, including 1 Timothy 2:11-12."
Now, perhaps it could be argued that that woman was not giving Biblical or theological exposition, but was only encouraging the men in their walk and in their marriages. That is precisely the line which MNA took in reacting to the resolution. With MNA maintaining that perspective, was there any way of getting at the truth? Indeed, there was! An audio tape of one of the woman's two addresses was available to commissioners at the Assembly, and was especially available to those who were sitting on the MNA Committee of Commissioners. However, the majority of the MNA oversight committee decided that they didn't want to take the time to listen to the tape, in order to discover the truth. Indeed, without listening to the evidence, they voted to "vindicate" the MNA committee and staff of any wrongdoing in the matter.
Does anyone seriously believe that justice was done? If from the general populace you chose 100 people at random, how many of them do you think would regard the church as having any concern for truth or righteousness in this incident? (Given Mr. Clinton's poll numbers, maybe the percentage would be greater than what we might suppose. However, the church is supposed to have a higher moral ethic than that of the pagans. And when the church doesn't display consistent morality, what does that do to the progress of the gospel? Would you trust the eternal verities being proclaimed by someone who is not scrupulously concerned about truth, justice, and righteousness?)
Complicating the search for the truth was the fact that the Chairman of the MNA Committee of Commissioners has been serving as a "co-opted" member of the MNA Permanent Committee. In that capacity, he has actively participated in Permanent Committee discussions, and even remained in the room when the Committee has gone into executive session. That gentleman, in the view of many at the Assembly, became an ardent defender of the MNA Committee, while also wielding considerable power as Chairman of the oversight committee. Is anybody beginning to smell "conflict of interest"?
It's not as if the Assembly was not aware of this situation. A news bulletin widely distributed to the commissioners pointed out that man's position with the Permanent Committee, as well as the fact that he was serving as Chairman of the Committee of Commissioners. But did this scenario of apparent conflict of interest raise any concerns for the vast majority of commissioners? Apparently not. Acting like sheep rather than shepherds, they blithely followed the "leaders" and believed the "assurances" proffered-that nothing is wrong and that no edict of the 1997 Assembly had been violated.
But ignorance is no excuse, and does not absolve the Assembly from culpability. This court of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ exercised the keys of the kingdom and declared, in the name of her Lord, that MNA was to be considered "vindicated." A substantial majority of the commissioners, declining to consider the evidence, voted to vindicate MNA. No matter what the General Assembly might have concluded about the content of the tape, no reasonable person could be satisfied with the process by which the court arrived at its conclusion.
A General Assembly is supposed to be a church court, but today in the PCA it has turned into a show and sometimes a spectacle. The highest ethic seems to be that of expediency informed by considerations of efficiency. By way of contrast, a court, by definition, is to be concerned with justice, truth, and righteousness. Those who do not have the stomach to act responsibly as judges in a court would be far better off absenting themselves from the Assembly-and the church as a whole would be much better off, too.
This year's General Assembly was not exactly a stellar performance. We pray that God would be pleased to grant revival before next year's gathering.
Kudos to the Clerk
We have had the privilege of knowing L. Roy Taylor for many years. He has served as a pastor and a seminary professor, and now he is serving as Stated Clerk of the denomination, having been elected by the 1998 Assembly.
Over the past year, we have been impressed with Dr. Taylor's fairness and kindness. In our own dealings with him and his office, and in what others have reported to us, we have detected no favoritism in the administration of denominational business.
We have been particularly heartened by Roy Taylor's sounding of traditional Presbyterian themes. An example was his appearance at the 1998 NAPARC meeting, in which he expressed concern regarding "seeker-sensitive" worship.
We are sure that he and his staff would appreciate full funding of the Administrative Committee (AC), a committee which almost always has a financial shortfall, so we'll put in a plug at this point for AC support. And as we do so, let us also say, "Keep up the good work, Roy!"
Laird Harris Was Right!
Recently, while doing research for the updated version of our History of the Presbyterian Church in America, we ran across what we believe to be a very perceptive observation by R. Laird Harris in an article he penned for the December 24, 1986, issue of the Presbyterian Journal. He was responding to an interview with Morton H. Smith, in which the PCA Stated Clerk advocated the "strict subscription" view with regard to the confessional standards.
Dr. Harris wrote: "As to the practical effects of strict subscription, we would have to ask, How strict? The Larger Catechism (Q. 87 and 88) speaks of a general judgment and one resurrection. Would strict subscription thus exclude premillennialists? The RPCES was assured at the time of Joining and Receiving that it would not.
"The Confession (ch. 24) allows two grounds for divorce. Would this exclude those who favor only one?
"The Shorter Catechism (Q. 9) speaks of creation 'in the space of six days.' Would this exclude all who hold the long ages view?"
Dr. Harris, of course, was correct that the Westminster Standards address the question of the length of the days of creation. His rhetoric is clear-he regarded the phrase, "in the space of six days," to be teaching that creation was in six twenty-four hour periods.
Or, to put it another way, Dr. Harris believed that holding to a long age view of creation is at variance with the statement of the Catechisms, albeit an acceptable "exception" to the Standards.
We agree with Dr. Harris that someone not subscribing to this creedal statement should not necessarily be barred from ministerial service in the PCA. We also agree that the phrase, "in the space of six days," does have a definite meaning, and one which was known to indicate six "literal" days of twenty-four hours duration each.
In the current debate over the days of creation, there will not be a satisfactory resolution until there is the recognition that the Catechisms were unambiguous in their intention as to the length of the days of Genesis 1. We applaud Dr. Harris for his insight, and we trust that the members of the Creation Study Committee will pay heed to his wisdom regarding the meaning of our Standards.