30 September 2012

Letter to a Presbyterian Pastor

The more I ruminated on the events of Sunday and the past several months....I felt compelled to write this letter. Some might take it as a bit of a rant. That's not the tone I wish to express but these issues are weighty and I must confess a great deal of energy and emotion has been invested in these issues both now and in years past. It is likely you will perceive it to be a perhaps unwarranted attack. I think it warranted, but also understand that it is as much a confession on my part. It was at the least folly and perhaps overtly wrong for me to have ever attended the congregation in S----. 

What was I doing there? As I said on the phone perhaps I hoped I had found men who would put the Gospel above the PCA. But of course that's absurd. You've bound yourselves to a system that won't let you function that way even if you wanted to.

Did I think you would change for me? No, and that's where I was wrong to even be present. My sin if any in this matter is not in refusing to submit to your authority. I submit to it but not beyond the boundaries of the Word. I believe I am right and most correct in absolutely refusing to do what you ask of me in the matter of membership and vows. I would be sinning both in deed and conscience were I to conform with the Book of Church Order which I am sorry to say you treat as Canon Law.

My sin was trying to assemble with a faction and knowing full well what that faction was, what it represents and that ultimately the faction would bar me from communion. In the end this could only lead to conflict and grief....unless....the leadership was willing to set aside bureaucracy for the sake of unity.

The way you men have refused to deal (and thus have now dealt) with this issue made it plain to me. Our presence is no longer desired. These realities prompted me to compose the following. You seemed surprised at this but I guess we have very different memories. I remember the specific dates and we've been waiting, with baited breath if not agony. Each month I said to C----, 'Okay, they've had another session meeting. I wonder if they'll bring it up now. Maybe they have a suggestion. Maybe something has been worked out.'

Despite all the differences we were very happy to be part of the congregation.

As I said on the phone, what were you going to do? Were you just going to serve the Supper month after month and let us sit there? If the answer was 'no compromise, you must do it in accord with the BCO,' then why didn't you tell us that back in May? We probably would have left back then.


Anyway here's the letter I wrote. We pretty much covered it on the phone. I doubt (especially after all of this) that you're interested but I have online writings dealing with Presbyterianism and the Membership issue. I could send them to you if you're genuinely interested in trying to grasp a very different perspective on these issues.


On Sunday 30 September 2012 the S---- congregation celebrated its 52nd consecutive week of meetings. In light of this event two weeks prior the bulletin indicated the 'church body' was asked to attend a meeting that would take place afterword.
'Church Body' has meaning because for most or all of these weeks the same group of people (more or less) has been gathering on a regular basis to worship together and to share in fellowship afterword. If anyone asked anyone else within this group to identify the members of the body, everyone without difficulty could name off the families and couples that attend and are part of the congregation.
So to celebrate this milestone the leadership has now decided to introduce a system of bureaucracy which will suddenly bring schism and divide the congregation. Suddenly within the next 12 weeks there will be people who can partake of the symbols, the signs and seals of Covenant membership and those who though baptised and professing Christ cannot.
While I personally think it probably sinful to have not celebrated the Supper thus far, nevertheless the time has come but now the 'body' will certainly be rent asunder. Particularization will be applicable not only to the bureaucratic validation of an already existing congregation, delineating it as a separate entity, but even within the congregation new delineations will occur.
A system will be imposed which cannot be proven from Scripture. This system is not required in order for a congregation to function for discipline to be applied. I would argue the Scripture alone is sufficient and assumes all Christians (Baptised Person) WILL assemble with a local congregation. If they're not, normatively speaking then they are in a state of sin. They profess and pledge themselves to the local congregation by their presence and in participating in Communion. The Elders must be proactive to explain the doctrinal positions of the Church and the understanding that regular attendance is (normatively speaking) required. Infrequent attendance due to a lack of commitment or sloth won't be tolerated and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Biblical doctrine of the Church. And when that person shows up again after an absence and can offer no excuse, then they are to be rebuked and ultimately excluded. If they're in sin and they won't respond (within a reasonable time-frame) then there's something seriously wrong and there's no reason to reckon them part of the body.
As I indicated even without 'membership' discipline can be enforced. If I'm involved in known sin and unrepentant then bar me from the table. You don't need a bureaucratic procedural checklist to do this, you have the Scripture and the authority to deal with the situation.
I believe strongly in Biblical Membership but what you're calling Membership is what I would call a man-made and imposed system.
A system that creates its own laws and procedures, governed by an extra-Scriptural Book of Church Order. This system necessitates the creation of new extra-Biblical rituals and ceremonies. While Baptism is acknowledged apparently the rite of membership takes precedent and in the end trumps the holy rite given in Scripture. Baptism and the obligations it imposes aren't good enough. Because in the end what really matters is adherence to the polity.
I could be a Dispensational Pre-millennialist and you would let me 'join' as long as I was willing to submit to the polity of the Church. But if out of concerns for the integrity of Sola Scriptura I refuse to submit to extra-Scriptural rites and polities....even if I were fully Reformed in doctrine, I and my family would be excluded.
We will be reckoned as non-Christians. When this came up before the sound of it rubbed you the wrong way, but you cannot escape the reality.  
I am loath to quote the Westminster Confession but for the sake of argument I will. Chapter 25 section 2 declares the normative requirement for being part of the Church, but I would also point to Chapter 27 section 1 which declares the Sacraments 'to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world'.
If I don't submit to the extra-Scriptural construct and ritual then indeed you by cutting us off are reckoning us to be (according your own confession) part of the 'rest of the world'.
In which case all that we've been doing all these months has been a lie and you need to repent of all the times you've called me 'brother' for I am of the world....not because of the Gospel, not because of some terrible Christological or Soteriological heresy...but because I won't submit to political requirements which you might think are good (others would differ)...but can hardly be claimed necessary. If they were then certainly our congregation could not have functioned for the past year.
I find it ironic this system imposition takes the very 'thing' the Supper, that was be symbolic of fellowship and union, and now uses it to divide a fellowship of believers.

The Presbyterian Polity has become the Gospel itself.
We talked about this in May and I have never heard back from any of you. You know the issues. Do you really think a Sunday School class on membership is going to address this? The whole class will be one large exercise in question begging. You will assume the position and essentially teach a course on basic obligations and requirements for being a Christian.
My differences do not stem from a low view of the Church. Far from it. I do not have a low view of the Sacraments. I hold to Paedocommunion. I have no trouble attaching Soteriological language to the Sacraments, declaring the Supper to be the Bread of Life and Baptism to be the waters of salvation. I'm not looking for a conversion experience in my children. I believe them to be Covenant Members which is to say they are saved. I don't baptise them because I reckon them to be part of the Covenant. I reckon them to be part of the Covenant because they are Baptised. I only say all this to emphasize the fact that I'm not some kind of Baptist that has a low view of the Church.
In fact I would say your view of the Supper seems to out-Zwingli the Reformer of Zurich himself. Is it that meaningless that you'll put your polity over communion and drive families away? You may not like the way I've constructed that statement, but again the burden is on those who wish to impose. I'm not trying to impose anything. We've been attending regularly and participating in the life of the body. What have we done to suddenly warrant excommunication?
I know you wouldn't call it that, but that I'm afraid this is the Book of Church Order's bureaucratic-speak playing fast and loose with Biblical doctrine. At some point in the next three months, before the conclusion of 2012... we will 'practically speaking be excommunicated'.
What is my crime?
I see little point in attending the classes. Perhaps you will win some others over. I think you know me well enough at this point to know I've thought through the issues enough to not have missed something as basic as what will be covered in an introductory membership class.
I could go and argue with you, but I don't think you would appreciate that and I'm afraid it wouldn't be too difficult to cast seeds of doubt in the minds of others. And as I said, I'm not there to cause division. I'm not there to argue. At this point in this age of apostasy I just want to find a place to attend with my family and be fed the Word. Aside from that, I'm more than willing to just keep my head down.
So no, I will not attend and grit my teeth through the lessons, nor will I attend and put you on the spot. Instead I will remain silent and be cut off.
As I said during our previous meeting the vows you require are already binding on anyone who takes upon himself the name of Christ in Baptism. Your ritual is superfluous and actually works to undermine Baptism itself. All extra-Scriptural prescriptions undermine the Means God has provided. Legalism and the binding of conscience always works that way.
But the one vow presents the greatest difficulty. This came up back in May. To pray for the peace and purity of the Church to me means both the Church Universal and the local congregation. These are the only two ecclesiastical categories I find in the Scripture regarding the Visible Church. Denominations are a man-made construct, a form of hierarchy inserted betwixt the two categories. Ultimately from the congregational standpoint that's what Presbyterianism is in the end....hierarchy, a pluralized form of Episcopacy. I think Milton rightly labeled the system in the 17th century.
I am under obligation to pray for the purity and peace of the Church, but I do not pray for the success of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is an unbiblical political construct, a faction promoting schism.
I do not subscribe to the Westminster Confession, the methodology that formed it, nor do I endorse the historical circumstance that led to its creation. While I agree with it on most points I believe it to be flawed, a helpful guide, but not something to be bound to.
I understand the Presbyterian segment of the Reformed tradition does not require congregational subscription but I also indicated I consider this to be somewhat deceptive. It is the standard by which the congregation will be judged and held to account. And even more, the Book of Church Order which most congregants are not even aware of will be the 'standard' which practically speaking governs the congregation. I will not in any way submit to or acknowledge the authority of that work which I believe undermines and supplants Scripture.
I do not wish to support the PCA financially through fees to the regional so-called Presbytery (I believe you've hijacked the Biblical term) or the General Assembly. Presbyterian budgets always send my jaw crashing to the floor. I cannot fathom how S---- can justify requiring almost $80,000 a year to operate. That has nothing to do with the principle of the matter, but pragmatically speaking it makes me all the more reticent to drop money into the box. Even if the school is shamefully exploiting the congregation through exorbitant rent I can't even remotely approach such a figure.
I wish very much for there to be sound congregations in our area but I cannot in good conscience recommend the congregation in Seneca to anyone I know. I wouldn't encourage anyone to attend and enter in upon the labyrinth of Tradition in the form of Confessionalism and Presbyterian polity. On the one hand I wish for people to find sound congregations but... I really couldn't in good conscience subject them to the Presbyterian machine.
As you can see and as I suggested back in May.... I really have no business being there.
Why have you not addressed these issues? I've been waiting for months. I was told that it would be discussed and you'd get back to me. Why has there been no answer? Was it because you knew there was no solution? Well, I certainly got my answer on Sunday. It was made clear.
I hope that you haven't been merely content to allow us to sit there to make the assembly appear more full and thus more appealing and viable to outsiders coming in. I hope you wouldn't be 'using' us in that fashion.
If you don't know who your flock is then I just don't know what to say to you. During the meeting if a stranger had wandered in and when the time for questions or comments came about...if the stranger had spoken would anyone listen? Would his opinion have mattered? No. Everyone would know he wasn't part of the group.
If a Mormon was infrequently attending and showed up today and spoke...would he be reckoned part of the group?
Don't we all know each other? If we don't or if you have doubts about someone's profession, after a year....then the problem isn't the polity. The problem is dereliction on the part of the leadership.
Had we been Communing all this time, every week, then we would all know who was part of the group. We would all be publicly declaring and re-affirming our faith, pledging ourselves to Christ and to each other. To suddenly cut off a bunch of us on some upcoming day in November or December....how are you not in violation of 1 Corinthians 11?
I will make it easy for you. We won't be there. I'll let you decide if your conscience can be clear.
I know this letter will make the rounds and I know older and more experienced men will tell you to dismiss me, maybe even to be glad that I'm gone.
And I saw this at Seminary. I saw men on a career path. Men who had a plan for their life, everything all worked out. A good salary with benefits, job security etc... Those men didn't want to wrestle with the tough issues. Why? Because it might mean they have to question the tradition. It might mean they lose the security they so desperately desired. I recall times when controversial topics would come up and certain people would flee. They didn't even want to be seen or heard talking about the issue or perhaps risk being associated with those who were talking about it lest it come up during a presbytery exam.
I guess what I'm saying to you is....you're at a watershed. You may lose a fair number of people. Only a portion of your congregation is on board with the PCA. Is that all that matters? Are you really willing to cut off families because of a membership system you cannot prove from the Scripture? Is your conscience clear? If so, then Godspeed. But if not, then consider Romans 14.23.
Presbyterianism and the Membership System are a denial of the Sufficiency of Scripture. We spoke of Prolegomena and Theological Method and yes, we'll differ over those matters. This is part of the problem here. We don't mean the same thing when it comes to issues like Sufficiency, Good and Necessary Consequence, nor issues concerning theological coherence, systemic integrity and as a result we have very different understandings of Confessionalism, the role and import of Confessions. And this is just for starters.
I differ with the Confession and the Reformed Tradition on many points. But I've still been there for the past 11 months! I didn't let that stop me. I'm willing to endure and put up with things I don't agree with for the sake of charity and fellowship. But it's one thing for me to sit there and endure something but it's another thing when I'm forced to actively participate in something that violates what my conscience believes the Scripture to teach. I cannot do that. I won't do that, and I resent the fact that you're asking me to do that over something so nebulous...and are willing to cut me off for it.
Listening to the presentation on Sunday I was reminded of how much I am against the Presbyterian mindset and method. I find this whole affair to be unfortunate and I do not take departure lightly. On the one hand I'm being driven away....in another sense I'm leaving for the sake of peace....but in every way I wish I had never come in the first place. I knew better.
These same issues arose with H---- during the W----- Chapel debacle back in 2000. I resented their methods then and I do now as well. I don't see any future here and this time I will keep my vow....to never under any circumstances have anything ever again to do with any Presbyterian denomination.
I hope things work out but I also hope people are driven to reflect on these issues. I will miss our conversations but it would seem we are on different paths.
I thought about staying longer, perhaps up to or even after the Supper starts being served. But to what end? I'm not going to attend the classes and our presence, our obvious non-communing presence will probably just generate awkwardness and awkward questions. Part of me wants people to ask those questions but I will take the potential burden from your shoulders and bow out early. I promised (while present) not be divisive. My departure allows me to keep that promise and if opportunity allows to speak without constraint of conscience.
It is with great sorrow that I write these things. We will miss the fellowship. We have greatly enjoyed and been blessed by the families at S----. I bear no hard or ill feelings toward you or anyone else there. My grievance is with the system you're part of and the division it promotes.
Thank you for your efforts.
With frustration and sorrow,


Jim C. said...

Hey John,

Now I understand your recent absence. Sorry to see it came to this. It couldn't have been an easy decision to make.

What are your plans now? Do you think you'll start up a house church?

The next couple of weeks are sure to be rough. I pray that God gets you through it.


Protoprotestant said...

Yeah I've had this going on but mostly it's been work. Long hours and sometimes extended time in the evening...phone calls, paperwork, all that good stuff.

By the time I'm done with all that and time with my kids....it's late. Sometimes I sit down at my desk to write and I find myself nodding off as a type.

I re-read this post last night but missed a bunch of minor typos. I was tired.

I've taken care of the minor edits this morning.

Sometimes I leave early in the morning and I have to go through a little procedure to make sure I've got the right tools for the day etc... Sometimes it takes me a 1/2 hour just to get things together to get ready to go. If I have to leave early because of distance or. whateve.r

Protoprotestant said...

Comment box went haywire.

Anyway if I have to leave early then I don't really have much time in the morning to write. Sometimes I get up at 4.30 or 5. Sometimes I'm just too spent. Some days my job is more physical than others and I'm not getting any younger.

So if I get up at 6 or 6.30 and want to leave by 7.30.....there's really no time to write.

That's what's been happening to me lately. I'm still working on stuff but just kind of plodding along at odd hours.

What does the future hold? Don't know yet.

We're really bummed it worked out this way. We enjoyed the congregation but they drew a line in the sand. I knew they would. They always do. Polity always comes first.

This ends my 15 year on-again off-again relationship with Presbyterianism. I want nothing to do with them.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for all involved. I'm especially sorry for you and your family; yet, glad because you will receive the greater blessing in time or eternity.

The prophet, the iconoclast, the one who for informed conscience cannot follow the path of least resistance, is on the "outside" and there is a real and palpable cost in that. Yet a great blessing awaits.

I know--I really do understand--the grief and frustration you are now left with. My husband and I walked this road. Would that we had been as restrained and kind and articulate as you are in this letter. Every attempt at peaceful appeal, dialogue, or challenge was met with accusation and reprisal and marginalizing, and eventually we withdrew for the sake of peace and for conscience--not willing to sign vows and confessions that we contend is unbiblical, creates schism, and promotes false understandings of the Body. We had been there serving in ordained offices for many many years when the pastors made a sudden heavy-handed turn into presbyterian-flavored theonomic reconstructionism. After withdrawing, we were shunned.

Poignant question to the pastors about the implication that all your involvement, Communion, and fellowship up until now was for nought, was false? I know; it's absurd, and hurtful.

I will pray that you be not shunned by the others and can maintain some brotherly fellowship away from the Table. But yes, now the question of congregation comes up. The Lord knows who are His.

Beautiful letter. The Lord loves you and so do we.