Philip Ryan

A Victorious Faith

The Westminster Divines, the Reformers, the Puritans, and Scripture call for active combat against remaining sins, not merely a passive acceptance that such sins will eventually go away. Paul knew this well, and instructed the church at Ephesus to equip themselves with “the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11, 13).

Last year, the PCA approved a report on human sexuality that rightly spoke to the hope and victory of believers over sexual sins (AIC, 7 AND 10). However, when overtures were written to extend this to ordained officers of the church (along with calls for holiness in several other areas of life like finance, alcohol, etc) charges of “Wesleyan Perfectionism” rang loudly from certain quarters of the church.
We’ve been here before. Several years ago we struggled with the antinomian preaching of Tullian Tchividjian. I thought we had survived his aberrant teachings on the relationship between justification and sanctification, but I see it is sprouting up again within the PCA. It appears we may have an allergy to biblical commands to pursue holiness.
Is it wrong for Reformed believers to trust that the Spirit’s work will be effective? 1 John 5:4-5 indicates that we should indeed expect Spirit-wrought victory in our lives,
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
The Greek word for “overcome,” used three times in these two verses, is the verbal form of the noun “victory” used in verse 4. It is associated with athletes winning a contest or an army winning a great battle. Within the larger context of this passage, John has taught that those who believe Jesus is the Christ have been born of God (v. 1). Further, if we love God, we will obey his commandments (2-3). The one who professes faith in Jesus Christ has victory over the world.
The “world” in 1 John is a collective word that encompasses all desires, ambitions, dangers, and temptations contrary to God’s revealed will. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “Perhaps the best way of defining what the New Testament means by ‘the world’ is that it is everything that is opposed to God and His Spirit” (Life in Christ, 588). It is not simply avoiding things that are worldly, like the old fundamentalist aversions to movie theaters and dance halls. “For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). John’s message couldn’t be clearer: Christians can have victory over the world (i.e. sin) through faith in Jesus Christ.
Commenting on 1 John 5:4-5, John Calvin wrote,
Having such a force to contend with, we have an immense war to carry on, and we should have been already conquered before coming to the contest, and we should be conquered a hundred times daily, had not God promised to us the victory. But God encourages us to fight by promising us the victory.
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Mainline Presbyterianism & the LGBTQ Movement

As we in the PCA continue to deliberate about contentious and important matters of human sexuality – and about homosexuality in particular – we will hear the well-worn arguments, “We have the study report…We have the Bible…We have the Book of Church Order. We don’t need added clarity when we have so many resources that speak to this issue already.” What I am arguing is that we need a Book of Church Order (BCO)that speaks with “straight talk” to the issues facing us. The majority of mainline Protestants – such as our Presbyterian cousins in the PCUSA – thought they were being pastoral and accommodating when they asked for “chastity in singleness” from their LGBTQ-identifying ministers. We see that such “pastoral” accommodation did nothing to protect the Church from a compromised ministry. 

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
For the second year in a row, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has sent down overtures regarding the sexuality of ministers to the presbyteries. Overture 29 presented to the 49th General Assembly passed on the floor of the Assembly and was referred to the 88 presbyteries of the PCA as Item 4. Along with a related proposal (Item 5), it has received overwhelming approval from across the spectrum of the PCA. Indeed, leaders of the Gospel Reformation Network[1] and the former leader of the National Partnership[2] have both expressed their desire to see these approved and added to the BCO.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your opinion – Overture 15 presented before the 49th Assembly passed by a much narrower vote and has now failed to achieve the requisite 2/3 majority of affirmative votes from the presbyteries (as Item 1) to proceed to a final ratification vote at the 50th General Assembly in Memphis. For some reason, the unity around PCAGA49 Overture 29 splits when it comes to PCAGA49 Overture 15. Why is that? Perhaps it is due – in TE Richard D. Phillips’s supportive words – to the “straight talk” expressed in the proposal contained in the Overture. The proposal contained in PCAGA49 Overture 15 as passed by the Assembly sought to amend Chapter 7 of the Book of Church Order (BCO) by adding a new paragraph, “Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.”
My argument for supporting such a proposal is primarily historical. Scripture calls us to be people who remember their history. By studying another denomination with a common history and once-similar polity handling this issue, I hope to show that the PCA is on dangerous ground if we do not incorporate more robust language in our BCO regarding issues of sexual sin for church officers.
Before moving forward with a crash course in the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (hereafter, PCUSA) and LGBTQ[3] ordination, I would like to respond to a legitimate criticism that many will make. Some will perhaps respond to my concern as follows: “We have nothing in common with the Liberalism of the Mainline Protestant denominations.” Yes, the PCA started in 1973, ten years before the PCUSA united the northern and southern Presbyterian churches. Yes, both those churches were decidedly Liberal in theology and much more liberal socially at that time than the PCA, and the PCUSA of today is certainly far more liberal than the PCA.
However, as the history of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA will show, there were enough conservative and moderate believers in the PCUSA to curb LGBTQ ordination for over forty years. There even continues to be renewal movements within the PCUSA.[4] What ultimately led to the full acceptance of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA was a failure on the part of the denomination to add “straight talk” language regarding human sexuality to their Book of Order. Like us, as we will see, the PCUSA had Scripture and the Westminster Standards, but they decided not to change their other authoritative constitutional document, the Book of Order. Consider what has since become of them. Their history is a warning for the PCA.
Troubling Hermeneutics in the North 1970
Our history lesson begins in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (The Northern Presbyterian Church; hereafter, UPCUSA), when a study report, “Sexuality and the Human Community,” was presented to the General Assembly. The “Sexuality and the Human Community” is a fascinating report. The Northern Presbyterians were more liberal than their Southern cousins (the Presbyterian Church in the United States; hereafter, PCUS). While informing the reader that they turned “repeatedly to the theological issues and questions of Biblical tradition which have informed the church’s view of human sexuality,” they also, “found ourselves relying heavily on the social and behavioral sciences. Insights from psychology and psychiatry about the workings of sex influenced us to think often with criteria of psychological health in mind” (italics mine, page 6).
The report continues on a shaky foundation as the authors wrote about their research into sociology, “We frequently found ourselves challenging the conventional wisdom of the Christian community concerning sexuality, only to find that those conventions were too often the culture-bound wisdom of part of the community: to wit, the white, Protestant, and middle-class part. But the Christian community encompasses a wide diversity of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, and therefore a wide variety of assessments of sexuality and sexual behavior.” (pg 7).
The report continues with recommendations for ethical considerations:

Difference between homosexuality as “a condition of personal existence and homosexualism as explicit homosexual behavior” (18).
The biblical condemnation of homosexuality in St. Paul, in context, shows, “It is not singled out as more heinous than other sins, but is discussed with other forms of behavior which betoken man’s refusal to accept his creatureliness” (18).
The context of St. Paul’s condemnation suggests that he objected to “the element of disregard for the neighbor more than he did to acts in themselves…Perhaps pederasty, homosexual prostitution, and similar neighbor-disregarding forms of behavior ought not to overshadow our entire response to the human condition of homosexuality” (18, these arguments have historically and linguistically been debunked even among some liberal scholars. For example, see the works of William Loader).
No one is exempt from the experience of alienation from God. Thus everyone may experience reconciliation in Christ (19).

What is fascinating is that given all the above statements, the authors of the report still recommended that pastors and theologians study this subject, “so that the desire for change can be more effectively elicited and encouraged…homosexual behavior is essentially incomplete in character. It is therefore important to guard against the development of fixed homosexual patterns during childhood and adolescence…one function of such an understanding is to spare young people from thinking they are destined to homosexuality because of some developmentally normal experience” (19). This was a study committee report that was received at the General Assembly and circulated widely in the UPCUSA.
1975-1978 The Task Force to Study Homosexuality (UPCUSA)
In 1975, an openly gay man came before the Presbytery of New York City having received a call from a congregation and thus seeking ordination. The debate on the floor of the Presbytery lasted hours. The end result was that the Presbytery petitioned the General Assembly for “definitive guidance” regarding the issue of homosexuals and ordination. As one commentator who voted in favor of the man argued, “the Book of Order (i.e., the Church’s constitution) didn’t mention homosexuality because it was immaterial and irrelevant.” Several other presbyteries sent overtures asking for “definitive guidance” as well. The 1976 General Assembly formed a Task Force (study committee) to provide “definitive guidance.”
The Task Force completed its study in January of 1978. The resultant report included a minority report. The recommendation from the majority of the Task Force was to let presbyteries make their own decisions in all aspects of ordination. The minority report, supported by 5 of the Task Force’s 19 members, advised against allowing homosexuals to be ordained. The General Assembly of 1978 approved the minority statement. Below are some highlights from the official summary of the Task Force’s majority report, which is available in its entirety here:

Homosexuality should be primarily viewed as affectional attraction, not as actions or behavioral patterns. Homosexuality is just the basic attraction and preference of part of the population. It is not “consciously chosen nor readily susceptible to change.”

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I Don’t Get the “He Gets Us” Campaign

Saints, we should be concerned with evangelism, but we should also be concerned with doing evangelism biblically. The He Gets Us Campaign does not practice biblical evangelism, and it does not present the biblical Jesus. We in the PCA should be seriously concerned that our leadership is even considering cooperating with such a Campaign, much less promoting and defending it to our Churches.

I don’t get the “He Gets Us” Campaign. If you aren’t familiar with this organization, be prepared to hear denominational leaders promote it in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
The campaign has a noble goal to “reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible.” Based on recent surveys like Ligonier’s on The State of Theology, it is clear that those outside and inside the church need a reintroduction to the Jesus of the Bible. There is growing confusion on a range of topics from the inspiration of Scripture to misunderstandings on gender and sexuality. The campaign organizers should be applauded for their passion to reintroduce people to Jesus. Sadly, I am not so sure that the Jesus they want to introduce is the one found in the Bible. There are a number of red flags on the campaign’s website.
About the Campaign
Let’s start in the “About Us” section. If you were hoping to find out who is behind this campaign, you would be disappointed. All we are told is that “a diverse group of people passionate about the authentic Jesus of the Bible” (emphasis mine) started the campaign. At the very bottom of this section, it says that the “He Gets Us” campaign is an initiative of the Servant Foundation. If you Google “Servant Foundation” you will find this: It is an endowment fund controlled by the Church of the Servant’s Foundation Board and the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation. The Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation is dedicated to “empowering you to invest your resources to do long-lasting good in the world. From writing wills and estate plans to caring for single mothers and orphans, we empower you to commit your resources to do good that echoes for generations.” This is confusing. Is the whole initiative an outworking of one Church? Is it funded by the Methodists? If the latter, then which ones, since they are currently splitting? Finally, the Church of the Servant doesn’t tell you much about their beliefs. The Church’s “Our Beliefs” section tells us only that they love Jesus and that he died as a “demonstration of God’s redeeming love.” There is no statement on why Christ’s death (i.e., the Atonement) was necessary. Jesus’ death did “demonstrate God’s redeeming love,” but Scripture repeatedly says he died for my sins, which is not mentioned in the statement of belief on the Church’s website. Such clarity is likewise absent from the “He Gets Us” campaign site.
[PCA Polity] Editor’s Note: after initial publication of this article, a reader noted the following. “HeGetsUs lists “Servant Foundation,” not “The Servant Foundation.” This matches “The Signatry” which does business as “Servant Foundation.” “The Signatry” is involved in all sorts of broadly “Christian” work and functionally anonymizes where the money is coming from – basically a dead end for anyone wondering who is funding the campaign and what their theological convictions may be.” Of course, the ambiguity of the founding and accountability structures in place for the Campaign does nothing to address the concern of the author (or editor) of this piece.
One more thing worth sharing from the “About Us” section is that it says, “We’re also not affiliated with any particular church or denomination. We simply want everyone to understand the authentic (emphasis mine; there’s that adjective again) Jesus as he’s depicted in the Bible – the Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion, and love.” This is confusing based on what I said above about this being an initiative of “The Servant Church.” It is also confusing with regards to why they keep referring to an “authentic Jesus.”  Who is He?
According to the “About Us” section, the “authentic Jesus” is characterized by the following values: “radical forgiveness,” “compassion,” “love,” “radical compassion,” and he “stood up for the marginalized.” His sacrificial death, teaching about hell, and emphasis on holiness are apparently not important enough aspects of the “authentic Jesus” to be worth mentioning. Finally, the emphasis of the Campaign is on Jesus’ humanity, “Ultimately, we want people to know his teachings and how he lived while here on Earth. And this will be a starting point to understanding him and his message.” Though they say they affirm Jesus’ full humanity and divinity, they again stress this is not all too important because “We’re simply inviting you to explore with us at He Gets Us how might things be different if more people followed his example.” So what kind of things does He Gets Us want the world to know about the “authentic” Jesus?
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My Reconstructed Faith

When God began to reconstruct my faith, I realized how lonely I was and how much I needed help. I needed a community of believers to walk alongside me. I needed to sit under a faithful minister of the gospel and hear the word of God preached. 

Among the ever-growing list of controversies and threats to Christ’s church, the disturbance of deconstruction looms large. Over the past two years, we have all seen and listened to many stories of deconstruction from authors, musicians, and even YouTube personalities. Sadly, these stories are celebrated even by some Christians—the same Christians who then mock those who raised alarm over deconstruction.[1]
What I don’t often hear are stories of those who have reconstructed their faith. Since I couldn’t find many, I thought I would offer my own story of reconstruction after I abandoned Christianity for progressive Christianity.[2]
Dynamics of Deconstructed Faith
Most deconstruction stories start with a crisis. This was certainly my experience. I spent 2006-2008 attending a progressive Christian church in my college town. I read leading progressive theologians and pastors: Paul Tillich, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Barbara Brown Taylor, Phyllis Tickle, and Phillip Gulley. I no longer believed the Bible was inspired, let alone authoritative. I denied miracles, the virgin birth, the incarnation, and even had deep doubts about the resurrection. I affirmed homosexuality, universalism, and social justice.[3]
My crisis started on the first day of classes in the fall of 2008 at Andover-Newton Theological School just outside of Boston.[4] One of my first classes was a required course for all the new MDiv students. The professor was the Dean of the school and an influential queer-feminist theologian who had recently left Harvard. She spent a good deal of time talking about the intersectionality and the task of the minister to affirm and support all the identities represented in a church. Here was where my crisis began. We did a class assignment where we took an inventory of our identities: race, sexuality, gender, etc. Some of us were confused, so she clarified, “What are your strongest identities? The ones that define you? For example, my primary identity is a lesbian woman in a 20-year committed relationship to my partner.” As progressive as I was, I thought that a Christian’s primary identity would be Christian—certainly for those Christians preparing for ordained ministry.
When we were done with the inventory, the professor showed us a pyramid of oppression. She started at the bottom with the most oppressed identities and worked her way up. This was what I wanted; I wanted to speak truth to power, fight oppression, and labor for liberation. However, after the class I felt empty and bothered. The pastor was presented as a problem solver for the culture. My mission would then be to create a more just and equitable society, not to care for souls. It struck me that we always talked about sin at the structural level but never at the personal level.
It also made me think back through all those authors I read. I don’t remember a single one mentioning the problem of personal sins. These people claimed to follow Jesus, but Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). Why shouldn’t we follow Jesus when he said this? I could feel a knot in my stomach. The crisis had begun.
Meeting Jesus Again
My last class that day was a New Testament elective on the historical Jesus. The professor began class with a statement that I firmly believed when I woke up that morning:
“The Bible is an ancient document written decades and centuries after the events they record. The Gospels are early Church stories about Jesus and have very little value as historical evidence of Jesus. He never claimed to be God and in fact, probably died in a shallow grave somewhere close to the crucifixion.”
I saw my classmates’ heads shake and confirm their agreement. I realized at that moment that there was no point in me continuing at the seminary.[5] If this was what these progressive ministers believed about Jesus, the Scriptures, and the Church, then what was the point? Why not simply be a “good” person and enjoy lazy Sunday mornings? What was I supposed to say to a wife in my congregation whose husband was leaving her? What was I supposed to say to her husband? If there is no resurrection hope, how do I comfort someone at the hour of their death? I deconstructed my faith for over two years, and now found myself in an empty pit of despair. I wanted to be at a progressive seminary, and God allowed me to be there—and I only lasted a day.
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