In the church the right of the denomination to legislate or enforce qualifications for office has been met with the notion that individuals who feel called to ministry have a de facto right to it and that the church may not deny them that without unjustly depriving them; office is regarded as the property of the person who wants or holds it, not the property of the church that invests it with authority.
My Dear Madam,
I read your recent letter with both interest and sadness. We have heard much from your leaders, but little from Memorial’s members, so your brief missive gives a fresh testimony upon our current controversies. I confess I feel a certain reluctance to respond, for communication is difficult where the respective parties’ perspectives differ, and I fear that is the case here. I bid you remember that disagreement does not equal hatred, and that Scripture teaches it is our duty to warn others if we believe they err. If you can accept it, this letter is motivated by the conviction that “better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5). I doubt neither your sincerity nor your honesty, but only that your statements present a sufficient consideration of the matter. As it is our duty to examine all things (1 Thess. 5:21), you will, I hope, permit me to do so now.
One thing I note is that your claims are not necessarily decisive proofs of godly motivation. For example, you speak of your pastors “living out their faith and ministry with integrity and humility.” That might be proof of Christian virtue, yes, but we do not have a monopoly upon humility and integrity. They are also manifestations of God’s common grace, and it could be said of many of other faiths that they minister with humility and integrity (and piety, zeal, etc.) – yet they are not thereby saved, and their works are not thereby made pleasing to God. Describing his fellow Jews, Paul says:
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:2-3).
Therein lays the essence of the question. Even if we grant your leaders’ humility and external integrity, many of us yet dispute that they are right in their teaching and actions.
Elsewhere you state your leaders “have made every effort to speak well of the brothers in the PCA who disagree.” That has not always been done: see here or Greg Johnson’s Aug. 16th tweet to potential attendees of Revoice 2022 (“Don’t let fear of the circumcision party hold you back”). I confess I am at a loss as to how accusing your critics of being in the same category as deniers of the gospel (Gal. 5:2-4; comp. 1:6-9; 3:10) is speaking well of them. But even if this were done reliably it would be no conclusive proof of Christian character. Some speak well of others, even privately, for reasons of self-advantage. One must then try to discern whether the motivation seems good or not, which can only be done by comparing the claim to more public statements. As above and elsewhere, such statements give occasion for concern.
Elsewhere you state “we also desire the peace and purity of the church.” Again, I don’t doubt your sincerity, but that statement could be made by any heretic as readily as by the pious. The real question is: what qualifies here as the peace and purity of the church? We seem to have very different notions of those concepts. From our standpoint it is a strange notion of desiring the peace and purity of the church that includes publishing books, articles, and interviews that attempt to normalize an abnormal experience and to make it acceptable to discuss publicly a matter Scripture says “must not even be named among you” (Eph. 5:3); to lend practical support to organizations (Revoice) that seek the same; to do the same with unbelievers who seek to glorify that which God abominates (“Transluminate 2020”); and to defend such practices vigorously at every turn. You desire peace and purity, but on your terms, not those of our constitution, Scripture, or much of the rest of the denomination.
We do the same, of course, but we think our terms are better, for they have the warrant of Scripture and the established practice of the church for two millennia. Those terms are, amongst others, that not merely errant behavior but also errant desires are sin, in that they are contrary to God’s preceptive will for human nature; that church officers must be above reproach (Titus 1:7) and examples of godly behavior (1 Pet. 5:3), known rather by their fidelity and good works (Titus 2:7) than by their public description of their private sexual desires; that perverse sexual desire in its various stripes does not occur in isolation, but appears in societies in which the reign and corruption of sin have proceeded far and issued as a rejection of God and many other heinous sins (Gen. 18:16-19:29; Eze. 16:49; Rom. 1:18-32); that giving intoxicating beverages to unbelievers who are using the Lord’s property for debauchery is not mercy or evangelism, but abetting revelry; that, subject to Scripture, the church has the right to determine whom it invests with office and on what grounds, and that it has a real right here against officers and candidates, who have no right to ordination by the church; and that responding to sincere concerns of wrongdoing with frequent, zealous, and emotional defenses and thus preoccupying the church with responding to faults rather than other matters is a strange notion of seeking her peace. (Please note I do not include the propriety of psychological counseling for those with perverse temptations in that list.)
I would gently remind you that such innovation of doctrine and practice and disruption of peace as has occurred in these matters has come from your party, who were under no obligation to host Revoice, publish articles at Living Out, etc. It is your party that has instigated this by attempting to import worldly notions (such as sexual desire being a result of an immutable, unwilled orientation rather than a matter of willful preference or a complex of hereditary and environmental causes); we but react in defense of the church’s traditional understanding.
Another thing I note in your letter is that your appeals are often highly emotional in nature. That is not objectionable as such—many of the New Testament epistles include strong emotional appeals—and it is understandable that, given your circumstances, you would feel strongly and speak in light of it. Let me reiterate: I do not doubt your sincerity or honesty, nor the strength of your feelings here, and I do not resent your sharing them. There are few things that are more reprehensible in our society than the tendency, common especially in politics, to exult at the suffering of our opponents. That is execrable and at odds with Scripture, and you will find none of that here.
But I do believe that you are mistaken on this point, and that your mistake lies in this: you make too much of emotion and put it in a central, commanding position rather than leaving it as a subordinate matter. Your letter is essentially a large emotional plea, and it is largely only an emotional plea. Again, it is not wrong, as such, to appeal from your feelings to ours; but in so doing you glide over the grave issues at hand and act as though your party has been needlessly and unjustly troubled. Again, that is historically doubtful—the initiative in stirring up the controversies lies with your leaders—and it gives insufficient space to revelation, which ought to guide all our considerations of such matters. You do allude to Eph. 4:4-5, but briefly and in the service of the emotional plea.
As near as I can tell, it is this preoccupation with emotion that characterizes much advocacy in matters of normalizing the experience of corrupt sexual desires. We are always hearing about the emotional experiences of those who have such temptations, and in both church and society it has often been implied that we who do not experience such desires are derelict in sympathizing with those that do, or that we have even injured them by not acknowledging, validating, and (in society at least) celebrating them in the midst of their emotional experiences. The formula has been the same in both church and society: elevate the autonomy, rights, and dignity of the individual self and of the individual person as representative of a minority group/distinctive class over those of the rights and authority of other groups and the institutions and larger bodies of which the individual is a part.
In civil society the duty and authority of the state to determine the qualifications for marriage was challenged by the plea that individuals’ rights to pursue happiness included the right to form sexual/social/familial relations according to their desires, not according to the needs or rules of the law, and that their rights on this point superseded those of the state and included the ‘right’ to have the state recognize and benefit those unions that they chose according to their personal dictates.
In the church the right of the denomination to legislate or enforce qualifications for office has been met with the notion that individuals who feel called to ministry have a de facto right to it and that the church may not deny them that without unjustly depriving them; office is regarded as the property of the person who wants or holds it, not the property of the church that invests it with authority. Central to every notion of the sacred, inviolable autonomy of the individual as a person or as a representative of a privileged class is the belief that happiness, emotional satisfaction, self-fulfillment, or whatever one wishes to call it, is the most important human need and right, and that it can only be had where that person is accepted and approved by the larger entity (society, church) and all its other members. In society, emotional experience and desire were elevated above nature and law; in the church, above Scripture and the authority of the church.
When you talk about “the toll [the controversy] has taken upon my leaders and the resources of our church—resources which should have been devoted to the care of the flock and the service of our community,” of how “the atmosphere in our church today is one of profound grief and fragility,” and of how the “charges against us feel unrelenting and disheartening,” you follow this same pattern. The emphasis is not upon how your leaders departed from sound doctrine and practice and troubled the church, but upon how those of us who have opposed their actions have made all of you feel. I admit my words here are pointed, but the truth is that your church’s present distress is attributable to your own leaders’ actions. They were under no obligation to host Revoice, etc., and could have desisted at any time—and still can now—but they persisted and now you find yourselves in your present plight. I take no pleasure in hearing of that plight, and I will not insult you by pretending that I personally or my party have been perfect in our demeanor in response; still, this is a bed of your own making, and it is not fair to the rest of us to imply it is our fault.
Third, I must politely demur from some of your practical suggestions. You say, “Those who criticize Memorial often do so from beyond our walls.” Yet as your errors have not been confined within your walls but have spread widely, it is permissible to criticize them from without, and practical considerations often mandate it. You say, “If we are in error, please come sit with us and help us understand our sin” and “please stop talking about us and come talk to us.” Time and again your leaders have been rebuked, and they have not listened but have hardened themselves, defended their actions, and suggested your critics were at fault.
You and some of your other congregants might desire dialogue, but I don’t see evidence that your leaders desire it or that it would lead to concord. Indeed, when you say that technology has allowed us “to distance ourselves from each other,” I fear you misdiagnose the reason for the distance. It is not the fault of the technology, but of your own leaders’ persistence in resisting rebuke.
Now in closing, I shall consider your final statements, but I must first warn you that they are, alas, quite somber, and that I write them with heaviness of heart. You bid us: “Remember that whether Memorial stays or leaves the PCA, we are still one body with one Lord” and that “You will still be our brothers and sisters in Christ.” We will of course not be one body in the visible sense of the church. You will have separated yourselves for reasons that we believe unjust (the avoidance of deserved discipline). As for the invisible church’s unity, it is a thing we have little ability to comment upon, its members being known only to God (1 Kgs. 8:39; comp. 1 Sam. 16:7; Prov. 16:2; 21:2; 2 Tim. 2:18-19); we humans must judge from external behavior.
And that behavior has not been good. Only one further example do I mention. Scripture says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (Jas. 1:26); and “The evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45b). A correspondent sent me an article where your senior pastor used foul language in quoting an obvious heretic (Francis Spufford)’s alternative to the doctrine of sin, “The human propensity to [expletive subtracted].” That is not being above reproach or acting in a manner worthy of our calling. It is writing in a manner that would get one fired by many unbelieving bosses. And yet this is what qualifies as Christian ministry among you! All of which is to say that many of us suspect that it might be said of at least some of you that:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 Jn. 2:19).
A grim prospect, surely, the writing of which is unpleasant. Yet Scripture can scarcely allow us to come to any other conclusion. When you then say that “we will still share the same table each Sunday,” I fear it might prove otherwise. Scripture is clear that not all that is meant to be communion truly is (1 Cor. 11:20), and it has been the long experience of the church that many retain the form without the right doctrine or the true relationship with Christ that sanctifies the form. In conclusion, whether Memorial stays or leaves you would do well to find a church whose leaders conduct themselves other than Memorial’s have; for “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). Now may God grant you every grace in Christ and give you understanding in this and every matter, that you might discern his will aright and act in a manner pleasing to him.
Tom Hervey is a member, Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Simpsonville, SC. The statements made in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of his church or its leadership or other members.