Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel

the Bible

The report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation has been made available here. It seems like some weeks have passed and there has not been much discussion on the report at all. So I want to try to offer some thoughts in the hope of beginning some public dialogue over the contents of the report as the PCA anticipates considering it at the 46th General Assembly in June.

The report opens with some affirmations and denials. In their denials the report makes a strong statement on the primacy of our identity in Christ, as well as the rejection of racism, Marxism, and Socialism. It is right to take this stand at the start of the report. To call racism a sin is certainly consistent with the 5th commandment where we are taught to give due honor to our peers. As the statistical findings of this report bear out, these opening affirmations and denials would be accepted by an overwhelming majority of PCA Teaching and Ruling Elders, and rightfully so.

After the preliminary statements are made, the report lays out the biblical and theological foundations for the conclusions of the report. These biblical and theological foundations are supplemented with confessional support. I appreciated the authors’ attempts to argue their position from Scripture and the Westminster Standards.

However, I want to suggest that, at the outset of this process, there is an unhealthy emphasis when it comes to the area of racial reconciliation in the PCA. The report cites the action of the 44th General Assembly which recommitted itself “to the gospel task of racial reconciliation.” It may seem like trifling to some, but I take great exception to calling racial reconciliation a “gospel task.”

The gospel is the good news. Not just good news that the weather will be nice tomorrow, or that a salary increase is on the way, or that your enemies will become your friends. It is the good news of salvation, the account of the redemption of man through the mercy of God. In eternity, God set in motion his plan for redemption in which he satisfied divine justice against sin through the substitutionary sacrifice of his perfect and sinless Son. It is the church’s great privilege to set this good news before themselves by way of reminder, and the world as a general call to repent and be saved. Showing man his need for salvation in Christ is a gospel task. Calling men and women to repentance from sin is a gospel task. However, racial reconciliation as a work on its own is not a gospel task. By calling racial reconciliation a gospel task, it has been elevated to the same level as the declaration of the gospel.

My main concern with this heightened designation of racial reconciliation, is that racial reconciliation sits outside the core of the gospel. You can be free from the specific sin of racism and still end up in hell. People who are unregenerate can work toward racial reconciliation and even accomplish a large degree of success. Two unbelievers might be able to reconcile hostility they had toward each other over race or ethnicity and yet not be any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Some of the most racially integrated cultures are also some of the most godless. Racial reconciliation is not the good news. Instead, it must be applied and understood in the context of the gospel task of the church, which is to declare redemption in Christ.

Words and labels matter. To maintain a proper balance when it comes to the topic under discussion, it is important to avoid category confusion. Racial reconciliation is not a gospel task, but a fruit that will be seen in the lives of true Christians. That is an important distinction to make. We must guard ourselves against elevating racial reconciliation to the same level as the message of salvation in Christ, and I am afraid that, however inadvertently, the report incorporates the kind of category confusion I have described above.

My concern with this committee and its report is not with the individual members. In my limited interaction with them they seem to be sincere, God-fearing men who desire to help build up the church of Christ. My problem is with the assignment in general and the content specifically. It is right to call the church to repent of sins, but it seems strange to me to give such prominence to one of the many sins present in the church.

More to follow…

Justice and Mercy

Amazing Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

The church, in some places, has truncated the presentation of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of God’s redemption of men. Paul defines it as “the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16). This “power of salvation” is often translated into, “God will forgive my sins because of Jesus.” That is part of the gospel message. However, it is important for the church to consider more fully what this “power of salvation” is.

The power of salvation is more than a simple fix of my sin problem. To properly understand the significance of sin, the nature of God and man must be understood. God must be seen as the Creator of all things visible and invisible. His ownership over all the world must be recognized. Next, man’s rebellion against his Creator must be seen with all its lethal implications. Man’s sin leads to his death. These lines of thought are the first to be established in the accounts of the Bible. It is within that context that the gospel message is declared. God, who is just, has been sinned against, and justice should be expected.

However, though justice is right and should be applied to men, something different happens. God in his grace and mercy, sets apart some to be redeemed from their guilt. Though they are dead in their sins and trespasses, God makes them alive. He gives to them faith that they might to find salvation in Christ. He gives them repentance that they would not continue in sin. And one of the most amazing parts of the gospel follows out of this grace from God: where justice should be given, mercy is given instead.

Instead of condemnation, man is given justification. But I want to be clear about what happens in man’s justification. The good news of the gospel is found in the hopeless condition of man. What man is unable to do because of sin, God does on his behalf so that he may be justified.

To give clarity, it is important to define justification. I prefer the definition given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There justification is defined as: “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” This definition divides justification into two parts, one negative in that it removes something from man and the other positive, in that it adds something to man.

In justification, God removes the guilt of my sins. He provides a pardon. He does that because the guilt of my sin has been laid on Christ. On the cross he bore this curse for his people. As the apostle Paul says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This curse of condemnation is removed by Christ because, though he was perfectly obedient to God and committed no sin, he became the object of God’s wrath in my place for my sin. So the guilt of my sins is removed.

However, something more is happening in the gospel than a simple removal of guilt. God does not move me from a position of condemnation to one of neutrality. God gives something positive to the believer in justification. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me. Imputation is an accounting term that transfers something from one account to another. In justification, the righteousness of Christ is transferred from his account to that of his children. Again, Paul says, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19). Part of the gospel is that I am counted righteous in the sight of God because the merit of Jesus’ perfect works is credited to my account. Man moves from a position of eternal guilt to one of eternal favor.

So man, who rebelled against his Creator, and deserves punishment is given mercy instead. That is not because God ignores his justice. Rather, he satisfied it by pouring his wrath for sin out on his Son. With guilt removed, he now extends mercy to all those set apart for his mercy. That is a deeper understanding of the work of redemption. It shows the greatness of God’s gift of salvation more abundantly. This perspective gives God’s people far more reason not to take their salvation for granted, but to rejoice before the Lord all their days for his goodness and kindness to them in the gospel.

Regeneration and the Depth of the Gospel

the Bible

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

To be able to articulate the gospel properly, the Christian must consider all of the parts of his salvation. To truncate the gospel by presenting only a part of it as the whole is a distortion of the truth. God does not only justify, but he also adopts, sanctifies, preserves and glorifies. However far before discussions about these various results of Christ’s work can begin, it is necessary to consider the work of God in salvation that precedes these parts. For example, election shows salvation is a result of God’s will, not dependent on any work in the creature. Election shows how man’s total depravity is overcome in the gospel. Total depravity teaches man’s nature is so effected by sin that all his parts are corrupted in such a way that there is no path for him to God without some saving, intervening work. It heightens the sense of God’s grace, kindness and mercy in the work of redeeming some of his creation for his own mysterious purposes. But the work of salvation also includes the regeneration of the Christian.

Not only does God choose, but he also regenerates the one he is saving. The Bible shows the fatal effect of sin in mankind. In the build-up to the account of the fall, God explains Adam’s obligation to the Lord. Adam is to obey him fully in not eating the forbidden fruit, and if he does he will surely die. The account is well-known. He does eat, and through this sin death enters the world. However, Paul shows us the grace of the gospel in describing God’s regenerating work: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5, ESV). Life under the tyranny of sin is death, but life in the service of Christ is life. Herein is the work of regeneration: moving a soul from death to life.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism refers to regeneration using another term: effectual call. Though different terminology, the meaning is the same. The catechism defines effectual calling as a “work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (WSC #31). Before the Spirit’s work in regeneration, there is no reaction to spiritual life because man is dead. However, God, because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the reviving work of the Holy Spirit, awakens in his creatures an awareness of sin and its consequences. He also breathes into a previously dead heart a saving knowledge of Christ and his substitutionary work with a corresponding desire to follow him.

The gospel message is greatly enriched by looking at all the parts of how God works salvation in man. Far beyond a simple declaration of righteousness in justification, the gospel contains those evidences of the warmth and mercy of God toward his creation. More than simply the process of forsaking sin and loving obedience, the gospel shows man’s position of complete dependence on God. The regenerating work of God in Christ creates a depth of understanding only attained when all the parts of man’s salvation are considered.

So God’s grace is seen in his work of choosing some from among his rebellious creation to belong to him. He takes men and women who are dead in sin, and gives to them life in Christ. Salvation is not just a legal declaration of innocence of sin. Through the doctrine of regeneration, God’s grace and kindness for his people is clearly seen in that fact that he makes them alive again. He performs the miraculous, enabling us to comprehend the significance of the work of Christ and to flee to him for salvation.

Does Election Clarify the Gospel?

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)

One of the difficulties with having theological discussions is definitions. For example, justification means two very different things depending on if you are speaking with a Roman Catholic or a Protestant. The same is true, albeit in a less formalized way, about the word “gospel.” In Scripture the word is used as a place-holder, to summarize all the teaching of Christ. Today’s meaning for the word is often a truncation, or a partial meaning of the good news of salvation. In many cases, the word is used to describe justification, that part of salvation where the sinner is legally declared righteous before the Lord, and the guilt of his sin against God is removed because Christ has satisfied divine justice in his place. Certainly that is good news, but that is not the totality of the gospel. It is part of the story of salvation, but it is not the whole.

Salvation is applied to the believer through a process. This process is all in the hands of God, and he directs the redemption of a lost soul in such a way that it is perfectly accomplished in him. In theology, this process is called the Ordo Salutis, Latin (I’m told) for the Order of Salvation. This logical order of how God coverts a soul, protects the gospel from abridgement and mutation.

Louis Berkhof, in his systematic theology, describes the reformed view of the order of salvation as beginning with regeneration, followed by conversion (including faith and repentance as sub-headings), which leads to justification, adoption, and sanctification. The order is concluded by considering God’s preservation of his saints, and his glorifying them. These theological categories give a much richer understanding of the relationship between God and his people and the way in which he reconciles them to himself. However, these categories are not all neatly found in just one verse. They are found in the breadth of Scripture.

So, thinking through these different parts of God’s work of redemption in his people, what does regeneration add to the definition of the gospel? Regeneration describes the awakening of a dead human spirit. Ezekiel describes regeneration as he speaks of the return of Israel out of exile: “And I will give you a new heart, and a hew spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26). A stone heart has no life in it, but God makes the heart of his people alive. This truth defines the helplessness of man and heightens the sense of his dependence on God for salvation. This truth is not intended to run man down, or simply to make him think ill of himself. Rather it is intended to help him to think with greater joy about God who saved a wretch like him.

The electing work of God is seen as a reason for great gratitude in the verse at the top of this article. There Paul states that the electing, or “chosing” work of God in salvation is cause for constant thankfulness. It is like the man who is being swept way in the rapids, but who is snatched out of it by rescuers on the shore. He will be more grateful to those who saved him than a person who is able to swim to the side and only requires a hand up. Man’s dependence on God for his salvation sets the stage for how he views the rest. With God’s work of regenerating, or making alive, the human heart we begin our understanding of the gospel by giving praise to him.

Against a Truncated Gospel

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)

The central question Christianity answers is: “How does God reconcile man to himself after sin enters the world.” The passage above from Romans is one of many passages in Scripture that shows the centrality of salvation. Paul certainly thought the declaration of the salvation to men as central to his apostolic task. He describes this message of reconciliation as “the gospel.” It is a beautiful label meaning “good news” and good news it is.

There is nothing that could be better news for man destined for eternal judgment than that salvation has come to him. But what is all included in the gospel? To what part of Scripture would you turn to define the gospel? If you are one of those people who sits behind home plate at televised baseball games, you might suggest John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is a beautiful verse, but it contains only part of the gospel. Therein is seen the danger of trying to make too brief a summary of the gospel. Summaries are prone to leave parts out. And when parts of the gospel are left out, the presentation becomes an incomplete picture at best, or a destructive error at worst.

I often travel south of Augusta as part of my responsibilities within the church. As I do so, there is a small church I pass.  I am not sure what the name or denomination of the church is. I can never get past the banner they proudly display by the entrance of their property. This sign has been there for years, and boldly announces: “God is not mad at you no matter what.” That is exactly the kind of unbiblical theological nonsense that leads to the eternal destruction of many human souls and flows from an incomplete understanding of the gospel.

I’m sure this church is sincerely trying to declare the gospel, but their “gospel” message is truncated. They are putting forth a message that, instead of bringing salvation, will give a false sense of security leading to destruction. If God is not mad at me, no matter what, sin makes very little difference. However, Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” This verse must be held hand-in-hand with John 3:16 and shows the church’s banner for what it is: man’s idea. Psalm 11 is part of the gospel. That is because the gospel is not contained so much in a handful of verses lifted out of the Bible. Rather the entirety of the Bible contains this good news.

I understand the desire to boil the gospel down to a very short phrase. However, giving a faithful representation of God’s plan of redemption via summary is a difficult task. Jesus, when explaining the events around his own crucifixion and resurrection, did so not using one phrase or verse. Instead, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:17). Christians have to include the whole breadth of Scripture when it comes to explaining the gospel. Otherwise the gospel will be presented in a truncated, inaccurate form.

So what is God’s plan of redemption? What does he do to bring salvation to men? Again, a simple verse will not suffice, but the same Paul who speaks of the gospel in Romans 1:16 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” a few chapters later (Romans 8:30). The picture of what happens in redemption according to this verse includes predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.

All of these, and other parts described in other places of Scripture, work together to give a complete picture of redemption. These heighten the sense of good news. So I want to take some time to consider the different parts of the gospel over the next few weeks, in the hope of presenting a faithful gospel message to the praise of God.

Are Images of Jesus Allowed?

Ten Commandments

“The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever;” (Westminster Larger Catechism, #109)

My experiences as an elder and pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America have shown a lack clarity and/or agreement on the application of the 2nd commandment as it pertains to representing the Son in pictures. There is a range of positions pastors and elders take in the PCA. At risk of over-simplifying the issue, let me try to summarize the positions, as I have seen them expressed.

One group affirms the plain confessional view as summarized above in WLC #109, which prohibits any representation of God. Another group would object to depicting him in corporate worship, but would allow pictures of him in children’s Bibles and Sunday School material. The last group would hold that images of Jesus are not problematic since it is not accompanied with worship. In this article, I want to give reasons why the first view is the strongest.

In Scripture, no description is given of Jesus. Therefore, no artist knows his hair or eye color, or anything else about his appearance. Any picture of him must be the product of the artist’s imagination. Yet the artist paints the picture for the purpose of making an impression on those who will see it. That picture will shape thoughts about God of anyone who sees it, and thereby influence his worship. By way of example, most representations of the Son will focus on his human nature. However, that is an incomplete depiction. In that sense, pictures of Jesus over-emphasize his humanity at the expense of his divinity. Therefore, the confession rightly urges Christians to rely only on God’s word to shape their understanding of Christ. Shorter Catechism #50 says, “The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.” In doing so, it summarizes the teaching of God through the apostle Paul who said, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imaginations of man.” (Acts 17:29, ESV). Only God’s revelation is suitable to inform our impression of him.

In addition, pictures of Jesus affect our children. Showing our children a representation of Jesus will shape and mold their impression of him. Children’s Bibles and Sunday School materials often portray Jesus in cartoon form. The effect: Jesus’ majesty, glory, power, and splendor is removed in the child’s mind. Rather than helping them understand who Jesus is, these pictures form a cheaper, weaker impression of our Savior. Again, this impression will be carried along in worship, even only in their minds. They will worship an impression of Christ not given by God, but created by a cartoonist. Jesus can never be drawn so faithfully as it represents him as he truly is: fully God and fully man. No matter how gifted the artist, he will always fall short.

There is also a historical precedent within the church for us to respect when it comes to this issue. I understand church history is not on the same level as Scripture, but it is wise to consider the actions of the church in the past. In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion he argues that images of Christ were not used in the church for the first five centuries (Book 1, Chapter 11.13). In addition, the Westminster Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, 2nd Helvetic Confession, and London Baptist Confession 1689, just to name a few, all forbid the representation of God in any form. The church in history has understood the 2nd commandment to forbid what we seem so eager to embrace. Today’s church would do well not to needlessly move a well-established fence.

Pastors, elders, Sunday School teachers, and parents, I make my appeal to you. It is not an appeal that questions your intentions, but is rather a call to re-consider. Do not introduce something that would harm your sheep and children in that way. Protect them from an inaccurate worship of God. Heed the words of John Calvin:

“And from the fearful infatuation under which the world has hitherto laboured, almost to the entire destruction of piety, we know too well from experience that the moment images appear in churches, idolatry has as it were raised its banner; because the folly of manhood cannot moderate itself, but forthwith falls away to superstitious worship.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 11.13)

We have enough trouble being faithful to God’s word without starting at the place where God has said, you shall not worship me in that way.

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #8

After a week of vacation and a week of study leave, it’s time to finish up the consideration of the recommendations made by the study committee on women’s roles in the worship of the church, which were adopted at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly. All that is left to consider is the eighth recommendation which reads:

That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.

The language of the recommendation is structured in such a way that no action is required or suggested, except for the action of considering. The courts of the church are asked to reflect on a specific issue: affirming and including underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA. The first thing to be done in order to understand this recommendation is to clarify the meaning.The recommendation does not clarify where these people suffer from underprivilege and underrepresentation. However the rationale included in the report clarifies who is in view.

When the report speaks of the underrepresented, it refers to the racial emphasis that has become part of life in the PCA. When introducing the idea of reaching the nations in the ministry of the church the report states: “Unfortunately, the PCA, though it upholds the mandate to make disciples of the nations, has yet to see the demographics in diverse communities reflected in local churches.” (2463). In other words, underrepresentation is seen by the report as a lack racial representation of certain ethnic minorities within the church. Whatever ethnic groups are underrepresented should be affirmed and included in the church courts.

The report also clarifies who is in view when it comes to being underprivileged. Again, in the rationale provided by the committee, it cites Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an example of the underprivileged. When defining her place the report does so along class lines: “To use today’s language, her family was not middle class, yet she participated in the church in a unique, yet honorable and God-glorifying manner (cf. 1 Tim. 2:15).” (2463). From Mary’s unique place as the mother of Christ, the report concludes that women should be affirmed and included no matter what their income is: “The committee affirms, therefore, that even if women are in a lower tax bracket, they are to be embraced as valuable, of equal dignity and worth, and included in various ministries of the church.” (2463). The report is calling the church courts to affirm and include people based on their income.

It is difficult to know how to respond to this rationale and recommendation because it seems to be stating the obvious. It is true that the church should embrace all tribes and tongues and nations. God is Lord of them all and has sent the church to make disciples, baptize and teach them all to live in obedience to Christ their Savior (Cf. Matt. 28:19-20). It is true that the church is living in sin if it shows favoritism to the rich (Cf. Jam 2:2-4). So, it seems the report recommends to the church something that is properly basic. However, I think the recommendation itself has an unhealthy emphasis. Part of me wants to say that if we are speaking of the church it is impossible to speak of underrepresentation and underprivilege. I know that at times the church has sought to exclude those of different races or has shown favoritism to the rich, but those are not, in my experience, the sins that characterize our denomination.

To single out people in the church based on their ethnicity or income levels does something that Scripture explicitly works against. It breaks the church into groups of people rather than unite it as the body of Christ. Take for example, Gal. 3:28. This verse denies the very categories the report seeks to exhort us to recognize. In Galatians Paul says that in Christ’s view of his justified children there is neither Jew nor Greek (racial or ethnic divide), nor slave nor free (class division). To single out a specific group to affirm and include them seems to be contrary to that view of the body. We are in Christ. We are called Christians and there is no hyphenation in the body of Christ.

Therefore if the report felt the need to exhort the church on this point, I think it would have been better said that the church should enfold, include, love, labor for, seek to serve all its members, whether male or female, wherever, and in whatever circumstance they may be found. To divide the church into male and female, and introduce the categories of underrepresentation based on race or underprivilege based on income seems to be an unhealthy distinction not found in Scripture. We are Christians, the body of Christ. All members of the body should be loved, included and affirmed.

 

 

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #7

This post continues a series dealing with the recommendations made and approved at the 45th General Assembly of the PCA. These recommendations were initially presented by the study committee on the role of women in the ministry of the church. The original recommendations were debated, modified and approved by the Assembly. So far I have dealt with the first six. This post deals with the 7th which reads:

That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.

In the rationale provided by the committee they give two basic reasons for this recommendation. The first is that they hope the establishment of this “long overdue” position will provide recognition for those who labor in the church in unordained work. They state: “While it would not represent an office, it would recognize those whose lives have been given in service to the body.” (2462) The second is an attempt to correct a compensation discrepancy especially for women serving on church staffs. The report says, “This benefit for commissioned church workers may redress an inequity in compensation that mostly affects women, who are in non- licensed and non-ordained full-time ministry.” (2462). The benefit in question would be tax exemptions, which the report supports with a link to the IRS website. In giving these reasons the committee is quick to point out these commissioned workers would not be ordained.

A couple of quick responses:

First, the committee supports its strong desire to see this category of worker established by appealing to a PCUSA digest from 1938. Leaving aside what kind of impression that might make on confessional men within the denomination, there is by contrast a noticeable lack of reference to Scripture. However kind the intention to thank others for their work in the church may be, the practice must be supported by Scripture. Our confession states Scripture is our authority for “all things necessary for his (God’s) glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF 1.6) and we must study what it says.

A survey of commissioning as it relates to the church renders only two examples in Scripture. The first, in Num. 27:18-23 describes God’s command that Joshua to be commissioned to replace Moses as leader. This ceremony is repeated in Deut. 31:14, 23. The second, in 2 Cor. 2:14-17 has Paul speaking of himself as commissioned by God for the spreading of the gospel. These are the only references to commissioning in the Bible as they relate to the ministry of the church.

If the concept of commissioning is expanded to include those who are “set apart” for specific tasks, the range of persons included becomes greater:

  • The Levites were set apart to serve the Lord in the temple (Deut. 10:8);
  • Aaron was set apart to make offerings before the Lord (1 Chron. 23:13);
  • David sets apart the sons of Asaph and others to minister in music at the temple (1 Chron. 25:1);
  • Ezra sets apart 12 priests to guard the offerings for God’s house (Ezra 8:24);
  • Barnabas and Saul are set apart for their missionary journey (Acts 13:2);
  • Paul identifies himself as one set apart for the gospel (Rom. 1:1).

All the instances of commissioning and setting apart for specific tasks in Scripture are for the ministry of the church and, at the very least, are applied to men only. Even if we should grant that “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) be considered, Scripture does not support the kind of action the committee is suggesting.

Now there is no question that all God’s people are set apart to serve and minister within the church (Ps. 4:3, 2 Tim. 2:21). However, the practice of setting apart for specific tasks within the church seems to be an exceptional circumstance where men already in office, whether as Levite, priest, apostle or teacher in the church, are given a specific assignment.

Second, commissioning is not able to address the tax exemptions the committee is hoping to provide. In the IRS code dealing with who qualifies for the ministerial tax exemptions the tax code defines ministers as “individuals who are duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed by a religious body constituting a church or church denomination. Ministers have the authority to conduct religious worship, perform sacerdotal functions, and administer ordinances or sacraments according to the prescribed tenets and practices of that church or denomination.” (https://www.irs.gov/publications/p517/ar02.html). So unless we are willing to grant our commissioned workers the authority to conduct worship services, and administer the sacraments it seems commissioning them will not give them the tax exemptions hoped for.

I would return to my thoughts on recommendation 2 which states that we should respect and tolerate the variety of views that fall within scriptural and constitutional bounds held in the PCA on the roles of women in ministry. I have already stated, the complicating factor is that there is not agreement within the PCA as to what scriptural and constitutional bounds are. I would suggest recommendation #7 is a case in point.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #6

The study committee report on the role of women in the ministry of the church, approved by the 45th General Assembly of the PCA, asks its Sessions and presbyteries to consider nine recommendations. With the first and last of these adjudicated at the assembly itself, only the second through the eighth require any reflection now. Previous segments have dealt with recommendations two through five. This article deals with the sixth recommendation from the committee, the revised and approved version of which states:

That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.

To arrive at its final form, this statement underwent a revision on the floor of the Assembly. Its original version read:

That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses. 

The revised statement is a vast improvement over the original for several reasons. First, by removing the exclusive focus on women in the original statement, the revised version focusses instead on all unordained members. Thereby it removes any hint of the fragmentation of the church into groups.

Second, it narrows the scope of appointment of these unordained women and men to the ordained diaconate of the church, not leadership in general. Whereas the original recommendation would be introducing something new, the revised version is already reflected in the existing Book of Church Order of the PCA. In essence, the revised report asks churches to select and appoint women to be assistants to the deacons. This revision is simply a restatement of Chapter 9, Section 7 of the BCO, although its force may be a little stronger. The report moves from the “may” of the BCO to the implied “ought” of the recommendation.

Third, it removes unnecessary controversy from the recommendation. The last clause in the original recommendation inexplicably includes a reference to deaconesses. This inclusion is inexplicable because it is not a recommendation, but a statement. The Assembly deleted this clause in order to remove any potential controversy that including such a statement might produce. The revised recommendation will cause few churches in the PCA any heartburn. However, it still seems a strange recommendation to make. Here are a few observations:

First, it is impossible for any presbytery to be able to carry out this recommendation. The presbytery does not have a diaconate, and therefore cannot select and appoint anyone to it. Perhaps the inclusion of this court is simply an oversight from the floor amendment. Whatever the reason, its inclusion is not significant enough to warrant any further discussion.

Second, this recommendation states the obvious and is therefore unnecessary. I will grant that most of my associations within the PCA are with confessional, conservative men, but I have gotten to know some men whose convictions align themselves more with the progressive proponents in the PCA. Among neither group have I ever encountered any who would say that the unordained men and women of their congregations should not help the ordained diaconate, or Session for that matter. Certainly, there can be no formal appointment for those who help the Session, but the very nature of the shepherding ministry of the church is that men and women be equipped for ministry (Cf. Eph. 4:11-12). It does not seem a necessary observation to make, because it is so basic to the life and ministry of the church.

The original formulation of this recommendation does present problems through its focus on women, its desire to expand the appointment of women from helping the deacons to the leadership more generically, and through its reference to deaconesses, but with these removed very little remains against which objection can arise. Granted, due to the recommendation’s obvious statement, it has very limited value in helping the church working through this issue, but in all this recommendation is relatively benign.

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #5

This post continues the discussion on the recommendations made by the Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Ministry of the Church, approved at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly. This installment will take up recommendation #5, which reads as follows:

That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in Chapter Two).

The exegesis of the report on this point, to which the recommendation refers, notes a tension between 1 Cor. 11:5 and 1 Cor. 14:34. The former acknowledges that women prophesy, while the latter commands their silence. The report suggests two solutions to this apparent discrepancy.

The first solution views the setting in 1 Cor. 11 as informal and 1 Cor. 14 as the formal worship of the gathered church. The report suggests this view is untenable because of 1 Cor. 14:26 which says that “each one” contributes to the various aspects of worship. As a result, the report suggests a second solution, which forms the foundation for what they are put forward in recommendation #5.

The second solution suggests there is a limit on the command for silence on the part of women in 1 Cor. 14:34. The report reasons that, since all are described as partaking in all the elements of the corporate worship of the church, and since 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with the proper ordering of such participation, it is only in the weighing of prophecy as described in v. 29 that women are to be silent. To bolster this argument, they further state that the Greek word translated as “keep silent” in v. 34 is only a temporary silence to maintain order. This reading is of a recent vintage and leads to the fifth recommendation.

Without the background of the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14:26ff, the fifth recommendation does not necessarily present a problem. Sessions are simply called to consider how non-ordained members can be biblically used in the worship of the church. However, the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14 allows a wide interpretation of what is permissible. For example, in the rational given for the fifth recommendation, the committee gives six suggestions as to how Sessions might involve women in the church’s worship. Among these are leading the congregation in prayer and the corporate reading of Scripture. This exegesis and resulting suggestions give me great concern.

First, the position taken by the report, that 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with a limited command to silence, has a significant problem. The paragraphs in this chapter delineate blocks of thought. Therefore, when we see a paragraph between 14:33a and 33b, the change of topic should be noted. Verses 26-33a deal with the general order in the public worship services of the church. Verses 33b-35 deal specifically with the ordering of women in the public worship services of the church. To join these paragraphs into one thought is a mistake.

Second, the committee’s report suggests that Paul’s word for “keep silent” (sigatosan) in v. 34 is a limited and temporary silence. However, that is not the only word Paul uses during his instructions on this point. Later in verse 34 Paul states women “are not permitted to speak,” a different Greek word (lalein) to impress the need for silence. This same word is repeated in verse 35 when Paul states it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Neither instance carries with it any indication of a temporary silence. This poor exegesis in the report leads to the encouragement of a flawed practice that will ultimate harm and damage the church.

Third, the limit to simply weighing of prophecy would remove any basis for forbidding women from preaching in church. So long as men weigh whether what she says is true, women should be able to do anything else. I am not contending this is what the committee suggests, but the pathway certainly has been opened.

The committee dismissed the first solution for the apparent discrepancy between 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 14 too quickly. There are explanations as to why this supposed tension is really no tension at all. For example, it is possible that the report misses the mark regarding its assignment of “each one” to address men and women. In verse 31 when Paul says they can “all” prophesy, the “all” is limited to those who were given that spiritual gift, which not everyone had (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:29). Therefore, care should be taken not to assign Paul’s “all” to a category he did not intend to include. Another option suggested by Calvin states that in 1 Cor. 11:5 Paul is describing current practice, which he later forbids in 1 Cor. 14:34. If true, the tension suggested by the authors of the report is removed.

So what is the biblical role of women in the worship of the church? As with all God’s people, women participate in the songs of the congregation. They lift up their prayers to God Almighty by their assent to the prayers the elders lead the congregation in. They are fed through the instruction of God’s word. They declare the death of Christ through their participation in the Lord’s Supper. These are the proper and normal boundaries established in God’s word for their participation. It is not a statement of their value in the sight of God. It is simply following God’s recorded instructions for his people.