This was part of the previous post on the TR Debates. In that post, I strung a series of articles and letters together, which made for a rather long item. For those who might want these items separately, I’m reposting. Particularly in the case of this letter, context is crucial. There was more to this story than what is related by Dr. Taylor, and the situation on the ground was more complicated than what is presented here. In that regard, it might be wise to remember Proverbs 18:17, “The first to plead his case appears right…”
Some open thoughts about beliefs, and zeal, and strategy—
Lo, the TR!
[The Rev. G. Aiken Taylor served as editor of The Presbyterian Journal from 1959 until 1983]
THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.47 (23 MARCH 1977): 9-10, 20.
Recently, I spent a weekend with a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America that had just severed its connection with its pastor under other than cordial circumstances. The issue which brought final disruption was the one we have tried to speak to with articles and editorials in recent issues of the Journal: the effect of a TR (Truly Reformed) ministry on the average congregation.
The church I visited is a typical, medium-sized congregation of middle-class people with the average proportion of tares and wheat—sheep and goats, if you please—in its membership. However, as a congregation it has had a long and distinguished record of Christian witness, of evangelism and of sons and daughters in full-time Christian service.
Along comes a typical representative of the TR position. He had been on the field but a very short time when the congregation’s rotation system brought up a new election of elders. One of those reelected was a man with a previously distinguished record of service on the Session. His family were active in all church affairs and he was known as a pillar of the congregation.
In the course of preparatory conversations, it came out that the newly elected elder admitted to premillennial tendencies. That did it. “Your views have been condemned as heresy by the Church,” he was told by the new minister, who went on to say that he had no intention of installing him as an elder.
As the months passed, other things came up, in addition to the usual failings so often besetting the ministry today—such as not bothering to come to Sunday school and little or no pastoral visitation. For example, the minister made a point of witnessing to his disapproval of Christmas celebrations. When members of the congregation wanted to give his children presents at Christmas time, he would allow them to accept the presents but only on the condition that they were not to be called Christmas gifts.
His public condemnation of a Christmas pageant presented by some group in the church—he called it “trash”—created ominous rumblings throughout the congregation.
He strongly disapproved of women having anything to say on the floor of congregational meetings. Not in an instructional capacity, mind you—in a congregational business meeting.
He set strict Biblical standards for officers. When one man was elected to the session who, in his opinion, did not reflect exemplary leadership in his professional and business affairs (he had changed jobs rather frequently) he refused to ordain him. At one point a class of officers could not be filled because none of the men elected met the minister’s standards.
To emphasize the total sovereignty of God, he once told his congregation that if he had some way of knowing that some person was not listed among the elect, he wouldn’t waste his time preaching the Gospel to that man.
What brought things to a head was a meeting with the Session in which he announced that the officers would have to join with him in “disciplining” the congregation. The time had come, he said, for the people to shape up or ship out—or the church could have his resignation.
The church promptly accepted the offer and a parting of the ways occurred—the pastor leaving without a call elsewhere.
I think this episode is full of lessons for those who have the ears to hear. In the first place, there is nothing wrong with a desire to have a truly Reformed testimony—a pure church. Every congregation worth its salt has a nucleus of truly dedicated people who could be formed into such a church—if that is the way one goes about establishing the Church. The minister in question at one point even hinted to one supporter on the Session that between the two of them they could gather a nucleus and have such a church.
But if the nucleus of dedicated Christians which can be found in every church constitutes the body and everyone else must “shape up or ship out,” you can count on one thing for sure: The congregation from thenceforth will be small.
Congregations of any significant size anywhere include many who do not really identify with the dedicated, knowledgeable nucleus. I have heard ministers say that they sometimes wonder if 10 per cent of their congregations really know what committed Christianity is all about. Confronted with such congregations, two schools of thought offer two different solutions: One says, purge the rolls and build the church on the committed nucleus, even if the result is a small, “house church” which never grows significantly; the other says, develop the church on the basis of “whosoever will may come,” realizing all the while that there may be many in the congregation who have professed faith in Jesus Christ but for whom the Reformed faith is pure Greek.
I would not here try to defend either of these approaches against the other. But I would point out that the minister who views his mission as that of “fencing” the congregation—of weeding out a purified body, a committed assembly, a “disciplined” fellowship, will experience results that most certainly thenceforth and forever will be small.
The minister who moves into the average existing congregation of any size with the determination to bring about such results can count on it: The fallout will be spectacular.
It’s a bit like the problem faced by the girl who has made her choice of men and has planned the wedding—except that the intended bride-groom has several minor faults that she feels sure she can correct after the knot has been tied. He’s a bum and she is going to turn him into a gentleman—just you wait and see!
Everyone who has been there knows how that marriage will turn out. It will be a disaster. If a girl wants a gentleman for a husband, she had better seek out a gentleman, or else soundly (and genuinely) convert her intended before she marries him.
If a minister is out to separate unto himself a congregation which abhors the idea of celebrating Christmas, he can accomplish the purpose in one of two ways: start from scratch and seek out people who abhor Christmas and assemble them together; or barge into a congregation which relishes its annual Christmas pageants and try to persuade them that Christmas is of the devil.
By either method, he will wind up with some followers. But if the latter method is tried, there will be spectacular wreckage strewn about—if, that is, the minister is not first run off as was the young man whose story we told at the beginning.
I am not here discussing the merits or demerits of celebrating Christmas. I do have some opinions on the subject, but that is another story. Here I am talking about the heart of the TR issue itself: the propriety or the impropriety of assuming that it is one’s calling of the Lord to approach a congregation (or a presbytery or a denomination) with a determination to “discipline the body” until all of its parts have shaped up or shipped out.
There may be validity in such an objective. But the task becomes complicated if the people you are working with not only have failed to measure up to what they know they should be, they have not been converted to your point of view in the first place. In such cases there may be reason to dwell on the Scriptural injunction that the man of God should be “all things to all men in order that by all means he might win some.”
I do not mean to suggest that the man of God should deliberately undertake a ministry of walking in the counsel of the ungodly, standing in the way of sinners and sitting in the seat of the scornful. But if you have certain convictions and the people you work with do not share those convictions (whether fellow presbyters, or members of the flock), you have a selling job as well as a disciplining job.
It is barely possible that in your zeal to make everyone in the Church a staunch defender of your understanding of the Reformed faith you have forgotten that your assignment is as much of a missionary assignment as it is a disciplinary assignment. In any case, it certainly will not be accomplished by stacking committees, politicizing appointments and passing resolutions.
William Carey and Adoniram Judson knew what it was to labor for years between converts. Assuming that your objectives are the Lord’s own, do you think whole congregations can be converted overnight?
But—you say—these people already profess to be Christians and Presbyterians. We simply are showing them “the more excellent way.”
Perhaps. But the more excellent way, according to my Bible, is that of love. Pasting the label of heretic on a congregation, wholesale, is a hard thing to do in love.
In my opinion, the young man whose story constituted the first part of this account would have difficulty taking the oversight of any congregation of God’s people. Because of his views? No, although we would be glad to open the Scriptures and debate with him some of his views. He would have trouble, in our opinion, because he hasn’t learned that the commandment not to offend one of Christ’s little ones is fully as incumbent upon him as the commandment to feed His sheep.
Sometimes, in conversation with one of these people, the Apostle Paul is lifted up as a model of the strict disciplinarian. Didn’t Paul tell the Corinthians to straighten up? Didn’t he threaten to come to them with a “rod” if they didn’t heed his apostolic warnings?
True. But let’s not forget that the letters to the Corinthians were written to Christians whom the apostle had “begotten in the Lord.” He was their spiritual father to begin with. He had led them to Christ and he specifically makes reference to the unique relationship between them. Here were spiritual children who had turned aside from fidelity to what the apostle had laid to their charge in the first place. It wasn’t a congregation of people converted, nurtured and pastored by Peter that Paul descended upon with the intention of “whipping them into shape.” When he wrote to the Romans, it was in an entirely different mood: “I beseech you therefore, brethren . . . !”
The typical TR in trouble with his congregation is a young man, inexperienced in the pastorate, poking his finger in the face of a godly elder old enough to be his father and either figuratively or literally pronouncing, “You, sir, are a heretic!” Of that the Lord will not hold him guiltless.
To be sure there are two sides to this coin. In many a situation, the position of leadership was long occupied by a minister who stood for nothing, who tolerated everything and come heresy or apostasy managed to get along with everyone—including the hierarchy of a Church over whose portals the word Ichabod, “The Glory Hath Departed,” was clearly written. Such ministries often preceded those now leaving the people gasping with shock.
Moreover, wasn’t the Presbyterian Church in America (where most of the problem we are talking about exists) formed out of congregations willing to react to the point of separation against rampant liberalism? Would not such congregations be receptive to a truly Reformed ministry?
A truly Reformed ministry, perhaps. But not a TR ministry. It is one thing to react against a situation in which the Bible is ignored, the Gospel is perverted and Christ is dishonored; it is quite another thing to adjust to a religion which to the uninitiated appears as strait-jacketed as that of the strictest Pharisee.
If it is un-Reformed to give a Gospel invitation; if it is heresy to tell an unsaved person God loves him; if an Arminian is no better off than one who denies the deity of Christ; if a woman cannot give her opinion in a congregational meeting; if Christmas is of the devil; if the Holy Spirit bestows no special gifts today; if an elder who has served twenty years must be expelled from the Session because he admits to being a premillennialist; if a child may not be baptized because the parents have not submitted themselves to the discipline of that particular
congregation—if all these, I say, are of the essence of what the Church must stand for (and I do not for one moment acknowledge that they are) —then at the very least the truly Reformed spokesman should approach his assignment the way a women’s liberationist might feel moved to address a meeting of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Male Chauvinists. That is, treading very lightly.