Dear Church Family,
Ever since Moses returned from an extended absence only to discover that the assistant pastor had set up a bunch of golden calves for the people to worship, pastors have worried about returning from vacation to find out ‘what they’ve missed.’ Thankfully, that is not the case at Providence. We have a wonderful congregation and elders who ably and faithfully preached while my family and I were on vacation. Still, even if a pastor doesn’t need to worry about returning to find blatant idolatry, it is often the case that some major events in the life of the church occur while the pastor is out of town – at least that’s been my experience.
While on vacation this past June, however, the major events didn’t happen in the life of our congregation per se, but outside our congregation. In the broader church, there was our denominational General Assembly. In the broader society, there was that terrible, racially motivated shooting in Charleston, SC. And, in our nation, there was the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States of America which recognized same-sex marriage as a civil right.
So, I thought that I’d just give you some of my thoughts on these issues, and perhaps recommend some resources for further reading with regard to these events that occurred ‘while we were away.’
I. The 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America
You may read the official report of the actions of the PCA’s 43rd General Assembly by L. Roy Taylor, the stated clerk of our denomination, here. In my estimation, there were three main topics that took up a majority of the debate and discussion at this year’s General Assembly.
(1) Paedocommunion viewed as a legitimate exception to our standards. The Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records cited a couple of presbyteries in our denomination for allowing ministers to take exception to the Westminster Larger Catechism, which states that the Lord’s supper is to be administered “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (WLC 177). There was much extended debate on this topic. In the end, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted (by a margin of about 2 to 1) to not cite these presbyteries that allowed for these exceptions. In other words, our General Assembly said that it was acceptable for these presbyteries to allow for these ministers to hold to the doctrine of paedocommunion. You may read a summary of the debate and vote here.
If you’d like to learn more about this ‘hot topic’ in our denomination and why I believe that it is both erroneous and dangerous, I have previously written about this topic here: “Arguments Against Paedocommunion.”
(2) Ministers, elders, and deacons not required to testify on doctrinal views in trials. According to the current reading of the PCA’s Book of Church Order, in a church discipline trial, “the accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled to testify” (BCO 35:1). Overture 7 sought to change this portion of the BCO in order to require ordained officers (teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons) to testify in trials when they are accused of doctrinal error. After much debate, the General Assembly did not approve this change. Personally, I agreed with the overture as it was amended and brought to the General Assembly by the Bills and Overtures Committee. So, I am disappointed that this change to the BCO was not approved.
I recognize that there are varying reasons for why people vote one way or another, but I find it surprising that there are ministers and elders who want to maintain the right to be silent about their doctrinal views when questioned. As ministers of the gospel and elders in the PCA, we have vowed to submit ourselves (what we believe and teach) to the Word of God, the Westminster Standards, the Book of Church Order, and our brethren in the Lord (BCO 21:5). The ‘right to remain silent’ is an important freedom which we enjoy in our democracy, but it ought not to be a right of a minister, elder, or deacon in our church.
(3) Resolution on Civil Rights. According to our denominational clerk, this became the single issue on which the General Assembly spent the most time. A personal overture was brought by two teaching elders on Wednesday morning calling on the General Assembly to express repentance for the failure of some churches and Christians to stand in solidarity with black Americans in the 1960s for civil rights and for failing to pursue racial reconciliation adequately. The overture was brought to this year’s General Assembly as 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Civil Rights Acts of 1965. You may read this overture online here.
There was much debate which lasted long into the night on Thursday evening. While there were some varying opinions regarding the substance of the overture, it seems to me that the main debate was with regard to the immediacy of this overture. Some argued that this overture and resolution ought to be refined and brought back next year. Others argued that an immediate, but perhaps imperfect, expression of repentance was needed. In the end, the General Assembly voted to refer this overture to the 44th General Assembly in 2016. There will obviously be more to come on this topic.
II. The Charleston Shooting
I don’t have much to comment about the murder of nine people in a Wednesday evening Bible study in Charleston several weeks ago, other than to reiterate some of the obvious lessons that many have already noted. Racism, hatred, and murder are sins that are alive and well in the hearts of many (let us examine our own hearts, as well); however, acceptance, love, and forgiveness were also manifested in the Christ-like response of many of the family and friends of the victims. Even as the civil magistrate will rightfully seek justice to punish the perpetrator of these murders, the loving and peaceful response of family and friends who profess to follow Christ provides a humbling example to us all.
In my opinion, we also learned that elected officials ought to refrain from exegeting the Bible and preaching theology, but should ‘stay in their lane’ (this goes for conservatives and liberals).
III. The Supreme Court Decision Regarding Same-sex Marriage
Yesterday, I received the weekly email from The Aquila Report which lists the ten most viewed articles on their website; nine of those ten were articles addressing the recent decision of the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage and consider it to be a civil right. One of those articles listed was by David Murray called “SCOTUS Decision: Best Articles and Videos.” If you’re looking for more reading on this topic, this list will give you many things to choose from. It seems like everyone is talking about same-sex marriage these days. For my part, I would simply add three things by way of pastoral reflection on the Supreme Court’s decision.
(1) The PCA’s view on marriage. After the service this past Sunday, someone asked me where the PCA stood on this issue, or if there was any debate. Thankfully, though we debate many things in the PCA (see above), as far as I can tell, same-sex marriage is not one of them. The Westminster Confession explicitly states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time” (WCF 24:1). And, L. Roy Taylor, the stated clerk of the PCA has written this brief but helpful statement regarding our denomination’s position on same-sex marriage. In that statement, he makes the point that in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion, yet we cannot regard it to be moral. Just so, though same sex marriage is now legal, as Bible-believing Christians, we regard homosexuality and same-sex marriage (like abortion) to be immoral.
(2) Rightly prioritizing our hope. As I read, listen, and speak with Christians about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage, I get the sense that there is some over-reaction and a bit of a chicken-little syndrome. While I don’t want to minimize the tremendous political and cultural shift that is marked by this decision, I agree with Al Mohler that while everything has changed, it is also true that nothing has changed. The world and our immediate society have changed (and will continue to do so), but God, the Scripture, and the Church’s mission have not changed. We need to maintain a proper, biblical perspective and prioritization of our hope.
I’ve heard Christians lament the Supreme Court’s decision saying that “America is on a path to hell.” My response is, “When did you ever think that out nation – or any nation – was not on a path to hell?” I love our country and I’m one of the most patriotic people I know, but God’s glory is manifested and Jesus’ promise of eternal blessing and protection are not in any nation or organization, but solely in the Church ((Ephesians 3:20-21; Matthew 16:18).
I also recommend that you go and read Carl Trueman’s recent article on this topic called, “The Church in Exile.” His suggested response to the changing culture around us is simply to maintain the proclamation of the word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.
(3) Speaking the truth in love. The Bible calls us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We must continue to maintain our witness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:14-16) by proclaiming the righteousness of God and the good news of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ. And, we must continue to do so in love. I agree with Rick Phillips that we ought not to equate homosexual and heterosexual sin (while every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse (WSC 84), some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others (WSC 83). But in that article Phillips also points out that we must remember to affirm the person as a person created in the image of God, even as we encourage them to repent and seek forgiveness of their sins in Christ – for such were some of us (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Toward that end, I recommend the book by Rosaria Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith. In that book, Butterfield tells the story of how God used the faithful witness of a local pastor and the church, along with their sincere love and hospitality, to bring her to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I highly recommend the book. Butterfield not only gives testimony of how the Lord saved her and brought her out of her homosexual lifestyle, but also provides a wonderful example of how the church is to bear witness to those who do not yet know Christ.
Well, as I said, a lot’s happened “while we were away.” It is good to be back in Midland and at Providence Presbyterian Church. We had a wonderful time visiting with family. And, it was good to visit other churches and to see how God is growing His kingdom in various parts of the country. At the same time, we missed our church family and are glad to be back!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch