Friday, March 27, 2009

The sectarian slough of despond

One thing that we in the PCA-- and in the broader church-- must be careful of is the difficulty of sectarianism. Frankly, it is something that we have been far too careless about, and that must change for the church to move forward in this century in the United States.

When I say sectarianism, this is what I mean: when we are quick to dismiss, divide from, or decry because of a disagreement over ANY issue, large or small, we might be sectarians. When our nuances are different from someone else’s, so we determine that they are wrong by default, we are being sectarian. When we decide that we understand what someone else believes better than they do, and we castigate them for those beliefs, we are acting in sectarian ways.

Let me illustrate: the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith-- our denominational confession-- on the observance of the Sabbath, is fairly straightforward. Essentially, the Sabbath day must be preserved from ALL activities apart from worship and passive rest (the one accepted exception to this being “deeds of mercy”). Basically, a Christian ought to return home from corporate morning worship and retire to his prayer closet until rejoining the congregation for evening worship, according to the WCF.

This raises a lot of questions, like what should a Christian do about meals? Must they be simple and plain, requiring the sparsest of work? Is a parent who attends to the needs of an infant child sinning because of the work involved (or is this a deed of mercy)? How does this apparently strict observance of the Sabbath square up to the New Testament portrayal of the Lord’s Day as a time of celebration, feasting, and delight?

Consequently, I don’t know ANYONE who is ordained who doesn’t take some exception to the WCF’s position on the Sabbath; the classic exception is phrased something like, “I think it’s okay to throw the baseball with my kid in the backyard.” In some (many?) presbyteries, this is not even considered an exception of any substance; in ours, for example, this is normally judged as an exception of primarily semantic nature (although I’m personally confident that the Westminster Divines-- the guys who wrote the WCF-- would not agree).

In other words, we have nuances to our theological convictions. Here’s where sectarianism comes in: when my nuances are different from your nuances, I am acting in a sectarian manner if I say that your nuances are wrong by default, simply because they aren’t just like mine. I am sinning when I do this, in several ways: I am exhibiting pride in my nuances, rather than a humility that acknowledges that I could be wrong; I am failing to exercise biblical discernment in considering the position of the other; I am dividing from my brother over what is (often) an issue that should not break fellowship, rather than preserving the unity the Christ Himself emphasized ought to define us.

Yet, sadly, this happens all the time in the PCA. In fact, it happens all the time in much of the church. It has defined the manner in which several denominational debates have played out over the past decade or so. It has caused harm to the reputation of the church both within and outside of her walls.

Another illustration: a friend of mine was one of the speakers for the
Conversation on Denominational Renewal a little more than a year ago. (Actually, a few of those guys are friends, and I won’t say which one I speak of now.) This same friend had presented the same ideas that he offered at the Conversation at another meeting, where 50 or 60 key leaders in the PCA were gathered. Afterwards, my friend was talking privately with one of the bigger names in the PCA-- known inside our denomination and outside of it as a man of some stature, whose name you would probably know if I offered it (but I won’t).

My friend said to this man, “Whether you aim to or not, you are one of the few people in a position to shape the future of the PCA. Here’s what I want to know: is there room in your PCA for a guy like me?”

After a moment’s pause, this leader responded, “I don’t know.”

This is sectarianism at its fullest. My friend is openly and publicly inviting others to consider with him how the PCA could be better: more biblical, more united, more loving in our presentation of truth, more faithfully living out our theology. Yet for this leader, there might not be room for such a guy-- because my friend doesn’t “look” exactly like him.

This is what causes denominations to splinter over reasons that make no sense a hundred years later. This is why there are more than 44 Reformed denominations in the United States alone. This is what keeps us from having a vital ministry of evangelizing the lost: because we’re too busy killing and eating our own people, and others look on that and wonder why they would ever want to be a part of it.

It’s not unique to the PCA, either. Mark Dever’s recent
rant about things he cannot live with, including Universalism, Racism, and Infant Baptism (which he further qualified by describing what a sinful practice infant baptism is) is another example of rampant sectarianism (not to mention irony).

Sectarianism is the real sin here-- and I believe it is a sin that we ought to exercise church discipline for.

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