Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Sources of Division in the RCA

There are several groups within the denomination which are advocating for changes in how we conceive of ourselves as a church. For example, the "Chicago Invitation" wants to restore the traditional views of office, and is critical of the business and secular models of administration presently at work in our midst. "Room For All," a recent advocacy group, desires to make the RCA hospitable for homosexuals. In California, classes and churches are writing theological briefs which would move us away from infant baptism to believer's baptism. In the Midwest, Regional Synod Executives are acting like bishops, forcing churches to close, forcing ministers out of their pulpits, and generally running roughshod over our polity. In our two seminaries, heresy and disrespect for the authority and infallibility of Scripture are normative. Reformed theology is not taught, but rather refuted or replaced by neo-orthodoxy, the mumblings of Moltmann and his ilk, or the fashionable musings of feminist, eco-feminist, and a dozen other "ist" theologies which will shortly be as relevant as Marxism.

A recently retired minister, with long experience at all levels of the RCA, said rather boldly that the RCA no longer really exists as a denomination. Instead, we are a loose confederation of increasingly intolerant bodies with no central, unifying identity. What are the sources of this division? Is there a remedy besides secession? I see two malignancies responsible for our weakened condition.

1. A failure to adhere to the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the Bible.
The Bible is no longer taught in seminaries or pulpits as the Word of God. I recall at a recent classis meeting a minister who began the reading of Scripture by saying, "Let us listen for the Word of God." We were not instructed to listen to the Word. The corrosive effects of higher biblical criticism, along with a hermeneutic of suspicion, have neutered the Bible, stripping it of any real authority. The authority celebrated in most RCA churches is the authority of the individual mind. This is expressed by the phrase that the Bible is authoritative (or infallible) "in that which it seeks to teach." Attempting to arrive at what the Bible seeks to teach is impossible, as each person defines the limits of biblical authority according to what authority they are comfortable giving it. If one is uncomfortable with the Bible's teaching on sexuality, then simply say the Bible is not a book on sex, and therefore it has no relevance.

The only remedy to this chaos is to impose upon the denomination the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture. This means that every word of the Bible is God-breathed (theopneustos in Greek), and the word "plenary" means simply that every part and word of Scripture is God-breathed. "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Thus, there are no disposable parts of Scripture - all were placed in the Bible by the Holy Spirit for specific reasons. These words are, according to our Lord, eternal. "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail" (Luke 16:17). "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away" (Luke 21:33). The classic text for this doctrine is of course 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God...." Even more explicitly, plenary inspiration is mentioned in Psalm 119:160, "The entirety of your word is truth." If the RCA could somehow find its way back to this high view of Scripture, it would experience both blessing and peace.

2. A failure to enforce strict subscription to the content of our Constitution, especially our Standards of Unity.
The denominations which are experiencing growth (numerically and spiritually) are those which require strict subscription to their creeds and confessions. When a minister in the RCA is ordained or installed, there is only an anemic statement that the Standards of Unity are faithful, historical witnesses. If we wish to be Reformed, then we must insist that our clergy at least be committed to teaching and preaching what is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. We want clergy who actually believe the content of our creeds and confessions. If they do not, let them find positions in other non-Reformed communions. If you object to the Five Points of Calvinism, or you are uncomfortable with predestination, then you have no business calling yourself Reformed. Lately, those who object to the content of the confessions are busy making mischief by "reinterpreting" the Reformed tradition. They cry out with numbing ignorance and repetition, "We are always reforming!" This, they believe, grants them a license to dispose of Reformed orthodoxy. In truth, the rubric Semper reformanda means increasing conformity to the the Word of God, not increasing deviance from it.

The only practical way of reforming the Reformed Church is to follow the pattern of the Southern Baptist Convention, and overthrow the seminaries, installing conservatives and removing liberals. The seminaries continue to be a toxic waste stream into our denomination, and it is time to stop the flow. Surgery is never pleasant, but without it the cancer will continue to spread until the patient expires. The RCA is already on the table, waiting for the ether.

{illustration: John Rylands Papyrus, the oldest known biblical manuscript, ca. 120 A.D.}


Blogger homo unius libri said...

Strong medicine, much needed, rarely heeded.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Rileysowner said...

Well said.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I note that the two remedies given are strong medicine: imposing a doctrine upon the denomination, and overthrowing the seminaries.

I ENTIRELY AGREE. But I don't think conservatives have the guts to do it, because it's not "kind and gracious." (Have to have grace and truth) THIS is the current roadblock to reform, not the liberal minority.

Is there a gracious way to do surgery on a dying man? Yes, but it still involves putting him under and cutting him open...

2:19 PM  
Blogger Dutchman said...

I am one who agrees mightily!!! However, as a recent nominee for elder in our local congregation, I felt led to turn the nomination down due to the divisive force I would be on the Elder board (1 Tim 3:3) The local congregation needs to return to Scripture as well.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Annette said...

amen brother....

I only do we do it? If we want to impose these two basics.... won't all the other groups think we are yet another group wanting change? ANd therefore feel free to ignore us?

It's gets to feel like this whole stupid circle thing...

I like what you said...just wish we could enforce it but don't know how to do that...

7:53 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

When I was at NBTS (I am an '04 graduate, I was laughed at by students and professors for saying that I believe the Standards. And when ther General Secretary W. G-M. visited with the seniors, I asked him about the enforcement of the stadards and our standing for something as a enomination, and he said that the Standards are not important. I agree change is necessary, but HOW do we go about changing the seminaries?

6:16 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

The denomination must first be made aware of just how destitute of orthodoxy the seminaries are. Then a denomination-wide call for refusal of financial support. This will especially hurt my alma mater, Western. New Brunswick is, I am afraid, beyond redemption, and should be considered a "fifth column" in the RCA. The denomination should sever all ties with NBTS, and establish a new seminary under evangelical principles. This is how Wesminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia came into being.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Herman said...

Is it a safe assumption that since you are proposing this hightened adherence in the denomination you are also doing this in your church?

What have the results been for your own congregation? Do you have a leadership team that is of the same mindset? What has the congregation's response been?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

My congregation has for most of its nearly 300 year history upheld the doctrines of grace, the verbal inspiration of Scripture, etc. As an example, no woman has ever preached in the pulpit, and cannot serve as an elder. There has been debate about female deacons, but after some intensive Bible study, the two women deacons we did have, came to the conclusion (on their own) that to remain in office goes against God's Word.

So, yeah we put it into practice, but are not perfect and are striving not to be self-righteous. The biggest effect on the church is a greater awareness of sin, and an increasing gratitude for God's grace. We are also beginning to see new members, folks who are famished for the Word.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Peter is a guy I want to get to know better...

Scribe, how do we get the truth out to the pew about our seminaries without coming across as a smear campaign?

As an '02 grad of Western, I walked away from there shaking my head. The now-dean there advocates strongly for a blood-less atonement, viewing a bloody one as an endorsement of violence. Unbelievable. Solid evangelicals there just nod their heads and say, "Fascinating."

3:15 PM  
Blogger homo unius libri said...

It's actually easier than it seems. Let the people know. Most RCA congregations are in the dark about what happens in the hallowed halls of Western and NBTS. Shine the light. What is heard in secret shout from the rooftops!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Rileysowner said...

The other difficulty is how to change the leadership in the seminaries. Removing funding would seem to be the first step, but as far as I know there is not a method to remove deans or faculty from seminaries.

As for spreading the information I have several thoughts. First, all information must be verified preferably in written/printed form (articles, letters, and the like) I say this because too often I have seen things said about a person's beliefs only to have the truth come out later that it was not true. Second, present the facts with clarity, but not bitterness. This is difficult, at least for me, because much of what I have seen drags the name of my saviour through the mud, and that very much disturbs me when it comes from people claiming the name of Christian. Finally, point people to the Bible and what it says in comparison to what is taught and espoused by the seminaries. They will see the truth of it.

There are probably more things, but those are what come to my mind.

4:21 PM  

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