Last week Jake Meador urged the PCA and the broader confessionally Reformed, Protestant world to move on from the human sexuality debates. He says,
[T]he best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those [the PCA’s and ACNA Bishops’] reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.
I think Jake’s impulse is right, but there are still several legitimate barriers to doing that. There is not unanimity, and sometimes there is silence, on the pastoral question of whether someone should repent of an LGBT/SSA orientation. I have written extensively on this subject, but my argument is that orientation and desire/affection are distinct (something many Side B proponents also argue), that LGBT/SSA orientation may be sin, but may also describe an externally inflicted propensity, that mortification sin and the flesh is the best pastoral category in addressing this subject, and that Westminsterian confessionalism bears this out…
“’The Essentials are set forth in greater detail in the Westminster Confession of Faith.’ These are the final words of the Essentials, present since its drafting in 1981. This states clearly what was reaffirmed throughout the EPC’s history: the Essentials is a summary of belief, with the WCF as the fuller account. For the Essentials to be set out in greater detail in the WCF implies that there is an agreement between the two documents, with the WCF’s meaning taking priority over and defining the meaning of the Essentials. The point of this quotation is to affirm that no matter how extensive the Essentials is, its full meaning is found in the WCF. In other words, the Essentials is not an expansion of the WCF that could be reasonably understood to contradict the WCF. Otherwise the WCF would be set out in greater in the Essentials! The Essentials is a summary, the true meaning of which is in the WCF. The position of the EPC, then, is that the Essentials mean what the WCF says.”
- The Essentials is the essentials of being an evangelical, but its use as an essential distillation of what it means to a Christian, or being orthodox, of the meaning of Westminster Confession of Faith, of what EPC officers need to believe, or the beliefs of the EPC, is common in the church. None of these alternatives are accurate or work.
- Deleting the Essentials takes nothing away from the doctrine of the EPC, while deleting the Westminster Standards would radically alter our character. In that sense, the Essentials contribute nothing to the EPC. However, it is common to hear people say that they are in the EPC because they can hold to the Essentials and not worry about Westminster. This produces confessional schizophrenia.
- Taking the Essentials at face value shows contradictions with the WCF. Yet, the EPC insists that there is contradiction. The only tenable conclusion is that the Essentials mean what Westminster says. This again makes the Essentials confessionally meaningless.
- The process for making the Essentials constitutional failed to reckon with the incompatibility between it and the Westminster Standards. The Essentials’ constitutional role is already ambiguous (not part of the Standards or the Book of Order, nor part of the ordination process), but the lack of due diligence on this point makes the legitimacy of the Essentials’ constitutional addition suspect.
In 2019 I started a series on confessionalism and the EPC. My initial post received a lot of pushback and interest. That combination led to some good friendships developing and a hesitation on publishing the rest. Now I’ve decided to get the remaining, written parts of the series out there.
All posts in that series can be found here. The first article focused upon the EPC’s amendments to the Westminster Standards and can be found here, something I’ve written about additionally and more accessibly here.
This is Part II, on the EPC’s modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. In summary, I argue that,
- The EPC never adopted the modern language versions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. At different points the EPC has approved them for use or publication, but never adopted as the official doctrinal standard of the church.
- The original language version of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the original constitutional standard of the EPC, meaning that they are the default standard, not the modern language. If the modern language versions are to be used as the doctrinal standard of the church they would need to be approved following the constitutional amendment process.
- There are significant differences in content between the original and modern language versions of the Standards. The doctrine of God, the imputation of sin, the nature of justification, the accomplishment and application of Christ’s redemptive work, and the nature of the church and its ordinances are all articulated differently in the modern language version. These are significant areas of theology with significant divergences from the constitutional and original version of the Westminster Standards.
- The modern language versions, whether or not they were formally adopted by the EPC, are functionally the confessional standards of our church. They are promoted, published, and used in ways that the original is not. With the differences between the two versions being significant, without proactive reinterpretation by pastors, the modern language version will mislead congregants. Their use should be ended, and if a modern language version is really desired, then a more conservative and less inventive alternative should be endorsed.
I listened to Anthony Bradley’s recent interview of Paul Maxwell with fascination and apprehension. I knew little about Maxwell prior to listening, and the interview proved intriguing. Maxwell had gone from an intellectually robust, thoughtful proponent of Reformed Christianity to an intellectually robust, thoughtful atheist.
And his biography mirrors my own. We were born in the same area of the country a year apart, both became interested in philosophy as a means to power in college, both devoured Van Tillian presuppositionalism, both attended a Westminster school (Redeemer Seminary, in my case) following the Pete Enns debacle, and both left the seminary having been burned by the community. I normally find deconversion narratives personally uncompelling since there is typically dogmatic distance between myself and the other person prior to their deconversion.
Not so with Maxwell. It was like watching a martial artist and realizing that not only did he train at the same dojo as me, he wears a more advanced belt. Usually the motivations and methods of deconversions aren’t capable of landing a blow on me, but Maxwell could not only penetrate my objections, but could anticipate my best counter-attacks. Maxwell is clearly much smarter and more educated than me…
I’ve drafted a white paper as a proposal to guide a presbyterially strategized, congregationally executed approach to church health. It is tailored to the EPC’s Presbytery of the East, where I am and the congregation I pastor are members. But the principles apply to any connectional denomination. David Brooks recently in The New York Times highlighted Tim Keller’s 8-point plan for Christian renewal in the United States. Jake Meador today drew out some of the implications of this plan for institution building. That is what this paper I drafted is trying to capture: a fresh, rooted, and aggressive approach to concrete institution building oriented by the church as God’s institution for mission.
The paper can be found here. Below is an excerpt of the first section.
The church receives its life from Jesus. The church is united to him spiritually and mystically, and receives its life from him. He is the vine, we are the branches. No approach to church health, revitalization (i.e. literally “re-lifeing”), or mission can proceed biblically without this reality foregrounded.
Churches are alive and healthy insofar as they truly united to Christ and practicing the means by which that union is deepened. Any conversation about church life cycles, budgeting practices, change management, congregational outreach, effective small groups, etc. is all tertiary to the redemptive work of God in Christ and the means by which the church receives those benefits.
Assuming this or backgrounding it in conversations about church health and mission only results in unhealthy churches and mission unaligned with God…