I have recently been suggesting that telling the truth biblically involves considering and consulting the church and “giving due authority to the church.”
There are problems when we try to do this and I want to try to address some of these problems. But I genuinely do believe that there are greater problems when we DON’T consider and consult the church, not least the shame it brings on the church when its members attack one another in a public forum.
Problem #1 – The fragmented state of the church
I have taken the opportunity recently to poll a number of leaders in both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America about this matter of “considering and consulting the church.” In general, there is strong agreement with the principle I have outlined above. The one concern raised by a number of them was that, if the person being spoken or acted against is a member of a very different ecclesiastical body from the individual or group doing the speaking or acting, it can be hard to exercise this principle effectively. That, I am sure, would be one of the responses of the person who made the statement that I quoted earlier about Tim Keller.
But in some (many? most?) situations, this simply is not a problem. If the person or the institution with the concerns about a brother or sister shares official theological commitments with that brother or sister, there should be no question about considering and consulting that body to which the suspect brother or sister is accountable. To return to the personal example above, both Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church profess allegiance to the Westminster Standards. That made it clearly appropriate for my presbytery to be considered and consulted when Westminster’s Board had concerns about my obedience to the Ninth Commandment. No organization or individual should ever ignore the church if there are shared theological commitments between themselves and the church to which those with whom they disagree are accountable.
And yet this happens with painful regularity. A friend of mine was forced out of a teaching position from a seminary which shared theological commitments with the church to which that friend was accountable but the church was never consulted . . . even though it wanted to be consulted. More recently, I read this statement in a public blog by a PCA minister about another PCA minister, “. . . [he is] digging in his heels, employing his law-gospel cookie cutter with ever more reckless abandon.” [In the statement which I have quoted, the second minister was named; I have omitted the names of both ministers because this blog itself is a public forum. I have, however, added the emphasis to the quotation.] It may very well be that criticism is warranted; that is not my point. My point is that, if this public statement was made without a consultation with the presbytery to which the criticized minister is accountable, then I believe the church has been ignored and that is exactly how NOT to tell the truth.
But what if the one with concerns and the one about whom there are concerns are NOT part of the same church or a very similar church. What then?
I think the principle holds.
Yes, the church is fragmented and occasionally concerns may arise in one context which would not be concerns in another context. That’s completely understandable.
But do we or do we not believe that Christ has ONE church and that He is the Head of that church?
Do those of us who subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith really believe what that Confession says about “the universal VISIBLE church” [WCF XXV, 2. and 3.]?
If we answer these questions affirmatively, then even when the church of someone with whom I have a theological disagreement professes a different theology from that which I profess, I have an obligation to consider and consult that church in the context of communicating my theological disagreement with my neighbor. Such consideration and consultation might take a somewhat different shape from what it would take if I and the church of my neighbor share identical theological commitments. But the consideration and the consultation must still be there; if it is not, then no matter what I have said about my neighbor and no matter how theological precise I have been, I have provided an example of how NOT to tell the truth.
To put the matter in its simplest form, whenever I have been involved in expressing disagreement with my neighbor, I should always be able to answer the question, “Exactly HOW have I considered and consulted the church in this situation?” At least I should if I believe that there is a single Church of which Christ is the Head and if I believe that I should give that Church what Calvin calls “due authority.”
What other problems might we face if we genuinely seek to “consult the church”?
Well, the church may be too busy to respond to us. Or the church may agree with our neighbor instead of with our criticism. Or, most challenging of all, the church may itself BE the problem. Then what?
I will try to tackle these questions in future blogs.
And one final item – some have said that the kind of truth-telling and label-avoiding that I have been advocating would make it impossible for us ever to express meaningful disagreement with a neighbor when we see what we believe is serious theological error. But I have just read a superb example of gracious and firm truth-telling that identifies theological error and conforms entirely to what the Westminster Larger Catechism requires of us. I will share information about that example in a future blog.
Sam Logan is a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, though neither of these is responsible for the comments above. To hold accountable the one who IS responsible, write to email@example.com