Friday, May 3, 2013

Maybe It's Better for the PCA To Be Unsaved

Some Thoughts on Al Baker's

Saving the PCA

Al Baker

The Aquila Report has published an article by the Rev. Al Baker entitled Saving the PCA. Mr Baker is identified as follows: "Al Baker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network and an Evangelistic Revival Preacher with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship." 

Why does the PCA need to be saved? 

Mr. Baker finds the church divided, an analysis with which I do not disagree. In his view the divide can be broadly categorized as generational - the over 50 men and the under 50 men:
Here’s a broad generalization which I am sure is not all together accurate, but which, nonetheless, I wish to make-older men, say over fifty, desire the old days, and younger men want change. The older men long for the days of Jim Baird, Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, James Kennedy, Don Patterson, John Oliver, et. al., who were/are zealous for bold, expository, Spirit anointed preaching, discipleship, evangelism, world missions, and traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship. The young men, while respecting and honoring the old guard, believe the new wine demands new wineskins.
As will become clear later, Mr. Baker thinks the divisions are largely the fault of the younger men, and that the older men need to disciple the younger men in the old ways.

He lists a number of specific issues he sees as causes of unrest:

In my travels around the PCA I am finding a great deal of unrest on several fronts. People are deeply concerned, fearing that the denomination that so many sweat blood to build is now going the way of all flesh. Their concerns include the ordination of women, theistic evolution, Anglican worship, abandonment of Reformed worship, hyper-grace, the absence of intentional evangelism, licentiousness in eating, drinking, and using foul language, prayerlessness, formalism, lethargy, worldliness, event driven ministry, and disingenuousness concerning subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Book of Church Order... 
The younger men, on the other hand, seem not to value these practices (what Mr. Baker considers the old ways), preferring instead, as they have “exegeted the culture,” a way of doing ministry they believe better resonates with younger people. So music, dress, preaching style, methodology of evangelism and discipleship have changed to relate, as they see it, more effectively with the dominant culture of their communities. And predictably (look at any period of historical theology and we find the same phenomenon) the ecclesiastical and theological pendulum is swinging wildly from one side to the other.
Mr. Baker believes that the PCA downgrade involves issues of (1) doctrine (theistic evolution), (2) worship (Anglican worship, abandonment of Reformed worship, formalism, preaching style, dress) (3) practice (hyper-grace, licentiousness, prayerlessness, lethargy, worldliness, evangelistic and discipleship methodologies, event driven minstry - whatever that is, exegesis of culture - whatever that is, and (4) subscription (disengenousness). 

What is the plan of salvation? 

According to Mr. Baker:

First, a return to the doctrinal standards:

Consequently, the older men want a return to what they perceive as a conscious commitment and allegiance to our doctrinal standards. This includes adherence to six day creation, complementarianism, traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship using the great old hymns of the faith, expository preaching, and intentional one on one evangelism and discipleship. 
What Mr. Baker means by return to the doctrinal standards might be more accurately described as affirming what he believes are five implications of the doctrinal standards. One of them is specifically doctrinal (six day creation) and four practical (complementarianism, Presbtyerian worship inluding the great hymns, expository preaching, and intentional evangelism and discpleship of individuals by individuals).

Second, discipling by the older men of the younger men:

What is the remedy? What is needed to save the PCA from splintering due to real or perceived accommodation to the culture? I don’t think it is that complicated. We older men need to take seriously the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the beloved saints at Philippi. He told them to look at him and to follow his example. He also told them to look around and find other men who held the same values and emulate them, too.
It was noted above that Mr. Baker believes the problems lie primarily with the younger men. Here he tells us how the younger men can be saved from their departures from the old ways and itch for new ways. If older men will take the younger under their wings and teach and train them, the younger men can be claimed or reclaimed for the older ways.

Third, the older men need the fullness of the Spirit:

(What is required to obey the apostolic injunction to serve as examples) is the fullness of the Spirit. Are you renewed and walking in the Spirit? Dead orthodoxy, as good and right as that orthodoxy is, is still dead. It will not promote life. Could it be that younger men have not seen our willingness to invest time and prayer in them? Where are they getting their “stuff?” To whom are they looking for inspiration and mentoring? Maybe they are looking in the wrong places. Is it possible that while they see theological integrity in us they also fail to see power, fruitfulness, spiritual discipline, holiness, humility, or servanthood?
While the older men may have retained the older forms and practices, they too have fault. They may lack the life of the Spirit and the consequent fervency of personal devotion in their own lives.

Fourth, the older men should have exemplary lives and ministries:
... we need to live out what we say we believe... 
Here’s my challenge to you older men who are grieved by what you see in our beloved denomination, or in whatever denomination of which you are a part – live out your faith, make yours a religion in shoes. Get out to the streets, be intentional in evangelism, walk in the Spirit, seek the Spirit’s power and fullness daily, live by faith, be earnest in prayer and take young men with you. Find two or three young men (Ruling Elders, this includes you, too) for whom you will pray regularly and invest your life in them. 
I wonder if our problems, noted above, come from a lack of trust in the authority of Scripture, doubting the sufficiency of Christ, not believing in the immediacy of the Spirit or the efficacy of prayer. 
The older men need to live out the life of the Spirit and the fervency of devotion in distinctive living and zeal in ministry.

Fifth, to summarize the whole of the plan of salvation for the PCA:
This is the heritage of the PCA. This is New Side, Old School Presbyterianism at its best. 
...we need to live out what we say we believe. Ours is a rich heritage of New Side, Old School Presbyterianism which embraced wholeheartedly the Westminster Confession of Faith while at the same time living out a “religion in shoes.”
He is describing the life and ministry of Brother Bryan of Birmingham. I am sure he would include as examples also the men of the first PCA generation he has already cited: Jim Baird, Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, James Kennedy, Don Patterson, John Oliver.

What Mr. Baker thinks we need is old school doctrine and new school practice. I wonder how much of the Old School doctrine Mr. Baker wants. But it is most clear that he very much wants New Side practices.

Mr. Baker is fully confident that what he understands to the the old ways will still work today:
The “old” ways of doing ministry, contrary to what many are saying, still work. People are no different today than at any other time. All men without Christ are blind rebels on their way to perdition. Only Jesus can save them. You know that. Renew daily your walk with Jesus, going deeply with Him, falling more and more in love with Jesus. Get out of your comfort zone. Venture to the streets. Find a fishing hole and go fishing God to direct your steps that very day. Serve people. Love people. Expect God to do something, today!

A few comments are in order:

What Mr. Baker wants, or so it seems to me, is the return of the predominant culture of the PCA as it was shaped by its most prominant ministerial founders and as it emegered in its early years. What were some of the characteristics of the original culture?

(1) It affirmed Westminster doctrine, but much of that affirmation was for the purpose of staking out an historic position in contrast to the liberalizing Presbyterian Church US. You did not hear much about Reformed distinctives except from the TRs who were regarded as too obsessed with doctrine and too little concerned for evangelism and piety. The primary seminary that shaped the PCUS was old Columbia Seminary. The two strongest conservatives on the faculty were William Childs Robinson, a Reformed thelogian and historian, and even more Manford Charles Gutzke, a teacher of English Bible courses. Dr. Gutzke was a popular and much loved Bible teacher across the church but was not known for teaching or promoting distinctive Reformed doctrines. Except for a few founders who wanted a strong Reformed church (e.g. Morton H. Smith), affirming the Confession and Catechisms was a way of declaring commitment to theological conservatism of the American evangelelical sort. 

There is one doctrinal matter that keeps coming up, and it is included among Mr. Baker's concerns - 6 24-hour days creationism. He seems to believe this doctrine was universally held by the PCA at its inceception. However, it is a myth that everyone without exception in the early years held that view. The affirmation of evolution by a PCUS Assembly was a doctrinal issue that gave impetus to the formation of the PCA. And, many, probably a strong majority, did believe in a young earth and 6 solar days of creation, but not as a confessional position. The age of the earth and the length of the days were not hot button issues. Take for example this: At RTS Jack Scott took the view that one could determine the age of the earth from the Biblical genealogies while Morton Smith allowed for E.J. Young's view of the days and the possibility of an old earth. (Note: Dr. Smith today would not grant these allowances). 

(2) Interestingly the PCA has always been a primarily missional church. The founders believed in evangelistic preaching, personal evangelism, and world mission. For these purposes they wanted Biblical inerrancy and authority along with a gospel of salvation from sin through the saving work of Christ (not allowing the matter of its extent to get in the way of the message), and a call to faith and repentance not infrequently by use the the invitation system. Commitment to evangelism explains the attraction of Billy Graham Crusades and Campus Crusade personal evangelism, even if they blatantly denied Reformed truths about election, the atonment, and faith. Evangelism trumped doctrine, polity, and liturgy. What is happening now is that the focus on mission is taking a turn the older men do not like. The missional direction is now more urban than rural and thus more intellectually and culturally sophisticated. Tim Keller has supplanted Billy Graham.

(3) The Christian life as understood and practiced by many ministers of the first generation was shaped by fundamentalistic pietism. Christian liberty was seen as a cloak for some unrighteous practices, especially if Chrisitan liberty led to things like drinking alcoholic beverages and using tobacco products. The "Higher Life" of making a full surrender and being filled with the Spirit was at least as formative as the older Reformed view of positional and progressive sanctification. This form of piety was open to and sometimes shaped by teachers such C.I Schofield (The Schofield Bible), Roy Hession (The Calvary Road), Hannah Whitehall Smith (The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life), and the authors of Campus Crusade's Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit Filled Life? (sometimes known as The Blue Booklet and by some also called The Bird Booklet). One hears echoes of this form of pietism in Mr. Baker's longing for the old ways.

(4) One can wonder what Mr. Baker means by traditional worship and the old hymns. As noted above, at the PCA's formation evangelism tended to shape worship more than theological and liturgical concerns. For some an invitaton to come forward was issued every Sunday while for others it was issued more occasionally. A Second Great Awakening influenced worship also meant a preference for gospel hymns (Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, et al) over the historic hymns from the Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed tradtions, and over the Psalms. (I recall one of the founders of the PCA, who fit the mold of the first generation minister I have described, telling me that, when he was called to a large Mississippi church, the old ladies told him they wanted to sing more of "the old Presbyterian hymns." His comment was: "When I found out what the hymns were, I found they were neither old, nor Presbyerian!"). Many of the churches retained a 20th century Southern Presbtyerian form (Invocation, Aposltes' Creed, Doxology, Glora Patri, Lord's Prayer, 3 Hymns, Pastoral Prayer, Sermon), which is not a bad form, but with Charles Finney's hands laid on.

I do not doubt the PCA could use some salvation. But I do not think its salvation will be achieved by a return to the good old days of the PCA's founding. In the perspective of history the old days are not very old and certainly are not historic. 

Personally I would prefer older days than those - Old Side, Old School, confessional, ordinary means, liturgically conservative, spiritual mission of the church old. 

Till then perhaps it is better for us to remain unsaved.


Anonymous said...

As a young TE in the Pittsburgh Presbytery who can barely tell which school or side he fits in, I appreciate you analysis.

A funny side note, an 89 year old congregant asked us to "sing the old hymns" and I looked, they were all from the late 19th century and I thought, "not old enough." I guess that's what happens when you grow up in the contemporary evangelicalism and go to seminary with the Covenanters.

Stephen said...

Great word, Bill (as usual). I'm now part of the older generation but from the RPCES side of the PCA. I believe we, in the RPCES, had gone through the identity crisis the PCA continues to go through. At one time we were the young bucks of the "Schaeffer generation" and I believe brought new perspectives to a reforming fundamentalist presbyterian church. When I was part of the J&R in the 80's it was clear to me that the PCA had a "southern" way of governance and was just as you described theologically. But the RPCES did the right thing an affirmed the unity of Christ's body because there was far more that united us than divided us. These are growing pains for the PCA so I encourage Mr. Baker and others to believe that Jesus will build his church--but it takes time.

Todd Mahaffey said...

Thanks Bill. I too am very happy to watch things go down to the point of reversal which, as in politics, tends toward a reformation to the root rather than a "revival". As a former 12 year PCA deacon I appreciate your filling in the blanks with regard to the beginnings of the denom and also the coalescing of Dr Smith's earth age position onto a not-so-old school pole star. Very helpful.