Monday, August 17, 2015

Back to Future: PCA on Its Way Back to PCUS?

 A Day Late and Dollar Short
to Social Activism

Why has Christianity never undertaken the work of social reconstruction? Walter Rauschenbusch
Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Wikipedia 
Postmillennialists want to see God answer another prayer: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done ON earth, as It IS in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Gary North 
As soon as we get this right we destroy at a stroke the disastrous dichotomy that has existed in people’s minds between ‘preaching the gospel’ on the one hand and what used to be called loosely ‘social action’ or ‘social justice’ on the other. Preaching the gospel means announcing Jesus as Lord of the world... N.T. Wright
Rather than waiting passively for the new heavens and the new earth, Christians can pray and work for God's will be to done on earth as it is in heaven; together, today. Orthodox Activism Brochure
The Leadership Development Resource Conference will present "Orthodox Activism: The Church in Pursuit of Social Justice" September 4-6 in St. Louis. The keynote speakers are Dr. Carl Ellis, Mrs. Karen Ellis, Dr. Sean Lucas, and Dr. Thurman Williams. 

One of the presenters will be Dr. Mike Higgins, Pastor of South City Church, a multi-racial PCA church in St. Louis. Last week Dr. Higgins published an Open Letter to his congregation and to any other interested persons. I read it at the Reformed African American website. Among the things Dr. Higgins reported to his congregation was his commitment to civil disobedience:
On Monday, August 10th, I participated in a Saint Louis Clergy civil disobedience that involved a march from Christ Church Cathedral downtown to the Tom Eagleton Federal Building. The purpose of this action was to go forward as a show of unity and solidarity, to pray, sing hymns on the steps of the Federal Building and demand that the United States Attorney for Eastern Missouri move forward on the changes that must be made to ensure that all who are sworn to serve and protect will be better equipped to serve and protect people, not systems.
When the federal marshals and STLPD threatened the peaceful crowd with chemical agents, some of us decided on the spot to be dragged, tazed and/or cuffed as a way of distracting (or at least slowing down) that type of dispersal tactic, hoping to prevent many (including children) from being harmed.
This action was announced last Friday night at the conclusion of our First Friday Prayer meeting. Obviously, though the possibility of arrest was discussed at the meeting, my arrest could not have been announced. My hope, along with those of everyone who participated, was that we would not be arrested, but engaged. I believe we were heard, in some small way, but I believe we must keep speaking, keep confronting.
And I will do it all again if the circumstances are ever the same. I would do it again because I am not just doing this for myself. I was out there for my family, for our family. And I was there for everyone else. I hope that something I do keeps the next generation from being raised to become racists without even knowing it.
Dr. Higgins in Ball Cap

 He wrote also of his view of justice in America:
Brothers and Sisters, this world is broken. Justice in America – and so many places on earth – is not blind. If she were blind, she would not be blindfolded. She can see very clearly. She can see which ethnic group you belong to, how old or young you are, which side of the tracks you live on. 
Justice, without the blindfold, can be manipulated by those who claim to exact it; to make you afraid of black people or Hispanic people; to make you dismiss addicts and ex-cons; to prevent us all from embracing equality or extending grace; to prevent us from affirming that we are all made in God’s image.
 I think the blindfold was pulled off in this country when, not long ago, white men constructed a phenomenon called Race to make sure that people of color would never be considered equal, based solely on skin tone. Justice needs someone to help her with her blindfold, and we marched this Monday to demand that she retie it.
The Constitution says US citizens are innocent until proven guilty, but as a black man I am treated as if I am guilty and have to prove my innocence. The Church knows this tension -more than anyone. We are a community of people called to love and trust one another, but we remain suspicious, cynical, and judgmental of people who do not fit into the categories we have deemed proper.
 Let’s be first to admit this hypocrisy, and turn from it. Let’s run to testify to our communities, and let’s demand that the authorities search themselves for this hypocrisy as well.
We march on, pray on, sing on – because we know The God of righteousness and justice; true justice. 
This Justice is neither blind nor blindfolded, it need not be. While justice in America is blindfolded to ensure some artificial security from bias, true Justice sees all our differences, discerns all distinctions, and judges fairly still. This is our future: we will all see, and finally see rightly.
The Presbyterian Church in America will be 42 in December of this year. It's interesting to go back and read some of the things that were said to justify the establishment of a new denomination. In their newsletter "Contact" Concerned Presbyterians published a criticism of both the social gospel and civil disobedience: 
When Paul came to Corinth, in the early fifties of the first century, he found a city reeking with slavery, oppression, crime, prostitution, social inequities, and poverty. Burdened as he was with this situation, he might have organized demonstrations and sit-in protests. He might even have engineered a program of civil disobedience against the Roman authorities in an effort to remedy the appalling conditions. But he did not. He later said concerning his coming that he was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In time, Paul and the other Christian Apostles altered the face of the Roman Empire not by riots, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and the like, but by the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ which alone could free men from the shackles of sin and make them holy and good. (Emphasis added.)
In preparation for the founding of the church they published "Reaffirmations of 1973." Confusion about the mission of the church was one indication the PCUS had departed from the faith:

CONCERNING THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), when first established, declared its mission to be the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world. Further defining this mission, the Constitution of the PCUS declares that "Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints ... ," "the functions of the Church are to proclaim, to administer and to enforce the law of Christ revealed in Scripture." Today the Assembly, through its boards, agencies and committees has replaced the Church's mandate to be first-of-all missionary and evangelistic, with a primary emphasis on social, economic and political mission. We reaffirm the doctrine of our founding fathers that the primary mission of His Church is given us in the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ. We rededicate ourselves to the task of proclaiming the Gospel throughout all the world and nurturing His chosen ones in the faith. (Emphasis added.)
One of the topics to be addressed at the St. Louis Conference is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church: 
 CONCERNING THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE CHURCH The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) was organized as a distinctively spiritual communion and our founding fathers emphasized that it was to be kept separate from the State. The Constitution of the PCUS calls upon us as citizens to be obedient to the laws of civil government for Christ's sake, refraining from meddling with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth unless by humble petition in cases extraordinary. Nevertheless. agencies of the General Assembly have deviated from this basic doctrine of the Church, and the Assembly itself has supported civil disobedience. Moreover, said agencies and the Assembly have supported the violation of civil law, have unfairly criticized the foreign policies of the United States, and have endorsed programs designed to incite rebellion against constituted authority. We reaffirm our devotion to the Church as a spiritual institution knowing that the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is not of this world. We acknowledge our obligation as citizens to obey duly constituted civil authorities, limiting our relationship as a Church to the area of "humble petition'" according to the Scriptures. We rejoice in the religious freedom guaranteed us under the Constitution of the United States of America, and we would support those in lawful authority by our prayers and sympathy. (Emphasis added.)
Three comments:

(1) When the PCA next year in Mobile adopts the successor to Dr Ligon Duncan's and Dr. Sean Lucas' resolution calling for repentance because of the PCA's generational and covenantal sins, part of which involve failure to support the Civil Rights Movement, should the statements of the founders (the Reaffirmations were adopted unanimously in February of 1973) be repudiated? Should a statement be made that the founders of the PCA should have joined the Mike Higginses of their day in acts of civil disobedience?

(2) I have said before, and it becomes ever more clear, that the pressure on the PCA regarding matters of social/racial justice comes not primarily from the Bible or the Bible's theological and ethical teaching. The pressure comes from sociological and political progressivism. Now it's just fine to be a progressive if you wish. Political views are like psychology. They're best not dressed with a Biblical suit of proof texts. Just let them be what they are. I am a political conservative. (Actually, I am a political "conservative" acccording to former MS Senatorial candidate Chris McDaniel.) I will discuss why I hold my postions, but I will not try to coerce you to agree by telling you my position is Biblical and yours is not. I'd appreciate it if you'd not say such things to me. You're a Christian who happens to be a progressive. I'm a Christian who's not.

(3) The only Biblical issue I'd raise with Mike Higgins is his civil disobedience. I wonder if his Presbytery will.


surferrev said...

A few things to the author:

First, Why such an obsession with a denomination you are not part of? Like any family, you can only know to an extent. Maybe this could be filed in the, 'Get your own house in order' category.

Second, Why was Civil Disobedience acceptable, and even commendable when Francis Schaeffer spoke to it (ala A Christian Manifesto)? Let's call this for what it is. I'll let you do the labeling, but I am assured that doctrinal and denominational purity is not the issue. Perhaps you are speaking to your own view of a different kind of purity - That's what I'm observing.

Third, Mike Higgins has faithfully served his country, the United States, as an Army Chaplain - I would trust his judgment on more than a few issues. In this I am thankful he is in the PCA and honored to call him friend. It is true that the denomination is not all it can be, but due to the courage of people like Sean, Ligon, Mike and others, imperfectly as we are, we desire to become a just and merciful people. Why not just praise God for this.

Thank you.

mike khandjian

William H Smith said...

Mike: (1) I think that being in the PCA from 1973 to 2013 as member and minister gives me some license to comment. I am not obsessed with the PCA but I am interested. Sometiems I am disressed as I am sometimes in my present communion. (2P I think Schaeffer was quite wrong about civil disobedience. I do not think civil disobedience is acceptable or commedable except in the very limited cirucmstances of authority specifically commanding you to do what God uambiguously fobids of specifically forbidding you to do what God uambiguously forbids. Othewise I think it sin. (3) I am glad Dr. Higgins is your friend. I honor his servie in the military as a chaplain. (I have profitted from and in a great many ways admire Drs. Lucas and Duncan,) I do not commend what he expressed in the open letter. I would be interested in how you would define what it means for the PCA to become a more just and merciful people. Whatever that may be, I don't praise God for Dr. Higgins efforts to engage in civil diobedience. And with regard to the Resolution I think it sincerely offered but misguided and think it has set loose things with which its authors may in time be uncomforable, though I would not presume to know their thoughts. As I have written elsewhere I am hard pressed to find differences between the old and the new social gospels, and in some of the things I read, I am hard pressed to distinguish some of what is now said by evangelicals from liberationists. Time will tell, and it won't be in my lifetime, where these new emphases will take the PCA though I do know the direction in which they tug. And I do know that if you confine yourself to looking a the views of African Americans alone the differences are really about sociological and political narratives and tactics.

surferrev said...

William (Bill?) - I won't further comment so that this doesn't become a back-and-forth between us - it's your blog. Sure, I can understand your emotional attachment to the PCA because of longstanding membership - but you did walk away. I mean no disrespect by this.

As to Mike and others I would just say that I have come to realize that much of our settled, well-reasoned, good-sounding white perception of love and justice, as it pertains to the Civil Rights Movement, is just that - a long-held white perspective that is seasoned with many layers of subtle prejudices which have been handed down by people who never truly engaged those who have actually been there and have felt the lasting and sometimes-brutal effects of racism in the US.

And when we throw out generalizations from a distance, rather than listen and engage within the context of conversation it only exacerbates polarities and hostility. Why would it not be enough for you - and for us - to simply engage - and to trust and listen to our brothers and sisters who have said that they continue to bear such pain? Why would we not bless them for saying to us, with their actions, that the discomfort of a night in jail is worth it to them? I don't need to fully understand.

As I said, this will be my last post to you, as mentioned above. blessings. mike k

William H Smith said...

Mike, I am interested in the PCA; and I feel like I can comment on the PCA; but I would not describe myself as having an attachment to it. You are right that I did walk away. If you are interested in some of the why you can read here:

I don't buy your white perception thing. My views of things are similar to those of Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott, Ben Carson, et al. It has to do with sociological and political perspectives. It's not race. You are welcome to your perspective. You share it with some black and some white brethren. And that's just the point. I hold my views of this in common with some other black and white brethren.

Mikd Higgins has a view of what happened in Ferguson. He keeps repeating it. But there is an objective reality that he does not have a right to ignore. He has a view of what the Fedeeral Goverment needs to do and he marched on the Eagleton Blg to say it. But that is a political matter. Many agree with him about the role of government. Many others don't.

I'd be interested in wbat the gnereralizations are.

No I would not bless Mike Higgins for going to jail to make the points he wants to make. I would point him to 1 Pet. 2:19,20 and 3:9-14.

Dave Sarafolean said...


I'm more than a little saddened by your comments. I've heard from more than one commissioner at this year's General Assembly who was deeply offended by the debate surrounding the Lucan-Duncan personal resolution.

You wrote:

"And when we throw out generalizations from a distance, rather than listen and engage within the context of conversation it only exacerbates polarities and hostility. Why would it not be enough for you - and for us - to simply engage - and to trust and listen to our brothers and sisters who have said that they continue to bear such pain?"

Sure, I'm willing to listen but that doesn't mean that they are 100% correct. Moreover, I'm not sure that they are listening to others who do not share their perspective.

I found this article to offer a glimmer of hope that there can be a constructive dialog:

Curt Day said...

The fact that you are addressing is this is much appreciated. I would like to put in my two cents as a member of both the OPC--that's right, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church--and OWS--Occupy Wall Street.

First, I think that those whose faith is based on the 5 tenets of Christian Fundamentalism and/or the historic confessions feel that being encouraged to participate in social justice issues and activism threatens one's clinging to the Gospel. It is as if the concerns of both social justice and the historic Reformed faith are disjoint. And thus to delve into social justice issues is to invite a replacing of one set of beliefs and concerns with another. I believe that this fear is unfounded.

Second, being involved in social justice issues can legitimately be part of loving one's neighbor especially when one's neighbor belongs to a group that is oppressed. Remember the Good Samaritan came to the rescue of an individual and provided the necessary means for the man who was beaten and robbed on the road to recover. What then should our response be when we see groups of people who are beaten and robbed? We should note that sometimes these groups revolve around race or economic class or national identity. If the Good Samaritan came to the aid of an individual to demonstrate what it meant to love one's neighbor, shouldn't the Church come to the aid of groups of people who are oppressed?

Third, being involved in social justice can be part of fulfilling the Great Commission in this way. Just as when preaching the Gospel and teaching people what it means to be Christ's disciple we tell people to repent of personal sins, social justice issues can help us to identify sins committed by groups, groups such as society or a particular race or a particular economic class, so that we can call those groups to repent. Here part of the call would be to believers in oppressive groups to come out of those groups in terms of not participating in the sins of one's group.

Fourth, the objection that activism was not advocated by Paul in his missions assumes that there are no significant, historical contextual differences between Paul's time and our time. In contrast, significant, historical contextual differences include the fact that the Gospel has been spread throughout most of the world today as opposed to when Paul lived. Another significant difference is that living in a democracy has given today's believers both privileges and responsibilities which those in Paul's time did not have. We should note that a democracy demands more participation in decision making than a Roman-type empire afforded.

We should also note that our way of living should bring honor to the Gospel. And thus, we need to ask ourselves if the Church's silence about racism, economic classism, destruction of the enviornment, and using war to advance one's empire brings honor to Christ especially when we are so vocal over the personal sins of individuals. Can we honor the Gospel when we even give the appearance of being just another institution of indoctrination which maintains the status quo for the benefit of those with wealth and power.

A note of caution must be added here. We can't afford to let the Church be divided by the advocating of different political solutions. The Church should not be used to endorse a particular political party or ideology. However, abstaining from advocating a political party or ideology does not preclude the Church from identifying the group sins of society or an economic class. In other words, the Church should be Christ's Curmudgeon in society regarding both the personal sins of individuals as well as the sins of different groups.