In Celebration of the PCA


I could celebrate the fact that a south-born Church has repented of racial sin, and taken steps to walk in repentance. I could celebrate our pursuit of God’s truth in our study of Gender roles in the Church. Both of which cause me to rejoice.

But I want to celebrate something less structural but just as significant:

Thursday evening, when the Assembly recessed for dinner, a few friends and I found ourselves having dinner in a beautiful southern courtyard. This wasn’t in a “pub”, or a “gastro-libations house”, It was a plain speaking bar and restaurant a few blocks away from the convention center.
The food was great, the services was great, but then it got exponentially better. By the end of dinner we found ourselves in the midst of a friendly, yet surprisingly intense game of trivia.

Between rounds, as people stretched their legs and bummed cigarettes from rivals, a woman asked me a question:
“Are you with the Presbyterians?”
Skittishly I told her I was, and she began to share. She was a student who worked at multiples bars and restaurants in downtown Mobile.
It turns out that the service industry around the convention center isn’t very big, and everyone knows each other. They knew we were in town and they were talking about us. She shared that the overwhelming chatter of the service industry was that the #PCAGA had been great to them. We had been polite, patient, generous and fun to serve.
Her simple question had morphed into an exchange between representatives speaking for two different tribes, though both focused on service.
She emphatically thanked me on behalf of everyone at our convention, and asked me to share her thanks with others.
This post is my attempt at honoring her request.

I praise God for the work accomplished on the Assembly floor, but I’m just as thankful for our witness outside of the convention center.

I have no idea if the World is watching our assembly debates, but I know that men and women working around Mobile noticed us, and I’m proud of the fact that the PCA loved them well.

p.s. Trivia is the most amazing antidote for the boredom of floor debate.

p.p.s. Just because you’ve got 6 master’s degrees sitting at a table doesn’t mean you’ll win Trivia night at the Blind Mule.

Church Issues, Church Polity, Current Issues

The PCA And The Right Against Self-Incrimination

Guest Post: Rev. Scott Seaton

May 2016 (revised from a similar article dated May 2015)

The accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify. (BCO 35-1)

This clause from the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America is the denomination’s declaration of the right against self-incrimination. Verdicts in judicial cases are to be determined based on demonstrable evidence and testimony, rather than the forced testimony of the accused. In both religious and civil courts, this right against self-incrimination has served as an important safeguard against judicial overreach, for nearly 400 years.

At the 2015 General Assembly in Chattanooga, the PCA voted to affirm this right and rejected an overture to require an accused officer to testify. Doctrinal charges must be able to be proved by public materials and sermons, rather than aggressive prosecution. This summer in Mobile, however, Providence Presbytery will raise this same issue through Overture 14, which seeks to change BCO 35-1 such that “church officers under accusation with regards to doctrinal views shall be required to testify.” If adopted, this overture would undo important judicial safeguards and put the PCA at odds with Reformed denominations that do not force the accused to testify.

How did the right against self-incrimination become part of the BCO? As we will see, it was not because the PCA was influenced by civil protections, such as the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it was the contributions of our Reformed forefathers that helped shape the American religious and civil protections against self-incrimination we now take for granted.

1. Jesus and the Right Against Self-incrimination

The Scriptures clearly call us to be honest and not to give false testimony. But does God’s Word require the accused to testify against himself? Is there biblical support for the right against self-incrimination? This must be our first question. And the most compelling answer is the example of Jesus, who stood silent before the religious court:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:55–62) 

In this passage, Jesus at first refused to testify against himself in court, and then later, chose to answer his accusers. Was he at fault for initially being silent? Did he testify because he changed his mind about what Scripture compelled him to do? Was he violating God’s Word by failing to answer? The answer, of course, is no. As one who perfectly kept all of God’s law, Jesus’ silence in the face of his accusers cannot be a violation of any of God’s commands. Thus, no biblical verse—including those cited in Overture 14—can be construed to require the accused to testify against himself. And if it is permissible for Jesus to be silent in the face of his accusers, it surely is permissible for others. Jesus’ example thus provides the basis for the current wording in BCO 35, where the accused is allowed to determine whether or not to testify against himself.

Further, Jesus’ silence was in accord with the broader Jewish understanding of Scripture, which based the protection against self-incrimination in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, the “two witness rule.” This protection ensures that no defendant can be convicted for any reason with less than two witnesses. It was held that even if the defendant confessed, his confession would not be held against him as evidence.1 This principle of “two or more witnesses” is carried over to the New Testament, notably regarding accusations against church officers: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19).

Thus, the Scriptures do not require the accused to testify against himself.

2. John Lilburne and the English Puritans/Presbyterians

By the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic requirement of confession had seeped into their ecclesiastical courts, such that the accused was compelled to testify. This requirement allowed courts to inquire into any area, searching for evidence of guilt while the accused languished under the duress of trial. Although the system enabled courts to secure responses from the accused, this power inevitably led to abuse, with the trials of the Inquisition being the most famous and notorious examples.

The power of unrestrained prosecution found its way into England and the civil and religious courts known as the Star Chamber and the High Commission. Initially, the Star Chamber was considered a just and effective court, presided over by noble men. Sir Edward Coke called the Star Chamber “the most honourable court (Our Parliament excepted) that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding.”2

Over time, however, the Star Chamber became known as a court of oppression, with its most powerful weapon being the ex officio oath:

The ex officio oath . . . was administered by the judge at the start of the proceedings. It required parties to swear to answer truthfully all questions put to them. Since defendants in criminal cases did not necessarily know precisely what the questions would be at the time they took the oath, this common practice resulted in their swearing to give evidence against themselves. It permitted ecclesiastical courts to embark on fishing expeditions for evidence of immorality or religious heterodoxy.

Although the ex officio oath could be, and in fact was, used in English practice to secure the punishment of a variety of offenders of the law of the Church, the defendants most immediately caught by the procedure were conscientious dissenters—Puritans and Catholics—who objected to the form of religion established under Queen Elizabeth . . . The Commissioners held what many regarded as a roving warrant to ferret out dissent. They exercised it vigorously, requiring any person they cited to take the ex officio oath and then convicting that person “out of his own mouth.”3

The requirement to testify against oneself resulted in what became known as the “cruel trilemma.” Faced by hostile questioning, the accused had three choices:

1. Incriminate themselves with their own testimony, true or not

2. Face charges of perjury if they gave unsatisfactory answers to their accusers

3. Be held in contempt of court (contumacy) if they gave no answer

When Puritan and nonconformists refused to comply with the Acts of Uniformity that required adherence to Anglican doctrine and practice, many were severely punished for refusing to testify against themselves. This culminated in the Lilburne case. John Lilburne was a Puritan and vocal opponent of the Acts of Uniformity. When Lilburne was arrested for smuggling thousands of religious pamphlets into England, he was prosecuted before the Star Chamber in 1637. He refused to testify against himself, saying the Court was trying to ensnare him. He was whipped and pilloried for refusing to take the ex officio oath, and put in prison.

Lilburne refused to testify because he believed in what he called “freeborn rights,” anticipating the later American term of “inalienable rights.” These are rights given by God to all people, simply because they are human beings made in the image of God. According to Lilburne, these freeborn rights included the protection against self-incrimination.

In 1641, the Long Parliament—which later established the Westminster Assembly—declared Lilburne’s punishment illegal, abolished the Star Chamber and ultimately recognized the right against self-incrimination. Though this protection is best known to Americans as the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it was first secured 150 years earlier, largely because of the contribution of our Puritan and Presbyterian fathers.

3. Robert Dabney and American Presbyterianism

These protections were not only adopted in American civil courts, but in Presbyterian courts as well. The right against self-incrimination was not challenged in the Church until the 1850s, as part of proposed revisions to the Presbyterian Book of Discipline.

According to James Thornwell, the reason for the proposed revision was that the old Book of Discipline included Presbyterians’ “denominational peculiarity” of sermonizing, such that the Book of Discipline was not simply a “book of definitions, of forms and rules.”4 To simplify the language, the General Assembly of 1857 appointed a committee of 10 men, including Thornwell and Charles Hodge, who met for four to five days in Philadelphia in August 1858. The PCA Historical Center’s website includes drafts of the revisions, along with extensive commentaries by members of that committee.

Charles Hodge, a member of the committee, wrote 30 pages of commentary on the proposed Revised Book of Discipline. In his commentary on chapter five, he says:

This chapter relates to process against a minister. . . . Very little change is proposed in the revised Book. The first four sections are the same in both Books. They prescribe great caution in entertaining charges against a minister . . . Section 5 requires that process shall not be commenced against a minister (unless the scandal be notorious,) except charges are presented by one or more persons. To this is added in the new Book, “Nevertheless, each church court has the inherent power, to demand and receive satisfactory explanations from its members concerning any matters of evil report.”5

This last sentence proposed that courts should be able to compel the accused to testify: the court could not merely “demand” testimony, but it could “receive” it as well. This sentence corresponds to the PCA’s BCO 31-2, but as we will see, the Church expressly revised the language prior to adoption so that the court could only demand testimony from the accused, but not compel it. 

According to Thornwell, there was a strong reaction against the committee’s proposal, i.e. that

every church-court has the inherent right to demand and receive satisfactory explanations from any of its members concerning any matter of evil report. Nothing has surprised us more than the manner in which this doctrine has been received. It has been branded as a ‘new principle,’ as ‘unjust, hazardous, and extra-judicial.’ ‘No good,’ we are told, ‘can result from this exacting, star-chamber mode of inquiry.’ Nothing but mischief is anticipated from the ‘revised suggestion.’ ‘It has been hitherto unknown to the Presbyterian Church, and no court of law in a free country, has ever practiced to act upon it.’6

Even Thornwell noted that the language of “demand and receive” invited comparisons to the abusive methods of the Star Chamber. The strongest opposition to the proposal, however, came from Robert Dabney. Dabney was not on the committee for revisions, but when he read the proposal, he was deeply concerned that this new power would result in, as he put it, “tyranny.” In 1859, in a paper called “The Changes Proposed In Our Book of Discipline,” Dabney expressed his strong reservations about this proposed power, saying

To the 5th section, which provides for placing a minister on his trial at the charge of a personal accuser, or of a persistent common fame, the Committee propose to add the following words: ‘Nevertheless, each Church Court has the inherent power to demand and receive satisfactory explanations from any of its members concerning any matters of evil report.’ The manner of asserting this power appears at least incautious. [If the proposed inquiry were limited to the minister’s brethren to] advise him to avail himself voluntarily of an explanation, or of the examination above described, we could heartily approve. But farther than advice no judicatory should be allowed to go, without those regular forms of judicial process which are so necessary to the protection of equal rights. The sentence under remark, as it now stands, would seem to give a judicatory power to compel a brother, (who should be held innocent till he is proved guilty, but who is suffering under the infliction of evil tongues,) to take his place in the Confessional against his own consent. . . . We may not do any pain whatever to one member of a judicatory, which is not equally done at the same time to all the members, unless he consents, or unless he is proved to deserve it, by being confronted with his witnesses. It is tyranny.7

Dabney then picks up his concern again in his comments about witnesses in a trial:

It seems to us improper, however, to make it the uniform law that all parties shall be compelled to testify against themselves, an abuse repudiated by all liberal legislation. The fifteenth section — in present Book sixteenth — provides that a church member summoned to testify may be censured for his refusal to obey. It would be well to introduce a clause, here or elsewhere, excepting persons appearing as defendants in a cause from this censure for refusing to testify. Otherwise misunderstanding may arise. 8

The Church agreed with Dabney. While these revisions were being debated, Civil War broke out, splitting the Church. In the Southern Church, Dr. Thornwell was appointed as chairman of a committee to complete the revisions, but he died in 1862. After the war, revisions continued, and for the 1867 draft of the Book of Discipline, the “demand and receive” wording of chapter five was changed simply to “demand.” The phrase “and receive” was eliminated. In so doing, the Church explicitly ensured that courts could not require the accused to testify.

Further, Dabney’s proposal for protection against self-incrimination was added to the 1867 draft of chapter seven (corresponding to the current BCO 35-1): “The parties may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify.” In 1879, the final draft read, “The accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify; but the accuser shall be required to testify, on the demand of the accused.” It was this language that was formally approved by the Church. When the PCA was formed in 1973, the new denomination adopted this phrase without alteration, which has since remained as the wording of BCO 35-1.

4. The Case Before Us

Presbyterians properly affirm accountability in our life and doctrine. As the proposed overture indicates in the rationale, we see that accountability in the BCO where a candidate for office is required to explain his beliefs (e.g. BCO 21-4c), to state his beliefs when a minister transfers to another court (e.g. BCO 13-6), and to declare if his views have changed (e.g. BCO 21.5.2). However, all those requirements are found in Part One of the BCO, the Form of Government. In these examinations, the candidate is not being accused of any offense. He does not face an indictment by the court.

That is not the case, however, for matters of judicial process. In Part Two of the BCO, the Rules of Discipline, the officer faces accusation of wrong doctrine or behavior, and the prospect of discipline. In such cases, the accused has always been given protection against self-incrimination. In BCO 31-2, the court may only “demand” explanations of the accused. In 1867 our fathers explicitly rejected the proposed wording that courts could “demand and receive” testimony from the accused. This distinction affirmed Dabney’s exhortation that courts may “advise him to avail himself voluntarily of an explanation” but to go no “farther than advice.” BCO 31-2 heeds Dabney’s counsel that the courts cannot require the accused to testify. Furthermore, the inquiry of BCO 31-2 is during the pre-indictment phase of determining whether to proceed to trial. No formal charges have been levied. After such an indictment has been made, Dabney’s proposal as secured in BCO 35-1 protects against unchecked prosecution: “the accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify.”

It is noteworthy the Book of Discipline of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church includes a similar protection, that “the accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify and no inference of guilt may be drawn from his failure to testify, on the demand of the accused.” The Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is silent on this matter: it contains no explicit protection against self-incrimination, nor does it require the accused to testify. 

Without the safeguards currently in place in our BCO, the accused would once again face the old trilemma of self-incrimination, perjury, or contempt. The current wording of BCO 35-1, proposed by Dabney, stands as the accused’s sole protection. Moreover, history shows us this right is also an important protection for the accusers, as a check against our worst tendencies. As Presbyterian elders consider this important issue, may we re-affirm the right against self-incrimination that Jesus exercised; that Lilburne, Dabney, and many others called for; and which has shaped our Presbyterian and civil courts for nearly 400 years. 

1 Suzanne Kleinhaus, “The Talmudic Rule Against Self-Incrimination,” (2001), p. 207.
2 Edward P. Cheyney. “The Court of Star Chamber.” The American Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 4 (July, 1913), pg. 745.
3 Richard H. Helmholz, “Origins of the Privilege against Self-Incrimination: The Role of the European Ius Commune,” 65 New York University Law Review 962 (1990), p. 965.
James Thornwell, “The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell,” (1871), vol. 4 p. 302.
Charles Hodge, “The Revised Book of Discipline,” (1858), p. 703 (emphasis added).
6  Thornwell, p. 305 (emphasis added).
Robert Dabney, “The Changes Proposed in our Book of Discipline,” (1859), p. 52-53.
Ibid, p. 67.
Church Issues, Church Polity, Current Issues, Editorial

Review of Heal Us, Emmanuel

Guest Post: Rev. Robbie Schmidtberger healus

Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation and Unity in the Church” is a provocative collection of essays written by 30 ordained churchmen within the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). While I am not a contributing author to this collection, I am privileged to have a role in this volume’s production (see page 301) and strongly believe in it’s collective purpose.

This is a critical year for the PCA as the denomination continues to wrestle with our racist past; some is overt while other moments are covert. 40+ overtures specific to racial reconciliation were sent by various presbyteries that our General Assembly will deal with this coming week. Heal Us, Emmanuel was written by PCA churchmen primarily intended for PCA churchmen and all others who love our denomination as we travel to Mobile, but this is not its sole purpose.

Racial issues flooded the news for the past two years — Ferguson, Charlestown, Mizzou, and more. It would be cynical to believe that this work is a product of political correctness; that could not be further from the truth. Heal Us believes that the gospel breaks through the dividing wall and becomes a platform for racial reconciliation and solidarity, which is seen clearly in Galatians 3:28 (93). Contributor Dr. Otis Pickett claimed, “Only Christ can redeem something as dark as two centuries of the institution of slavery, plantation brutality, legalized Jim Crow segregation, lynching without due process, violence against peaceful protesters, the murder of innocent leaders, as well as continued violence against Black males and our current situation of mass incarceration” (77).

God, thankfully, redemptively used the dark events of this past year to wake certain authors up to just how significant racial bias, hatred and bigotry continues to play within our culture. Heal Us has an introspective biographical feel as many contributors share their stories; I, for one, am thankful for their vulnerability. It pained me to learn how Rev. Kenneth Foster’s father told him to just do whatever the white man said (259).

Church planter Mark Peach wrote at length about what privilege looks like in his own life. “In a system where white culture is at the center and all other cultures are pushed to the periphery, being a white male has allowed me to isolate myself from racial injustice that is a part of American culture and of many people’s experience” (90). One of the privileges of being white is being able to pretend racial prejudice and hatred does not exist in our culture, simply because we do not experience it.

Mark’s story, in concert with many others, provokes me to examine my own life and privilege. I am a church planter who loves to dream and start new things. As a white male, I have been taught to make something of this world, be the best I can be, and solve other peoples’ problems as I can. But what if my attempts to live out that story and solve problems actually perpetuates and deepen other peoples’ problems? Perhaps God is already working in other peoples lives, and I eclipse that work by whatever I do.

So what is my role, as a white person, in the quest for racial justice in America? How can I steward my privilege and see every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord? That is what Rev. Peach wants us white folk to ask ourselves. And since the vast majority of ordained leadership in the PCA are white like myself, this is the question we need to ask within our churches, presbyteries and denominations. How can we steward our privilege well in order to advance God’s kingdom here on earth?

Heal Us pushes us to ask this question. It’s the biblical imperative, and it necessitates a corporate confession. This is where I was really taught, and there are numerous chapters that are pertinent to the current predicament of the PCA.

From my vantage point, there is a camp within our denomination that wants the past to remain the past and to not tarnish anyone’s name. Rev. Bobby Griffith in tandem with Rev. Dr. Sean Lucas call upon us to tell the whole truth about our storied, racial history. Truly Dr. Lucas does this at length in his recently published history of the PCA, For A Continuing Church. But in Heal Us these two authors briefly help me see just how far back our racist roots go. (I still need to finish Dr. Lucas’ history of the PCA.)

Then, Rev. Dr. Greg Ward raises an essential question: are segregationist hermeneutics still at play in the PCA today? As a case study he brings up an article written by PCA founding father, Rev. Dr. Morton Smith. Smith is known for defending segregation against integration and condemned interracial relationships. Ward takes Smith’s hermeneutical principles and shows how unbiblical they are.

Lastly, over the past year I’ve heard the question over and over again: why should we confess for the sins of a church that we were not a part of? Frankly, I do not really understand this objection. The PCA is a continuing denomination; we claim to continue the PCUS. We must publicly confess and repent for sins of those whom we share a covenantal relationship with. God holds our covenant community responsible for our actions, even our sins, collectively. That’s how God works. We must confess for our failures as a church during the Civil Rights Movement and wherever we’ve sinned.

As I’ve interacted with others – other PCA churchmen and folks within my own church – I’ve found that Heal Us could even be a better book if a few things or more were done.

  • We’ve failed to include women’s stories and learn from their own voices. Truly Heal Usis a collaborative project that would not even exist without Julie Serven, but I am also thinking of Kim Ince, Maria Garriott, Michelle Higgins, and others who have a lot to teach us. (Thank you to Byron Borger for quickly pointing this failure out.)
  • Kwon’s essay on corporate confession was excellent, but reviewer Rev. Nelson highlights further good questions he has. In Nelson’s own words: “A great missed opportunity of this book was to explore the nature of the repentance/confession that some call for. Chapter 24 is titled “Why we must confess corporately” but the article is only 4 pages long, and does not exegete Scripture so much as cite it and offer some quick application. Part of this exegesis should be anticipating objections: What are the limits, intent, and effects of covenantal repentance over racism? Who has covenantal relationships with each other to accomplish such a task? Is there a difference between confessing the iniquity of our fathers and confessing the sins of our fathers? “ These questions deserve answers. So there is still work to be done, but throughout the course of this past year presbyteries took General Assembly’s recommendation seriously to go home, study this issue and come back with a better plan. This work revealed overwhelming evidence that we do have much to confess for.
  • Lastly, many readers question why we use certain words – Caucasian, microaggressions, and white privilege/guilt. These are words that our culture uses and are easily understood. Our Reformed tradition, via the doctrine of common grace, empowers us to interact with the social sciences, seeing any truth as God’s truth. These categories may carry baggage for some, but they still have value and deliver truth. I personally have some angst with Rev. Walter Hanegar’s use of white guilt. Truly guilt is meant for a redemptive purpose – to push us to repentance. Hanegar wrote: “We must voluntarily embrace cultural marginalization and endure the complex emotions of white guilt in order to experience the full joy of restoration” (132). He’s describing how guilt can be redemptively used. But any race – white, black, Hispanic, etc., is a gift from God. My privilege is a gift from God even. So I would rather ask the question how can I steward my Anglo-Saxon heritage and privilege well. Perhaps we’re saying the same thing, but it’s foggy. But this actually underscores why Heal Us, is so important. We have to talk through these things as a denomination and move towards shared understanding and, hopefully, a better language we can use to communicate God’s truth.

I had the joy of being on family vacation last week, and I saw my sister disciple her daughter by saying, “delayed repentance is not true repentance.” Friends, we took the past year to study our past. What have we found? Heal Us contains personal examples, historical evidence along with stories of redemption. Furthermore, the atrocity of this past week reminds me of just how much hatred is truly in this world.

Brothers, wherever we have sinned, let us not delay our confession and repentance any longer. The confession of sin within our heritage is the first step towards reconciliation, but we also need to repent and follow Jesus and not perpetuate the sins of our forefathers and the church we claim to continue any longer. Let us not delay.


Church Issues, Church Polity, Current Issues, Editorial, Uncategorized

PCA Pastors, Celebrity Christian Conferences, and Child Protection


[Update: Some have asked if any contact was made with the PCA speakers at T4G. Correspondence was sent, and, after communicating with Dr. Ligon Duncan, I can confirm he did not receive his until his return from Kentucky as he was already out of town when it arrived.]

This week, Together for the Gospel (T4G) meets for its tenth anniversary. It’s a partnership that consists of PCA, Baptist, and non-denominational pastors who began a conference to show that, despite disagreements, they held a commitment to Dortist view of soteriology (TULIP).  Over the years, what began as something small now inhabits large conference space and a sold out crowd of over 8,000 who will gather to sing, hear their favorite celebrity pastors, get new books and all the SWAG we love.

But there is a problem. CJ Mahaney. Mahaney is one of the original T4G members. He has a shroud of suspicion over him as the church he founded, Covenant Life, in Maryland is embroiled in sexual abuse scandals. Pastors have testified they did not go to the police. Josh Harris has even said such. Some people in lawsuits claim CJ knew about the abuse and did not report anything to the authorities and treated it as an internal matter, requiring the abused to forgive their abuser. In addition, investigative journalists seem to be uncovering abuse and cover-ups that rival the Roman Catholic cases. (See here and here.)

In 2014, wisely, CJ did not speak at T4G. He also left the leadership of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), though TGC still kept him as a speaker at a conference in Phoenix that year.

In 2013, the SBC passed a resolution on Sexual Abuse of Children that says: RESOLVED, That we encourage all denominational leaders and employees of the Southern Baptist Convention to utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and or individuals that possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse;

In 2014, our denomination, the PCA passed Overture 6 that includes: Be it further resolved that we urge all church leaders to use their influence for the protection of children, by any and all godly means, including preaching and teaching against the heinous sin of child sexual abuse, warning anyone with knowledge of these sins to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11), and by supporting victims who often suffer in silence and shame without the vocal and compassionate support of the church;

Fast forward to 2016, we have PCA pastors and SBC pastors sharing the stage with CJ Mahaney while the State of Maryland debates changing the statute of limitations on sexual crimes, with Covenant Life Church as one of the examples in testimony.  It is possible CJ Mahaney is innocent in terms of knowledge of all the sexual crimes that took place at Covenant Life. What is not debatable is that his leadership and church policy did not protect children. Children were harmed while he was the Senior Pastor, responsible for the direction and oversight of the church.

There have been convictions of men like Nate Morales, who used their position at Covenant Life to prey on children. There are lawsuits that have been dismissed because of statutes of limitations. There is an investigation in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Despite these issues, PCA pastors are sharing the stage with him this week at the T4G conference.

PCA pastors are leaders in The Gospel Coalition that has crossover in leadership with T4G. PCA pastors are part of  TGC that has a contractual relationship with Crossway Publishers that still lists CJ Mahaney as an author and continues to publish his works. It is time to apply pastoral wisdom to this issue and realize that people do see   associations between TGC, T4G and Crossway, and do interpret the allowance of CJ into the celebrity fold as dismissal of numerous claims against him that have not been cleared in a church court, or court of law.

For the sake of peace of the Church, CJ Mahaney should not speak at T4G, or any conference, until his name has been cleared and I would humbly ask my PCA brothers and sisters to lead the way.



Doug Wilson’s Failure to Safeguard Children

by Mike Sloan and Beth Hartthe-good-shepherd

[Authors’ Note: Even before we wrote this article, ink has been spilled over the language “sexual stimulation” with regard to Sitler’s interaction with his baby. These words could be taken to imply molestation or rape, but not necessarily, and not in our opinion given the current evidence. It seems what was intended is that Sitler was himself sexually stimulated by thinking about his baby. And yet we stand by our labeling this “alleged sexual abuse”. It stands to reason that this was more than simply a fleeting temptation given the state’s response. It seems most likely they were an intentional indulgence by Sitler. So while this is not a criminal act in the state of Idaho, by a Christian moral standard this is horrific child sexual abuse, as Sitler was allegedly using thoughts of his own baby to gratify himself sexually. Using a baby as an object in this way is a disturbing act of abuse. Whatever the case this has no bearing on the truth that Sitler should be no where near any child, even his own.]

Doug Wilson’s leadership decisions directly led to the endangerment and alleged sexual abuse of a baby. In August, 2015, the baby’s father, a convicted sex offender and clinically diagnosed pedophile, Steven Sitler, failed a polygraph that revealed “heinous” violations of his probation with regard to his own infant child such that the Idaho Department of Correction ordered him to have no contact with the baby.

Wilson has come under criticism as he provided pastoral care for Sitler who is a member of Wilson’s church. Why should Wilson suffer criticism when Sitler is the offender? The criticism has merit because abuse happens through the actions of abusers as well as through the negligent actions of adults who do not properly safeguard children.

In three critical arenas, Doug Wilson acted irresponsibly, and his actions allowed a serial pedophile access to a vulnerable baby. This access led to preventable endangerment wherein Sitler used his baby for “sexual stimulation.” In the first arena, Wilson advocated for limited legal accountability for Sitler’s crimes when he was originally tried and convicted in 2005. In the second arena, Wilson officiated Sitler’s ill-advised wedding in 2011. In the third arena, Wilson’s public responses to Sitler’s most recent legal trouble reveal his teachings about pedophilia, accountability, child protection, and grace that create a culture where children are exposed instead of protected.

Despite Wilson’s dereliction of pastoral duty, the evangelical and Reformed church community remains silent on this issue of child sexual abuse. Silence in the face of child sexual abuse only helps to maintain the status quo, a status quo that led to a pedophile’s easy access to a vulnerable baby.

Arena #1: Wilson Advocates for “Measured and Limited” Legal Accountability

Two measures of genuine repentance for pedophiles is their awareness of the damage their actions cause and their ability to own full accountability for that destruction. Offenders typically only confess when they get caught, like Sitler. When pedophiles are caught (as opposed to them proactively seeking help before they have offended), they display an extreme lack of awareness about how their attitudes and actions bring incredible harm, and their repentance must be judged with great care and wisdom. Offenders are masters of deception and manipulation, often saying what people want to hear so that they attract attention and compassion toward themselves and away from their victims.

Moreover, regardless of anyone’s judgment about their repentance, people who have abused a child show they are capable of harming children and must never be allowed access to children again. Never. Full stop. Not once. No exceptions. Children are too vulnerable, and pedophilia is too serious a crime for exceptions. There are no measures too drastic in order to keep a child from the evil of sexual abuse. Repentant offenders will realize their danger and will insist on strict accountability, including no access to children. Sitler originally received a fair and just life sentence for his crimes.

In 2005, as Sitler was being sentenced, Wilson wrote the judge asking for leniency in the realm of civil penalties, arguing that he believed Sitler was genuinely repentant. Among Wilson’s evidence for this assertion was Sitler’s willingness to sit through a handful of sessions with Wilson, including the completion of assignments (which included reading books). Wilson also assessed that Sitler was “completely open and honest” with him and that Sitler was growing in his awareness of his problem. In other words, Sitler confessed to certain wrongs, and Wilson believed that this confession was the whole story, demonstrating Sitler’s change of heart.

Wilson, in the letter, does not explicitly factor into his assessment how Sitler was caught in his crimes. Sitler, nonetheless, has been deceiving people since he was a young man, serially abusing children (a court document filed by his defense references Sitler’s “volume of offenses over the years”). With training, Wilson would know that offenders typically only admit to as little of their crimes as possible. Offenders also know the language that pastors expect to hear. No doubt Wilson would agree that repentance is more than words, and yet, in this case, he seems to have accepted these few talks with Sitler as establishing enough repentance to advocate for “measured and limited” punishment. The Bible is clear that, at best, words are only the beginning of repentance, and that repentance is a heart change that must bear fruit over time in actions (Luke 3:8-14). In fact, a repentant pedophile would not argue for a limited punishment, but instead, accept the full legal consequences of the crimes.

Doug Wilson has no professional licensing or accreditation in treatment for sexual offenders. Wilson founded a church, denomination, college, and minister training school, but evaluating a pedophile’s repentance is beyond his expertise. The professional evaluation of Sitler is that he is a “high risk” offender. A few sessions of pastoral counseling with a high risk offender should not be used to judge the genuineness of repentance. Sitler’s subsequent violations of his probation and failed polygraphs demonstrate how Wilson prematurely judged Sitler.

With more training in the dynamics of abuse as well as a dose of humility, Sitler could still be in jail instead of free to harm children. With training in the dynamics of child sexual abuse or consultations with an expert, Wilson could have recognized that Sitler was not demonstrating actual repentance, a costly failure on Wilson’s part. Pastors have a responsibility to protect the sheep in their flocks from dangerous wolves (Ez 34; Acts 20). The current publicity surrounding abuse and abuse dynamics makes it impossible for pastors to claim the excuse of ignorance. This is not just a mistake or oversight, but a grave dereliction of pastoral responsibility.

In 2005, excellent resources were available to understand from experts how predators deceive and how we can see through their deception and manipulation. Anna Salter, in her book, Predators, shows that 93% of convicted offenders identify as religious. Sexual offenders are common in the Christian environment because in churches they typically find easy targets. Offenders groom not only their victims, but their churches to see them as caring people, masking their true agenda. Christians tend to just trust that the people around them are wonderful people (because most of the time they are!). At the same time, this environment is also a recipe for abuse if Christians are not trained and following best practices in child protection.

Without informed training, pastors will not recognize pedophiles’ false repentance. The fruit of Sitler’s repentance is absent. Within months, the bad fruit in his heart resurfaced, including violating his probation and, most disturbingly, demonstrating the classic offender attitude of hubris and entitlement: “Mr. Sitler continues to do things his way, and continues to make disclosures and still fails the polygraphs, to which leaves one to think of how much he is not disclosing (emphasis added).” Despite these latest reports of Sitler’s deception and “heinous” violations, Wilson still holds on to the notion that Sitler is repentant as of Saturday, September 5, defending himself and Sitler, saying, “since Steven’s conviction and conditional release from prison and jail, Steven, as a penitent Christian, has been welcome at Christ Church, and has worshiped regularly with us since that time.”

Wilson should never have advocated for leniency because there is no solid foundation to claim Sitler is repenting. Advocating for a “measured and limited” civil penalty does not protect children in the community or help pedophiles walk in repentance.

Arena #2: Wilson Officiates Sitler’s Wedding

Before Sitler’s wedding in 2011, the Idaho Department of Correction did not support this marriage, and Sitler’s probation officer testified in court that if Sitler’s marriage produced children, he should be forced to live separately from his children. Although the judge allowed the marriage to go forward, this was against the advice of the Idaho Department of Correction. The Department of Correction knew that having Sitler in the home with his own child would pose a danger to the child. The representative from the Department of Correction correctly pointed out that if Sitler lived in the same home as his future child, there would be times when Sitler was unchaperoned around the child because his wife would have to sleep. Wilson had the opportunity to intervene on behalf of any future little children’s safety. Instead, he officiated the wedding.

As a pastor, Doug Wilson had a moral obligation to go above and beyond the protection that the state can provide. Despite the judge’s ruling, Wilson must answer to Jesus through whom God will judge the world, and who speaks strongly against anyone who harms a child, saying, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). In these words, Jesus acknowledges the inherent danger of anyone who has abused a child and the urgent need to guard children against these abusers through physical and permanent separation between the abuser and any child. Jesus never minimizes the danger an abuser is to children or risks exposing children to harm.

Jesus shows the church what grace looks like when responding to child abuse: children take priority. Grace rescues the vulnerable and oppressed (Ps 82:1-4). The church must immediately and permanently remove access to children for anyone who has abused a child.The church must diligently guard potential victims by ensuring that people who harm children never have access to children again. Such actions display God’s grace and kindness. The gospel of grace leads Christians to defend sheep from wolves.

If an admitted and diagnosed serial pedophile like Sitler is walking in repentance, he would demonstrate that repentance by renouncing the possibility of having children and thus marriage. Instead, Sitler proposed on the second date to his future wife and, according to the Department of Corrections, Sitler said having children was very important to his religion. Wilson, as a spiritual authority in Sitler’s life, should have intervened to hold Sitler accountable to his repentance. The most loving and gracious action toward Sitler himself would have been to seek to stop the marriage so Sitler would not be put in the potential position of harming another child. Wilson had a moral obligation to intervene for future victims and Sitler, but he did not.


Arena #3: Wilson Responds Publicly

Wilson’s public responses have displayed no awareness of the damage his leadership has caused victims. In “An Open Letter from Christ Church on Steven Sitler,” Wilson places 100 percent of the blame for the situation upon Sitler’s shoulders. No doubt Sitler bears full responsibility for his actions, but Wilson played a key role in exposing children to a dangerous man. In the statement, Wilson denies the risk Sitler poses to his own child, and the part he has played in orchestrating the risk, saying, “Our ministry to Steven, in other words, has not been conducted at the expense of any children in our church community, or in a way that puts any of them at risk.” However, the church and Wilson have put Sitler’s baby at risk, so much so that Sitler has been ordered not to have any contact with his son until reliable chaperones can be secured. Then, moving forward, this child can only have contact with his father under a chaperone’s direct line of sight. This scenario is the very definition of high-risk as children cannot protect themselves from predators. Instead, they rely upon the adults in their lives to advocate for their safety. Wilson has been in a position to advocate for this baby’s safety but has not. It is also been noted that Wilson failed to inform his congregation in a timely fashion that Sitler was a danger to their children. Without raising any suspicion, Sitler could have easily gained access to their children because of Wilson’s failure to notify them. Wilson’s actions have put children at risk.

Wilson continues to defend himself by saying it is the church’s job to minister to sinners. Wilson writes, “the task of ministering to broken people is one of the central glories of the Christian church. For us, there are two causes of rejoicing in this. The first is that Christ came into the world for the sake of the screwed-up people.” However, not all sins have equal repercussions in this present world. A pedophile in the church is best described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. People who sexually abuse children prey upon vulnerable lambs as wolves do. If the church treats pedophiles like any other Christian who struggles with any other sin, then it will sacrifice all its precious little lambs to the wolf. The church must not minister to wolves at the expense of the sheep. Children pay the cost when leaders do not respond appropriately to pedophiles. Pastors commonly mistake child sexual abuse as just another sin. Doing so removes the urgency from proactive child protection and demands a high cost in children’s lives.

Furthermore, Wilson’s responses are a failure of empathy. In the five public statements (statement 1, statement 2, statement 3, statement 4, statement 5) Wilson has issued in the past few days, never does he mention sorrow for this vulnerable baby who has been the victim of his pedophile father’s “heinous” behavior. Instead, Wilson’s public statements argue that he is one of the victims, saying, “This is because he [Sitler] provides an easy way for enemies of our ministry to attack us.” Instead of showing empathy for the victim, Wilson claims persecution. He sees himself as a victim. Such a posture is hurtful to true victims and discourages true victims from coming forward.

It needs to be investigated whether other victims have not come forward in the Sitler case or others, because Doug Wilson has blamed victims (for example here, here, and here), and supported offenders in court (see public testimony here). Also discouraging victims from coming forward is Wilson’s minimization of Sitler’s crimes as only one count of lewd conduct: “The twittermob has been circulating numerous untruths, among them that Steven Sitler is a child rapist. He was actually convicted of one count of Lewd Conduct with a Minor under 16 years of age (Idaho Code 18-1508).” This is an inexcusable minimization of child sexual abuse. You can read the awful reality of what constitutes Lewd Conduct with a Minor in Idaho here. You can also read an account of a victim’s family in court records describing how Sitler lured their two year old into an isolated situation and forced the toddler to kiss his erect penis.

Without proactive leadership on child protection, kids in any setting are vulnerable. Leaders must speak strongly on behalf of victims. Ecclesiastes 4:1 captures the dynamic well, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” Doug Wilson’s public statements defend himself; they fortress his power instead of humbling owning his errors, learning from experts in the field, and making changes for the future. When shepherds use their power to protect themselves, sheep are exposed.

Child sexual abuse hides in an environment of silence, shame, and fear. When leaders do not speak out and name these sins, offenders easily find victims, and most often children suffer in silence. Leadership must combat the silence, shame, and fear with vocal advocacy for safeguarding children and vocal support for victims. Wilson has failed to lead his people to this place of safety. Wilson helped create and lead this culture. He must own up to its failures and resolve to help change it.

A Plea to Leaders in the Reformed Community

As dismaying as Wilson’s actions have been, perhaps even more upsetting has been the silence from the Reformed corner of the evangelical church. There has been no outcry, no call of urgency for child protection, and no lamenting over yet another victim of preventable abuse. There are no voices taking up the cause of the voiceless (Prov 31:8-9). There are no rescuers to deliver the weak and afflicted from the hand of the wicked (Ps 82:1-4). There are no comforters for the oppressed. The oppressors have power, but victims have only their tears (Eccl 4:1). Victims in our churches are still waiting for those with power and influence in the Reformed corner of the church to come in on the side of the vulnerable and the oppressed.

Children would be spared the horrors of child sexual abuse if leaders would use their voice to call for child protection in our churches with urgency. Even though the powerful are not themselves at risk, are we willing to look beyond our own needs to the needs of others, even the little lambs that Jesus places at the center of his Kingdom (Phil 2:4; Mark 10:13-14)? Where are the voices of the leaders of Reformed churches and Reformed networks who can gain a hearing from Doug Wilson and influence thousands of other pastors in their denominations and circles of influence? Where are the voices from The Gospel Coalition? Crossway, why are you giving a voice to a man who will not use his voice for voiceless? Who is asking Wilson, “Where is your grieving heart for this baby and the other victims? What child protection training are you putting in place or experts are you consulting so this does not happen again?”

God calls all of us to use our power to protect the weak and asks us, “Is this not what it means to know me?” (Ps 82:1-4; Jer 22:9). No matter how small the church we can choose to safeguard children. There is a silent epidemic of child sexual abuse in the church and those sitting in darkness are waiting for leaders with a voice to speak for them. How long will they wait?

Permission to republish is granted, provided the post is presented in its entirety without alterations and post is linked back to its original source.


Church Issues, Living Faith

Not Happy About Mars Hill

easter photos at Mars Hill

At one point, Mark Driscoll was the most influential pastor in my life. He preached in a refreshing way that cared more about a living audience than dead pastors. I admired his evaluation about the emergent church movement. As a guy coming out of a small, and very conservative denomination, his Spirit-filled boldness challenged my view that the church is always meant to get smaller and less important in the world.

At one point, I even tried to talk my wife into moving to Seattle and joining Mars Hill. It was her discernment at the time of our deepest loneliness that kept us from making what I now know would have been a mistake. It would have been a mistake because my understanding of how God interacts with people is very different than what Mars Hill taught. It would have been a mistake because the more I listen to Mark’s teaching the more differences arose.
Those differences and others, eventually put more distance between my ministry and my one-time pastoral idol. Slowly but surely I went from soaking up every sermon; to watching once in a while; to not watching. Finally, I began warning my church members about some of the things that I thought Mark and Mars Hill didn’t do well.

Where at one point the idea of meeting Mark was a boyish dream, later I decided not to join Acts 29, and I lamented with many others the dangers of what I perceived as masculine leadership gone of the rails.

I’ll try to give Mark the grace that I hope my parishioners give me on a regular basis. My sins are different than Mark’s, but my heart is no less deceptive, my motives not any less mixed.

Yet, if Paul could praise the proclamation of Christ even when done out of sinful motives, so can I.

But even more than Mark. I’m not happy about the damaged that has been inflicted upon the people of Mars Hill. I think far too many of us were enraptured with the tabloid-esque train wreck of the leadership, and we forgot that there were thousands of Christ’s people in the middle of the evangelical world’s version of a celebrity break up.

I’m in no way trying to downplay the insensitivity that moved at times through this church, or in any way trying to ignore the wounds suffered by many people connected to Mars Hill.

Sure maybe some members and leaders saw Mars Hill as a “Multisite Empire,” but I’m sure many more saw it as their church. The place where they were loved, challenged, and spurred onto deeper faith and obedience. When a leader resigns in shame, and a church falls apart afterward, it’s not a win for investigative bloggers, or for more traditional models or church, it’s a win for our enemy. If anyone read feels so inclined I’d encourage them to read the fourth chapter of the Book of James, especially verses one through twelve.

As the dust settles around Mars Hill, and as they prepare to become several local independent churches, I’m going to be praying for those folks. I’ll be praying that there is no bitterness; praying that those young believers know that the excess they felt is true of sinful people, but not of our Lord, praying that God’s grace might win out over our judgement. No one should be happy for the pain and heartache that is swirling around anyone at Mars Hills. I’m sure Jesus isn’t.


The PCA – Telling Secrets
and Picking Teams

Tom CannonBack in October I was nominated as the new Coordinator for Reformed University Ministries. Next week the PCA General Assembly votes to confirm or otherwise. The exigencies of a PCA Committee report don’t always lend themselves to full and thorough communication. So let me say something here.

I’ll start with a PCA joke. The corpus of PCA humor is not large. As far as I know it has only one entry. I’ve told this one a hundred times. You’ve probably heard it.

Question: What is a secret in the PCA?
Answer: You tell one person at a time.

Soon after I was nominated as RUM Coordinator a man who is sort of a somebody in the PCA approached a friend of mine and asked, “Is Tom Cannon a team player?” I’m pretty sure he didn’t want that getting back to me but, one person at a time, it did. When it did, I was emphatically not bothered at all he asked it. Nor did I take umbrage he didn’t ask me the question. I don’t know this man very well and he was doing his due diligence to figure out who I am. But it did get me thinking about how I would answer the question. Am I a team player?

That, of course, depends on what team you’re talking about. So let me tell you at least one team I’m on.

I am on the team that believes the PCA’s existence and survival is incidental to the work of the Kingdom. 

Mind you, if we go belly-up I will be sad and disappointed but I do not embrace the notion our denomination is essential (or even that important) to the commission Jesus gave his church to make disciples, baptize and teach. Now some may think that an odd attitude. Especially for someone who will, God willing, be entrusted with a leading a PCA agency. If you think that, you’d be wrong. That is exactly the attitude a person leading a PCA agency should have. Investing our denomination with even a modicum of importance is the womb which births a brood of pretentious nonsense. It’s also a lock guarantee to give you leaders who have a vested interest in projecting themselves as guardians of the realm, men who must do what it takes to make sure we take our place as movers, shakers, influencers and leaders. And I’ve been around the PCA long enough to know that leads to nothing good.

Men and institutions are leaders because they say and do things that others want to follow. Not because they simply aspire to leadership and especially not because they announce they are leaders. Let me state clearly that I do not care if the PCA is perceived as a “leader denomination”. By the grace of God I’ve seen things happen in the PCA which have become genuinely influential in the wider church. There have been individuals who do reach a constituency beyond our denomination. But in each case (and I mean every case) this happened quite separate from carefully planned efforts to achieve that.

There is another noxious side effect to the idea that doggone-it-the-PCA-should-matter. We begin to despise those who we think get in the way of that. This is a broad spectrum phenomena. When saddled with “We need to get the job done” we see those we think are holding us back as being a hurdle that needs to be removed. If we see think the PCA should matter as custodians of a Reformed Golden Age (which may or may not have existed) we see the less theologically precise as compromisers and interlopers who are hastening decline.

I think the Middle Ground Fallacy is just that. On disputed matters we all can’t be right and our unity can’t be based on simply agreeing to hold positions somewhere in the middle. I believe with what we have and who we are we pray, work and as best we can minister faithfully as those entrusted with the gospel. When we disagree we should do it with full throat (easy for me) but with integrity, humility and respect (not so easy for me). And then we see what happens. It may end well. It may not. I’m completely OK with that.

I put this on public display for a reason. There may come a time when I completely ignore all of this. In that case I may need to be tied to a chair and have this read to me for a few days. That’s another way of saying what I’m aspiring to should involve scrutiny. Lot’s of it. And if I devolve into a denominational apparatchik that scrutiny should be high, hot and relentless. It should wash over me like a mighty river. As I glibly mix metaphors.

See you in Houston.

Tom Cannon
Birmingham, AL
June 9, 2014

Saddlebronc at he Calgary Stampede Rodeo Finals on July 12, 2009.
Church Issues, Editorial

Dr. Keller, the City, and the World

I sat next to Dr. Keller once at a conference dinner. It wasn’t planned. We both happened to get stuck at the last table to fill up.
We chatted for a few minutes and then our other table mates chimed in, hoping to talk to the most famous guy in the room. I realize now that I could have said, “you know sir, you’ve influenced my ministry more than any other pastor. My wife and I stayed in Pittsburgh, because of your teaching on the value of the city.”

I wanted to start here because, I want to make it clear, that I have a deep respect for Dr. Keller, and that his teaching has been highly influential in my life and ministry. In fact, it might be fair to say that Dr. Keller is one of the most influential pastors living today.

To date, Amazon.com lists him as the 15th most popular author in their “Religion & Spirituality” category (for comparison Max Lucado is 17th, and Joyce Meyer is 23rd). His most recent book targeted at church leaders is Center Church, according to Amazon it’s ranked as the 6th most popular book in their “Pastoral Resources” category. His style and thoughtfulness have made him accessible and very popular.

Dr. Keller is the Helena of Troy of church planting. He is the mock turtle neck which launched a thousand new churches.

[Tweet “Dr. Keller is the mock turtle neck which launched a thousand new churches.”]

But it’s his popularity which has caused me to turn a sharper focus towards his teaching. I’d venture that every evangelical church planter (or hopeful church planter) in America has read something by Dr. Keller. Until Center Church came out, Why Plant Churches? was probably his most ubiquitous work on the topic. This six page paper has been downloaded countless times and is available for download on over 290 websites. When I re-read this essay recently, I was surprised to find Dr. Keller’s rationale for church planting is directly tied to his emphasis on urban ministry. Continue reading

Living Faith

Happy Church Planting Day – 6 Protestant Lessons from a Catholic Saint


I have never had a shamrock shake from McDonalds.  I have never drank a single pint of green beer.  And I do not observe any Saints days.  But I do love St Patrick’s Day!  

I love it because I am a church planter.  And Patrick is perhaps the greatest of our tribe since the apostolic age ended.  His record of church planted has never been equaled.  His life is an inspiration to many even a thousand years after his death.  What he accomplished for God is remarkable. And if you care about planting churches, you should love St Patrick’s day as well!

Here are a few of the many lessons we can learn from his life.

1. God most often calls us to minister among people that you know

 Patrick knew the Irish.  he lived as a slave amongst them for many years prior to his escape.  His calling was based on his knowledge of these people.  Their needs, weaknesses, virtues, culture, language were already known to him.  And out of this knowledge came his passionate desire to share Christ with these people.  Some people do receive  Macedonian calls.  And the Holy Spirit has transported one man into the desert to share Christ with someone.  But these are for the most part the exception.

So while God may call you to move to another country for his work it is more likely that he wants you to share the Gospel with the other parents of your child’s hockey team.  Reach out to those closest to you and that you already know.  After all you already speak their language and understand their context.

2. Train the Called

Patrick did not begin as a trained pastor, church planter or  missionary.  He began as a man with a passion for the Gospel needs of a specific people. And a willingness to obtain the tools and education necessary to fulfill this calling.  He spent years in preparation and was sustained in this season by his knowledge of how great the need was.

Our modern practice seems to be to recruit future church planters for a specific city from among seminary students or recent graduates.  Nothing wrong with this, but the lesson from Patrick is that sometimes the man best suited to the particular ministry is already called, but not yet trained.

3. Go under the authority of the Church

Patrick had a burning passion to reach the Irish people.  And he was knowledgeable about the local context.  He knew the people & he was confident in his call, but he still waited for proper ecclesiastical sanction before he began his mission.

Some of the worst church planting shipwrecks are men that are supremely confident and knowledgable.  But they rush ahead of the process of discernment and ordination that their church has established.  By waiting Patrick went with the confidence that can only come from the confirmation of your call.  This doesn’t probably seem like a big deal when you are eager to get started.  But when it is time to face down the pagan kings of your culture, it makes all the difference in the world to know that you have brothers at your back.

4.  Never go alone

Some estimate that Patrick headed to ireland with as many as seventy on his ministry team.  He had ordained priests, seminary students, widows, and deacons.  His team had the full set of ministry skills necessary to serve as a fully functioning church.  And although having team equipped to that degree is not feasible in most contexts, the principle is valid.

Your team should include those on the ground with you committed to the ministry vision.   Both men and women serving locally.  And a virtual team of prayer supporters, donors, and fellow presbyters, and coaches that are assisting from afar.

5.  Give your life to your call

There was no going back for Patrick.  He was all in.  The mission to the Irish was his life.  It wasn’t just a stage in his ministry career plan.  His retirement plan was to continue ministry as long as he had strength to do so.

I know that God sometimes calls us to a specific work for a season.  but we should approach every call as if we intend to be there for life.

6. Build a gospel multiplication movement.

The Irish model was to plant a new congregation in a village or town.  And out of each congregation new leaders were identified to be trained for future church plants.  In this way each congregation joined in the long term mission of sharing the gospel with all of Ireland.

Planting a local congregation is not the ultimate goal of a church planting ministry.  It is a step in the overall mission of the Church.  And taking the gospel to world requires every congregation to take part in God’s mission.

So when St Patrick’s day rolls around each year, by all means enjoy your corned beef and your green beer.  But be sure to remember what his life was really about.  Preaching the gospel to those that need to hear it, and launching the greatest church planting movement in history.

Living Faith

A Year Ago Wes White Called Me…

It was a winter afternoon. I was working in my office, and the phone rang. I didn’t know immediately who could be calling me from South Dakota, but my phone service automatically screened the call. I heard the caller record his name, “Wes White.”

I paused…

I tried to recall the last controversial thing I had said online. I thought, “well now you’ve done it, you’ve got yourself in the crosshairs of the TR blogosphere.”

For some reason I took the call (of course it wasn’t just some reason, it was the Spirit nudging me toward Christ). I greeted Mr. White and we began one of those awkward cold calls which ministry leaders have from time to time. I kept thinking, “watch what you say! Be careful, or your presbytery will be getting a letter of concern!”

But a funny thing happened, Wes wasn’t looking for dirt, he was reaching out.  On several occasions, before this, we had volleyed emails back and forth, but none of them had ended well.  I had challenged him about his blog, and more specifically the comments he allowed on a site which carried his name. From those interactions, we seemed to have fundamental and irreconcilable differences. But on this day, he was calling to offer peace and to thank me for my pursuit. He was seeking to repair the bridges which he had burned in the past (I’ll let Wes be the one to tell you about the other people he contacted).

[Tweet “Christ can even bring redemption in the blogosphere.”]

Eventually, we got over our awkwardness and began to talk honestly with each other. We talked about life and ministry. We soon found that for every one of the things we disagreed upon, there were ten or fifteen things we shared. After two hours we ended the call, but promised to speak again soon. I’m glad to say that we kept that promise, we spoke the next week, and the next week, and the next.  Over those weeks Wes and I disagreed, sometimes on significant issues, but we kept talking. We even found that on some issues he is the progressive and I’m the TR!

Eventually Wes removed his blog, seeking to redouble his efforts towards local ministry. By and large, I did the same.  But we kept calling each other. Month after month we talked.  Our interactions slowly moved from seeming like peace talks between warring tribes. They became talk between brothers and friends.

Now before you think that this post is just one long extended humble brag – let me say: Wes has helped me follow Christ way more than any of my emails helped him. He has encouraged and challenged me, and I’m glad to say that he is a friend. Wes is one of the first people I call when Im thinking through things in ministry. I praise God that he called, and that I was willing to answer my phone.

The next time you receive a call from someone you don’t want to talk to, consider what the Spirit might be doing. Remember, the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is at work in His church. He can redeem the most broken situations.  Our God is even powerful enough to bring redemption in the blogosphere.

Wes and his beautiful family


James KA Smith
Church Issues, Current Issues, Editorial

What the PCA Could Learn from James K.A. Smith

The PCA is filled with Godly men, influencing the church and culture around us. The legacy left to us by men like Francis Schaeffer and C. Edward Koop, and continued on in projects like the Chalmers Center are some of the strengths of the PCA. Yet we are not perfect and have a lot that we can learn from men outside our specific tradition. We too need the larger body of Christ. One such man who has been shaping the thinking of many of us here at Vintage ’73 is James K.A. Smith. Continue reading

Ministry Praxis: Infant Baptism in Oklahoma City
Church Issues, Church Polity, Editorial, Living Faith, Theology, Uncategorized

Ministry Praxis: Infant Baptism in Oklahoma City

One of the “deal breakers” when planting a Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City is infant baptism. Though this is a scriptural practice, baptismOklahoma has the highest percentage of Southern Baptist churches in the world. Most Oklahomans have never seen an infant baptism. In fact, this is one thing that continually gets lumped with dry, liturgical tradition that is a carry over from the Roman Catholic Church and something the Reformers did not have enough Scriptural grounding to change both the mode and recipients of this sacrament.

Continue reading