Beach Responds to Nampa URC

When it comes to the sorts of theological errors that the churches may legitimately subject to official adjudication, one need look no further than the “Form of Subscription”—a document to which every office-bearer in the URC affixes his name and pledges to adhere to its stipulations. Not only do office-bearers—including the office-bearers of the Nampa URC—declare their heartfelt belief and persuasion in “all the articles and points of doctrine contained in” the Three Forms of Unity, in so doing they also “promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching and writing.” Inasmuch as this is the subscription to which one commits himself, it is not arguing too much to say that office-bearers are not only forbidden to contradict the confessions in a manner that is clear or direct, they are forbidden to contradict the confessions in an indirect manner as well. Read more»

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  1. Dr. Clark, I’ve read and I think I probably agree with most of what Dr. Beach is saying. However, I can’t agree with some of his objections to the way Nampa URC’s consistory handled their objections:

    “As an official consistorial document, it is not clear to me why the Nampa URC paper was not processed through ecclesiastical channels, which seems to be the protocol for an official reply to a synodical Study Committee. Rather than post this document over the internet, it seems to me that it would have been a brotherly duty to correspond with the Study Committee directly so that this Committee could evaluate and weigh the validity of the concerns enunciated in the Nampa document, or at the very least submit this document to Classis as an overture, and if Classis refused to adopt the overture as its own, then send their report to Synod. As it stands, the procedure the Nampa Consistory has followed in this regard may be construed to show a low view of the church, an uncharitable approach to the Study Committee, and to be setting an unwise, even a kind of politicizing, precedent for ecclesiastical debate and discussion. (The Study Committee Report has been available to the churches since mid-summer 2009.) No doubt, some consistories and interested individuals will study this document while others are free to ignore it since it is not a document properly processed through the assemblies of the church. For this reason, given the public nature of the Nampa document, I feel compelled to offer some analytical comments on the Nampa study, though I wish the whole discussion had been left within official ecclesiastical boundaries.”

    I don’t recall that Martin Luther processed his 95 Theses through the courts of the church. Most of the Reformation would never have happened if people had been banned from public comments and criticism of ecclesiastical pronouncements.

    It’s also pretty obvious that the founders of the United Reformed Churches used the public press on a regular basis to criticize synodical committee reports on women in office, theistic evolution, homosexuality, and all sorts of other issues.

    If someone wants to argue that Nampa URC should have offically written to the members of the committee in their capacities as committee members, that’s fine. But I see no reason why they should be required to do so; obviously the committee members would have found out about the Nampa URC comments very quickly.

    Perhaps it would have been more helpful if Dr. Beach followed the practice of a fellow critic of the federal vision:

    “Apparently, there is talk of a conspiracy to damage Covenant Theological Seminary. Why? Because two men who signed the letter of concern to Missouri Presbytery have made public statements about Covenant Theological Seminary criticizing what they have learned was taught there. Is this how people who question Covenant Theological Seminary or speak critically of it are treated? Are we not permitted to offer public criticisms of the public teaching of members of the Seminary? And this is far from the only criticism that we’ve received for bringing up questions. Just think about this. According to some, a professor can teach publicly in a way that is contrary to the Standards of our Church, but we are wrong and witch hunters for publicly defending the Confession’s teaching and calling attention to what is actually being taught at Covenant Theological Seminary. Doesn’t that seem a little backwards to you?”

    If a pastor or elder or deacon or church member says something in public, they have to expect criticism as well as compliments. When officebearers gather together in groups, whether consistories, classes, synods, or committees thereof, they need to expect the same.

    Certainly people who believe the Federal Vision is anti-Protestant or at least pre-Reformation medievalism don’t want to adopt Roman Catholic medieval models of stifiling their critics.

    • I suppose many people would agree with you (including myself) that publicly discussing these kinds of things, including on blogs, is generally fine, and often even helpful. But at the same time I think it would be a real shame to focus on this relatively minor disagreement about venue with Dr. Beach, rather than on the insights he has brought regarding what are some very substantial problems with the Nampa position.

      • I cannot agree with you here that this is minor. Especially for a young denomination like the URCNA, it is of the highest possible level of importance that the “how” of serious theological disagreement get worked out.

        In a nutshell: if bad theology is removed via the wrong methods, the cure can be worse than the disease.

        Let’s be clear: I am not a fan of the Federal Vision or tolerating the Federal Vision stuff. I’m not at all sure I understand it, but what I do understand I don’t like at all. When coupled with high-church sacramentalism I find it disgusting and leading toward Canterbury at best or Rome at worst, and when coupled with paedocommunion, I believe it is damnable wickedness causing children to eat and drink damnation unto themselves. A major reason I argued against the local church I attend going into the PCA was that it would have been forced to deal with all the mess that is going to blow up in the Missouri Presbytery.

        But as bad as the Federal Vision stuff can be, the URCNA comes out of a theological millieu with its own issues.

        If the URCNA reverts to the older Christian Reformed model of “send in your protests to the right address, and we’ll decide whether to consider them,” quite frankly, a precedent will be set that will be tremendously destructive.

        That’s not just a liberal view. There are solid conservative men in the URCNA who believe that only elders assembled in consistory, classis and synod have the right to engage in reform of the church. I realize that attitude has a very long history in the Dutch Reformed world, but it is contrary to some of the most basic principles not only of Reformed Christianity but also of Protestantism itself.

        Dr. Beach comes from a very long tradition in which such views are often held out of a belief that good order and decency in the church require it, and it’s why I try to be very patient with what I consider utterly wrong views. However, the example of the Christian Reformed Church should show the tremendous danger they pose. I’m all for supporting and standing by the ruling and teaching elders. But I would argue that saying theological discussion should not happen in public but only via correspondence between a consistory and a study committee is simply not Protestant — and I’d argue that it’s an implicit denial of the doctrine of total depravity.

        Now obviously Dr. Beach doesn’t deny total depravity or deny Protestantism. Nobody I know, least of all me, would say that. I would, however, argue that his statements, if consistently followed, would condemn Martin Luther, John Calvin, and virtually anyone in the Reformed world who took on the power of a synod or general assembly via the public press.

        Adopting synodratic methods or attitudes to eliminate the Federal Vision will do tremendous damage to the URCNA, long-term.

        • DTM,

          You make some good points, and quite articulately so. Yet I did say “relatively” minor. And while we may disagree on this point, I still think it is minor compared to outright theological heresy – which I think many strains common in FV teaching in fact are. For that matter, even though it was against his preference in these kinds of matters, Dr. Beach ultimately did consent to have his writing posted on the internet where it obviously will be subjected to commentary, such as ours, didn’t he..?

  2. The Committee’s mandate was to do this:

    “That Synod 2007 [of the United Reformed Churches in North America] appoint a study committee to examine by the Word of God and our Confessions the
    teachings of the so-called Federal Vision and other like teachings on the doctrine
    of justification; and present a clear statement on these matters to the next synod
    for the benefit of the churches and the consistories. (Acts of Synod Schererville
    2007, Article 72.2)”

    It appears that the Nampa church did a little homework, read sources in context, and then noted that the Report did not “present a clear statement on these matters.”

    Professor Beach’s response may be exactly the kind of response that Nampa was trying to provoke. His response seemed to me to be much more exegetical, and clear, of FV views than the Report was. Consider one example of his response regarding the matter of covenant & election:

    “For clarity, it certainly isn’t objectionable to regard all those who profess the true faith as members of Christ and God’s elect. Therefore it isn’t objectionable to call God’s people, the church, his elect.

    For that language to be pastorally appropriate language within a given church and place, especially given two millennia of theological controversy on the meaning of election and its inseparable link to the gospel, will need some discernment. ”

    This is one example of Professor Beach being much more fair to the FV than the Report, in my humble analysis. I find it interesting that in this example Prof. Beach states that regarding and calling the Visible Church (those who profess the true faith) as God’s elect is not objectionable. On the other hand, doing so is a discernment issue.

    Prof. Beach has framed the controversy of this particular point in such a way that might be exemplary for further framing. It certainly seems to be much more clear than the Report, and perhaps in the midst of critiquing Nampa, he is proving Nampa’s point and filling the void Nampa is calling for.

  3. Darrell, I, of course, agree with you that these things can be discussed beyond the bounds ecclesiastical courts, as the quote from me suggests! However, I do not think you should overplay Beach’s point. The Nampa article suggests that basically the committee report is incompetent in its analysis of FV. This report has been out for about a year, according to my sources. If these gentlemen thought that this report was inadequate, then it might have been a good idea to let the committee or committee members know how they could have made a report that would have, in their view, actually served the URC. Obviously, Beach’s views must not be that “synodratic,” since he published this article on my blog, hardly the center of “synodocentrism.”

  4. In Dr. Beach’s first sentence (second paragraph), he qualifies his concern by writing “As an official consistorial document…”.

    I am sure there are more informal and unofficial ways to “protest concerns” than for the Nampa consistory to broadcast their protest on the internet as an official document without first going through the proper channels – having had so much time to do so?

    I agree that the Nampa consistory does show forth a “low view” of the church in manner of their presentation but there seems to be a bigger problem with their approach?

    The Nampa, “office-bearers are not only forbidden to contradict the confessions in a manner that is clear or direct, they are forbidden to contradict the confessions in an indirect manner as well.”

    If we say Nampa has not failed in presentation – we would be hard pressed to say that they have not indirectly contradicted the confessions, which stands their signatures to their ordination vows.

    Dr. Beach writes, “Inasmuch as this is the subscription to which one commits himself, it is not arguing too much to say that office-bearers are not only forbidden to contradict the confessions in a manner that is clear or direct, they are forbidden to contradict the confessions in an indirect manner as well.”

    This appears to be reasonable concern brought against the Nampa consistory as Dr. Beach subsequently unravels the substance of the concern showing how they have accomplished as much.

  5. Contrary to your response, DTM, Mark’s point about process is well-taken in this context. Nampa is not alleging heresy, only that a committee of its own synod has proceeded in some inappropriate manner. It would thus be perfectly appropriate, even fitting, for Nampa to have proceeded in the churchly way that Mark counsels. What you suggest may be done is not the same as establishing what ought best to have been done in this case. (BTW, what Luther did in posting the 95 theses was follow the procedure for provoking an academic dispute over indulgences within Wittenburg University.)

    Think about it: if I as a member of a session object to something (I wonder if something is as fair as it should be) with respect to a GA study committee, and I think it important enough to garner the support of my fellow elders (by having my seession adopt my concerns), isn’t the most orderly and kind thing to do to pass it through proper channels? At least to give it to the study committee and interact with them before simply going public? How about running it by my presbytery? We do this all the time in the OPC.

    When the first response is to go public rather than to seek to handle it within ecclesiastical channels, this generally indicates some problem within the denomination. Mark acknowledged that the consistory could send it to the synod if its classis simply dismissed it and the study committee refused to hear the concerns. Mark never denied the ultimate right of the consistory to go public if they could not otherwise gain a hearing. He questioned, rather, simply doing this without first following ecclesiastical procedures that show confidence in the brethren.

    Yes, DTM, men now in the URC went public (as did men in the old PCUSA) when they could not gain a hearing in the CRC. But do the Nampa men really want even to hint that they are left with no other recourse and that the URCNA will not give their concerns any hearing unless they proceed in this way?

    DTM, one need not always act in the kind of combative mode that you seem to think is at the heart of being Protestant. We ought first to attempt to engage one another in all the ways that Mark was counseling before proceeding to deal with each other as if we’re back in the CRC or the PCUSA.

    All this is to say that because there are times to act as Nampa did does not mean that every instance of such is justified. I would argue that a distinct justification for this sort of procedure needs to be made and I have not seen or heard it in this case. I think Mark’s counsel stands as the way a healthy church ought to interact, granting that what you defend is warranted when a church refuses to hear godly counsel. Does anyone think that that is really what we are dealing with here?

  6. Prof. Strange, you’re a recognized expert on Orthodox Presbyterian church polity, I’ve personally seen the way in which you handled debates and made important distinctions at the OPC General Assembly, and I respect your views. Furthermore, unlike a certain category of people within the Dutch Reformed world, as far as I know you do not have the mentality of “it’s for the elders, not for the people to discuss.”

    I’m therefore surprised by your response and I need to take a step back to make sure I have understood your concern, and by extension, that of Dr. Beach.

    I want to ask an important question.

    Is your primary procedural objection to this Nampa letter that it is an official consistorial document, or would you have had the same level of concern if one or more of the individual officebearers had written an article similarly critical of the synodical study committee report and published it in Christian Renewal, Outlook, or some other Christian publication?

    If your objection is that this was an official consistorial statement and should instead have been published by individuals, I don’t think I agree but I don’t have a significant problem. I might even agree that the individual members of the study committee should have been sent a copy as a brotherly courtesy, although I don’t think that’s necessary either since there was no question the study committee members would see it, and the Nampa consistory clearly did not intend to be underhanded or act without the knowledge of the synodical study committee.

    But if your objection is that synodical study committee reports should not be criticized in public and should only discussed via the ecclesistical assemblies of consistory, classis or synod — and yes, there are URCNA people who have told me things like that — we have a major disagreement.

    Let me also apologize in advance, Prof. Strange, if I should be addressing you as “Dr. Strange.” I don’t remember that you have a doctoral degree but if you do I mean no disrespect to you for failing to use the title.

  7. Darrell:

    My position, and Mark’s as I understand it, is simple: in this case, given that a consistory had methodological objections to a report of its synod, a report made public some time ago, and thus giving plenty of time for engagement with the committee (and the judicatories of the church), it would have been more “churchly” and orderly for Nampa to have followed the kind of procedure suggested by Dr. Beach.

    Neither of us meant to say that an individual could not publicly address the report of the committee. It’s not a question of permissibility but of wisdom. And, as you suggest, I would certainly distinguish the response of an individual from that of a judicatory. At any rate, should a consistory with such problems not seek a path more likely to win a hearing with the committee or the synod?

    I don’t think that Mark believes that the only forum in which this may be discussed ever is the ecclesiastical one. I don’t believe that. But why not keep things there as much as possible as long as folk are operating in good faith with one another?

    Go back and read what Mark wrote and it is clear that he is suggesting a better way rather than commanding the only way. I think that he’s right. But, of course, that’s not the main point in his analysis but merely an initial methodological observation.

    Obviously, Darrell, this is a sensitive issue with you. I understand that we all have those things about which we are particularly sensitive. I simply think that we need to make sure that we balance our commitment to a process of openness in these matters with good ecclesiastical procedure. They need not be in opposition. For my part I can assure you that the notion that theological discussion and concern is restricted to the elders is abhorent (though the Nampa folk are elders, of course) and I would agree, un-Protestant.

    • Prof. Strange: I appreciate your clarification.

      As long as you are saying that the members of the Nampa consistory could have said or written the same things in public speaking for themselves as individuals, I don’t have a significant problem with your position or that of Dr. Beach, although I’m not sure I agree with you. I do, however, agree that the Nampa statement was unwise — I don’t think the Nampa consistory really helped their argument in any way by making this an official statement by the consistory, and may have hurt themselves.

      You may rest assured that I am in full agreement that doing things decently and in good order is critical. A Free Reformed (CGKN) commentator on church polity wrote many years ago (roughly translated) that the best way to make a difficult situation impossible to to fail to follow the biblical procedures of the church order. In a secular context, the original author of Roberts Rules of Order wrote that it is more important that rules exist for transacting business than that the rules be the best ones possible. Both writers were right.

      You are correct that this is a sensitive issue with me. I listened for well over a decade to Christian Reformed denominational officials — many of them sincerely believing the point, though some of them merely using church polity as a club to beat down opponents — argue that it is somehow un-Reformed to criticize the stance of synodical study committees outside the ecclesiastical assemblies. That sentiment is not absent in conservative circles, either.

      That road leads to Rome.

  8. The process given by our Lord in Matthew 18 is clear. There is a time for concealing a matter and there is a time for making it public.

    • Yes, the process given in Matt. 18 is clear, and it clearly doesn’t apply to matters which are public knowledge.

      If it did, the Apostle Paul would have been wrong in publicly rebuking Peter to his face without any prior effort to remonstrate with him in private. We would also be wrong every time we criticize somebody’s theology without talking to them first. Did the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism or Westminster Confession personally discuss things with the Pope before writing those documents? Or for that matter, did the bishops at the Council of Trent feel they had any need to discuss matters privately with the Reformers?

      Appeals to Matthew 18 are misplaced in this context.

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