A Serious, Treatable Cancer

An HB Classic

CancerA pastor wrote recently to ask how he should introduce his elders to the fact that there are supporters of the FV in his denomination (federation). It’s a good question. It can be discouraging to hear about things such as the FV. When a man becomes an elder he probably is thinking about caring for his local congregation. He probably isn’t thinking about serious—even grave—doctrinal error in his congregation or in the broader federation (denomination) of churches. After all, it’s not as if we don’t confess a particular understanding of the gospel, justification, and salvation. It’s not as if we haven’t reached a consensus about the basic outlines of covenant theology. He believes it and he might just assume that everyone else does too.

An elder might be forgiven for expecting ministers to be faithful to what we confess, to what we have subscribed but it’s naive to think that ministers aren’t subject to theological temptations. They are. Sometimes they begin with a bad foundation, they just aren’t well grounded in the truth or deeply grounded in the Scripture, catechism, and confession. Sometimes they have a good foundation but they drift from it because they want to be “hip;” they are taken with dangerous ideas cleverly and well expressed. Sometimes they are arrogant. They think they know and understand more than they really do.

Whatever the exact reason it’s clear that the Federal Vision movement is a sort of theological cancer. It corrupts truth and, like cancer, it makes healthy things (e.g., the doctrine of election, covenant theology, or the necessity of sanctification) into harmful things. Left untreated, this theological cancer, like the biological kind, will spread and make the patient (the churches) sick unto death. Like cancer, the FV is not always easy to distinguish from healthy tissue. Once it has emerged and been treated (as it has been in the URCs in 2004 and 2007) it can re- emerge. It may be that denominations and federations that have been diagnosed as having the FV cancer may never be cured. They may only be in remission.

So, how does a pastor break the bad news to his elders? Well, a pastor talks to his elders and even to his congregation the way that a good physician talks to his patient: plainly and patiently. “I’m sorry to say that I have some bad news. You have a very serious form of cancer. The good news, however, is that it is treatable and if it is treated aggressively you’ll live a normal life. If left untreated, however, it will only become worse and eventually you will die.”

As it happens, the URCs received preliminary treatment for the FV cancer in 2004, after a minister was found to have preached at least one sermon advocating the FV doctrine that, at the judgment, believers shall stand before God partly on the basis of intrinsic, Spirit-wrought sanctity. This sermon was rejected as confusing and Synod adopted a three-point statement affirming justification sola fide and the imputation of Christ’s active obedience as the ground of our acceptance with God. In 2007, Synod undertook more serious treatment of the disease by adopting pastoral advice in the form of Nine Points. They also instituted a study committee to consider how the URCs should respond to the FV challenge to the gospel. The doctors did good work in their study.

Some in the URCs, however, seem to think that the patient is out of the woods. Others may even think that what the Synod treated as cancer in 2004 and 2007 and which the study committee formally diagnosed as cancer in its report is not really dangerous at all and that it requires no treatment. Some think that the treatment is too radical, too harsh. It’s not unusual for a patient to reject a doctor’s diagnosis. It’s called being “in denial.” It’s a little unusual for a patient to remain in denial, however. If he does he will likely die. A good doctor will risk the patient’s wrath and press the case for treatment. “Look here, you have cancer. It’s treatable but if you pretend that you don’t have a disease it will only get worse and at some point we won’t be able to treat it.”

The Lord and Savior of his church will not lose any of those who are his, whom he has loved from all eternity, for whom he laid down his life but he preserves his church through means and chief among those means are the keys of the kingdom: the preaching of the good news and church discipline. The good news is that Jesus the Savior obeyed for his people, died for his people, and was raised for their justification. Church discipline is, in large measure, insisting that the church remain faithful to the good news and chastening those who depart from or corrupt it.

May the Lord grant us the courage this summer once again to see ourselves for what we are, the gospel for what it is and the grace to believe and act on it.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2010]

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  1. Thank you for this, Dr. Clark. Although I’m not denominationally URC, your analogy, diagnosis and prescription regarding the FV is excellent, and certainly applicable to what is going on in other churches like the PCA as well. If I might be permitted to cite an old hymn, “Arise, O church of God…”

  2. Thank you, Dr. Clark. Great analogy… and great analysis… What you shared encourages me to rejoice in the gospel and strengthens my hope in the gospel.

  3. You are of the school of thought that cancer ought to be treated with aggressive medical intervention, starving the body, killing the bad cells, hoping more bad cells die than good ones, but knowing full well that good cells are dying. The treatment may be successful but often the patient is dead.

    Cancer has been proven to be healed more successfully with a change of lifestyle, mainly diet, nutrition with love and care, feeding the good cells so that they will overcome the bad cells, changing the body’s behaviour so that it does not produce bad cells anymore, completely the opposite of what you suggest.

    The church administers the sacraments and preaches the Word which is the food of life, healing to the nations. Changing the cells, feeding them the best, not killing them.

    Your analogy was helpful for me because I am beginning to understand what is happening in some church federations. If a man of your influence advocates this treatment for cancer as the correct treatment for heresy, the church we know, may very well be on it’s death bed.

    • Joanne,

      It’s not an either/or proposition. The FV cancer needs to be treated AND congregations need good healthy gospel food! Nothing else will empower the church, strengthen her, build her up like the good news that God the Son became incarnate, obeyed for his people, was crucified for them and raised for their justification and that Christ and all his benefits are received by God’s undeserved favor, through trusting in Christ alone.

      Thanks for this encouragement to remember the great healing power of the gospel!

    • Joanne,
      I appreciate your desire to preserve the health of the flock and not to dive into the battle carelessly swinging an axe and leveling everyone in your path. I think what Dr. Clark is advocating is a more careful, surgical approach, for the heath of the body. When a teaching which is contrary to the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity is being promoted in the churches, it is appropriate to take the heed to the apostle’s admonition to the elders at Ephesus and the believers in Rome. This isn’t mean-spirited or careless or even impugning the motives of those who promote teachings contrary to our confessions, but it is pastoral with a deliberate, patient and sensitive approach. Elders must have the foresight to see that what the FV promotes undermines the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.

      The apostle Paul says:
      Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. Acts 20:28-32

      I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. Romans 16:17-19

      Taken at face-value, apostle here seems to pretty radical compared to what Dr. Clark is suggesting. But I think Dr. Clark’s advice is wholly consistent with these warnings and, as I said, pastoral in it’s tenor.

    • Hi Joanne,

      I share your concern for the health of the church, but I take it that the cancerous cells are the false teachers of FV and the healthy cells are pastors who are faithful to the gospel and faithful protectors of their flocks. I don’t see how removing the false shepherds (wolves) could be harmful to the faithful shepherds or how the battle to remove them could harm the body so long as the battle is fought with integrity.

      I’ve observed firsthand how well-meaning family members of mine in both the PCA and the CREC have been seduced by these false doctrines due to the false teaching of wolves masquerading as shepherds (and perhaps the wolves believe they are shepherds.) So far these dear family members are unwilling or unable to discern the nature or magnitude of the danger, so I think that something pretty radical is needed to persuade them to overcome their denial and to protect the flock from elders or others who persist in their denial of the danger.

      I also appreciate your point about the Word and Sacrament. However, every Sunday, these dear family and their friends believe they are receiving the Word from a wolves posing as shepherds, but they are actually receiving intellectually sweet doctrinal poison. They receive the Supper, but it is an elaborate ritual, and they cannot discern the difference.

      That is why we need strong and courageous men of discernment who are willing to stand up for the truth of the gospel and to pay the price which those actions might entail.

  4. Not being a member of the URC, I cannot speak for the theological training of their Ruling Elders. However, I do think that there is in general a de-emphasis on theological acumen and an overemphasis on visible leadership qualities when it comes to choosing Elders in many Reformed churches. As a result, many Sessions and Councils find themselves ill-equipped to deal with heresies such as the FV. What we need is to get back to qualifications for Elders that includes a commitment and an ability to “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to [us],” and to protect the flock from wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  5. “As it happens, the URCs received preliminary treatment for the FV cancer in 2004, after a minister was found to have preached at least one sermon advocating the FV doctrine that, at the judgment, believers shall stand before God partly on the basis of intrinsic, Spirit-wrought sanctity”.

    Stand before God… as in “get there”? Or as in “be judged according to_ as you stand before God”? Important distinction.

    Any way, here is my question. What is to be said about a sermon based on such passages of Scripture that do suggest, even openly assert, that judgment will based on a man’s works, and these being directed at believers? Is the minister to qualify the passage to death? “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God”. Why “himself” if everything can be reduced to ?

    This is not an FV issue, but an exegetical one.

    My concern is that the theological pendulum will swing in the opposite direction, and the sword will be swung by many a listener who are now at odds with anything even smacking of personal responsibility before God. Ministers will now avoid those passages that create the dialectic tensions of the Christian faith just to avoid the label of “FV”.

    Diagnosis is the most difficult aspect of the medical profession. That is why we get second and third opinions.

    • Christopher,

      This is not just an exegetical issue. Preachers and biblical scholars read Scripture in some context, in a social context, in a theological context, in an ecclesiastical context. The Reformed churches have read Scripture (the NPP/FV folk are the first ones ever to read Scripture!) and have read the FV/NPP claims and have rejected them — in light of Scripture.

      Your post reflects the ignorant and arrogant attitude I see frequently among FV/NPP proponents, beginning with Tom Wright who is ignorantly taking a lot of naive (and some willing) folk back to the middle ages without knowing it!

      We ought to preach the whole counsel of God but we ought to do so in light of the whole. Scripture interprets Scripture and when the Reformed churches have interpreted Scripture and confessed that interpretation then her members have a duty to submit to that interpretation. If they think they churches have erred then they have a right and duty to challenge the churches, on the basis of Scripture (sola Scriptura) to change her interpretation.

      We don’t have a right, however, to claim the evangelical and Reformed faith while subverting the fundamental article by which the church stands or falls.

  6. Re Kenneth Kang-Hui

    Excellent point for all church federations. Ruling elders rule, in part, by the teaching function, or the teaching & guarding of The Faith in their shepherding.

    Sometimes (some places) there is an emphasis on “leadership” as if that is the name of the office (in Greek that would archons, or hegoumenoi, not presbyteroi). As long as it’s remembered that leaders = servants acc. to Christ (Luke 22:26, etc), it’s not a problem. But modern business leadership models are not models of servant hood.

    Not to derail this into 2-office/3-office discussion, but… Looking on the PCA from the outside (I’m OPC), the consistent practice of emphasizing labels of RE and TE, does that lead to overly-rigid demarcation of duties. Maybe Dr. Clark can offer a distinct post on this (or not, who needs polity wars). I don’t think this is in RRC.

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