Jake Meador has published an essay arguing the “conversations”—a euphemism for debates that should be retired immediately—in the PCA surrounding same-sex attracted, celibate ministers (the so-called “Side B” approach to homosexuality) “should begin to move on to newer, better frames…”. He calls the PCA and others to “form stronger church communities,” that are more welcoming to singles in order to recover the traditional Christian sexual ethic, including an appreciation for celibate singles. He calls on same-sex attracted Christians to to appreciate and learn from the Christian tradition on sexuality and theorizes “we’re all basically going to either end up burnt out or forming more intensive Bruderhof Lite type Christian communities.” If you guessed that the Bruderhof communities are German-American Anabaptist versions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, you guessed correctly. These are quasi-monastic, communal societies (which include families rather than only single, celibate Christians) which include the Anabaptist practice of having all things in common.
He complains that the “conversation” in the PCA over Side B is “stuck” because it is polarized by 5% on the left wing and by 10% on the right wing. He gives no example of the “left” (his language) in the PCA but he names the Gospel Reformation Network as an example of the “right” in the PCA. The reader cannot help but notice the absence of the National Partnership in his left-right taxonomy.
According to Meador, the remaining 85% in the blessed middle of the PCA should use the PCA GA Committee’s Ad Interim Report (2020) on Human Sexuality and the ACNA Bishops’ Statement as the road map to the way forward. That way also includes ignoring the “right” (i.e., the GRN) and the left (the National Partnership?) and focusing on the local church, thereby rebuilding trust.
The Good, The Bad, And The Absent
His call for the church to be more intentional toward and inclusive of Christian singles is well taken. In reaction to the sexual revolutions in the modern and post-modern West, the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) denominations have tended to become a refuge for the nuclear family. This is understandable but the focus in P&R congregations on “the family” tends to make singles a third wheel. One does not hear very often about the virtues of being single yet Paul rather strongly advocates the single life for Christians (1 Cor 7:17–40). Singleness is a gift not a curse. Singles are free to serve the church and the kingdom in a way, as Paul says, that the married are not.
It is true that the Christian life is lived in the local church. Laity and ruling elders ought to be principally connected to the local church. It is the session that oversees their spiritual well being and the minister who visits them in hospital, preaches the gospel, and administers to them the holy sacraments. However valuable magazines (e.g., Mere Orthodoxy and the Heidelblog) are, they are not the church. At their best, they are aids to the church and nothing more.
Some of what Meador supposes is simply wrong. Is a Bruderhof communal existence a viable option for Reformed Christians? In Belgic Confession art. 36, as revised by the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Reformed churches confess: “we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.” It is true that the Bruderhof communities are voluntary, which distinguishes them from some of the original Anabaptist communities, but it is also true that the Reformed churches reject the community of goods as envisioned by the Anabaptists and we reject also the view of nature and grace which drives their view of community. For the Anabaptists, as for most American evangelicals, grace (in this case eschatology) wipes out nature. In short, they have an over-realized eschatology. It is that which drives separatism.
What Dreher and Meador are envisioning, in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, is not life after Christendom but a retreat into micro-Christendoms. It is true that the monastic movements emerged in Egypt fairly early in the history of the church (third century), but it also true that the monastic movements, for all the good they did in preserving and transmitting knowledge, were a cul-de-sac from which the Reformation rescued us. In classical Protestant terms, a “Lutheran nun” is an oxymoron.
Against the Anabaptists, the Reformed orthodox formally affirmed the Thomistic maxim that grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it. To be sure, it seems to me that that meant something rather different from what Thomas (because of the influence of Pseudo Dionysius and Albert the Great) meant by it. Nevertheless, the Reformed rejected the Anabaptist view of nature and grace. We also rejected the Anabaptist quasi-monastic retreat into communities (however attractive such a thing might seem at times). Most of the early Christians lived in the midst of the pagans. This much is clearly indicated in Ad Diognetum (c. AD 150), ch. 5:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. (2) For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. (3) This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. (4) But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (5) They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. (6) They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. (7) They share their food but not their wives. (8) They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” (9) They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. (10) They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. (11) They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. (12) They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. (13) They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. (14) They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. (15) They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. (16) When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. (17) By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility (Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: English Translations, Baker).
Beyond the implied view of nature and grace, Meador neglects the fact that, in P&R churches, the local congregation is part of a regional church (Presbytery) and the national church (General Assembly). What happens at presbytery (e.g., the Missouri Presbytery’s refusal to discipline Greg Johnson or Jeff Meyers—on these cases see the resources below) and General Assembly ultimately affects the local congregation. Consider those “conservative” PCUSA congregations who remained in the PCUSA in the 1920s and 30s. How conservative are they today? History tells us that it was not possible for individual congregations to remain conservative in a denomination that had practically given up the standards.
The most objectionable aspect of Meador’s analysis, however, is the “frame” (his word) in which he casts the current debates. He makes the GRN into the bad guys and gives a pass to the formerly secret and highly political National Partnership.
It may be that 85% of the PCA is in middle with Meador but it may not be. One might wonder where Meador would have positioned himself in the PCUSA controversy of the 1920s and 30s. J. Gresham Machen was certainly regarded by the evangelical moderates (e.g., Charles Erdman) as part of the noisy 10% on the right. When what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church split from the PCUSA, they were but a fraction of the mainline body. Who was right in 1929 or 1936? Machen, the Mainline, or the Moderates? History has rather clearly vindicated Machen. The moderates were swallowed up or bought off. The mainliners have become everything that Machen warned about and more.
Finally, regular readers of this space might be able to guess what is missing from Meador’s analysis. However valuable the PCA’s Ad Interim report on human sexuality might be, not a single teaching elder (minister) in the PCA has sworn to uphold and defend it. No one even has to take an exception to it at presbytery. As valuable as it is intrinsically, it has no formal authority as an ecclesiastical document. Whatever moral and teaching force it has, ultimately it is nothing but pious advice. We know this from the fate of the GA committee report on the Federal Vision. That was a fine piece of work, but did it lead to the actual conviction of any federal visionists in the PCA? Did it cause federal vision advocates to leave the PCA? The statement on sexuality by the bishops of the Anglican Communion of North America has its virtues but it it is even more remote from the PCA.
There are documents, however, to which the PCA is obligated theologically and practically, which do serve as a disciplinary standard. Every minister swears the following regarding the Westminster Standards (confession and catechisms): “I do sincerely receive and subscribe to the above obligation as a just and true exhibition of my faith and principles, and do resolve to exercise my ministry in conformity thereunto” (BCO, 13-7).
When a minister subscribes the Westminster Standards, he subscribes the very same traditional Christian sexual ethic that Meador commends. Every minister and ruling elder is bound to that ethic and to its doctrine of humanity (theological anthropology) and to its doctrine of sanctification. What is in question is whether those who advocate or who want to tolerate the Side-B approach to sexuality in the PCA actually understand and believe what the PCA confesses?
Indeed, one of the most basic issues facing the PCA is the status of her confession of the Word. Since 2002, when the PCA adopted the “good faith” approach to subscribing the Standards, she took a significant step toward marginalizing the very thing that is intended to address the issues that she and all churches face: the standards.
The way forward for the PCA (and any other P&R church) is not to lose its soul, i.e., its confession, but to embrace that confession. I dearly wish that every P&R minister and teaching elder would ready D. G. Hart’s, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2004). In it Hart explained what actually happened to the mainline churches. They did not “go liberal.” They became broadly evangelical. There were outstanding liberals in the mainline, but the people who made the difference in the direction of the mainline churches was not the liberals but the broad evangelicals who were indifferent to the role of the confession in the life of the church.
There is no reason to repeat the mistakes of the past and no reason to expect that if the PCA does the same things, for the same reasons to expect a different outcome.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- Heidelcast 53: The Story Of The Meyers Case And State Of The FV Controversy (Pt 1)
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