On February 14, 2023 Evangel Presbytery of the PCA overtured the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to petition the United States federal government by saying:
God declares in Sacred Scripture that civil government, no less the Church, is a divine institution and owes its authority to God. The Bible is the supreme revelation of God’s will and teaches that God made man in his own image, male and female, and called his creation good; that God blessed man and woman commanding them to be fruitful and multiply; that children are God’s heritage given a special status of just protection by Christ Jesus before they are capable of choosing good and refusing evil; and that it is scientifically impossible for a male to become a female or a female to become a male. We who love our nation, in the name of God who alone is sovereign in his good and perfect design of men and women, call upon you to renounce the sin of all medical and surgical sex change procedures in minors by the American healthcare system because they result in irreversible harm. The obedience to God, which places us in subjection to your rightful civil authority, requires of us to humbly, boldly and prayerfully proclaim the counsel of God as it bears upon the same God-given authority.
Humbly and respectfully submitted,
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America
If the overture is passed this declaration would be transmitted to the government of the United States. Presumably that includes all three branches (the legislative, judicial, and the executive).
In its last ground, the overture quotes part of Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 31.4. For the sake of our discussion it is useful to quote the article in its entirety:
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
The Westminster Divines wrote and the PCA confesses that the “[s]ynods and councils” of the visible church are to “handle” or “conclude nothing” except that which is “ecclesiastical.” The visible church is “not” to intermeddle with civil affairs, i.e., those things which concern the commonwealth, i.e., everyone and not just the visible church. It grants two exceptions, which exception the presbytery is invoking here: “cases extraordinary” or the church may ask for advice “for satisfaction of conscience” with this proviso: “if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”
What is in question here is not the grounds of the overture, with which I agree entirely and heartily, nor is it the actual petition itself, with which I agree. What is in question is whether the transgender crisis—make no mistake about it, we are in a crisis in the West—constitutes what the Divines had in mind when they wrote “cases extraordinary.”
What did the Divines mean by “cases extraordinary”? A survey of seventeenth-century English Reformed writers, from the period of the Assembly, suggests that it means something like highly unusual but in his Commentary on the Confession of Faith (1870), A. A. Hodge qualified which “cases extraordinary” give grounds to the visible church to petition humbly the civil magistrate for redress. He wrote that the synods “have no right whatever to intermeddle with any affair which concerns the commonwealth; and they have no right to presume to give advice to, or to attempt to influence officers of the civil government in their action as civil officers” except “where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned” (p. 377; emphasis added). Hodge’s qualification narrows which extraordinary cases may justify an appeal by the councils of the church to the magistrate.1
Of course, the terrible events in Nashville this week, in which a transgender person murdered six people make this all the more pressing and pointed. It seems hard to deny that the West generally and the USA in particular is facing a highly unusual situation and, in the case of the Nashville murders, it has touched the visible church or at least a church-related school and the pastor’s family (whose 9-year old daughter was murdered) but this overture was drafted before the murders.
We are arguably facing an unprecedented level of insanity in the West. There are powerful interests in the USA, e.g., the current administration, which seems determined to force acceptance of the transgender agenda. President Biden appointed an obviously male person, who presents himself as female and who calls himself Rachel Levine, as Assistant Secretary of Health. Another transgender appointee, a male who presents himself as female, recently resigned not because he was mentally ill but because he was caught stealing from luggage in airports.
The Presbytery is correct to say that there is a huge surge in the number of reports of gender dysphoria among young people (particularly among young females) and of young people deciding to change their gender (the way they identify and present themselves to the world) and, to the degree possible, their sex. Obviously, surgeons can only do so much.
The question remains, however, does the rise in the number of transgender young people (which one report recently linked to undiagnosed or misdiagnosed cases of autism) affect the visible church so distinctly that it warrants this sort of appeal? The grounds of the overture do not answer this question.
A more precise question is this: are secular civil authorities imposing an undue burden on the visible church regarding transgender persons? One can reasonably foresee a time, not very far away, when the visible church will find herself facing such burdens but is it happening now? The overture does not answer this question either. Absent these answers, the overture does not seem to meet the tests imposed by the Confession of Faith.
Finally, this is not to say that Christians should not be petitioning their government for redress. They should be involved in the experiment of self-governance. The first way they can do that, in the American polity, is to vote for candidates who believe in things like nature and two biological sexes. They can vote for candidates who will not pressure companies and schools to embrace and push radical sexual-revolutionary agendas through policy, executive orders, and legislation. They can vote for legislators who will stand up for Constitutional liberties for all Americans, including religious Americans. They can appear before school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and even the Congress of the United States to argue for sane laws and sane policies that recognize “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God…”. They can run for office to advocate sane policies and laws for their community, their state, and their nation.
In so humbly petitioning the government, Christians are not asking for special privileges nor for the state-establishment of the Church but for laws and policies that reflect the government to which all Americans agreed according to the principles enunciated by the American Founders in the Declaration and in the Constitution. In speaking as individuals or as groups (but not as the visible church) Reformed Christians would be more faithful to the intent of the Confession and probably more effective an achieving a better policy outcome.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. The question has arisen (in the comments) as to whether Hodge was correct. Chad Van Dixhoorn comments on this passage:
These were provisions that the assembly exercised often. They considered their own times and responsibilities to be ‘extraordinary’, and sent many an ‘humble petition’ to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They did indeed have an unusual relationship with the English Parliament and were often required to give their ‘humble advice’ to the civil magistrate. In fact this confession of faith was first entitled The humble advice of the Assembly of divines, now by authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster, concerning a Confession of Faith.
See Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 422. Neither J. V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Crossway, 2014) nor Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009) address this question.
The PCA General Assembly is not sitting at the convocation of the American Congress and has not been required to give “humble advice” to them regarding the Transgender Crisis or about the question of political violence (the subject of an earlier PCA overture, which I criticized on the same grounds). So far, it would seem that Hodge’s judgment stands.
- Subscribe To The Heidelblog!
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Resources On The Twofold Kingdom
- Why We All Need the Spirituality of the Church
- Southern Presbyterians Did Not Invent The Spirituality Of The Church
- Review: Estelle, The Primary Mission Of The Church (Mentor, 2022)
- Hammers And Nails (And PCA Overtures)
- Should The Visible Church, As An Institution, Form And Express An Opinion On Political Violence?
- Resources On The PCA
- Nature Is Nature (And Cloud Cuckoo Land Is Just That)
- Roseanne, Gender Bending, And The War Against Nature
- Resources On LGBTQ And Revoice
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to:
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization
I like A. A. Hodge a lot. He’s a very capable theologian, underrated, and he has a better eye for Westminsterian theology than I do. But is he correct that the “cases extraordinary” only applies to cases where the church’s immediate interests are concerned? That’s a possible interpretation; is it the right one? There’s no doubt the U.S. and West are in a *highly unusual* stage, which you say is what some 17th century English writers indicate the phrase might mean. Your precise question about imposing an undue burden as the criteria for invoking WCF 31.4 hinges on an interpretation like Hodge’s, but I’d like to see evidence that Hodge is correct in his understanding before saying Evangel Presbytery gets the Confession wrong.
As always, I enjoy your historical perspective on Reformed doings.
If the choices are, 1) it means whatever we need it to mean; 2) it has a relatively restricted meeting, as Hodge explains, and as I saw in my survey of sources from the period, I am going with number two.
If it doesn’t mean what Hodge says it does then where does the church stop with statements? There are a lot of people dying of fentanyl. This is a great crisis facing the USA. On what basis, given the broader interpretation of “cases, extraordinary,” could one restrict the visible church from speaking to that?
If you look in the resources of this article, you will see that I also opposed the overture proposing to ask the PCA to speak to political violence. I oppose that on the same grounds.
The modern history of Presbyterianism is that once you open this door you will regret it.
There are internal reasons within the confession, which also push in the direction of the narrow interpretation. Parliament was not interested in hearing from the Divines or from the church about every policy question. They did not need the divines to tell them about whether to go to war against Ireland or Scotland. They did want the divines to tell them if they thought that the magistrates were impinging on their ministry in the church.
Thanks for the reply Dr. Clark. I’ll say that I didn’t expect the bruhaha this post seems to have gotten on social media!
Leaving aside the slippery slope (I agree with you on the danger on that count), I think there is a third option: WCF 31.4 means something different than Hodge, but not whatever we want. “Highly unusual” may not be as limited as effecting the church’s immediate interests, but it is still a limiting principle. Another possible reading (no historical basis in this suggestion, but as far as I know neither does Hodge’s reading) is that “cases extraordinary” refers to situations that are highly unusual or severe deviations from God’s word wherein the government is perpetrating the deviation or not acting to correct it.
In my denomination, the EPC, our position paper on abortion urges “the promotion of
legislation that brings our judicial and legal systems into line with the scriptural view on
protecting the poor, the weak, and the defenseless.” Often when we adopt position papers, such as the one on abortion, we communicate (petition?) the government with copies of that. In 1996, for instance, we formally registered with the White House our condemnation of President Clinton vetoing a partial-birth abortion ban. Under Hodge’s reading, this is undue meddling in civil affairs. In the reading I provided as an example, it meets the standard of cases extraordinary.
Now, perhaps Hodge is right. But it is possible (and probably likely) that the Westminster divines had a broader view of cases extraordinary than Hodge. “Highly unusual”. Perhaps Hodge’s view is more prudent or more biblical, but that’s a separate argument than he is correct in his historical interpretation.
I’ve offered some evidence that Hodge is correct (or at least my assessment of the evidence). What evidence do you have that Hodge is wrong?
I appreciate you taking the time to respond, and for the addition of Van Dixhoorn’s commentary. I don’t dispute that cases extraordinary should be, well, extra-ordinary. Yes, the internal logic of the Confession leads to a conclusion that only extraordinary situations should prompt a response from the church, and yes, the Assembly was together by order of Parliament and asked to weigh in on issues far too often. But none of this answers the question: What constitutes a case extraordinary? Nothing about Van Dixhoorn’s commentary rules out the position of G. I. Williamson that is shared here.
I have found this an enjoyable and edifying conversation, thanks for hosting it!
Didn’t Hodge answer your question: when it impinges uniquely on the church, particularly upon her liberty to conduct her ministry. I promise you that the PCA will rue the day, should it decide to go down this path—I doubt this overture will get anywhere at GA—opening the door to a slew of social statements by the church. The PCA can become the PCUSA. People want the church to speak to their issues. The temptation is almost irresistible.
I have always found Hodge’s commentary on WCF 31.4 to be particularly helpful in cases like this. The government is not restricting the church from teaching against the sin of transgenderism, nor is it forbidding the church from disciplining members over this matter, or forcing it to accept openly transgender persons into communicant membership. Of course, there may (perhaps even likely) come a time where the government does interfere in the church in these ways. If/when that time comes, that will be the appropriate time for a petition.
I also think some of the language in the overture is problematic, because it seems to presuppose a theocracy. The overture seeks to petition the government to “renounce the sin” of child sex changes. While this is undoubtedly a grievous sin, it doesn’t follow biblically that it’s therefore proper for the government to renounce it. That would first require the government to determine what is and is not sinful. And if that’s indeed a valid biblical duty of the civil magistrate, then surely they ought to renounce all manifestations of sin.
Your point re the gov’t making a judgment re sin is well taken. Thank you.
Per 1 Peter 2:-14, if governments are to punish evil doers, then how are they to avoid making determinations on sins that should be deemed criminal?
Of course magistrates make moral decisions. The question isn’t whether but who sort of moral decisions and on what basis? To answer those questions we must answer some other questions:
Who was Caesar when Peter wrote 1 Peter? Who was Caesar when Paul wrote Romans 13? On what basis did the apostles expect Caesar to govern?
Hey @RScottClark, could you give some examples throughout history and in our present time that arise to “cases extraordinary?” Thanks!
Arguably the decision by some governors/mayors to close churches for an extended period of time, when other public venues were open, was closer to what the Divines had in mind than the Trans crisis or than the overture re political violence. As I said re the overture on political violence, and as I’m saying re this one, this is the path to the PCUSA.
There are a lot of important and socially damaging things happening in the West. That’s not in question. Whether Christians individually or corporately should speak to them is not in question. Whether ministers may speak to them, as appropriate to their biblical text for the sermon, may speak to them is not in question.
What is in question whether the assemblies of the visible church are authorized to speak to them. We’ve live in a blessed age in the Modern period since we’ve not faced the sorts of restrictions that our forefathers faced in the 16th and 17th centuries. When Elizabeth I acceded to the throne, she shut down preaching for 2 years. Before that, Bishops, with the authority of the crown, tried to impose priestly vestments. The crown obviously tried impose the BCP and King’s Book of Sport and the like. All these rose to the level of “cases extraordinary,” where the magistrate interfered directly with the life and worship of the church as church.
Thus, the magistrate’s decision women in combat or removing “don’t ask, don’t tell” doesn’t meet the tests set by the divines.
People are understandably upset by the shootings, as they should be but it is the job of ecclesiastical assemblies to cool those passions and to deliberate calmly.
We should also ask ourselves this question: which apostolic assembly petitioned the Roman government to stop murdering Christians? I’m not saying that the church couldn’t petition but I’m unaware of any such petition. That’s interesting. I know Justin wrote a famous letter to the emperor c. AD 150. Perhaps that counts.
Ps. I’ve added a footnote quoting Van Dixhoorn’s commentary on this very question.
I recommend John Murray’s work “Principles of Conduct” Aspects of Biblical Ethics – especially Cpt 3 ‘The Marriage Ordinance and Procreation’
Can you connect that chapter to this discussion?
Did you list among the ways Christians address the magistrate that they can run for and hold office? It’s one thing to focus on what the church can and cannot do, but that doesn’t prohibit Christians from being part of civil government.
Thank you! This is great point.
In his chapter on WCF XXXI in his The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes (Second Edition), G.I. Williamson says, “There are, however, two instances in which the Church may concern itself with civil matters. (1) When the State presents a direct threat to the spiritual concerns of the Church, the latter has the right to speak on the matter as an organized body. This happened in recent years when certain laws were passed which attempted to silence what the Bible says about homosexual sin. In both San Francisco and the State of New Jersey the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had no choice but to speak out-to the state-for satisfaction of conscience. It said to the State-and properly we maintain-that it must continue to denounce what the Bible denounces.” (pp. 327)
The action in San Francisco that Williamson refers to is a Resolution from the Presbytery of Northern California, (there were also separate and related public comments at the time in the press). The communication included below was commended at the 71st general assembly.
Presbytery of the Northern California March 27,2004
RESOLUTION AGAINST THE CONDUCTING OF SO-CALLED “HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGES”
Resolution: to the Honorable Mayor of San Francisco and all other California public officials who have violated God’s law and the law of the State of California in this issue of so-called “homosexual marriages”;
Whereas mayors and all public officials are called in the Scriptures” ministers of God” to uphold God’s holy ordinances (Romans 13:1-7);
Whereasthe Scriptures define marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6);
Whereas it is our duty as ministers and ruling elders of the church of Jesus Christ to exhort all men everywhere to follow God’s laws;
Whereas it is our duty as the ministers and ruling elders of Christ’s church to defend God’s holy ordinance of matrimony;
Whereasthe Mayor of the City of San Francisco ordered the County of San Francisco to provide for the unlawful so-called marriage of homosexuals (i.e., issuing illegal marriage licenses which arbitrarily change the meaning of marriage);
Whereas the Mayor of the City of San Francisco and the County of San Francisco have defied God’s law and the laws of the State of California about who may be married in this State; Whereas now public officials and municipalities in other cities and counties have joined in this unlawful re-definition of marriage and family, and have either recognized or performed illegal so-called homosexual marriages;
Therefore we, the Presbytery of Northern California of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church do call mayors and other public officials who have violated God’s law and the law of the State of California in this issue of so-called homosexual marriage to repent and to forsake this rebellious denigration of the law of God and instead uphold and support God’s holy ordinance of marriage and family rightly defined in our state laws as “one man and one woman”;
And that this Resolution be circulated to the Presbyteries of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to the 71st General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to anyone else we believe ought to know of our church’s stand on this issue of marriage and family.
May God have mercy on the Church for not speaking out on this momentous issue and the State for not upholding God’s holy ordinances.
For Christ’s honor and the defense of the family, The Presbytery of Northern California of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Adopted on March 19, 200
OPC Minutes – 71st General Assembly – June 2004 (opcgaminutes.org)
Williamson mentions the New Jersey case, which was a lawsuit by the Presbytery of NJ, Calvary OPC and Rev. David Cummings vs. the Governor and other officials of New Jersey seeking to bar enforcement of a 1992 anti-discrimination law.
The Presbytery of New Jersey of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a New Jersey Corporation…, 40 F.3d 1454 – CourtListener.com
The 59th OPC GA in 1992 asked for an explanation of the lawsuit and how it was in conformity with the standards and received and accepted a 20 page letter from the Presbytery of New Jersy at the 60th GA in 1993.
The Presbytery of New Jersey Addressed “in cases extraordinary” on page 346 of the GA Minutes from 1993:
“The church may, “in cases extraordinary,’’ by “humble petition” intermeddle in civil affairs even though they concern the whole commonwealth. The Presbyterian church in the past has done this by petitioning the state to enforce the fourth commandment, prohibit abortion on demand, and enforce biblical standards in the laws pertaining to marriage and divorce. In all of these cases, the church concluded that these matters ecclesiastical were important enough for it to urge the state to enforce them upon the entire commonwealth. What the PNJ is doing is actually less than this traditional understanding of “humble petition.” It is not asking the court to set aside the Law against Discrimination (on the basis of “sexual orientation or affection”) for the entire commonwealth. Instead, it is only asking for a waiver from the Federal Court stating that the law does not apply to us. Though the church has a right in cases extraordinary to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, the PNJ does not, in this case, do anything of the sort.”
OPC Minutes – 60th General Assembly – June 1993 (opcgaminutes.org)
The problem with the overture and GIW’s analysis is the ambiguous phrase “silence what the Bible says.”
If pagan legisilatures disagreeing with God’s Word is grounds for the assemblies of the church petitioning the magistrate, well, we’ll have to make our assemblies much longer, since they do that frequently.
Of course pagans ignore Scripture but we don’t see the apostolic church complaining to Roman empire about the empire’s ungodly policies. We don’t even see the post-AD 65 apostolic era church petitioning for relief from Nero’s murder of Roman Christians. We don’t see any such thing in re: Domitian et al. Justin Martyr asked for relief, which any minister is free to do. There may have been a post-apostolic assembly that petitioned the Roman government for relief but I don’t know that there was. Killing Christians would be a just cause for the church to petition for relief. The interference by the magistrate in the life of the church (e.g., the unequal covid lockdowns wherein the church was locked down but the casino wasn’t) is a ground but “you’re not upholding the Bible” is not a ground.
The 1992 anti-discrimination case might be a stronger example. When the state interferes with the liberty of the church, then the church has grounds for petitioning I doubt, however, the reading of the confession that says that a humble petition (1993) is “intermeddling.” The Confession says that the church can’t intermeddle but she can petition.
Perhaps this sheds some light on A.A. Hodge’s view:
“An active spokesman against the dangers of nationalized government-sponsored public education based upon a foundation of scientific naturalism, A. A. Hodge supported an amendment to the United States Constitution that would affirm recognition of the lordship of Jesus Christ over the United States government.”
Someone made a version of this argument to me on Twitter. I don’t think it works:
1) It’s an attempt to build a circumstantial case around what he actually said and thereby change what he said
2) Even under the National Covenant, which would be un-American and the start of another war (there’s are several reasons we have a second Amendment) the spirituality of the church stands. Kevin DeYoung made that argument in his essay defending the spirituality of the church, which is linked in the resources below the post.
“We’ve live in a blessed age in the Modern period since we’ve not faced the sorts of restrictions that our forefathers faced in the 16th and 17th centuries.”
“We.” I assume that you clearly mean the Western Church? (From your dates, I immediately thought of the bloody English Civil War and the American Revolutionary War, which are unpleasant reminders that religious liberty came at a dear cost).
I am working my way through Rod Dreher’s “Live Not By Lies.” I downloaded the audiobook from my local library, so it’s readily available.
The first chapter is about Father Kolakovic, who who was an anti-fascist activist in Croatia, and in 1943 fled to Czechoslovakia. He started warning Slovak Catholics that when the war ended, Czechoslovakia would fall to the Soviets, and he dedicated himself to preparing them for persecution.
In 1948, the communists seized total power and brutalized the church into submission. The people he’d taught well began emerging from prison in the 1960s, and set up the underground church. In 1988, they organized a protest for religious liberty which kicked off the Velvet Revolution, which brought down the communist regime a year later.
This is my question: do you think what became the Soviet satellite churches were prepared for the persecution that would last for decades? And would this be a “case extraordinary?” Should all the churches have started preparing like the Czech church?
Do we wait until the overwhelming tsunami has crushed all of us and our children, or do we think about ways to equip the church, and quickly?
This week, in an update confirmed from the Burton Valley Elementary school in Calfiornia, in order to honor “International Day of Visilbility,” children Kindergarten through fifth grade will read “It Feels Good to be Yourself” by Theressa Thorn.
“This is Ruthie. She’s a transgender girl,” reads the first line of the book. “That means when she was born, everyone thought she was a boy. Until she grew a little older — old enough to tell everyone that she’s actually a girl.”
“See, when you were born, you couldn’t tell people who you were or how you felt. They looked at you and made a guess. Maybe they got it right, maybe they got it wrong.”
Original source from the school: https://tinyurl.com/mr2pn46d
Pastors who are reading this,
Is your church equipped? Does your congregation even know about this, or are they avoiding difficult conversations because they are “too political?”
These young kids in public schools will have their brains scrambled by this lie. I cannot imagine being taught that when I was a child of five years old and surviving mentally. Can you?
And when millions of these young people grow up, will the church finally be flattened, at last? Will any of us be able to keep a job, a small business, or serve in academia? Should we fight even a little to rescue kids from this, or keep hiding from it? Or will we say, “Oh, I guess that *was* a “case extraordinary.”
I agree with you.
I wrote, in this article, to an issue in the Presbyterian Church in America. I tried to make that clear and I even wrote “in the West” more than once but to be perfectly clear, I had a very specific context in view. I’m reasonably aware of the suffering of the global church and we publish on that topic. Check our our library on the global church.
I appreciate the dialogue on this. A few thoughts on answer to your reply.
Point: The problem with the overture and GIW’s analysis is the ambiguous phrase “silence what the Bible says.”
Answer: I’m not sure that’s really that ambiguous. The worldy government officials hold a different set of beliefs and they are attempting to impose on the Church this other set of beliefs by 1) legal pressure 2) cultural pressure to convince the church to soften (ex. side B) and ultimately to silence by replacing truth for a lie. (Ex. Side A)
At it’s core the Transgender movements belief system is a denial of creation and the Creator, both as expressed in Scripture and nature. It posits that man decides our sex and that we can create and recreate it as we wish and that our creation is good. It’s a heresy that is being enshrined into the law AND being used to not only target the Church’s doctrine but it’s practice, its members (visible and invisible) and innocents whom the Church is obliged to aid.
Ex. In Michigan last year the state Supreme Court rewrote civil rights law to change the definition of “sex” from meaning male or female to include sexual orientation and identity. Then the voters of the state adopted Prop 3 (the Constitutional abortion amendment) which is written broadly enough it could be interpreted to create a right to transgender “treatment” even in minors. Recently they amended the state civil rights law to include “gender identity and expression” as protected classes and specifically rejected amendments to protect the church.
Point: If pagan legisilatures disagreeing with God’s Word is grounds for the assemblies of the church petitioning the magistrate, well, we’ll have to make our assemblies much longer, since they do that frequently.
Answer: This is a prudential question. Clearly there needs to be a balance. One of the reasons we believe in a plurality of Elders and church councils is that we seek wisdom by the operations of these bodies.
The responsible handling of church business seems like one of many reasons to maintain Biblical standards for Eldership in addition to tradition distinctive additional safeguards.
I also don’t think “pagan legislatures disagreeing with God’s Word,” is a fair characterization of the field of battle. We are seeing magistrates from the highest at the national level, to the lowest at the local level institution laws (including largely unaccountable bureaucratic bodies), policies and enforcement decisions, that is enshrining the gender heresy into law and culture.
Point: Of course pagans ignore Scripture but we don’t see the apostolic church complaining to Roman empire about the empire’s ungodly policies. We don’t even see the post-AD 65 apostolic era church petitioning for relief from Nero’s murder of Roman Christians. We don’t see any such thing in re: Domitian et al. Justin Martyr asked for relief, which any minister is free to do. There may have been a post-apostolic assembly that petitioned the Roman government for relief but I don’t know that there was. Killing Christians would be a just cause for the church to petition for relief. The interference by the magistrate in the life of the church (e.g., the unequal covid lockdowns wherein the church was locked down but the casino wasn’t) is a ground but “you’re not upholding the Bible” is not a ground.
Answer: I defer to your expertise on Church history. I would simply note that the historical record does have gaps.
It’s interesting this feels more like a common law argument, as compared to the textualism argument based on the WCF text.
Is it fair to say that if both government structure and operation, as well as Church polity and how it communicates can change over time and that this may make it more likely for councils to interact to different degrees and on different subjects with those governments?
Again I think, “you’re not upholding the Bible” misstates the case and also could accidently mislead folks about the magistrates duties.
It feels like your analysis of these questions presupposes an exceptionally constrained ecclesiastical sphere and an exceptionally expansive civil sphere with a hard wall of separation in between. The issue is that in that wall live folks like Rahab, the interests and jurisdiction of the church and the state overlap and where friction occurs. An overly deferential church (i.e. not asserting itself when it’s within both jurisdiction and prudence) would seem to me to make the civil sphere begin to operate like the federal government in our current political system does under the Supremacy Clause.
In my reading I came across Blackstone’s commentary on warrants, where he uses parallel language to “cases extraordinary.” He posits that in “extraordinary cases” while the right to issue arrest warrants rests ordinarily in justices of the peace, that the Privy Council and secretary of state may issue arrest warrants if they also have jurisdiction. Folks may be reading too much into “extraordinary.”
That’s the root of the question and why I think Hodge is emphasizing and analyzing the question on the wrong element.
If the Evangel Presbytery offers facially valid reasons that the transgender movement enshrining child abuse in law and practice is both in the ecclesiastical sphere and the civil sphere, then it should be consider appropriate to consider issuing the communication from the assembly.
Then it returns to prudential questions such as: if the issue is significant enough so that the Church doesn’t go the mainline commenting on everything and being ignored route, if the Church is largely unified in opinion and understanding, is there a better way to speak on the issue, etc.
The 1992 anti-discrimination case might be a stronger example. When the state interferes with the liberty of the church, then the church has grounds for petitioning I doubt, however, the reading of the confession that says that a humble petition (1993) is “intermeddling.” The Confession says that the church can’t intermeddle but she can petition.
Answer: Interestingly I think both OPC examples were more strident than the Overture which is measured and grounded in facts.
I think we disagree about what the civil magistrate should be doing.
Can you imagine the Synod of Jerusalem petitioning Nero to do what the presbytery asked San Francisco to do. I can’t.
I looked at DeYoung’s article. He says, “The spirituality of the church was not, for Hodge, an injunction to stay silent on matters clearly addressed in the Scriptures.”
Surely transgenderism is a matter clearly addressed in Scripture.
If transgenderism had become an issue in the 1800s, it is hard to imagine all the American churches staying silent, particularly when the leading Protestants of the day supported Sabbath laws, blasphemy laws, and presidents calling for national acts of humiliation and prayer.
It’s not question of whether Christians should stay silent. I don’t think they should. Take 10 minutes and take a look around the Heidelblog. Take look at the resources on the LGBTQ issue. Take a look at the two conferences I’ve helped to host featuring Rosario Butterfield. Am I staying silent? Are there not lectures, sermons, articles, and interviews on this topic and others like it? I’m a Christian and I’m not staying silent. So, either I’m a hypocrite or I don’t believe that Christians should be silent about this. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I’m not a hypocrite. In that case, we must be misunderstanding each other.
What’s at stake here is not whether Christians should be silent but whether God has ordained the visible church, as an institution to speak to the magistrate about his or other such issues.
I’m arguing that he has not obviously ordained the church, as an institution, to speak to such issues, that this issue doesn’t meet the test set by WCF 31.
But I think Christians should speak up and that’s why i concluded the essay by giving examples of ways in Christian Christians may speak up individually and as groups. Christians could form 5012(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organizations to oppose the Trans campaign for acceptance and normalization. That would be a fine thing to do. Christians may and should lobby their legislatures and their library boards, and their school boards, and their city councils to restrict the normalization of pedophilia, the trans-agenda etc.
Christians should vote and run for office.
The only thing I’m arguing here is that the church, as an institution, is not licensed to petition the magistrate on this.
Why do Christians feel the need to enlist the visible to church to address every social issue that comes down the pike? How, if the PCA does this, will it not become the PCUSA, with 125 (literally) social pronouncements? Have PCAers concluded that it’s okay for the PCUSA to do this if only they were on the correct side of the issues? Is that what the church is now, an agency for social change? I don’t think that’s what the Lord Jesus had in mind in Matt 16 (keys of the kingdom) or Matt 18.
Have you read the PCA BCO on the spirituality of the church? It’s quite a good statement.
I really appreciate you taking the time to explain your position. I will continue to read the many useful resources on your website. I wasn’t able to find the PCA BCO on the spirituality of the Church, so if you could post a link I would appreciate it.
I completely agree that the Church can get entangled in speaking about social and national problems to the neglect of the gospel.
My concern is that saying only Christians as individuals can speak on moral and social issues – and not the Church as an institution – unnecessarily limits the Church as *a witness for the truth.*
Christ said He come into this world to bear witness to the truth. Did He only mean gospel truth, and never moral truth?
He once rebuked Herod as a “fox”. If the Head of the Church can rebuke a civil magistrate – a leading representative of a civil government – why cannot His body, the pillar and ground of the truth – do the same on just and necessary occasion?
Doesn’t the Church, as an institution, publicly instruct, exhort, and warn the civil magistrate when it sings Psalm 82 in public worship? If the church in its public assembly for worship can exhort civil rulers, why can’t its public, ecclesiastical assembly of church rulers do the same?
These are honest questions, and I want to pose them with due respect to your office.
P.S. As you know, in the 1800s the Church’s worship services (and sermons) were covered by the local press. The Church spoke to the nation and its government both through public worship and through its governing assemblies.
In a society that is more favorable to Christianity, when a moral issue is convulsing the nation, the public wants to know not just the private opinions of various Christians, but the position of the Church as a body.
Here is the PCA BCO
There were a lot of grave social issues, including versions of transvestitism, in pagan Greco-Roman culture. Abortion, slavery, sexual abuse, homosexuality etc. ad naus. As I keep saying, I don’t see any evidence of a church assembly speaking to them.
Jesus’ rebuke re Herod is hardly an ecclesiastical pronouncement. That seems like a stretch.
Who says that the church should not preach moral truth.
Again, we’re talking about the church petitioning the government. I’m not restricting what ministers can preach. They should preach the whole counsel of God.
The US Federal Gov’t isn’t the Israelite theocracy.
You say that the Church is not licensed to petition a magistrate. I’m interested to know whether you believe a Church may place a magistrate under church discipline for actions taken in his capacity as a magistrate. Can a local church initiate the Matthew 18 process with a State Senator who votes in favor of abortion, gay marriage, and child gender mutilation surgery?
To be clear, I’m not arguing that the church, as an institution, may never petition the government for relief. I’m only calling attention to the qualifying clause, “cases extraordinary,” and how we should understand that. Hodge’s commentary seems to limit those things on which the church has a right to petition the government.
There are instances where magistrates have been disciplined for actions taken as magistrate. Ambrose of Milan excommunicated Theodosius I for the murder (war crime) of thousands of Thessalonians in retaliation for the killing of one of one of his generals. He accepted the discipline and demonstrated a sufficiently penitent spirit that he was restored.
M personal attitude would be to give the magistrate wide latitude in the conduct of his office. Were Hitler a member of the church, he would face discipline for mass murder. Were Nancy Pelosi a member of my congregation, would I insist that repent of her advocacy of abortion or face excommunication? I might. Abortion is murder and it is a gross sin. Were she impenitently getting an abortion, she would face discipline certainly. Advocating murder as a policy position, is problematic to say the least. This might seem like a clear-cut thing but what about Trueman’s order to drop nuclear bombs on Japan? There are anti-war leftists who would say, “absolutely! Discipline him!” But I would defend Trueman’s decision. He saved a million lives of American military personnel and a huge number of Japanese lives.
Once we start disciplining people for policy decisions, made in good faith (a big assumption that) we really do risk getting on a slippery slope.
I’m strongly opposed to, as you say, mutilation masquerading as surgery. In England, the physicians and clinics that pushed this nonsense are facing serious financial repercussions. I don’t know if they are facing any legal consequences since they did it under the NHS.
Legislators may be very, deeply wrong and yet truly believe that they are helping people. I think people who support such procedures for minors (or even most adults) are quite misinformed but are they sinful such that they are subject to church discipline? I would have to be persuaded of that.
I would prefer to handle this as a civil matter, i.e., to campaign against this person, to try to persuade them to change their minds etc.
A legislator who voted in favor of child mutilation (e.g., “gender re-assignment surgery” as a treatment for dysphoria) probably has a bad Christian anthropology and needs instruction in the faith and in science.
Where exactly do we draw the line once we go down this road? When does a policy difference become sin? What happens the church becomes, in this way, yet another political tool to get a desired policy outcome? “Vote my way or face church discipline” seems like just another way to use the church.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the insistence that the church be a lobby group for a policy position is lazy. There are lots of ways for Christians to pursue policy outcomes. They can join existing groups to support their efforts. They can run for office. They can vote. They can form new pressure groups. I keep saying (as I said in the article) Christians ought to be involved. It’s a mistake for Christians to withdraw from the secular world, as tempting as that is sometimes.
It seems to me, historically considered, that the church has had a very difficult time fulfilling the very simple mission that Christ gave to her: to make disciples by preaching the whole counsel of God, the use the sacraments, and to reach the world with the gospel. I don’t think the church can be a good pressure group and fulfill her divine vocation.