Posted on Wednesday, May 04, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

When Willie Philip led his congregation out of the Church of Scotland in 2012, he asked if I would write to the Presbytery of Glasgow, to plead with them to be reasonable over the legal issues surrounding the building.  Willie and I had then known each other for nigh on twenty-five years, since the time my girlfriend (now wife) and I would borrow his VW beetle with the insane clutch control and lack of brakes to take the kids from Bon Accord Free Church of Scotland Youth Club to the local swimming baths.  He and I did not see eye to eye with regards to the C of S evangelical strategy and had indeed clashed angrily over it on a number of occasions.  But I wrote the letter out of respect and affection for an old friend caught in a very tight spot and taking a tough stand.  I did warn him that the Presbytery would simply tell me (politely) to get knotted.  And guess what?  They simply told me (politely) to get knotted.   It somehow seemed to capture the moment -- the moment which a new book from Banner of Truth, A Sad Departure: Why we could not stay in the Church of Scotland by David J. Randall, explains with great insight.

 

 

The book is a sober and poignantly personal read for me.  I recognize the names of many friends and former students in the narrative.  Some were fellow students in Aberdeen in the late 80s.  Others I later taught at Nottingham and, again, in Aberdeen.  I little knew what tough stands and sacrifices they would be called upon to make within a few decades.  Still less did any of us have any inkling that homosexuality would be the issue upon which they would leave the Kirk.  And I still enjoy cordial relationships with some of those who chose to stay. There are good men on both sides, even though my sympathy lies very much with those who separated.

 

 

At the heart of the recent departures has been the series of actions by the General Assembly which has moved the Kirk towards legitimizing homosexuality.   There are various pieces to this.  Most notoriously, the transfer and installation of an openly gay minister in a congregation in the Aberdeen Presbytery in 2009 caused a storm of protest.  Ironically, of course, he was already an ordained minister (though his ordination had occurred before the issues with his sexuality had emerged) and had not been defrocked when he decided to leave his wife and then enter into an openly gay relationship.   This case was followed by years of attempting to square the circle, speciously appeasing the conservatives while yet giving the liberals all that they wanted.  During this time there was a steady stream of departures, culminating in the Big Beasts of C of S evangelicalism – churches like St. George’s-Tron in Glasgow  and Gilcomston South in Aberdeen -- taking their leave of the Kirk in 2012 and 2013 respectively.  Some have joined the Free Kirk, some have kissed the Pope of Ealing's ring and united with the International Presbyterian Church, some have gone independent.

 

 

Were they right to leave?  Yes.  Absolutely.  No doubt in my mind on that score.  Once it becomes impossible to protect the preaching of the gospel and to suppress heresy within the Church, then the Church has lost the mark of the Word.  She has thus ceased to be a church at a denominational level at least, regardless of what individual congregations may do.  Departure should never be hasty or precipitate; but once the matter is done, it is time to go.  Those who remain need to ask themselves what their strategy for returning the Kirk to orthodoxy is.  How are they going to take control of the teaching institutions?   Of the Presbyteries?  Of the committees?  Of the administration in George Street?  Of the General Assembly?  If they have no strategy for all – not just any one – of these things, then they have no real rationale for remaining beyond the pitiable pieties of Presbyterian pipe-dreams.

 

 

Randall does an excellent job in explaining the evangelical position.  He also points to the incoherence of those who remain in the C of S while claiming to disagree with her position on sexual ethics.   As he argues on p. 45, acceptance of the teaching of the Church on the issue once it has been legislated is what Presbyterianism means.  He could well have referred to Charles Hodge’s statement on such an ecclesiastical point: once the Church as a whole has made a formal decision on a matter, ministers have but three options – they can wholeheartedly support the position, passively accept it, or peaceably withdraw.  The specious claim that one can remain a good Presbyterian while repudiating the denomination’s official teaching is simply disingenuous and inconsistent with being a good Presbyter.  One might add that it is an inconsistency lost neither on liberal insiders nor observant outsiders.   As to those who have adopted the 'Rick Astley Protocol' and declared that they will never give up on the Kirk, no matter what she does – Randall skewers that as strategically disastrous.  One might also add it indicates a complete absence of any real Protestant understanding of the Church.  Of all the options, this one is the most self-evidently self-defeating and ridiculous.

 

 

Randall is, I believe, too generous to the quiet infiltration strategy of William Still and his disciples. There were many flaws in Still's approach but the most obvious was that it failed to take account of the nature and signficance of legislative and administrative power in Presbyterian denominations. Guarding one’s one pulpit and congregation is vital but it makes no difference to the Church at large, for denominational power in Presbyterianism is exerted by Presbyteries, Synods, and Assemblies, and to influence those one must sit on the relevant committees, turn up to meetings, make life difficult for all the right people. Boring work, thankless work, often unpleasant work -- but ecclesiastically vital work nonethless.  It is thus the Stillite policy which must take considerable blame for the institutional weakness of the evangelicals as they engaged the liberals in the current battle.  Yes, the Barrier Act helped delay things a bit -- God bless the Barrier Act!  Every Presbyterian denomination should have one! -- but far more could have been done if there had been fifty years of a proper, carefully orchestrated ecclesiastical strategy.

 

 

Of course, such a strategy would have required courage in the Presbyteries, courage which was often thin on the ground among the anointed successors of William Still. Preaching to the appreciative home crowd is one thing.  Speaking up in a hostile Presbytery is quite another.  I remember one former C of S candidate telling me of how he was fried alive at a Presbytery meeting as a young man over his opposition to women’s ordination.  And the prominent Stillite evangelicals sat there in silence.  Not a hill to die on, apparently – well, not a hill for them to join a student who was dying thereon anyway.   William Still left a legacy of great preachers and men of prayer in the Kirk.  But his pitiful ecclesiastical strategy gave them no foundation upon which to mount a successful rearguard action against liberalism.   And now the current crop of men in their thirties, forties, and fifties has been called upon to pay a painful price for the decades of ecclesiastical quietism pursued by their fathers in the faith.

 

 

Yet I still remain perplexed as to why the gay issue brought things to a head.   The official teaching of a Presbyterian denomination is always a function of its confessional documents as they connect to the terms of ministerial subscription.  Those terms had been decisively loosened many generations before homosexuality became the major issue it is today.  For example, I know first-hand that a former minister of the very Aberdeen congregation which called the gay minister denied fundamental tenets of the faith with impunity throughout his career.  The problem with fighting on the gay issue is that this matter only became a problem because so much else that was so vital had already been made thoroughly negotiable.  There is a lesson there.  And there are also some grim optics: these men who left were not homophobes (whatever that means these days) but by making this the issue upon which to stand, they ran the risk of appearing as such.  "So denial of the resurrection is acceptable but gay sex is not?"

 

 

This is a good, though very sad, book.   I am glad that the Kirk’s loss has been the strengthening of other denominations and the freeing up of congregations from the putrid garbage of the politicized sexuality which lies at the rotten core of the current liberal "Christian" project.  I am glad that less evangelical money is going to promote heresy and undermine orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  And I am glad that those who have taken the brave step of separation no longer have to waste time at Presbyteries defending the most elementary doctrines of the faith.     I only wish it had happened earlier.

 

Posted on Monday, May 02, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Church membership – that formal, public means of expressing your commitment to a congregation and of that congregation's commitment to you – is an important, in fact a vital, non-negotiable, part of being a Christian.  As James Bannerman commented, the New Testament knows nothing of isolated Christians, only Christians who belong to a church.  And as a pastor with a need to prioritize my time, I consciously devote more to those who have actually committed to membership at Cornerstone than to those who may attend week by week but for whatever reason will not commit.

 

Communicant membership should not be undertaken lightly nor in ignorance, and thus many Presbyterian churches hold membership classes.  We do ours in a day.  One church in Philadelphia runs its membership class over ten weeks.  Pruitt takes a little longer, going up to eleven weeks.   Why he simply doesn’t make the tenth week louder, I have no idea, but there you go -- must be a hold-over from his Southern Baptist days.

 

Good materials for membership classes need to do several things.  They need to cover the basics of gospel.  They need to cover the fundamentals of the Reformed faith.  They need to familiarize people with the confessions and catechisms that express the church’s beliefs.  And they need to explain the privileges and obligations of church membership, and the basics of church polity.  In addition, they also need to give some denominational and congregational history.  Yes, the church is universal but she exists in specific local forms; and while the particulars of such may not be of the essence of the faith, they can help the potential member to understand local distinctives and perhaps even eccentricities.  Not that the OPC has any such eccentricities.  No, never. Well, hardly ever....

 

Given all this, it is a real pleasure as a pastor to recommend Ken Golden’s new book from Christian Focus, Presbytopia: What it means to be Presbyterian.  In this short volume, Ken provides the reader with the basics of the membership classes at his own church, an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in Iowa.   In three basic sections – Christian Essentials, Reformed Distinctives, and Means of Grace – Ken covers all the basics.  Then, in two appendices -- a glossary and a sample liturgy -- he offers help for the neophyte in becoming accustomed to the lingo and the services forms of a Reformed church.  From a pastor's perspective, this is a most welcome volume.  As I noted above, all congregations need to give some particularized history which no general text can cover.  But otherwise, this is all one needs.

 

The book is a superb, inexpensive, easy-to-read resource and one which I imagine we will be using at Cornerstone to help prospective members understand what we are about and why we look and sound the way we do.  Highly recommended.

Posted on Monday, May 02, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The Spin was told last week that the Big Eva Establishment will likely not engage us on the complementarianism issue because of our decision to adopt a tone of mockery relative to certain expressions of the movement.  Being ridiculed is, of course, an occupational hazard for those who say ridiculous things; and I had always thought there were other reasons why we are generally ignored by Big Eva or only engaged in a passive-aggressive kind of way.
 

Nevertheless, I do seriously hope that the complementarian establishment engage Scot McKnight who has today published a set of theses for what he believes to be a more biblically balanced complementarianism.  It is actually what I thought the Bible always taught, rather than the reactions to third wave feminism which now seem to have gripped the complementarian imagination.

 

Here’s a taster:

 

[T]he truly complementarian talks about serving his wife the way Christ served the church and tells us stories about what he did recently for his wife.

 

Read the whole thing here.
 

Posted on Friday, April 29, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

As a taster of what is to come on the Spin podcast -- we spent today recording and pulled in some high-powered guests.  Tony Esolen -- Renaissance man, professor of English, translator of Dante, scourge of Fox News ('It was like trying to explain quantum physics to a golden retriever') -- talked to us about how to destroy the imagination and humanity of our children, before waxing eloquent on transgenderism and then on the moral structure of pedophilia.   We also interviewed American Conservative writer, Rod Dreher, on the Benedict Option and whether he, as Eastern Orthodox, is really more pessimistic and cynical than us Calvinists.  Finally, we spoke to, well, not the Fifth Beatle but the Fourth Spinner, 'Mad' Max Benfer about men's ministries.  Plus we recognized the achievement of another Desperate Theologizer and ambushed TP on the issue of women teaching.  All to come in the coming weeks and months.  Oh, and I made my case off-camera for Hall and Oates being to blame for the destruction of civilization as we know it -- trust me, Hall is merely the front man; Oates is the real evil genius behind their diabolical scheme for world domination.

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The prize for the most confusing statement of the day (and maybe the week) goes to the Gospel Coalition, who apparently found this statement worth tweeting:

 

"It’s more masculine to be attracted to men yet obedient to God than attracted to women and disobedient to God."

 

You can read the full article here.   Which you will have to do if you are to stand any chance of answering the Diva's favourite question when confronted with pseudo-profound, pretentious gibberish: What does that even mean?

 

The use of the idea of masculinity in such a way no doubt plays well to the testosterone-obsessed gallery, while the strange parallel the author draws between the illegitimate expression of a legitimate desire and the refusal to act on an illegitimate desire represents a category confusion which thus cannot substantiate the claim -- even if, merely for the sake of argument, we allow that the claim about being 'more masculine' actually means anything. Which it doesn't.   And, given TGC's imprimatur, this is a most unhelpful and irresponsible tweet (even by the exacting standards of the medium) for the church as a whole. 

Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

My trip to Belfast last week to speak for the Reformed Presbyterians and the Evangelical Presbyterians was a great reminder of the truth of Chrissie Hynde’s lyric, some things change, some stay the same.

 

As to staying the same, I find that every time I visit Ulster I am invited to some clandestine meeting or other.  Last time I spoke to a gathering of ministers and ministerial students in a deserted and disused manse on the north coast.  Seriously, I did.  From the looks on their faces, passers-by clearly thought something sinister was going on. This time I met at Colin the Book’s request with the Provisional EPCI – OK, they are the same guys as the EPC and the PCI but they wear balaclavas and partake of the water of life and (some of them anyway) the Halfling’s Weed.  Like the OPC, then – prepared for peace but ready for war. I also stayed once again with the Watsons, wonderful and kind people who have the misfortune of being the Pope of Ealing’s parents-in-law.  We must pray for them in their affliction.

 

As to change, if I had been told on my last visit two years ago that my next visit would involve addressing the Reformed Presbyterians on the matter of transgenderism, I would have said you were mad.  Completely mad.  But such are the times in which we live.  A morally conservative place like Northern Ireland is changing rapidly, in line with the general chaos now reigning supreme in the western world.   The need for the church to teach her young people well and thoughtfully on such issues is now an absolute imperative.  And if places like Northern Ireland are crumbling on issues of sexuality, there is no hope for anywhere else that they will be immune to this deadly nonsense.  Yet Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.   Some things indeed do change, but the problem -- the inventive creativity of human sin --and the solution -- the  all-sufficient Christ  -- do not.

 

The highlight of the trip, though, was preaching at the EPC family day/general assembly on Saturday and then at Stranmillis EPC in Belfast on Sunday. Any general assembly that does its work in one hour -- yes, one hour! -- has to be a model for the rest of the Presbyterian world.   And the EPC is like the OPC – a small, no-frills Presbyterian denomination.  It is a reminder that Christianity is at its best on the ground, where ordinary people simply believe and seek to live as Christians.  The congregation at Stranmillis is a similar size, and has a similar ethos – serious about the gospel, relaxed about life, friendly to all – that marks the congregation of Cornerstone OPC here.  Strange to tell, at no other church do I feel so much at home preaching than at this small gathering in Belfast.  A real home from home.

 

And that brings me to my main point: those interested in the history of Presbyterianism in general and Irish Presbyterianism in particular should purchase a copy of Ernest C. Brown’s history of the EPC, By Honour and Dishonour, available via Colin the Book.   It is a labour of love and a wonderful history of a tiny but tough denomination that, like the OPC, has punched above its weight.  Central to the narrative is the Davey heresy trial and the role of the student of Machen, W.J. Grier who, after the split from the PCI, was to minister in Stranmillis for many years.  A number of theologians, including my friend and fellow Father Ted aficionado, David McKay offer reflections on the trial and its aftermath -- a section worth the price of the volume in itself.  And here, to add a human touch, is a picture of David explaining Irish cows to me during a break in Friday's lectures. 

 

My only criticism of the volume is the picture of the Pope of Ealing on page 213.  I cannot help but feel it would have been better if the publication had been delayed a year so that the much better looking 2016 speaker could have been featured instead.

 

Seriously, a great book.  Congratulations – and much gratitude – are due to Ernest for his labours on this project.  May it enjoy a wide readership. A reminder that fidelity to the truth is neither glamorous nor often easy but is that to which all Christians are called.

 

 

Posted on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Last week’s post brought some of the usual reactions – Why do I write about celebrity all the time?  Why do I appear to be hitting friends?  Given that my arguments seem in danger of being dismissed because of perceived flaws in my character and motivation, some response to personal criticism finally seems appropriate.

 

Very little of my time is actually spent on this matter of evangelical celebrity marketing and its baneful effects.  None of my books, none of my print articles, none of my lectures, and none of my sermons have ever taken it as a major theme.  And over the last few years it has been at best a secondary interest even online compared, for example, to issues of religious liberty and sexual politics.

 

Two repeated claims have been that I too am a celebrity and that I am parasitical on the culture I criticize because I only ever write my comments via parachurch sites.  As to the first, well, the ladies at head office did put my face on a coffee mug for a joke which then took on a life of its own, and numerous wits have dubbed me the anti-celebrity celebrity – a title I do wear with some sinful pride. But even if I were proved a hypocrite, that would not invalidate my arguments, only my character.   And it might actually strengthen my case, being an example of the Rochefoucauldian homage that vice pays to virtue.

 

As to the second criticism, that I am a parasite because I only have a parachurch platform, well, the Jewish writers at First Things would probably dispute the terminology.  But even so this blog is linked to the Alliance, a parachurch ministry.  Yet my (oft repeated) point has never been that parachurches in themselves are wrong.  It is that parachurches are wrong when they capture that part of the Christian’s imagination which should only be occupied by the church.  It is that parachurches are wrong when they come to supplant roles that really belong only to the church.  And, above all, it is that those parachurch leaders are wrong who consciously leverage their status in parachurches to exert far-reaching power over others, even outside their own organizations.  Two attempts of which I am aware have been made by such men to have me fired simply because of articles I have written critiquing them and their organizations.  That is evil, not simply distasteful.  Thankfully, the Puppet Master is nobody's puppet.

 

What the leaders of the celebrity parachurch world need to ask is not whether I am a wicked hypocrite but whether the crises they have faced repeatedly over the last decade are merely incidental to the culture of Big Eva or actually represent a problem which is an unavoidable part of the project.  Todd Pruitt’s post on platform building would seem to indicate that at the very least Big Eva offers unfortunate opportunities and illicit temptations which no normal human being can resist.   Some people are making big money out of this.  Others are enjoying massive influence within our subculture simply by virtue of their status within the feudal hierarchy, not because of any ecclesiastical mandate or exceptional competence or talent they possess.   Those facts are most potent – and most problematic.

 

So why do I criticize the world occupied by so many of my (now former?) friends?  Because it is fatally flawed, has refused to acknowledge the validity of any criticism, and has proved consistently incapable of policing itself, to the increasing detriment of the church and of the theology I love.  The insulated culture which it has carefully cultivated for over a decade and the behind-the-scenes bully-boy tactics it is willing to deploy against critics mean that it will almost certainly be giving birth to more scandals and crises in the next few years.  If it was just about a good conference or two, there would be no problem.  Who doesn’t enjoy the occasional conference?  But it has become a matter of brands and of platform building, with all of the nonsense that brings with it -- the fatuous Facebook updates, the Twitter trivia, the constant, daily self-promotion on social media with only occasional flashes of any substance.  It thus looks increasingly as if it is really about power and influence for their own sake and not, pace the rhetoric, for the sake of the gospel and the church  And that’s a real problem.

 

If further disasters are to be avoided, it will be necessary to spend more time meditating on the material of the criticisms and less time mulling over the motives of the critics.  But, as Ethan Edwards might say, ‘That’ll be the day!’  

Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

La Diva just sent me this comment from her blog which she was 'so humbled' to receive:

Aimee. More and more you demonstrate fine writing and clear thinking [CRT: She's hanging out with me.  Hey, some of my magic was bound to rub off]. It is also apparent to me that you are twice as smart as the English fellow you have to work with [CRT: I say! Steady on!  Do I detect the typical American prejudice against those who write with an English accent?] and twenty times smarter than the other one [CRT: So, if I do the sums, that makes me only ten times as smart as Pruitt??  Which ranks me where on the scale of intellectual prowess -- somewhere between a jellyfish and a pro-biotic yogurt?]. Thank you for the courage to speak into difficult and controversial subjects [CRT: Credit where credit is due: 'Tis true -- La Diva has courageously taken on the corrupt celebrification of the nail polish, handbag, and hairspray industries, for the benefit of womankind everywhere]. The unfortunate tendency in Christian circles is that voices like yours are marginalized [CRT: If only!  Life would be so much more peaceful in the Underground Bunker.  If anyone knows how we might marginalize this woman, please let us know.  And soon.  We are getting desperate here.] by people with vested interests and narrow agendas [CRT: Todd and I resent the idea that our agendas are narrow, sir.  They have all the breadth of a middle-aged bald guy's girth]. I look forward to hearing more from you [CRT: Not, I suspect, if those nice people in white coats from the institution catch you first].

Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Analyses of the ‘Trump Moment’ in American politics vary in the details but what is clear is that disillusionment with the Washington Establishment -- oft touted in previous elections but rarely seen as having practical electoral significance – might finally be having an impact.   Years of the elites on both sides patting each other on the back, ignoring the concerns of many ordinary Americans, and corralling public discussion using the canons of political correctness have precipitated something of a backlash.  There seems be widespread cynicism about leadership which has now opened the way for Trump. 

 

One question to ask is whether this instantiation of a rejection of established leadership and political protocols might be indicative of a wider cultural phenomenon.   To bring it closer to home: Could we be on the brink of a ‘Trump Moment’ in the conservative evangelical world.
 

The signs are all there.   Big Eva organizations such as the Gospel Coalition have self-consciously sought to drive and thereby control the small-r reformed world by buying up the talent and overseeing who gets to speak, what gets said, who gets reviewed, who is in, who is out.   Other groups, as I have recently pointed out, have become businesses, making big sums on gospel products and the performance of orthodoxy before the adoring home crowd.  And the small pool of names that populate the leadership of all the Big Eva organizations indicates an establishment elite which ultimately shares a common interest in protecting each other’s brands.  The chances of internal reform seem remote.
 

Nowhere is this problematic culture more evident than in the (non) fall-out from scandals.  Numerous big names have been caught out: plagiarism, bullying, cover ups, adultery, Ashley Madison – you name it, they’ve done it – yet, just like politicians, they offer quick repentances and make come-backs in the time it takes the rest of us to make a cup of tea.  And small, hard-core activists are always available to form a hashtag-wielding mob and rubbish any nay-sayers as hypocrites, legalists and worse.   The potential for a leadership dangerously detached from the people and insulated from legitimate concerns of the constituency who ultimately bankroll the operation of Big Eva seems to be being realized before our eyes.
 

All of the conditions for a Trump Moment in Big Eva reformed evangelicalism therefore seem to be in place.  True, the leadership and the big organizations have thus far proved remarkably resilient.  I keep expecting the bubble to burst but, like Amazon reporting losses year after year, the disasters and the scandals are repeatedly tolerated by the Big Eva stock market, presumably in the hope of a long-term rally.   But I do not believe it can be sustained indefinitely.  Then we may not be facing a market correction but a backlash, not simply against the current leadership but against the theology it has promoted and against the church in general.  Who knows what will replace it?   If secular politics are any guide, the replacement could be much worse.  That would be tragic because the price will be paid not only by the myriad of humble pastors who simply seek to care for their people but also by the church in general.

Posted on Tuesday, April 05, 2016 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This just in from an Australian reader who takes exception to my advice on London hostelries.  Always happy to offer constructive response to those who need some guidance on life's questions:

Dear Dr Carl,
I used to admire your wit and intelligence [CRT: Good man!  Though the past tense gives cause for concern....], but "All true beers are served flat and at room temperature, as you know.  The first mark of real civilization" is an affront to all thinking people and to civilisation [CRT: Check the OED; although they may not have that in Oztralia]. Either the 'z' is ironic, or you really have been living among the uncivilised for far too long [CRT: Or maybe, just maybe, I read the OED....] – and I'm writing that as an Australian, for goodness sakes! [CRT: Ah, you have a medical condition.  I'll go easy on the sarcasm then]
The only rule for beer – the colder the better… [CRT: For Australian beer, being tasteless, that is certainly the only way it should be drunk.  I understand where you are coming from on this].
Please send photo of sack cloth and ashes. [CRT: Will this do?]