Grateful Realism: A Response to Clint Davis’ Review of the ARP General Synod

Along with gratitude the ARP should celebrate there is also a sober realism that must be faced

The much-celebrated vote to reclaim Synod’s rights to remove Erskine Board members with cause, as well as the solid slate of new trustees which were elected, should indeed encourage all who believe the schools, both college and seminary, are agencies of the Church.  However, as necessary as these steps are, it must be remembered that the “heavy lifting” in reforming the college and the seminary still lies ahead.

 

There is much to agree with in Rev. Clint Davis’ recent review of this year’s meeting of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) General Synod.  The numerous unified and faithful votes of the delegates can only encourage the hearts of the faithful. Moreover, to hear a bright and leading young pastor like the Rev. Davis celebrate the covenanting, heroic past of the Synod’s ancestral roots in Scotland, as well as his call for commitment to confessional, free-offer-of-the-gospel evangelical religion is most encouraging, and it is exactly the right prescription for our future as a denomination of Christ’s Church.  What a bright promise such a commitment will bring to our Synod!

However, along with gratitude we should, in all Christian maturity, also bring a sober realism.  Many did not leave our Synod meeting with the (unalloyed) “joyful, fraternal” feelings of which the Rev. Davis writes.  The heartbreakingly close vote on the matter of disciplining elders who sued their own denomination in a civil court to overturn an ecclesiastical decision they disagreed with was not a sign of discernment or courage on the part of the denomination.  Frankly, it is hard to think of another denomination with the kind of commitments the Rev. Davis celebrates which would tolerate such a situation without discipline. According to all expressions of Reformed Confessionalism, such discipline is no less than a mark of a true church, so our failure in this instance is no small matter.

The much-celebrated vote to reclaim Synod’s rights to remove Erskine Board members with cause, as well as the solid slate of new trustees which were elected, should indeed encourage all who believe the schools, both college and seminary, are agencies of the Church.  However, as necessary as these steps are, it must be remembered that the “heavy lifting” in reforming the college and the seminary still lies ahead. Neo-orthodoxy is still being taught at our seminary, and the college faculty remains sadly composed of many with open contempt for the very evangelical Calvinism the Rev. Davis honors.  One can only hope that Synod’s “go slow” approach at reform will bring the cure to the patients before they pass away!

And that leads to the issue of congregational giving to the denomination through the Denominational Ministry Fund (DMF).  Even while maintaining some sympathy for the Rev. Davis’ concerns, the situation is more complex than he represents. At some point, the issue of the sheer number of agencies our small denomination supports must be addressed. More importantly, the issue of conscientious dissent must be considered more carefully.

Surely, the Rev. Davis is correct in saying that some congregations which have not given to the DMF are just “going it alone” in a spirit of independency. But he is wrong, I think, to assume that the other group – the handful of congregations which withhold giving to the DMF (though often giving substantial dollars to those faithful agencies themselves) – are doing so in the naïve assumption that such an action will “exert control or influence” over the denomination.  In some of our congregations, were the pastor to tell the whole story to their sessions and congregations regarding their denomination’s agencies, it could actually depress giving to the Church in those congregations if the tithes of the saints were knowingly sent to support anti-Christian teaching at the college and seminary.

For the sake of the very confessionalism which the Rev. Davis rightfully trumpets, this right for conscientious dissent must be maintained at all costs (see Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 20)!  The motion proposed by the Board of Stewardship to punish such congregations by forbidding their officers to serve in any capacity at the Synod level of the church was not only entirely counter-productive and a violation of our Standards, but also remarkably mean-spirited. Thanks be to God that it was overwhelmingly defeated!

Again, I want to heartily endorse the Rev. Davis’ flying the flag of old-school Presbyterianism and the Great Commission. Long may it wave! But the unity such faith gives the church requires no underestimation of the difficulties we face as a Synod and the remaining corruptions within our historic expression of the one, true faith.

Rev. William C. Marsh is Senior Minister of Christ Community Church (ARP) Greensboro, N.C.

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