When it comes to calling upon believers to confess and repent of the sins of a prior generation the vast majority of which they had little if anything to do with personally, it seems to me we are in danger of trivializing repentance along the lines of Calvin’s warning and at the same time falling into general repentance rather than one of particular sins, particularly.
Recently in The Aquila Report, I noticed a post concerning the vote on the racial reconciliation overture at the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. Apparently, a number of persons are asking who [could possibly have] voted against the overture at the PCA’s General Assembly in Mobile on June 23rd. For those asking, I’ll answer that question for one commissioner who voted using ‘button no. 2’ on the overture in question.
Before I do, however, allow me clearly to affirm that I strive – imperfectly, of course – to turn away from partiality of any sort, which includes but is not limited to matters of race, as in Acts 10:34, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,” and James 2:9, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” With that acknowledgment, here are four reasons for my ‘no’ vote:
- The overture was not required in order for individuals, sessions, or churches to deal with their racially-connected sins. Is one to wait and depend upon the highest court of the denomination, the General Assembly, to direct him to do what the Scripture requires? The Word is replete with commands, exhortations, and admonitions that should lead the follower of Jesus Christ to seek daily to turn away from sinful attitudes of heart, speech, and behaviors. While no one does so perfectly, we have no lack of authority from the Scripture such that one need wait until the GA tells him to deal with his sin. Unless one is engaged regularly in such (imperfect, but authentic) attempts to die unto sin and live unto righteousness (I Peter 2:24), to include making right those personal relationships in need of reconciliation, then we dare not partake of the Lord’s Supper, lest we partake unworthily. I mean no disrespect but I certainly hope that no one had been waiting for the overture to pass before getting his heart and relationships in order so as to be able to partake of communion with a clear conscience. I have not.
- The 2015 GA actions had already brought the issue of racial reconciliation to the attention of many, to good effect. Related to the first point, I readily acknowledge that last year’s GA served a valuable purpose with respect to matters of racial reconciliation, for it brought the issue to the attention of individuals, sessions, churches, and presbyteries. My session at Eastwood Presbyterian Church followed the counsel of the 2015 GA and examined our historical record (short as it is, less than 40 years) as well as our ongoing relationships with those of other races or ethnicities. Clearly, the discussion in 2015 encouraged a number of churches to deal with past racial sins and issues, and some of their sessions have publicly expressed to their community that the church welcomes anyone who desires to worship the Lord Jesus Christ according to His Word. Here in Montgomery, Alabama, First Presbyterian Church – founded in the 1820s – did that very thing to the honor of Christ, in humility, simplicity, and godliness. But I see no additional advantage to be gained from this year’s racial reconciliation overture.
- The overture bore the indications of the same institutional focus on social-political issues that accompanied the decline of the PCUS. As detailed by Dr. Morton H. Smith in How is the Gold Become Dim?, the PCUS was a faithful church for decades until in the 1940s she began to focus increasingly upon social-political issues. Within a quarter century she was institutionally bankrupt as a Church – having denied the authority of the Scripture, on one hand, and condoning abortions based on the “socio-economic conditions of the family,” on the other. (I realize there remained some faithful men within her courts.) With the recent attention upon the racial sins of the PCUS, it seems odd to me that so little attention has been paid to her trend toward the “social gospel” during roughly the same era. Several years ago while doing research at the Presbyterian Historical Society Library in Philadelphia – which inherited many Presbyterian holdings when beautiful Montreat closed to archival research – I well remember that I could not get through the library’s front door without being confronted with a host of social-political issues announced on the flyers posted there. I shudder at the thought that my denomination could possibly be headed in that direction. If one takes a hard look at church history, perhaps starting with the PCUS, I don’t see how one could come away unconcerned about the PCA’s denominational time and energy expended since last year on account of the anniversary of what was a social-political movement. Please understand I am not commenting on the Civil Rights movement itself, brothers, simply on the fact that it happens to be the PCA’s social-political focal point at this time. Shouldn’t we focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4)?
- The overture’s mention of “corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era,” undermines the PCA’s confessional standard on repentance. The fifteenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith calls upon all who subscribe to our standards not to content ourselves “with a general repentance” but, rather, to repent of “particular sins, particularly.” But for a denomination the vast majority of whose members are too young to have been involved personally with most of the “particular sins” mentioned, such as excluding persons from church membership based on race, how are the bulk of her members to follow our confession regarding repentance? According to a recent Aquila Report post that noted only 11 percent of today’s PCA membership could even hypothetically have been in the Church at her formation in 1973, it seems to me that we are encouraging the vast majority of PCA members to content themselves with a general, not a particular, repentance. In his commentary on Daniel 9:5-7, Calvin writes, “. . . although we are easily induced to confess ourselves guilty before God, yet scarcely one in a hundred is affected with serious remorse. . . . all men think they have discharged their duty to God, if they mildly profess themselves guilty before him. . . . But as real repentance is a sacred thing, it is a matter of far greater moment than a fiction of this kind.” When it comes to calling upon believers to confess and repent of the sins of a prior generation the vast majority of which they had little if anything to do with personally, it seems to me we are in danger of trivializing repentance along the lines of Calvin’s warning and at the same time falling into general repentance rather than one of particular sins, particularly.
These are four of my main reasons for my ‘no’ vote, but I’ll leave it to others to continue the conversation if they will.
Forrest L. Marion is a ruling elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Alabama.
 Morton H. Smith, How is the Gold Become Dim: The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., As Reflected in Its Assembly Actions (Jackson, Miss., 1973, 2nd ed.), viii, 175-76, including quote.