Man can adhere to falsehood, but he never does it and never can do it save as he holds it to be truth, and thereby pays homage to the truth. He can be the servant of sin, but he never is nor ever can be, except as he reckons evil to be good and so pays his respect to the good. He can kneel down to an idol, but he never does it and he never can do it except as he thinks that in the idol he sees the only true and living God and confesses awe and fear of the Eternal Being. God leaves himself without witness to no man. (Herman Bavinck, “Creation or Development”)
I studied at a conservative Presbyterian seminary for four years, and have served for ten years since in a staunchly conservative Presbyterian denomination. Over these years, I’ve been able to observe the glorious, the good, the bad, and the altogether ugly in conservative Presbyterianism. If people I loved were about to enter this world, I would want to stand at the door and warn them of a few things. In this post I’ll address a particular phenomenon that some would consider a strong point among conservative Presbyterians, but which in my experience can work like a toxin in the life of a church.
For fun, I’ll label the phenomenon “the Presbyterian guardian.” I refer, of course, not to the periodical that influenced the founding and forming of my denomination, but to a particular sort of teaching or ruling elder who walks abroad in our conservative circles. I’ve met this sort on various occasions in various contexts, and breadth of observation has yielded what I think is a fairly serviceable profile.
The Presbyterian guardian (hereinafter let’s call him PG) regards himself as just that – a guardian of the church. This is noble enough. Just as a good gardener wants to protect his garden, a good father to protect his children, a good shepherd to protect his sheep, the PG wants to protect the church. And well he should. An elder’s principal task is to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Ti 1:9). Any Presbyterian worth his salt will affirm this.
What distinguishes the PG is not his zeal to guard the purity, peace, and unity of the church. It is not that he believes himself called by Christ to do this – so that he acts with real authority when shepherding the flock. The PG is not distinguished by his zeal to fulfill his ordination vows. All of the foregoing he shares with any faithful elder (though it must be said that in many cases the PG will think himself the only one still faithful to his post).
The PG’s distinguishing mark is his inability (and in some cases obdurate unwillingness) to distinguish beliefs, practices, and methods that actually contradict sound doctrine from beliefs, practices, and methods on which faithful Christians may reasonably and healthily differ. Having conflated things in a clumsy way, the PG treats as suspicious, dangerous, and/or insubordinate many views, proposals, and practices that are in fact none of the above, and brings to bear all of his zeal and authority in rebuking the positions he opposes, determined to purge the church of their influence. Lacking clarity, he ends up lacking charity.
Sometimes, then, the church must be guarded against her guardians. It is necessary to push back against guardians of her purity who don’t really understand wherein her purity consists and so go to war over matters that call for reasonableness, reasoning, and persuasion rather than rebuke, in the process doing massive damage to the peace and unity of Christ’s flock. I’ve seen elders who would rather gut their church’s membership than back down from a position they regard as basic to gospel faithfulness, when in fact their position is entirely disputable biblically, historically, and even prudentially.
Some distinctions and definitions may help to illustrate the PG phenomenon.
A faithful guardian of the church must distinguish between (a) the gospel itself, (b) theological orthodoxy as it has taken shape over the centuries down to the present, (c) the distinctive views, policies, and procedures (“house rules”) of a particular Christian communion, and (d) the culture, traditions, customs, preferences, and emphases of a local congregation. In my denomination, we speak of the first three categories roughly in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary standards. Our first and final standard is scripture; our secondary standard is our confession of faith and catechisms; our tertiary standard is composed of a form of government, a book of discipline, and a directory for public worship (“house rules”). Each local congregation forms its own traditions, culture, and emphases.
If a church starts to drift away from the “gospel” (e.g., the things delivered by the apostle Paul “as of first importance,” 1 Corinthians 15:3), she is drifting from the water of life, and a faithful man of God will resist this with everything in him. If someone comes along and says Jesus is not God but simply an enlightened human teacher, and persists in this view after careful instruction, it’s time to bring out the big guns and fire off anathemas.
Not everything addressed in scripture, however, is “of first importance.” It’s possible to be a faithful, Bible-believing Christian and have serious questions about the age of the physical earth, the relationship between Israel and the New Covenant church, the challenges of harmonizing the four Gospels, the propriety of baptizing infants, the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and the implications of the book of Revelation for eschatology.
This brings us to the second category: historic Christian orthodoxy. The church over the centuries has recognized that some doctrines are, indeed, second-order. Disagreement over these doctrines may occur within the bounds of Christian brotherhood. Strong convictions may be held, but they should not be elevated to the first-order level of the gospel itself.
But historic orthodoxy bears witness to something else – and here especially the zeal of the PG is exposed as ignorance. Even in the realm of settled first-order doctrines there is still an acceptable breadth of view – there is space in which fruitful ongoing theological work may be done. It is not wrong to affirm that there is still more to think and say about the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the relationship of grace and works, the fine points of atonement and imputation, the relationship of God’s covenant and eternal decree, and the inspiration of scripture. These are, to be sure, matters that lie at the heart of the Christian faith; but they are extremely deep waters for finite minds, and careful reading of the church’s history shows that her creeds and confessions with respect to these matters have always been crafted in the context of thoughtful (not to say heated) debate. The result has been the placing of confessional guardrails (“here we may go, but no further”) rather than the painting of some exact centerline from which the slightest movement cannot be tolerated without charges of heresy. We may not deny, for example, that Jesus was fully God and fully man – those are the guardrails – but as Herman Bavinck rightly observed:
With Chalcedon, clear-cut boundaries had been drawn within which the church’s doctrine of Christ would be further developed. It was far from being the case, however, that with it, in earlier and later times, unanimity had been achieved. The question, What do you think of the Christ? has evoked a wide assortment of answers in the Christian life as well as in theology. All through history it has divided the heads and hearts of people. Even within the churches that accept the Chalcedonian symbol, for all their agreement, there is also still substantial difference. (Reformed Dogmatics, p. 2.255)
Likewise with the Trinity, there are things we simply may not say – there are guardrails – but surely we should charitably welcome questions asked in good faith about how this mystery is to be understood, explained, and adored. Surely our anathemas should be reserved for those who are clearly and willfully outside the established boundaries of what remains a much-needed Christian conversation. If that is true of doctrines such as the Trinity and the Person of Christ, how much more is it true of other doctrines not so precisely settled, either by scripture itself or in the witness of the church?
In my experience, PGs have little patience for any of this. They’re prepared to stand on a creedal or confessional statement as if it descended from heaven and forecloses all further discussion, rather than opening up healthily bounded space for discussion and worship. You’ll hear PGs say, “Well, this is the Reformed view of this or that,” when a slightly wider program of reading will show that “the Reformed” have fiercely debated the issue for centuries, or that there are vast dimensions to the issue of which the PG is seemingly unaware.
To make things worse, PGs tend also to assume that one doctrinal position is just like another, or at least plainly entails another, when in fact the two positions can be readily and precisely distinguished. This irritates me so much that I’m inspired to digress (briefly, I promise).
Heresy hunters (including many PGs) believe strongly that “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” So, the thinking goes, Smith said something that sounds a lot like what Jones would say; and Jones can’t say “shibboleth” like we do, so he’s a blasted Ephraimite; therefore, Smith must also be an Ephraimite and needs to be blasted.
There are other possibilities. Maybe Smith isn’t saying exactly what Jones has been known to say (a humble, charitable, and reasonable conversation with Smith would be the way to find out). Maybe the similarity is only superficial. Maybe, for that matter, we’ve misunderstood Jones as well. Or maybe our shibboleth is actually a poor litmus test of orthodoxy. “But it walks like a duck . . .” Smith begs unbelievers to “come to Christ”; he must be a crypto-Arminian. He says Jesus came to save the world; he’s a closet Universalist. He thinks baptized children are true Christians; he’s a Romanist or well on the way. He also believes Christians may apostatize; he’s certainly no Calvinist. And so on.
Indiscriminate shooting is just lazy. It also makes it hard to target the real heresies. The fellow in camouflage hopes the ducks won’t distinguish his decoy from the real thing, but he’d better be able to tell the difference. You look pretty stupid shooting your own decoy. Distinctions matter if you’re going to take home real ducks. But I have digressed.
If PGs tend to oversimplify questions of “orthodoxy,” it’s in the last two categories mentioned above that the PG mindset can be most toxic. Church communions tend to love their “house rules,” and often dearer still are the customs and preferences of a local church. We Presbyterians do have our sacred traditions. It’s frightfully easy for a poorly studied PG to convince himself, “This is how we’ve always done it, because that’s how the Reformed have always done it” – the implication being that to move this landmark would be to start a rapid and certain decline from the way God Himself wants things to be. It isn’t long before a certain mode of evangelizing, a certain liturgical form, a certain preaching style, a certain way of handling money, a certain way of promoting fellowship, or some other marginal policy is insisted upon, not because it’s richly edifying (maybe), but because it’s right. One sure way to pick out a PG is to watch what happens when someone touches one of his sacred cows: he’ll want the person’s head for insubordination to church authority.
It’s essential in educating elders that the biblical gospel, the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy, the house rules of a particular communion, and the traditions of the local church be clearly identified and unbundled from each other. House rules and traditions must not be raised to the level of orthodoxy – ever – and orthodoxy itself has a far richer heritage with far wider diversity than the average PG seems to have any idea of. Orthodoxy has opened up many more wonderful conversations than it has ever foreclosed.
Such unbundling and careful study will lead to a climate of reasoning rather than reacting, of discussion rather than defensiveness, of humility and mutual submission, of welcome rather than walls. There are walls in faithful Christianity, to be sure; reasoning is not open-ended and unaccountable; not all discussions should be had. It’s vitally important, however, to know where the boundaries of sound doctrine truly lie, so the work of guarding can occur where it’s needed and not drive from the church godly souls who don’t happen to hold to the reigning preferential paradigm.
This, in brief, is the PG problem. Anyone entering the doors of Presbyterianism should be aware of it.
Dark clouds are racing across the pale gray sky outside my window
I am hollow, weightless, drifting through empty space to which I cannot attach
I hear shrieks of hunger, muffled in the fog
What is the use of hunger with nothing to eat?
To care till one can no more
To be driven and dissipate
What more than this is our lot, our race?
It may appear as if the world now belongs mostly to the younger generations, with their idiosyncratic mindsets and technological gadgetry, yet in truth, the age as a whole, whether wittingly or not, deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. It deprives them of idleness, shelter, and solitude, which are the generative sources of identity formation, not to mention the creative imagination. It deprives them of spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail. It deprives them of the ability to form images with their eyes closed, hence to think beyond the sorcery of the movie, television, or computer screen. It deprives them of an expansive and embodied relation to nature, without which a sense of connection to the universe is impossible and life remains essentially meaningless. It deprives them of continuity with the past, whose future they will soon be called on to forge.
We do not promote the cause of youth when we infantilize rather than educate desire, and then capitalize on its bad infinity; nor when we shatter the relative stability of the world, on which cultural identity depends; nor when we oblige the young to inhabit a present without historical depth or density. The greatest blessing a society can confer on its young is to turn them into the heirs, rather than the orphans, of history. It is also the greatest blessing a society can confer on itself, for heirs rejuvenate the heritage by creatively renewing its legacies. Orphans, by contrast, relate to the past as an alien, unapproachable continent – if they relate to it at all. Our age seems intent on turning the world as a whole into an orphanage, for reasons that no one . . . truly understands.
(Robert Pogue Harrison, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, pp. xi–xii)
The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true—even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us.
It is left unexplained how it is possible that one can rely on Christ for the next life without doing so for this one, trust him for one’s eternal destiny without trusting him for “the things that relate to Christian life.” Is this really possible? Surely it is not!
(Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, p. 49)
Divine worship means the same thing where time is concerned, as the temple where space is concerned. “Temple” means (as may be seen from the original sense of the word): that a particular piece of ground is specially reserved, and marked off from the remainder of the land which is used either for agriculture or for habitation. And this plot of land is transferred to the estate of the gods, it is neither lived on, nor cultivated. And similarly in divine worship a certain definite space of time is set aside from working hours and days, a limited time, specially marked off—and like the space allotted to the temple, it is not used, it is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends. Every seventh day is such a period of time. It is the “festival time,” and it arises in this way and no other.
There can be no such thing in the world of “total labor” as space which is not used on principle; no such thing as a plot of ground, or a period of time withdrawn from use. There is in fact no room in the world of “total labor” either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the “worker’s” world, the world of “labor” rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A “feast day” in that world is either a pause in the midst of work (and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of “Labor Day,” or whatever feast days of the world of “work” may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated—once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to “work.” There can of course be games, circenses, circuses—but who would think of describing that kind of mass entertainment as festal?
It simply cannot be otherwise: the world of “work” and of the “worker” is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods; for on an exclusively utilitarian basis, on the basis, that is, of the world of “work,” genuine wealth, wealth which implies overflowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible. Wherever the superfluous makes its appearance it is immediately subjected to the rationalist, utilitarian principle of the world of work. And, as the traditional Russian saying puts it: work does not make one rich, but round-shouldered.
On the other hand, divine worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want—because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility; it is in fact absolutely antithetic to utility. Thus, the act of worship creates a store of real wealth that cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns. Such wastefulness is, we repeat, true wealth; the wealth of the festival time. And only in this festival time can leisure unfold and come to fruition.
Separated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of a feast. Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.
(Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 67–68)
“Of what does the nature of kingship consist? What are its qualities in itself; what the qualities it inspires in those who attend it? . . . I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. . . . That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.”
(Xeones to Xerxes, in Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae)
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July 1944)
Leisure does not exist for the sake of work—however much strength it may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical; and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically, and spiritually too, that is not the point. . . .
The point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man—and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realizing his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.
Because Wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul. Like the gift for contemplative absorption in the things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a “gate to freedom” open. Through that gate man may escape from the “restricted area” of that “latent anxiety” which a keen observer has perceived to be the mark of the world of work, where “work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.”
(Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 49–51)
The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.
We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of “Grace”; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is himself called a “gift” in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is his love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift—we have only to think of all this for a moment in order to see what a chasm separates the tradition of the Christian West and that other view.
(Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, pp. 35–36)