Monday, October 15, 2007

Southern Schism As It Is

I have taken the following article from Presbyterian & Reformed News (volume 4, issue 1). You should read it in conjunction with this article by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

PCA Founding Congregation and Its Pastor Leave for EPC
Toleration of Theonomy and Views of Political Secession Given as Reasons for Departure

Grace Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, LA, voted on December 7, 1997, to leave the denomination it helped to found, in order to become a part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The reasons for the departure, according to the Pastor, revolved around the toleration of theonomy in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Also cited in Rev. Robert Vincent’s statement was that at least some theonomists are advocates of political secession from the Federal Union.

At a December 29, 1997, called meeting of Louisiana Presbytery (PCA), Mr. Vincent, who was the Moderator of the court, immediately yielded the chair to the Moderator-elect for the entire meeting. During the discussion of his dismissal to the EPC, Mr. Vincent read the following statement orally and into the record:

Dear Fathers and Brothers:

As I come to make this petition to be dismissed from you into the Presbytery of the Central South of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I do so with grief. Having served the Presbyterian Church in America for the past twenty-two years, I continue to hold it in high esteem and deep affection.

I first encountered Theonomy from a fellow student, the late Greg Bahnsen. By the time that I finished seminary I had substantially formed the views that I hold today and concluded that what he and Drs. Rushdoony and North espoused was contrary to Scripture. However, being committed to a measure of diversity within the banks of Reformed orthodoxy, I was an advocate of toleration for Theonomists. Not only did I examine and approve each of you, my Theonomic brothers, but I once served on an Assembly judicial commission and voted to censure one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in America for his circularizing his presbytery against a young Theonomist. That tolerance has been repeatedly affirmed by the General Assembly (cf. M7GA, 1979, pages 194–195; M10GA, 1982, page 107; M11GA, 1983, page 96.), but I now find myself out of accord with the Assembly’s position.

What is the issue?

All of us, Theonomists and Non-Theonomists alike, affirm that we are saved by grace alone, received through faith alone. We all agree that saving faith is never alone but is always accompanied by a changed life, increasingly godly but imperfect until we go to be with the Lord Jesus. We all agree that the entire Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and life. We all agree that God’s Moral Law, summed up in the Ten Commandments, is part of the abiding standard for determining what constitutes godly living. None of us is an Antinomian; none of us teaches justification except by faith alone. That is true for the teaching elders of Louisiana Presbytery, and it is true for the ruling elders of my congregation as well.

Where we differ has to do with the issue of the continuing validity of the civil laws of Israel and whether or not the state is obligated to enforce those Old Testament judicial laws and their penalties. My view is that Israel as a nation with its political and legal structure served a unique function in the purpose of God. That purpose has been fulfilled in Christ. Under the overarching unity of the covenant of grace, there is diversity in its administration. Where Dispensationalism errs in its failure significantly to grasp the overarching unity, I believe that Theonomy errs in its failure significantly to grasp the diversity between the two Testaments.

That failure leads to a concern with politics and materialistic dominion. In my opinion, that error has led some Theonomists into involvement with organizations such as the League of the South. That organization states: “We see no way of reforming the corruption within the present system; therefore, The League of the South shall seek to spread acceptance of the idea of secession among the people of the South.” (“The League of the South Position On Secession” under “LS Position Papers” at http://www.dixienet.org)

To be active and supportive of presbytery, one must agree with its mission. A presbytery with a Theonomic vision is frightening to me. When Christian men believe that their position is biblical, they will inevitably seek to make it the dominant and controlling view. Inasmuch as I perceive this to be the direction of Louisiana Presbytery, and inasmuch as the issue of Theonomy has been adjudicated by the General Assembly contrary to what I now believe is wise, I can no longer participate in good conscience without rupturing the peace of Presbytery and therefore believe that it is in the best interest of the church that I seek affiliation in another communion.

As I go, I commend you to God. May the Holy Spirit guide you in your understanding of biblical truth.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Benn Vincent, Sr.

Bob Vincent, a native South Carolinian, graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton. He attended Westminster Theological Seminary for two years before transferring to Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. He was ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), serving for two years at the Covenanter congregation in Wichita, KS. (The RPCNA still maintains the Presbyterian practice of a capella exclusive psalmody. It also has an historic egalitarian emphasis, as seen in its advocacy of abolitionism and its ordination of women to the diaconate.)

When called to the Alexandria church in 1975, Vincent held to traditional Presbyterian worship. Over the years, his views evolved, as did those of the congregation.

Not everyone in the church was happy with those changes, including “contemporary worship” practices and what was regarded as a charismatic flavor to the service. A decade ago, a number of people left Grace Presbyterian Church in order to found an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in neighboring Pineville.

Since the mid-1980s, the leadership at Grace Presbyterian has practiced anointing with oil in conjunction with prayers for healing and for fruitfulness in child-bearing. Two years ago, one of the officers anointed with oil a computer that had crashed: after the anointing and prayer, the information on the hard-drive which had not been “backed-up” was able to be retrieved.

Originally known as Jackson Street Presbyterian Church, the Alexandria congregation was pastored from 1969 to 1975 by A. Michael Schneider, a conservative who identifies himself as a theonomist. In 1973, the church was a member of Mississippi Valley Presbytery, and later helped to organize Louisiana Presbytery. At least one of its ruling elders had served at the General Assembly level: Dick Ayres, who was on the Committee on Administration from 1977 to 1981.

At the end of 1973, the church listed a total membership of 156. At the end of last year, its membership (communicant and non-communicant) totaled 294. Although the loss of almost 300 members is significant for a presbytery the size of Louisiana, there may not be any loss felt financially. According to the denominational Yearbook, in 1996 the church contributed nothing to the Presbytery, which had a total income of $36,505. (In 1994 and 1995, the church contributed $565 each year.)

On December 29th, Louisiana Presbytery voted to dismiss the church and its pastor to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC, formed in 1981, is widely perceived as “looser” in its theological practice than the PCA, as in being more tolerant than the PCA on such matters as the charismatic movement. Although apparently not an issue in this transfer, the EPC and the PCA differ with regard to female ordination: the EPC allows for the ordination of women to all ecclesiastical offices (minister, elder, deacon), while the PCA allows for male-only ordination.

The Rev. Dennis Flach, Stated Clerk of the Central South Presbytery of the EPC, confirmed that that court voted at its meeting in Katy, TX, January 23–24, 1998, to receive Grace Presbyterian Church and its pastor; as well as to receive a group in Opelousas, LA, which had withdrawn from the local PCA church. According to an informed source, three elders had left Westminster Presbyterian in the early 1990s. Those same men and their families came back to that church for a time; one of them eventually left for a Baptist Church in Lafayette, while the other two became involved in Atchafalaya Presbyterian Church, a small PCA congregation in Melville, LA. At the October 18, 1997, meeting of Louisiana Presbytery, Grace Presbyterian announced its intention to establish a mother-daughter relationship between itself and the group in Opelousas, with Bob Vincent to preach at public worship there starting the next day. In response, Louisiana Presbytery established a committee to study the matter and report back at the next stated meeting-an issue that is now moot. Meanwhile, the EPC Central South Presbytery, at its January meeting, gave oversight of this “mission project” to the New Church Development Committee, which serves as a temporary governing body.

In an e-mail communication in late January, Mr. Vincent expressed his regret over any questioning of motives he may have made in his actions with regard to the separation from Louisiana Presbytery. He wrote: Our presbytery has enjoyed a very peaceful existence throughout its twenty-three years of existence. Recently, that peace was disturbed. I had a major part in that, and it was over my perception of trends in our presbytery related to Theonomy.

Other presbyters’ perception differs from mine. No charges were filed by me or by anyone else, partly because the General Assembly has taken positions on the issue, and partly because there was significant disagreement as to what various men actually believed. Apart from solid corroboration, it would be wrong for me to impute views to others that they deny holding. I am reminded of Saint Paul’s words: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3–5)

I do not want to stir up more strife. I explained our actions to Louisiana Presbytery, and I have tried to do the same to some folk in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Knowing that I am a sinner and that apart from grace I cannot even know my own heart, I shudder at the thought of publicly judging other men’s motives.

The people of Louisiana Presbytery love the Lord Jesus and are committed to the Reformed faith. I do not want to violate Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

The Stated Clerk of Central South Presbytery (EPC) also recently reflected on these transfers to his denomination. According to Mr. Flach, the decision by Mr. Vincent to leave the PCA and join the EPC was not a hasty one, as he wrestled for about six months with the question of denominational affiliation and what he should share with his congregation. Mr. Flach believes that the EPC is a legitimate option for a PCA minister to consider, in that he could feel free to maintain theological positions on a variety of subjects (such as the ordination of women and the charismatic gifts) that might be “stricter” than those required by the denomination as a whole. In the Clerk’s view, the move by Pastor Vincent and Grace Church to the EPC could be characterized as a realignment for the sake of peace.

1 comments:

Publius said...

1.) I personally would love to see the theonomy errors squashed, but the PCA has never, ever moved against it and Vincent knows that well. So I'm not sure what his point is by fighting it now. The view is fading fast these days.

2.) As far a secession goes, the PCA has no place to rule against it. As a continuing church of the old PCUS, it rejects the Gardiner Spring Resolution of 1860 that required allegiance to the Union. Besides, this issue has been dead since 1865.

3.) I'm not sure we can credit Bob Vincent for taking a stand here. Why didn't he go to the RPCNA, which is a direct heir of the abolitionist movement? No, instead he went to the EPC, which is even less confessional than the PCA. It ordains women, for crying out loud.

I'd rather tolerate neither theonomy nor preacherettes, but women's ordination does more damage to the purity and peace of the church. Vincent seems to be straining at gnats and swallowing the feminist camel. What a shame.