Sheep and their shepherd (1): reform work is hard and unpopular…
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:1, 2)
(One in a series.)
Back in 1983, I was ordained in the newly reunited Presbyterian Church (USA). My father and father-in-law both sat on the ordination council and Dad Bayly gave my ordination charge. One of his exhortations that Lord’s Day was:
Let your influence for ethics and morality be felt, always remembering that the community cannot be held to the standards of Christ’s church.
A year or two after ordination, I was reading the New York Times and came across a two column-inch news piece buried in the back pages informing readers that a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor had just united two sodomites in a covenant ceremony the previous weekend out in Washington D.C.
Sickened at this obscenity, I called the chaplain of the Senate at that time, Richard Halverson who had come to the Senate from his longtime position as senior pastor of Bethesda’s Fourth Presbyterian PC(USA) Church. Politely, I wondered if Dr. Halverson was going to do something to oppose his fellow pastor who was a member of his presbytery and had committed this foul deed?
Chaplain Halverson asked me to send him a copy of the news item. It was his own Capital Union Presbytery that had jurisdiction in the matter.
It took a few days for the article to make it to D.C. through the U.S. Postal Service, but not too long afterward, I heard back from Dr. Halverson. What he said floored me:
Tim, I’ve called to apologize. I must admit to you that I knew about that marriage, but didn’t do anything about it. I knew I should, but I’m so tired. Now though I’ll pursue it. Thank you for calling and pushing me on it. I’ll do what I can.
I have not recorded this conversation here because I want to shame Dr. Halverson. On the contrary, I hung the phone up having come to have deep respect for him and that respect has continued to this day. What a man, admitting to a wet-behind-the-ears newly ordained pastor he’d neither met nor heard of serving way out in palookahland that he had failed. Imagine any of our celebrity church leaders today making such an admission.
Those of us who are officers of Christ’s Church need to live under the Apostle James’s warning that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).
Over the next year or two, I began to work with several of the reform groups in the PC(USA) to call the church back to Scripture and our confessional Westminster Standards. Back in that day, Evangelicalism was the dominant religious group in the United States and there was a ton of money and fame and influence in those reform groups.
Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Clayton Bell, was the pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Among the church’s members were H. Ross Perot, but more importantly the corner-the-silver-market Hunt Brothers who my Dad joked would tell Bill Bright “jump” and he’d respond “how high?” Bell’s brother-in-law would tell Christianity Today “jump” and they said “how high” also, so between Perot, the Hunts, and Billy Graham, Clayton controlled the evangelical Presbyterian world.1
A couple other tiny Presbyterian denominations had been formed in the past few years. One called the Presbyterian Church in America was very southern and another called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was very northern. The two were at odds with each other over women pastors and elders. Northerners wanted it2 but southerners weren’t quite ready.
The vast majority of our nation’s Presbyterians, then, were in the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) where I was serving. And given the opposite nature of liberal and conservative Christianity, almost all the numbers and money in the PC(USA) were controlled by tall-steeple pastors like Clayton Bell at Highland Park. The reason was simple: liberals don’t care about God and don’t give money. Their religion is for show and their pastors are happy for it to be that way because it means less work. They love an empty ox stall that is not producing income. It’s clean (Proverbs 14:4).
In addition to my two yoked congregations in the farmland of Wisconsin, I also gave myself to denominational reform work. It quickly became clear none of these rich and famous evangelical pastors cared about it. Once a year they’d mount their white chargers and show up at General Assembly to drink and joust, but there was never ever any blood. It was all show. They’d decide the strategy and without exception their strategy involved giving a little more turf to the godless in exchange for another year of peace. In their time.
The best example was a truce they’d signed just prior to my ordination. It was back in the late seventies and the liberals were pushing for sodomy-sodomy-sodomy. It was intense and the evangelicals felt the heat knowing if the denomination went with sodomite officers, their conservative evangelical church members back home would scream for their local church to leave the PC(USA). In a heartbeat. But none of these rich pastors wanted to go into the backwoods PCA or miniscule EPC. So they struck a deal in which they agreed to sodomites being allowed to be members of the PC(USA) as long as the liberals would agree that sodomites couldn’t be pastors and elders.
Like all bargains with the devil, the deal was off from the start. Off on the liberals’ part, that is—the conservatives kept their word and sodomites were allowed to be members in good standing in evangelical churches. But the minute the liberals had conservatives’ agreement to membership, they began to push sodomite officers. Then sodomite marriage. The pressure was relentless and you heard Dr. Halverson say he was very tired.
So as I said, the talk of “renewal” (the word they chose to avoid the hard edges of the word “reform”) was a morality play put on to keep the constituency quiet. Had godly church members known what their famous pastors were up to in their quarterly trips to presbytery and annual trips to general assembly, they would have been horrified. It was naked self-interest that drove every last decision of strategy among such men and their Allen Edmonds and Brooks Brothers buddies of evangelical Presbyterianism.
About now your patience is wearing thin. You don’t want a history lesson. You want to make history yourself. You have no time for an old man’s stories of failure. But wait a second. You have to hear this. Without it, you’ll spin your tires like I spun mine as the wicked flourished in the church and took over our nation.
[This is one in a series on the difficulties church officers, particularly pastors, face today in our work guarding the flock our Lord purchased with His Own precious blood. Our Lord said He was the “Good Shepherd” Who gave up His life for the sheep. We want to be good shepherds like our Chief Shepherd, but it is hard. It may help us toward faithfulness to discuss some of the challenges we face. That is my hope in this series—that as I tell of some challenges I’ve faced in my work, I may be an encouragement to others facing similar challenges. It’s a small goal.Please pray for us. And if you’d like to help us in this work, consider supporting us financially through Patreon. We work hard in our teaching.]
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|1.||↑||It would be more accurate to say it was Clayton’s staff subordinate and deputy, Harry Hassall, but let’s not lose the forest for the trees.|
|2.||↑||After publishing this post, a reader responded: “…you [got] some of the facts about the EPC incorrect. Women’s ordination was not an issue in the EPC until fairly recently.”
I responded, “I was in the hallway outside Richard Lovelace’s office back in 1981 reading an open letter he’d posted to the men who were starting the EPC. His letter rebuked them for not joining the OPC or PCA and Jim Dixon, one of the EPC’s fathers, gives the historical framework:
I suspect the thing that throws us off on this is the EPC’s middling position. They were opposed to the PC(USA)’s mandatory women officers, and just as opposed to the PCA’s then-mandatory prohibition of women officers. They saw both as violations of their constitutional text, “In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity.”
As I said, allowing for women officers was one of the reasons the EPC was created. And certainly one of the main reasons they did not simply transfer from the PC(USA) into the PCA. Revisionists may want to deny this, but at the time all of us knew this was one of the EPC’s reasons to exist.