This is a long piece on the future of the Presbyterian Church in America in light of the PCA’s institutional endorsement of Side B self-affirming gays as church officers. What has brought this matter to a head is Covenant Theological Seminary’s alumni holding Side B Revoice conferences each year.
We have now seen the denomination’s final refusals to say “no” or discipline any of Revoice’s principals, including Covenant Theological Seminary, Missouri Presbytery, Memorial Presbyterian Church, Greg Johnson, or the other PCA institutions and men who have created and promoted this evil.
They may, to facilitate a mop-up operation, kick one or two men out or refuse to hold their credentials later after years of defending them, just as they did out in Pacific Northwest Presbytery with Federal Vision’s Peter Leithart. Nevertheless, one swallow doth not a summer make, especially when that swallow has been hanging around all summer, and his presence is only acknowledged in September.
In October of last year, the PCA’s highest court, the Standing Judicial Commission, ruled in favor of Revoice in the case Speck vs. Missouri Presbytery. Then more recently, the presbyteries of the PCA turned down two Overtures (23 and 37) written to keep Side B self-affirming gays from being church officers in the PCA.
One of the main controversies in the PCA has been whether Side B self-affirming gays like Greg Johnson, the host pastor of the first Revoice conference who holds his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and is a member of Missouri Presbytery, should be allowed to continue to be a PCA pastor. Pastor Johnson is loudly Side B and he’s published his self-affirming gayness far and wide, including a recent book with Zondervan and articles in USA Today and Christianity Today.
There is still a sizeable minority in the PCA who believe Side B self-affirming gays such as Pastor Johnson should not be members of Christ’s church, let alone deacons, elders, and pastors. Yet the PCA’s SJC and presbyteries have now repudiated that position and their repudiation is firm.
Side B self-affirming gays are thus now permanently approved as members, deacons, elders, and pastors of the Presbyterian Church in America. No court of the PCA has loved Pastor Johnson enough to discipline him or his Side B Revoicers.
Thus the question, “Where to now?”
Pastor Tim Keller has given his answer to this question and we’ll examine his answer. From near the beginning of the PCA, Pastor Keller has represented the soft liberalism of northern Evangelicalism within the denomination. He’s made a name for himself by promoting women officers, theistic evolution, women teaching and exercising authority over men in the church, and of course the Side B self-affirming gays of Revoice.
This week, the denomination’s house organ, byFaith, published an article they had solicited from Pastor Keller on the portentous occasion of the defeat of the overtures opposing Side B Revoicers. Pastor Keller has retired from the pastorate, but he hasn’t yet retired from PCA politics. Here then is his response to Revoice’s victories as it was published in the PCA’s byFaith this past week.
(NOTE: Earlier, we’ve written about the rejection of Overtures 23 and 37 by the PCA’s presbyteries and here are the voting tallies. These failed overtures called for churches and presbyteries to examine candidates for church office (including candidates for ordination to pastoral ministry) on the matter of whether or not they identified as Side B self-affirming gays; and if so, the overtures mandated those men’s exclusion from church office.)
Pastor Keller’s complete text is indented as quotes below, with his emphases.
* * *
The New Narrative
The failure of Overtures 23 and 37 to receive approval of two-thirds of our presbyteries has given rise to many interpretations of “what this means about the state of the PCA.”
Pastor Keller has some heavy lifting to do. The rejection of these overtures is his burden given that the hegemony of his Kellerites over the PCA is now secure.
The question is how Pastor Keller will wear their victory and where Kellerites will go next? The problem facing them is what to do about all the small-church pastors out there who feel Redeemerites have robbed them of their orthodox reformed church?
It won’t be a good look if Kellerites crow about their victory. Any show of tribalism just now would be uncool.
We are likely watching Pastor Keller’s valedictory speech given in the knowledge that the bees are angry so that now is not the best time to defend Revoice or Side B self-affirming gay pastors.
I want to question one of the main ways of reading the results of the vote. That narrative goes something like this:
It gets confusing because the next few paragraphs are written by Pastor Keller, but they are Pastor Keller’s representations of what his opponents are saying:
A majority of the presbyteries of the PCA are conservative. They don’t sympathize with Side B approaches to homosexuality (described below).
In his representation of his opponents’ thoughts and arguments, Pastor Keller is adroit in his efforts to sideline any discussion of the real significance of the defeat of the overtures, so he sets Revoice aside. “Revoice” isn’t mentioned once in Pastor Keller’s discussion of Overtures 23 and 37.
Instead, Pastor Keller turns the discussion away from Revoice, towards Side B self-affirming gays. Yes, it’s confusing. “What? I thought we were talking about Revoice? What’s this Side B he’s talking about? What are these Side B ‘approaches to homosexuality’? Apparently there’s not just one of them, either, since he says ‘approaches’ plural? What happened to Revoice?”
Pastor Keller continues to present readers what his opponents are thinking and saying:
A majority of the presbyteries of the PCA are conservative. They don’t sympathize with Side B approaches to homosexuality (described below).
But there is a significant minority of presbyteries that do. This is an extremely dangerous situation, because Side B always slides into Side A and the end of orthodox Christianity.
This is what conservatives are thinking and saying?
Not at all.
Take, for instance, his summary of what concerns conservatives have about Side B approaches to homosexuality. If we believe Pastor Keller, the concerns of those opposed to Side B Revoicers aren’t with Side B itself (gay identity and lifestyle). Rather, the real danger is that Side B is the entry drug to Side A (gay copulation).
Read, for instance, our Grace of Shame. There it’s quite clear Biblical Christians reject both Side B and Side A approaches to homosexuality. Both are sin. Both are in violation of the Seventh Commandment. Both have been opposed consistently in what has been written condemning Covenant Theological Seminary’s Revoice. Here on Warhorn Media, we have fifteen separate posts documenting Revoicers’ “Side B,” and opposing it:
The Side B position boils down to the view that the Bible only condemns homosexual sex acts. Everything other than sex acts—say, for instance, the gay aesthetic, attraction to same-sex people, effeminacy, spiritual friendship, co-owning a poodle, fostering a child in a household presided over by two members of the same sex committed to a joint spiritual friendship, speaking with a lisp, wearing the clothing of the opposite sex, sharing an adopted child—are not condemned in Scripture. (June 2019)
In fact, in July 2018 we opposed the promotion of Side B by Pastor Keller’s protege, PCA pastor Scott Sauls:
(Scott Sauls) is the man who accidentally ordained a deaconess at Redeemer nine years ago. This is the man who then went to Nashville and introduced us to the concept of “gay Christians” a few years later. This is the man who, attempting to sell us on gay Christianity (side B of course)…
Keep these things in mind as you read Pastor Keller’s spin on what his opponents in the PCA are thinking and saying. Contrary to his spin, the Side B position is the position supported by his protege, Scott Sauls, as well as Covenant Theological Seminary, Pastor Greg Johnson, and all his Revoicers. This is what Revoicers have told us. Why would we doubt them?
Side B “positions on homosexuality” have always been the center of the debate in the PCA. Revoice has claimed them again and again, but Pastor Keller is not mentioning Revoice here, is he?
We’re not done with Pastor Keller putting words in conservatives’ mouths. Why are conservatives concerned about the rejection of these overtures by the PCA presbyteries? What are they saying about this rejection?
Pastor Keller tells us they’re saying this:
We see where those Side B leaning presbyteries are and we know where the liberalism will begin developing, if it hasn’t already. Most of the PCA is sound, though.”
Pastor Keller summarizes his opponents’ thinking:
- Most PCA presbyteries are conservative.
- Most PCA presbyteries aren’t sympathetic to Side B.
- Still, a large minority of presbyteries are sympathetic to Side B.
- Side B always slides into Side A.
- Side A is the end of orthodox Christianity.
Pastor Keller sums up his opponents’ fears:
This view divides the PCA into a majority of conservative people and presbyteries but also a minority of Side B leaning, social justice emphasizing progressives.
After such definitive defeats suffered at the hands of the Side B Revoicers and their supporters, how will Pastor Keller reassure and pacify his opponents?
Stop here and think about warfare. Many a war has been lost after a major battle has been won. Similarly, many a war has been won, and yet the terms of peace have resulted in the continuation of asymmetrical warfare, or even the resumption of full-scale hostilities.
Pastor Keller’s article is written to keep this from happening. His Revoicers have won all the battles, thus firmly establishing Kellerites’ leadership of the PCA. But the harder work ahead of them now is pacifying their enemies.
As he undertakes this critical work, Pastor Keller is acutely aware his liberal comrades-in-arms are weary of the battle. They fear all these small-church Biblical pastors won’t go quietly into the night. Kellerites are wondering if it is really worth it to stay in a denomination where you have to play nice with rigid, small-minded presbyters who waste your time with their petty disputationalism? These guys don’t get it. Why waste energy on them? “Let’s just leave.”
Yet here stands elder statesman and father of PCA liberalism, Pastor Tim Keller, saying everything’s good. All’s well. All’s proceeding according to plan. He doesn’t want us to leave and we owe him.
Some Kellerites have already left, the latest being another “in the city, for the city” congregation in the Pacific Northwest. A pastor from their presbytery just explained privately how this church “ran the table,” winning all their battles with Biblical men of the presbytery who were trying to discipline their Redeemerite doctrine and practice. But then, the pastor reported, after the church’s pastor and session won everything at the presbytery level, they announced their departure for Anglicanism.
So, good reader, keep your eye on the ball. Sometimes the victor doesn’t want the spoils. Keller & Company are ambivalent about staying in the PCA. They don’t want to govern it unless they can pacify it.
Moving on, Pastor Keller writes:
There are considerable problems with this view.
“This view” refers to all the words above Pastor Keller has crafted as a summary of his opponents’ thoughts.
Right out of the gate we have Pastor Keller’s biggest spin:
First, as far as I know, there is not one PCA court — not one session, presbytery, or agency — that has ever endorsed Side B Christianity. [Remember, all emphases are original.]
Pastor Keller’s first statement is a whopper. It’s such a big one, he might actually get away with it. In fact, what he’s written here has gotten Pastor Keller in very hot water with all the Side B self-affirming gay Revoicers over on Twitter. (Specifically, check out the Twitter feeds of Revoice founder Nate Collins and his wife Sara, as well as Greg Johnson.)
But you, dear reader, keep it firmly established in your mind that the animal with big hind legs that hops and has tall straight ears and eats carrots and reproduces like rabbits is, in fact, a rabbit. Your row of carrots is disappearing, yet the silly thing assures you he’s not eating them. He’s not a rabbit, he tells you.
Now then, you’re the gardener. What are you going to do? You can believe him or you can save your carrots. Those are your choices.
Pastor Keller continues:
While there is no exact way to determine the meaning of this term [Side B]…
Ah yes, meanings and definitions of words are a bit muddy, but maybe Pastor Keller can help:
it is fair to characterize it like this:
People attracted to the same sex, though remaining celibate in obedience to the Bible, still can call themselves ‘gay Christians’ and see their attraction as a part of their identity which should be acknowledged like one’s race or nationality.
Actually, not at all “like one’s race or nationality,” but why quibble? Now watch where he leads us:
If it is true that the presbyteries rejecting Overtures 23 and 37 were Side B leaning or sympathetic, you would expect to see at least some scattered sessions in those presbyteries which have come out and approved it.
“Sessions” who have “come out and approved it?”
What a ridiculous defense. Pastor Keller promoted and employed women officers in his church for decades, but of course he never had his session “come out and approve it.” Sessions never approve their moral and doctrinal errors. They practice them, then dare their presbytery to discipline them.
Liberals fight from the shadows. They never stand in the light.
But I see none. If anyone can point to a session or presbytery that even expresses support for the Side B approach, please let me know.
Such disingenuous bombast. But hey, he asks us to let him know:
March 24, 2022
Dear Pastor Keller,
This is to inform you of scores of sessions and presbyteries, as well as profs at the denomination’s college and seminary, along with administrators of those higher educational institutions and the denominational agencies, who never stop expressing their support for the “Side B approach.”
I won’t bother providing proof. It’s out there washing like a tsunami through the denomination, as you know full well.
So really, I’ve written only to say, publicly, that you lie.
Tim Bayly (Rev.)
Senior Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church; Evangel Presbytery
Pastor Keller continues:
Second, the PCA’s Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality considered this Side B view and clearly rejected it. That report was overwhelmingly commended as “biblically faithful” at the last General Assembly and approved without objection for distribution among our churches. If there were any who would have voted against it (and no such votes were registered), they are more likely to have been those who thought the report was not conservative enough, not those who wanted to broaden its standards. I don’t know of anyone who spoke or wrote against the ad-interim report because it rejected Side B and they wanted Side B affirmed.
If I thought public deception by ministers of the Word and sacrament were funny, I’d say Pastor Keller’s paragraph above is hilarious. Why?
Because not one single time is there even a mention of “Side B” in the 32,401 words of Pastor Keller’s committee’s report from his Ad-Interim Committee on Human Sexuality which he tells us “considered this Side B view and clearly rejected it.”
If Pastor Keller and his committee were all so zealous to condemn this sin he solemnly assures us is nowhere in the PCA, why did they not mention it? In fact, why did they studiously avoid mentioning it?
This is something readers would do well to cogitate over given the endless talk of Side B which has been central to Covenant Theological Seminary’s Revoicers, their speakers, and their conferences. They never stop saying and writing and promoting “Side B.” They’ve done so on the phone with me, carefully explaining “Side B” to me.
Further, in Missouri Presbytery’s own report on Revoice, they define Revoice as Side B, using the expression “Side B” more than sixty times in their document.
But now, apparently the new tack is to hide it completely, then deny it’s anywhere anytime held by anyone.
Pastor Keller’s fellow liberals have decided “Side B” is a non-starter and it’s best to hide it in the closet, now. So they don’t mention it in their study committee report, but a couple years later Pastor Keller claims they condemned it fulsomely in their report. Then, piling on, he solemnly assures us no one anywhere today believes in Side B. Not anywhere in the PCA.
What a mishmash he makes. We ask ourselves the obvious: why did Pastor Keller and his study committee go to such great lengths to condemn Side B if no one anywhere in the PCA has ever supported it?
But we remember he and his study committee never mentioned “Side B” in their report, so there’s that…
Pastor Keller moves on:
To characterize the institution of the PCA as being in danger of endorsing liberalism in general and Side B in particular is unsubstantiated and seriously misleading.
What a relief. We have Pastor Keller’s word for it.
Third, in light of points #1 and #2, we can conclude further that the reasons for the ‘no’ votes by presbyters on the BCO amendments must have been based on matters other than an incipient liberalism.
Pastor Keller assures readers the rejection of Overtures 23 and 37 by PCA presbyteries was most certainly not any commitment they have to liberalism, such as self-affirming Side Bness. The voting down of Overtures 23 and 37 had nothing at all to do with any incipient liberalism. The promotion of homosexual aesthetics and identity is absolutely not incipient liberalism.
So what was the whole thing about?
It’s time to get the pillow, rip off the pillowcase, and fill the room with feathers. Too much clarity in this room. Let’s cloud things up with a little “extreme diversity.”
Again, the reasons for votes against the overtures were extremely diverse. Yet after hearing many, many of them, I think the common uniting concern was that the overtures could do more harm than good. Some thought they would exclude some people unfairly while allowing others in who learn to master a new vocabulary. They saw the overtures as blunt instruments that could do damage to genuine, conservative Presbyterian believers.
Once again, Pastor Keller doesn’t mention Revoice. Instead, he assures everyone:
- What was really at stake was most certainly not Side B.
- What was really at stake was most certainly not homosexuality.
- Rather, what was at stake was a shared desire to protect “genuine, conservative, Presbyterian believers.”
Honestly, does any person of sound mind think Pastor Keller is being truthful when he concludes his explanation of the repudiation of Overtures 23 and 37 by saying the overtures were voted down by men who “saw the overtures as blunt instruments that could do damage to genuine, conservative Presbyterian believers?”
Pastor Keller isn’t laughing, but quite seriously claims these overtures were voted down in order to protect “genuine, conservative, Presbyterianism.”
It would be disrespectful to respond to Pastor Keller’s lies with the kid-glove treatment. He’s a man universally revered within the PCA, so give him what he deserves. Don’t patronize him.
Other “nays” came from people who were sure there would be unintended consequences but were unsure of what they would be because of confusing wording or the institution of new investigational systems and standards in our presbyteries and churches. Still other negative votes were those of old-fashioned conservativism — ones that simply dislike change and saw the overtures as unnecessary.
He tells readers that some of the “no” votes were due to “old-fashioned” conservatives who “simply dislike change.”
Change? What change? Is Pastor Keller referring to the barring of self-affirming gays from church office as “change?”
If so, he’s implying that the steady-state economy of the PCA is the mainstreaming and unquestioning acceptance of self-affirming gays as members and church officers.
But is this true when the Christian Church across two millennia has never allowed self-affirming gays to be members or officers?
We may safely say old-fashioned conservatives in the PCA did not oppose the overtures because they wanted the PCA to continue to allow self-affirming gays to continue to be ordained.
Pastor Keller continues:
In every and any case, the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries cannot be proven to be more theologically liberal than the ‘yes-voting’ ones. In fact, some of the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries are those that trend toward our most conservative ranks.
This is a lie. The ‘no-voting’ presbyteries most certainly were more theologically liberal. In fact, for many years we have watched some of these same presbyteries demonstrate their liberalism on the national level.
Take women officers, for example: a few years back, several PCA presbyteries got together and promoted women officers in the PCA. Who were those presbyteries?
Pastor Keller/Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Metro New York Presbytery (PCA), Metro Atlanta Presbytery, Philadelphia Presbytery, and Northern California Presbytery jumped on the bandwagon, as we reported here on Baylyblog on April 21, 2009:
The same position statement [calling for woman officers] acted on by Northern California, Metro New York, and Philadelphia Presbyteries has now also been presented to and adopted by Metro Atlantic Presbytery. Although they changed some of the prefatory wording, they approved essentially the same document approved by Northern California and Metro New York Presbyteries.
So how did these presbyteries pushing for women officers a decade ago vote on Overtures 23 and 37?
Three of four voted the overtures down. Yet Pastor Keller publicly claims that “In every and any case, the ‘no-voting’ presbyteries cannot be proven to be more theologically liberal than the ‘yes-voting’ ones.”
Note his “in every and any case.”
Pastor Keller’s circle of presbyteries tried to get the PCA to approve woman officers, and what? That’s no indication they’re liberal?
Now they vote down overtures intending to keep self-affirming gays from being officers, and what? That too is no indication they’re liberal?
Let’s dig a little deeper into which presbyteries voted down Overtures 23 and 37 to see if “any” of the rest of them are liberal, also?
- Central Indiana Presbytery (liberal; my former fellow presbyters)
- Chicago Metro Presbytery (liberal)
- Columbus Metro (liberal)
- Hills and Plains Presbytery (liberal; check out their 11 men here)
- Metro Atlanta Presbytery (liberal; check out their 8 men here)
- Metro New York Presbytery (uh-huh, liberal)
- Missouri Presbytery (uh-huh, liberal)
- Northern California Presbytery (liberal; check out their 6 men here)
- Northern New England Presbytery (liberal)
- Pacific Presbytery (liberal)
- Pacific Northwest Presbytery (liberal)
- Piedmont Triad Presbytery (liberal; check out their 5 men here)
- Potomac Presbytery (liberal; check out their 8 men here)
- South Texas Presbytery (liberal; check out their 8 men here)
- Southern New England Presbytery (liberal; check out their 6 men here)
- Wisconsin Presbytery (liberal; my former church in this presbytery)
Now let’s remind ourselves why this list was necessary. Pastor Keller denies that in “any case” there is a connection between presbyteries voting down these overtures and “liberalism.” Is Pastor Keller telling the truth?
Pastor Keller contines:
As far as I can tell and as far as our documented actions can affirm, an overwhelming super-majority of the PCA does not accept the biblical legitimacy of a Side B perspective. In a denomination of our size I’m sure there must be individuals — both lay and perhaps some ordained — who do. But to characterize the institution of the PCA as being in danger of endorsing liberalism in general and Side B in particular is unsubstantiated and seriously misleading.
“Perhaps some ordained” men in the PCA “accept the Biblical legitimacy of a Side B perspective.”
Pastor Keller’s dissimulations and equivocations multiply.
The Old Narrative
Well then, what is going on? I have a view that is possibly wrong but is my best guess right now. What is going on now is, with one significant difference (see below), what has been going on in our denomination almost from the beginning.
Prior to reading this article by Pastor Keller, many readers of byFaith would have thought the defeat of Overtures 23 and 37 indicated that the theological liberalism of Side B Revoicers was solidifying its grasp on the PCA, but here Pastor Keller commences another deep spin on the PCA:
The PCA has been divided between a minority of ministers who interpreted the Westminster Standards in stricter ways and a majority who interpreted them in broader ways. An example is the regulative principle of worship.
Oh my, he is good. Here Pastor Keller does an imitation of the Apostle Paul when he was caught between the Sadducees and Pharisees, all of whom were furious with him:
But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6)
The tactic is called “divide and conquer.” So which side is Pastor Keller posturing himself as belonging to here as he raises the issue of that infamous slough of Reformed bickering, the “regulative principle of worship?”
The issue isn’t sodomy. The issue isn’t Side B Covenant Theological Seminary profs, administrators, and graduates.
The issue is a capella Psalter-only nitpickers. The issue is the no-drama in worship fuddy-duddies. The issue is those fence-the-Lord’s-table legalists. The issue is no-images-in-worship neanderthals. The issue is the crusty orthodox men who won’t allow toddlers to join their parents at the Lord’s supper. The issue is those imbeciles giving way to hissy-fits over intinction.
Again, forget sodomy and self-affirming Side B Revoicers and, instead, think about singing hymns in worship. Think about pictures in worship. Think about drama in worship. Think about welcoming babies and toddlers to the Lord’s table. Think about all those rigid pastors who guilt-trip people just before the Lord’s supper is served.
Then ask yourself who you really want to win this split of the PCA? Surely not these prehistoric cavemen going all rigid with us over this thing called the “regulative principle of worship.”
Pastor Keller continues:
The understanding of what actual worship practices are enjoined and forbidden differs widely in the denomination. This difference (which many in the stricter group bemoan) can’t be dealt with by “getting people to stick closer to the Confession.” I know few if any ministers who take an exception to the regulative principle of worship. It is the interpretation of it that is at issue. At several other points the differences are similarly matters of interpretation.
Pastor Keller here condescends to his readers, explaining that this division, also, has no substance. It’s simply a matter of interpretation and application.
As Pastor Keller undercuts and trims Scripture’s doctrines of sexuality and creation, disobeying his denomination’s polity as well, and strewing schism in his wake, he stops for a minute to explain that everything everyone is fighting over is simply a big misunderstanding.
If only they’d had his gift of exculpatory peacemaking at Ft. Sumpter and Pearl Harbor.
Forget sodomy and Revoice and Side Bism and Missouri Presbytery and self-affirming gays in church office within the PCA. Instead, click his link to an article he wrote on the evils of confessional subscription back twenty-one years ago:
(For a deeper look at the differences, though this article is now dated in many ways, see “How Then Shall We Live Together: Subscription and the Future of the PCA.”)
Pastor Keller continues:
Any effort to give names to these groups makes one side look better than the other. Is one group “Confessional” and the other “Evangelical”? Is the one side “Doctrinalist” and the other side “Missional”? I use these terms just to help readers get the gist of what I’m talking about and I’ll not use them again because I do not want the labels to rob anyone of proper respect or to brand them uncharitably.
Far be it from us to attribute unkindness, let alone divisiveness, to such an avuncular fellow. Look how concerned he is to avoid labels and brands like “Revoice” and “Side B.” Pastor Keller has such a gentle aversion to the gross simplifications caused by labels and brands. They’re so unhelpful.
What is especially grievous about this division, however, is how each side came to deeply mistrust the other’s spiritual and theological maturity. We did not just disagree about worship, we mocked the alternative to our view. One group laughed at “happy clappy” shallowness while the other spoke of the stiff, formal services of the “frozen chosen.”
“May I? Please? Point of order, Mr. Moderator. It was my understanding the motion on the floor had to do with Revoice, Side B, and the ordination of self-affirming gays. Am I missing something? Did we table the motion? Has someone put forward a motion on worship or subscriptionism? What happened to the ordination of gays? Help me out please, Mr. Moderator.”
But no, Pastor Keller is off and running, channelling the healing blather of Oprah Winfrey and the piped-in nostrums we now have as the effluent of loudspeakers in our brand-new hospital here in Bloomington teaching patients and their visitors mindfulness:
Hope is hopeful. Do you see it?
We love our differences.
Stretch your legs.
Lift your arms to the sky.
Take a deep breath.
Think about all that is good in this beautiful world.
Think about yourself.
See yourself as others see you.
Aren’t you beautiful?
Now then, having centered ourselves, let’s get back to Pastor Keller:
The human heart wants to justify itself, and in the PCA we have often not been willing to chalk up our perennial differences to sincere but differing ways of reading the Confession and Bible. Rather, we’ve assumed that they stem from defects in character — we mistrust each other’s motives.
Proverbs warns us against being naive and credulous, but that’s what Pastor Keller wants from us. We should present ourselves in presbytery meetings soft and ready to trust the sincerity of those promoting schism and error. They’re wrong, but they mean well. They tell us this and we believe them.
All those years Pastor Keller spent rebelling against the PCA’s Book of Church Order by promoting women officers in his church, he meant well. All his motives were godly. All those years he spent saying authority in marriage is mutual and the husband only had what Pastor Keller labelled “tie-breaking authority,” he meant well. His motives were righteous. All those years Pastor Keller spent promoting his canard across the PCA, “a woman can do anything a non-ordained man can do in the church,” he meant well. His motives were holy. All those years Pastor Keller spent promoting the demise of Scripture’s account of Creation within the PCA, he only meant well. He simply desired to avoid the intellectual embarrassment of Scripture’s anti-scientism which has caused so many scholars to turn from Christ. All those years Pastor Keller was saying all those things that trimmed away the edges of the coin of God’s truth, he meant well. He only wanted the PCA to have a flagship congregation up north, in the city for the city, which could protect them from being smeared with the Confederate flag and southern secessionism.
The tragedy of it all when, as Pastor Keller assures us, the men and women of the PCA are fighting simply because they have “sincere but differing ways of reading the Confession and Bible.”
Sincere but differing. Differing but sincere. Sincere and sincere. Opposite but sincere. Wrong but sincere. Contrary to the Confession, but sincere. Denial of Scripture’s very words, but sincere. Violations of the Book of Church Order, but sincere.
Pastor Keller mourns those souls who are so myopic or insecure as to declare violations of Scripture and the Confession to be motivated by defects in character. But what about American presbyterianism’s historic Preliminary Principle Number Four which was adopted by the PCA:
That truth is in order to goodness; and a great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour’s rule, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
Pastor Keller rejects such judgmental thinking. Truth is not in order to goodness. By their fruits ye shall not know them. It is of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. There is no connection between faith and practice. Attacks upon the Confession and Scripture do not stem from defects in character. We must not question each other’s motives.
It’s hard to write a more clear denial of this Fourth Preliminary Principle than Pastor Keller has written here as the center of his call for a truce and peace.
Pastor Keller continues:
The broad group thinks the strict one is legalistic in spirit, wanting to think of itself as ‘valiant for truth’, wanting to feel superior to everyone because they are stricter. The strict group thinks the broad one wants the love of the world, wants to be popular with the culture, and is in the process of selling out in order to be seen as relevant.
The explaining continues, informing us it’s all about people and their feelings. No one ever stands for truth. They’re all simply trying to satisfy their emotional needs.
This is precisely what orthodox Roman Catholics say about Martin Luther and his Reformation. To Pastor Keller, it’s inconceivable that any man is motivated by any objective love of God and His truth.
Truth doesn’t make anyone free. Non-judgmentalism and mutual respect and acceptance are what makes men free. If we just trust each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt, all our differences will be healed because we’ll all feel so much better; we’ll be so much more integrated, emotionally. We don’t need truth. We need healing.
Are these group assessments fair?
Pastor Keller is referring here to those he claims are “legalistic in spirit” and want to think of themselves as “valiant for truth.” Is his a fair assessment of them, he asks?
Pastor Keller is referring here to those he claims are “wanting to feel superior to everyone because they are stricter.” Is his a fair assessment of them, he asks?
Pastor Keller is referring here to his claim, above, that the PCA’s conservatives think the liberals “want the love of the world” and desire “to feel superior to everyone because they are stricter.” Is his a fair assessment of them, he asks?
Pastor Keller claims that the PCA’s conservatives think he and his fellow Kellerites are “selling out in order to be seen as relevant.” Is his a fair assessment of conservatives, he asks?
The strict group thinks the broad one wants the love of the world, wants to be popular with the culture, and is in the process of selling out in order to be seen as relevant. Is this assessment fair?
Pastor Keller now answers these questions he’s asked:
No. Paul’s statement that love “thinks no evil” does not mean we should be naïve about the reality of sin. But it must mean at the very least that believers should give each other the benefit of the doubt, as Scripture and our Confession require, rather than assuming the worst.
Don’t be naïve, but don’t assume the worst.
Does Pastor Keller really believe any of his opponents in the PCA have assumed the worst about him or his fellow Kellerites? If he does, what evidence does he put forward in proof of it? Has anyone in his liberal party ever anywhere been disciplined? Ever anywhere been rebuked or censured, let alone suspended from the Lord’s supper? If the conservatives are assuming the worst about the liberals of the PCA, why aren’t they lifting a finger to discipline them?
Why no censures of Pastor Keller and his Redeemerites? They’ve trampled on doctrine after doctrine of Scripture and the Confession, saying and writing things never embraced by the church across two-thousand years of church history about sexuality, marriage, the diaconate, Creation, and on it goes, yet they have not a single martyr who has suffered at the hands of their conservative opponents’ discipline to show for it. Certainly if the conservatives had been “assuming the worst” about Pastor Keller and his Kellerites, at least one or two of them would have wounds and scars to show for it.
Yet, it must be admitted that all they have to show for it is their victory in Speck vs. Missouri Presbytery and the failure of Overtures 23 and 37—hurray and hurrah!
Maybe his conservative opponents will confess their sins if first, Pastor Keller confesses his own:
In the PCA we have not done that, and it is worse than ever today. But in truth it has been going on for decades. I’ve seen and heard it and at times I have participated in it. I think this has sowed the seeds for what we see today. And what is that?
May we please clarify what “it” is which Pastor Keller is confessing?
Anyhow, it’s time to blame things on President Trump (who shall remain nameless);
Polarization in the PCA Mirrors Polarization in the Culture
During the last five to six years, the entire nation has become more polarized politically and culturally. No matter your position, the alternative viewpoints to yours have become louder, stronger, and more extreme in society. Some are seeking to re-read the ‘strict’ and ‘broad’ groups as being the same as — and as connected to — the conservatives and progressives that are battling in the culture wars on the national stage. For example, many now want to name the broader PCA group ‘progressives’ and tie them to the activism of the secular Left. If a PCA church emphasizes helping the poor or disadvantaged, it may be said they are ‘into critical race theory.’ If they voted against Overtures 23 and 37 it may be said they are sympathetic to gay ideology.
This effort to tie the old strict-broad division in the PCA to the culture wars of the country has not been without any effect. Many folks who would not ordinarily vote or side with the stricter party did so on Overtures 23 and 37 at the 2021 GA. And I’ve even heard people within the ‘broad’ group call themselves ‘the progressives’. What matters of course is to be biblical and Reformed, not to position ourselves on some changing spectrum of political-cultural beliefs.
Substantive issues in the PCA are largely the infiltration of politics and its culture wars.
With that reproof, Pastor Keller, brings his attempt to pacify his PCA by pleading his theological credentials:
However, a minister who believes women should not be ordained elders, who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, who believes in orthodox Reformed theology, who believes some people are predestined from all eternity to be damned, who believes people are going to hell if they don’t believe savingly in Jesus, who believes homosexual practice and desire are sin, who believes we are all descended from a real, specially created Adam and Eve — is not progressive by any fair use of the English language or by any understanding of cultural reality.
This is the list of doctrinal commitments Pastor Keller proposes for the terms of peace in the PCA. Let’s take them one by one.
First, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes women should not be ordained elders.”
The PCA will have woman officers, just not “ordained” woman elders. Now that word “ordained” is a tell, and let me explain why.
Pastor Keller had ex officio members of his session who were women with voice but no vote. Further, one longtime pastor on Pastor Keller’s pastoral staff who attended those session meetings explained to me that the women were free to speak, but the pastoral staff was expected to be quiet.
In other words, Pastor Keller wants women to be free to be officers and free to be ex officio members of the elders board with voice but no vote, but promises he won’t ordain those women. Sneaky, isn’t it? And how many of those reading his article here have friends who have been pastors on Pastor Keller’s staff and have explained this, and thus are in a position to know the significance of his inclusion of that qualifying word, “ordained?”
So Scripture and the Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order lose if his first term of peace is adopted.
Second, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes in the inerrancy of Scripture.”
Honestly, what does this “inerrancy of Scripture” mean anymore when all the Evangelical Bible publishers are amending the sacred text, deleting politically incorrect expressions and words such as “man,” “father,” “brother,” “effeminates,” and “Jews?” Sure, all the legacy institutions and denominations have the word “inerrancy” in their statements of faith, but in doctrine and practice, the commitment has become a joke.
Third, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes in orthodox Reformed theology.”
This is meaningless, as everything written above shows. Take, for instance, Pastor Keller’s claim that men voted against Overtures 23 and 37 out of concern to protect orthodox Reformed theology.
Fourth, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes some people are predestined from all eternity to be damned.”
Yes, but do readers understand Pastor Keller’s own heterodox doctrine of Hell? Our critique of Pastor Keller’s position on Hell is in four parts, and the first in the series can be read here. This simply to say that Pastor Keller’s doctrine of Hell is a coin of truth he’s trimmed.
Fifth, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes people are going to hell if they don’t believe savingly in Jesus.”
The strength of any doctrinal statement is not what is affirmed, but what is denied. Anyone who’s spent half a day reading universalists who claim to be Christian knows a Mack truck can be driven through Pastor Keller’s statement “believe savingly in Jesus.”
Too, may one “believe savingly” without repentance, about which the Confession states:
WCF Chapter XV; III Although repentance be not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.
Sixth, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes homosexual practice and desire are sin.”
But what about identity? What about effeminacy? Are we to leave behind all the Westminster Larger Catechism condemns as sin under the Seventh Commandment?
The most superficial experience and examination of the PCA men’s Revoice conferences overwhelms one with, not just the presence, but often the advocacy of these sins condemned by Scripture as listed by the Westminster divines:
Unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behaviour, immodest apparel; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage, idleness, unchaste company; lascivious dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others. (Larger Catechism, Question 139)
Seventh, Pastor Keller claims unity and peace in the PCA will be safe if a man “believes we are all descended from a real, specially created Adam and Eve.”
Again, anyone who’s spent even a short time reading Pastor Keller on Creation is aware how little significance there is to what he writes above when it comes to debates over evolution, theistic or otherwise. Note that Professor Jack Collins at Covenant Theological Seminary is allowed to articulate and defend this view of Adam and Eve:
If someone should decide that there were, in fact, more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning of humankind, then, in order to maintain good sense, he or she should envision these humans as a single tribe. Adam would then be the chieftain of this tribe (preferably produced before the others), and Eve would be his wife. This tribe “fell” under the leadership of Adam and Eve.
Keeping such suppositions of Pastor Keller and his PCA colleagues in mind, we begin to understand the meaninglessness of any confession that simply states Adam was “specially created.”
Looking more carefully at these statements Pastor Keller is proposing as the basis of the theological purity, unity, and peace in the PCA going forward, what is most evident is Pastor Keller’s inability to understand truth is not permeable, malleable, and subjective. Read his formulations of the parameters of the PCA’s boundaries within which we ought to trust each other. They’re surreal. Does he really think we can trust a grandmother who looks and smells and howls like a wolf? Does he take us all for Little Red Riding Hood?
So why is Pastor Keller so fearful of doctrinal precision? Why does he avoid it like the plague?
Here, he gives us another tell:
(For the record, I have lived in Manhattan for 33 years and I heartily believe in all the above-mentioned positions. Nothing about being here has ever inclined me away from those commitments in the slightest. Living here may, however, give me a particularly clear picture of how thoroughly conservative the PCA really is from the standpoint of mainstream American culture.)
Living in New York City for thirty-three years has done a number on Pastor Keller’s moral and doctrinal commitments. He may protest he’s just as firm in his commitments today as he was when he first began ministering in Manhattan, but most of us feel sad listening to his protest. We think the man doth protest too much.
One thing Pastor Keller needs to realize, though, is that many of us have spent the same number of years or more ministering in cultural contexts equally or more hostile to Christian doctrine and morals than Manhattan. PCA men in the deep south may be intimidated by what Pastor Keller says about the pagan context of his work these past thirty-three years, but many of us have had temptations to go all mushy every bit as toxic and intense as those of New York City. Think about Seattle. Think about Boulder. Think about Boston. Think about New England. Think about Portland. Think about Madison and Bloomington, and on it goes.
We all choose our path and then approach death defending it. As my Dad said before his death, “people get old the way they lived their lives.” Doctrinal and moral imprecision and compromise are lifetime habits confirmed by lifetimes of preaching and lifetimes of feelings of insecurity in front of the watching world.
It’s sin to compromise God’s truth in the face of Western culture today, but the sin is perfectly understandable to most of us and we sympathize deeply. In fact, so deeply that we must fight against it in others or we’ll waver and give in to it ourselves.
Now then, Pastor Keller’s conclusion:
Conclusion: It is not true that the PCA is in imminent danger of becoming a progressive, mainline Protestant church.
I think the sooner we lay that new “narrative” to rest the better, and the sooner we can get back to our real work. We must seek the spiritual health, scriptural integrity, ministry effectiveness, and unity of the church. And we must do it together — in the face of our long-time differences on how we read and practice the Westminster Standards.
Sorry, dear Pastor Keller, I’m not on your bus. I don’t trust your driving or knowledge of the rules of the road.
How can we do that?
First, we should acknowledge how much doctrinal unity we really have. We have a remarkable amount of consensus. There’s more than enough common ground doctrinally upon which to build a denomination. Are we willing to admit that?
In truth, we don’t have doctrinal unity, and this sad fact is most evident at the gaps in the wall where the Devil is attacking God’s Word and truth today.
Second, we should acknowledge the complexity of the reasons of why we really differ. The reasons are temperamental, cultural, and historical as well as hermeneutical.
The reasons aren’t complex at all. Not in my heart and mind and not in your heart and mind, dear brother. Fear of man and being ashamed of our Lord’s Words have never been complicated at all.
Third, all revivals and renewals begin with repentance. We should stop judging one another’s motives so readily — the strict assuming the broad are worldly and the broad assuming the strict are legalistic. We must repent and forgive each other.
The place you choose to call for repentance is understandable given the nature of your commitment to truth.
Fourth, we need far more face-to-face conversations — not social media or internet debates. If we did, it would make a difference. For example, before we post our articles and thoughts online, we might be more likely to run them by brothers and friends in the other “camp” first (as I did this article).
Almost twenty years ago, I wrote Pastor Keller offering to get together, but of course, who was I? Not hearing anything in response, I repeat my offer, here. Sadly though, at our ages, both of us have firmly established trajectories which are, we must admit, entirely incompatible. I’m struggling to remember the precise words of a quote I read years ago to the effect that sometimes the problem isn’t that we don’t understand each other, but that we understand each other very well, and know our positions are incompatible, are mutually exclusive.
This is what I wish and pray happens within the PCA and every other Biblically reformed denomination as we face the hatred of God which is everywhere around us: that we believe once more in argument and fight our way through to God’s truth being embraced fully, thereby freeing the people of God from all the chains the Spirit of the Age has bound us with; and that we learn again to love each other through the practice of loving and faithful discipline.
What I propose as a first step in that direction is that, as I mentioned near the beginning of this response, someone in Missouri Presbytery love Pastor Greg Johnson enough to bring him under discipline. And may God give him the grace to repent.
Certainly, the differences are not insignificant, but in my four decades in the PCA I have been encouraged over and over again about how General Assembly study committees have created consensus yet laid down the necessary theological boundaries.
At my first General Assembly, in Jackson in 1975, we passed the “Pastoral Letter Concerning the Experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church Today” which was a model for the future. The letter laid down firm biblical guidelines — denying that the regenerate must also have a baptism of the Spirit to be equipped for ministry, denying tongues as a sign of the baptism of the Spirit, and urging against an inappropriate obsession with miracles. Yet the letter did not take a complete ‘cessationist’ view and urged “a spirit of forbearance among those holding differing views regarding the spiritual gifts.”
Yes, in past years the assembly has had study committees that have done stellar work for the unity of the church, and I have recommended these older documents to brothers and sisters inside and outside the church countless times, even giving away printed copies to those needing them.
But Pastor Keller continues:
The 2017 Report on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church followed this same path, affirming all the restrictions on women in office, but allowing a diversity of practices with regard to areas where the Constitution doesn’t dictate.
Sadly, I would not recommend anyone read Pastor Keller’s report which majored in hiding the substantive disagreements permeating the church in the Western world today. It reminded me of a similar paper called Evangelicals and Catholics Together trying for a rapprochement between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
As the paper on sexuality Pastor Keller and other study committee members produced was not the finest moment of the authors and their fellow presbyters at last year’s assembly, ECT was not the finest moment of its authors including Richard John Neuhaus, Chuck Colson, and Jim Packer.
Happily though, it’s been forgotten, now. Studies in ambiguity surrounding conflicted issues are never memorable.
Now then, Pastor Keller will have these last words, and may God bless him.
The 1999 Creation Study Report served the same function.
In every case the reports did not add to the Constitution but reaffirmed it and allowed diversity within its stated guidelines and limitations.
As a result, we have the PCA we have today — strong and large enough to have real tensions, yet united around a wonderfully rich and remarkably comprehensive Confession. It has taken almost 50 years to grow the PCA with its many strong institutions and organizations, let alone hundreds of churches. To preserve and steward all the gifts God has given the PCA, let us build on our common love of these wise and biblical confessional documents by speaking the truth in love to each other.