(The numbers introducing various comments refer back to associated elements in the previous narrative.)
1. Liturgical unity/uniformity
1.1 By his own admission, Mr. Phelps was received and ordained into the PCA in a time when it lacked the liturgical unity/uniformity that he now seeks. This defect has troubled his conscience for some time, to the point where he now considers the PCA to be unfaithful to the Westminster Standards regarding worship.
1.2 To be sure, personal conscience must be respected. However, if with the passing of time, Mr. Phelps’ conscience has become wounded by the diversity of liturgical practice within the PCA, and if that diversity existed at the time he entered the PCA and its ministry, should he now be publicly criticizing the PCA as being unfaithful to its constitutional standards?
1.3 In addition, appealing to personal conscience as a public officeholder is a dangerously complicated matter. Minimally, we should be able to find a trail of unsuccessful attempts—at presbytery level, at general assembly level—whereby Mr. Phelps tried to persuade others to agree with his judgment of conscience regarding alleged liturgical and confessional infidelity. In principle, any appeal to personal conscience, especially in the church, must at some point be universalizable—that is: the objector must desire that everyone agree with and share his moral judgment. Where is the evidence of such responsible churchmanship on Mr. Phelps’ part?
1.4 Fact: Regarding the URCNA and what many people term “‘the’ regulative principle” of worship, it must be observed that the history, ethos, and practice of the URCNA are not at all identical to the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. If that is the standard by which Mr. Phelps is condemning liturgical diversity in the PCA, what consistent moral claim would justify his seeking to identify with a group of churches that are not governed by or do not observe that standard?
1.5 Fact: Despite the attempts of some leaders to force the URCNA into their mold of pre-twentieth century liturgical style and practice, the URCs throughout the US and Canada display a wide variety of worship practices. Songs are consistorially adopted for use in public worship—a practice that ensures diversity, both of quality and content, in the hymns and songs used in public worship. There is no federation-wide prescribed liturgical order; churches are free to incorporate—and they do incorporate—a wide variety of activities within public worship that would not fit with the what some insist is “‘the’ regulative principle of worship.”
1.6 Because he has not identified which liturgical practices throughout the PCA are not “necessarily Reformed,” as he now seeks to enter his URC, Mr. Phelps has established his personal conscience as the arbiter and pivot-point for determining those liturgical practices that are “necessarily Reformed.” Would these perhaps include: Exclusive psalmody? Bible songs/hymns? Weekly communion? Substituting grape juice for wine? Music leader(s)? Women ushers? Women reading Scripture in public worship? Weekly reading of the Ten Commandments? Pronouncing the salutation and benediction with uplifted hands? Projecting songs for public worship on a screen? Incorporating a time of mutual greeting with the worship service? An interactive, Q/A style of preaching?
Who knows? With the URCNA having far less connectionalism than the PCA, were he to become a URC minister, Mr. Phelps could genuinely build his own church according to his own liturgical (and theological) preferences and predilections! Especially if it’s a new church plant.
2. Vestments and ceremonial liturgy
2.1 Fact: A number of ministers in the URCNA wear
vestments robes as they conduct public worship. If it is replied that among the URCNA, such vestments robes are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not over a matter of principle.
2.2 Fact: Many URCNA ministers respect and follow the church year liturgical calendar for public worship. Again, if it is replied that among the URCNA, such liturgical observances are not nearly as elaborate as in some PCAs, then the quibble is over a matter of degree, not principle.
2.3 Because Mr. Phelps nowhere identifies the specifics of his conscientious objection, any churches receiving him as pastor would be at risk of importing private, personal predilections and preferences as normative. (For example, would having Advent candles lit throughout a worship service violate Mr. Phelps’ conscience? Would using guitars for accompaniment? Incorporating within public worship a time of sharing personal prayer requests? Each of these is practiced somewhere in the URCNA.)
2.4 Once again, if these and similar practices already occur throughout the URCNA, which some would surely describe as going “in the higher church direction,” should not Mr. Phelps and his conscience be directed elsewhere, lest in a few years he be compelled to pen another essay, this one entitled, “Grateful and Grieved: My Goodbye to the URCNA”?
3. Toleration of “FV” outside the PCA, and throughout the URCNA
3.1 Mr. Phelps alleges that the PCA has now come to tolerate “the Federal Vision,” whose teachings he alleges to strike at the foundation of the gospel. He identifies key components of that vision, and evaluates them in terms of the Westminster Standards, which elements qualify “Federal Vision” as heresy and whose alleged toleration now prompts him to leave the PCA.
3.2 Fact: URCNA office-bearers subscribe to, and are bound by, not the Westminster Standards, not the theology (or theologoumena) some derive from the Westminster Standards, but by the Three Forms of Unity—again, not by Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, not by various theologoumena some derive from Ursinus or Reformed scholasticism, but only by the ipsissimis verbis of the Three Forms of Unity.
3.3 All of this becomes important when Mr. Phelps insists upon a “bi-covenantal” dichotomy of a covenant of works (Law) and a covenant of grace (Gospel) as a measure of orthodoxy.
Fact: This theologoumenon is not binding within the URCNA.
Fact: A significant number of URC office-bearers in good standing reject and repudiate the theologoumenon of a meritorious prelapsarian covenant of works.
3.4 Mr. Phelps insists that the Westminster Standards teach that the divine grace associated with baptism is given only to the elect.
Fact: The classic, historic, traditional liturgical Form for the Baptism of Infants (Form Number 1) used in the URCNA—the Form on which most URC members were nursed, fed, and grown—says, among other things, the following:
“And when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal” (italics added).
“Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as member of Thine only begotten Son, and so adopted us to be Thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism” (italics added).
Fact: In other words, the URCNA is rooted in a liturgical-ecclesiastical-theological tradition, has embraced that tradition, and has sought to continue that tradition which has historically taught “that baptism is always efficacious when administered.” This means that every child presented for baptism receives the bona fide divine sign and seal of grace at baptism, given in terms of the promises spoken long ago to Abraham.
3.5 Fact: A significant number of URCNA office-bearers in good standing believe and teach that good works are necessary unto salvation, and that a believer’s good works will play an important role at the final judgment.
3.6 Fact: The URCNA have for years been engaged in intense ecumenical conversations with the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), on several levels, including both the federative and local levels. The CanRC Acts of General Synod Carman 2013 reports (Art. 129) that several consistories wrote to the synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the [CanRC] . . . .”
4. The viability of NAPARC v. the impulses of sectarianism
4.1 You can find information about the identity and purposes of NAPARC online.
In light of its constitutional documents, it’s clear that member churches promise to recognize the discipline being applied by other NAPARC churches. The logical implication is that this recognition pertains to the discipline applied in both the prosecution and the acquittal of members and officers. Including the acquittal of Peter Leithart.
That acquittal occurred, first, by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery (2011), and second, by the PCA SJC (2013). In both occurrences, the central and prevailing point adjudicated was whether or not the prosecution had proven its case against Leithart. In both occurrences, the verdict was acquittal.
To argue on this basis that “the PCA tolerates heresy” is unwarranted in terms of both logic and polity, and is most uncharitable.
4.2 Somewhere, sometime, someone in a URC was asked by a Reformed newbie which Reformed and Presbyterian churches are “the true churches”? The answer? “There’s no list exactly, but for the purposes of admitting people to communion we [in the URCNA] follow the rule adopted by the Synod of Dort, in the original Dort Church Order (1619) that only those who profess ‘the Reformed Religion’ may come to the table of the Lord in a Reformed congregation. In our setting we see that those churches that belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council confess substantially the same faith with us” (italics added).
This same URC source was asked where ecclesiastical refuge and protection were to be found from the ideas associated with Federal Vision, and as recently as June 9, 2013 (nota bene: after both the Pacific Northwest Presbytery trial of Peter Leithart and the PCA SJC decision denying the complaint against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery had been published), the answer came in this public declaration: “The URCs still seem resolute against the FV. The rest of the NAPARC world does not seem to be weakening in its resolve” (italics added).
4.3 Question: Why would Mr. Phelps depart, for reasons of conscience, from one church that he has accused of infidelity, to join another church that continues in full ecumenical fellowship with the allegedly unfaithful church he is leaving?
4.4 Question: If Mr. Phelps should accomplish his mission of serving as pastor somewhere in the URCNA, what implications would his reception via a classis-administered colloquium doctum have for the ecumenical integrity and future of the URCNA within NAPARC?
(To be continued.)