On January 29, 2022, a total of 60 people gathered via Zoom for “Called Together — a Time of Encouragement.” The time of worship, inspiration and prayer came together as the vision of Rev. Paul Johnston, minister of St. Andrew’s Arnprior, Ontario, who worked in partnership with Renewal Fellowship and friends from PSALT. The idea was to provide encouragement to evangelical/orthodox/traditional believers within The Presbyterian Church in Canada who remain called to the places where we currently worship and serve — but may feel isolated and discouraged. But we are not alone. Worship was led by Christina and Mike DeGazio from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Ontario. Barb Ferrier prepared participants for a time of prayer in breakout groups. The event was recorded and can be seen on RF’s YouTube channel (below). Future events are planned.
Speaker Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston challenged those in orthodoxy to remain as a “faithful presence” as described by Gordon Smith, the President of Ambrose University in Calgary, in his book Wisdom from Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age. Here’s a condensed version of his presentation.
Faithful Presence in the PCC – by Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston
It was almost five years ago now that I spoke at a gathering like this at Vaughan Presbyterian Church entitled “Unity in the Presbyterian Church in Canada Today.” Since then, we’ve been through some painful presbytery meetings and contentious general assemblies; we’ve seen a change in our doctrines of marriage and ministry that is deeply troubling to many of us; and on top of that we’ve all been wrestling with the COVID pandemic, and the accompanying isolation and exhaustion as we’ve tried to figure out what it means to do ministry when the rug is pulled out from under us. Looking back over my presentation now, I realize how much has changed! But in other ways, it hasn’t.
Conflicts within congregations and disagreements between different communities of faith are a central feature found right in the New Testament. Indeed, Karl Barth once remarked that “There are no letters in the New Testament apart from the problems of the church.” And of course, problems among God’s people didn’t stop with the apostles. The history of the church for 2,000 years has fluctuated between growth and retrenchment, advance and decline, seasons of spiritual stagnation and spiritual renewal … .
For example, in Canada we’re seeing a great decline in church attendance and a hollowing out of Christian faith and values; but in the most unlikely places today, places like Iran and Nepal and China and regions of West Africa, the Christian faith is growing. It is heartening to know that globally, Christianity is growing faster than the world population rate, and Pentecostal and Evangelical groups are growing even faster, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I think it’s helpful to remember this, to keep our own problems in perspective.
But as encouraging as the global picture may be, we are surely facing the greatest crisis within the PCC since 1925. The presenting issue, of course, is the final approval of the remits that have revised our church’s historic position on God’s intent for marriage and for ordained leadership within the church. But the real divisions we face are far deeper. We have widely divergent understandings of the authority of the Bible, and incompatible approaches of how to read and interpret Scripture for the life of the church in ways that are faithful to Scripture itself, and profound disagreement about the nature and function of our doctrinal standards.
Our presbyteries and our national church offices seem too exhausted or preoccupied with other matters to address the existential threat we face to our very existence, as we continue to hemorrhage members and close churches. The only thing that seems to hold us together is our presbyterian form of church government, but certainly not a common theology or a shared evangelistic mission. These are challenging days.
There is so much that could be said, but in the time I have today, I’d like to suggest a way forward for us who describe ourselves as evangelical or traditional or orthodox within the PCC, framing the options that lay before us, and then making a case for remaining within the Presbyterian Church in Canada as we work and pray for spiritual, theological and organizational renewal in the church we love.
In his book, “Wisdom from Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age”, Gordon Smith, the President of Ambrose University in Calgary … asks the question: What does it mean to provide leadership for the church in an increasingly secular context?
Smith lays out a compelling case that we live in an increasingly secular culture, “a secular age,” as McGill philosopher Charles Taylor has put it. By “secular,” he doesn’t just mean the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions so that there is no discrimination against anybody in the name of religion. We have moved beyond that, towards what he calls Secularism as an ideology, a “totalizing” worldview that excludes faith-based ideas from the public square. In other words, religious opinions can be private and personal, but they are illegitimate in public discourse.
Smith argues that when religion is privatized and secularism reigns supreme in the public square, Christians have largely engaged the culture in three typical ways.
Some Christians have adopted a “go along to get along” approach, seeking compromise and coexistence with the dominant culture around us. This has the advantage of not appearing weird or backwards or judgmental to our neighbours, but the “go along to get along” strategy comes with a cost. We can easily become just a pale imitation of other helping organizations in the community, and we lose our capacity to be God’s alternative community, God’s church … . It’s hard to announce a prophetic word in those areas where our culture has departed from the teaching of Scripture … . I would argue that “mainline” liberal Protestant churches have largely taken this stance. And that appears to be the choice the PCC has made too.
Other Christians have taken the opposite approach, what Smith calls the “culture wars” response. They seek political victory and try to restore the values of old Christendom on everyone else. The assumption here is that society was once Christian and that this needs to be restored, so that Christian values and beliefs are privileged over everyone else. “Make Canada great again,” some might say. But in the process of trying to impose Christian values through courts and legislatures, we become adversarial and political in our approach, trying to impose our beliefs and values on others using the weapons of this world … .
Between these two extremes there is a third approach, what Smith calls “the monastic response.” This is a call to retreat, to withdraw, to disengage from the larger culture in order to sustain the next generation of believers. The goal here is to preserve God’s community from a fallen and disintegrating culture by building a protective wall between the Christian church and the surrounding world … . I must admit that I’m tempted by this option, because here at least the theological lines are drawn clearly, but when we disengage from the world, we lose our capacity to be a source of salt and light and renewal to the larger culture, which stands desperately in need of God’s saving grace.
What I find intriguing is that these three responses to culture that Smith talks about in his book … all of these mirror the various responses that evangelical Presbyterians are wrestling with in light of last year’s General Assembly … .
Will we try to fight again and strive for victory in our presbyteries and the General Assembly, “culture wars” style? The life and energy of the church has been weakened because of our “perpetual state of war” with one other. Our collective energies go into winning, but Christ’s larger mission inevitably suffers. And frankly, I don’t think there’s much fight left in us to take this option anymore. Or will some of us succumb to the pressure to “go along and get along,” abandoning the clear teaching of Scripture and the doctrinal heritage of our church in order to be assimilated by the values of the world, and thus lose our souls in the process? I pray not, because to do so would be to “deny the sovereign Lord who bought us” (2 Peter 2:1) … . And I know that some of us are pondering the Monastic option, of withdrawing by leaving the PCC altogether. We could go down the road of ecclesiastical divorce. And there is a certain attractiveness to this option. Breaking out of an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship can be worth the pain … . But I am loathe to further fragment the body of Christ, because the unity of the church is just as important as its purity … .
We feel torn … . But let me speak about a fourth way of engaging our culture that Gordon Smith talks about, … the response of “faithful presence.”
Faithful presence is a commitment to discern new ways to provide a faithful witness to the gospel of Christ within our changed social context. Despite the changes in the world and in the PCC, God remains actively present among us, and has called us together to serve as God’s witnesses where he has placed us. This is long, patient, laborious process, “a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow from Eugene Peterson. In a world that’s in desperate need of truth, goodness, and beauty, we are called to strengthen the church by richly communicating the true, good, and beautiful gospel of Christ. We must simultaneously accept and love people in our culture and in the larger PCC but not agree with them in those areas where they’ve departed from biblical truth.
Can we do this within The PCC? Can we retain our core convictions but simultaneously work and pray patiently for a renewed church, with worship leaders who instill a deep passion for God; with Bible teachers who provide sustained, systematic teaching of the apostolic faith; with evangelists who creatively, enthusiastically communicate the good news of Jesus; and with spiritual directors and prayer warriors who embrace intentional spiritual practices and cultivate in all of us a deeper life with Christ?
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges the believers to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4.3) … .
This means, friends, that we should continue to exhort, encourage and try to convince our brothers and sisters of the truth of the historic Christian perspective on marriage and ministry, but do so in critical solidarity with them — even in what we perceive to be their grave errors — because they are still a part of the body of Christ to which I belong. And I have no right to abandon them over this matter.
Let me close by highlighting the example of my beloved mentor and friend David Bosch, the world-renowned South African missiologist, scholar and church leader. Bosch was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church … the influential Afrikaner church body that gave theological justification to the multifaceted racism that the apartheid system created … . And yet Bosch remained a loyal member of the DRC despite its gross theological error and despite the persecution he suffered … . He did so out of a prophetic faithfulness to the gospel of reconciliation and a deep love for his own people. Here’s how Bosch put it: “Believe me, it would be very easy for me to do as [others have done], and just resign and walk away from this … . But I am sorry, I think that would be self-indulgent … . I am not ready to give the Dutch Reformed church over to the devil.”
For Bosch, the central issue was prophetic solidarity, identifying with the guilt of one’s people in order to speak to them in a credible way. He put it like this:
“The true prophet identifies himself with the sin and guilt of the church. He knows that he himself is no better. That is, by the way, the difference between the critic and the prophet: the critic criticizes from the outside, the prophet confesses from within. The critic accuses, the prophet weeps. Criticism is easy, but also cheap; prophecy is costly, because it flows from solidarity.”
Speaking personally, I feel called to follow Bosch’s example and stay within the PCC to declare God’s Word to His people no matter what. I would like to counsel us to retain the long view of history and the spiritual gift of godly patience as we pray and work for theological renewal in the PCC.