December 8, 1989
Dear Fellow Elders at New Life:
Warm greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus! I will not be able to attend the session meeting this Tuesday since Rose Marie and I will be just returning from Nashville. But what a great joy it is to know that He is Head of the body and not we ourselves—and that we can draw upon His wisdom and not our own!
I have in view our deliberations concerning the prospect of a move to the PCA. We need a wisdom which is not from man and a grace for enduring through a time of testing, yes, and perhaps even to walk in humiliation. Already I give thanks that God has been moving with power in our midst in these matters. For example, Thursday morning we labored and agonized in prayer over these issues and heard a report from John Yenchko about his time spent this week with two key leaders in the OPC. It seemed to us at this wonderful prayer time, a session of tears, that the Father had especially anointed John with wisdom and grace to spend a whole day with these two brothers and listen to them speak about their priorities and in turn speak to them concerning the priorities Christ has placed upon His church from the Scriptures.
Truly I hallow God’s name for being with John and giving him heavenly wisdom and patience and courage in a most challenging situation. God is at work.
I also wanted to take seriously David Powlison’s request that we each meditate and pray and list pros and cons concerning our proposed move to the PCA. In my own thinking I tried to get down to gut level reasons which are in my own heart and mind.
I come up with three primary reasons for staying in the OPC. 1 am thinking of visceral objections to our leaving. First, it is possible that a move into the PCA will be fraught with uncertainty, pain, and strains in relationships with those who for many years have been fellow members of the OPC with us and in some instances long time, dear friends. That makes the move very painful.
Second, it might seem that there is more that can be done in the OPC to work through its problems and to go to the PCA would be to leave in the lurch those brethren who are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission in the OPC. It might even seem that there is a need for a prophetic rebuke to alert the leaders and people of the OPC and it would appear that such correction could be offered more effectively from within the denomination. It’s personally frustrating to leave without having dealt with some of the problems and have seen progress in working with them. Isn’t this the way of loyalty?
Third, there is a fear of the change itself. The PCA has problems of its own, some like ours in the OPC and some associated with a southern American culture.
I took these matters before the Lord and by His grace became willing to stay in the OPC—if that was His will.
In prayer and meditation this week I found myself wanting to do almost anything to avoid leaving the OPC. I sought to cleanse myself from personal or prejudicial motivation and told Him I was even willing to go through the pain of all the judicial conflicts which likely lie ahead of us if we stay in the OPC if it was His will for us to stay. I was willing to sit down personally with the key figures who are moving in the opposite direction from us at New Life and enter into deep conflicts—and even to consider pressing charges against them if that is warranted.
By grace I went further. It seems clear to me that if we stay in the OPC John and I must be willing to rethink our ministry priorities and job descriptions. Litigation in the OPC can really be time consuming and drawn out. (In 1950 the Sloyer conflict was in presbytery for ten years. Sloyer finally left the denomination and, I believe, he died not long afterwards as a fairly young man.) John will need to take time away from his ministry to the congregation, and I will need to back off from the writing and World Harvest. We will also need to labor to bring the congregation aboard what we are doing and why and on a constant basis. We will need to work overtime to protect the congregation from reaction to the OPC and bitterness.
I think this will be extremely unpleasant or at least very painful for the whole church. Sooner or later charges are almost certainly going to come our way—there are apparently eight pages of charges filed anew against Harvie Conn. What happened to the Wheaton Church is another window into which we can see the future. And Joe’s experience in the local presbytery is part of a broader picture. There is a great deal of bitterness and frustration out there tied in with the decline of the OPC foreign missions program and so many churches leaving the denomination for the PCA and now with the Wheaton church going into the EPC. People have been hinting about bringing charges against us maybe for a couple of years. So far it’s been mostly talk, but with what happened to Wheaton and Joe there’s obviously a new wind blowing.
But there is more. The major reason for staying concerns working to correct the OPC. I mean beginning with our own deepening repentance and then having John and me, along with other elders, sitting down with key leaders in our presbytery and the denomination and seeking to get them to face up to sins and errors in the church. The elders will all need to take time to work on this undertaking together.
If this does not bring about some correction, then we would need to prepare charges ourselves against some of these brethren. I assume that these charges would take the form of violating two parts of their ordination vows: the vows to keep the peace and unity of the church. In the OPC you vow to “study the peace, purity, and unity” of the church. I think it would also be necessary to bring charges against men for prejudicial and unconstitutional treatment of Joe.
Now there is nothing that appeals to me less. If we elect to stay and do battle, then such matters as substantial trips overseas are over for me. I simply must be here for presbytery and G.A. Our elders must also take turns in going to presbytery, perhaps several will need to go. We will also need to form a committee of elders to work on these issues and have increased session meetings.
Also we should expect that if this kind of conflict ensues, it may well get national publicity, at least in Christian circles. It could also get into the local newspapers. This has often happened in our nation when church conflicts heat up.
Mysteriously, God made me willing to do all these though I did not love the thought. I think this is amazing grace which came out of a love for these men who differ with us. Strange visitation from heaven!
But after a day or two I thought of the dishonor to Christ that could come from these public conflicts. I hung my head with sorrow over the thought He would be shamed by endless debates and charges and countercharges that likely will take place.
But most important: it occurred to me that we would by staying and entering into increasing conflict we would be giving up the priorities Christ has given us. On the side for realigning with the PCA what is our one overarching consideration? It is our desire to enhance our work in fulfilling the Great Commission and to avoid entanglements and conflicts that would hinder this ministry.
What cleared the air for me was two convictions which I have reason to hope came from the Lord. 1) God’s will for me is not to become the prosecuting attorney in the OPC but to fulfill my calling in obedience to the Great Commission. 2) God’s will is not for me to be the Holy Spirit. I am not able to reform people who are not ready or willing to listen to me or anyone else call them to repentance. I think the same is true for John. He is not called to be either a prosecuting attorney or the Holy Spirit.
I thought of the many calls to repentance which have gone out to leaders in the OPC and to church members. Clearly what John said so well to the two key leaders he met with this week was another such call. Harvie Conn has made such calls with great power at the times of G.A.’s meeting. I have written a letter to the church with the same burden. Doubtless people have repented in our churches, and any true Christian must repent. But I am thinking of what has come to be known as the OP outlook. It is not the accepted style to confess to one another sin and weaknesses. In three instances where I saw repentance take place publicly in the OPC the repentances came under strong attack as doctrinally suspect.
You see, dear brothers, ours is a denomination which has separated itself from liberalism/modernism for good reasons, but in the process its priorities became defensive and negative. It came to exist less and less to proclaim the gospel and more and more to defend itself by pointing out sins and weaknesses in others. Even to admit weaknesses and failings and sins in our denomination became a sign of compromise—of giving in to the enemy. Almost by definition—or at least by unconscious attitude—such a mindset rejects the whole idea of repentance for our denomination and anyone who proposes it. Repentance is seen as an admission that “the cause was wrong.” Gradually “the enemy” became more and more fellow Christians—not just theological liberals but evangelicals and reformed who were different. The result is that the OPC has become a church where the priorities are not evangelism and missions but perfecting procedures and distancing ourselves from any brethren who seem to diverge from these perfecting norms.
It, then, is not simply that I don’t feel like being in the OPC. It is a matter of the basic calling of ourselves as leaders and as a congregation to serve the Lord of the church and to obey His command to go and preach the gospel.
My final humbling lies right here. I am thinking of the first three visceral reasons I mentioned for staying in the OPC. I was converted in the OPC and love its doctrinal roots in the glorious Reformation, all my memories are here. I have never belonged to another church except the Christian Reformed Church. There are things about the PCA that seem all too much like the OPC, though in a somewhat different form. But it has been inexpressibly humbling for me to confess that denominations, unless revived by repentance, usually fade after fifty to seventy years. To admit that this is what happens in history and that I cannot change this history is crushing to my pride. Somehow I feel in my heart there ought to be one more thing to do, one more attempt to call men to repentance, one more way of rationalizing this chaotic aspect of life, or some way to minimize, wish away, the dreadful effects of sin in Christian movements.
But it is also freeing for me to recognize my limits. Very freeing for my conscience. I am not the Holy Spirit. I can trust the OPC to His working. I can and must endure the pain of seeing my beloved society of fellow Christians become more and more ingrown and to avoid repentance as a thing of shame. To leave may mean that we shall be misunderstood and judged by them. Oh, I love to preach about being forgiven like the publican, but I hate to be treated like one by the church where I found Christ! Brothers, it hurts deep, but it hurts clean!
I believe I can also learn from history. Denominations rise under the stirring of the Spirit. He is breaking into the world, to use B. B. Warfield’s expression, like “a pent-up stream” and that stream works through denominations, but when complacency, rigidity, pride, and defensiveness overtake the Christian institutions and denominations, He often raises up new denominations and mission societies or even sends revivals to seemingly dead ones. No church or institution can ever become an end in itself; when this takes place the Holy Spirit of the Father proves that God can take care of Himself. He never permits us to make Him a prisoner of our institutional priorities.
The Israelites think that God is under their control, and confident of this fact they take the ark of the covenant into battle. They end up powerless and defeated. But when the glory departs from Israel, the God of glory raises up a Samuel and a David to replace an Eli and a Saul. While it may be no fun to flee like a David avoiding Saul, that way leads to revival and reconstituting the people of God.
You have my thoughts, beloved brothers. Let us always lead the way with our own repentance. My prayers are with you though I cannot attend our meeting on Tuesday. May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit be with your meeting on Tuesday evening. You have my love and prayers.
Most affectionately in Christ,
“Letter to Elders of New Life Church concerning Affiliating with the Presbyterian Church in America,” 8 December 1989.