The membership vows of our church include this statement.
Do you, in reliance on God for strength, solemnly promise and covenant that you will walk together as an organized church, on the principles of the faith and order of the Presbyterian Church in America, and that you will be zealous and faithful in maintaining the purity and peace of the whole body?
PURITY and PEACE. I had dinner with my wise friend the other night, the one that always leaves me scrambling for paper to write down the godly insights she shares. This time was no exception. As we talked about recent controversies in evangelical Christianity, she pointed out the tension in the membership vows of the PCA. It calls members to be zealous and faithful in maintaining both purity (keeping the church unstained and unpolluted by sin) and peace (mutual harmony and contentment). The problem is that it is hard to maintain purity without disturbing the peace. Yet, on the flip side, there will be no long term peace without occasional zealous attention to purity. I love that the membership vows recognize the need for both.
I’m burdened that the larger conservative evangelical culture needs to be concerned for maintaining purity— not external purity in our culture but the internal purity of ourselves. And not purity in terms of outward morality but purity of the heart. Because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12).
I’m familiar with 4 situations in different corners of conservative Christianity in which people are disturbing the peace in their cry for purity and correction in the church. It reminds me of the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who first recognized the need to wash hands to reduce infections among birthing mothers. Nobody listened to him, and his findings were not accepted until after his death. Over his life, he grew increasingly angry in his writings, finally descending into full mental illness. But all along, he was RIGHT.
He’s a case study in the despair brought on when you know the truth, and no one will listen. As far as I can tell, he didn’t know the gospel. What if you know the truth and no one will listen and you DO know the gospel? Does it make a difference? I think it does.
How does the gospel break into and transform despair to hope when sinful men and practices go unaddressed in the Church? First, the gospel gives us free access to God where we can boldly bring Him our concerns. After all, it is His Body, and He’s the one who promises to make Her glorious. And He even gives us a model for our prayer in Psalms 10.
1 Why, O LORD, do you stand(A) far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
12 Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
17 O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Second, the gospel gives us a model on how to engage in conflict. I’ve often talked about grace in conflict on this blog.
The bottom line is that offenders need gospel grace. They won’t stop offending until God transforms their heart through the power of the gospel. But often, my response to those who sin against others is to sin against them in an attempt to get them to stop sinning. It’s a bad cycle. I’m as convinced as ever that the Golden Rule is key for conflicts. You can both stand against oppressive, sinful practices in the church and do it with gospel grace and biblical love. Purity and peace.
As a final note, I do not know anything about the conflicts within Sovereign Grace Ministries except what they have publicly disclosed on their blogs. I know enough from reading there that it is serious, and it is sin. I want to say how much I am encouraged by Josh Harris in particular. I’ve been impressed by the comments allowed on his blog and the patient responses. That’s the antidote to the Ignaz Semmellweis syndrome. Yes, there was/is sin. Yes, it was/is a systemic and widespread culture of leadership that involved harshness and pride with limited accountability. Yes, God is disciplining them for the purity of the ministry. But best of all, there will be peace if they continue to embrace this season, seriously examine themselves, and listen to their critics instead of discounting them as bitter.
May the gospel empower critics as well as those criticized for both the purity and the peace of the Church.