Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Church Courts Err

Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3 states: "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both." I believe I recently witnessed this first hand. Let me explain.

On Jan. 20, 2009 after successfully completing my ordination exams, I became a member of the Missouri Presbytery (MOP) of the PCA. A few months later MOP received a letter of concern from various men around the PCA regarding the Federal Vision teachings of one of its members, Jeffrey J. Meyers. After several months of investigation MOP found no strong presumption of guilt in Meyers's teachings. Three members of MOP, including me, complained against that decision. Our complaint eventually went to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), where a panel of five men voted to sustain it. Before that decision became finalized by the whole SJC, MOP determined to try Meyers. I was appointed assistant prosecutor in that trial. Part of my duty as the assistant prosecutor was to cross-examine Meyers. The full transcript of that trial can be found here.

MOP, of course, voted overwhelmingly to exonerate Meyers of all charges. I complained against that decision, but by the time the complaint was answered by MOP (in the negative, of course), I transferred into the Presbytery of the Southeast of the OPC, having received a call to serve as organizing pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. I continued the appeal process by sending the complaint to the SJC, but since I was the only complainant and was no longer a member of MOP, the SJC ruled my complaint administratively out of order without ever seeing it. Initially I was very disappointed in the SJC's decison. After all, I had been part of the judicial process concerning TE Meyers from the beginning and was in fact a member of MOP when my complaint against the action in question was first filed. But given that the SJC voted last week to deny a complaint regarding the exoneration of Federal Visionist Peter J. Leithart by the Presbytery of the Northwest, my disappointment has been somewhat quieted. I'm certain my complaint would have met the same end.

Yesterday I learned that Leithart is now teaching at a place called The Trinity House in Birmingham, AL. I "googled" it and found this: http://trinityhouseinstitute.com/solomon-among-postmoderns/. The announcement says: "Trinity House fellow Rev. Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart will lecture at the annual All Saints conference at Community Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky, November 1-3. Click here for schedule and registration."

So today I clicked over to the Fellows page on the website and found this list of Federal Visionists:

John Barach
Richard Bledsoe
James B. Jordan
Peter Leithart
Rich Lusk
Steve Wilkins

AND.....(drumroll please)

Jeffrey Meyers

That got me to thinking about some of the questions I asked TE Meyers from the stand during the trial:
Q. Thank you. Moving on. I'm going to move on to baptism here. You said that you're unsure about what happens exactly to the reprobate in baptism. Is that accurate?
A. I believe that there's some mystery involved in what is -- what is and what isn't received by the reprobate in baptism, yes.
Q. Joint Federal Vision Profession states we deny the common misunderstanding of baptismal regeneration, that is that an effectual call or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized. That's from Section 5. My question is is there a less common understanding of baptism regeneration that you do believe?
A. What section is this again?
Q. This is Joint Federal Vision Profession, Section 5, we deny the common misunderstanding of baptismal regeneration, that is that an effectual call or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized. And my question is is there a less common understanding of baptismal regeneration that you do believe or that you do affirm?
A. Well, I do not affirm baptismal regeneration, and I've made that clear in my answers to both investigative committees.
Q. Was that a yes or no, sir?
MODERATOR STUART: I think he answered that.
A. What was the question?
MODERATOR STUART: He basically said he denied baptismal regeneration, and that would a categorical statement when you asked if he believed in something lesser than what --
MR. BENNETT: Well, I said is there a less common understanding of baptismal regeneration that you do believe? Because the profession -- the Federal Vision Profession, or Joint Federal Vision Profession says --
MODERATOR STUART: I think we need to move on. He's denying baptismal regeneration, period.
Q. (By Mr. Bennett) You're denying it in all senses; is that accurate? You would be uncomfortable in any sense of talking about baptismal regeneration?
A. Well, you would have to list all the senses for me to affirm or deny them.
Q. Well, I would say it this way.
A. What we mean by regeneration in the Westminster Standards and in our reform tradition, given that, I deny baptismal regeneration.
Q. Is there any sense in which you affirm bap -- any sense of baptimsal regeneration?
A. No, I don't believe so.
Q. I'm going to read this quote from Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body, Page 76. In baptism God judges sin, declares the baptized righteous and delivers the baptized from death into new life of the spirit-filled body of God the son. You believe this view contradicts our Standards, right?
A. Would you read it again, please?
Q. In baptism God judges sin, declares the baptized righteous and delivers the baptized from death into new life of the Spirit-filled body of God's son?
A. Do you have a context for that; what comes before and after because I might read to you Romans 6 and ask you if that contradicts our Standards.
Q. You're saying you're unable -- given that one statement you're unable to say that's out of bounds or not?
A. I would have to --
Q. Yes or no?
A I would have -- I don't know. I'd have to think about the context. I'd have to know what he means by some of those statements. He is not using baptismal regeneration language there.
Q. Okay. Thank you. I'm going read this quote from Rich Lusk out loud. This is from Some Thoughts on the Means of Grace. He writes, preaching alone is insufficient to make them believer -- them, that is believers and their children, participants in Christ's work of redemption. Baptism, not preaching, per se, is linked with forgiveness and the reception of the spirit. Clearly Peter believes God will give them something in baptism that they have not received through preaching alone. Baptism will consumate the process of regeneration begun by the Word preached. Would you say that's an accurate summary of what Acts 2:38 teaches?
A. Acts 2:38?
Q. Yes. Is that an accurate summary of repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins?
A. Are these comments on Acts 2:38 that Mr. Lusk has made? Is that what you're telling me?
Q. I'm just asking you if it comports, if it's an accurate summary of Acts 2:38?
A. Well, no. Is it meant to be an accurate summary of Acts 2:38?
Q. If someone read that statement to you and said does this reflect the teaching of Acts 2:38, would you say it does or not?
A. I would say like I usually do in cases like this, show me the whole context. Let me try to understand what you're saying; who said this, when did he say it, why did he say it, what's the point, what does he mean by these terms, and other questions like that.
Q. In the indictment on Page 6, beginning at Line 19, you begin to write about Paul's conversion. You said it's pretty certain that the reason baptism was offered immediately is because the forgiveness of sin -- because the forgiveness of sins is attached to the action. When were Paul's sins forgiven? When was he, quote, converted, end quote. On the road to Damascus or in Damascus when Ananias poured water over his head in the name of the Triune God. The text is pretty clear. Would you say you still agree with that statement, sir?
A. I have had opportunity to interact with the committee, the Complaint Review Committee, and there is a great many questions to me and answers by me that have clarified that in the record.
Q. You write on Page 6, Lines 25 through 27, sure let God take care of the exceptions. We don't do theology by exceptions. Normally God forgives sins and grants new life in baptism. Is this something that you would still agree with, sir?
A. Where is that?
Q. Page 6, Lines 25 through 27.
A. Another comment made on the Wrightsaid discussion list many years ago. I have again in my questions and the questions and answers to the two committees clarified that kind of statement. There are things in there that I agree with that we don't do theology or we should not do theology by exceptions, otherwise we overqualify everything, but this quote normally God forgives sins and grants new life in baptism needs to be qualified, and I have done that in multiple contexts.
Q. Yes. Thank you. You also wrote in the -- in that response I'm not willing to restate -- this is from Page 6, Lines 34 through 38. I'm not willing to restate it because, as I said in my answer to the last question, I'm not confident I can formulate a slogan that will express the abstract apart from concrete circumstances exactly how God uses baptism in every situation. Would you say you still agree with that?
A. Yes. 
Maybe I'm just a pessimistic amillennialist, but I find it hard to believe that TE Meyers wasn't sure about the teaching of these men who are now his teaching fellows at The Trinity House.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

“Before bringing charges of heresy against a minister of the Presbyterian Church, it is necessary to determine, first of all, whether his doctrines diverge from those of the Standards within legitimate limits, and do not affect the system of doctrine in which belief is required; or whether the error of his doctrines is vital and essential. While it is true that many ministers do not subscribe to the ippissima verba of the Confession, readers of ordinary intelligence can have no difficulty in determining whether their divergence from the doctrine of the Standards is vital or not. A trial for heresy is not in its essence a trial of a man, but a trial of a doctrine or of doctrines. It becomes the trial of a man only when he, with full knowledge of the divergence of his views from the Standards of the Church, still remains in the ministry, and thus violates his ordination vows.”

Barlow said...

This exchange proves nothing other than Meyers is careful to allow the possibility that there are other senses of regeneration (Peter's, for instance is mainly sociological) and that you're not willing to brook any subtlety here. Interesting, but hardly proves any defect on Jeff's part. You were trying to uncover some allegedly hidden form of baptismal regeneration that Jeff believes in and Jeff was simply avoiding the pitfalls of being categorical. Smart, when you know Peter because he is a very good thinker and it is much likelier that Peter is in the middle of an important point than it is that a prosecuting attorney is producing a snippet to set up a gotcha regardless of context.

David A Booth said...

I am a right wing, Old School, Old Perspective on Paul, Minister of the Word in the OPC - and I don't find anything at all problematic in the answers you quoted from Pastor Meyers. I do, however, find your questions problematic. Admittedly this is just a transcript, but you seemed more interested in "getting your man" than getting at the truth.

Andy said...

Repeated requests for context went unanswered. Given the questions being asked, it would be difficult if not impossible to agree or disagree without more context for pretty much anyone who is careful about their doctrine.

Sadly, longer quotes, context, and more discussion would've probably benefited all involved.

Perhaps, less pessimism and more open and honest discussion between the two groups would be advantageous and press out any fallacies in theology. Unfortunately, that seems off the table for one particular side... and I'm not looking at the FV side.

:-/







D W Haigler said...

This blog shows some of the difficulties on both sides of the issue when looking into whether someone is heterodox; e.g., ministers usually have no training or experience in asking even-handed judicial questions, on the one hand; and those being investigated are understandably cautious about context, etc., on the other.

The issues are complex and most observers don't have the patience to follow the intricacies of the subject.

Then there are endless procedural details, e.g., whether the complainant at the time he complained had standing before the court. This all is not for the fainthearted.

I am not commenting on the merits, because at the time the PCA SJC dismissed Jay's complaint as administratively out of order, I had recused myself on the matter, as a member of a MoP church.

D W Haigler Jr

M. Jay Bennett said...

First, so that you gentlemen have a bit of context, despite our request that it be removed, Missouri Presbytery imposed an arbitrary time limit on the prosecution of this trial. The prosecutors had, if I recall correctly, 4 hours total (from opening to closing statements, including exams and cross-exams) to make our case. By the time we got to our cross of Jeff, which was last, we were quickly running out of time. I was rushed all the way through it, which may help you understand why I appear to be pressing unduly in the transcript. In fact, we did run out of time. TE Stephen Estock was holding a stop watch and said, "Times up," before I finished my closing statement.

Part of the complaint I filed with the SJC, which was dismissed on administrative grounds, had to do with this time restriction.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Barlow,

Given your admission that Jeff believes in a sociological sense of baptismal regeneration (like Leithart), do you have any insight into how Jeff's response below can be true?

"Q. Is there any sense in which you affirm bap -- any sense of baptimsal regeneration?
A. No, I don't believe so."

M. Jay Bennett said...

David,

I encourage you to read the whole transcript. I attempted to ask questions from multiple angles in order to give Jeff the opportunity to either admit or deny the charges that were set before him. In denying the charges, one would think that a minister of the gospel would want to be crystal clear and articulate, understanding where others might be misunderstanding him and seeking to clear such misunderstandings up. Instead, my impression was that Jeff wanted to dodge the issues at hand.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Andy,

See my comment above about the time limit imposed on the trial. At one point very early in our cross I handed Jeff a copy of the Joint Federal Vision Profession, precisely because he was asking for context. Jeff began to thumb through the copy at what I felt was a slowed pace (he knew we were pressed for time). From that point forward I was cautious about handing Jeff a copy of anything to let him assess it for context. If there had been no time limit, I would have been glad to hand Jeff a copy of Leithart's Baptized Body and take all the time he needed to assess the context from which the quote was taken. That being said though, I still find it hard to believe that Jeff didn't know precisely what Leithart meant by the quote in question, viz. that there is a sociological sense of baptismal regeneration that goes hand-in-hand with a covenantal or ecclesial election. I suspect Jeff knew exactly what he was doing when he asked for more context, and it had nothing to do with being forthright about what he believes.

Anonymous said...

This just makes my head spin. It's discussions like this that make non-believers chuckle and believers confused.

M. Jay Bennett said...

It's the disciplinary work of church courts (cf. Matthew 18; Acts 15; 1 Tim 3; 2 Tim; Heb 13; 1 Pet 5).