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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

How can missions split or destroy churches?

As I just passed my ordination exam, I'd like to share again one of my answers to certain questions (but this is not my exact answer on the exam). Many of you think that Church History is a boring, useless subject, and is irrelevant to ministry. I thought so coming into Westminster as well! However, as I poured myself into Church History these three years, the past mistakes and debates were so informative to our present debates. The below ordination question was particularly striking for me as I thought about missions and the Japanese church. This little history lesson has compelled me to pursue both quality and quantity in ministry as much as possible. Hope it helps inform your thinking in regards to missions as well. Give a brief history of the American Presbyterians. Today which aspects of its history offer the PCA the strongest foundation for future worship and service to God? Which cause you the greatest concern? Prof. Mike Horton always quoted Mark Twain to us whenever we did some church history: "History never repeats itself, but it sure does rhyme." Over the course of three centuries, the American Presbyterians have always divided over the relationship between missions and doctrine. I would argue that if this tension isn't resolved or addressed, we may end up rhyming with/repeating history. In 1706, the first presbytery was established in Philadelphia with no ties to Europe. There was a great need for ministers and an urgency for churches to be planted in the New Frontier. However, due to the diverse nature of Presbyterianism, there was much debate on how strictly or loosely a new pastor's doctrine should be examined. The question was: should we ordain pastors more on the basis of their adherence to the Westminster Standards or on the basis of their experiential piety or character? Obviously, both recognized the need for both, but the issue was a matter of emphasis. The Confessionalist (the former) view wanted to maintain orthodox doctrine as much as possible. This meant it took a lot of time, energy, and education to train pastors; thus, it meant less, but better trained pastors. The Experiential/Missional view (the latter view) wanted to meet the need immediately. This meant they took a minimalist approach to doctrine; thus, it took less time to train pastors, but produced more pastors. With a great need for pastors in the mission field of America, was quality over quantity better? Or quantity over quality? And where was the golden middle? Many of you on this mailing list may take a side immediately; however, let me try to restructure the question in a different scenario to paint the complexity of the situation. We are on a island in Japan with many sick people. There are too few doctors to diagnose, cure, and care for the sick. This sickness is fatal and will send them into a painful death. However, the disease is a very complicated disease that can be easily treated in the short term, but can have fatal, painful, and serious after effects in the long run or can quickly become immune to the short-term solution. Do you want to train many doctors with a minimalist approach to medicine that can cure the disease immediately but cause more serious problems in the future? Or do you want to train few doctors in the short run as more folks die, but with a maximalist approach to medicine that can prevent the disastrous long term effects? American Presbyterian history shows us both dangers. (If you want to skip the boring historical details and jump to the conclusion, click here). This debate heightened as the First Great Awakening rolled in--missionary zeal blazed through the nation, led by fiery preachers like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. These preachers made the New Side (or Experientialist view) more popular. The New Side Presbyterians wanted innovation in ministry, encouraged ‘para-church’ revivals, emphasis on experience, and looser standards in ordination, while the Old Side Presbyterians wanted to protect the Confession, the importance of the church, and the high ordinational standards. The New Side started to grow because of their 'revivalist' mission work but also with serious and dangerous doctrinal mistakes, while the Old Side refused to participate in revivals which meant small churches, but maintained doctrinal orthodoxy. Due to this, there was an official Old Side/New Side split in 1741. However, in 1758, both sides reunited again into one church but with much strife. As the Second Great Awakening emerged in the 19th century, this provided the platform again for another Old School/New School split in 1834. The line was being drawn again on Confessional subscription and revivalism, but also on the degree of emphasis on ecumenicism and moral renewal. However, the 'missional' side became more extreme. Many of the New School Presbyterians were also starting to throw out the doctrines of grace for the cause of 'missions'--they thought these doctrines were an obstacle for people to accept Christ. Two great examples are Charles Finney and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Although Charles Finney was an fervent evangelist, he was notorious for believing in salvation by works (see here). The Cumberland Presbyterians split off in 1810 because of their Arminian convictions. Furthermore, the New School wanted to cooperate with other denominations with faulty doctrine, which tended to lead the New School into even more error. The Old School maintained orthodoxy but with limited mission work, but the New School exploded in growth but with even more dangerous heresies. After the Civil War, a spirit of interdenominational cooperation and church union brought together the two sides again in the North and the South. However, the tensions still existed. The New School embraced a spirit of progress which eroded not only Reformed distinctives, but evangelical or Christian tenets of the faith like the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the reality of the atonement and resurrection and many more. This eventually led to another split. In the northern Presbyterian church, the New Side's missions board proposed that the proclamation of the Gospel was not needed for missions. J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives identified that Christian liberalism had become another religion altogether; they eventually formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary. In the southern church, the PCA with similar sentiments broke out of the liberal Presbyterian church. The northern and southern liberal churches merged into the PC(USA), while the PCA and OPC remained distinct. I hope one can see the repeated pattern. An Experientialist view that rapidly grows but eventually falls into fatal doctrinal errors. A Confessionalist view that maintains orthodoxy but remains relatively passive in regards to missions. In light of this history, missions and Confessional/orthodox faith are often seen on opposite poles. Furthermore, those who are passionate about missions or the Confessions are usually not interested in the other. But does it have to be? However, the PCA is the rare case that attempts to do both. I believe this is the strongest distinctive of the PCA: the simultaneous commitment to the Reformed Faith and the Great Commission. However, my greatest concern is the loss of this above distinctive. Due to the diversity of the PCA, the issue of Confessional subscription has come under scrutiny and being threatened. There are still churches and ministers who have been deemed contra-Confessional and erroneous (e.g. Federal Vision) that still continue to practice within the PCA without penalties. In my own experience, I see a slow polarization between the “progressives” and the “conservatives” along the lines of social change, ecumenism, and Confessional subscription. On one hand, I hear echoes of the New School as I hear the de-emphasis of the Confession and dilution of Reformed distinctives, and a growing Evangelical, ecumenical spirit. On the other hand, I hear echoes of a Confessional wing that is bent on maintaining orthodoxy at the expense of de-emphasizing sacrificial and active missions work. My greatest fear is that the PCA will lose its uniquely Confessional and Missional identity if this polarization continues. However, the Great News is that our Lord Jesus Christ is the One who loves the lost and the Church more dearly than we do, who is wiser than all of us combined, and who is more powerful than all of our strategies. May we look to the Lord of the Harvest for help!

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