Back to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more – Henry V, Shakespeare

The debate over salvation by faith alone continues unabated. As I wrote in my last article on the subject, at issue is whether and how good works can be considered necessary or part of salvation. From the recent Desiring God article, it’s apparent that I did not overstate things when I said that Piper was separating justification from salvation. The article, though not written by John Piper, references Piper’s article and states:

But what about being saved by faith alone? You’re not. You’re justified through faith alone. Final salvation comes through justification and sanctification — both initiated and sustained by God’s grace. (emphasis original)

The article also warns that your salvation depends on you killing your sin. According to Piper and others at Desiring God, justification is by faith alone, but salvation (or final salvation) is through works and faith. As I wrote previously, this teaching is contrary to what the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions and catechisms teach.

That last part is what I want to focus on in this article. Last time, I used several Bible verses to explain the Scriptural foundation for salvation by faith alone. While I did quote from the Heidelberg Catechism, I wanted to give additional excerpts from the other well-known Reformed confessions and catechisms. As you will note, the teaching that salvation, from first to last, is by faith alone is clear in all of the Reformed confessions and catechisms.

From the Westminster Confession of faith, notice that it says that saving faith means resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands,  trembling at the threatenings,  and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF XIV.2 on Saving Faith, emphasis added)

The section on good works has several useful passages. The first one quoted here states that good works are the fruit and evidence of faith. Some have used the last statement highlighted below to say that the confession is teaching the same as Piper, that good works are instrumental to salvation and eternal life.

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (WCF XVI.2 on Good Works, emphasis added)

But it is clear from the following passages that this is not what the Confession teaches. There is no merit of eternal life nor profit for us in our good works.

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (WCF XVI.5 on Good Works, emphasis added)

The Westminster Larger Catechism also teaches that salvation is by faith alone. Justifying faith rests on Christ for salvation:

Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation. (WLC 72, emphasis added)

And how does that faith justify? Not by good works:

Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness. (WLC 73, emphasis added)

Sanctification, the Catechism reminds us, is God’s work:

Q. 75. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life. (WLC 75, emphasis added)

The 39 Articles also teach that good works are the fruit of salvation and are not a means of salvation:

XII. Of Good Works.
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit. (Article 12, Of Good Works, emphasis added)

The Second Helvetic Confession speaks at length about good works and their place in the life of a Christian. It categorically rejects the teaching that salvation is through good works:

WE ARE NOT SAVED BY GOOD WORKS. Nevertheless, as was said above, we do not think that we are saved by good works, and that they are so necessary for salvation that no one was ever saved without them. For we are saved by grace and the favor of Christ alone. Works necessarily proceed from faith. And salvation is improperly attributed to them, but is most properly ascribed to grace. The apostle’s sentence is well known: “If it is by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. But if it is of works, then it is no longer grace, because otherwise work is no longer work” (Rom. 11:6).  (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVI, emphasis added)

The 3 Forms of Unity include of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. They don’t all go into the same depth on the same subjects as the Westminster and Second Helvetic Confessions, but the themes of the Reformation are still very clear.

The Canons of Dordt teaches that eternal life (salvation) is by faith in Christ alone:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them. (Canons of Dordt, 1.4, emphasis added)

The Belgic Confession also teaches that salvation is by faith in Christ alone:

Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith
For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.
Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God-– for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.” (Belgic Confession, Article 22, emphasis added)

And that good works are evidence and the fruit of our salvation, but not a means of salvation:

Article 24: The Sanctification of Sinners
So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” — thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’
Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.
Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.  (Belgic Confession, Article 24, emphasis added)

The Heidelberg Catechism I referenced in my first article. It is very clear in affirming salvation by faith alone in Christ alone and rejecting that good works merit us salvation or eternal life:

Q & A 60
Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.

Q & A 61
Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.

Q & A 62
Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.

Q & A 63
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.

Q & A 64
Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude. (Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 60-64, emphasis added)

The confessions and catechisms were written, in part, to teach lay people what the Bible teaches on various important topics. As such, the material is usually straightforward and beneficial for believers of all ages and all levels of education. This is in keeping with the Reformed emphasis on educating all believers so that all may be informed especially regarding salvation.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, while Scripture may not all ways be easy to understand, what we need to know about salvation is plain and does not require advanced degrees or special knowledge of obscure sources in their primary languages to understand correctly:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF, I.7, emphasis added)

These Reformed confessions and catechisms comprise the standards for most confessional denominations. They are not equal to Scripture, and the Westminster Confession makes clear that the Scriptures are the “supreme judge” in any controversies:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF, I.10)

Everything, no matter who said it, must be weighed against Scripture. And for confessional Christians, a good place to start is with our confessional standards. Confessional Christians, especially ordained leaders, believe and affirm that the confessional standards of their denomination contain “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (PCA and OPC ordination questions). For this reason, it is important to know and to return to the confessional standards in any controversy.

Piper does not hold to any of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a Christian or that he doesn’t teach useful things. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be surprised when he teaches something outside the confessional standards.

No matter how much we may like Calvin, Twisse, Edwards, Horton, or Piper,  ultimately we don’t confess them. We confess the standards of our denominations. It really is that simple.

If you’d like to read more on the current Sola Fide debate, I recommend the following articles:

Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 1
Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 2: “Salvation”
Rachel Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 3, Beginning at the End: The Marrow Men
Salvation Sola Fide: Martin Luther and the Fruits of Faith
“…Let’s just pipe down and let the experts handle this.”
Piper: Salvation by faith alone and just a little bit more?
The Gospel According to Piper
Believers Are Saved And Sealed
In By Grace, Stay In By Faithfulness?
Salvation Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: On Distinguishing Is, With, And Through

Innocence Lost … and Regained

The young couple, with stars in their eyes,

Walks hand in hand with joyful hearts.

A day of excitement and wonder awaits.

What will the future bring?

A boy full of energy and laughter?

A girl with bright eyes and sweet smile?

Anxiously they wait for their turn,

Surely only a few minutes more.

 In their minds are pictures of a nursery

With soft blankets and toys on the floor.

Then it’s time, the wait’s almost over.

The tech starts to measure and scan.

But what’s this? She seems worried and tense.

Why won’t she answer?

“The doctor is coming to talk,” she says.

The sweet couple sits in silence.

The tears begin falling,

The first of so many to come.

His arm around her, She sits on his knee,

That small comfort keeping her from falling apart.

The doctor looks sad,

“Your baby is dying.”

“You did nothing wrong. It just happens sometimes.”

The young couple leaves heartbroken and shocked.

The poor tech is in tears as they walk by,

Sympathy etched on her face.

The young couple, with tears in their eyes,

Walks hand in hand with sorrowful hearts.

——————-

And the baby? A girl.

Born still and too soon.

Their hearts grieve, but with hope.

They will see her again,

And never be parted.

——————–

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Revelation 21: 4-5 (ESV)

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness

I don’t generally get involved with the various “awareness” months. However, there is one that is very dear to my heart. October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Fifteen years ago, Matt and I lost our first baby girl to Turner syndrome. She was born still at 21 weeks gestation. The list of my friends and family who have had pregnancy or infant loss is very long. All of you are in my thoughts and prayers today. If you have someone in your life who has had or is going through this trial, hug them and tell them you love them. Don’t spout platitudes. Just be there for them. They need your love and support. No matter how long it’s been, they have not forgotten the pain. Talking with them about it will not cause them more pain. They will be grateful that someone remembers their little ones. Our babies are gone, but never forgotten.

Here is my story. I pray Bethanne’s short life will be an encouragement to you.

Fourteen years ago, on February 25th, Matt and I were waiting with great excitement for our big ultrasound. I was 20 weeks pregnant and had just started wearing maternity clothes, even though I didn’t really need them yet. We had our VHS tape in hand and couldn’t wait to find out if this was a little girl or boy.

When they started the ultrasound, I knew the tech wasn’t allowed to tell us anything good or bad, except the gender. So, I waited and watched. I knew from friends that they would measure the limbs, get a good look at the internal organs, and other body parts. We listened to the heartbeat. Then the tech excused herself. I began to worry a little bit. My OB had told me that we would talk about the results at my next visit. If there was anything that needed watching she’d call, and if anything was badly wrong she’d meet us there in the room.

The tech came back with the doc that oversaw the radiology lab. They turned the screen and whispered and pointed. The doc agreed with whatever the tech had seen and told us that our OB would be there in a few minutes. They left so I could get dressed. I told Matt something was wrong. This was not good. I called my dad on my cellphone and asked him to pray. I sat on Matt’s lap with tears in my eyes as we waited for the OB.

She came in a few minutes later. She sat down and told us that our baby girl had Turner syndrome. That it was terminal, and that she would advise termination. I looked at her in shock. How did this happen? She assured us that it wasn’t our fault. That it just happens some times. Two days later, at the appointment with the specialist, we found out that our daughter’s heart had stopped in the womb.

On March 1, 2002, my OB started my induction. As I changed clothes into a hospital gown, I cried out to God, “Dear God, I do not want to be here.” Let me tell you, when you are only 21 weeks pregnant, your body does NOT want to go into labor. Hours and hours passed. Nothing seemed to be happening. Physically it hurt, but the worst of the pain was emotional. My parents and Matt were with me through all of it. I know it was hard for them to watch and pray. There was nothing anyone could do for me. Finally, after 28 hours of labor, Bethanne Grace Miller was born on Saturday, March 2, 2002 at 11:08 am. It was a very bittersweet moment.

I got to hold my sweet baby girl. It was so precious. It hurt so much. I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. She was so very tiny. No bigger than a baby doll. I could see that her eyebrows looked like Matt’s. Her little mouth looked like mine. It was joy and agony.

Today when we go to her grave and put some beautiful tulips there to remember, I am sad as I always am this time of year, but I rejoice knowing that I will see her again.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ” Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 (NAS)

Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, some may wonder if the Reformation still matters today. We don’t face the same problems today in the church that they did back then, right? No one is selling indulgences. No one in in the evangelical world is teaching salvation by works and certainly not in the Reformed world! Right?

Last week, Desiring God ran an article by John Piper on sola fide, Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone? The article is a rerun of older material by Piper. It makes the rounds every couple of years and receives a wide range of responses. The point of the article seems to be to encourage believers to have an active faith as described in James 2. This is a worthy aim. There are many today, even in Reformed circles, who speak and act as though believers should not be expected to live godly lives and to struggle against their sins.

The problem in many responses to such antinomianism is a trend towards moralism, pietism, or legalism. Such a reaction to antinomianism is not surprising, but it is equally dangerous. And this is the ditch Piper’s article falls into.

Piper rightly says that believers are justified by faith alone, but then he makes a distinction between justification and salvation by faith alone:

If you substitute other clauses besides “We are justified . . .” such as “We are sanctified . . .” or “We will be finally saved at the last judgment . . .” then the meaning of some of these prepositional phrases must be changed in order to be faithful to Scripture. For example,

In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us.

In sanctification, faith receives an ongoing power of Christ that works inside us for practical holiness.

In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (emphasis added)

He goes on to say that works are necessary for “final salvation”:

Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:32 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:516:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. (emphasis added)

Piper is saying that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone but that there is also a final salvation separate from justification that includes our works. In this way, he says, we are saved through faith AND works. This is not simply sloppiness or poor wording. This is what he is teaching, and it is clear from the context of the article. And it is contrary to Scripture, to the Reformation, and to the Reformed confessions and catechisms.

In Scripture, Paul says clearly that we are SAVED, not only justified, by faith alone and not by works:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB, emphasis added)

In Galatians, Paul addresses a very similar concern. He asks:

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3, NASB)

In Romans, Paul explains that we are saved through faith in Christ:

if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Romans 10:9-10, NASB)

Paul goes on to say that grace is only grace if works are excluded:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. (Romans 11:6, NASB)

The Scriptures do not distinguish between an initial salvation (or justification) and a final salvation. It does distinguish between justification, sanctification, and glorification. However, all are said to be the work of God.

Romans 8:29-30 says that God is the one who predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30, NASB)

In Philippians, we are told to work out our salvation, but even here it is clear that God is the one who works in us and through us:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB, emphasis added)

In 2 Thessalonians, the passage Piper quotes above, Paul does say that salvation is through sanctification and faith. But notice who does the sanctifying:

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB, emphasis added)

The Spirit sanctifies us, part of the work of sanctification is to change us so that we are willing and able to obey as God has called us to. We do good works, but the merit is all God’s and not ours:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10, NASB)

It is absolutely true that without sanctification, without holiness, no one will enter glory. Hebrews tells us so:

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NASB)

But since sanctification is the promised work of the Spirit in the life of a believer, all who are justified will be sanctified and will ultimately be glorified. It is God’s work from beginning to end, and He will bring it to completion:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6, NASB)

But what about our actions? Won’t Christians be lazy and sinful if their works don’t have any part in saving them? Again, the Scriptures anticipate every argument. Paul writes in Romans:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2, NASB)

Because we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified. Our salvation is secure because God is the One doing the work. And because the Spirit is at work in us to sanctify us, we will see changes in our lives and in our actions. That is what James 2 is explaining. Justifying faith will always be accompanied by good works.

Justifying faith will always be accompanied by good works. Those works are evidence and absolutely necessary, but they do not earn us any part of our salvation. The evidence is for our sake and for the sake of others in the church. It’s a means of assurance and a means of confirming who are believers in the church.

God does not need proof to know who of us is saved. He knows! He chose us before the foundation of the world. He has called us by our names. We are His! He will not lose a single one of us.

The Reformers fought and many died to restore the truth of SALVATION by faith alone through Grace alone in Christ alone. They wrote the catechisms and confessions we have today, not to displace the role of Scripture alone, but to lay out what the Scriptures teach in such a way that all might understand. So many of the current problems and troubles in the church today would be resolved if people would study the Scriptures and catechize themselves and their children.

For example, the Heidelberg catechism questions could have been written with this very discussion in mind:

Q & A 60
Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.

Q & A 61
Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?

A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.

Q & A 62
Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?

A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.

Q & A 63
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?

A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.

Q & A 64
Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?

A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.

This is the consistent message of Scripture and all the Reformed confessions and catechisms. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God alone be the glory! By all means, we need to struggle against the sins in our lives and encourage others to do the same. We should look for evidence of the work of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of our children. We should press on and serve God faithfully and honorably in all we do.

But if we sell our birthright of salvation by faith alone for the pottage of moralism, we will have lost all our Reformed ancestors fought for, and we will do great damage to our own faith, to the faith of others, and to our churches. As we vow when we profess faith and join the church in the PCA, we must receive and rest on Christ alone for salvation. Beginning to end, the work is God’s. Here we stand, we can do no other.

A Life of Faith and Love

Last week as the city of Houston, and most of Southeast Texas, was dealing with Hurricane Harvey and massive flooding, my sweet grandmother went home to be with the Lord. In addition to the stress and worry over flooding and the safety of our family and friends, we have been grieving the loss.

God has been very gracious to us through it all. My immediate family is dry and safe. The flood waters around my aunt’s house, where my grandmother was living, receded and did not cause the difficult situation to be worse than it already was. The flooded streets have prevented us so far from gathering together to tell stories and laugh and cry.  Hopefully next week we’ll be able to do so.

For today, I want to share with you a little about my grandmother and the testimony of her faith. My grandmother, Anita, was a strong believer and a great encouragement to all who knew her.  Her smile and her laugh were genuine and infectious.

My grandparents, Tom and Anita, married young, by today’s standards, and shared an enduring love for each other. My grandfather died nearly 20 years ago, but my grandmother never stopped loving him and missing him. Their example of love throughout their marriage is an inspiration to me.

Life wasn’t always easy for my grandparents. They married at the end of WWII. Like many men of his time, my grandfather served in the Navy through the war. My grandparents kept letters they wrote to each other through those times.

After they married, my grandfather went on to become a Baptist pastor. My grandparents were missionaries in South America for many years. After my uncle died in a construction accident here in the States, my grandparents returned to Texas and did not go back on the mission field.

My grandfather continued to work in ministry until his retirement, and my grandmother worked in education until her retirement. Through it all, they raised my dad, my uncles, and my aunt. Once they retired, they loved to travel, often taking some of the grandkids along. I have great memories of Glorieta, Carlsbad Caverns, and 4th of July weeks at the beach.

My grandparents left an enduring legacy of faith in our family: children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who love the Lord and serve Him in many ways. It’s my grandmother’s faith, as well as her love and her laughter, that I will remember most.

A couple years ago, we had the joy of celebrating our middle son, Gabriel, as he professed faith and became a communing member of the church. My grandmothers were both able to attend. After church, my grandmother, “Mom” as we always called her, hugged my neck and told me how proud she was of us, how thankful she was that our boys love the Lord.

As her health failed, my grandmother continued to demonstrate the strong faith she had in the Lord. My aunt said that she and my grandmother had conversations about the challenges she was facing as her health got worse. My grandmother accepted what was happening and the hardships. She trusted God to carry her through it, one way or another. And He did.

In the last couple of weeks, my grandmother knew it was nearing time for her to go. We gathered together to hold her hand, to hug her neck, to tell her we loved her. She smiled and squeezed our hands. She told us she loved us. She had joy and faith that she would see Her Savior and also her beloved Tom. Her hope was in her eternal life with Jesus and in the coming resurrection.

I miss her terribly. My heart aches, and my eyes hurt from crying. But I know I will see her again. And when that happens, there will never again be tears and pain and separation and death.

I could tell wonderful stories, funny ones too, about my grandmother’s life. She loved to laugh. She loved to tease. She loved to be with her family. What I will remember is her laughter, her smile, her love, and her faith. I pray that I will honor her legacy in my own life and faith.

 

This is the obituary my aunt and cousins wrote. It’s a lovely tribute to my grandmother.

Anita Newell Green, a native Texan born on the anniversary of Texas Independence, March 2, 1926 was received into the loving arms of her Lord and Savior August 28, 2017. She was the youngest daughter of Virgil “Merle” and Jesse “Pearl” Newell.

She graduated from Reagan High School before attending The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. While she did not graduate from UMHB, she was an honorary member of the class of ‘47 and enjoyed celebrating yearly homecoming events until recently. In 1945, Anita married the love of her life, Thomas Stuart Green in Temple, Texas and they were married until Tom’s death on April 10, 1999. Anita went on to graduate with a BA from Howard Payne University (‘49) in Brownsville, Texas and later received her M.Ed from the University of Houston (‘69).

After nine years of teaching, raising children, and serving as the pastor’s wife for several Baptist Churches, Tom and Anita were called to serve as missionaries for what was then known as the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. After language school in Costa Rica, the family moved to Paraguay in 1959. While in Paraguay, Anita was the director (principal) of Colegio Bautista de Villa Morra, the president of the Women’s Organization of the National Baptist Convention, and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Baptist Hospital.

Upon their return to the United States in 1970, Tom and Anita settled in Houston, Texas where Anita was an educator in the Houston Independent School District. As they settled into their new life in Houston they found a tumultuous and divided city along racial lines. As an educator, she was one of the first teachers in HISD to participate in “cross over” integration in support of equal education for all. She continued her career as a Magnet Coordinator at Davis High School where she worked tirelessly to provide a quality education for all students. Her last assignment was teaching High School English at Waltrip High School until her retirement in 1989.

In 1992, Tom and Anita moved to Huntsville, Texas and were active members of University Heights Baptist Church. As an active member of UHBC, Anita ministered in various ways. Whether one needed wise counsel, a friendly smile, or a compassionate hug. Anita touched many members of the church and the community. She led the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) and encouraged women of all ages to take an active part in missions. She demonstrated that faith as a member and leader of UHBC’s Widows’ group, Circle of Friends. She also touched the lives of many young college girls who needed the quiet respite of a home atmosphere and a home cooked meal.

Anita is preceded in death by her parents Virgil “Merle” (1979) and Jesse “Pearl” Newell (1984); her husband, Thomas Stuart Green (1999); son, Thomas “Skipper” Stuart Green Jr. (1970); her sister, UnaVee Newell Yeatts (2011); her brother, Alvin Newell (1928); great-granddaughter, Bethanne Miller (2002); as well as several other precious great-grandbabies who were also welcomed into the Lord’s loving arms.

Anita is survived by son David Allen Green and wife Linda; son Jon Dale Green and wife Carolyn; daughter, Annesta Green Lunde and husband Gary; as well as Rosa “Rosie” Elizabeth Elgueta. She is also survived by her grandchildren: Travis and his wife Sarah; Dale and his wife Melissa “Missy”; April and her husband Anthony; Rachel and her husband Matt; Benjamin “Ben” and his wife Echo; Amy and her husband Joshua; Aleece and her husband Matthew; as well as 14 dearly loved great-grandchildren. She is also survived by Gordon Yeatts and family; Harriet Yeatts Sweatt and family; and Paula Saraceno and family.

Her light brightened so many of our lives and we can not help but mourn. The world seems quite a bit dimmer without her, but those of us who knew and loved her know that the light she shared with us was a reflection of the True Light. Therefore, we rejoice that she is in the presence of Christ, at home with God and has joined that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on as we live and love through faith by the power of the Spirit. She will most be remembered giving her whole life in service of her Lord, Jesus Christ. Her faith has inspired her family. She will be missed.

Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Translation

One of the questions I was asked in my interview with the Theology Gals was about the connection between the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) and the ESV Bible translation. My response was that I had not seen any evidence ESS in the translation itself, although there are several instances of it in the ESV Study Bible notes. I also noted that I have other concerns about the ESV translation, like the influence of Susan Foh’s work on the meaning of “desire” in Genesis 3:16, but that I had not seen any influence of ESS in the text itself.

The day after the Theology Gals’ podcast aired I came across another podcast from the guys at Gentle Reformation that gives examples from the ESV translation that demonstrate the influence of ESS. I so wish I’d seen that before my interview as I think it’s an extremely important concern. ESS does indeed appear to have influenced the translation of the ESV.

Here are the two texts that the 3GT podcast mentioned as evidence of ESS in the ESV:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. John 14:10 ESV (italics mine)

And:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:13 ESV (italics mine)

As the guys on the 3GT podcast explain, the issue is the translation of the word “heautou” or “emautoú” as “on his/my own authority.” The Greek words used, heautou/emautoú, means “himself, herself, itself.” It does not mean “authority.” Most other translations use either  “of himself, herself, ourselves, myself” etc. or “initiative.” For example, John 14:10 from the NASB:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. John 14:10 NASB (italics mine)

Or John 16:13 from the KJV:

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. John 16:13 KJV (italics mine)

The ESV consistently translates heautou/emautoú as “on his/my own authority” in every passage referring to Jesus or to the Spirit. Examples include John 7:17, John 8:28, John 10:18, and John 12:49. They do not translate it “on his/my own authority” in the 300+ other occurrences of heautou/emautoú

In all of the other occurrences, heautou/emautoú is translated as “himself, herself, itself” etc. For example in Luke 14:27:

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29 ESV (italics mine)

The ESV is not the only translation of the Bible that uses “authority” in this way, but the use of “authority” in these passages is a minority position. And with good reason. While it is not uncommon to speak of the incarnate Son as submitting to His Father’s authority, it is necessary to qualify what is meant by authority and submission.

Proponents of ESS teach that there is an eternal relationship of authority and submission between God the Father and God the Son. They teach that authority and submission are in the very nature of God. This is contrary to classic, orthodox teaching on the Trinity which does not allow for any difference of authority within the nature of the Trinity. As the God-man, Jesus did, of course, submit His human will to the authority of the Father. But that does not mean that the Father and the Son are eternally defined in their nature or being by authority and submission.

The truly dangerous result of the ESV translation of heautou/emautoú as “authority” is apparent in the John 16:13 passage. That passage is speaking of the Spirit. While the Son, after the incarnation, has a human will and a divine will, the Spirit does not. The Spirit’s authority is always the one divine authority. If the Spirit is not speaking on His “own authority,” whose authority is He speaking on?

I’m very grateful to the guys at 3GT for bringing this to my attention. I hope you will all check out their podcast and share this development with others. I continue to be amazed at the reach and influence ESS has had and is still having in the Reformed world.

 

Eternal Subordination of the Son- Podcast with Theology Gals

Last week, I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Coleen and Ashley at Theology Gals for their podcast. We talked about the Eternal Subordination of the Son controversy. If you’re curious about what ESS is, why it matters, what impact it has practically in our churches, etc, you can listen to the interview here. My hope is that more people become aware of the continuing danger that ESS is for men, women, families, churches, and communities.

Link for podcast: http://biblethumpingwingnut.com/2017/07/17/eternal-subordination-of-the-son-with-rachel-miller-theology-gals/

The Piper Scale of Female Leadership

Recently I was re-reading John Piper’s explanation for what types of careers and jobs are appropriate for women. He goes into a long and complicated description of how to determine what types of leadership and influence a woman can have over a man without doing damage to their masculinity and femininity. It occurred to me that his criteria and subsequent explanation sound a lot like the Pritchard poetry scale from Dead Poet’s Society. So with profound apologies to Robin Williams, Dead Poet’s Society, and the authors of the screenplay, I present to you the Piper Scale of Female Leadership:

“Understanding Female Leadership,” by Dr. J. Stephen Piper, Th.D.

To fully understand female leadership, we must first be conversant with the nature and application of leadership between men and women, then ask two questions: 1) how personal is this female influence over a man and 2) how direct is that influence. Question 1 rates the nature of the relationship between the man and women. Question 2 rates the degree of influence. And once these questions have been answered, determining the inappropriateness of a woman’s influence over a man is a relatively simple matter.

If the directness of the influence is plotted on the horizontal and the personal nature of the relationship is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the influence yields the measure of its inappropriateness.

A wife advising her husband might score high on the vertical (personal) but low on the directness (non-directive). A job as a city planner might score low on the vertical (non-personal) but high on the directness (directive). A job as a drill sergeant, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally (personal) and vertically (directive), yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the female leadership to be truly inappropriate.

As you proceed through other examples of female leadership in life, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate female leadership in this manner improves, so will your avoidance of inappropriate female leadership over men.

And how do I feel about the Piper Scale for Female Leadership? To paraphrase Robin Williams’ character, Mr. Keating:

Rip it out! Rip! Be gone, J. Stephen Piper, Th.D. Rip. Shred. Tear. Rip it out!

If, by chance, you aren’t familiar with the original scene from Dead Poet’s Society, you can watch it here.

Answering the Charges of Racism and Misogyny in the PCA

Last month, a podcast on the issues of race and gender received a lot of attention. Some of the concerns were overblown, but some of the concerns were valid. Unfortunately, many of the valid concerns were lost among rude comments and the ensuing charges of racism and misogyny by those defending the podcast. I am not here to defend everything that was said or written in response to the podcast. A good bit of it is indefensible. But I would like to gently address a couple of items from the original podcast, namely the accusations of racism and misogyny in particularly in the PCA.

First off, I’d like to say that there are genuine reasons to discuss racism and misogyny in the Reformed world, and even in the PCA. Some churches in our denomination have bad histories regarding racism. Other churches have bad track records in how they have treated women.

We are all sinners, and as such, no doubt there are individuals, church leaders, sessions, churches, and even presbyteries that may need to address specific examples of racist or misogynist beliefs and actions. I am thankful that there are individuals, leaders, sessions, and churches addressing some of these concerns and many more who appear willing to consider how racism or misogyny might need to be addressed.

However, I do think that there are a couple of cautions that should be raised. As believers, we should address all sin patterns in our lives. However, not all believers will agree on the best course of action when it comes to how these issues should be addressed, especially when it comes to political action or to particular organizational approaches. It’s also worth noting that different believers will have different callings and no one person can possibly be active in the fight for or against everything.

For example, we should all be supportive of adoption, but not all believers can adopt children. We should all be pro-life, but not all believers can devote time to promote pro-life legislation or actions. We should all care about the needs of those around us, but not all can volunteer at food banks and shelters. We should all be against racism, but not all of us will devote our time to advance that issue. We may also not all agree about the best ways to address these issues. And that’s ok. The diversity of callings within the church allow for us as believers to work towards many good things. We should be careful about doubting the faith of our brothers and sisters because they disagree with us or don’t share our passion for a particular issue.

The other important caution is that we need to be careful in our zeal for our causes that we don’t lose sight of the gospel. As Paul wrote

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, NASB)

The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected and that because of his death and resurrection, we can be at peace with God. There is no better news than this. And no matter what good things we work towards in this life, no matter what we achieve that benefits others if we don’t trust in Jesus alone for our salvation, it’s ultimately meaningless. If we don’t share the good news of salvation with others, no amount of good things we do here will be of eternal good for them.

To be clear, I am not accusing any of the podcast speakers of having forgotten the gospel. I’m not questioning their faith. I am reminding all of us that we are good at forgetting what’s most important, and I am pleading with us all to remember the primacy of the gospel.

Along these lines, I think it’s important for us to be careful to disagree without accusing others of sinful motivations. Not everyone who disagreed with portions of the podcast did so for racist or misogynist reasons. Not everyone who has the same skin color, the same background, or the same gender is going to agree or think uniformly on any given issue.

There were thoughtful responses to the podcast both from women and from men/women of color who disagreed with aspects of the original podcast. It seems odd to suggest that all those who disagreed, regardless of racial background, were racist and equally odd to determine that all those who agreed, regardless of racial background, were innocent of racism.

The sin of partiality is something that everyone of all skin colors and backgrounds and nations must recognize and fight. As James wrote:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? (James 2:1-7, NASB)

Moses wrote in Exodus that the partiality can come not only in favoring the rich but also the poor:

You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23: 2-3, NASB)

We are always going to be tempted to show partiality towards others for many reasons. Not everyone will struggle with this to the same degree. But we should all be open to considering the ways in which we show sinful partiality to others in our lives. And we should be careful in making accusations of partiality.

Moving on to the charge of misogyny in the PCA, as I said at the beginning, I know there is misogyny in Reformed churches. However, some of the examples being given are not actually misogyny. Two main ones that have been referenced recently are using masculine pronouns or names for God and male-only ordination. While there are certainly misogynists who hold to or teach these ideas, I do not believe that either of these is necessarily misogynistic.

First, let’s start with the use of masculine pronouns and names for God. There are a couple of things to remember in this discussion. As the catechism teaches, “God is a Spirit, and does not have a body like men.” This means that God does not have a sex. However, God has chosen to relate to us in the following ways. He is God the Father. He is God the Son. He is God the Holy Spirit. The pronouns used in the Bible for God are masculine. When God the Son was incarnate, He was born as a male. The names Father, Son, and Jesus are all rightly used with masculine pronouns.

The question that comes up is what to do about the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it’s usually feminine. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, and it’s gender neutral. In English, masculine and feminine words really throw us for a loop because we don’t use them. Other languages use them all the time. In Spanish, a table is feminine, but a pen is masculine. Mouth is feminine, and eyes are masculine. But both men and women have mouths and eyes, so the gender of the word doesn’t affect the gender of the person.

The same is true with ruach and pneuma. All people who have the breath of life in them are said to have ruach/pneuma. For example, Genesis 45:27 says that Jacob’s spirit revived. Jacob, a man, has a ruach, a feminine word. But that doesn’t make him feminine.

As for the Holy Spirit, the pronouns Jesus used in John 14, 15, and 16 are uniformly masculine. Jesus had no problems with correcting faulty beliefs about God, but He did not choose to use feminine pronouns for the Holy Spirit. He also didn’t use gender neutral pronouns for the Holy Spirit when He could have.

The Holy Spirit is not “she” nor “it.” He is the third person of the Trinity. Given the Biblical usage of masculine pronouns for the Spirit, it is not misogyny to call the Spirit “He.” It’s consistent with what the Bible says.

Back to the point about God being a spirit and not having a body or a sex. It’s important to emphasize that when God made man (humanity) in His image, He did so by making both male and female. Women are as much made in the image of God as men. Men are not more in the image of God by virtue of their masculinity. This is often forgotten in the emphasis on the masculinity of God.

We should also remember that God’s actions are often described using feminine imagery. This doesn’t mean God is a woman or “she,” but it does mean that both men and women can relate to God and that both men and women reflect aspects of God’s character. Here’s a list of feminine characteristics or attributes from Scripture:

  • God comforts his people like a mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66:13)

  • Like a woman would never forget her nursing child, God will not forget his children (Isaiah 49:15)

  • God is like a mother eagle hovering over her young (Deuteronomy 32:11)

  • God seeks the lost like a housekeeper, trying to find her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

  • God cares for his people like a midwife that cares for the child she just delivered (Ps 22:9-10, Ps 71:6, Isa 66:9)

  • God experiences the fury of a mother bear robbed of her cubs (Hosea 13:8)

  • Jesus longed for the people of Jerusalem, like a mother hen longs to gather her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34)

These are a good reminder for us not to only focus on the masculine attributes or characteristics of God. We should not make women believe they are worth less because of their sex. It’s also worth remembering that all of the imagery of the church is feminine. It’s not that men always represent Christ and women always represent the church. We are all, male and female, the bride of Christ.

A second example given regarding misogyny is that we only ordain men. The ordination of qualified men to elder and deacon is a practice I believe is Biblical. I am aware that many Christians disagree on this issue and that both sides are convinced on the basis of Scripture. We disagree on the interpretation and application of the pertinent Biblical passages, much like paedobaptists and credobaptists do, or Arminians and Calvinists. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the differences. But the truth is believers disagree on this and will continue to disagree.

Because both sides claim Scripture and because both sides are certain that they are the ones correctly interpreting Scripture, it would be wrong of us to attempt to force each other to hold a position contrary to our convictions. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Each of us is responsible to God for his or her beliefs. Out of respect for each other, we should stand firmly for our beliefs, but we should not force others to accept a position they cannot in good conscience affirm.

Thankfully, there are any number of denominations out there that already affirm every possible set of beliefs on this issue. If you are not comfortable with the PCA’s position on male ordination, there are many denominations that ordain women which might be a better fit. Which is not to say I want anyone to leave the PCA. I just think it is for the best for everyone to be in a church home where they won’t be forced to affirm things they disagree with. If the PCA were to change its position on ordination, then I would be looking for a new church home myself.

Beyond the issue of ordination, it is reasonable to address churches that do not utilize women and their gifts as well as they should. This is a conversation that I believe needs to continue. While affirming the important role that our ordained leaders play in our churches, especially in the leading of worship, administering of the sacraments, and preaching the Word, we should also look for ways to include lay men and women in the life of the church. It is important to ask how we can encourage women in the church to use their gifts in a way that supports the work of the church and doesn’t diminish the vital roles of elders and deacons.

I really hope that this article is received in the gentle spirit of encouragement and critique in which it is intended. My goal is the peace and purity of the church. I do believe that there are areas in the Reformed world and in the PCA, in particular, that should be addressed with reference to racism and misogyny. But I hope that we can also be careful when we are tempted to attribute sinful motivations to the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Policing the Blogosphere? We’ve Been Here Before

Last week, Anglican Priest, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote a much-discussed article for Christianity Today, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere“. Warren is concerned about the lack of authority and accountability for bloggers and speakers, especially women. The subtitle explains Warren’s concern a little more: “the age of the internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.” She lays out her concerns regarding the state of the Christian blogosphere, using Jen Hatmaker’s recent statements on LGBTQ as an example:

Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?

It’s not at all news that there is a lot of false teaching going on in the evangelical world. It’s also not news that a lot of this teaching is promoted and shared via social media. Anyone with computer access can write and share practically anything they want on the internet.  What is newer about Warren’s article is her solution for the problem:

The broader church has a responsibility to provide formal support and accountability to teachers, leaders, and writers—whether male or female. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else. What this looks like in practice will vary dramatically between traditions and must be creatively hammered out by leaders and pastors in their own denominations or other Christian institutions. But while I cannot provide a specific model for each ecclesial organization, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.

Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity. (emphasis added)

Now, anyone who has read my articles knows that I am a strong proponent of orthodox teaching. I think it’s extremely important that all believers be taught sound doctrine. And so I can agree with some of what Warren wrote. I share her concern regarding false teaching being published and spread through social media. I recognize that there is a good deal of disdain expressed online for authority and accountability. I also agree that many popular teachers, both male and female, are heterodox and that they often seem to lack effective authority over them.

However, I do not believe that the answer is adding another layer of authority. In fact, I’m really concerned by the appeal to authority and control as the answer to false teaching for several reasons. First of all, an additional official authority structure will not solve the problem. False teachers are primarily in churches/denominations that agree with them, or they are outside all church authority. Most orthodox bloggers and speakers are already submitting to their local or denominational authority regarding what they write or say.

No new authority structure will stop Joel Osteen from preaching in the church his daddy built. Doug Wilson has a denomination that he created after he self-ordained himself to back him up. Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, and many others are currently members of churches that approve of what they do. Rachel Held Evans is now Episcopal as was Bishop Spong. I expect the denomination that didn’t stop Spong isn’t particularly interested in addressing Evans either.

Some denominations have means for addressing false teaching. Others really don’t, and they don’t seem all that interested in changing that. Baptist churches are very happy to be loosely affiliated and yet fiercely independent of any oversight by the denomination. Demanding that all churches form institutional authority structures isn’t going to keep false teachers from teaching, but it may well suppress needed challenges to false teaching, which is my next concern.

Warren’s call for authority structures will only hurt orthodox authors and speakers. Having to go through a formal authority process to be allowed to write or teach, even informally, will simply add another hurdle to jump through. It will also allow those who call out error to be silenced by those who don’t want to hear the truth. And that leads me to my next point, we’ve been here before.

In the 1400-1500s, the universal church in Europe was in a bad state. Priests were often barely literate. The common people could not read the Scriptures or understand the Latin Mass and were dependent on the church leaders to tell them what to believe and what to do. The people had been taught to have a blind faith in the church leaders. They were taught that they could not be trusted to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Imagine, they were told, the errors that might happen if the average person read and attempted to interpret for themselves!

Then men like Hus, Wycliffe, Luther and others believed that the people needed to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. The Reformation was born out of a desire to strip away all the errors that had crept into the church and return to the doctrines of Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, to the glory of God alone. Many, many books, pamphlets, and Bible translations were written and published during the early days of the Reformation. And these unauthorized writings and their unauthorized writers were condemned by the official church leaders.

The Counter Reformation, starting with the Council of Trent, was an attempt by the Catholic church to put an end to the “false teachings” of the Reformers, and to protect the “orthodoxy” of the Catholic faith:

The spirit of the Catholic Reformation was a spirit of zeal and ardor for the faith, a recognition of abuses in the church and a dedication to the work of reform, and an attitude of intolerance toward heresy.

A list was produced with approved and prohibited books:

The books of those heresiarchs, who after the aforesaid year originated or revived heresies, as well as of those who are or have been the heads or leaders of heretics, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar Friedberg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these, whatever may be their name, title or nature of their heresy, are absolutely forbidden. The books of other heretics, however, which deal professedly with religion are absolutely condemned.

The list of prohibited books was enforced by the Inquisition.

As early as 1543, Caraffa., as Inquisitor-General of the Roman Inquisition, had insisted that no book should be published without approval of the Holy Office. He also wanted the Inquisition to hunt out and destroy already published books. Caraffa became Pope Paul IV.

Eventually, the approval of books included a special notation to indicate that the books were without error and approved by the Catholic church:

During this period, probably out of necessity, the church began supervising all printed matter. They issued their first list of approved and prohibited books in the middle of the 1500s. Today Catholic books generally carry the notations, nihil obstat (nothing conflicts), or, imprimatur (it may be printed), to let faithful Catholics know whether the book is prohibited. For many years, the church placed the vernacular New Testament on the prohibited list. (emphasis original)

What’s interesting to me is that this current push for authorization of women writers and speakers seems like an odd weaving together of two very different strands of thought. On the one hand is the idea that women need some official legitimization. Often this is expressed as a call for the ordination of women. On the other hand, the current discussion reminds me of the patriarchal teaching that women need to be under an umbrella of protective authority to keep them safe from danger and error. That umbrella typically shows Christ over the husband, who then is over the wife and children.

It seems very odd to me to see these two threads combined, but that is exactly what’s happening in the current discussions that began with Warren’s article. Imagine having to provide some kind of stamp of approval in order to blog on theology.

The combination here of the two thoughts, women needing legitimizing and also needing protective authority led me to create an official stamp of approval in the vein of the Counter Reformation.

My final concern about Warren’s call for authority structures is that it undermines another aspect of the Reformation: the priesthood of believers. The Reformers believed strongly that all believers were theologians who were responsible for reading and applying the Word of God. This does not mean they encouraged everyone to go about interpreting Scripture without regard to the teaching of pastors and elders, but they believed that theology was not solely the domain of professional theologians. To demand that all writers and speakers must be authorized by the church is to return to a pre-Reformation standard.

Because I do agree about the sheer amount of false teaching, especially the popular teachings peddled to women, I think there are some steps that we could take towards a solution without the authoritarianism. These steps are both simple and yet arguably harder than creating new rules or authority structures. But in the long run, I believe they will be much more effective at preserving orthodoxy.

Instead of creating new authority structures, I think we need to return to the authority already in place. First, we need to return to the authority of God by means of recognizing the authority of Scripture. This was key to the Reformation, and I believe it is key for us today. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Question/Answer 2:

The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

If Scripture is the “only rule” then we need to return to the authority of the Scripture in our churches, our lives, and in our writing and speaking. Ultimately, what we write and speak must be consistent with what Scripture teaches.

Second, we need to recognize the authority of the local churches and denominations. I know that many people are hesitant to submit to church authority because of the examples of abusive authority that some pastors and churches have practiced. It is a valid concern, and I’m not calling for ultimate authority or authoritarianism in the church/denominations either. Some churches, mainly those without Presbyterian polity, have created massively intrusive membership covenants that have no place in the church.

But that doesn’t invalidate membership vows and a proper submission to church leaders in a limited sense. As a Presbyterian, the membership vows I took do not give the church leaders the right to dictate or control my life.

  • Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

  • Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

  • Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

  • Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

That last vow is important. In matters regarding the peace and purity of the church, I have promised to submit to the authority of my church leaders. Of course, this too can be abused, but that is why no church is independent in our denomination. There are layers of checks and balances to protect church members from being abused. These same layers are designed to promote orthodoxy by holding the ordained leaders to a standard of faith and practice. Is it a perfect system? No, but there’s a reason being Reformed is more than the 5 points of Calvinism. Church polity matters.

Connected to that last point, we need to hold teachers, writers, and speakers accountable for what they write and say. And this is actually where social media and blogging can be a help. Public teaching is open to public critique.

Any Christian who sets himself up as a teacher in the church of Christ and publicly teaches anything thereby opens himself up for criticism by others (cf. James 3:1). If they think what he is teaching is harmful to the church, they have an obligation to point it out just as widely as it was taught. Such public warning or debate on the topic should not be considered a personal attack at all. The teacher’s plea that a critic should first have come to him about his disagreement on the basis of Matthew 18:15 does not hold. This passage has to do with personal wrongs known only between the two, who should privately discuss the matter that separates them. What a critic of a public teaching does in pointing out his disagreement with that teaching has nothing to do with personal affronts or lack of reconciliation; he is simply disagreeing at the same public level as that on which the teaching was given in the first place. — Dr. Jay E. Adams, Grist from Adam’s Mill, 69

This should not be abused, and it should be done with care and gentleness whenever possible. I know that some may be distressed that I’ve critiqued Warren’s article in this way. But my critique has been kept at the level of ideas and not at a personal level. I have nothing personal against Warren. I simply disagree with her on this matter. Her public article invites public critique. And mine does too. I’m certain those who disagree with what I’ve written here will say so.

The next step that I think we need to attempt is to stop buying books from false teachers and to stop attending conferences with false teaching. It sounds easy, but the reason these false teachers have a platform is because people pay for and support them. We need to be more discerning and willing to take a stand publicly.

Related to that, I believe that big name leaders and organizations need to be more discerning and careful to stand for orthodoxy over popularity. That means they need to not promote false teachers. They need to not be silent when others are addressing error. There are big name organizations that were studiously silent on the Trinity debate. I’m not saying everyone needs to address every controversy. There wouldn’t be time. But some errors are so fundamental that we cannot be silent.

Standing up for orthodoxy will also mean not speaking at conferences or sharing stages with heterodox teachers. This also includes not publishing false teaching. I don’t care how winsome those teachers are. The presence of big name leaders side by side with heterodox ones lends respectability. Which leads to another Reformation era danger: certain groups, organizations, or people are seen as infallible no matter what. The average person is conditioned to blindly trust and not question what they are taught by the “right” people. (HT: Persis Lorenti)

Big name leaders and organizations also need to take concerns over the teaching of “one of their own” seriously and not simply circle the wagons or invoke the Good Old Boy network for protection. As Aimee Byrd has written extensively in her book, No Little Women, pastors and elders need to know what’s being taught to the women in their churches, and they need to be willing to address any false teaching.

Lastly, women writers and speakers (and men too) need to be well-grounded in solid doctrine. They need to submit to the local authority of their church. They need to be willing to hear correction and to speak the truth in love in all they write and say.

Warren raised some legitimate concerns regarding the prevalence of false teaching and the lack of appropriate authority and accountability in the blogosphere. However, the answer isn’t authoritarianism, ordination/commissioning, or more control over bloggers. Rather, the answer is a return to the authority of Scripture and the accountability of the local church through existing means. We must teach ourselves and others to be Berean, always searching the Scriptures to see if we or others are staying true to the faith.

As I said, this is much harder to accomplish than introducing more controls or regulations, but it is the only way to truly reform the Christian blogosphere. We need a grassroots effort to reform from the bottom up, not new authority structures to enforce a top-down hierarchy of approved bloggers. Let’s not forget the lessons of the Reformation. The privilege to study and discuss theology as an average woman was too dearly won.

Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere? Ultimately, we all are.