Sunday, November 21, 2004

On discernment, caution, and "issues"

We received some information from a church the other day that was striking. To begin with, Marcie and I were both quite surprised at the fundamentally high quality of the material; this was, by far, the most articulate and helpful information I have ever seen from a candidate-church. They provided a good introduction to the church, some basic demographics, and details about what the committee views as the distinctives of the church. The only thing missing was an explicit description of what they were seeking in a candidate-pastor (although some implications of this were peppered throughout the document). They also included a list of twenty questions (not a pun) that they wanted me to answer concerning various parts of my views on theology and ministry. Generally speaking, it was a great information packet.

However, a lot of what they said-- especially in the "distinctives" section-- was interesting in its ambiguity. Some of their descriptions were such that, taken at face value, they were simply informative about the true distinctions of the church; at the same time, much of what they put forth could easily be construed (or misconstrued) as "code" for, shall we say, some of the "minority" positions in our denomination. That is, if they hold to a peculiar theological position that is currently in debate as to its orthodoxy, they may have, in these distinctives, put forth a veiled plea for sympathizers to their views.

This puts me in a difficult position. At face value, I agree with all of their distinctives, and could easily minister in that context. In that case I would be quite interested in pursuing the position. On the other hand, if they venture further afield than their language suggests-- if it is an understatement, intentional or not, of a more controversial viewpoint-- then I am fairly confident that I disagree with quite a bit of what makes them distinctive. If this is the case then it would be a waste of my time, and theirs, to pursue it further.

This one instance causes me to consider the place of theological controversy and hot issues in the candidacy and placement process. There are a lot of issues that arise in the PCA... the direction of the denomination, confessional subscription, creation chronology, sonship, theonomy, the "new perspective on Paul," "Auburn Avenue" theology, paedocommunion, to name a few. How do these come into play in the candidacy process?

Normally, I am not much of an "issues" guy. I'm convinced that any of these (or any other) issues can become an obstacle to the Gospel: as a (future) pastor, once I become an activist for any cause-- no matter how noble-- I demonstrate that something other than the Gospel takes a higher priority in my life. What is more, at this point I would rather work on getting right the basic tools of biblical exegesis and fundamental theology. My friend Jon ( recently blogged some wise and helpful advice to this end that I wish all of my seminary classmates would read (see the last large paragraph from his 9/27/2004 post).

That said, I think that a careful candidate-pastor must take these issues into consideration when he is considering a church. Of course a church will present herself in the most favorable light possible-- it would be naive to expect anything else. But if that presentation makes a suspect or questionable position appear incontrovertible, caution and discernment are in order.

A large part of the solution seems to be in the diagnosis. Often, we can only see the symptoms; we see events or practices which may, or may not, indicate the presence of a questionable theology. The true problem-doctrine will rarely be presented, especially by a search committee. It is important to recognize that those apparent symptoms may simply be face-value distinctives-- harmless and unthreatening values that set one church apart from another. Said another way, it is not quite so important what a church is doing that looks suspicious as it is why they are doing it. There is sometimes a very fine line between an acceptable practice motivated by orthodoxy and a questionable practice driven by heresy. If I can get to the "why" answers, I'm doing good work in my discernment.

Follow-up on 11/26/2004:
I withdrew my name from consideration from the church mentioned above. In their distinctives, they listed as "further reading" several authors who are more upfront with their views on the controversial topics, and it is reasonable to infer that this church does hold to one of the "hot-topic" viewpoints, even though they themselves said nothing in their descriptions that was conclusive.

One of my professors surmised that this may be because they are not confident enough in their understanding to attempt a re-phrasing of the issue into their own words. If they mention the people they did, he said, they are telling me what they believe indirectly.

This brings to mind another concern altogether: a lot of people I know (especially seminary students) are quick to dismiss the perspectives of these authors simply because they know they disagree with them on a point or two. I've read a fair amount of some of the authors mentioned, and I know that some of what they say about different topics-- a lot, in some cases-- is helpful, orthodox in its content, an advancement of the progress of the issue, and genuinely beneficial to the Kingdom. I don't think they are right about everything, and I don't think they are right about the topic they are being cited on by this church. But then, nobody is right about everything; I'm certain that there are parts of my theological framework that I am wrong about (although I can't identify them at this point!), and I hope I'll be corrected in due time. More so, however, I hope I will not be quickly dismissed altogether because I am wrong here or there.

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