Each of the Synoptic Gospels relate two similes that Jesus used in answer to the question by some Jews why His disciples did not fast. John the Baptist had taught His disciples to fast. Jesus’ disciples did not fast. The answer Jesus gave to these Jews is that no one fasts while the bridegroom is in their presence. He, of course, is the bridegroom and His disciples could not fast while He was with them because of the joy they experienced by His presence.
Then, Jesus said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22). In his commentary on this passage, J. A. Alexander writes:
In religion, no less than in secular affairs, new emergencies require new means to meet them; but these new means are not to be devised by human wisdom, but appointed by divine authority. (J. A. Alexander, Mark, p. 49).
The point of Jesus’ simile or parable is that something new, like wine, cannot be put into something old, like wineskins. New wine, when it ferments, will burst the old wineskins because they are not as pliable as new wineskins. As J. C. Ryle wrote: “in religion it is worse than useless to attempt to mix things which essentially differ” (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark, p. 34).
That simile of Jesus speaks volumes to what we are doing in Vanguard Presbytery. It has become increasingly clear to Al Baker and me, as well as to others, that the greatest interest about Vanguard is coming from people who want to start new, Vanguard Presbytery type churches. Last week, Al and I visited people in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa who are interested in Vanguard churches in their areas. On Thursday morning before flying back to Atlanta, we prayed in our room that the Lord would enable Vanguard to start 100 churches over the next decade. That might seem like a daunting goal, but we get requests for new church starts almost weekly. There are about twenty places where we already have contacts of people who would like a Vanguard Presbytery type church.
After our prayer time, I went to visit a long-time friend of mine who lives in Oklahoma City. We had spent a few hours with him on Tuesday and I wanted to touch base once again. He is a millionaire who grew up on a farm about 45 miles west of Oklahoma City and made his fortune by selling magazine subscriptions (a most unusual story and individual). When I walked in his office on Thursday, the first thing he said to me was: “Dewey, if you want this new denomination to go, you will have to start new churches. Don’t try to build it just on existing churches because they will bring all of their problems with them and pretty soon you will be back where you started.” Those words made me think of Jesus’ answer to the Jews. New wine needs wineskins. Of course, there will be existing churches that join with Vanguard just as several already have. We welcome them to join with us if they are excited about this new start and agree with our principles.
There are some things that we can learn from Jesus’ similes. First, He gives us the key why revival has never revived a denomination. That would be like trying to put new wine in old wineskins. The fermenting wine then bursts the old wineskins. And that is what has always happened when revival comes. The Jewish church would not accept the mission of Jesus, the Messiah. He came to His own, but His own received Him not. Thus, they crucified Him. The church in Jerusalem was first composed of many Jewish believers, but the Sanhedrin revolted against the gospel. It was simply not possible to put new wine in old wineskins. The gospel had to be taken to the nations and put into new wineskins. There it bore fruit. Jesus foretold those events in Matthew 22:42-46.
Then, the Church for many centuries accommodated the false doctrines of men and was overtaken by superstition and false doctrine. In the midst of that situation, God raised up reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, who called the people of God back to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Yet, the Catholic Church would not be reformed. The new wine of the gospel once again could not be put in old wineskins. The old wineskins burst and the true Church had to go outside the camp once more in order to carry the flame of truth.
Many of the Puritans tried to reform the Church of England from within, but that church experienced only a partial reformation. Instead, they kicked their reformers out of their midst—exiling many, imprisoning others, and killing still others. Once again the old wineskins simply would not hold together when the new wine began to ferment. Once again Jesus’ simile was proved true.
Then, the American Presbyterian Church in the 1700’s had become a very deadened body before the Great Awakening. When George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Tennents, the Blairs, and others began to preach the message of the “new wine” of God, many sinners were saved. The Presbyterian Church, though, was not reformed. 1741 was a climactic year. The revival preachers and their churches were forbidden to be seated at the annual Synod of Philadelphia meeting that year which resulted in the split into two denominations—Old Light Presbyterians (who opposed the Great Awakening) and the New Light Presbyterians (who supported the Great Awakening). The new wine of the revival resulted in another rupture of the old wineskins and compelled the supporters of the revival to start a new denomination with new wineskins.
Vanguard Presbytery and I have been greatly criticized by some people who should be ashamed of the things they have said about us. Their criticism is that we have departed from the historic example of 47 years ago wherein leaders worked together to form a consensus on when and where and how to start a new denomination. Consensus building does not work in starting denominations. It did not work 47 years ago and has not worked throughout that entire time period. The problems which we face today are a result of those men not getting it right 47 years ago. What our critics overlook is that you cannot put new wine in old wineskins. Vanguard Presbytery has been interested in one thing from the beginning. We have tried our best to go back to the model given in the Book of Acts for what a church is to be and how the gospel is to be spread. Reformed tradition has been way less important to us than the teaching of Scripture. Semper reformanda is our motto, but we must always reform according to the Scripture. What happened 47 years ago is irrelevant to us other than teaching us lessons learned—both good and bad.
My Oklahoma City friend whom I mentioned above also told me that when one company buys another, there are two schools of thought about how to proceed. One school says that you fire all the managers and start over. The other school says that you try to retrain the old management team in order to maintain continuity. My friend said the first approach is always more successful in the long term. There is a reason. You cannot put new wine in old wineskins.
If the primary goal of Vanguard Presbytery were to recruit as many existing churches as possible into this new denomination, it would result in failure. Such an approach would require too many concessions on essential issues. That happened 47 years ago. There were too many concessions made which necessitated trying to put new wine in old wineskins. Those concessions concerned polity (at both the session and General Assembly levels), doctrine, evangelism, subscription, the Holy Spirit, etc. Vanguard Presbytery is attempting to meet the demands of the modern world with “new means… appointed by divine authority.” Those new means include the use of evangelists, prayer for revival, the emphasis on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, a truly Scriptural Presbyterian polity which is non-hierarchical, full subscription to the Westminster Standards, creation in 6 twenty-four hour days, and the preaching of the eternal gospel (not the social justice gospel). These “new means” of Vanguard Presbytery simply cannot be put into the old wineskins of traditional Presbyterianism (which we believe is sometimes unbiblical). The resulting denomination would burst apart before it got started. So, Vanguard Presbytery is putting the new wine in new wineskins.
There will be many existing churches that join with Vanguard Presbytery and we will gladly receive them. They will be excited not only about the new wine, but also the new wineskins. They will not come to us with demands—“We would like to join with you if you will only agree to accommodate these distinctives of our congregation which are contrary to the principles of Vanguard Presbytery.” One church already tried that approach, but their effort was unsuccessful when it became clear to us that they agreed with the heresy of the Federal Vision. I hope we always stick to our core convictions. They will serve us well. We are starting something new and we will need to start new churches in order to perpetuate this new denomination in accordance with our core convictions. New wine requires new wineskins.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
Contributions to Vanguard Presbytery may be mailed to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.