A question I am often asked whenever I visit with pastors and churches is this: How is Vanguard Presbytery going to prevent the same thing happening in her communion that has happened to the PCUS, PCA, and multitudes of other denominations. Here are the things I tell people:
First, the downfall of my former denomination began at the beginning. Evangelism and revival were downplayed and pushed aside. American Christianity has been shaped by the Great Awakening of the 1740’s and 1750’s. Many issues which grew out of that time period became spiritual guidelines for evangelical churches in the US. One of those was the principle that “if your pastor is not preaching the gospel, then close your ears and leave the church as quickly as possible.” By the late 1970’s, evangelistic services had become passé in the newly formed PCA and they were replaced by marriage and family seminars, etc. That is always a tragic mistake. The whole Scripture is about the message of the gospel. The Old Testament anticipates the coming of Christ and typifies the gospel in various ways, particularly the sacrificial system. The New Testament makes the death and resurrection of Jesus the main message. Some today wrongly say that the great message of the Scripture is grace (but they cannot even define what they mean by the use of that word). Grace to them is a word that means everything or anything that they want it to mean or even nothing at all. It is a meaningless word on the one hand and a cover for everything on the other hand. That is not the message of Scripture. In fact, the great message of the Scripture is about the grace of God in the gospel. Redemptive grace is the message of Scripture. Evangelism and discipleship are the missions of the Church. The Book of Acts reveals how the disciples went everywhere preaching Christ and building up disciples. Whenever a denomination gets away from this message of the gospel, it will soon turn to other things for “entertainment.” So, what is Vanguard Presbytery doing to prevent this problem which has ruined other denominations? Vanguard Presbytery requires concerted prayer for the spread of the gospel to take place at every court meeting. Vanguard Presbytery has the office of evangelist in order to promote the evangelization of the lost and as a perpetual reminder of the ongoing need of evangelism. Vanguard Presbytery is self-consciously seeking to promote a revival and evangelistic culture. If we fail or if turn away from this mission, then Vanguard Presbytery will go the way of all other denominations. We must never leave our first love.
Second, do not underestimate the importance of having a non-hierarchical form of government. Progressivism and liberalism grow best in the dark. They are nightshade plants. Hierarchy provides the cover for such progressivism to grow. It is the shade from the transparency which the Scripture requires of us. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, there is sanctuary that is provided for people to do their deeds in darkness undetected. That is why all church courts are supposed to be open and their records are open to examination by all the members subject to that court—whether session, presbytery, or General Assembly. Progressives love darkness. They love to do their deeds at night. Vanguard Presbytery has a Book of Church Order which is distinctly non-hierarchical. That means all decisions will have to be made out in broad daylight. There will be no General Assembly permanent committees in Vanguard Presbytery that can become institutional safe havens for power brokers and for people who want to take final action apart from the Assembly or the court that erected them.
Third, Vanguard Presbytery is going to watch the front door very carefully. A problem that many denominations have had is that they allowed too many pastors and too many churches to join them who were fundamentally different than them. Or, perhaps, those denominations just did not have any real core convictions. A friend who served his presbytery as a stated clerk for many years told me that the problem with allowing people to take exceptions to the Westminster Standards (even though the court might require them not to teach their exceptions) is that those holding exceptions soon outnumber those who subscribe fully to the Confession. Then, the tables are turned around and those with exceptions are in the majority. Guess what happens next? Those exceptions become the norm and are permitted to be taught everywhere. If the front door is not watched carefully, the wolf will soon be in the sheepfold pretending to be the shepherd. No denomination can survive such a situation for very long.
Fourth, the threshold for amending the Constitution of Vanguard Presbytery is not impossible, but it is going to be very difficult. It will take a 3/4 vote of the first Assembly; approval by 3/4 of the presbyteries; and, then, a 3/4 vote of a second Assembly. If changes are made to Vanguard’s Constitution, they will be matters that have broad support and are necessary. The threshold for amending the Constitutions of many denominations has been too low. Only a simple majority vote is required at two different General Assemblies in most denominations. While it takes a 2/3 vote of the presbyteries to pass a proposed BCO change after the Assembly has voted, most courts simply go along with those proposals because, after all, Assembly always knows best. Thus, changing the Constitution becomes as routine as attending General Assembly. In some denominations, that is one of the few meaningful votes that commissioners are permitted since all the work of the court has been handed over to committees. The result of such Constitutional changes is that they move denominations in the direction of more and more hierarchy. I have studied in detail the changes to the BCO’s of Presbyterian denomination and I can testify to you that those changes are never in the direction of less hierarchy. They are always in the direction of greater and greater control from the top down. Such changes permit and promote the growth of progressivism.
Fifth, a failure of many denominations is the mistaken belief that the General Assembly cannot and should not exercise discipline. In fact, the only time in American Presbyterian church history that a General Assembly exercised discipline of a presbytery was in the discipline of Louisiana Presbytery of the PCA for hiding and harboring Steve Wilkins for his heretical views on the Federal Vision. That pastor whom Jesus loves was the prosecutor in that case. Afterwards, the PCA decided clandestinely that they were most definitely never going to exercise discipline of the lower courts again. Instead, they would correct procedural errors only. In Vanguard’s BCO, it is clearly stated that the General Assembly has power “to decide in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline” (BCO 17.6c). Exercising legislative powers given to higher courts by the Scriptures themselves do not make a denomination hierarchical. Hierarchical denominations usurp authority that is not theirs through administrative means such as permanent committees taking final actions apart from the General Assembly. Many denominations get this just backwards. They will claim to be grassroots because they refuse to make appropriate legislative decisions. But they permit administrative hierarchy which becomes a daily oppression of the lower courts and controls everything below them. We have seen that administrative hierarchy with respect to campus ministries, missionaries, new church starts, and many other ways. We must have a denomination that can uphold the Constitution, but we cannot endure a denomination that hovers over every aspect of church life. We want to throw away administrative hierarchy, but retain the necessary right of the General Assembly to insure that the Constitution is being followed in every respect.
Sincerely in Him,
Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
P. S. Many thanks to all who have contributed to Vanguard Presbytery. Those gifts are being used to build up the denomination by visiting with prospective churches and people in various cities who want to start Vanguard Presbytery type churches. You can contribute to Vanguard Presbytery by sending a check to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.
P.S.S. If there is some member of Vanguard Presbytery who would like to take over the responsibility of sending thank you letters to our donors, please send me an email. I would greatly appreciate it!