Over the past week, I have had conversations with several people who have asked me how Vanguard Presbytery intends to protect against the same erosion of the faith that has destroyed other Presbyterian denominations. Heresy and immorality are the great killers of congregations and denominations. Christ warned the churches in Asia Minor about both problems. Paul warned the Ephesian church. They took his warning and became the most zealous church for doctrinal purity, but soon left their first love. The church at Thyatira tolerated the false prophetess, Jezebel, and all her immoralities. False teaching and immorality go together because truth is for the purpose of godliness. Thus, heresy always results in ungodliness.
As I sat with a group of men last Thursday, all of them were convinced of certain errors that their denomination, the PCA, made from the very beginning. Particularly, it was agreed by all of them that the PCA erred by failing to adopt the Directory of Worship as part of her Constitution. I mentioned other mistakes that were made from the beginning. It is necessary to look back. As the old Russian proverb says: “He who forgets the past loses one eye. He who dwells on the past loses both eyes.” We must learn from the past mistakes made by the various reformed denominations in this nation, but we must not dwell on the past.
I have pointed out on other occasions that there are only two periods in the history of America when Presbyterians self-consciously tried to have a truly Scriptural denomination. The first period was from 1741 to 1758 when the New Light Presbyterians, having been unjustly refused the right to be seated at the Synod meeting of their denomination, established the purest Presbyterian denomination this country has ever witnessed. The New Lights were strong supporters of the Great Awakening and their opponents—the Old Light Presbyterians—were against that revival. All of the positions of the New Lights were as close to Scripture as any denomination has ever been since the first century. John Knox called Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles,” but the New Light Presbyterians were a near equal to Calvin’s Geneva, in my studied opinion. The second period was the Old School Presbyterian Church which existed from 1837 to 1868. The Old School Presbyterians held fully to the Westminster Standards in opposition to the loose subscription view of the New School Presbyterians. Both the New Light Presbyterians and the Old School Presbyterians made the same mistake—they reunited with the groups from which they had split and permitted a compromising spirit to destroy the great fruit which was borne during the short periods of their existences. Compromise on essential matters always has been and always will be the chief nemesis of the Church. Vanguard Presbytery believes that there are certain principles on which we cannot and must not compromise, as follows:
I. Creation in Six Days—
Vanguard Presbytery unequivocally holds to the creation account in Genesis without exception and believes that it all took place in six 24-hour days. The narrative in Genesis 1 and 2 defines the days of creation as periods of time that consisted of “evening and morning” in the same way as our days today are. Al Baker’s wife, Wini, has pointed out that it is impossible to teach small children any other account of creation that makes sense to them except the view that the days were six 24-hour periods. The framework hypothesis or the day-age theory simply are not understandable to children and cannot be taught to them. The reason it is imperative to hold to this view of creation (and none other) is because it establishes the correct hermeneutical principle of interpreting Scripture. The denial of that hermeneutical principle leads to the denial of many other plainly taught truths—the Red Sea crossing, the large fish that swallowed Jonah, the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, even the resurrection of Christ. Not every person who denies the 6 days of creation will also deny other historical events in the Scripture, but many will do so. In fact, we have already witnessed such denials by professors at the various Reformed seminaries and denominations in the US. The Genesis account of the creation clearly reads as an historical narrative—not a fable or fairy tale. Vanguard interprets the account of creation in the same way as the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are interpreted.
II. The Regulative Principle—
The regulative principle says that all our views must be regulated by Scripture. Often, this principle is referenced only with respect to worship, but we believe that it applies to doctrine and church government also. Many mistakes have been made that have destroyed congregations and denominations where the Scripture was not the basis for all three areas. This principle is very clear: The Scripture is our sole authority in all matters of faith and practice. Unlike a denomination that I know well, Vanguard will allow the Scripture to be used as a proof text or argument in all matters, including judicial and theological cases.
III. Full Subscription to the Westminster Standards—
Presbyterian denominations have made many mistakes by permitting exceptions to be taken to the Standards. I have heard of some ministers who take 50 or more exceptions to the Westminster Confession. When officers are allowed to take exceptions, their numbers begin to proliferate; they soon outnumber those who fully subscribe; and, discipline of officers for failure to uphold the Standards becomes an impossibility. History shows that allowing exceptions has only resulted in the destruction of orthodoxy.
IV. Limiting Amendments to the Constitution—
Most Presbyterian denominations in the US have been destroyed from within in great part by permitting annual changes to the Constitution, particularly the Book of Church Order. Such overtures to amend the BCO become an annual sport to amuse the unthinking. As one who has laboriously worked through the various BCO’s of the Presbyterian denominations from 1789 to the present, I can attest that the overwhelming majority of the changes to them were in the parts dealing with the Form of Government and almost all of those changes were for the purpose of making those denominations more hierarchical. If Vanguard or any other denomination desires to remain a grassroots denomination, then the BCO must be very difficult to amend—which is exactly what Vanguard’s BCO proposes.
Hierarchy is rule from the top down and it is the opposite of grassroots church government which is bottoms up. What is the problem with hierarchy? It is very simple. Hierarchy takes the crown off the head of Christ and puts it on men. No matter how well-intentioned men are, their intentions are never as pure as Christ’s intentions nor are their views as perfect as His. Hierarchy always leads to liberalism in doctrine and always destroys evangelistic and revivalistic fervor. This error of hierarchy is manifested by permitting congregations to be governed by the CEO model composed of a few pastors, staff members, and a few ruling elders with the other elected and ordained session members only rubber stamping those actions after the fact. It is also manifested by erecting committees, commissions, boards, and agencies of the General Assembly that rule autonomously from the GA while also dictating to the lower courts what they should do—the worst of both worlds. Presbyterian church government operates through elected elders who govern in assembled church courts—session, presbytery, and General Assembly. Vanguard’s opposition to hierarchy is why most large congregations will not be uniting with us. The large Presbyterian churches of which I have knowledge rule by hierarchical principles instead of through their church’s session. It is better to leave the crown on the head of King Jesus than to compromise by trying to accommodate the hierarchical government of large churches.
VI. Evangelists, Evangelism, and Revivals
Evangelists are elders who are especially gifted in the area of evangelism. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers were all functions of the eldership. Historically, all Presbyterian denominations in the US have upheld the continuing existence of evangelists as noted in their books of polity. Yet, popular references to evangelists ceased about the same time that evangelism became unpopular—sometime in the early 1980’s. Here is what has happened in the last 30 years. America has increased in population by 60 million people, but church attendance has increased only by 500,000. That is an increase in church attendance of .83 percent of the population gain. That is less than 1%. That is deplorable. It does not mean that only 500,000 of the 60 million people attend church. It means that church attendance has increased by less than 1 percent while the nation has grown by 20-25%. Many regular church goers have died over the last 30 years which has led to the downward spiral of church membership and church attendance. What it means is that the future of the US is more dire than even heathen nations. This nation is becoming a pagan nation and our people have started worshiping the government rather than God. That is why we need a return to aggressive evangelism. That is why we need to train and send out evangelists who are called by Christ to that function and office. That is why we need a revival. All these are positions of the New Light Presbyterians and the Old School Presbyterians.
VII. The Holy Spirit—
Too many otherwise orthodox Presbyterians are almost silent about the Holy Spirit. That is a mistake. I often hear the phrase, “We believe in the ordinary means of grace.” I understand what is meant, but I do not like that word ‘ordinary’ unless it is coupled with the emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. If the sacraments are blessed to our hearts, it is not through some ordinary function of the elements. It is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. If a sinner is saved through the preaching of a sermon, it is not through the ordinary words of that minister. Rather, it is through the work of the Holy Spirit convicting, enlightening, and wooing him to Christ. If a covenant child is born again, it is not simply through the ordinary means of family devotions. The new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit, a miracle of God’s grace. There is nothing ordinary about conversion. It is extraordinary. John Calvin was called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” because he referenced Him on almost every page of his writings. Moreover, Shorter Catechism Questions and Answers #88 and 89 make the same points I am making here. Vanguard Presbytery is committed to emphasizing the necessity of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
VIII. The Primacy of Preaching the Gospel—
There are many men who profess that they preach the Scripture, but here are a few essential questions: Do they preach the gospel? Do they preach the order of salvation? Is the order of salvation their primary emphasis? The gospel is the message of the Bible. Social justice is not the gospel. It has been reported to me that a certain pastor I know said recently that social justice is the gospel. Paul gave us the basics of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. He did not mention “social justice” or Critical Race Theory as being the gospel. The problem in American Christianity is that it has become too similar to the spirit of the world and the message of health and wealth. Pastors and churches have become conformed to the world. Vanguard believes that there is only one message for all generations—the message of the gospel.
IX. No Little Pastors—
Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled, No Little People. In Vanguard Presbytery, there are no little pastors because there are no celebrity pastors. Too many denominations celebrate the large church pastors as more special than others. I know of at least two denominations where the large pulpit pastors meet together quarterly, but pastors of smaller churches are not allowed to attend these meetings and would never be invited to do so. That spirit is contrary to James 2:1-7 and Galatians 2:6. It is the spirit that Christ condemned in His disciples when he told them that the Gentiles lord it over others, but that shall not be the case in the Church. Vanguard believes it takes all of us working together to accomplish the task given us by Christ. We believe that we are to esteem others better than ourselves.
History shows that denominations have risen when they held to the Scripture alone and have fallen when they compromised on essentials. Any denomination that compromises on the points above is going to fail. Often, those compromises are made in the beginning in order to achieve a larger body. Sometimes, those compromises come later. The New Light Presbyterians (1741-1758) and the Old School Presbyterians (1837-1868) were the two great periods of Presbyterianism in this country. When the New Lights reunited with the Old Lights in 1758, they made certain compromises that resulted in the wrong views on theology and revivals a century later. When the Old School Presbyterians reunited with the New School Presbyterians in 1868, their compromises essentially sanctioned heterodoxy within that new denomination (the PCUS) which resulted in the downward trend towards modernism and liberalism. The compromises in both instances permitted positions just opposite of the nine principles of Vanguard Presbytery listed above.
So, what about the founding of the PCA in 1973? Interestingly, as I look back at those halcyon days which seemed to be like a dream at the time they happened, I find that the PCA took positions against most of Vanguard’s positions from the very start. They permitted exceptions to the Westminster Standards (including on the days of creation); they established a BCO which permitted hierarchy at the session and General Assembly levels; they did not require the regulative principle concerning worship; they permitted their Constitution to be changed fairly easily; and, they gave great deference to the pastors of large churches.
It is often alleged that Presbyterianism has been tried and found to be deficient. I disagree. I believe the truth is that true Presbyterianism has scarcely been tried. What has passed as Presbyterianism has usually been an amalgamation with hierarchical church government and an accommodation of heterodoxy and heresy. What is needed is a truly Scriptural Presbyterian denomination that holds to all the principles above. Any Presbyterian or Reformed denomination—past, present, or future—that compromises on those principles in order to form a larger consensus denomination is going to become liberal sooner than later. Vanguard Presbytery is striving to be a faithful denomination today and tomorrow and well into the future. I hope this new denomination is still faithful to the reformed faith and evangelism and the Scriptures a century from now and well beyond. That is what we are trying to start. After nearly two thousand years since the establishment of the New Testament church, is it not time for a truly Scriptural denomination without exception or compromise? I certainly think it is past time to do so.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Presbytery
P. S. Please send contributions to Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540