George Santayana (1863-1952), a Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, once penned words concerning the past that have been oft repeated. He wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana was paraphrased by Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1948 when he said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” An oft-made mistake by many people is to focus solely on what is in front of them. They look to the future. Yet, we must learn from the past before moving forward. In starting Vanguard Presbytery, we have to consider where things have gone wrong in the past. Here are some things we learn when we look back in order to do better in the future.
First, we learn that making the Constitution too easy to change is unwise. It leads to the destruction of a denomination. The PCUS made it easy to change both their Book of Church Order and their Confession of Faith. The PCA followed suit and allowed amendments to their BCO and doctrinal statements. The results of those courses of action are now clear. Scriptural polity and truth should never be subject to the whims of a simple majority of commissioners. There may be elders who consider voting on BCO changes to be one the great joys of their lives, but they will need to look elsewhere for a denomination like that. Such changes to the Constitution will be very difficult—not easy—in Vanguard Presbytery.
Second, we have seen what happens when a denomination only “recommends” her Directory of Worship, but strips most of that Directory of Constitutional authority. Why even have a Directory of Worship if it is only going to be recommended? That still allows “every man to do what is right in his own eyes.” That is a course of action that has miserably failed. Vanguard Presbytery is not nor will be a seeker sensitive denomination. The fruit of that movement has proved to be rotten and antithetical to the gospel.
Third, we have seen what happens when church sessions adopt the business/CEO model of church government. Any and every form of Episcopacy is always more efficient than Presbyterianism, but such efficiency is often wrong. Some church sessions permit an “executive session” to make most all the decisions for the session and the remaining elders only rubber stamp what has already been done. The CEO model of church government has resulted in the great diminishing of the office of ruling elder. Too many people are trying to get more ruling elder participation in presbytery and General Assembly, but the real problem is at the local church level. Sessions need to model true Scriptural government at that level and that will motivate ruling elders to participate in higher levels of church government. Large churches will most likely not apply for membership in Vanguard Presbytery because the CEO model of church government will not be permitted. We are fine with that. We have learned that adopting that model destroys the eldership.
Fourth, we have learned that allowing exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith results in having no doctrinal statement for all practical purposes. One of the biggest criticisms of Vanguard Presbytery has been on this point. Not surprisingly, that criticism comes from people who take exceptions. “Good faith” subscription has not resulted in greater orthodoxy, but, rather, in greater heterodoxy and in greater heresy. Vanguard Presbytery must zealously guard this requirement. Give in at this point and the enemy will win everything in course of time. There are those who consider themselves conservatives, but who want to take exceptions. There are many denominations which will allow them to do so. Vanguard does not need to be one of those denominations. We will not guard the front door well and faithfully unless we adhere to full subscription. If so-called conservatives reject us for that reason, then so be it.
Fifth, we have learned that permitting three or four views of creation produces doubt over other doctrines of the Scripture. The interpretation of Genesis 1-11 establishes the hermeneutical principle for the rest of the Scripture. If the plain statements of Scripture in Genesis 1 can be interpreted to mean something other than a day like we know it to be (that is, a day composed of an evening and a morning, one day), then there is no passage of Scripture that is safe. No one exegetes these views from Genesis. Rather, they start with a presuppositional principle and impose it on Genesis. Thus, those same people who deny the creation of the world in six 24 -hour days also will often deny that Jonah was swallowed by a large fish or that Israel went through the Red Sea on dry land while Pharaoh and his whole army were drowned in those waters.
Sixth, we have observed what happens when James 2:1-7 and Galatians 2:6 is ignored. It is divisive and destructive to the Church. We must not hold our faith with an “attitude of personal favoritism” because “God shows no partiality.” There are too many who are like Diotrephes and “love to be first” (3 John 9). They will deny it, but here is how it has been manifested. There are several ministers who have upbraided me for not getting their permission before Vanguard Presbytery was started and others have said that we (particularly Al Baker and myself) do not have the gravitas to start a new denomination. There are seminary Presidents who have told people to have nothing to do with us. I agree with all of their criticisms. Lloyd-Jones often said that he would not walk across the street to hear himself preach. Al and I have often told each other that we are “the scum of the earth, the dregs of all things.” And the rest of you who are in Vanguard Presbytery are right there with us. But, praise be to God, He does not respect persons or show partiality. So, with all due respect to our critics, we will continue right on as we are doing. But I must add this. I have been a Presbyterian for 50 years. I love the Presbyterian doctrines and Presbyterian church government. I detest the self-righteous, superior attitude that overtakes too many Presbyterians—both members and officers. The common people heard Jesus gladly and it will not hurt my feelings if we always are considered a denomination of common people. I hope we remain a denomination that treats every person with the same respect regardless of their position. In fact, I hope that is what happens. If we ever let the “super” pastors into Vanguard so that they can lecture the rest of us on how things should be done, then Vanguard will die the death of other denominations. The only superstar in Vanguard is Jesus Christ. We all must simply be humble bond-servants of Christ Jesus.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery
P. S. It appears that Vanguard Presbytery will be starting mission churches in several cities across the US. There are core groups coming together in several places already. We rejoice in that. Whatever financial and training support Vanguard Presbytery is able to give to these new core groups/mission churches will depend on the generous gifts of God’s people. Your support of this new denomination is greatly appreciated. You can send your donations to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Our treasurer, TE Samuel Johnson, and assistant treasurer, RE Jim Baird, handle all the disbursements.