When is it appropriate to confront fellow Christians publicly? When purity is at stake…
There is a link between the purity and peace of the church. Every member of a PCA church takes the vows found in the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) 57-5, which states:
(All of) you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
The first three of these vows are about affirming a proper understanding of one’s relationship to God. The last two vows are about affirming a proper understanding of one’s relationship to the church. The last vow is about “purity and peace”.
SOME DEBATES ARE MORE GRAVE THAN OTHERS
The order of these terms is important.
Disagreements will happen in the church. The presence of sin in the world assures us of this. There is however a very great danger in an approach that advocate peace at costs. If the peace does not flow from purity (of intent and process), then this peace is no peace at all. Fortunately in the PCA, members have a constitution (made up of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechism, and the BCO) to assist in maintaining this purity.
It should be noted that submitting oneself to the government of the church means submission to the constitution in a PCA context. A member is never called to submit to unlawful orders or procedures contrary to those prescribed in the doctrinal standards or BCO. Certainly the BCO is not infallible and can be changed, but it is the rule book for the church. The church constitution is defined in the preface of the BCO as:
The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word Of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.
BCO 1-1 states:
The scriptural form of church government, which is representative or presbyterian, is comprehended under five heads: a. The Church; b. Its members; c. Its officers; d. Its courts; e. Its orders.
WHEN PURITY IS VIOLATED
So it is then that members are called to submit to and study the purity and peace across these defined heads. But what happens when purity is violated? What are members to do when they perceive clear error has taken hold?
John Payne, Executive Coordinator of the Gospel Reformation Network, recently wrote:
Public debate and online responses do not preclude private conversations and ecclesiastical processes. We need to talk to one another. But public responses are, at times, vital to exposing error, defending biblical truth, and encouraging the laity. The gathering of church courts are infrequent, and public responses are sometimes (but not all the time!) necessary. You may remember that Paul openly rebuked Peter. Indeed, for Peter’s visible hypocrisy, Paul publicly admonished him “before them all” (Gal. 2:11–14). Of course, publicly questioning or admonishing a brother must always be motivated by love and exercised with great patience and care.https://gospelreformation.net/a-response-to-the-open-letter/
So there are times when public open challenge may be necessary. And if the purity of the church is at stake, doing so is one such way (if contextually appropriate) that peace can be restored.
Stephen Spinnenweber, pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Florida recently wrote:
While it is certainly true that face-to-face communication is to be preferred in theological debate, it is not always possible or necessary. Yes, Matthew 18is a biblically prescribed mode of confronting a brother in the Lord, but so is I Timothy 5:20, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” The example of the Apostle Paul rebuking Peter for his scandalous public sin in Galatians 2 can also be, though not always, an appropriate response to public sin or error in the church.https://www.reformation21.org/blog/honest-thoughts-on-the-open-letter
So what? Does this mean that members should rush to public condemnation of every little point in which there may be disagreement? Certainly not. There is however a time when such public challenge is necessary to expose serious error and bring about correction and peace. Such activity was central to the tradition of the Protestant Reformation of which the PCA is a byproduct.