THREE CHURCH SHIPS IN THE HARBOR. WHICH CHURCH SHIP DO YOU ATTEND? - by Gary DeMar
The following article is written by someone who has watched his denomination stray from its founding principles
By an Anonymous Presbyterian
The harbor of Protestantism is a great and historic port filled with too many ships to count, but two that immediately catch the eye are the ships “Baptist” and “Charismatic.” They are similar in several ways: both are very large ships, and neither is in the best condition, having recently returned from sea.
The Baptist ship is the largest ship in the Protestant harbor. The Baptist ships also have the most sizeable crews, which, of course, is a matter of great pride to the Baptist captains.
The Baptists have an unusual strategy for ship growth. Rather than destroy enemy ships, they go to sea with the intent of convincing as many of the enemy crew members as possible to jump ship and join their crew. Over time, they have had relative success in fulfilling their recruitment quotas. In terms of statistics, they have, by far, the best recruiting plan in the harbor.
Near the Baptist ship is the “Charismatic.” This ship is somewhat unusual as it doesn’t quite resemble a ship, but it is indeed a ship. In the Protestant harbor, there is an accepted standard as to what a ship should look like, but the Charismatic captains don’t usually follow that tradition. Instead, they prefer to find whatever ship they can, change its name, add some guns, and head out to sea.
There is usually a lot of excitement on the ship Charismatic. While many of the other ships have a standard manual of ship operations, the Charismatic ship doesn’t have one. They have a sense of guidance that they claim is inspired by the “Great Naval Commander,” a kind of inner knowledge directing them on how to steer their ship. Sometimes they are successful, and other times, not.
One thing commendable about the crew on ship Charismatic is that they are taught to engage. When the call to battle sounds, they show and deploy. Their ship is often at sea and, yet, always seems to be in the harbor for repairs.
Careful observers of the Protestant harbor also note that there are ships which have never returned. These tend to be the older ships that were once great in their day and very faithful to the Great Naval Commander but, who, over time, abandoned the instructions from the Sacred Book of Ships only to start taking on water, sinking to the depths.
THE GOOD SHIP PRESBYTERIAN
There is a third ship that always seems to capture the eyes of those in the harbor. It is called the Good Ship Presbyterian. It often gets long stares and much admiration because of its beauty. Its lines are precise, and the paint is perfect with no sign of the usual wear and tear of ships. One notices how beautifully it glimmers and how well it is maintained.
Passersby also notice the crew. The crew is not large, but everyone is dressed impeccably with every detail in order. It is by far the most organized ship because its captain has the best ship manual in the harbor. From captain to crew, the manual is studied and memorized.
The crew is also very knowledgeable about the Sacred Book because the captains teach the Sacred Book page by page. They know the Sacred Book better than all the other captains in the harbor. Even though the Presbyterian captains are very proud of their instruction and are well-versed in the knowledge of the Sacred Book, they don’t seem to teach the Sacred Book with the same seriousness and passion as previous captains taught it. The current captains seem to view their instruction of the Sacred Book more as a maritime academic lesson than as a blueprint for naval warfare.
Upon closer look, one notices two things about the Good Ship Presbyterian. This great old warship has been refitted into a passenger ship, and the ship is being painted again. It is part of their tradition is to give the ship a new paint job every year, whether it is needed or not.
Another detail about this beautiful ship is that its captains avoid discussing how the Good Ship Presbyterian has not been out to sea. It has been in dry dock for over a century and a half.
Those from other ships fret, asking, “When will that Good Ship Presbyterian ever go out to sea?” Despite the talk, the Presbyterian captains don’t worry, for they are quite happy being in dry dock and spending their days organizing, discussing, and admiring the beauty of their ship.
Occasionally, on the Good Ship Presbyterian, some crew members start grumbling over the inaction of their captains, for they know the Great Naval Commander has called them to be seaman, not maintenance men. They voice their frustration to their captains, “When are we ever going to put out to sea?” The captains respond by reminding the crew that their place in the harbor of Protestantism is to study and teach shipbuilding and ship maintenance. They also remind them that the ship is not ready, for soon the ship will need another coat of paint.
So the Presbyterian captains, free from worry about naval battles and details of war, spend much of their time studying their ship’s manual. The captains love teaching the manual to their crew. The Presbyterian captains also hold many maritime conferences and seminars about shipbuilding, ship theory, ship law, and ship history. No one has a better ship instruction program than the captains of the Good Ship Presbyterian.
So the years slip by and the Good Ship Presbyterian is still looking good, in dry dock, under permanent maintenance.
The captains of the Presbyterian ship are reluctant to take the ship out to sea because, deep down, they believe they will not prevail against enemy ships, so they would prefer to stay in the harbor where they believe they are safe.
Even though the new captains thoroughly teach the ship’s manual, they often skip over sections that they no longer believe. These are the parts in the manual that state the Great Naval Commander “will conquer all of His and our enemies,” and “He gathers and defends His [ship] and subdues [Her] enemies.” The old captains believed and lived for these sections of the manual. The new captains no longer do.
They have taught their crew that they and the rest of the Protestant ships will never win the great battle at sea. They do this while knowing full-well all the great historical victories at sea of the older Presbyterian ships. They also know well that in the Sacred Book, the Great Naval Commander has repeatedly declared how His ships in time and history will overcome the evil and rebellious ships. But, despite the Sacred Book, the manual, and their own history, the present captains do not believe their Great Naval Commander will triumph, so they take refuge in the harbor hoping to be left alone.
By now the reader should get the drift of this analogy. As a conservative Presbyterian, I appreciate our faith and history and have no plans of abandoning ship. But at the same time, I think it is healthy for each ship in the Protestant harbor to engage in self-examination and critique their own state of affairs.
A Reformed friend describes modern conservative Presbyterianism, stating, “If it is not neat, clean, and predictable, they will not involve themselves with it.”
We can be sure the present Presbyterian leadership would not have sided with Luther, Zwingli, Farel, and Knox in the Reformation. They would have stayed on the sidelines because the battle was too difficult, and they were without a perceived assurance of victory. Modern conservative Presbyterians hold up the Scriptures as “the rule of faith and life,” but within today’s conservative Presbyterian leadership, there remains timidity in taking their faith and applying it to life and culture.
ABSTRACTION OVER APPLICATION
So much of the fault for the current state of Presbyterianism comes from its pulpit. Its modern ministers would much rather teach their people abstract theological concepts than preach on the issues of life where people live. Sunday after Sunday consists of methodically going through the Bible in an expositional study – verse by verse, chapter by chapter, comparing one Bible verse to another – but the congregation leaves with no application beyond personal piety, and with little instruction on how to view the world, much less on how to take their faith into the culture to the glory of God.
So, year after year, the important issues in the members’ lives regarding culture or society are rarely discussed from the pulpit. Sexual perversions, the evil of government education, feminist ideology, egalitarianism, anti-male ideology, the teaching of a conscious Christian worldview, the biblical model of large families, male headship, and the issue of debt, are all avoided. The same is true for the worldview issues of the Biblical role of civil government, sexuality, economics, and unjust wars. All and more are never addressed.
The congregations are left to read on their own and determine God’s will on these important subjects because they are not receiving instruction from the pulpit. The people come starving for direction for their lives, families, and the greater church, but leave with little morsels of spiritual abstraction.
Presbyterian ministers must remember that Jesus commended the faithful servant with the words, “Well done” not “Well said.” In the Kingdom of God, obedience trumps knowledge.
The Reformed people of the American Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches have so much to give to the cause of Christ in the world if only their leaders would get some courage and enter the battle. All of their deep theological understanding, rich biblical traditions, and influential history is of no value if it is kept hidden under monastic timidity.
We live in a difficult hour in the history of the church. This is a time when the Presbyterian Church is greatly needed to bring its distinctions to the battle and transform modern societies and culture. They could change the world the way their ancestors did if they wanted to, but they are not interested. It seems they would rather spend their days going through ecclesiastical motions that give them a sense of religious duty.
What will happen to the Good Ship Presbyterian? Will it awake out of irrelevancy, lose itself from its scaffolding, and set out to sea? Will its captains once again take up the call, cause, and vision of those great Presbyterian ships of history?
Only time will tell.
Fort a similar assessment, see “Fear of Flying: Clipping Theonomy’s Wings” in Theonomy an Informed Response (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991). Also here.