Beyond a doubt, Dr. Gary North is one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the Christian Reconstruction world. Love him or hate him, you certainly cannot ignore him. He won't let you! With the publication of Crossed Fingers, How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North has written one of his most provocative, potent and effective books yet. While obstensibly a history of the battle within the Northern Presbyterian Church at the beginning of this century, in reality, it is a blow-by-blow description of the strategy and tactics used by power religion to gain its ends. Though this is good history (made interesting in the way that only Gary North can write), this book is not really about obscure denominational battles a hundred years ago. It's really about what's happening right now in the PCA and OPC. And if history is not to repeat itself, present-day leaders in both churches need to read and heed Dr. North's warnings.
Not unsurprisingly, a number of Presbyterian leaders are avidly reading Crossed Fingers for some, the first Reconstructionist book they've ever deigned to open. Granted, some want more ammunition against Christian Reconstructionists in general, or "Scary Gary" in particular. They won't find it here. Dr. North makes his case powerfully and documents it every step of the way. Others may read it out of a gruesome sense of curiosity, the same way some people slow down at an accident. For those familiar with Presbyterian church history, the loss of Princeton and the Northern Church was a massive blow. But more importantly, a number of important men are reading this book because they know, from personal experience, that there is no relief from the forces working to undermine and destroy even the last remnants of historic American Presbyterianism. The battles North discusses may have been fought and won by the liberals fifty years ago, but the same battles are being refought on the floors of presbyteries and general assemblies today.
One of the most telling aspects of North's book is that he reveals how the Arminian evangelicals actively conspired with the liberals to oust J. Gresham Machen from the Northern Church. The experientialists and the power religionists worked together to destroy historic Calvinism. However, even more telling is North's analysis of how the Old School Presbyterians destroyed themselves by compromising on certain crucial issues.
The title of the book comes from the crossed fingers all three camps in the Northern Church had when they took their ordination vows. To be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, a minister must vow to uphold and support the doctrines of the Westminster Confession. The liberals were openly deceptive, believing in nothing of historic, orthodox Christianity. The Broad Evangelicals were largely Arminian and rejected the Calvinism of the Confession. Yet North demonstrates that even the Old School Presbyterians, the staunch defenders of the Confession, took exception to certain aspects of the Confession (especially on six day creation and oaths) that undermined their position.
As in most of his books of the past decade, North is hung up on his "five point covenant model" and applies it to anything and everything under the sun. For me, this was the book's only serious weakness because if one rejects North's five-point covenant model, he might then think it safe to ignore the rest of North's analysis. And that would be a great tragedy. For if there is a recurring theme in this book, it is that the Presbyterians lost their church because they refused to impose negative sanctions against heresy. Church discipline was too painful, too uncomfortable, took too much time and effort. And the only time they imposed it was when the rhetoric of heretic C. A. Briggs became too much. The lesson learned was that it was OK to be a heretic, as long as you were a nice guy about it. So the heretics bred and flourished, all the while crying for peace and tolerance until they gained control of the denominational machinery. But tolerance for them worked only one way. Once the heretics held power, Machen, who insisted on disturbing the peace by showing the wolves in their midst, was the first to go.
Recommendation: Organize for Faithfulness
The most controversial portion of his book is also the part I personally found the most interesting and useful. Gary North is famous for his appendices. Appendix B contains his suggestions on how to immunize Presbyterianism from a liberal takeover. While it is too much to expect denominational leaders to take his suggestions seriously, at least North has offered some solutions. North states something that every PCA pastor knows from personal experience. Conservative Presbyterian churches eventually become divided between confessionalists and church-growth advocates. Once this division appears, the confessionalists always lose control of the denomination. Votes count, and the bigger the churches, the more votes they have.
Added to this phenomenon is the fact that young men seeking ordination have to run a humanist gauntlet in college and seminary. North has some extremely insightful things to offer in this regard (OK, he says the same thing I've been saying since I went to seminary 20 years ago, but he says it better and it bears repeating). While North does state the problem of allowing power and money to flow to independent boards he did not explicitly discuss the implications for home missions programs. Once the broad evangelical church growth advocates capture the denominational boards, then its defenders require church planters to run their gauntlet, ensuring that only other broad evangelicals receive monetary support to start new churches. Hence the church growth people are always slated to win, because a pastor cannot play unless he agrees to play by their rules.
North is perfectly correct when he says, "the agency that writes the paycheck holds the institutional hammer." Therefore, when churches, presbyteries or even general assemblies hand over money to various boards, agencies and committees, they have implicitly also handed over the power. Dr. North then argues for a restructuring of the Presbyterian church to keep control to the lowest level.
North subtly resurrects his arguments here from Tithing and the Church, requiring voting members of the church to tithe only to the church. He's a wily one, is Dr. North. If he can't win an argument from exegesis, he'll try pragmatics. His point is that only those who tithe to the church have the vote. To be fair, his main point is that members of Presbyterian churches are not required to take an oath of submission to the Westminster Confession. Yet they are the ones responsible for choosing elders, who are. He traces this back to what he sees as a fundamental flaw in the original confession, that it does not discuss how the Confession itself is to be used.
North wants a two-fold membership; voting and non-voting. The nonvoting members subscribe to some ecumenical creed such as the Apostles' or Nicene. Voting members must subscribe to the Confession. He argues: "People who impose covenantal sanctions should also be under those sanctions. If a local church member is not by oath consigned under the stipulations that govern the imposition of church sanctions, then he should not impose church sanctions. If he cannot be deprived of his authority to impose sanctions for publicly denying or compromising the stipulations enforced by these sanctions, he should not be allowed to exercise them."
The problem he is getting at is that since the only requirement for church membership presently is a simple affirmation of faith, communicant members of Presbyterian churches therefore will tend to call pastors and elders who believe what they believe. If a man is too Reformed, he'll never pass the elections because the members call the elders to govern them. But since there is no provision for the members themselves to adhere to the church's confession, there is nothing intrinsic to Presbyterian structure to help keep the church from, over time, becoming ever less Reformed and more and more Arminian as the people call to themselves elders who say what they want them to say.
While I do not necessarily agree with his solution, Dr. North has certainly put his finger on the central challenge of membership in Presbyterianism. The bigger the church grows, the faster the accommodation to prevailing norms. The only way to make the present situation work is to keep the church fairly small, evangelize mostly from one's own children, who have already been instructed and catechized in the core doctrines of the Faith. Such a tactic may work for keeping the church pure, but in North's words allows Arminian Baptists to multiply like weeds while Presbyterian churches are like prize rose bushes, magnificent, but rare. North states that this is the primary reason why Presbyterian churches historically move from Calvinism, to experientialism, to Arminianism, to Liberalism. The lowest common denominator wins, and the liberals rush into the power vacuum to steal the Calvinist's inheritance.
North also demonstrates how the presbyteries have de facto transferred their authority to ordain men to the seminaries. Normally speaking, candidates for the ministry must attend both an accredited college and seminary (there are provisions for exceptions, but they very rarely occur). The seminaries themselves are manned by men who have had to run the humanist gauntlet in graduate school to meet secular accreditation standards. Once they achieve tenure, they can teach what they like, and they have often developed a taste for liberalism in graduate school. Once the seminaries have been captured, they then control who eventually becomes ordained. While the Presbyteries may examine a candidate, they do not know him. How could they? He's spent the last three years studying German Liberal theology!
Hence, generation after generation, the men become theologically weaker, and the church loses its orthodoxy until, finally, the liberals take over. North's solution is to abandon the requirement for college and seminary and require instead apprenticeship under a proven pastor. A man could go to seminary if he liked, but would not be required to. Candidates would be rigorously examined in all the normal subjects, but no outside institutional requirements may be imposed. Furthermore, he suggests that every fifth year, every ordained minister in the Presbytery undergo the exact same examination. In other words, either a subject is really important and therefore all ordained men ought to be competent in it, or get real and get rid of checking off blocks (e.g., such as the requirements for Greek and Hebrew that most pastors, including this one, forget as soon as their ordination exam is over!).
The key to North's restructuring of the Presbyterian church is in funding. He says, "To lodge both money and judicial authority in a permanent oath-bound agency of government is to invite a takeover of that agency." Historically, this is what has happened again and again. My solution is different than North's: no independent boards or committees at all, period, de nada. If the PCA, for example, would simply dismantle the Atlanta office and decentralize its functions back to the churches and presbyteries, the problem would be largely solved. There is no need for a mission's board, or CE board, or anything else. Let the free market do its work. If a particular presbytery has some great Christian Education ideas, let others buy them. Why should the PCA be sending out missionaries? Are the churches incompetent? Are the Presbyteries too poor? It is sheer insanity to send one's tithe up the chain of command and expect those who receive it to still be accountable to you.
North recommends that each higher court receive a tithe of the lower court, a practice that has Biblical precedent in regards to the Levites and the temple. I think he is being too generous here. I see no good reason for the General Assembly to have any money at all. We pay for attending, we pay for the publications, and we pay for our own hotel rooms and transportation costs. Apart from the Stated Clerk and an executive secretary, the denomination as a whole needs nothing (which in fairness to North, he also recommends). The work of the church needs to be done at the lowest level of the church. This fosters accountability, responsibility and thrift.
North's best suggestions come into play in regard to restructuring the seminaries. He wants students to become proficient in Calvinism, and therefore suggests requiring a three-year course in Calvin's Institutes and the Westminster Confession. Presbyterian teaching elders are the most rigorously trained of all evangelical Christians, right? They know Reformed theology, right? Then why do a significant number of PCA teaching elders not know that Question 109 of the larger catechism forbids pictures of Jesus? (Go ahead, call your local PCA pastor and ask him if the Confession forbids images of Jesus. If so, where? I'll bet you six out of ten won't know.) OK, OK, I admit I have a hang-up on this one, but don't you find it significant that most elders who took a vow to subscribe to the Westminster Confession don't even know about the issue?
North offers a challenge to Presbyterians to look through their denomination's seminary catalogue and find two required courses on Calvin's Institutes and the Westminster Confession. I only know one place where you are likely to find them, Greenville Seminary (great school, by the way, one I cannot praise highly enough. While they are not Reconstructionist, they are consistently Reformed, will not seek secular accreditation, do not have women students and are rigorously preparing a new generation of men for the ministry. But they pay the price in being small).
This review cannot begin to do justice to the scope of North's work. If I have focused on his practical applications, it is only because of something I picked up from him seventeen years ago when I read my first Reconstructionist book: you can't beat something with nothing. North does not just wail and beat his chest at the loss of Christian culture through the capture of Presbyterian's Citadel at Princeton. He explains why we lost, and more importantly, how not to lose again in the future.
Sadly, my personal opinion is that it is already too late. The rot has gone on too long for there to be a reasonable hope of turning things around (though God can and do whatever he wills). If the PCA does not split again within the next ten years, my guess is that within twenty, it will be a broad evangelical, Arminian denomination with a great history but no future. Functionally, it will be a Baptist church who sprinkles babies (and maybe not even that!). While the OPC may remain orthodox longer, their amillennial presuppositions will keep them tiny and insignificant to the broader cultural issues (North points out that the entire OPC, after over fifty years of life, would fit in two large Dallas Baptist Churches!).
However, there are about forty million Arminian Baptists and charismatics out there. Many, many of them are asking some hard questions and looking for answers. The charismatics especially are not hindered by a slavish adherence to a pessimistic eschatology (and once the year 2000 passes, dispensational premillennialism is going to fade into obscurity among the Baptists). Maybe, just maybe, God is going to pass the torch to them. And guess what, Christian Reconstructionists just happen to have the answers they will need.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.