The Prerogative of Hillbillies
I was born and raised in West Virginia. I am a hillbilly. I have an Appalachian accent. That's why I do more writing than speaking. Dr. Jay Adams was my homiletics professor at Westminster Seminary in the early '70s. He was honest with me. He told me that if I wanted to be a preacher, then I needed either to change my accent or to go back to Appalachia. I went back to Appalachia.
There are a lot of jokes about hillbillies — jokes about our moonshine, jokes about our dogs, and jokes about our women (said in jest, of course!). If someone from West Virginia tells me one of these jokes, I think it is funny. If someone not from West Virginia tells me one of these jokes, I am offended. It's an unwritten rule that being a hillbilly gives hillbillies the right to say things about each other that others cannot say.
I am also known as TR (truly reformed) and in addition to that a theonomic Reconconstructionist. Not all TRs are Reconstructionists, but generally in reputation at least, there isn't much difference between them.
As a Reconstructionist I am part of the in-group. I have earned my badges. I've written articles in the Chalcedon Report and other Reconstructionist magazines. I'm not a closet Reconstructionist. I have always been out in the open about it. I've said openly on the floor of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (my own denomination — the PCA) that I am a Reconstructionist. My wife (who values security greatly) tells me that I have ruined my opportunity of getting another call if I ever have to leave my present pastorate. She thinks nobody wants a TR or a Reconstructionist as his or her pastor.
I read Resonstructionist writings all the time. Reconstructionist theology has greatly influenced my preaching and my writing. I have many friends in the Reconstructionist Movement, and some of the most humble and most sanctified people I know are Reconstructionists. Indeed, I am part of the Reconstructionist family. Therefore, like hillbillies, I trust that I can say things about us (both TRs and Reconstructionists) that others would be unable to say. I can get away with it, I think, because I am one of “us.”
I owe much to the Reconstructionist movement. I have been delivered from an eschatological depression that I believe accompanies anything other than post-millennial views. I have been delivered from an irrelevant pietism, rooted in experientialism. I have been delivered from the deception of American pluralism. I have rediscovered fully the concept of the covenant. I have learned that all areas of life must be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Anything less could be considered treason to our King. Christ is King over all. Hallelujah!
Yet, as I look at the landscape of the TR and Reconstrucionist movement, I sometimes get very discouraged. At times I enter into a state of psychological withdrawal and choose to avoid TRs and Reconstructionists. This may be a result of my own sin, and if it is, then I will have to deal with it.
Reconstructionism has a bad name in many circles. Sometimes it is because we are misinterpreted and misunderstood. Some of our opponents simply will not take the time to read what we write. They just accept prevalent caricatures about us. Sometimes, we have a bad name because we believe that the Law of God must be the standard for all areas of life, including civil government. There is no neutrality with God. There are no neutral institutions on earth. We believe that the Westminster Confession “in the plain sense of the words” best reflects the Word of God more than any other human document written by man. If these are the reasons we have a bad name, then so be it. We should rejoice in suffering for believing and proclaiming the whole counsel of God. The problem then is not our problem, but it is the problem of those who oppose us.
But I fear sometimes, especially after personal examination, that we may have a bad name because we deserve it. We earned it, plain and simple. We can be blind, obnoxious, and even unbiblical at times. With all due respect, let me just mention a few observations which are probably true of most Christians in America today, but especially may be true of us who go by the name of Reconstructionist. Let me just mention three areas where I believe we need to reexamine ourselves, and make sure we are in God's will.
Harshness and Insensitivity
First of all, we have a reputation for being unnecessarily harsh and insensitive to others. We are quick to criticize and slow to encourage. We discern error in others, but often fail to see and praise their strengths. What is often absent in our conduct is a quiet courage that reflects the humility of Christ as well as His boldness. (Yes, our theological opponents have the same problem too.)
We take pride in “calling a spade a spade,” but oftentimes I am afraid that we are only making a nuisance of ourselves and are doing a great deal of damage in the process. Sometimes we cry persecution, when it may be that we are just plain rude. Sometimes we claim righteous indignation, when it may be that we are just sinfully impatient.
Regardless of the great sermons we preach, and regardless of the great books we write, in the long run, I fear that our lack of humility may hurt the cause we hold so dear. Maybe God will raise up another generation in the future who can handle being Reconstructionists. It is a tough task. I'm not sure that we are up to it in our generation.
I am aware that this is a difficult accusation to prove or disapprove, but at times I do believe that we deserve the reputation we have. Knowing the deception of man's heart, we at least need to examine ourselves to see if these things be true. One thing that seems obvious to me (and to others) is that TRs and Reconstructionists have at least two major problems. First, we can't get along with people who are outside our camp, and secondly, we can't get along with people who are inside our camp. As it appears on the surface, at least, that's one reason why I think we do indeed have a reputation problem.
Where Are the Churchmen?
Secondly, I believe that typically, Reconstructionists have a low view of the Church. It seems that we think and act more like independents in our ecclesiology. We can't stay in denominations that are inconsistent or don't meet the standards. We lean on the “slippery slope” paradigm, and use it as justification for creating our own denominations. We leave our churches, create our own denomination, and then we leave again, and create our denomination again, ad nauseam. Recently, in thinking about the leaders in the Reconstructionist movement, I listed about a dozen men, and correspondingly I listed their specific denominations. There were almost as many denominations as men. There are so many acronyms for denominational names, that I can't keep up with who belongs to what denomination. Amazingly, men who will speak at the same Reconstructionist conference sitting on the same stage could never be a part of the same visible church!
We in no way reflect the great churchmen like Luther and Machen who remained as a testimony in their churches until they were booted out. Enduring the problems of the visible church until she apostatizes is suggested as being sinful toleration. At times, I think we must believe that the principle of being committed to the troubled visible church must have ceased with the apostolic age. I recently heard a sermon on the dangerous trends within the Reformed community in the twentieth-first century. The sermon was excellent, but in my opinion one major problem was overlooked. It's a problem that we have never really dealt with. I'm not sure we are capable of dealing with it. I call it schism. I've been rebuked for using that term. Others call it freedom, the practical necessity of denominationalism, standing for the truth, etc.
Yes, I know that the root of schism originates among those who do not uphold the truths to which they have vowed devotion, but is our reaction of creating our own little denominations any less schismatic? We like to proclaim our respect for the great historic confessions of the Church: but when it comes to our forefathers and their respect for the visible church, we suddenly don't look anything like our forefathers. We have fallen into what I call popular American volunteerism when it comes to our pragmatic sanction of denominationalism (for an interesting perspective on this issue see John Williamson Nevin's sermon on “Catholic Unity” at Theologia ).
Yes, the visible church often does err in her timidity in speaking to the issues of the day. Yes, the Church does fail to adhere to her doctrinal Standards. We then become so irritated and decide that we must bring judgment upon her ourselves by leaving the “quasi-harlot” and creating another denomination. It's not in us to stay and speak the truth, believing that God will bring His judgment upon His church in his own good time. He has always judged His people and saved His remnant. He did so with Israel, and He will do so with us. To leave our church when she is declining is to leave her without the prophetic voice she so desperately needs. We give up our prophetic voice to God's covenant people when we leave God's covenant people. They will never hear our voice again.
This is not to say that a man can never leave a denomination. I think transfers to other denominations (or even to other individual congregations) can be good under certain circumstances and conditions. I was ordained in the old Southern Presbyterian Church (before the PCA ever existed). I left that denomination and became a part of the newly created PCA. The PCA Presbytery of Westminster (in which I hold my membership) declared the Southern Presbyterian Church apostate (although the General Assembly of the PCA would not do this). In those days, we, at least on our Presbytery level, believed that only apostasy could justify our departure in such a way as we departed from the old Southern Presbyterian Church. How things have changed!
Doctrinally, the Scriptures bind us together as the people of God. Everything, even our most prized confessions of faith, must always be tested against the Word of God. However, as a church or denomination, the Confession itself puts us into a covenant relationship to one another. To deny the statements of the Confession (where we have not taken acceptable exceptions) is to break the covenant. Also, and just as serious, to require of our brethren more than what is stated in the Confession (and Catechisms) is to break the covenant. If the Confession is insufficient, then it should be changed; but to require of our covenantal brothers beliefs beyond the Confession is to fall into the error of what I have termed “Extraconfessionalism.” In confessional churches, I believe Extraconfessionalism is a big problem with TRs and Reconstructionists.
Thirdly, because we value the church so little, we have a tendency to make broad and sweeping statements about sin in others, when the church itself has never dealt with the issue as a church should do. For example, indirectly, within the last year, it has been intimated to me that I sinned when I voted for George Bush in the 2000 presidential election (no, I actually voted for Howard Phillips). I have been led to believe that since my children went to public schools (many years ago) that I sinned. I have been led to believe that since we have a Christmas tree in the foyer of our Church during the Christmas season that I have sinned. Maybe I have! That is not the point. The point is that before we go around accusing our brethren of sinning, we should consider the mandate of using Biblical means to settle the issue (Matthew 18), using the courts of the church, if necessary (again this assumes a high view of the church). In the church courts, we fight for Biblical creationism. In the church courts, we fight against women being drafted into military combat. These are things we must do. Yet, when it comes to things like voting for George Bush, sending children to public school, or hanging a Christmas wreath on our church door, we just call it sin because that's the way we see it, and “let the chips fall where they will.”
Sin is very serious; and if it is sin, then it must be dealt with through the proper channels of church discipline. We don't like popery and ex-cathedra statements, but I am afraid we tend to make our own individual ex-cathedra statements, independent of church pronouncements. It would indeed be an amazing thing if some Christian were to ask his Session, Presbytery, or General Assembly to declare sinful the act of sending children to public schools. Then we would not have to walk among the brethren thinking bad thoughts about each other. We would have an authoritative rule to enforce, for the good of God's people. The matter would be settled by the courts of the church. It's something that should be given consideration.
The text “love covers a multitude of sins” is often quoted and used as an excuse not to pursue church discipline in the interests of love, but this text has been grossly misinterpreted. To “cover” is not to ignore, but “to turn the sinner from the error of his way” (James 5:19-20). We throw the word “sin” around so freely and easily without taking the Biblical route of Matthew 18 or seeking the benefit of the declarations of the Church (realizing, of course, that the church is fallible, and councils do err). It is not a wise thing to do. I believe it is not a Biblical thing to do. If I consider the actions of my brother as something arising from weakness, lack of wisdom, or even foolishness, that is one thing. I can deal with that apart from church discipline over time through instruction, encouragement, and even by example.
However, if we are naming sins, then we must realize that sin destroys souls, and that it must be corrected immediately, and if necessary, ultimately using the sanction of excommunication so that “the rest may be fearful of sinning.” Sin is not just a topic for sermons, but sin is a matter for immediate attention followed by Biblical directions for repentance and forgiveness. On controversial issues of the day, let the church declare for us what is sin, and then let us then deal with it appropriately. This may sound a bit old fashioned and even a bit Roman Catholic, but I believe it is Biblical.
I believe that Reconstructionism has a bright future, in spite of our faults. The truth will carry the day eventually, regardless of the messenger. Right now we have been called to this unique ministry, but we have some problems that need fixed. I have said this to help us identify our own shortcomings. It is not said out of a spirit of bitterness toward anyone in the Reconstructionist Movement. After all, most of my best friends are in the Reconstructionist Movement, at least up to this point. I am sure that many of my TR and Reconstructionist friends will disagree with me. However, I think one thing is for sure, we have some real problems, and we need to deal with them.
Like hillbillies, I can say this in Reconstructionist circles and get away with it, I hope!