I hate the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I love the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I am capable of loving and hating the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church at the same time. After 50 years, I have come to this conclusion: one does not have to be mind-numbingly drunk or rip-roaringly crazy to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, but both mind-numbingly drunk and rip-roaringly crazy help.
Yes, I attended the meeting of General Synod on June 8-10, and the experience was almost as exciting as a man with cat allergies and sensitive hearing being locked up in a sealed room full of caterwauling cats for three days. After the close of the Wednesday evening meeting, when I returned to the Marriott where I was staying, there was a long line of delegates sitting beside the bar and imbibing in liquid happiness. I said to myself: “Damn! I have diabetes. I don’t drink!”
Before I wade into those things which disappointed me about the meeting of General Synod, let me share with you the things which delighted me. Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, we were not embroiled in divisive and denomination-shattering debates over Critical Race Theory, Reparations for slavery, Queer Theory, Gender Identity, the Social Gospel, and the like. With all our problems, we are not that far out in the weeds!
It was also a delight to see we were taking denominational restructuring seriously. At 75, I am old, but I hope to live long enough to see the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church ONE denomination instead of a multitude of independent boards and agencies which promote their own agendas rather than the welfare of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a joy to see the Board of Christian Education Ministries dissolved, the Committee on Worship dismissed, and the Reformed University Fellowship ministries in South Carolina and North Carolina put under the care of the presbytery in which each serves. If all we were able to do at this meeting of General Synod is to make a good start at restructuring, we accomplished a great deal. Our system of boards and agencies have hindered the growth and health of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Our system of board and agencies is broken.
Now, let’s take a look at those things which were disappointing. First, the debate on women deacons has been coming since 1969 when we allowed women to the office of deacon. In 1969, we did not debate the office of deacon. We simply declared the office open to all “persons,” and allowed the session of each congregation to determine the meaning of “persons.”
As is well known, the real debate in 1969 involved the inerrancy of the Bible and the ordination of women to the office of elder. Or, to put it colloquially, was the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church willing to adopt the views of the Presbyterian Church, US (i.e., the now defunct Southern Presbyterian Church) on Scripture and the ordination of women? This debate consumed us for years. Numerous compromises came out of the debate, and one of those compromises was to allow for women in the office of deacon.
1969 was a long time ago. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has changed greatly. Most of the people who participated in the Synod of 1969 are dead. Today, we are far more Biblically conscientious. That is, we are more apt to ask these questions: (1) what does the Bible teach, and (2) how does the teaching of the Bible impact on how we do church?
I think it is healthy that we are finally asking, “What does the Bible teach about the office of deacon?” One of the driving issues in the “ordination” of deacons for Presbyterians of all stripes is the word “ordination.” “Ordination” carries ruling authority. 1 Timothy 2.12 reads, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” So, is the office of deacon a ruling office? An even better question is this: do we even know what a deacon is? Is a deacon responsible for more than opening the doors and making the coffee on Sunday morning?
A conversation with Rev. Raul Bermudez was helpful for me. Mr. Bermudez is the Pastor of King’s Cross Presbyterian Church in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. A couple of years ago, he led his congregation out of the liberal PCUSA into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Sometimes fresh eyes on a subject are helpful. I was surprised when he said his congregation didn’t ordain women as deacons. He added, “Neither do we ordain men as deacons. We commission deacons, and some are men and some are women.” Marvelous! Eureka!
Well, if the offending word in the debate is “ordain,” then commissioning to a task leads out of the conundrum of the debate. We teach the office of Elder is an office of ruling (hence, many of us use the titles “Ruling Elder” and “Teaching Elder”) and the authority of the office is conferred in ordination. If the office of deacon is service oriented, then commission is the appropriate word.
In good Associate Reformed Presbyterian practice, we delayed the question this year by sending it to a study committee. This also gives the powers-that-be the opportunity to load the study committee in order to obtain the desired opinion. Whether the opinion desired prevails on the floor of Synod is another matter. The sending of the issue to a committee for study also makes it possible to slow-walk the matter. One thing is for certain: this is going to be interesting!
However, all the study committees in the world are not going to deal with the underlying problem, which is our xenophobia. Some of us, especially those who are in leadership positions, are terrified of new people coming to us from the PCA. All of us are aware of the troubles in the PCA. Most of us are aware of congregations contemplating a move to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. These PCA folks respect and are impressed by our Biblical orthodoxy – even if we combine our Biblical orthodoxy with quaint and eccentric traditions which we can’t explain or know how we came to have them.
In numerous conversations, I have heard the following: (1) “Those people in the PCA have a different mindset, and they might change us.” (2) “Those people in the PCA have a contentious and fighting spirit. They are not nice like we are.” Well, let’s hope they come, and let’s hope they change us. If there was ever a people who need change and growth, it is the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The hesitation I see has nothing to do with the deacon debate. It is fear, bordering on terror, that political leadership may change. Some important person could lose his position at the top of the heap of self-important church politicians. And, once again, let’s hope someone loses his place, for those who have led us in the past have often botched their stewardship. You see, we pray for transformation and hope nothing changes.
My second disappoint about Synod is the retirement debacle. Honestly, I don’t know what to believe. After the meeting of Synod, many of us were walking around cheering like our football team just won a national championship. At this point, no one has received a check. At this point, can we really say we have settled anything? And when we discover the check is pennies on the dollar, what happens then? And, honestly, I hope I am wrong!
In the last few years, we were told our Retirement Fund was $5,000,000 underfunded; then we were told it was $8,000,000 underfunded; then we were told it was $13,300,000 underfunded; then we were told we needed $8,500,000 to do a buyout; then we were told we needed to raise $8,500,000 immediately; then, at Synod this year, we were told we only needed $6,000,000 to do a buyout of the people who were not yet retired, and the other $2,500,000 for the protection of those already retired can wait for another day; then, in the Report of the Board of Benefits, we were informed “The Market Value of Assets at January 1, 2021 was $65,038,000 resulting in an unfunded deficit of $5,180,000 or a funding percentage of 92.6%.” Now, with regard to the last sentence I quoted from the Report of the Board of Benefits, not a single word was said about it. Please forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical. I don’t know what to believe. I am left trusting people I don’t know. I am left in the dilemma of trusting the members of the Board of Benefits who have already betrayed those who trusted them for their retirement.
A following disappointing corollary is the inability of most of our people to understand we need to pay our bills. We left the meeting of General Synod over $2,000,000 in debt. The Board of Stewardship’s plan for transferring $1,633,000 from the Denominational Ministry Fund to the Board of Benefits was overwhelmingly rejected. Of course, the plan was draconian, but the plan essentially resolved our debt in one year.
Shrilled were the voices saying such an action could destroy the DMF (the Denominational Bureaucracy Fund or Denomination Salary Fund). Well, would that be a bad thing? Isn’t our goal to clean up our bureaucratic mess? Many also were the voices saying such an action hindered our ability to do the ministry of world missions, evangelism, and church planting. Well, first of all, nothing in the plan restricted anything World Witness is doing. World Witness was funded. Second, as far as evangelism and church planting are concerned, money is not the issue. The issue has nothing to do with funding!
Do you read the statistics in the Minutes of Synod? I do! When I get a new copy of the Minutes, the first thing I do is turn to the Statistical Report. These are not reports manufactured by someone in Greenville. These reports come directly from our congregations.
On Wednesday morning at breakfast, in a conversation with a former successful church planter, I said it took 135 Associate Reformed Presbyterians to lead one person to Jesus. My friend said I was wrong, and it took 200. Well, I had just looked at the Statistical Report, and I was attempting to be charitable (but I was afraid my friend was correct). Here’s the point: last year, after necessary adjustments to the numbers, there were only 200 adult professions of faith in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This means we are irrelevant as a church of Jesus Christ to our culture. In spite of our theological orthodoxy, we are dying. Did you hear that? We are dying, and here are the options as to why we are dying: (1) we are lazy, (2) we are stupid, or (3) we are under the judgment of God. All options are bad!! And, by the way, money isn’t going to fix this. Neither are pious platitudes going to fix it. Indeed, talk is cheap, and religious talk is really cheap. Frankly, we talk, but we don’t put shoe-leather to our talk! Obviously, the Spirit of God is not with us. We are pitiful: not only can we not lead people to Jesus, I don’t think most of us are capable of leading a hungry dog to a bowl of Alpo! When I said that on the floor of Synod, I am told I angered and offended a number of people. Good! In the words of a friend: “Put some pavement under your shoe-leather! You resemble what the man said!”
As far as church planting is concerned, dear God, we are a hapless lot. Money is not going to fix what is wrong with us. We are artful at doing dumb things. A few years ago ONA came up with the idea of a national presence. We were California bound. After investing $1,000,000 in a church plant in Los Angles, we are California bust. The Director of ONA led us to the bonfire of the monies for Jesus’ sake!
This year and last year there was a call by many, saying, “We need a director of ONA who can help us plant churches.” Well, money is not going to buy a messiah. If there is one thing I have learned in 50 years in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, it is church planting is local. If the local congregation and the presbytery are not willing to do the work of church planting, it will not be imposed from on high.
The following is a personal observation: I am amazed at the people who talk so much about church planting and have never been involved in or successful in planting a church. I am also amazed at the number of people who talk about evangelism – and the imperative for evangelism – and never seem to get around to the work of evangelism. Well, maybe I’m just grumpy; I am 75, and I no longer countenance foolishness well.
Not being able to see well, I don’t know who made the motion which would have limited the heads of our boards and agencies to a salary of $100,000. What a wonderful idea. Of course, the motion failed. But, you know, the brother who made the motion was on to something. In the past, we have paid a lot for nothing and have wondered why we got nothing. We are dumb. Only in the church and government is incompetence celebrated and rewarded with advancement.
The Rev. Clint Davis (as of July, immediate past Chairman of the Erskine Board) said Erskine College and Seminary, with a large staff and faculty and nearly a thousand students, would not be able to find a competent President for a salary of a mere $100,000. (Well, from my perspective, Erskine has often paid much more for incompetence!) With far, far more student athletes than academic students, and more athletic programs than a summer athletic camp in the Adirondacks in July (including bass fishing and rodeo), the President of the Erskine Athletic Center to the Glory of God is paid well. You see, it is the responsibility of the President to help the young athletes to reach the next step in their careers – like reading and writing and arithmetic.
I do not participate in Erskine idolatry, nor am I infected by the Erskine virus. I am convinced one of the reasons God is withholding His blessing on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is our idolatry of Erskine. And, like all idols, Erskine begs for resources and never gives back – not even in a time of distress.
A few weeks ago, the President of Erskine met with the Board of Stewardship. He was aware of the situation with our Retirement Fund. When asked if Erskine could do something to help the church in our distress with the Retirement Fund, the answer was “No!”
In 1976, the year I was ordained, the first Capital Funds program I participated in was for Erskine College. Unless it has been lost, there is a plaque on a wall at the White Oak Presbyterian Church, Senoia, GA, thanking the members of the congregation for their generosity. However, the generosity is a one-way street. Erskine takes but never gives. For you who have Erskine fever, in your old age and when your retirement is empty, remember the generosity of Erskine in 2021 and “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed” (James 2.16).
By the way, if I’m not mistaken, this is the third year the Erskine Report was without a financial statement. I had an alum ask me about this. He wanted to know why there was no financial statement in the Synod report. My response was, “An institution run as badly as Erskine is run is not going to be transparent with the financials.”
Now, let me give a synopsis of the report from World Witness. The report gives me the opportunity to use a new word: blatherskite. The second paragraph of the report from World Witness reads: “Our purpose is to plant healthy, reproducing, God-glorifying churches, which are winsomely Reformed in doctrine and Presbyterian in structure, in defined communities across geographic and cultural boundaries.” Where? When? I know I am legally blind, but I must be totally blind. Where are these new congregations? I think blatherskite works.
Have you asked this question yet: why are the Muslims winning? Why is Islam in ascendency and Christianity in decline?
My answer is simplistic, but I have often found that complex issues have simple answers. Where Muslims go, they build mosques. The mosque becomes the place for training and the launching pad for expansion.
In the past 50 years, we have not planted churches. In the past 50 years, what have we done in World Witness? We have sent missionaries to play chess in the park and have spiritual conversations; we have sent missionaries to conduct Vacation Bible Schools and have spiritual conversations; we have sent missionaries to feed hungry people and have spiritual conversations; we have sent missionaries to drink coffee in coffee shops and have spiritual conversations; we have sent missionaries to run Christian bookstores and have spiritual conversations; we have sent missionaries to help in hospitals and have spiritual conversations; and so on. And we wonder why God has not blessed our efforts! Indeed, for all we have put into our efforts, we have accomplished little for the Kingdom of God.
Has anyone read the book of Acts? Where the Apostles and early Christian went, they established local congregations. The local church became the base for teaching and the launching pad for evangelism. Say, do you think the Muslims may have gotten their plan for the mosque from us?
“Our purpose is to plant healthy, reproducing, God-glorifying churches!” Could it be the smart people at World Witness have finally figured it out? I hope so!
The most disappointing thing I saw this year at General Synod was the introduction of our new pastors and candidates. Once upon a time, in the not so long, long ago, when new pastors and candidates were introduced, the number of men presented filled the front, from wall-to-wall. This year there were nine. Just nine!
I have a friend who rebukes me regularly for my posts on ARPTalk. He says, “You are so negative!” Well, yes, I am. The reason I am so negative is because I can count. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is not healthy. Every indicator is down. That we did not die last year, we celebrate as a sign of God’s favor.
I began by saying, “one does not have to be mind-numbingly drunk or rip-roaringly crazy to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, but both mind-numbingly drunk and rip-roaringly crazy help.” I don’t drink!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson