By Ryan Biese | January 17, 2022
The denomination which I love, and which has nurtured my faith for over a decade and a half, is working to minister faithfully in our challenging cultural moment. It seems everyone agrees the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is at something of a crossroads (e.g. here and here), which may be a helpful way to understand our situation. What seems clear is there is a dialogue and debate about what the PCA will be, will look like, and how she will minister going forward.
As the pastor of a small church, it seems to me that the PCA needs elders who are especially committed to three principles in their ministries: biblical clarity, biblical worship, and biblical discipleship. Their commitment to these three things must flow out of a sincere love for Christ, for His people, and for the lost. These three commitments must be bathed, empowered, and rooted in prayer, a point which has been made numerous times (e.g., recently here, a while ago here, and for a congregation here).
Having elders devoted to the three principles of biblical clarity, biblical worship, and biblical discipleship is vital for the future relevance and vibrancy of the PCA. We must, first of all, have elders who are committed to doctrinal fidelity expressed not merely in an affirmation of the Westminster Standards, but also in an ability to articulate clearly the richness and beauty of the Reformed faith and gospel of Christ. In what follows, I seek to promote the need for elders to speak clearly, plainly, and precisely.
Testing Gifts for Ministry
Every elder in the PCA must be trained for ministry and have his gifts for ministry tested (BCO 19-7, 21-3; 24-1), and part of that testing and training must include an emphasis on clearly and simply proclaiming the whole counsel of God.
Those discerning a call to the office of elder not only aspire to a “noble task” (1 Tim 3:1), but a task that is difficult and requires a willingness to proclaim truths that challenge the core of how people understand themselves. Sessions and presbyteries must be willing to prepare elder candidates for this reality. They must as well prevent men from being approved for ordination who avoid speaking clearly or who cannot speak clearly.
I remember early in my own training for ministry there were times when a difficult or controversial doctrine would come up in the text before us and I tried to be “ambitiously vague” or skirt around a controversy to avoid offending some of my hearers. The elders who were supervising my training saw what I was doing and emphatically warned me of the danger of nuancing the truth to death by speaking vaguely instead of precisely. They rightly understood that I must not only hold orthodox views, but I must be able and willing to articulate the truth clearly even if I think I am risking disapproval from some of those who will hear. I am forever grateful to these elders for decisively teaching me what was vital for ministry as an elder by exposing a dangerous flaw in my own teaching.
In what many commentators regard as his final letter, the Apostle Paul warned us, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” (2 Tim. 4:3). We are living in a time in which people have indeed “wandered off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:4). The way to safeguard the church (and her members) from abandoning the truth is to proclaim it with joyful zeal and winsome precision that makes our delight in the Reformed faith obvious to all.
Paul elsewhere indicated that we must not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). It is true that it is frequently difficult to proclaim the gospel without shrinking back. There are areas and applications of the gospel that target cherished cultural expressions and personal patterns or priorities of those to whom we minister. We need elders who will trust the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin and repentance as the gospel exposes sins in the culture and in the members of our congregations. We need elders who will boldly apply the gospel without trying to nuance and soften its applications simply to avoid offending or irritating those who hear.
The Imperative of Clarity
As we seek to proclaim the unfathomable riches of God toward us in Christ, we rightly want to witness people in our cities and towns responding to the gospel call, turning away from sinful lifestyles, and embracing Christ as He is offered in the gospel.
Yet in our zeal to see our neighbors respond to the beauty of Christ and His gospel, we must avoid the tendency to conceal and nuance or qualify away the most counter-cultural – or offensive – elements of the gospel in hopes of winning them over.
We see how the Apostles loved the cities in which they lived and ministered. They won souls in the cities through preaching that did not shrink back from the most offensive elements of the gospel. Peter (Acts 2:36, 4:10) does not hesitate to confront the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the religious leaders with their guilt and culpability for Christ’s death. Paul does not avoid proclaiming the hope of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:31), even though such an idea was laughable to many sophisticated Greeks. Elsewhere Paul does not hide from the Hebrews his commission to proclaim God’s covenant mercies to Gentiles (Acts 22:21), even though the Jews refuse to listen to him after that point because of their xenophobia.
The Apostles fearlessly set forth the whole counsel of God, regardless of how offensive it was to the people of the cities in which they were ministering. In our own time and denomination, we must likewise be zealous in our proclamation of the whole counsel of God. We must resist the urge to allow the more offensive and difficult portions of the gospel and Christian life to be hidden by the vagaries of nuance and ambiguity.
Ecclesiastical controversies frequently develop when elders do not speak clearly. It is detrimental to the peace and purity of the church to have elders who refuse to speak plainly.
What the PCA urgently needs is elders (both teaching and ruling) who will speak the truth of God clearly, not neutering it with nuance, equivocation, and ambiguity in hopes unbelievers will find it attractive. We need elders who are willing to cast off hope of being relevant and influential in their cities by means of cultural engagement and instead find that relevance in the only thing the church has been commissioned by Christ to put forth: the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer (WCF 21:3, 5).
If we modify, nuance, or soften the gospel in hopes of making unbelievers like us, hear us, or participate in church events, we are not doing anyone any good. Saving faith is receiving and resting upon Christ “as He is offered” in the gospel. But if elders are nuancing Christ and His gospel or minimizing certain culturally approved sins, they are not presenting Christ “as He is offered.”
In our time, the PCA needs elders who are not ashamed of the gospel, but believe it is the power of God to enable sinners to turn from sin and find new and abundant life in the Lord Jesus Christ. We need elders who will hold fast to our doctrinal standards by faithfully examining elder-candidates to ensure that the men being ordained as elders – whether teaching or ruling elders – are able to articulate the “faith once for all delivered unto the saints.”
Ryan Biese is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.