A Wholesome Controversy? Please.

By Benjamin T. Inman | February 28, 2023

This is an invitation to controversy; my full-length contribution is available here. I offer a response to what I perceive to be a high point of advocacy for the Church Year in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). During my 30 years in the denomination, without difficulty I have politely abstained around various holiday practices. I felt neither desire nor obligation to be obstreperous. The controversy needed now is not about bits and bobs of calendars and services. This is about a model of piety being smuggled into the PCA.

After twenty years of unruffled tolerance for various particulars, I read the following words from a Senior Pastor in the PCA:

“We as Christians cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t need a Christian calendar to provide balance to the worldly calendars all around us. If we do not offer a counter-formation to the liturgies of the world, then we as the church will be producing disciples that are no different from those in the world around us. We will be self-centered, greedy, entertainment hungry, individualistic, sex crazed, bloodthirsty robots. And isn’t this who we are already? Aren’t these the kinds of disciples our churches are already churning out? Is this what we want to be like? What we want our children to be like?”

I take no offense at the accusation of denominational degeneracy. I haven’t read that in ByFaith magazine, but some things will never be published in some places. It is a stark assessment, yet I doubt many of us would dismiss it without some thought. Is the PCA so indifferent that presbyteries and General Assembly aren’t marked with the weeping and pleading that matches such a claim? A permutation is a possibility. The PCA is far larger than my familiarity; so I’ll not receive the ill report, nor dismiss the substantial man who brought it. Eyes open for now.

I do take offense at the claim made for the Church Year. Compared to ever so many moments in April or December, this calls for interruption. However legitimate may be the diagnosis, the prescription is quackery. Of course, one person’s quackery is another’s alternative treatment or traditional healing practice. The PCA’s understanding of the wholesome and the healing is expressed in the Westminster Standards. How could anyone with significant knowledge of the Westminster Standards – assuming that knowledge is agreement – offer the regular and careful observance of the Church Year as an urgent and necessary tool for sanctification? The divines all grew up under the Church Year, yet they neglected to include something so necessary for godliness?

I leave the author his modesty for now. Such a “gotcha” quote should not be bandied about without context. Lacking context, you might think the quote a bit of ex tempore opinion. You might focus on the laudable concern which provokes it. You might think it a strident comment from someone neither learned nor honored in the PCA. Without context, it might be framed as merely “overemphasis” or “a blemish of excess not corruption.” For 30 years, I have not commented loudly on the ephemera of eclectic Presbyterianism. This is not the bit of gristle politely set aside as you enjoy the steak. I am commenting now. I am controverting now. I am calling out the context now.[1]

My attached essay is a rejoinder to Tim LeCroy’s “A Reformed Defense of the Church Year. Such an earnest defense deserves a proper attack, rather than the piecemeal and spontaneous discussion that appears to have prompted it. He offers a Biblical case, which involves rather common specious claims. He provides an inadequate historical case to provide plausibility for his ‘Confessional’ opinion. The latter, he does not argue so much as assert. He assumes the Church Year is valuable for piety. It is not just true or allowable. It is useful.

The present advocacy for the Church Year is not individual, but it is aspirational. There must have been some precedent folded into the Continuing Presbyterian Church of 1973. Discordant elements of the original mix have been discarded over the last 50 years. Perhaps this is another. Over our half century, others have joined us and clearly aspire to establish the Church Year among the PCA. There is an audience that desires the Church Year to be more than defended, and everyone realizes such a development would certainly require a defense. All that is asked for is toleration, which is to say unmolested propagation. Remember: this controversy began with a defense not an attack.

I am asking for a wholesome controversy. Will the Presbyterian Church in America allow the teaching and practice of the Church Year to be promulgated in its bounds? I believe that my essay dismantles the recently offered exegetical argument. I believe that my essay removes the plausibility of the recently offered ‘Confessional’ opinion. I believe that my essay identifies the corrupting influence for the PCA promised by this model of piety. The controversy must turn, as TE LeCroy recognizes, on whether the Church Year is “hostile to the system” or “strikes at the vitals of religion.”[2]

I am a person of little significance, and it is quixotic to think that my invitation will receive even a regretful RSVP. I couldn’t throw that party. I’m not even a member of a party. I am just pointing with one hand and waving the Standards in the other. The practice of the Church Year is hostile to our doctrine of Scripture, our doctrine of worship, our doctrine of Church power and our doctrine of Christian liberty. One might start there. Responding to widespread ungodliness in the church, or just seeking to nurture ordinary sanctification, by the industrious implementation of humanly founded traditions – that strikes at the vitals of religion. One might start there to protect the flock.

Let there be a controversy, a wholesome controversy. Please. 

[1] To examine the context of the here unattributed quote, you will need to read the attached essay.

[2] Book of Church Order, 19.2 (f); 21.4 (f); 34.5

Benjamin T. Inman is a PCA Teaching Elder and member of Eastern Carolina Presbytery.