"A Gentle Response to Mr. Julius Poppinga"

by Frank B. Baldwin, III

Elder, The Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania) Presbyterian Church


Thanks to the moderator of Hesed for inviting me to comment on the recent submission by Mr. Julius Poppinga, a faithful servant of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an elder of Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and thanks to her also for publishing his remarks. At its best, Hesed will provide opportunity for civil debate on the issues surrounding Amendment B and other divisive issues in our Church.

Not surprisingly, I find little to disagree with in Mr. Poppinga's submission. I aspire, as does he, to be faithful to God's commands, as reflected in the Book of Confessions, and I see nothing wrong in examining the lives of candidates for ordination to learn whether they have been guided by our confessions and whether they live lives worthy of the great calling by which God calls each of us to glorify and enjoy him forever and to serve him in the Church.

Where we differ most, I think, is on the necessity to prescribe a formula for the inquiry into the fitness of a candidate for ordination. The sins enumerated in the Book of Confessions have a very old-fashioned flavor. Their coverage is limited by the imaginations of an age that was just getting used to the roundness of the earth, did not imagine the developments of science that would allow me to type this message on a computer and send it around the world on the Internet (or indeed to travel to any part of the world in a few hours), and had not become intimately aware of the depths of evil exemplified by the Holocaust or modern American business ethics. In that sense, the Confessions do not go nearly far enough in establishing a modern standard of purity.

I, and other opponents, have characterized Amendment B as a return to a rule of law, as contrasted to the rule of Grace, in which God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has called all persons who believe to be his saved people. Mr. Poppinga disagrees:

If we view, as does Mr. Baldwin, Amendment B as "legislation" (which of course it is not) or as "law" in the sense that term is used in the book of Romans in contrast to grace as the means of our acceptance by God (which of course Amendment B does not remotely do) then some of Mr. Baldwin's concerns might come into play. . . . But if we view Amendment B's invocation of the Confessions in light of Psalm 19:7-14 we see the "law" as an expression of God's loving concern for our good. We see the commandments of the Lord as "perfect", "reviving the soul", "making wise the simple", "rejoicing the heart", "enlightening the eyes", "more to be desired than gold", in keeping them "finding great reward". Judaism has for a long time recognized wholeness of life as a theme of the Torah. Jesus' saying that He came to fulfill the law parallels the promise that in Him we find life more abundant.

It is certainly not clear to me that Amendment B is not meant to be a return to a legalistic way of identifying those who may be ordained. We Reformed Christians do aspire to "sanctification" in which the law of God is written on our hearts, and our lives exemplify God's love. Amendment B falls far short of this aspiration. Obedience to law as a means of obtaining salvation (or even ordination) is a long way from the Reformed view of sanctification.

Can we live in a world in which Amendment B is fully and zealously enforced? Will our mission or our efforts at evangelism and church development be aided by strict compliance with the Book of Confessions? Until now, we have only been required to be "guided" by the Book of Confessions. As one seeking to be guided thereby, I treasure many aspects of the Book of Confessions, even many of its definitions of sin. In my view (which happily is only mine) our world would be much better if we spent Sundays, as did our forebears, in conformity with the commands of the Westminster Larger Catechism, if those around me ceased to make light of the sacred name of Jesus, and if our commercial world followed the rules of business conduct set forth in the Second Helvetic Confession and avoided wicked tricks and schemes to obtain a neighbor's goods by deception (including false weights and measures, deceptive advertising or merchandising, counterfeit money, exorbitant interest).

On the other hand, Westminster's prohibition of "bold and curious searchings into God's secrets" probably would inhibit the course of modern science, and we may all be in trouble if we commit sin by failure to do our work well, so that we may earn enough to help our neighbors (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 111).

Mr. Poppinga avers that he is troubled by only four of the sins enumerated in the Book of Confessions. Blushing, I must confess that I am troubled by many more, either because I do not understand them or because I am pretty sure I have done them and do not repent. Just as one example, it is part of my professional responsibilities to engage in "quarreling," which I have sometimes done in court even on behalf of my presbytery - and I do not repent in the least.

What is most interesting about Mr. Poppinga's argument is that it seems to me to prove more than he intended. He is able, by good, lawyerly arguments, to conclude that he is not really violating even the four passages that trouble him. That's what we lawyers do in a world where law rules: we distinguish our case as best we can from the law's strictures. If ordination is to be a matter of compliance with law, we will need lawyers (in Biblical times they were the pharisees) to demonstrate that our conduct, whatever it is, was not intended to be called "sin" by our confessions. I personally regret the waste of talent in this way, when our beloved Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is losing membership and failing to mediate God's love to our neediest neighbors.

Maybe one day, sooner or later, Mr. Poppinga and the other faithful Presbyterians in Montclair, New Jersey, will discover in their midst a man or woman who is active in the work of the church, well grounded in Reformed theology, generous with his or her pledge to the church, well respected by all members of the congregation and of good reputation in the community, and . . . . living in a committed and faithful relationship with another person to whom he or she is not married. Perhaps it will be clear to them that God has called this person to service as an elder of their congregation. What, then, to do?

If I follow Mr. Poppinga's logic, perhaps they will then say to one another, "Whatever those obscure Biblical passages mean, they can't possibly mean that _____ here is committing a sin or that we should ignore God's call to him or her." Then they will ordain _____, will have the benefit of another faithful servant of God to serve them with intelligence and energy, and we'll all be singing again from the same page of the Hymnal.

And perhaps the song we will sing will be a new one, that neither of us has as yet imagined:

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:1-3. One must note that in this passage Habakkuk is violating our Book of Confessions by complaining about God's responsiveness! See Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 103.)


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