(Church) Repent Isn’t a Dirty Word: Part One

Don’t be fooled by soundbites.

I confess that I was once an avid critic of the Church Repent Project. I recall one evening after I watched a video from a producer of “Babies Are Murdered Here”. I was truly upset. I came close to unliking the public Abolish Human Abortion Facebook page, boxing up my t-shirt, and scraping the AHA from the front of my MacBook. Those are small and insignificant things, but I also came close to turning my back on friends, repeating slander (and therefore partaking in the sin), and most egregiously, using the Church Repent controversy as my excuse to not actively participate in loving my preborn neighbors. If the abolitionists are wrong about Church Repent, maybe they’re also wrong about my own personal responsibility. After all, I’m no “anti-church”, “ecclesiological anarchist”, “church hater”. But I noticed one little thing. Although the loudest critics talked a lot, they offered very little reasoning. Very little content. What I was left with was soundbites. I was used to hearing soundbites from political talking heads, from both sides of the aisle, but I wasn’t expecting the same hollowness in a harsh condemnation of fellow believers.

This controversy was over the Church Repent Project. The Church Repent Project (CRP) is a grassroots and decentralized abolitionist call to the Christians in our culture to repent. What the church or the professed believer is being called to repent of certainly differs, and methods can change depending on if the Christians or the church is pro-life, obstinately apathetic, or attempting some level of faithfulness. Sometimes the call to repent is a call to false churches to repent of their wholesale support of mass murder and to turn to Jesus Christ. However, most of this project has been directed towards professed orthodox believers and assemblies. The most controversial aspect of some examples (though not nearly the majority of examples) of the CRP is the use of signs outside of church buildings. Note that the CRP is not merely going to church buildings with signs. Most, though not all, critics of the CRP focus on the use of signs.

The CRP also does not seek to dictate to fellowships a specific list of actions that they must fulfil. When abolitionists say repent, we mean have a change of heart or change of mind. A change of heart away from sin or from wrong thinking. Not merely to do “X Y Z.” Of course, in accordance with sound doctrine, abolitionists believe that a change of heart should and will bear discernable fruit.

Much of what the most public critics of the CRP project has to say I previously agreed with. I, however, wasn’t ready to go as far as those gentlemen went (anathematizing abolitionists and using all manner of sensational language). Their harsh and sometimes vindictive condemnation of abolitionists and the CRP drove me to reach out to those enthusiastic critics (specifically Jon Speed and Marcus Pittman) as well as to my long time acquaintance T. Russell Hunter (of the Abolitionist Society of Norman). Jon Speed told me he would not speak to me because I was from Oklahoma (so under suspicion of being an abolitionist I can only assume) and Marcus Pittman simply refused to talk to me at all (and still does). The Oklahoma abolitionists, however, gave me their phone numbers and I was able to ask them many questions. While I did adopt abolitionism as a legitimate Biblical worldview, I still maintained that the CRP was in error. When confronted with the imperfections, hollowness, and silliness of my own former arguments, I did eventually change my mind. It was a process. Some of the following arguments are ones that I have personally used. Some are not. But I have heard them all. I still wonder how Jon and Marcus would have answered my questions if they cared to answer. In this article I hope to answer many of the objections I have heard. These objections do have answers, and I fear that too many have not thought through these issues Biblically or rationally. What I am not arguing for is the appropriateness or wisdom of every last example of the CRP. What I am not arguing for is a blank check of acceptability in regards to the use of signs and every way that signs can be used. What I am not arguing for is the acceptability of any and every argument and use of rhetoric that can be and has been used by abolitionists. What I AM arguing for is the a priori acceptability of the Church Repent Project, especially in regards to the usage of signs outside of church buildings. With that said, ANY acceptable project or tactic can be done in improper ways, but that does not condemn the project or tactic itself.

Why have a handful of loud social media voices within popular evangelicalism came out as such bitter opponents of the Church Repent Project? A “how dare you!” attitude has been front and center in far too many anti-Church Repent discussions with these men and their followers. These men (many of them seminary trained) are having the very same emotional and prideful reaction as the feminist college student who bristles with anger at the street preacher who calls her to repent. “Repent” is often seen as a dirty word to the world. Sadly, “repent” is all too often a dirty word to the Church as well.

There are many different categories of Church Repent critics. Many simply have an emotional reaction against any criticism or anything that remotely looks like criticism. Others are theoretically okay with individuals calling the Church to repent, just not specific churches. There are also some who are fine with calling specific churches to repent but are opposed to certain methods employed by some abolitionists. And, of course, there are some who fit somewhere in that mix but with certain qualifications. With that in mind, I will be addressing a few common objections to the Church Repent Project. Some objections may be your own, some may not be. I should also point out that there are many who are happy with disagreeing, even strongly, on this topic while continuing to faithfully have unity with brothers and sisters in Christ who support the Church Repent Project. On the other hand, there are some who view this topic as tantamount to damnable heresy. Not all Church Repent Project critics are the same.

As stated above, when I say “The Church Repent Project” I do not mean simply holding signs out in front of a church building. I mean any effort to correct, exhort, or call to repent any Christian or group of Christians. However, because of the critics focusing on the use of signs, many of these criticisms will also focus on these specific methods. If you are not very aware of the Church Repent Project, you can see examples here and here.

THE GUILT OF THE CHURCH

In Church Repent is Church Love, I discussed the idea that ethically justified calls to repentance are loving. This was discussed in regards to calling the Church to repentance or even specific churches to repentance. In much the same way in which calls to repentance given to, let’s say, Mormons are justifiable and loving, calls to repent given to an apathetic church are likewise justifiable. At the foundation of any ethical call to repent addressed to believers (or anyone really) is the question of whether or not the Church as a whole, specific assemblies, or individuals are truly guilty. Is the call to repent ethically and judicially justifiable? This question has a great deal to do with what you believe the mission of the Church is. Is it to weekly preach on Penal Substitutionary Atonement to your local congregation, or is it the Great Commission? Does the mission of the Church have anything at all to do with the weightier matters of the law? These are questions that deserve a good answer, and they have at least been partially answered in short by myself in Pragmatism and Pietism and this indispensable lecture from Matt Trewhella.

To exhaustively prove the guilt of the Church is beyond the scope of this article, but it is not difficult to make a case for the guilt of the Church. In addition to the expected texts from the New Testament (Matt 23:23; James 1:27; Matt 25:40), our own traditions are testament to the Church’s failure.

An excerpt from answer 145 of the Westminster Larger Catechism on bearing false witness shows that the positive duty of Christians extends beyond simply not telling lies.

“concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others”

The Westminster Divines saw “undue silence in a just cause” as sin. Not only caring about our own personal sins, but also speaking out for just causes is a duty of the individual Christian. This means that Christians do not only have a negative command to not give false witness, but they also have a positive command to speak on behalf of a just cause. Although I’m afraid that some may make the argument that seeking justice and mercy for the millions of unborn slaughtered is not a “just cause” intended for the Church, or that their silence is not “undue,” the depth of that folly is far beyond the scope of this paper. I have to start somewhere, so I will unashamedly start by stating  that seeking an end to mass murder is a just cause intended for the Church. Call me crazy.

One commenter suggested that “undue silence in a just cause” is solely in reference to a sort of court environment when charges of sin have been leveled. This is due to the prooftext that the Westminster divines included. Leviticus 5:1 states,

“If anyone sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify, and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity”

I reject the idea that “undue silence in a just cause” is solely about public charges of sin only in a trial context. Proof texts in the Westminster Standards are not representative of the exhaustive meaning the confessional/catechism text in question, rather, they are an example of the meaning of the text from Scripture. Just because Leviticus 5:1 has a trial context does not mean that those are the only examples of a just cause and undue silence in regards to that just cause. Most have seen evidence of this mass murder (abortion), we certainly know about it, we are calling for testimony, and our cause is just.

Another indicator of our obligation is “Thou shalt not kill.” “Thou shalt not kill” is the summary, heart, and surface of the Sixth Commandment. As nearly every Reformer, notable theologian, and orthodox commentator has noted, the negative command “thou shalt not kill” is paired with a positive commandment to seek out justice for those oppressed and to interpose on behalf of those being murdered and trampled upon. Do not think that merely not getting an abortion or not paying for an abortion is the duty of the Christian. We know that the heart of the Sixth Commandment, as made clear by God’s Law and further clarified by our Lord (Matt 5:21-22), is not hating your brother, and inversely, loving your brother. And how are we to love our brother? Take care to understand the difference between a breaking of the negative law of God and breaking the positive law of God. One is not guilty of murder if he does not actively seek justice in the same way as a brigand who murders a man on a road. The just punishment for murder (death) does not apply to a man who is apathetic towards the plight of others or to the man who hates his brother. However, it is still true that both are examples of murdering others in your heart.

The duty of all men before God is broader than merely watching out for themselves. While writing on the Sixth Commandment in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin states,

“To be clear of the crime of murder, it is not enough to refrain from shedding man’s blood. If in act you perpetrate, if in endeavour you plot, if in wish and design you conceive what is adverse to another’s safety, you have the guilt of murder. On the other hand, if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law. But if the safety of the body is so carefully provided for, we may hence infer how much care and exertion is due to the safety of the soul, which is of immeasurably higher value in the sight of God.”

Not only does John Calvin equate apathy and inaction in regards to murder with murder, he then connects the lack of care for the body to a lack of care for the soul. Unlike many modern Reformed pastors and celebrities, Calvin does not pit the body against the soul. Yes, he rightly accounts the soul as having great value, but he connects the care for body to how we care for the soul. In other words, if you don’t care for the body, how are we to care for the soul? Those who pit the body against the soul as opposed to seeing its natural union are thinking dualistically and irrationally. The missionary Amy Carmichael puts it this way:

“One can’t save and then pitchfork souls into heaven…Souls are more or less securely fastened to bodies… And as you can’t get the souls out and deal with them separately, you have to take them both together.”

Calvin, like those who followed after him, saw a positive and negative aspect to the Law. We are not to transgress the plain Law, but we also have duties. To hate your brother is to murder him in your heart. Likewise, to know that your brother is being murdered and to do nothing is to murder your brother in your heart. To speak directly on Calvin’s qualifiers, are we to say that the vast majority of American Christians have no means and opportunity to speak out against injustice? With our wealth of resources, wealth of disposable time, and the proximity of the horror, I am confident that we, with the rare exception, have a great deal of opportunity and many different means to seek justice and expose evil. Simply by knowing and understanding the positive aspects of the Law of God, we can firmly establish a duty given to the church for the establishment of justice. Given that we have this duty, has the Church largely failed in this duty?

Fifty-four million image bearers of God have been butchered since 1973. We know where they are being murdered and we know who is murdering them, and the vast majority of action in regards to this is giving financially to a CPC (if meaningful at all, it is a purely defensive and pessimistic effort) or preaching a yearly sermon. Many orthodox congregations do not even do that much. My anecdotal experience is that in a large college town with at least six reformed congregations within twenty minutes of the local abortion clinic, it is only a few members of my rag-tag house church that proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to those going in to shed innocent blood. I know it is the same in many locations. There are certainly examples of faithful fellowships, and although it is legitimate to further exhort the best (as I believe that we all have the tendency to grow complacent), the whole of Christianity, certainly including Reformed Christianity, is either fully absent from this fight or only giving lip service to the mass murder surrounding them. The sheer amount of Reformed congregations compared to the amount of direct public action speaks for itself. And that’s just the Reformed. Some may appeal to their yearly “sanctity of life” sermon, but can any honest Christian admit that a yearly sermon is an adequate response to the reality of what is happening in our towns and cities? A sobering question to ask yourself is this: If abortion were fully abolished in your state or in your nation tomorrow, would your life change at all? Essentially, does your Christian life look the same while you’re living in a holocaust and while you’re not?

THE BURDEN OF PROOF

If the critics’ contention is with a specific means of communicating the ideas, as opposed to the ideas, it should be made clear that the onus is on the critics to show from Scripture why that tactic is unlawful. If holding signs outside of a church building is unlawful, it is clearly up to the critic to show how the use of coroplast or cardboard is unlawful. The burden of proof rests squarely on the shoulders of the critic.

Some have made the rather thoughtless claim that abolitionists must find a Biblical prescription for the use of signs. Keep in mind they make this claim on the internet. Instead of requiring a specific prescription, the critics should be searching for a prohibition. Of course I’m not demanding a text that says “thou shalt not hold signs in front of New Testament church buildings,” but I am asking for some sort of scriptural support for the prohibition of the usage of signs. Some sort of principle perhaps. I am at a loss.

I’ll make it easier. Lots of people like Confessions, right? I really like The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession of Faith. Is there anything within these documents that seems to indicate one must not exhort specific local assemblies? Anything at all?

THE PERFECTION OF THE CHURCH

When the guilt of the Church has been announced, some have responded with the interesting claim that one can not and must not speak ill of the “perfect” Bride of Christ. The argument is that the Church is “as white as snow” and therefore cannot be called to repent. The Church cannot be guilty because the Church has been made clean by the blood of Christ. This is certainly true, in a way, but the problem (and it is a serious one) is that these critics are conflating justification with sanctification. When an abolitionist calls on the Bride of Christ to repent, he is not saying that Jesus has not made a propitiation for the sins of His elect. Of course the wheat and the tares grow together and assemblies, even the best of them, can be a mixture of both elect and those who will fall away. When abolitionists call on the Church to repent of apathy or anything else, it is a repentance unto sanctification, not justification. THE Church is already justified and in the eyes of God is white as snow. However, that does not mean that even the elect within the walls of an assembly’s building are sinless and perfected.

This criticism fails in two ways. First, all human institutions are subject to the very real possibility of false converts. In this way, some members of even the best evangelical churches are not “white as snow” in regards to justification or sanctification. Second, unless the critic is a proponent of Sinless Perfectionism, their justification in Christ does not make the elect sinless. In other words, justification is not equal to perfect sanctification.

All orthodox believers should reject this peculiar sort of Corporate Sinless Perfectionism. It is weird and just bad.

USURPING THE AUTHORITY OF ELDERS

One argument used is that a man with a sign and literature outside of a church building usurps the authority of local church elders. The contention is that the abolitionist has not received formal permission to hand out literature and speak to the congregants. This, however, is a misapplication of the legitimate powers of church elders. It is also an inconsistent one. Not only is this a ridiculous and tyrannical view of church eldership, it is also clearly inconsistent. Do you have a conference call with all the elders before you order a book on Amazon or download a podcast? Or how about before you log onto Facebook? After all, if the elders have the care of your soul, then they must make sure you never ever read or listen to anything without first getting their approval. This may not be the stated argument, but it is the undeniable implication and consistent position of those who think that an ornery outsider is a threat to their Ecclesiological power. However, the theological implications of this principle, the right of the local church elder to restrict and essentially screen all information being offered to individual congregants, are alarming. A consistent application of this principle would necessitate approved reading lists, cultural isolation, and nothing short of a fascistic control of all media and literature consumption.

The theological excuse for this particular objection is the admonition to elders to rebuke and silence false teachers. The argument states that it is the job of the elder to executively restrict any false teaching. This includes, of course, the harsh condemnation of those who share information outside of their buildings without approval. It is very important to note that, to many, the actual CONTENT of the material and the words being said to the congregants is deemed as irrelevant. Even if the content is fully accurate, the authority of the elders to sanction this content is assumed.

If this is the theological presupposition of this objection to the CRP (Church Repent Project), then the objection is valid and the CRP is clearly sinful at the very moment as any local elder objects. This theological presupposition, alarmingly, also destroys your ability to object to any elder except in the most rare and extreme cases. Because the authority of the elder extends to restricting information regardless of the content, the authority lies fully in the subjective opinions of a few men. However, we know that there is an objective standard. There is no neutrality. If the authority of elders extends to protecting sin and hiding truth, then who is going to determine WHAT falsehoods? You? Me? This objection to the CRP does not protect true Biblical authority of elders, but rather it sets up a system of ecclesiological autonomy wherein the authority of eldership lies within an earthly office rather than in the Law of God.

Scripture does not grant unlimited authority to offices and office holders. The authority of elders is regulated, just like the authority of parents and civil magistrates. Surely God would not prescribe regulations on familial authority and civil authority, but unlimited authority to ecclesiological authority. The limitations on ecclesiological authority is bound up in truth. The question is not “what office does this man hold?”, but rather “is this man proclaiming the truth of Scripture?” This does NOT mean that the righteous elder has no authority. He certainly does. But the authority is only legitimate insofar as he is properly wielding that delegated authority. Simply put, all authority in all realms comes from and is regulated by God.

This objection is rooted in the twisting of the Biblical doctrine of authority. Authority of elders has been twisted into an unlimited power only limited to a prohibition on commands to sin. All commands made by the elder must be obeyed until the command is to sin. This leaves nearly all acts of the elder ethically legitimate, including what most would call the detailed regulating of the family. If the elder demands that all families attend a Tuesday night study, then all families better make time, or else they are usurping the authority of the elders, and according to these elders, usurping the authority of Christ. Of course many elders may not be this ridiculous, but it is the idea behind their supposed authority that does grant them this power. We should be clear that biblical ecclesiological authority is from God and relegated to judicial authority, as opposed to executive authority. Meaning that the elder may use his authority to censure sin, not restrain non-sins. His power is “judicial” in that it is limited to arbitrating disputes, correcting heresy, and facilitating church discipline. Not “executive” in that congregants must first obtain permission to do things well within their Christian liberty. Furthermore, their power is not “executive” in that all information must first flow through their hands.

To help crystalize this idea, David Chilton used a helpful metaphor. The US Government is constitutionally allowed to print currency and it certainly has done that. That, constitutionally, is a legitimate use of authority. However, the US Government took that constitutional power and set up a number of highly tyrannical regulatory agencies, boards, and laws that, in detail, regulate the entirety of the economy and the money supply. That would not be a legitimate use of authority. The Constitution gave an inch, and Federal Government took a mile. Church governance has worked the same way. The vested legitimate authority God has given His elders has been used as an excuse to delegate to themselves all powers not specifically prohibited, as opposed to limiting themselves to powers specifically prescribed. In this way Biblical authority is bounded up in God’s Law. It is not rooted in office and the opinions of man. It is rooted in judicial/ethical substance, which is not based on who the person is, but based on the objective Law of God. Authority is not subjective, and vesting authority in an office is necessarily the baptizing of subjectivity. Authority is not based in office, age, seminary degree, or ordination. All Ecclesiological authority, much like civil authority, is delegated authority given by God for certain purposes. It is good for Ecclesiological bodies to recognize a God ordained elder as an elder and set him apart for that task. But it is God who makes an elder an elder. And being that it is God and not man behind any and all authority, that authority is directly and irrevocably tied to those men carrying out their duty according to God’s Law. If they do not do so, all they have is an office placard and a special place in the church bulletin. Maybe even a special parking place in front of their building. If authority is based in the office, then the CRP critics would be fully correct and we should all cease any disobedience against office holders of whatever church. But it is not. As most things go, we have theonomy or we have autonomy.

To be clear, this does not mean that any and all messages should be embraced. It is good and right for elders to rebuke false teachers. If the message is false, then the office holder should be commended for rebuking the messenger. If the message is true, then the office holder should be disregarded. In any case, a messenger should never be condemned simply because he has a message that is not pre-approved. Some may argue that this idea leaves too much liberty in the hands of individual Christians. This is the same “problem” of the Reformation. The minority stand against the men with the seemingly proper authority. The personal responsibility to examine Scripture, be a Berean, and discern truth from error are all messy “problems” that came with the Reformation. Sometimes those who rebuke are in sin for doing so. Sometimes they are not. Examine the content according to wisdom and Scriptures. Every time someone says that you should submit to elders, the question “which elders?” should also be asked. Within Biblical Christianity, there is ultimately personal responsibility, even when one is under the authority of a Biblical elder. So much could be said on the essence of Biblical authority and I have already said too much for the purposes of this article. Suffice it to say that elders do have a right to use persuasion in their position to rebuke false teaching. But what is a false teaching is not left up to the elder to decide. The “right” to screen material being given out to their congregants is plainly a made up right.

GEOGRAPHICAL SPECIAL PLEADING

Many CRP critics do not have any problem with exhorting or correcting other Christians. They do not think the abolitionist on the street corner is in sin if he calls on the Church to act like the Church. They do not believe that one must speak to a Christian’s elder first before you exhort him to good works. They do not believe that an abolitionist on Facebook must fill out a permission slip before engaging with another Christian. They also believe that various podcasters, bloggers, pastors, and authors are not in sin for calling on other Christians to repent. These critics are simply NOT truly opposed to exhorting and calling the Church to repent, or even specific churches, to repent. What they are opposed to is doing any of the aforementioned things outside or near a local church building. But why? Is the building holy? Are there special rules on a Sunday? The only difference is the proximity to a special building.

Some interesting reasoning for this peculiarly magical criticism is that the geographical proximity to preaching means that distribution of alternative material is an “affront” or “assault” on that pulpit. Almost as if the material is competing against the pastor. Another nuance on the same argument is that because it is Sunday, and because there is, will be, or has been preaching, the material has become (by virtue of geographical proximity) LIKE preaching from the pulpit. Therefore, because the abolitionists aren’t ordained by the specific denomination and invited to preach to this specific congregation, they are effectively “stealing” the pulpit from its rightful controllers. I wish I was joking. I’m not sure how I can deconstruct this particular argument. It is similar to being asked to prove why gnomes aren’t real. Simply by spelling the argument out in plain language is most likely an adequate rebuttal to this nonsense, but I’ll add just a bit more.

There is no scriptural support for this sort of behavior being connected to the earthly locations of Christians fellowshipping together. The idea that the property of the building they happen to be meeting in and any adjacent properties is somehow made sacrosanct and “untouchable” is not an idea found in Scripture. This thinking most closely resembles how the Holy of Holies was set aside and specially sacred, however, the New Testament fellowships of Saints is not the new temple. Christ is our temple. Even if, and I’m most certainly not conceding this point, we pretend that the location of the gathering of the saints is Holy Land, a scripturally justified rebuke, correction, or exhortation would certainly be lawful on that Holy Land. Holiness of the land or not.

Furthermore, there is no spiritual force field around Protestant pulpits that somehow “protects” the pulpits from differing ideas or, possibly, different sermons or exhortations. Again, this is an idea fully foreign to the text of Scripture. Not only that, it is a particularly mystical and almost Romish idea.

Abolitionists have gone to conservative congregations because that is where one can find conservative Christians, and that is exactly the demographic that abolitionists are attempting to reach.


Read PART TWO here.

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