Greenville Seminary ready to recommend closing churches to beat on pots and pans

The first response of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to the Corona virus on Apr 3, 2020 (later they posted several others, some much better) shows just how weak the modern church has become: indeed, the shuttering of the churches can well be modeled as us being hoist on our own petard in allowing such leaders.

Rev. Willborn makes a number of mistakes on the book of church order and the sacraments, to the point of amazement. But lest this discussion become tedious, I am going to limit my remarks for now to the viral part of his essay.

He constantly refers to submitting to the magistrate who is acting out of love. (Actually he doesn’t even refer to authorities correctly most of the time, as we will see.) This manner of speaking is ambiguous. He does not know if the magistrate is acting out of love. Moreover, there is a difference between being motivated by love, and acting in a way that is objectively loving, in the sense of actually being beneficial. Consider, to illustrate, that the magistrate said we should go out on our front stoops from 10 to 12 each Sunday morning and beat on pots and pans to scare the virus away.  Such advice could be motivated by love. But would Rev. Willborn still advocate shuttering the churches so that we could submit to the magistrate and beat on pots and pans during the time that church would normally meet? There is no indication that Rev. Willborn would oppose this, since beating on pots and pans does not necessarily violate a law of God. But if he would oppose a magisterial decision that reached this level of absurdity, then he needs to realize that it behooves church officers to make at least some level of independent examination of means and evidence, and not simply bah like sheep at each power grab made by magistrates.

The reader is invited to first scan his piece without prejudice, here. In my remarks that follow, Willborn’s text is indented.

We live in most unusual days. Presently our civil leaders, to whom we are to submit unless they command us to disobey God,

1. Why does Rev. Willborn use the word “leader”? The guy that organizes your neighborhood block party is a leader, but we need not submit to him. Leader has too vague of a connotation in English. We only need to submit civilly to one holding relevant and lawful authority. This is not a quibble. We need to be precise in our key terminology so as not to set up wiggle room for making mistakes later.

2. Rev. Willborn, will you remember this principle when your colleagues celebrate the civil disobedience of those opposing segregation, and will you rebuke them for celebrating resistance to something that was not disobeying God? For it is not disobeying God to drink from a designated water fountain.

3. Is it the case that we must submit to every civil authority, the only exception being if they command us to disobey God?

i. any notion of jurisdiction? Your local dog-catcher can impose a tax on you?

ii. any notion of constitutional limits? Can he take your wood, even though article 31 of the Magna Carta clearly states, “Neither we [the king] nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.” Or are all such constitutional limits governed by the Willborn-Caveat, an implicit “unless we decide otherwise” on the part of the magistrate?

iii. Apart from the constitional question, can the civil authority break the law of God, provided that what he does is not forcing you to disobey God? That is, he can steal all your goods on a whim? You must not resist?

have given us clear directives on how to promote the public health of ourselves and neighbors.

Allegedly how to promote, Rev. Willborn, allegedly how. Beating on pots and pans does not in fact promote public health, except perhaps inadvertently by virtue of getting a little exercise.

[there follows a windy digression on the 4th commandment, love and law, which are not quite accurate or relevant… but we need to focus.]

Concerning the “love of neighbor,” let us be reminded that both the Old Testament and New Testament speak to an aspect of Sabbath keeping that relates to keeping the day in the proper way. Particularly, I am speaking of deeds of necessity and mercy (Isa 58:13, 14; Luke 4:16; 14:5; Matt 12:1-13; Mark 2:23-3:5; Westminster Confession of Faith 21:8).  In our present national situation set before us in God’s most wise providence, it is both necessary and merciful for us to observe the civil magistrates’ call to think more highly of others than self (Phil 2:3).

But the civil magistrate has not called us to think more highly of others than self. This is just Willborn’s unjustified commentary on the civil magistrates’ diktats. Moreover, is it within the magistrate’s purview to command people to think more highly of others than self? Has Willborn taken theonomy to an unheard-of height, thinking the magistrate should legislate the spiritual commands? How about the fruits of the Spirit while he is at it?

It is necessary to love our neighbors by protecting them, and it is an act of mercy to avoid the contraction and spread of the virus

Substitute any flu for the word virus. Then it is not merely an act of mercy, but justice as well, that you cover you mouth when sneezing, avoid others when infected, wash your hands, and in short do everything your mother taught you to do.

Some of us, based on studying the actual numbers along with comparison to what is known and not known, believe this Coronavirus is in fact just another flu, not even more virulent than the average. So, if the magistrate would shut down church services to slow the spread of the same flus we have had for 100 years, would Willborn allow for that as well? If not, why not, based on his principles?

by following the wisdom of our civil leaders.

1. There he goes with “leaders” again — why doesn’t Willborn act like a leader and resist this nonsense if anyone can be a leader?

2. Willborn does not know that the diktats of our civil authorities are wisdom. There is every reason, based on the words, both internal and external, to see that they are not wisdom. (i) For example, the reason given for the six foot rule is because that’s how far sneeze particles travel. But wearing a mask would block the particles even more effectively. So why not say, everyone must keep six feet distance, unless wearing a mask? (ii) Speaking of masks, first they told us not to wear masks, now they tell us we should. Has “science” made some new discovery in the last two weeks? Or are they in disarray? Where is the wisdom? (iii) There is no landing plan. The virus is not going away just because everyone locks down. It is not wise to engage in a course of action that has no way to finish. (iv) If saving every life is the law of love and mercy, then again, why not take the same measures to eliminate deaths from ordinary flu — which still outstripped the deaths from Corona by more than a factor of three as of the date of Willborn’s screed? (v) The cure is clearly worse than the disease. Indeed, if they do not reverse these (foolish, not wise) measures soon, there could be mass starvation, during which people will not be thinking much about the virus. (vi) Why not have an absolute quarantine of that small subset of the population that is truly at risk, while allowing everyone else to build up herd immunity, just as happens with every cold and flu?

In short, Willborn is completely unwarranted in identifying the actions of our rulers as wisdom. There is ample reason to doubt that our rulers’ diktats are based on wisdom. It is not good to call foolishness wise.

He continues:

3. Now let me make a general observation about the importance of keeping the Lord’s Day, while at the very same time obeying those “kings” given us for our good (Rom 13:1-4; 1 Pet 2:13-17). The Westminster Confession of Faith gives us the biblical balance that is needed in times like these when it says that public assemblies of Christ’s church are not “carelessly or willfully to be neglected” (WCF 21.6). For Christ’s church indiscriminately to meet in days of widespread sickness, a sickness that is highly communicable, would be careless.

The sickness is neither widespread, nor highly communicable. There is no data supporting either of these assertions.

Why the qualification to meet “indiscriminately”? Why not just say it would be careless “to meet,” since that is what Willborn’s advice actually amounts to? He frequently uses qualifications that give a little bit of surface plausibility to his assertions, yet are unjustified in terms of his own principles.

While we desire to meet, we are lamenting the disease and the consequences it has brought upon us, especially a Psalm 42 absence from public worship. With the Psalmist, we long for a return with the throng to His worship. Therefore, we are not carelessly and willfully neglecting the worship, therefore, we are not disobeying God in following the wisdom of the civil leaders and medical community.

Now the “wisdom” has been extended from “leaders” — there he goes again — to the whole medical community. But do we have access to the latter? Hardly. Dr. Fauci is a career bureaucrat and proven fraud, having been through an almost identical panic-mongering in connection with AIDS some 30+ years ago. The girl-doctor standing next to him has made enough howler statements for us to realize she is also two freckles short of a cat’s whisker. (My favorite: “it is peaking on a log scale.”)

We need to realize that most doctors never learned much more about transmission models or probability theory than any other college graduate, and far less than many non-medical graduates. I have no doubt that the most learned amongst them know how to navigate through the complexities, but this is a small minority. And how do we find them? Are politicians able to make this selection? I would trust a local vote from all the AMA members of each town on who to trust, rather than these vetted and politicized bureaucrats with medical degrees.

Another thing that should make us very suspicious is that those professionals that have demurred from the media and Willborn’s position — and there are many — are shouted off the stage or ignored, and not rebutted. Just by the rules of debate, this should make us nervous.

Keeping the context of the fourth commandment in mind—it is for our good, not our harm and it must be out of love and concern for our neighbor’s welfare—will help us think through the appropriateness of our Governor’s “love your neighbor” Ordinances and how we approach ALL corporate gatherings, including church services.

Despite all the flowery and frankly manipulative language, Willborn does not know that the Governor’s diktat is motivated by love of neighbor. I suppose it is charitable of him to think this, but it is not reasonable or warranted. And there is no threading of any relevant distinctions in his advice. He should drop all the ambiguous qualifications, and just state his principle in bold form, something like this:

It is our Christian duty to obey the magistrates, even to the point of shutting down the churches, and regardless if their commands are reasonable, or constitutional, or well-motivated; we must do so even if the commands are out of jurisdiction, or based on a power-grab, or a transfer of all the wealth of the nation to the hands of international bankers, or for whatever reason the magistrate might be motivated by, which it is not ours to ask about anyhow. (Harris’ paraphrase of Willborn)

That is Willborn’s principle, when you analyze what he has said. So just say it, Rev. Willborn.

… [Something about China and Rome]

You are in essence joining those of us who can meet without violating the Civil Magistrate’s Ordinance 17, so that we can love our neighbors, but also provide us all something of a platform to worship our God in our homes, without forgetting the Day and the corporate body of Christ.

All we need is : love… dah, dadadada.  (HT: Beatles)

Now, let me get to another aspect of this whole unique epoch in which we find ourselves. Just as some Christians may wrongly feel like they are disobeying God (and the fourth commandment specifically) by obeying the Governor and loving their neighbor,

Please stop Willborn. Substitute “obeying the Governor and hating their neighbor” because your knowledge cannot distinguish these two.

so some may feel guilty for not receiving the weekly or monthly (in our case) administration of the Lord’s Supper.

… [There follows some remarks on why not to take private communion.]

In conclusion, let us not “legalize” the Sabbath Day. Let us not “beat ourselves up” because we are keeping the Governor’s ordinance and the law of Christ to love our neighbors by promoting and preserving their health.

Stop it Dr. Willborn. This mindless incantation of love, without evidence or plausibility, is moving from the manipulative to downright prevarication.

… [There follows some remarks on the Lord’s Supper and its alleged unknowable frequency, and lack of necessity anyhow.]

Worthy of another essay.

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.

Buchenwald Inmate #2491: Christian martyr

Paul Schneider was a German Reformed minister whose early ministry coincided with the ascendancy of the National Socialist movement in the 1930s. His critique of the folk’s movement in view of the Word of God as well as a series of stands for the independent rights of the church vis-à-vis the state led to continual conflicts with Party functionaries, and penalties of increasing severity. At length, the conflict culminated in consignment to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where his life ended. Continue reading

The Holy Catholic Church (HCC #1)

In many traditional discussions of the church, a host of definitional distinctions are brought out right away: the church invisible vs. visible; triumphant vs. militant; representational vs. lay; and so forth. All of these distinctions have their place, and in their place are very important. Here, however, I propose to start with the primary lexical meaning of the Hebrew qahal or Greek ekklesia as “the called,” which, in the biblical context, connotes a people called out of the sinful mass of humanity to be the people of God, to worship him in truth, and be constituted as the corporate body identified with the living and true God. Continue reading

Essay. Eastern Orthodoxy, part 1

According to one estimate, the Eastern Orthodox Church in America has over six million members, making it the fourth largest religious body in the country. Historically, most Orthodox Americans have been immigrants from eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Russia, Ukraine). While this is still the case, the last twenty five years have witnessed a number of high-profile conversions to Orthodoxy. Surprisingly, many of these converts have come from evangelical roots.

Peter Gillquist and other former Campus Crusade for Christ staff members led a group of people into Orthodoxy during the 70’s and 80’s.1 Charles Bell led most of his Vineyard Christian Fellowship congregation into the Eastern church in 1993.2 Perhaps the most high-profile conversion was that of Franky Schaeffer, son of the late Francis Schaeffer, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1990.3 The trend East hit home in 1995 when a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination of Machen, Van Til, Murray and Bahnsen, demitted the ministry and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Even the thought of such apostasy would not have occurred twenty-five years ago. Continue reading