Cultivating a Holy Brotherhood
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert tops Crown and Covenant Publication’s best-seller list this year. This story of Dr. Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion to Christ and journey into the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) has captivated many. Dr. Michael LeFebvre edited and is the primary author of the church’s second best-seller of the year, The Gospel and Sexual Orientation. God is blessing the RPCNA, and many others beyond it, profoundly through these two saints. Their journeys into the RPCNA have a fascinating common element that might make some people a little uncomfortable. Their exposure to the denomination in the 1990s came through two pastors who were warmly engaged with other Christian groups. These same para-church ministries were being criticized in the church at the time. Though I was in high school and college at the time, I shared some of the criticisms. How should we evaluate this history? Ministry is messy, and this essay may be too, but we need to think about what God has done.
Pastor Ken Smith took a number of men from the Syracuse RPC to a Promise Keepers event. He testifies in a podcast here that one of those men brought him Rosaria’s critical editorial of this ministry and insisted that a response was needed. If Ken had not engaged his men in Promise Keepers, we would not have the story we have today. It’s important to remember that Ken didn’t go to Promise Keepers looking to minister to Rosaria. He went to learn and to labor with other Christians. Rosaria, then a radical feminist, testifies how Ken went far outside the comfort zone of many RPs to reach her – which was essential to her being willing to listen and engage. The “RP comfort zone” for some people would exclude Promise Keepers. Ken went there, and so Rosaria’s story began. For the RPCNA, humanly speaking, no Promise Keepers involvement, no Rosaria Butterfield.
Dr. Roy Blackwood ministered with Bill Gothard and served on the board of directors of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) for many years. Roy encouraged many saints to profit from this ministry. A young man with a sharp mind, Michael LeFebvre, then served as a close associate of Bill Gothard. Roy met and worked with Michael in that ministry, modeling ministry for him, answering many questions biblically, and casting a great vision for the kingdom of God. These all drew Michael into the RPCNA, and we are all profiting from his ability to articulate deep truth clearly. Michael’s words on homosexuality are written with a kindness and compassion cultivated as he related to many people from different theological backgrounds on his journey. The same can be said of his work Singing the Songs of Jesus, which is helping a new audience understand psalmody. Michael was won by Roy Blackwood’s large-heartedness. One might say that large-heartedness was first expressed by Roy’s willingness to work with IBLP and Christians coming from significantly different theological backgrounds. Again, humanly speaking, no IBLP involvement, no Michael LeFebvre.
Personally, I see hermeneutical and practical problems in Promise Keepers and IBLP. Both ministries have waned significantly today, probably due in part to these weaknesses. How much would I have been willing to labor together with them as a pastor in the 1990s, given the theological problems? Other questions often asked include, “from whence do these teachers derive their authority?” and “what biblical accountability do they have?”
Many reformed people, including RPs, were throwing stones at the orchards of Promise Keepers and IBLP. Ken Smith and Roy Blackwood stepped into those orchards to help harvest the fruit, and now we’re all eating the pie. And we’re not just eating it; we’re raving over it! Even Carl Trueman raves over Rosaria and Michael’s works in print here and here and by podcast here.
How should we evaluate what happened? What should it mean for us today? One perspective would be to note that warm involvement with para-church groups obviously produced this fruit, and we ought to work with them without fear. But, I know people who were encouraged to be involved with Promise Keepers or IBLP and now testify that their thinking became confused regarding doctrine or practice, or worse still, had their lives damaged as a result. These are real people, and they have real pain and regret. They’ve had to go through a detox period in subsequent years and can find themselves frustrated with leaders who led them into such ministries. At the same time, other reformed people participated with these same groups and were blessed and grew. A host of others grew into reformed theology as a result of relationships forged in these ministries. Still, there were real casualties, and we must learn from that history.
Another view would attribute Rosaria and Michael’s paths to the providence of God but warn that those circumstances do not condone joining with imperfect para-church groups. Of course, they are all imperfect. It’s reasonably easy to draw tight lines. We in the reformed world like to keep it safe. If we do not lead people into messy situations, there are no visible casualties. In reality, there are many casualties of caution, though they are hard to identify and evaluate. The church should create opportunities for all kinds of ministry, but sadly, it often does not. People become disillusioned with the church when they see timidity in the name of purity when leaders refuse to lead them into ministry that will always be messy. The church will never retreat to perfection. Augustine understood that as he engaged with the Donatists of his day who sought the purity of the church through separation. The Donatists did not endure, and we should learn from that history, too.
The best answer is somewhere in between unthinking involvement and isolation. That’s easy to say; it’s far harder to put into practice. Practicing the answer is part of the great Reformed Presbyterian tradition. William Symington, a nineteenth century RP pastor in Scotland, laid out the doctrine of the kingship of Christ in his book Messiah the Prince. Not surprisingly, he was an aggressive advocate of ecumenical activity. Dr. Blackwood’s doctoral thesis was on Symington, and Roy sought to pattern his ministry after that of Symington in many ways.
Ken Smith is fond to note that the RPCNA Covenant of 1871 states: “We will pray and labor for the visible oneness of the Church of God in our own land and throughout the world, on the basis of truth and of Scriptural order. Considering it a principal duty of our profession to cultivate a holy brotherhood, we will strive to maintain Christian friendship with pious men of every name, and to feel and act as one with all in every land who pursue this grand end.” Reformed Presbyterian Churches have put that into practice by working with many para-church ministries over the years, including Reformation Translation Fellowship, the National Reform Association, Westminster Theological Seminary, The Navigators, Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and many, many others.
We need to think about how to minster with others on the basis of truth and Scriptural order. I fear that many of us would never have met Michael or Rosaria, because we would have never ministered with others the way Ken and Roy did. Para-church ministries attract leaders and followers because para-church groups engage the world meaningfully. Michael saw something in IBLP worth supporting as a young man, and Rosaria found something threatening and worth critiquing in Promise Keepers. These ministries almost always arise to meet a need the church is not stepping forward to meet. Local congregations and small denominations lack the resources to meet all the needs before us. Will we find a way to minster with and to those who are engaged in the battle at these points?
It strikes me that Dr. Roy Blackwood and Pastor Ken Smith have this in common: they believe that God will powerfully change people. They believe that Jesus will build his church as he has promised (Matthew 16:18), and they expect it to happen daily. They believe that the word of God is powerful, and they regularly use it winsomely with those who are not ideologically similar (Hebrews 4:12). Some have a theology strong enough to criticize problem-laden para-church ministries; Ken and Roy have a theology strong enough to labor with problem-laden para-church ministries while providing critique. That’s not to say they have done it perfectly, by any means. However, believing that King Jesus is going to triumph in hearts of flesh and blood people and through his church frees them to minister with confidence. Somehow, the rest of us need to embody a theology strong enough to kindly critique and discerningly labor with other Christians. Leaders must discern the way forward not only for themselves, but also for those under their charge. That requires the love of the Father, the wisdom of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit.
I don’t have many of the answers going forward. But as vineyard workers, we cannot celebrate the fruit God has brought and overlook the baskets in which it has come if we want to learn how to minister more effectively. Let’s not miss the opportunities for ministry the Lord places before us. May the Lord give us grace and wisdom to practically minister with a robust commitment to the purity and progress of the kingdom of Christ!