Do Small Group Bible Studies Help Us Understand the Bible?

Ages ago, while a young Christian in college, I attended quite a few Bible studies over the course of four years. Some were better than others.

The studies invariably fell into one of two categories. In the first type, one guy did a bunch of preparation; the rest of us, at most, read the passage and jotted down some thoughts or questions. There was always some discussion when we met, but the guy who’d prepared beforehand basically taught the rest of us. In the other type, the participants took turns leading, so that no one ever had to do much work. Usually, the leader would do some slapdash preparation on the day of the study; the rest of us, on a good day, would glance at the passage a few minutes before showing up. Since the leader had often only spent an hour or so preparing, he’d just lead a discussion with a bunch of guys who’d made little or no prior effort to interpret the text.

The one-leader studies were consistently more profitable than the “egalitarian” ones, which – though they were more participatory – tended to leave us with much less actual insight into the meaning of the Bible. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything in them, I just didn’t learn much. Mostly, we shared whatever popped into our heads on the spot.

A couple of years ago I heard a recording of a talk given by D. A. Carson on post-modernism in which he gave examples of ways in which post-modern thought has subtly invaded the Church. He made an interesting comment about how Bible studies have changed in the last fifty years.

When Carson was learning how to lead inductive Bible studies while a student at McGill University, he was taught that “the person leading the Bible study was supposed to prepare in advance and know what the text really did say, and do his or her homework in the commentaries, and then if some crazy interpretation was advanced from the floor…you would say, ‘where do you find that in the text?’….The whole idea was to get the discussion going and to find out what the text actually says….But nowadays, even in many evangelical churches, when [someone] comes up with some really stupid, right-off-the-wall interpretation, the chair is much more likely to say something like, ‘well, that’s a very interesting insight. Does anybody else have anything to say?’ Because, you see, the one thing that you’re not allowed to say anymore is that somebody’s wrong. But what that means is that Scripture gets domesticated – Scripture can no longer be the norming norm; you can’t correct anybody by Scripture.”

There does seem to be a weakening of the principle that Scripture has a single meaning and is self-interpreting. In a Bible study with a dozen participants, if two or three variant opinions on the meaning of a text arise, people rarely feel a need to keep struggling with the text until they’re down to a single interpretation. Even if there’s no agreement on the meaning by the end of the study, the group just moves on to the next chapter. But how can that be, when we believe that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of the Scriptures, and that there is only one meaning?

Unexamined postmodern assumptions explain some of this phenomenon, but I think that’s only part of the story. Recently I ran across an article that sheds further light on the variable quality of small group Bible studies. T. David Gordon, Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, has written an essay called, “The Hidden Assumptions of Small Group Bible Study.” One of Gordon’s professional interests is media ecology, a discipline that examines how different media influence culture. His argument is theological, but it draws on the insight that specific forms of communication have distinct qualities that shape the messages they convey.

In the article Gordon asks: what are the assumptions implicit in the typical small group Bible study (in America, at least), and how do these assumptions affect our study of the Bible? He notes that although not every small group study adopts these assumptions consciously, they are at least implied by the medium. In practice, if you carried out a study in a way that consciously denied the assumptions, to some extent you’d be working against the traditional small group concept.

He argues that the small group Bible study format makes five assumptions:

(1) participation is as important as precision, (2) every interpretation or insight has some value, (3) the Holy Spirit does not give differing abilities, (4) the Bible can be interpreted well without special aids. and (5) the Bible does not interpret itself. He expands on the difficulties inherent in each assumption.

Assumption #1: Participation is as important as precision

Gordon writes, “The very purpose of studying the Bible in small groups is to provide a non-judgmental context that encourages (or even requires) the participation of each individual…. In a small group, each individual is an involved participant. The standard prompt of the small group leader is, ‘What do you think about this verse?’”

One of the reasons small groups are “small” is that there must be sufficient time for each person to participate. If you don’t speak up, someone will prompt you for your opinion (if you don’t believe it, try sitting through one without speaking!). What each person thinks is what matters; the goal of most small groups is to promote participation and interaction. But to make this work, critical evaluation is often discouraged. Too many negative remarks, and someone might quit participating.

Assumption #2: Every interpretation or insight has some value

“The very dynamic of the small group, which encourages active participation by each member, suggests that there is some value in any comment that might potentially be made. This cultivates an uncritical acceptance of virtually anything that might be said. Insightful comments, erroneous comments, and inconsequential comments are treated by the group dynamic in the same way. Each is listened to politely, and with a polite minimum of critical eval­uation.”

Most small groups feel a need to say something positive about every insight. Even if someone says something totally wrong, it’s considered bad form to say so. Most groups will instead try to find something in the insight worthy of praise, and ignore the rest. The problem is, there are many wrong interpretations of a Bible text, but only one right one. If several are expressed, some of them must be wrong – but the small group environment discourages us from identifying and rejecting them.

Assumption #3: The Holy Spirit does not give differing abilities

Since participation is so important, in an ideal small group everyone takes part. If everyone is to share his or her opinion about, roughly equal time should given to every person. But what if some of the participants are relatively ignorant of the meaning of the text? They aren’t going to be able to add much to everyone else’s understanding, but full participation demands that they take a shot anyway.

In Gordon’s words, “As a medium, … the small group approach to Bible study does not easily accommo­date the expression of spiritual gifts that differ. Paul teaches that God gives different gifts to different individuals, and that among these is the gift of teaching. Further, Paul teaches that the health of the entire Church depends in part upon the proper exercise of such gifts [Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:1-16; 1 Corinthians 12]. At the very least, this must mean that some are better teachers than others, and that their ability to teach contributes best to the Church’s growth when given opportunity to express itself. The small group, encouraging a parity of participation, is not a place for gifted teachers to express those gifts.”

Moreover, we have the Holy Spirit’s counsel concerning teaching in James 3:1: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Requiring everyone to teach flies in the face of this warning about the responsibility taken on by those who seek to teach others.

I suspect that this assumption (and the one that follows) reflects the phenomenon described by historian Nathan Hatch as the “democratization” of American Christianity. For the last couple of hundred years, American Christians have tended to distort the Reformation principle “every man his own priest” into an assertion that since all Christians possess the Holy Spirit, giftedness must be an egalitarian phenomenon. All Christians are therefore presumed to be equally capable of interpreting and teaching the Bible. In some circles, training in theology is viewed with suspicion, as an impediment to Spirit-led understanding of the Scriptures. One sometimes even hears contemporary echoes of nineteenth-century populist Elias Smith’s contention that seminaries are merely “Religious Factories…established for explaining that which is plain, and for the purpose of making easy things hard.” [ 1 ]

Assumption #4: The Bible can be interpreted well without special aids

In studies like the egalitarian ones I attended in college, participants rarely consult commentaries or study the text carefully and prayerfully. As Gordon puts it, “Since the only resource that can be easily consulted in a small group study is the resource of other members, the very nature of the small group suggests that lexicographical, theological, and historical aids are not especially useful in understanding the Bible.” The approach implies that such study is unnecessary.

Part of this assumption reflects a misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity, the Reformation principle that the Scriptures are clear. Perspicuity does not mean that all parts of Scripture are equally clear, or that the Scriptures can be understood without effort. Rather, the main point of perspicuity is that the Gospel – the way of salvation, the principal teaching of Scripture – can be understood by the unlearned. All anyone needs in order to learn how to be saved is the Bible in a known language and the help of the Holy Spirit. Reformation theologians always acknowledged that some things in Scripture are more difficult to interpret correctly than others.

This concept is summarized in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 1, which states that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (italics are mine).” Peter the apostle noted that in Paul’s letters, there were “ some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16) Scripture itself teaches us that some parts of Scripture cannot be understood without diligent care and effort.

In contrast, the typical small-group study assumes that everything in the Scriptures is plain and can be interpreted accurately, in real-time.  In reality, of course, participants tend to draw insights from sermons they’ve heard, but the quality of these will still vary. If everyone has avoided the work needed to understand a difficult passage, the chances are slim that the group will arrive at a single, sound interpretation.

Assumption #5: The Bible does not interpret itself

As Gordon observes, “The Reformers taught that the Bible, being inspired by God, has a unity that reflects its divine origin. As a consequence, their most foundational interpretive principle was that the Bible ‘interprets itself,’ by which they meant that any given statement in the Bible is somewhat open-ended, and that the interpretive possibilities are reduced by comparing a particular pas­sage to other passages.”

Since Scripture interprets Scripture, sound interpretation involves familiarity with the whole Bible coupled with good judgments about which other texts are relevant. But in many small group Bible studies, no one has taken the time to search out and study those Scriptures. As Gordon points out, if no effort is made to discern relevant passages, the group “is forced to reduce Bible study to what a particular text might mean apart from what the rest of the Bible says. This assumes either that the Reformers were wrong, or that there is value in studying the Bible wrongly.”

The situation is different if your group is top-heavy with people who have a deep and extensive knowledge of the Bible. If several participants know the Bible well, there is a chance that relevant Scriptures will be brought to bear. But – since small groups usually seek full participation, irrelevant or tangentially-relevant passages will also be brought forward by others. The group may be forced to hurt the feelings of a participant whose insight misses the mark.


Although I don’t always agree with Professor Gordon, his observations on this topic are insightful. Many small group studies do assume that everyone should teach everyone else, and that all Scriptures can be interpreted without careful study. These assumptions fly in the face of what Evangelical and Reformed Christians believe – on paper, at least – about the principles of Scripture interpretation. The desire for the bonding that (hopefully) comes from participation in a small group sometimes overrules basic principles.

But, as I observed at the start, not all small-group studies embody these assumptions, so I disagree with Gordon on that point. Studies do exist in which participants are willing to be taught by gifted teachers of the Bible. I’ve seen them conducted in a way that gives freedom to ask questions and offer insights without validating every comment.

I still recall a study led one evening by my pastor several years ago. One of the regular participants invited a couple of Mormon missionaries, two teenage guys dressed in stereotypical tie-and-white-shirt outfits on a hot summer evening. At some point, one of them tried to inject a distinctively Mormon interpretation into the discussion. Our pastor kindly but firmly said, “No, that’s not what the passage means,” and proceeded to explain why. Assumption #2 wasn’t part of that study’s culture; we were happy to have a teacher who was competent to “exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

Often, we try to accomplish too much with small-group studies: we want them to promote intimacy, deepen our knowledge of the Scriptures, facilitate evangelism, and fix whatever else we think is broken. Perhaps, with thoughtful effort, these things can be accomplished by a small-group study – but not all of them simultaneously. Different goals may need different emphases and approaches. For example, a gathering where everyone is expected to contribute to interpreting the Bible will have trouble if there are non-Christians present who don’t know the Bible at all.

Moreover, surely there is an important role for one-on-one and other kinds of interactions in pursuing these goals. For example, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and privately helped him to understand the truth more accurately (Acts 18:26). They wisely decided that he could be helped more effectively in a setting that did not include others.

The small group study is only one tool for edification; it’s not the whole toolbox. Like any tool, it’s most effective when used appropriately. Bible study approaches which imply that the Holy Spirit conveys widely different meanings through the same text undermine the way we think about Scripture. Denying that some are gifted teachers of Scripture (and others are not) tempts us to treat ill-informed interpretations like sound ones.

To be sure, all Christians must learn to “be Berean” (Acts 17:10-11) in discerning whether the things they are taught are consistent with God’s Word. But being Berean requires effort. We must cultivate ready minds and a willingness to study the Scriptures – instead of assuming that the first thought that enters our minds when we read a text must be from the Holy Spirit.

Having a clear understanding of the goals of a small group study will influence the way we conduct them. As Gordon notes:

“The goal of Protestant biblical interpretation is truth; the goal of the small group biblical interpretation is participation. Those who participate in small group Bible study should be very aware of the limitations of such an activity. There will be many gains in the area of mutual encouragement and social development, but few gains in the area of apprehending properly the biblical revelation.”

Can a small group study improve one’s understanding of the Bible? Sometimes. When I recall the “ignorance-sharing” college Bible studies I took part in, I know I learned relatively little in them. They were not a waste of time, because several of the participants have been my friends for more than three decades. But I share T. David Gordon’s concern that the assumptions implicit in that approach do undermine some essential principles. As it happened, those studies weren’t my only means of learning the meaning of the Bible. But for many Christians, that type of study is the primary place where they study the text of Scripture.

It therefore seems to me that small-group Bible studies do the best job of helping Christians understand the meaning of the Bible when they are taught by those who are suitably gifted and diligent in their studies, to participants who are willing to be taught and willing to make the effort needed to compare Scripture with Scripture in a thoughtful, disciplined manner, in the spirit of the Bereans.

If any one of these elements is absent, we should not expect a small-group study to significantly improve our ability to understand the Bible.

1 Quoted in Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989), 174


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Charles Spurgeon on Christmas

Over the years I’ve seen various Reformed websites that purport to quote Charles Spurgeon’s views on Christmas. While Spurgeon’s repudiation of Christmas as an ecclesiatical holiday is oft-cited, his accompanying assertions that it is never wrong to reflect on the incarnation of Christ are almost always ignored. Whether such omissions are deliberate or not I cannot say, but such citations have the effect of distorting Spurgeon’s views on the topic.

I believe it is worthwhile, and more accurate, to consider his thoughts in context. What follows are portions of five of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons, each preached around Christmas.

On December 23, 1855, Spurgeon preached on “The Incarnation and Birth of Christ” from Micah 5:2, beginning as follows:

This is the season of the year when, whether we wish it or not, we are compelled to think of the birth of Christ. I hold it to be one of the greatest absurdities under Heaven to think that there is any religion in keeping Christmas day! There are no probabilities whatever that our Savior, Jesus Christ, was born on that day and the observance of it is purely of Popish origin. Doubtless those who are Catholics have a right to hallow it, but I do not see how consistent Protestants can account it in the least sacred! However, I wish there were ten or a dozen Christmas days in the year — for there is work enough in the world — and a little more rest would not hurt laboring people. Christmas is really a gift to us, particularly as it enables us to assemble round the family hearth and meet our friends once more. Still, although we do not fall exactly in the track of other people, I see no harm in thinking of the Incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus. We do not wish to be classed with those—

“Who with more care keep holiday
The wrong, than others the right way.”

The old Puritans made a parade of work on Christmas day, just to show that they protested against the observance of it. But we believe they entered that protest so completely, that we are willing, as their descendants, to take the good accidentally conferred by the day and leave its superstitions to the superstitious!

Spurgeon preached a message entitled, “Mary’s Song,” based on Luke 1:46-47 December 25, 1864.

Observe, this morning, the sacred joy of Mary that you may imitate it. This is a season when all men expect us to be joyous. We compliment each other with the desire that we may have a “Merry Christmas.” Some Christians who are a little squeamish, do not like the word “merry.” It is a right good old Saxon word, having the joy of childhood and the mirth of manhood in it, it brings before one’s mind the old song of the waits, and the midnight peal of bells, the holly and the blazing log.

I love it for its place in that most tender of all parables, where it is written, that, when the long-lost prodigal returned to his father safe and sound, “They began to be merry.” This is the season when we are expected to be happy; and my heart’s desire is, that in the highest and best sense, you who are believers may be “merry.”

Mary’s heart was merry within her; but here was the mark of her joy, it was all holy merriment, it was every drop of it sacred mirth. It was not such merriment as worldlings will revel in to-day and to-morrow, but such merriment as the angels have around the throne, where they sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” while we sing “On earth peace, goodwill towards men.” Such merry hearts have a continual feast.

I want you, ye children of the bride-chamber, to possess to-day and to-morrow, yea, all your days, the high and consecrated bliss of Mary, that you may not only read her words, but use them for yourselves, ever experiencing their meaning: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

On Sunday morning, December 24, 1871, he began a sermon entitled, “Joy Born at Bethlehem,” on Luke 2:10-12:

We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred. Fabricius gives a catalogue of 136 different learned opinions upon the matter; and various divines invent weighty arguments for advocating a date in every month in the year.

It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the church celebrated the nativity of our Lord; and it was not till very long after the Western church had set the example, that the Eastern adopted it. Because the day is not known, therefore superstition has fixed it; while, since the day of the death of our Saviour might be determined with much certainty, therefore superstition shifts the date of its observance every year. Where is the method in the madness of the superstitious? Probably the fact is that the holy days were arranged to fit in with heathen festivals. We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Saviour was born, it is the twenty-fifth of December.

Nevertheless, since the current of men’s thoughts is led this way just now, and I see no evil in the current itself, I shall launch the bark of our discourse upon that stream, and make use of the fact, which I shall neither justify nor condemn, by endeavoring to lead your thoughts in the same direction. Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day in the year, it cannot be in the power of other men’s superstitions to render such a meditation improper for to-day. Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give God thanks for the gift of his dear son.

In our text we have before us the sermon of the first evangelist under the gospel dispensation. The preacher was an angel, and it was meet it should be so, for the grandest and last of all evangels will be proclaimed by an angel when he shall sound the trumpet of the resurrection, and the children of the regeneration shall rise into the fullness of their joy. The key-note of this angelic gospel is joy—”I bring unto you good tidings of great joy.” Nature fears in the presence of God—the shepherds were sore afraid. The law itself served to deepen this natural feeling of dismay; seeing men were sinful, and the law came into the world to reveal sin, its tendency was to make men fear and tremble under any and every divine revelation. The Jews unanimously believed that if any man beheld supernatural appearances, he would be sure to die, so that what nature dictated, the law and the general beliefs of those under it also abetted. But the first word of the gospel ended all this, for the angelic evangelist said, “Fear not, behold I bring you good tidings.” Henceforth, it is to be no dreadful thing for man to approach his Maker; redeemed man is not to fear when God unveils the splendor of his majesty, since he appears no more a judge upon his throne of terror, but a Father unbending in sacred familiarity before his own beloved children.

On December 24, 1876, he preached “The Great Birthday,” from Luke 2:10:

There is no reason upon earth, beyond that of ecclesiastical custom, why the 25th of December should be regarded as the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ anymore than any other day from the first of January to the last day of the year. And yet some persons regard Christmas with far deeper reverence than the Lord’s-Day. You will often hear it asserted that, “The Bible and the Bible, alone, is the religion of Protestants,” but it is not so! There are Protestants who have absorbed a great deal beside the Bible into their religion and among other things they have accepted the authority of what they call, “the Church,” and by that door all sorts of superstitions have entered. There is no authority whatever, in the Word of God, for the keeping of Christmas at all! And there is certainly no reason for keeping it just now except that the most superstitious section of Christendom has made a rule that December 25th shall be observed as the birthday of the Lord and the Church, established by State Law in this land, has agreed to follow in the same track.

You are under no bondage, whatever, to regard the regulation. We owe no allegiance to the ecclesiastical powers which have made a decree on this matter, for we belong to an old-fashioned Church which does not dare to make laws, but is content to obey them. At the same time, the day is no worse than another, and if you choose to observe it and observe
it unto the Lord, I doubt not that He will accept your devotion. But, if you do not observe it, but unto the Lord observe it not for fear of encouraging superstition and will-worship, I doubt not but what you shall be as accepted in the non-observance as you could have been in the observance of it!

Still, as the thoughts of a great many Christian people will run, at this time, towards the birth of Christ — and as this cannot be wrong — I judged it meet to use ourselves of the prevailing current and float down the stream of thought. Our minds will run that way because so many around us are following customs suggestive of it. Therefore let us get what good we can out of the occasion. There can be no reason why we should not, and it may be helpful that we should, now, consider the birth of our Lord Jesus. We will do that voluntarily which we would refuse to do as a matter of obligation — we will do that simply for convenience sake which we should not think of doing because enjoined by authority or demanded by superstition!

Finally, in “The Star and the Wise Men,” from Matthew 2:1-10, preached December 24, 1882, Spurgeon does not speak particularly on the observation of Christmas, but demonstrates his willingness to meditate on the glory of the Incarnation of Christ even on Christmas Eve Day:

See, dear Friends, the Glory of our Lord Jesus Christ even in His state of humiliation! He is born of lowly parents, laid in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes, but, lo, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places are in commotion! First, one angel descends to proclaim the advent of the new-born King and suddenly there is with him a multitude of the heavenly host singing glory unto God! Nor was the commotion confined to the spirits above, for in the
heavens which overhang this Earth, there is a stir. A star is deputed on behalf of all the stars, as if he were the envoy and plenipotentiary of all worlds to represent them before their King! This star is put in commission to wait upon the Lord, to be His herald to men afar off, His usher to conduct them to His Presence and His bodyguard to sentinel His cradle!

Earth, too, is stirred! Shepherds have come to pay the homage of simple-minded ones—with all love and joy they bow before the mysterious Child — and after them from afar come the choice and flower of their generation, the most studious minds of the age! Making a long and difficult journey, they, too, at last arrive, the representatives of the Gentiles. Lo, the kings of Seba and Sheba offer gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh! Wise men, the leaders of their peoples, bow down before Him and pay homage to the Son of God! Wherever Christ is, He is honorable. “Unto you that believe He is honor.” In the day of small things, when the cause of God is denied entertainment and is hidden away with things which are despised, it is still most glorious! Christ, though a Child, is still King of kings! Though among the oxen, He is still distinguished by His star!

Beloved Friends, if wise men of old came to Jesus and worshipped, should not we come, also? My intense desire this morning is that we all may pay homage to Him of whom we sing, “Unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given.” Let those of us who have long worshipped, worship anew with yet lowlier reverence and more tender love! And may God grant—oh, that He would grant it! — that some who are far off from Him, spiritually, as the Magi were far off, locally, may come, today, and ask, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have come to worship Him.” May feet that have been accustomed to broad roads, but unaccustomed to the narrow path, this day, pursue that way till they see Jesus and bow before Him with all their hearts, finding salvation in Him!

Sermon citations retrieved from
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Lost Art of Logic: Irrelevant Reasons to Believe

Earlier this month, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced for crimes committed while in office. Prior to sentencing, his attorneys were permitted to present arguments in favor of a lenient sentence.

Among their pleas was a letter from one of Blagojevich’s daughters, which read, in part, “I need [my father] there for my high school graduation…. I’ll need him when my heart gets broken.” The judge, apparently unmoved, sentenced Blago to fourteen years in prison.

Perhaps it wasn’t the first time that the judge had heard an argumentum ad misericordiam – an argument from pity. Blagojevich’s daughter’s plight is sad, to be sure – but it’s irrelevant to the question of how much time her father ought to serve for his crimes.

Argumentum ad misericordiam is one of several logical fallacies that fall into the category of fallacies of relevance. Such fallacies present evidence that is irrelevant to the argument being made. I’ve previously considered two other fallacies of relevance here: the ad hominem fallacy and the genetic fallacy.

In Aristotle’s logical treatises, he referred to this class of argument as ignoratio elenchi (“ignorance of refutation”). Another term sometimes used to refer generally to such fallacies is the “red herring.” Distracting one’s audience from the issue at hand is thus likened to dragging a smoked fish across the path of a bloodhound in order to throw it off the scent of its prey.

Fallacies of relevance can be difficult to untangle because conclusions drawn from them are not necessarily false. [ 1 ] While certain kinds of fallacious arguments are always invalid, conclusions derived using a fallacy of relevance may or may not be valid. The form of the argument makes it impossible to affirm that the conclusion is true – which is, after all, the goal of making an argument in the first place.

There are a number of other fallacies of relevance, including:

Argumentum ad populum
Argumentum ad ignorantiam
Appeal to consequences
Straw man argument

Argumentum ad populum
An argumentum ad populum seeks to justify a claim by appealing to popular opinion or to the actions of many. If your daughter says that you should buy her a car because all her classmates have one, she’s using argumentum ad populum. Her stated reason is irrelevant to the question of whether she needs or should have a car. A variant of the ad populum is sometimes called “flag waving.” If your daughter had instead argued that you should buy her a car because it’s the American thing to do, that’s a flag-waving argument, based on an irrelevant appeal to patriotism.

When I was a kid, if I tried to use argumentum ad populum on my mother, she would reply, “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”

Argumentum ad ignorantiam
Assertions that employ argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance) can be beguiling.

Consider, for example, that among 17th-century Europeans, it was widely known that no one had ever seen a black swan. Over the course of centuries, in Europe, the Orient, Africa, the Americas, there were no black swans to be found. Hence, it was taken as a matter beyond dispute that no such thing as a black swan existed anywhere – until 1697, when Dutch explorers spotted large flocks of them in Australia.

The argument from ignorance says:

no one has ever proven that “X” is true; therefore, “X” must be false.

Europeans could have avoided their fallacious conclusion if only they had been content to affirm a more modest one: that no black swans existed anywhere in the known world.

Appeal to consequences
Suppose that someone were to argue as follows: Since teaching children to believe in Santa Claus motivates them to be well-behaved, Santa Claus must be real. While most people would recognize the falsity of this conclusion, many would not spot what makes the argument itself fallacious. This sort of argument confuses the truthfulness of a proposition with the consequences of believing that the proposition is true. Such is the fallacy of appeal to consequences.

Yet not all arguments involving consequences take part in this fallacy. Consider this one: Our oven does not work, and it’s so old that replacement parts for it cannot be found. Therefore, we should buy a new one, so we’ll be able to continue preparing our daily meals.

This argument appeals to consequences, but is it fallacious? In this case, the consequences of an action have a direct relationship to the desirability of the action. Here we are not trying to evaluate a propositional truth; instead, we are assessing the suitability of a plan of action on the basis of its consequences, and such reasoning is not fallacious.

There is yet another situation in which one may properly reason using consequences. Suppose that in arguing about the truth of a proposition, you determine the truth or falsity of the logical consequences of that proposition (rather than the desirability of the consequences of the proposition). For example: Ice is less dense than water. If so, ice should float when placed in water. Since ice does float in water, the proposition that ice is less dense than water must be true. This is a valid argument.

The fallacious appeal to consequences can show up whenever one argues that doing a certain thing is necessarily right (or wrong) because the consequences are attractive (or not). One might (fallaciously) argue thus: Saddam Hussein was a cruel, evil dictator. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to his downfall. Therefore, the invasion was just and proper. Logically, the conclusion is not warranted. In order to make a logically consistent argument, one needs an argument that actually addresses the circumstances under which one nation may justly attack another.

The Straw-man Argument
Straw-man arguments always arise in response to some existing viewpoint or argument, yet they involve attacking a position that an opponent has not actually taken. Often the straw man fallacy is committed by someone who does not accurately understand the position that he seeks to refute.

Straw Man

Image by xomiele via Flickr

Sometimes the user of a straw-man argument deliberately distorts, exaggerates, or over-simplifies his opponent’s position in order to make the position easier to attack. For example, during the 1964 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater gave a speech in which he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Liberals countered with the claim that if Goldwater were elected, he would use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson aired the famous “Daisy Girl” ad to imply that a vote for Goldwater was a vote for nuclear holocaust. While Goldwater had expressed a willingness to use nuclear arms, the ad was a misrepresentation of a more complex set of facts – a “straw man” plea intended to capitalize on people’s fears. Straw-man arguments often seek such a visceral response, thus short-circuiting rationality.

If you accuse someone of making a straw-man argument, he may become angry with you, because this could imply that he either does not correctly understand your argument or that he has distorted it deliberately. But what can also happen is that your opponent makes a leap of logic that you have not made – he takes your argument and concludes that if you believe A, you must also believe B. Having done this, he then attacks B. But believing that B is true may not be an inevitable consequence of believing A. If it is not, attacking B is a straw man argument. In order to make a sound argument, your opponent must first prove that A necessarily implies B before he starts attacking you through a response to B. But a straw-man attack requires less effort.

Suppose, for example, you state that you are in favor of capitol punishment under certain circumstances. Your opponent replies, “well, everyone knows that some people executed for capitol crimes have later been shown to be innocent – how can you be in favor of a practice that involves executing innocent people?”

In fact, one could be in favor of capitol punishment in principle, while also believing that the standard for evidence in such cases needs to be high enough to avoid executing the innocent. Your opponent has leapt to a conclusion that you have not adopted and attacked that instead of responding to the position to which you actually adhere. In politics especially, this sort of attack may be used even when the attacker knows that it is a deliberate misrepresentation. The person thus attacked must now turn his attention from defending his position to explaining why the “straw-man” is a misrepresentation of his views.

Our culture’s tendency to embrace clever “sound bite” responses works against the successful detection of fallacies of relevance. We are generally more ready to latch onto a snappy reply than to take the time needed to discern whether an argument treats the issue at hand accurately, superficially, or not at all. An attempt to explain why a particular argument is irrelevant will often be met with blank stares, because the explanation is usually more complicated than the fallacious argument, and we admire simplicity. Even the very intelligent may be taken in by such arguments.

Fallacies of relevance are often used in political debates, but they are widely employed, even in the discussion of theological controversies.

In order to avoid fallacies of relevance, we must understand what they are. But we must also make diligent efforts to understand other people’s viewpoints before we try to engage them.

In an earlier post, I quoted the late Roger Nicole on dealing with those who differ with us, but the quote bears repeating in this context:

… what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being–we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)

How then do we desire to be treated? First, we want people to know what we are saying or meaning. If we are going to voice differences, therefore, we have an obligation to make a serious effort to understand the person with whom we differ….In the case of an oral exchange where we don’t have any written words, we owe the person who differs from us the courtesy to listen carefully to what he or she says. Rather than preparing to pounce on that person the moment he or she stops talking, we should concentrate on apprehending precisely what his or her position is.

Alas, this sort of care in listening to others is not as common as it should be in Reformed circles. Often, as I encounter a position that initially sounds wrong to me, even as I listen my mind is focused on formulating a rebuttal. But to avoid attacking a “straw man,” I need to put my energy into understanding the other person’s position and thinking through it carefully. I may even need to ask some clarifying questions before I can be sure that I understand the position accurately. In doing so, I may even discover that there is no disagreement, and hence, no need for a rebuttal!

(1) This is a characteristic of the genus of fallacies known as informal fallacies.

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On Commentaries

In the preface to his final volume of Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John, J. C. Ryle offered the following reflections on his extensive examination of commentaries on John’s Gospels:

I freely confess that, with increasing years and experience, I have learned to think more kindly and charitably than I once did, of theologians who belong to other schools than my own.  I am more and more convinced every year I live, that there are many Christians whose hearts are right in the sight of God, while their heads are very wrong.  I am more and more convinced, that the differences between schools of religious thought are frequently more nominal than real, more verbal than actual, and that many of them would melt away and disappear, if men would only define the terms and words they use with logical accuracy.  But, for all this, I cannot shrink from saying, as in the sight of God, that at present I know no theology which appears to me so thoroughly in accordance with Scripture as Evangelical theology.  In the belief of this I have written my notes on St. John, and in the faith of this I hope to die. With the Bible only in my hands, I find difficulties in the systems of non-Evangelical schools, which to my mind appear insuperable.

Concerning the Commentators I have consulted, in preparing my notes on St. John, I wish to make a few remarks for the benefit of my younger readers, and of those who have not access to large libraries. I see no reason to alter the opinions which I expressed seven years ago, in the Preface to my first volume. After patiently studying Cyril, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Theophylact, for twelve years, it is my deliberate conviction that their Commentaries on the Gospels are often overrated and overpraised, and that those who lead young students of theology to expect to find “all wisdom” in the Fathers, are neither wise nor kind.  After an equally patient examination of the modern German Commentators, Tittman, Tholuck, Olshausen, Stier, and Hengstenberg, I am obliged to say that I leave them with a feeling of disappointment.  About them also I raise a warning cry for the benefit of young students.  I advise them not to expect too much.  Writers like Hengstenberg and Stier are well worth reading; but I cannot say that any modern German Commentators seem to me to deserve the extravagant commendation which is often bestowed on them.  In fact I have a strong suspicion that many praise German theology without having read it!

For throwing light on the meaning of the text of St. John, and for raising just and beautiful thoughts out of it, my opinion is distinct and decided, that there are no Commentaries equal to those of the Continental divines who lived immediately after the Protestant Reformation.  Unfortunately they wrote in Latin, which few persons care to read; and their books are, generally, huge, lumbering folios, which few care to handle.  Moreover they are sometimes defective in verbal criticism, and were, most of them, more familiar with Latin than Greek.  But taking them for all in all, as Expositors and Elucidators of God’s Word, in my judgment, there is nothing like them.  The man who has carefully read the expositions of Brentius, Bullinger, Gualter, Musculus, and Gerhard, will find that later Commentaries rarely contain any good thoughts which are not to be found in these five writers, and that they say many excellent things which have not occurred to later writers at all.  Why these great Expositors are so totally ignored and neglected in the nineteenth century, I do not pretend to explain.  Some modern theologians seem not even to be aware that such Commentators as Brentius, Musculus, and Gerhard, ever existed!  But the fact is one which reflects little credit on our times.

I shall say little or nothing about the works of British Commentators.  This is a department of theological literature in which, I must plainly say, I do not think my fellow-countrymen shine.  With rare exceptions, they appear to me to fall below the level of their reputation.  I shall therefore content myself with naming a few Commentaries, which appear to me more than ordinarily useful and suggestive, and which I have seldom consulted in vain.—Rollock on John is excellent; and it is a great pity that the whole work is not translated, instead of lying buried in Latin.— Hutcheson is always good; but his value is sadly marred by his interminable divisions, uses, applications, and inferences.—Matthew Henry is generally rich in pious thoughts and pleasing illustrations, and sometimes exhibits more learning and acquaintance with books, than he is commonly credited with.—Poole’s “Annotations” are sound, clear, and sensible; and, taking him for all in all, I place him at the head of English Commentators on the whole Bible.—Alford and Wordsworth have done good service to the Church by their works on the Greek Testament, and I know none at present that I can sooner recommend to a student of the original. But they both say, occasionally, things with which I cannot agree, and they often seem to me to leave important texts very scantily expounded, or entirely unnoticed.  A fuller and more satisfactory commentary on the Greek Testament appears to me to be still wanted.—Burgon’s “Plain Commentary on the Gospels” is an excellent, suggestive, and devout work. But I cannot agree with him, when he touches such subjects as the Church, the Sacraments, and the Ministry.

—In fact, the conclusion I arrive at, after a diligent examination of many Commentators, is always one and the same.  I trust none of them unreservedly, and I expect nowhere to find perfection.  All must be read with caution.  They are good helps, but they are not infallible.  They are useful assistants, but they are not the pillar of cloud and fire.  I advise my younger readers to remember that.  Use your own judgment prayerfully and diligently.  Use commentaries; but be a slave to none.  Call no man master.

J. C. KYLE. Stradbroke Vicarage, Suffolk, February, 1873.

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The Lost Art of Logic: Genetic Fallacies

A friend recently recommended to me a video promoting something called Family Integrated Church. In the midst of a nicely-done presentation, the video contained some logical gaffes that thoroughly soured me on the case being made. Among these was a claim that teaching children in classes separated by age is morally wrong because the practice has atheistic roots:

“You have John Dewey,…he was an atheist, he was a hater of the Bible….He spent his life building this age-segregated school system. The church went and adopted that age-segregated system.”

This argument attempts to discredit the use of age-segregated teaching not by considering the practice itself, but by claiming that the practice necessarily originated with an atheist. In other words, the reasoning goes this way:  atheists are always wrong, so this idea is wrong.

This is a good example of the genetic fallacy, a fallacy in which the mere origin of an idea or practice is presented as proof for or against its validity. The genetic fallacy, like the ad hominem, is formally categorized as a fallacy of irrelevance. It promotes a conclusion that may or may not be valid, because it ignores the very point that it seeks to prove.

There are a number of ways in which we may indulge in the genetic fallacy. In some instances, one simply claims that an argument has a source that is somehow undesirable.

Another variant is the psychogenetic fallacy, in which it is assumed that by accounting for the psychological origin of someone’s argument, we can dismiss that argument altogether. A.J. Hoover, in his helpful little book “Don’t You Believe It,” provides this example of pyschogenetic fallacy:

[Sigmund Freud] said that God was nothing more than a psychological projection. He argued that God doesn’t exist, but that the belief in God is widespread in all human cultures because man “projects” his fears onto the universe as a whole. As a child grows up he learns to lean on his (real) earthly father for psychological support in the early, fragile years. When he matures, he finds out that he must give up this parental crutch and face the world alone. Such isolation is too much for most people; they create an imaginary cosmic father, God, and then proceed to fear and propitiate him and trust him for lifelong protection. Thus did Freud explain religion as a universal neurosis….

But the psychological reason why I believe in God in no way renders it less probable that God exists, nor, conversely, does it prove that God exists. It proves nothing either way.

We can also commit the genetic fallacy when we claim that the nature of a thing is irrevocably tied to its origin. So, for example, we might note the (apocryphal) claim that the quaint custom of a bridegroom carrying his bride over the threshold of their new home has its origin in the ancient custom of men finding wives by kidnapping them and carrying them off against their will. On this basis, it is argued, the practice should be avoided, because it implicitly condones abduction and rape.

Nicolas Poussin - Abduction of the Sabines

Even assuming the accuracy of the purported origin, the custom holds no such significance today, and it makes no sense to assert that the meaning of a custom can never change.

There is a further variant of the genetic fallacy called the etymological fallacy. When we assert that the meaning of a word at one point in time (usually, but not always, the present) is necessarily directly linked to its original meaning, we commit the etymological fallacy. A common way of expressing this error is by claiming that the true or “root” meaning of a word will always be found in its etymology. In fact, because language can change in strange ways, this is not necessarily true.

This fallacy is tricky, because there are instances where etymology can elucidate meaning. I recently learned that the work “feckless” (meaning lacking in purpose; ineffective, or powerless) has its origins in the Middle English word, “fek,” which meant value or efficacy. In this case, there is some value in seeing that the meaning “lacking in value” arises from the word’s archaic root. Still, we could have learned the meaning by looking at the word used in context; the etymology is just gravy.

In contrast to “feckless,” the word “nice” has been cut loose from its etymology, as it comes into modern English from Latin (nescius = ignorant) through a Middle English word that meant foolish. Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” begins with the line, “Whan folk hadde laughen at this nyce cas,” in which “nyce” means “foolish,” with reference to the Miller’s Tale. Modern meanings of “nice” bear little resemblance to the word’s roots, and to insist otherwise would be…ignorant.

The genetic fallacy is a handy tool if you are making an argument to your own partisans. Among Christians, for example, if you’re trying to show that an idea is bad, many of us will be swayed by a claim that the idea has pagan (or atheistic) origins. This was the approach used in my opening example. If we wish to argue in favor of a point of view, citing a respected authority who held to that view will often elicit a groundswell of support (among the Reformed, using John Calvin’s name in combination with this technique is often a slam-dunk). [ 1 ] In any group, there will almost always be people willing to believe an argument because some notable person believes it. Of course, arguments thus made are not logically valid, a fact that ought to nag our consciences when we employ the genetic fallacy.

I suppose that if a disreputable person makes an argument, that argument might deserve careful scrutiny before we accept it. This, strictly speaking, is not the genetic fallacy, because one is not saying that the argument is necessarily invalid because of its source. By the same token, we may feel that an argument made by a respected person is more worthy of consideration – but if we subsequently adopt the argument solely on the basis of someone’s endorsement, we slip into fallacious reasoning.

Like the ad hominem, the genetic fallacy often takes advantage of our prejudices for (or against) certain people or ideas. Like the pickpocket’s trick of bumping into us while he relieves us of our wallet, the genetic fallacy seeks to focus our attention on something irrelevant while distracting us from something important. Since we tend to present arguments informally, rather than rigorously, we are even less likely to notice that the rules of logic have been violated when a genetic fallacy is being used.

(1) This also works in reverse. I witnessed one of my favorite examples of this error in 1987, at a joint meeting of the general assemblies and synods of the NAPARC churches. There was a session held in which representatives from each denomination took part in a fairly light-hearted debate. At one point in the discussion, RP panelist Jack White questioned whether Reformed churches ought to be cautious about the use of television as a means of communicating the Gospel. He cited communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “The medium is the message.”  The late D. James Kennedy, the PCA’s representative on the panel, demurred: “But Marshall McLuhan is not Reformed!” – as if that settled the matter. This shows, I guess, that even great men can commit the genetic fallacy.
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The Best Evidence of Love to Christ

“If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another helper, that he may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; but you know him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.

“A little while longer and the world will see me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine, but the Father’s who sent me.

(John 14:15-24)

WE learn from these verses that keeping Christ’s commandments is the best test of love to Christ.

This is a lesson of vast importance, and one that needs continual pressing on the attention of Christians. It is not talking about religion, and talking fluently and well too, but steadily doing Christ’s will and walking in Christ’s ways, that is the proof of our being true believers. Good feelings and desires are useless if they are not accompanied by action. They may even become mischievous to the soul, induce hardness of conscience, and do positive harm. Passive impressions which do not lead to action gradually deaden and paralyze the heart. Living and doing are the only real evidence of grace. Where the Holy Spirit is, there will always be a holy life. A jealous watchfulness over tempers, words, and deeds, a constant endeavor to live by the rule of the Sermon on the Mount: this is the best proof that we love Christ.

Of course such maxims as these must not be wrested and misunderstood. We are not to suppose for a moment that “keeping Christ’s commandments” can save us. Our best works are full of imperfection. When we have done all we can, we are feeble and unprofitable servants. “By grace are ye saved through faith,—not of works.” (Eph. ii. 8.) But while we hold one class of truths, we must not forget another. Faith in the blood of Christ must always be attended by loving obedience to the will of Christ. What the Master has joined together, the disciple must not put asunder. Do we profess to love Christ? Then let us show it by our lives. The Apostle who said, “Thou knowest that I love Thee!” received the charge, “Feed my lambs.” That meant, “Do something. Be useful: follow my example.” (John xxi. 17.)

We learn, secondly, from these verses, that there are special comforts laid up for those who love Christ, and prove it by keeping His words. This, at any rate, seems the general sense of our Lord’s language: “My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”

The full meaning of this promise, no doubt, is a deep thing. We have no line to fathom it. It is a thing which no man can understand except he that receives and experiences it. But we need not shrink from believing that eminent holiness brings eminent comfort with it, and that no man has such sensible enjoyment of his religion as the man who, like Enoch and Abraham, walks closely with God. There is more of heaven on earth to be obtained than most Christians are aware of. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.”—” If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me.” (Ps. xxv. 14; Rev. iii. 20.) Promises like these, we may be sure, mean something, and were not written in vain.

How is it, people often ask, that so many professing believers have so little happiness in their religion? How is it that so many know little of “joy and peace in believing,” and go mourning and heavy-hearted towards heaven? The answer to these questions is a sorrowful one, but it must be given. Few believers attend as strictly as they should to Christ’s practical sayings and words. There is far too much loose and careless obedience to Christ’s commandments. There is far too much forgetfulness, that while good works cannot justify us, they are not to be despised. Let these things sink down into our hearts. If we want to be eminently happy, we must strive to be eminently holy.

– from Expository Thoughts on John, J.C. Ryle (1873)

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Burger King Spirituality

Recently I stumbled across an article that I first read years ago. The piece, by John Ortberg, was entitled “Happy Meal Spirituality;” in it, he notes that the success of the McDonald’s Happy Meal reveals something important about the American consumer psyche:

When you buy your kid a Happy Meal, you’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a toy; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a Happy Meal.” [Christianity Today, May 1993]

Ortberg went on to observe that Happy Meal Spirituality continues with us into adulthood; as we grow older, we need bigger and more expensive Happy Meals in order to be content.

He had the basic concept right, of course. But I’ve often thought that the fast-food purveyor with the keenest insight into the mind of the American consumer was not McDonald’s, but Burger King. The jingle that BK adopted in the seventies was laid aside for a while, but my generation still knows the words:

Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce; special orders don’t upset us.
All we ask is that you let us serve it your way:
Have it your way, have it your way.
Have it your way at Burger King.

Who can deny that what we really want is to have everything our way? It seems to me that the spirit of “have it your way” is thriving in American church life.

In the 1990’s, a Reformed pastor in a large city told me that when church shoppers called him to inquire about his congregation, their questions were invariably demographic: How many young singles do you have? Is there a youth group; how big is it? Are there young children? Do you have people in their fifties? More recently, a friend who is an urban church planter has blogged about how often he’s tempted to behave like a car salesman.

American Evangelicals often expect a church to meet their perceived needs. A term of art has even been invented to describe an approach that focuses on ensuring that newcomers will have a church experience that will make them come back for more: the attractional church model.

It stands to reason that a Christian church should want to be attractive to people who are hungry and thirsty for spiritual life. But if attraction itself is the goal, all of a church’s priorities must shift to accommodate that goal. Unless what we want is always what we need, that shift spells trouble.

This idea of focusing on attraction comes to my mind whenever I receive a promotional postcard from a particular church in my area. Invariably, these invitations are peppered with testimonials from people who have visited the church. One of the first cards I received bore the prominent quote, “I never knew church could be so much fun!” Good marketers pitch themselves to the kind of people they want to attract. In our culture, the consumer is king; the church that wants to market itself successfully will be tempted to let people have it their way.

Most Reformed folk agree, in principle, that we don’t believe that a church should focus on “letting us have it our way.” Yet I suspect that being Reformed is not enough to immunize us against the infectious consumer spirit. Burger King spirituality may be more vital among us than we’d like to admit.

Years ago, another pastor told me about one of his trials in the pastorate. A family in his church was constantly dissatisfied with the way he dressed in the pulpit. Mind you, he wasn’t preaching in overalls; he wore nice suits and ties. But these folks were thoroughly convinced that preaching ought to be done in a proper Geneva gown, and they pressed the issue. Having a good preacher and a faithful shepherd may not have been enough for them to feel that they were really having church their way.

It would be nice if this sort of thing were unusual, but it’s really not hard to find refined tastes in Reformed circles. For example, for some of us, if a minister’s sermon output does not consist of expository, lectio continua preaching, his preaching is automatically deemed substandard. Of course, if we had lived in a different era, that rule would have forced us to strike men like C.H. Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards off our “good preacher” list, but – at least we have standards.

For others, a church is simply unacceptable if it lacks weekly communion, or uses communion bread that’s leavened, or fails to use the “right” Bible translation (whichever that may be). I once met a Reformed gentleman who gave a thumbs-down to any church whose pew Bibles contained footnotes. Some insist that all the children in a truly faithful church must be home-schooled, while others cannot abide a church unless it’s committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith without the “American” alterations.

To be sure, Reformed versions of “having it your way” usually have a theological orientation rather than a demographic one. If the issue were simply one of insisting that a church must be theologically sound, one could hardly question that. But it’s too easy to slip from that into defining “the Biblical church” with criteria that fail to rise above the level of personal preferences. Is there really such a big difference between demanding that a church provide me with a specific social environment and demanding that a church must add my likes and dislikes to its unwritten articles of faith? In both cases, it seems, I just want to have it my way. [ 1 ]

A friend has coined the term “Reformed Maximalism” to describe good confessional Reformed folk who have slipped into a mindset which insists that there is only one right way to do everything. One of my favorite preachers, Edward Donnelly, once put it this way:

“Surely we don’t believe there is a party line for good RPs to toe on every conceivable matter…. For some people today…there are no doubtful things; there are absolutely no ambiguities whatsoever: there’s true and there’s false, there’s black and there’s white,…there’s your way and there’s the Lord’s way…. But Paul could write about doubtful things (Romans 14:1)…Paul, why do you not just answer everything? Why do you not just give us a list of everything that we have to believe and do and then there will be no argument and no division? Paul says,’No!’ Apparently, it’s important to work through issues, to have a variety of views, and to live and let live. I’m not talking about our theology….if we’re not solid on our theology, we just get into a jungle of confusion and suspicion. But friends, there are many areas where there are legitimate differences of opinion.”

Edward Donnelly, “Called to Freedom” (sermon on Galatians 5:1-16)

There’s a strong temptation to deny the existence of doubtful things; after all, why wouldn’t every right-thinking individual just agree with me?

American consumerism encourages this sort of behavior, even in the church. We’re able to be picky eaters because we live in an ecclesiastical free market. In much of our nation, we can select from a smorgasbord of choices. Moreover, if you can’t find a church that suits you, start your own, with exactly the combination of distinct qualities that will make you happy. Have it your way!

It seems strange that this sort of problem can even plague churches that are (on paper, at least) confessional. A confession of faith is supposed to be a statement of essential doctrines on which we agree. By implication, matters outside the bounds of a confession are things about which we are content to tolerate differences of opinion. Yet in practice, such contentment can be elusive. In our church lives, as in the rest of life, we want to have it our way.

Is it possible to be content in churches that don’t cater to our preferences? If we are not to succumb to Burger King Spirituality, we must be able to discern the difference between essentials and non-essentials. Without such distinctions, every issue is equally important, and anyone who does not cut the cake exactly the way I do must be suspect.

The ability to distinguish between essential and non-essential matters is one of the evidences of spiritual maturity. When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he chided some of the believers there for their spiritual childishness:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

In their zeal to establish pre-eminence over one another, there were those in Corinth who were dividing the church by declaring their opposition to any who were not aligned with the “right” teacher:

Paul proved his accusation that the Corinthians were worldly and immature. He offered as evidence their jealousy and quarreling. The Corinthians had divided themselves into quarreling parties, employing the pretenses of human arrogance and worldly wisdom to fight one another. This behavior revealed that they lived by the principles of the world rather than by the teaching of the Spirit. They acted like mere men, not like people in Christ who had the Holy Spirit.

Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). Vol. 7: I & II Corinthians. Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (47). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

When we insist on making minor matters into badges of spiritual superiority, we look a lot like the immature Corinthians to whom Paul wrote. Burger King Spirituality can disguise itself as a holy zeal in which “doubtful things” are transformed into articles upon which the church must stand or fall.

May the Lord deliver us from the constant temptation to distort the things we simply like into rules of faith and life.

(1) I should note that I have sprinkled some of my own preferences in among these examples; those who know me well enough will be able to figure out which these are.
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The Lost Art of Logic: Ad Hominem and the Ninth Commandment

Having lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for many years, I’ve periodically had a generic conversation that that either amuses or annoys me. It proceeds via the following formula:

Me: “I think [insert statement that does not follow the conservative party-line].”

Other person: “Well, you would say that; you live in Cambridge.”

Sometimes, I respond by pointing out that I voted for George W. Bush (twice), trying to draw attention to the fact that the place where a person lives has no essential connection to his political views. That doesn’t always work, though. Maybe it’s just too tempting to believe that my opinions are the fruit of sojourning for too long among the tents of people who voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election [ 1 ].

Although not a strict example of argumentum ad hominem – the fallacy in which one asserts or implies that an argument is false because the person making the argument has some negative quality – exchanges of this type illustrate a close relative, the circumstantial ad hominem. Whereas an ad hominem often attacks the arguer directly (the “abusive ad hominem“),

Joe is clearly wrong about Richard Wagner’s being a better musician than Tiny Tim. How can you believe a guy who smokes pot all day?

the circumstantial ad hominem tries to undermine an argument by attacking the arguer’s circumstances:

Joe is clearly wrong about Richard Wagner’s being a better musician than Tiny Tim. I mean, what does Joe know about music, he’s from the backwoods of West Virginia!

Sometimes, an ad homninem is combined with guilt-by-association:

Joe is clearly wrong about Richard Wagner’s being a better musician than Tiny Tim. You know, the Nazis also thought Wagner was a great composer; how can you agree with someone who takes the side of the Nazis?!

There’s also a version of this fallacy known as the tu quoque (Latin for “you also”). In a tu quoque, the person making the argument is attacked because he behaves in a manner that appears inconsistent with the position he has taken:

Joe is clearly wrong about Richard Wagner’s being a better musician than Tiny Tim. How can you believe that, when you know Joe owns every album Tiny Tim ever recorded?

What makes each of these attacks against Joe’s argument logically incorrect is this: none of them actually has anything to do with the argument itself. Each substitutes verbal sleight-of-hand for sound reasoning. Instead of addressing whether the arguer’s logic is sound, these responses ignore the argument and seek to undermine the reputation of the person making the argument.

Ad hominem plays to our feelings; if I can make you dislike the arguer, you’ll probably be willing to transfer your dislike to his argument, too. The fallacy is also appealing because such attacks are often funny (albeit at someone else’s expense).

In practice, ad hominem is most effective when there is something obviously bad about the person making the argument. Alternatively you can use it to exploit some bias or prejudice held by others against the person whose argument you wish to discredit. Thus, the examples above argue, respectively, that:

People who smoke pot all day are always wrong about music,

People from the backwoods of West Virginia are always wrong about music,

People who favor composers who were admired by the Nazis are always wrong about music, and

People who appear to be inconsistent are not capable of making sound arguments.

Phrased this way, it’s easier to see the fallacious nature of each assertion.

The fact that Joe smokes marijuana has no bearing at all on the relative merits of Wagner vs. Tiny Tim, nor is Joe’s personal background relevant to that question. In the third example, we have a double-dose of logical shenanigans: it’s possible for Joe to like Wagner while having nothing else in common with Nazis – but even if Joe were an actual Nazi, that wouldn’t have any bearing on the real question at hand: who is the better musician?

The fourth example is especially tempting for us to swallow, because we instinctively like being made to feel morally superior to others. It’s pleasing to believe that a person who is inconsistent (or a hypocrite) must also be wrong. But it ain’t necessarily so. Not only does the fourth statement have no bearing on the argument, it might be that Joe simply loves Tiny Tim’s music in spite of the fact that Wagner was a better musician.

These are all versions of the same trick. One moment we’re talking about music, then suddenly, the focus of attention is Joe, and we are convinced that any argument he makes must be wrong.

The frequency with which we slide into fallacious statements in the ad hominem family is remarkable; I probably commit this error myself at least a few times a week. To make matters worse, if you try to point out to someone that he has committed the fallacy of ad hominem, it’s often the case that he will not understand why that is so. He may insist that doing so does not invalidate his argument. Worse, he may even accuse you of trying to use a trivial technicality to evade the argument.

The fact is, we often find ad hominem arguments persuasive, especially if the arguer has properly targeted one of our existing biases. We use such arguments because they work! A clever trial lawyer may even use ad hominem to sway a jury if he has a weak case.

Here’s an example of an ad hominem that might work nicely for a Reformed audience:

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of many obviously false Roman Catholic errors.

We might find this persuasive, even though the only argument presented is an ad hominem. But now imagine that we swap a few words:

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of many obviously false Roman Catholic errors.

Oops – now we can see more easily that this is a fallacious argument. But both doctrines are taught by the Roman Catholic Church. If one of the statements is logically unsound, both of them must be. In fact, the truth or error of a doctrine can never be determined by asking who believes in it. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in inerrancy; the fact that they embrace certain other doctrines that are heretical doesn’t make everything they believe false.

The ad hominem also presents some subtleties. Not every attack against an arguer constitutes an ad hominem.

Suppose someone says that he is a physics expert, and that the theory of relativity means that time travel is impossible. In this instance, you happen to know that this person last studied physics in junior high school. The fact that he has lied about his level of expertise does not automatically prove that his statement about time travel is false; it might still be true. But you would not be committing an ad hominem if you responded by pointing out that he has no expertise in physics. He may be right, but his opinion is not supported by the expert knowledge he has claimed.

Or consider the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Early on, when Clinton said, “I did not have sex with that woman,” it would not have been an ad hominem attack for someone to say, “well, of course you would say that, since admitting it would be politically devastating for you.” The fact that he was highly motivated to deny the accusation would not prove or disprove whether he had sex with her, of course, but would weaken the credibility of his denial. If he had been a person for whom admitting that he had sex with Lewinsky would (somehow) have been a highly desirable thing, his denial would have had more force. Moreover, this is not the fallacy of ad hominem because it does not involve a logical proposition; it’s simply a question of whether an event happened or did not happen.

Closely related to the ad hominem is a device that has come to be known as “poisoning the well.” Strictly speaking, it is not a type of argument, but a pre-emptive way to discredit someone even before he has made his case.

So one might say, “Only a fool would borrow money to buy a house.” Anyone subsequently seeking to argue in favor of borrowing to buy a house must first turn his energy to proving that he is not a fool before he can even approach the question at hand. Once the well has been poisoned, the very act of expressing a contrary opinion brands him a fool.

There are even more subtle ways of poisoning the well: “No true American should ever be so cowardly as to criticize our nation.” Would-be critics must now first show that they are not cowards before speaking a discouraging word.

Well-poisoning can also be done by claiming, even before a person has a chance to speak, that he will take a certain position – not because it’s valid, but because he’s biased, e.g., “He’s a doctor, so of course he’ll be in favor of vaccination.” Again, the topic of debate has been subtly shifted to a new point: a doctor will always defend vaccination even if it is a terrible idea, solely because he is a doctor.

If the use of fallacious logic can be deemed a form of mental laziness, then the ad hominem fallacies may be the laziest of all. Sadly, it’s a type of fallacy that one can take up without even knowing it.

Unlike a simple missed thread in an argument, the ad hominem is typically little more than a personal attack against a person who puts forward an argument with which I disagree. Thinking about this in this way has caused me to realize something that never struck me before – the use of ad hominem, in some instances, is a form of bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. [ 2 ].

In summarizing the requirements of the ninth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that these include

…the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, … a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; …freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers…. (WLC Answer #144)

Often, when I attack an argument with an ad hominem, I divert attention from the real matter under consideration while undermining my neighbor’s good name. Is it possible to do these things while preserving and promoting the truth?

(1) I’m being facetious. But Nader did come in second in Our Fair City, with Bush trailing behind.
(2) I’m not saying, by the way, that every use of ad hominem necessarily involves deliberately bearing false witness. More often than not, it’s done unwittingly.

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The Lost Art of Logic

In my sophomore college year, I took an English composition course. Our professor began by explaining that we’d spend our first week learning about errors that his writing students tended to make frequently. I was slightly puzzled when among the errors we’d be studying he listed “logical fallacies.”

I was expecting him to drill us on grammatical errors; logic was something I associated with math and philosophy.He went on to explain that a person cannot write persuasively if he or she doesn’t know how to formulate a logical argument.

Anyway, that’s what educated people thought in the late 1970s, but people seem less demanding today. My own impression, based on what I read in the news and elsewhere, is that many Americans are unable to distinguish between a sound argument and a fallacious one. More and more, I observe people who ought to know better readily embracing arguments that are formally fallacious.

In the absence of an ability to recognize what constitutes a sound argument, people tend to choose sides on the basis of personal taste. If someone presents a false argument that leads to a conclusion that I like, ignorance of the rules of logic lets me be content to embrace the conclusion (and perhaps the argument as well). Of course, this affects every topic: politics, theology, science, or anything else.

A decade or so ago I met a sweet little old widow in a Reformed church. Somehow in the course of conversation she volunteered that she was a Theonomist. I was intrigued, having never met a little-old-lady-Theonomist before, so I asked her why she was persuaded of Theonomy. “Because,” she said, “they believe in capital punishment, and I do too.” Dumbfounded, I changed the subject.

In the years since then I’ve observed quite a few people following a similar reasoning process: “I like that argument, so it must be true” or, “I don’t like that one, so it must be false.” These sentiments sometimes constitute the entirety of their “analysis.” It feels as though personal taste is taking over the role of logic for a good many of us – Christians included. If this is true, it would be a great shame, not least of all because it makes us easy prey for demagogues.

I’ve also found myself slipping into similarly lazy habits of thought. So – in an attempt to re-learn some things I’ve forgotten and wage a small battle in defense of sound thinking, I’m planning to write a series of pieces here on logical fallacies. My hope is that doing this will force me to refresh the use of sound logic in my own writing (and thinking) and perhaps help others to do so too. Stay tuned.

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Reformed Rock Stars, Cults of Personality, and the Multisite Church

Several years ago I attended a conference at which Rev. Iain Murray (co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust) spoke. After the last session, I thought I’d take a moment to speak to him. Some years prior, while I was in college, Rev. Murray had preached at our church. I met him briefly then, so I thought it would be nice to remind him of that occasion and thank him again for his ministry.

When the conference ended, I noticed people already talking to him, so I took my time chatting with old friends who were nearby. I glanced back from time to time to see when I might have an opening to speak with him. However, the line seemed to be getting longer rather than shorter. Eventually I was done chatting, so I stood where I was, observing the line. I began to notice something curious.

If you’ve ever met Rev. Iain Murray, you know that he is a quintessential English gentleman – humble, unassuming, and very polite. As I observed him, it struck me that he looked a bit uncomfortable – even nervous. He and his wife were standing together, listening and speaking with each person desiring to talk with him, but he had an air of discomfort about him. I also realized that, perhaps unconsciously, Murray seemed to be retreating. Every few minutes, he would inch backwards, towards a door six or so feet behind him. I had the strong impression that he was discomfited by all the attention. Holding court with a stream of admirers was definitely not his cup of tea. Too polite to simply dismiss them and walk away, he looked like a man trapped in an unseemly situation.

Once I realized this, I decided to just go home, rather than add to his discomfort by joining the line.

Clearly, being treated like a “rock-star” doesn’t suit Iain Murray. I don’t believe it suits most so-called Reformed rock stars. But the experience opened my eyes to the fact that a preacher doesn’t have to pursue rock star status to attain it. The conference-goers were the ones who made Iain Murray into a rock star, albeit an improbable one.

The “Reformed rock star” phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it the case that such men are always reluctant to “hold court” for admirers. For example, I recall a different conference in the 1990s, one at which a Reformed minister who was much better-known than Murray spoke. An all-day affair, the event featured a book signing hour, one of several markers of the celebrity status of the man we’d all come to hear.

Discussion of Reformed rock stars has been heating up, fueled most recently by differences of opinion over the increasing use of the multi-site model in Reformed churches.

Multi-site churches usually begin as a single church with a successful, dynamic preacher. As the seating capacity of the church’s meeting venue is reached, other locations or “campuses” are established, where worshippers gather for a service that is led mostly by on-site pastors, but in which the sermon is preached by the more dynamic chap. There are variations in the model: in some instances, the “rock star” preacher commutes from campus to campus, delivering the sermon and departing mid-service to head to the next venue. In other instances, the more-dynamic minister’s sermon is beamed in via video feed.

Recently a group of Reformed Baptist pastors had a sort of debate about the multi-site model, to no obvious conclusion. In the midst of the discussion, Thabiti Anyabwile made a remark that I think failed to get the attention it deserved.

Some of the pro-multi-site ministers explained that they were using the model because the “beamed-in” preacher simply is much more highly gifted: the campus pastor isn’t as good a preacher as the dynamic guy. To this, Anyabwile responded, “but is the [local guy] a good enough preacher?”

The unspoken assumption seems to be that the satellite campus won’t maximize its drawing power without the “really gifted” preacher as the main event. Crowds won’t come just to hear the “warm-up” preacher do the preaching, because… well… they’re picky. They don’t just want the sound preaching of the Word, they want to hear it preached by someone who is, to them, a rock star.

A “rock star” preacher need not have doubtful motives. The problem is not with the preacher, but with the hearers. They know the difference between a good preacher and a great one, and they want only the best. Whether the rock star preacher is seeking a following or not, that’s what he gets: people who are following him – at least partly – as a kind of celebrity. If a man as unassuming (and unwilling) as Iain Murray can be made into a rock star, I think that proves that anyone can.

In 1972, Rev. Murray wrote an excellent biography of a Victorian-era “rock-star” preacher that most 21st-century Reformed folk know by name: Charles H. Spurgeon. Strictly speaking, Spurgeon predated rock by a few years, but there can be little doubt that by the standards of his day he was a “rock star” preacher par excellence.

At the height of Spurgeon’s ministry, he pastored London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, where 6000 people (1000 of whom stood during the service) heard him weekly. He was so popular that many waited in line, hoping to gain entry, and often people had to be turned away for lack of space. In 1857, he preached to an audience of 23,000 in London’s Crystal Palace. The Times of London and the New York Times printed his sermons in their entirety each week. Allowing for the fact that all this took place in the Victorian era, Spurgeon was arguably far more popular in his day than any present-day preacher.

Interior of the original Metropolitan Tabernacle

Interior of the original Metropolitan Tabernacle

In Murray’s biography The Forgotten Spurgeon, he explains that at Charles Spurgeon’s death, the Tabernacle was thrown into turmoil over the question of who would succeed him. Eventually, the congregation called Spurgeon’s son Thomas, who had been a pastor in New Zealand. Murray explains that, “to the pleasure of many, he had his father’s voice.” He further notes that “Thomas Spurgeon had a simple evangelical faith, …and had, like his father, the gifts of humor and imagination….Yet he did not have the structure of theological thought, nor the spirit accompanying it, which were the essence of his father’s ministry.” The younger Spurgeon’s ministry at the Tabernacle was accompanied by a revivalist approach to evangelism that his father would have decried, and the church shifted considerably in its theological commitments under his leadership.

The degree to which the congregation’s choice for a replacement was influenced not by theology, but by sentimentalism, undoubtedly reflected its love for Charles Spurgeon. Thomas Spurgeon’s voice and manner reminded them of his “rock star” father, and retaining that memory may have overridden other more significant considerations. Perhaps the Metropolitan Tabernacle’s experience offers some lessons for churches built on the preaching of contemporary Reformed rock stars.

One question that comes up in multi-site debates is, “what happens if the big-name pastor dies?” The response from defenders of the model is typically that the campus pastors just take over the preaching at that point. But if the campus pastor is really an acceptable substitute for the big-name preacher, why can’t he take over the preaching now?

There seems to be a built-in inconsistency: if the multi-site campus will be the same after the rock star dies, why do you need him now? Implicitly, the multi-site model is built on an assumption that many people coming to the “satellite” campuses are there because of who’s preaching (in fact, some of the remarks of the pro-multisite pastors in the debate above corroborate this inference). The desire to hear a rock star preacher brings in the crowds. If the rock star goes away, some will remain through inertia. But maintaining outward momentum and growth may require finding another preacher who can pack ‘em in like Spurgeon.

Of course, it’s the exception that tests the rule. In presbyterian circles, the best-known practitioner of the multi-site model is Tim Keller in New York City. A couple of years ago, USA Today carried an article on multi-site churches in which Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church was prominently mentioned.

After the article was published, Rev. Keller was quick to note that Redeemer’s use of the multi-site model is intended to facilitate a transitional process in which each satellite campus will develop into a local “parish” with its own on-site minister. Keller does most of the preaching now, with one site getting a sermon each week from someone else. Eventually, the campuses will all have “Lead Pastors” who will share the preaching with Keller. It sounds as though Keller will still preach in rotation among the campuses, but will do so less often as time passes, thus transitioning each campus over to its own pastor.

It will be interesting to see how this approach works. It does seem to me an improvement over “beaming” one man into multiple locations, and may enable the development of churches where there are real shepherding relationships between preacher and flock. Still, if anyone qualifies as a Reformed rock star, surely Tim Keller does. There are not a few people coming for whom he is the main draw. Part of his pastoral challenge will be to persuade such people to be more committed to serving Christ in a local church than they are to hearing a rock star.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend who was an elder in a Reformed congregation that had been growing by leaps and bounds. He noted that many of the people flocking to his church were not coming because they were eager for Reformed teaching. Rather, he said, they were people who wanted to be part of “a happenin’ church.” His church was doing what it could to teach and edify them, but he wasn’t confident that all of them would hang around indefinitely. He thought some of them might well wander elsewhere if they decided that some other church appeared to have better stuff “happenin’.” If that’s what drew them in, it could also draw them out.

Time will tell whether the multi-site model’s dependence on “rock star” preachers is a fatal flaw or a fortuitous feature. I do wonder how a real pastoral relationship can exist between a preacher and a group of people with whom he has essentially no contact. I wonder whether the model’s primary outcome is the advancement of the Gospel, rather than the encouragement of evangelical church-hoppers. Most of all, I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to allow men who are “good enough” to just preach the Word, rather than (implicitly) catering to the American consumerist impulse in all of us.

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Slightly Random Reflections on “Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe”

Church history is often messier than we might wish.  In the course of uncovering the past, we sometimes turn up details that we’d prefer not to have found.

Yet we have precedents for remembering imperfect stories.  The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures did not shrink from recounting the stumblings of a number of Old and New Testament saints.  There seem to be at least two reasons for such accounts:  First, so that we can be realistic and understand that even in the church, we are sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness.  Second, so that we might learn how those who went before us have stumbled and try not to walk in their ways (1 Corinthians 10:1 – 13).

There are parts of the story of the founding of Cambridge RPC that I still puzzle over.  For example, I’ve never found a record of what James Mitchell Foster, the pastor of Second Boston, said when he addressed the Synod of 1895.  Did he speak against forming a new church, or for it?  In my original paper, I presumed that he opposed the organization.  But I found no evidence for that conclusion, so I removed it.  One of the bits of data that prompted me to do this is the fact that Foster did not sign the elders’ petition against the organization, even though it probably was drafted by a member of his session.  That struck me as odd.  Did he want to present a more nuanced argument against organizing a new church, or did he actually speak in favor?

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the circumstances of the beginnings of Second Boston and Cambridge were all that different.  In each case, a congregation was established to enable people who weren’t satisfied with an existing church to remain in the RPCNA by forming a new one.  Yet I treated Cambridge’s circumstances much more sympathetically.  Was I just biased?

Reconsidering the facts, I’m still inclined to view the two situations differently.  The group that departed from First Boston to organize Second Boston behaved quite badly, to put it mildly.  The elders and deacon who were at the heart of the schism cut a “plea bargain” to avoid being deposed, which implies that they expected to be found guilty of violating their ordination vows.  In contrast, the group seeking an organization in Cambridge was never even charged with any wrongdoing.  Moreover, the petition of the elders who petitioned against organizing the new congregation has a rather mean-spirited tone.

The two situations are different in another way as well.   The only reason for creating a second Boston congregation seemed to be the strife that led to the original split, for in Second Boston’s early years, the two churches often worshiped not far from each other.  But Central Square would have been considered quite a distance from the Boston churches, and was more convenient to the western suburbs.   It’s not hard to see the usefulness of a church in a location that would be much more accessible not only to RPs living in Cambridge, but also to those in towns like Lexington and Somerville, where some of the petitioners lived.


The circumstances attending the formation of Second Boston and Cambridge present some curious insights into nineteenth-century RP church conflicts.  But the manner in which the conflicts were handled – by organizing a new congregation for those dissatisfied with the existing one – was not unique.  It was repeated a number of times in the 19th-century RPCNA:

  • A dispute over the location of the place of worship for the First New York City congregation produced such “great bitterness and strife” between members living uptown and those downtown that the presbytery agreed to form Second New York church in June 1830.
  • In March 1848, the Third New York congregation was organized after the presbytery was unable to settle a dispute over the office of deacon in Second New York.
  • A division in Third New York resulted in the organization of the Fourth church in 1870.
  • In 1852, a dispute over the suitability of the pastor of the Perth, Ontario church led the presbytery to organize a second congregation there.
  • In 1896, only a few years after the organization of the Geneva (Beaver Falls, PA) congregation, irreconcilable disagreements over the outcome of a pastoral call (and several other issues) led several Geneva members to pursue the organization of what is now College Hill RPC.

Looking across all the “splits,” a common source of conflict was disagreement over the suitability of a particular pastor.  I can’t help thinking of the squabbles that divided the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:12); Paul’s admonitions to that congregation need to be relearned from time to time.

Have we learned that lesson for good?  I doubt it.  But these kinds of church “planting” efforts are at least not as common as they once were, and for that I am thankful.

I’m also thankful for the tenacity of those patient Yankees who would not be turned away from their goal of establishing a church in Cambridge.  The Lord has been gracious in establishing the work of their hands and using it for his own glory.


The information on the New York City and Perth RP churches is from W. M. Glasgow’s History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (Baltimore: Hill and Harvey), 1888.

I’m indebted to Professor Robert Copeland for providing me with a copy of his paper, The Origins Of College Hill R.P. Church: A New Inquiry Into An Old Problem, previously published in the journal Semper Reformanda (Date unknown).

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Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 3


At the 1894 Spring meeting of the New York Presbytery, a petition from some members of the First Boston R.P. Church and First United Presbyterian Church of Cambridge was presented requesting the organization of an RP mission station in Cambridge. The Presbytery was reluctant to approve this, but instead organized a commission “to visit the people in Cambridge and endeavor to reconcile them to our Boston congregations.” The commission could not convince the petitioners to join either of the Boston churches, but the group persuaded the commissioners to act as pulpit supplies so that they could have Sabbath worship. They began meeting in the Central Square YWCA Hall. In addition to the commissioners, several other RP ministers, including W. M. Glasgow, preached to them during this interval.

In October, a new petition from Cambridge was sent to the Presbytery, and again it was declined. In May of 1895, the Presbytery met again. This time, the meeting was held in the Second Boston RP Church building, a large structure on Beacon Hill that the congregation had purchased in 1878. An even larger group of petitioners requested a new congregation in Cambridge, but this was again declined.

Inasmuch as the records of the New York Presbytery for this period appear to have been lost, it is not possible to determine precisely the Presbytery’s reasons for declining the organization. However, the Presbytery’s decision was appealed to the Synod, which was scheduled to meet one month later in Denver.

The Synod of 1895 received four papers pertaining to the appeal. Two were from petitioners who sought an organization, one was from Rev. McNaugher at First Boston, and one was from a majority of the ruling elders of the First and Second Boston congregations. So long after the fact, it may be impossible to ascertain the whole truth, but many of the claims brought before Synod are worth examining.

The Cambridge group presented an appeal from the action of Presbytery and a request for organization of a congregation.  They argued that the location of the Boston congregations was inconvenient for them and that Cambridge was an open field for evangelism. One of their subpoints suggested that they could not attend church in Boston without using streetcars on the Sabbath. They noted that their worship services had been well-attended and that their financial means were sufficient to make them self-supporting. The petitions, which pledged their commitment to the Covenanter church, were signed by two members of the First Boston church, several persons holding letters of standing from First Boston, and a number of others, including several members of the First United Presbyterian Church of Cambridge. A total of 47 signed the two petitions.

Samuel McNaugher, who was unable to attend Synod, asked in his paper that the organization of the new congregation be denied.  In addition to making various insinuations about two petitioners from his congregation (one of whom had stopped coming to church almost immediately after he arrived), he claimed that the ecclesiastical standing of the petitioners was “bad,” and that several of them had ended up in the Cambridge U.P. church [ 1 ] after leaving the Second Boston congregation.  Noting that a dozen of his families lived within walking distance of Central Square (the commercial heart of Cambridge at the time), Rev. McNaugher expressed fear that he would lose them to the new group.

One of McNaugher’s greatest concerns was that the Boston congregations were both heavily in debt. First Boston had made no progress whatsoever in reducing its mortgages in the prior decade, and Second was occupying its Beacon Hill home at great cost. He argued that because many of the people in the congregation could not afford the rents in Boston, most lived in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and other areas outside Boston; therefore, a new work in Cambridge would suck away the lifeblood of the two struggling Boston groups.  McNaugher felt that if these people wanted to be Covenanters, they should join one of the Boston congregations.

The petition from the ruling elders is the longest, and perhaps the most interesting. We can surmise that it was drafted largely by a member of the Second Boston session, as it contains a number of details about parties who had left that congregation previously. The Second Boston elders signed the petition first, consistent with the hypothesis that it originated there.  It was signed by all the First Boston elders and four of the six elders of Second. Second Boston’s pastor, James Mitchell Foster, also did not sign it, but he was granted time to address the Synod.

The ruling elders argued along some of the same lines as McNaugher, and accused the group of falsely advertising itself in the Boston Herald as “The First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cambridge.” Aside from repeating the dire proclamation that the Boston congregations would soon fold if the organization were granted, the elders attempted to cast doubt on the character of the petitioners. Apparently, several of the United Presbyterian petitioners had left the Second Boston congregation in 1891 (one of them had been a ruling elder there) and it was alleged that they had taken the pulpit, chairs, and collection box of the 2nd Boston building with them to help establish the newly-organized U.P. church in Cambridge. This congregation, they warned, “may go out of our church as soon as perfected,” just as several of its principals had left Second Boston.

The elders further complained that “the religious weeklies of our church have uniformly given favorable reports to these petitioners and [have] insinuated that the Covenanters here [in Boston] are selfish and opposed to the enlargement of our church and to an effort to save the perishing. This we regard as an injustice and wrong.” Like McNaugher, they argued that the Cambridge group should join an existing congregation and that the creation of a new congregation would doom the Boston congregations to the status of pensioners of the denomination, or worse.

One charge in the ruling elders’ petition appears to have been crossed out before it was presented to Synod, [ 2 ] although it is still legible. It said, in part, “A generous use of money leads us to fear as to the ingenuous judgment of some who will be called to pass judgment upon us…. It would be right if those who have received new suits of clothes by visiting this so-called mission should refrain from voting on the complaint.” This was obviously a slur against the RP ministers who had preached for the Cambridge group.

On the afternoon of June 12, after hearing the arguments in the case, a large majority of the Synod voted to overturn the decision of New York Presbytery and referred the matter back to the Presbytery. The congregation was organized by a Presbytery commission on July 9, 1895.


Although the debate over the organization of the Cambridge congregation lacked the forceful acrimony and fireworks associated with the formation of the Second Boston church, the congregation’s organization was obviously not without controversy. What are we to make of the available facts?

With regard to the arguments made by McNaugher and the other elders, it is true that the presence of another RP congregation would give Covenanters in Cambridge and Somerville a more convenient worship venue than either Boston church. But it is important to keep in mind that the area the elders were claiming as their exclusive mission field included nearly three-quarters of a million people. The elders themselves noted in their petition that the City of Boston alone contained 400,000 people. Even if the Boston elders had in mind a ministry limited to Irish immigrants, it was not entirely accurate for them to claim that working-class people could not afford to live anywhere in Boston. For example, the North End and South End districts were full of working-class apartments at the time. There were reasons to doubt the claim that such a field could not support three congregations.

In fact, the arguments made by the Boston elders left them open to a number of questions. Why were they willing to maintain two heavily-indebted buildings within walking distance of each other and located in two of the most expensive districts in the city?  [ 3 ] If two congregations could be justified so close together in Boston, why would it be unreasonable to suppose that a third could be justified on the other side of the Charles River? In fact, the Boston congregations could have substantially relieved their financial difficulties by selling the Second Boston building. First Boston’s building was large enough to accommodate both groups combined – or they could have met separately – and the debts of both congregations could have been greatly reduced. But since three of the Second Boston elders had themselves departed from First Boston (and one of these had been a part of the original schism in 1871), such a course would probably never have been considered. There are indications that the maintenance of two separate buildings may have been more a matter of pride than of necessity.

It does seem that the Cambridge group had been somewhat deceptive – or at least overeager – in advertising itself as the First RP Church of Cambridge before such an organization existed. And there are evidences that some of the group were using the streetcars to attend Sabbath worship in Cambridge anyway, so that argument was rather misleading.

On the other hand, it is clear that the Cambridge petitioners, though free from any disciplinary charges against them, could not have comfortably joined either of the Boston congregations. The letter from the Boston ruling elders breathes a certain hostility towards the Cambridge group, and parts of it are quite petty. One doubts that they could have expected the Boston congregations to receive them with open arms!  Further, it is clear that they were convinced that an evangelism effort in Cambridge required a congregation in Cambridge. Joining one of the Boston churches – neither of which was in a position to give attention to mission work in Cambridge – could not have satisfied this desire.


Within a short time, the newly formed congregation had called as its first pastor the Rev. Samuel Gormley Shaw and continued to meet in the Central Square YWCA. Desirous of their own place of worship, yet mindful of the building debts that were burdening their brethren across the river, in 1896 they built an attractive but modest building not far from Central Square, on a piece of land donated by one of the members.

Despite the concerns that had been expressed by the Boston elders, there was no mass exodus from the congregations, although from time to time there were transfers to Cambridge. [ 4 ] It is also clear that the congregation did not drift away from the denomination, as had been predicted.

In time, the conflict surrounding the formation of the Cambridge congregation seems to have been largely forgotten. The sister congregations enjoyed joint social occasions and observations of the Lord’s Supper. Following the disorganization of the Second Boston congregation in 1929, and that of the First in 1953, some of the members of those churches transferred to Cambridge.

Thus it would appear, 116 years after the fact, that the judgment of the Synod of 1895 has been vindicated. By God’s grace, although Reformed Presbyterians are no longer situated at the Hub of the Universe, we have at least remained within sight of it.


I am grateful to the office of the Stated Clerk of the RPCNA, Pittsburgh, for giving me access to the Minutes of the Session and the Minutes of the Board of Officers from the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Boston, as well as the original papers filed at the Synod of 1895. Thanks are also due to Dr. Jonathan Watt for the use of his copy of Blaikie’s Presbyterianism in New England.

Anonymous; “The Beginning of the Congregation,” entry in the Minutes of the Session, First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cambridge, p. 3-4.

Blaikie, Alexander; Presbyterianism in New England: Its Introduction, Growth, Decay, Revival And Present Mission, Boston (printed for the author by Alexander Moore, 3 School St.), 1881

Cambridge Historical Commission; Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge: East Cambridge; (The MIT Press), 1988

Graham, William; “Historical Sketch of Twenty-Five Years of Pastoral Work,” in Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, p. 322 (1885).

Whitehill, Walter Muir; Boston: A Topographical History; Cambridge, Massachusetts (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 1968

(1) The petitioners from the Cambridge U.P. Church had apparently become dissatisfied there because the church had begun using an organ in worship.

(2) Apparently, someone had the good sense to recognize that the accusation therein could have been considered libelous.

(3) Second Boston had the opportunity to witness the financial troubles that First Boston had faced with this property, but it had nonetheless chosen to buy a building in the one neighborhood that was more prestigious than the Back Bay.

(4) Ironically, one such transfer, in 1897, was that of an elder who had originally opposed the organization of the congregation.

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Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 2

[Part 1 of this series may be read at]

After such a bitter and protracted schism, the First Boston congregation apparently felt a strong resolve to move ahead. Several years earlier, the officers had established a building fund and many members had made pledges to the effort. [ 1 ] By now the congregation had met in six different rented halls since its inception and was growing weary of the limitations imposed by worshipping in rented space.

But even for the sizable congregation remaining after the split, purchasing a building was a difficult proposition. While a few in the congregation had middle-class jobs, most found employment as laborers and domestic servants. Thus many members gave sacrificially; those with sufficient means also loaned money to the effort. In April 1872, the church purchased a parcel at the corner of Isabella and Ferdinand Streets, on the eastern edge of the unfinished Back Bay district. The congregation could not have imagined how bad its timing would prove.

On November 9, 1872 – thirteen months after the Great Chicago Fire – 800 buildings in Boston’s South End went up in flames. Despite this shock to the city’s economy, by the summer of 1873 the congregation had managed to build the foundation of a large edifice. Although finances were still uncertain, the congregation voted in August to press ahead with construction. A month later, disaster struck afresh with the financial “Panic” that ushered in an economic depression with effects that would be felt for nearly a quarter of a century.

The congregation continued building and began worshipping in the new structure in February 1874. The total cost of land, building and furnishings was $63,000 – a staggering sum for the congregation, comparable to about $1.25 MM in 2011 dollars.

First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Boston, MA

Long before the building’s completion, it was obvious that the congregation had overextended itself. Rather than see the church default on its debts, Rev. Graham took up a task he would later describe as “distasteful and encompassed with great difficulties” – the solicitation of funds from outside the congregation. Traveling across the United States, to Canada, and the British Isles, Graham was eventually able to raise nearly $26,000 above the cost of his travel expenses.

The new building, which could accommodate over five hundred worshippers, proved to be a millstone about the congregation’s neck. Concerns relating to the repayment of mortgages occupied much of the officers’ time. In 1879, the congregation narrowly avoided being sued by one Elijah McDowells for failure to repay a mortgage. Graham negotiated a new mortgage – but the congregation’s finances made it necessary to reduce his salary by $500. By 1885, the building debts had been reduced to $22,400, and the congregation’s communicant membership had stabilized at around two hundred and fifty.

During most of his pastorate, Rev. Graham lived on Third Street in East Cambridge, opposite the Middlesex County Courthouse. This section of Cambridge had grown rapidly after the Civil War, with many Irish and other immigrants settling in the newly-built row houses and tenements. They found ready employment in the glassworks, factories, and wharves of East Cambridge.

In 1886, aided by two elders and several other members of his congregation, Graham attempted to extend the ministry of the Boston church into Cambridge. An afternoon Sabbath School and evening preaching were established, but after 18 months the work was abandoned. Considering Graham’s enormous workload as the pastor of a large urban congregation and the continuing burden of building debt (the interest alone on the church’s mortgages consumed nearly a quarter of the congregations income in good years), it is perhaps more surprising that this effort was undertaken at all than that it stopped.

The First Boston congregation continued in relative peace through the rest of Graham’s life. He maintained a heavy pastoral workload and was also a recognized figure in the community. On March 15, 1893, Graham had arisen from his sick bed to speak at a temperance rally. He began his speech, but did not live to complete it.

Given the duration and faithfulness of his service to First Boston congregation, Rev. Graham’s death was undoubtedly devastating for them. However, in a short time, they called Rev. Samuel McNaugher, who began his ministry in Boston six months after Graham’s death. McNaugher’s call was not quite unanimous, with six votes against him. In the providence of God, the stage was being set for a new controversy. This one would involve both of the Boston congregations.

(1) According to the minutes of the officers’ meetings, several of the members of 2nd Boston had left the church with legally binding building fund pledges still unpaid. The First Boston deacons pursued the collection of these pledges for a couple of years, but had no success.

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Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 1

In 1995, in anticipation of our congregation’s 100th anniversary, I set out to do what I thought would be a small research project on the congregation’s beginnings. It soon became evident that I couldn’t properly understand the founding of our congregation without learning about the Boston congregations that preceded it. I ended up poring over session minutes from two congregations (First Boston and Cambridge) and going to the denominational archives for more information. When I was done, I wrote an article that was published in the now-defunct journal Semper Reformanda. As I’ve continued to ponder what I learned from that project, I decided to republish the article here in segments, along with some of my own reflections. I have made a few minor changes and additions to the original article.

The original title of the article was
“Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe: A history of the origins of the First R.P. Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts” [ 1 ]

William Melancthon Glasgow, in his History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (1888) described the organization of the earliest Reformed Presbyterian group in Boston and exulted that the Covenanter church had taken root in “the cultured metropolis of New England and the Hub of the Universe.” Less than a decade after his History was published, Glasgow himself preached to an assembly that was to become the third Covenanter church in the Boston area. The congregation, located in Cambridge, came into existence through means of three petitions to the New York Presbytery and a direct appeal to the RP Synod.

This paper will examine two questions. First, why was the organization of a congregation in Cambridge so controversial as to require an act of Synod? And second, how were the two sizable Boston Covenanter congregations – now no longer extant – involved?

To appreciate the circumstances under which the Cambridge congregation was formed, it’s helpful to understand how Reformed Presbyterians came to be in the area in the first place. This article will therefore consider some of the history of the First and Second Boston congregations, giving special attention to several key events.

Although a few Presbyterians were influential persons in colonial New England (Peter Faneuil, a Huguenot, gave the city of Boston a large brick hall and market, now part of Boston National Historical Park, in 1742), the earliest sizable groups of Presbyterians in the region arrived as indentured servants. The expansion of Presbyterianism in the 18th and 19th centuries was minimal. [ 2 ] Throughout New England, nine presbyteries of various denominations were created and dissolved between 1728 and 1838. Although the churches of Massachusetts were generally committed to Biblical soundness in the colonial era, the spiritual climate of the area became less and less hospitable to Reformed doctrine with the rise of liberalism, Roman Catholicism, and Unitarianism through the early 1800s. By the time the first R.P. congregation in Boston was founded, most churches that were Presbyterian in the 1700s had either become Congregationalist or had ceased to exist. By 1850, a handful of Presbyterian churches were scattered through New Hampshire and Vermont and there were two in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

In Boston, there was but one Presbyterian Church, First Associate Reformed Presbyterian (after 1858, First United Presbyterian), a congregation which continues today as Newton Presbyterian Church.

From the 1820s onward, the Irish population of Boston grew considerably: by 1850, the city’s 136,000 inhabitants included 35,000 Irish immigrants. [ 3 ] Most were from the Roman Catholic south and west of Ireland. A series of potato crop failures, beginning in 1845, heightened the flood of Irish immigration to Boston’s shores. In 1848, a trickle of Reformed Presbyterians from the Northern Irish counties began arriving on the scene as well. They were ministered to occasionally by preachers from the New York Presbytery of the RP CNA, and on July 12, 1854, a congregation was organized in Boston with twenty-one members, including two elders and one deacon.

After two years, their first pastor, Rev. James Reed Lawson, came to them from the Canadian province of New Brunswick, but returned to his previous congregation after less than a year. [ 4 ] The Boston church depended for several years on supply preachers, with licentiate William Graham arriving in March of 1860. The group found Graham suitable and called him to be their pastor. He was ordained and installed on the congregation‘s sixth anniversary, thus inaugurating a remarkable pastorate that would last until Graham’s death 33 years later.

William Graham was himself an immigrant from County Monaghan, Ireland. He was called to the ministry after embarking on a business career in New York City and was a classical studies graduate of the City University there. The records of the congregation indicate that he was a disciplined and vigorous pastor. Upon his arrival, a board of officers (deacons and elders) was established and it met regularly to discuss congregational finances. During his pastorate, the session met frequently, and the session minutes give testimony to his concern for matters of congregational discipline and oversight. Owen F. Thompson records in Sketches of the Ministers (1930) that Graham “was especially faithful in looking after those who had newly come into our land from across the sea and must find a church home.” The congregation grew steadily, from 39 communicants in 1860 to 131 in only five years. By the end of his pastorate, the congregation had reached 260 members plus 150 or more adherents and children.

The work of shepherding an urban church in the 19th century was anything but easy. There was a steady stream of newcomers from Ireland, the Canadian provinces, and other Boston churches. Though the congregation grew steadily, the session faced various unpleasant duties. Almost every month, the elders found themselves attempting to contact members who were regularly absent from worship, or, worse yet, members who had been accused of various forms of immorality. Charges of drunkenness, fornication, spousal abandonment, and even bigamy [ 5 ] came to the session’s ears and were investigated in turn.

There were other challenges as well. William Graham, giving a speech on the 25th anniversary of his ordination, noted cryptically that at the outset of his ministry there were “seeds of strife and discord” within the Boston congregation. These seeds took root slowly and sprang into full bloom nearly 10 years after Graham arrived. During the week before Christmas 1870, a group of members informed the session that they intended to petition for the formation of a separate congregation. Three church officers – two elders and one deacon – were part of the schism. In the months that followed, one of the three formed a rival prayer meeting group and some members and adherents began meeting for Sabbath worship on their own. In May, 1871, the congregation presented a paper requesting the removal of the three men from their offices to the meeting of the New York Presbytery. When it became clear that the Presbytery was ready to grant the petition, rather than face deposition the three officers resigned in return for the withdrawal of the paper.

A month later, a group of two dozen or so members notified the elders that they intended to have separate worship services until their petition for a new congregation was granted. Several members of the group were openly abusive to William Graham. The session then cited the three former officers for various offenses, including breach of their ordination vows. Others involved in the schism were cited for frequent neglect of public worship; one responded by threatening an elder with bodily harm! To deal with the crisis, the session found itself meeting quite frequently – six times in the month of August alone. As the cases against the former officers progressed, several members called as witnesses refused to testify and were cited for contempt. In October, three officers and several other members were suspended.

At its meeting in Newburgh, New York on October 31st, New York Presbytery faced a complicated tangle of petitions, appeals, and counter-appeals. When all had been heard, most of the suspensions, including those of the three officers, were upheld. However, the Presbytery also granted the petition to organize a new congregation in Boston. In a subsequent meeting with the session, the three officers professed repentance and agreed to receive a public rebuke on the next Sabbath as a condition of having their suspensions removed. When the scheduled time came for the issuance of their rebukes, the minutes record that “none of them responded in answer to their names.” In the days leading up to the organization of the Second Boston congregation, most of the other suspended individuals confessed their sins and repented. [ 6 ] In all, 31 members and numerous adherents departed First Boston to form the Second R.P. Church of Boston on November 21st , 1871. The Second Boston congregation rented a hall in the North End, though within a few years they were renting a place of worship within a few blocks of First Boston’s meeting place.

(1) This article was first published in the Fall 1995 issue of Semper Reformanda under the title, “Reformed Presbyterians At the Hub of the Universe: A history of the origins of the First R.P. Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts.” For reasons unknown to me, the editors of SR modified the original title, but since the title was an intentional reference to part of the article, I have restored the original.
(2) William Blaikie, a former pastor of the Boston United Presbyterian congregation, estimated in 1881 that in all of New England – then a region with a population exceeding 4 million – there were fewer than 6,000 Presbyterians in 35 congregations.
(3) The rapid growth taking place in 19th-century Boston can be appreciated by considering that its population in 1800 was only 25,000; by 1825 it was 58,000.
(4) When I wrote the original article, I had no idea why Lawson left Boston. I was subsequently informed by Professor Eldon Hay of Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, who was in possession of private correspondence from one of Lawson’s descendants, that Rev. Lawson returned to the Maritimes because his wife could not bear city life.
(5) In 1869, a rumor spread in the congregation that a recently-immigrated member had left his wife in Ireland and married someone else. The man declared that he was innocent; as far as he knew, his first wife was dead. The case dragged on for some time, but eventually the woman wrote to Graham and confirmed that she – and their three children – were very much alive.
(6) It’s not clear that there was much contrition in some of these confessions. In one case, the clerk of session recorded that three women “appeared before session to have their suspension[s] removed, [and] after much parlaying and abuse of session they made very reluctantly a kind of explanation and the acts of suspension… were removed.”

Reflections – Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe, Part 1

Reading through the minutes of the First Boston congregation was both fascinating and depressing. Many of the challenges faced by the church 140 years ago were a good deal more serious than any I’ve experienced as an elder at the turn of the 21st century. The notion that “life was easier in the good old days” was pretty thoroughly squeezed out of me by reading through those session minutes. If life in First Boston was typical of the era, immorality in the churches seems to have been no less prevalent in the 19th century than it is today. I found that a big surprise.

The events leading up to the formation of Second Boston present a puzzle that I’ve never completely solved. What was the real cause of the schism? The only available account of the events is in the First Boston minutes, so the evidence is technically one-sided. But the evidence certainly suggests that the issues were not doctrinal, since the departing group did not seek a different denominational affiliation. Moreover, the departing group never leveled any charges against the character or teaching of the church’s leaders; surely they would have done so if a valid accusation could have been made. It’s also clear that the group was not merely desirous of worshipping in a different location, for in the years that followed, the two congregations met in places that were not very far apart.

The most likely explanation of the data is some sort of personality conflict: one gets the impression that these people simply wanted to have their own way. As William Graham was directly attacked in several instances, it may be that his leadership was not acceptable to the officers who sought to leave. Whatever the cause, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that this was an ugly and unseemly split that was not honoring to Christ. It’s particularly disturbing that men who had taken vows to serve as officers were so willing to take the lead in disrupting the peace of the church.

Another matter I’ve puzzled over is the approach taken by the presbytery and session in handling the conflict. When I first wrote the article, I was rather baffled as to why the session and presbytery were willing to accept the compromise through which the three officers agreed to resign. But sixteen years later, I find it easier to understand why the opportunity to avoid the hassle of a trial was attractive. Perhaps, at the time, I would have been willing to do the same thing. But I’ve never been able to rationalize the presbytery’s actions in October, 1871, after it became clear that the resignations had not resolved the conflict. It’s as if the schismatic group was given, in return for its appalling behavior, exactly what it desired: its own congregation. There are indications in Glasgow’s History that, at other times, similar conflicts led to the formation of new congregations in Perth, Ontario and New York City, so perhaps this sort of solution was considered tolerable in the 19th century. I can only hope that it would not be so in the 21st.

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Criticism, Ignorance, and the Vandals

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher was a man we students regarded with a curious mixture of fear and admiration: Marion A. Wash. Unless you were hopelessly dense, you figured out quickly that if Mr. Wash asked a question and you didn’t know the answer, it was very unwise to hazard a guess.

One day, for reasons I can’t recall, Mr. Wash asked us, “Why did the Barbarians destroy Rome?”

I had no idea what the answer might be, nor did any of my classmates, so there was a long silence as his eyes surveyed the room.

Finally, he told us: “They destroyed it because they could not comprehend it.”

He explained that that this was simply human nature:  people tend to destroy that which they don’t understand. I remember thinking at the time that the idea was itself somewhat incomprehensible. But it seemed important, so the remark stuck with me.  With the passage of years, it began to make sense.

The Vandals (or whichever barbarian invasion he had in mind) had never seen anything like Rome. It was a magnificent city; it must have been incomprehensible to a bunch of garlic-eating nomads. Perhaps it was even a fearful prospect to be in such a strange place. Utterly incapable of understanding Rome, maybe the only way they could demonstrate their dominance over it was by ruining it.

I can’t say with certainty whether Mr. Wash was precisely right about their motivation, but his insight into human nature was sound. We do tend to destroy that which we can’t comprehend.

I’ve discovered that tendency in myself, though it surfaces as an inclination to dismantle ideas rather than buildings. The most negative and reflexive critiques I’ve ever generated have been in response to things that I didn’t actually understand very well at the time. Unfettered by actual knowledge of the target of criticism, one can let loose with what feel like teriffic rhetorical volleys; ignorance appears to act as a sort of catalyst for criticism.  Perhaps this explains why ignorance and criticism so often seem to go hand in hand. [1]

Visigoths, not Vandals – but you get the idea

Dismissing that which one does not understand is much easier that trying to comprehend it, and let’s face it: demolition yields instant gratification, unlike the slow-paced satisfaction that comes from developing an idea from scratch or building something from nothing. The Vandals trashed Rome in a fraction of the time that it took to build and had fun doing it.

To make matters worse, ignorant criticism maintains its greatest potency among those who are also ignorant. In the right environment, such criticism can snowball; even foolish ideas can grow in popularity so long as they aren’t examined closely.

The necessity of understanding other people’s points of view before deciding that they are worthy of criticism was brought home to me recently when I read for the first time a short article entitled “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” by the late Roger Nicole. The principles expressed in the article apply not only to theological debates, but to all sorts of areas of disagreement.

In the article, Nicole emphasizes that the first step in dealing with disagreements is to consider our responsibility to love our neighbor:

… what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being–we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)

How then do we desire to be treated? First, we want people to know what we are saying or meaning. If we are going to voice differences, therefore, we have an obligation to make a serious effort to understand the person with whom we differ….In the case of an oral exchange where we don’t have any written words, we owe the person who differs from us the courtesy to listen carefully to what he or she says. Rather than preparing to pounce on that person the moment he or she stops talking, we should concentrate on apprehending precisely what his or her position is.

…The truth that I believe I have grasped must be presented in a spirit of love and winsomeness. To do otherwise is to do detriment to truth itself, for it is more naturally allied to love than to hostility. (Eph. 4:15) Belligerence or sarcasm may, in fact, reflect a certain insecurity that is not warranted when one is really under the sway of truth. …when dealing with those we have a desire to influence for the good, we need imperatively to remain outgoing and gracious.

The first thing that I should be prepared to learn is that I may be wrong and the other person may be right. Obviously, this does not apply to certain basic truths of the faith like the Deity of Christ or salvation by grace….Yet, apart from issues where God Himself has spoken so that doubt and hesitancy are really not permissible, there are numerous areas where we are temperamentally inclined to be very assertive and in which we can quite possibly be in error. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal that we are more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation than in the discovery and triumph of truth. A person who corrects our misapprehensions is truly our helper rather than our adversary, and we should be grateful for this service rather than resentful of the correction. As far as our reputation is concerned, we should seek to be known for an unfailing attachment to the truth and not appear to pretend to a kind of infallibility that we are ready to criticize when Roman Catholics claim it for their popes!

The article is a gem, and ought to be required reading for all presbyters and, indeed, all Christians.

When I read this piece, I can’t help thinking of how often my motives for offering criticism fail to rise to the level of love for my neighbor. The desire to love my neighbor is too often buried deep beneath my perceived need to stand my ground and defend my personal status quo. Approaching criticism in the manner that Nicole describes not only requires love for my neighbor, but sufficient humility to set my neighbor’s honor above my own.

This is an article that I’ll profit from re-reading every few months. The temptation to argue like a Vandal can be hard to shake.

Footnote 1:
This observation connects nicely with a proverbial saying that I learned as a child: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
I decline to speculate as to why my family felt that this particular saying was one that I especially needed to learn.
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In Memoriam: Roger Nicole

In the summer of 1981, while living and working outside of Chicago, I worshipped in a small Reformed Baptist congregation in Wheaton, IL. As I prepared to leave for graduate school in Boston, one of the elders of the church urged me to keep an eye out for Roger Nicole, who was, he told me enthusiastically, a Reformed Baptist theologian teaching at Gordon-Conwell seminary.

I never had occasion to meet Dr. Nicole in the two remaining years that I spent in Reformed Baptist circles. But in the mid-1980’s, he filled the pulpit a couple of times in our Reformed Presbyterian church in Cambridge, and I finally had the opportunity to meet him and to hear him preach. In 1986, he retired from Gordon-Conwell and began teaching at RTS Orlando.

Just this afternoon, I learned that Dr. Nicole went to be with the Lord yesterday, one day after his 95th birthday. I thought about what a gifted preacher of the Word he was, but I also remembered what a kind and gracious man he always showed himself to be. The mental image that I have of him is not so much his presence in the pulpit as it is the time he spent after worship fellowshipping with those to whom he had just preached. I particularly recall his delight in holding one of the infants of our church as he chattered cheerfully with her.

What is striking to me still is Dr. Nicole’s genuine humility. A true servant of Christ, he was as willing to drive an hour from his home on a Sunday evening and preach the Word to a couple of dozen people as he was to preach to Boston’s Park Street Church, where he also sometimes filled the pulpit in those days. Dr. Nicole’s great scholarship never eclipsed his pastor’s heart, and his two earned doctorates never kept him from being able to minister to people.

As others who knew him better than I can also attest, Dr. Nicole was as notable for his graciousness and Christ-likeness as he was for his scholarly excellence. In an age when debates among those of us who wear the “Reformed” label too often sink to the level of cheap shots and sloppy logic, he was an exemplar of what a Reformed Christian scholar can be, by God’s grace.

Dr. Nicole has fought the good fight and finished his race. May the Lord give his Church more men like him.

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Love and Sound Doctrine

Agape feast 01

Agape feast

This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. – John 15:12

In this verse our Lord returns to the old lesson which He has taught before: the great duty of love towards other Christians. He backs the command by His own example. Nothing less than His matchless love towards sinners should be the measure and standard of love to one another.

The frequent repetition of this command teaches the vast importance of Christian charity, and the great rarity of it. How anyone can pretend to Christian hope who is ignorant of Christian love, it is hard to understand. He that supposes that he is right in the sight of God because his doctrinal views are correct, while he is unloving in his temper, and sharp, cross, snappish, and ill-natured in the use of his tongue, exhibits wretched ignorance of the first principles of Christ’s Gospel. The crossness, spitefulness, jealousy, maliciousness, and general disagreeableness of many high professors of “sound doctrine” are a positive scandal to Christianity. Where there is little love there can be little grace.

Expository Thoughts on John, J.C. Ryle (1873)

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We shall thank God for every storm

On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!” (Mark 4:35-41)

Let us learn that Christ’s service does not exempt his servants from storms. Here were the disciples in the path of duty. They were obediently following Jesus, wherever he went. They were daily attending on His ministry, and hearkening to His word. They were daily testifying to the world that whatever Scribes and Pharisees might think, they believed on Jesus, loved Jesus, and were not ashamed to give up all for his sake. Yet here we see these men in trouble, tossed up and down by a tempest, and in danger of being drowned.

Let us mark well this lesson.  If we are true Christians, we must not expect everything smooth in our journey to heaven.  We must count it no strange thing if we have to endure sicknesses, losses, bereavements, and disappointments, just like other men.  Free pardon and full forgiveness, grace by the way and glory at the end – all this our Saviour has promised to give.  But He has never promised that we shall have no afflictions.  He loves us too well to promise that.  By affliction He teaches us many precious lessons, without which we should never learn.  By affliction He shows us our emptiness and weakness, draws us to the throne of grace, purifies our affections, weans us from the world, makes us long for heaven.  In the resurrection morning we shall all say, “it is good for me that I was afflicted.”  We shall thank God for every storm.

from Expository Thoughts on Mark, J.C. Ryle (1857)

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On the Faith of Old Testament Saints


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Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; and teach me thy statutes
(Psalm 119:135)

“…It is both important and interesting to mark the repetitions – always new – in this beautiful Psalm. David had just before prayed, ‘Look thou upon me, and be merciful to me.’ (Verse 132) Perhaps another passing cloud had darkened his sky. Again he darts up the same prayer, ‘Make thy face to shine upon thy servant.’ Such cries in the mouth of this holy servant of God must have been most hopeless petitions – nay, the expression of the most daring presumption – had he not been acquainted with the only true way of access to God, joyfully led to renounce every other way, and enabled diligently to improve this acceptable approach to his God.

Indeed, whatever obscurity may hang over the question relating to the faith of the Old Testament believers, their confidence at the throne of grace shows them to have attained a far more distinct perception of Christian privilege, through the shadowy representations of their law, than is commonly imagined. Else, how could they have been so wrestling and persevering in their petitions; overcoming the spirit of bondage, and breathing out the spirit of adoption in the expression of their wants and desires before the Lord? The prayers of the Old Testament church are not more distinguished for their simplicity, spirituality, and earnestness, than for their unfettered evangelical confidence. When they approached the footstool of the Divine Majesty, with the supplications: Make thy face to shine upon thy servant, – Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth – it was as if they had pleaded: Reconciled Father – thou that sittest upon a throne of grace, look upon us – Abba, Father, be gracious to us!

from An Exposition of Psalm 119, Charles Bridges (1827)

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On Tyranny

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.   1 Peter 5:1-4


A friend of mine, a Reformed pastor, once told me about one of his early pastorates.  There was an influential woman in the congregation who held strong opinions about what went on in her church, and she was vocal in expressing herself.   By the time my friend arrived on the scene, the members understood that you stayed out of this lady’s way if you could.  However, my friend had a hard time doing that – she cut a pretty wide swath.  After he’d been pastor there for a time, this sister concluded that he was the wrong man for her church and she lost no time in telling him so.  Eventually she went so far as to physically accost him and demand to know when he was going to leave.  Although his session (which – surprise – had been tolerating her behavior for years) was unable to deal with the problem, his presbytery was able to step in and sort things out, though not without difficulty.

This woman undoubtedly felt that what she was doing was good for her congregation.  The fact that my friend had been called as pastor by the whole church (and not just by her) didn’t faze her in the least.  In her mind, the only thing that mattered was her opinion, and she was used to having her way.  She had become a tyrant among the sheep, bullying them and the shepherds, all the while believing that she was doing something good.

I’ve heard of other congregations in which an individual or family was able to hold a church hostage through similarly potent opinions.  These churches resembled dysfunctional families in which people think they’ve successfully adapted to a relative’s bad behavior when, in fact, they’re merely enabling and encouraging an abusive person.  It’s puzzling to find this kind of behavior in Reformed churches, yet it happens.

Recently, I ran across an article by Tim Keller that touches on this problem of tyrant-sheep in a different context.   Although Keller was discussing how change takes place in churches of different sizes, his remarks also shed light on why churches sometimes allow outspoken people to impose their wishes on everyone else.  In “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” Keller writes,

“The smaller church by its nature gives immature, outspoken, opinionated, and broken members a significant degree of power over the whole body. Since everyone knows everyone else, when members of a family or small group express strong opposition to the direction set by the pastor and leaders, their misery can hold the whole congregation hostage.  If they threaten to leave, the majority of people will urge the leaders to desist….  Leaders of small churches must be brave enough to lead and to confront immature members, in spite of the unpleasantness involved.”

Keller’s analysis is basically a sociological one: that in small (which he defines as < 200 people) churches, relationships are so intertwined that people tend to prefer placating bad behavior over making a scene or risking the loss of a disgruntled person.  But if the elders of a church are doing their jobs faithfully, they will lovingly confront members whose behavior has turned into bullying.

When I hear about these kinds of conflicts, I can’t help thinking of James’ words:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18)

In my experience, church conflicts often arise simply because of over-sensitivity or poor communication.  It would be a mistake to assume that every disagreement is the result of a serious spiritual problem.  But when a member falls into a chronic pattern of demanding to have his or her way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a spiritual problem present that cries out to be addressed.


If Keller’s anaysis is correct, tyrant-sheep may be fairly common among confessional Reformed congregations, which are often smaller than 200 people.  I can’t say for certain whether this is true, but it’s plausible.

But if tyrant-sheep have slain their thousands, then surely tyrant-shepherds have slain their tens of thousands.

A few years ago I listened to a man talk about his experiences in a Reformed church.  The elders made some decisions that were questioned by a few church members.  His elders responded by excommunicating those who “sinned” by questioning their actions.  Other members, when they expressed concern that these people had been treated unfairly, were themselves excommunicated for contempt.  The church was nominally Presbyterian, but in practice that wasn’t the case: the story struck me as more Kafka than Calvin.  Yet since then I’ve heard of other Presbyterian churches imposing censures on members for little more than questioning a session decision.  In a legitimate presbyterian church, members have the right to respectfully appeal session decisions or judicial actions without risking reprisal.  There is little doubt that the people who were treated this way were deeply wronged.  When overseers behave in this manner, they can lay waste to whole churches.

Still, it’s easy to see how this kind of abuse develops.  Our culture is highly individualistic and anti-authoritarian.  In an effort to counteract worldliness, churches may run in the opposite direction and encourage leaders to take their authority to un-Biblical extremes.  The exercise of authority in such cases begins to extend into areas where the elders have no business making rules.

Sometimes, I suspect, shepherds can become tyrants through incompetence.  They know that they possess authority, but they don’t know how to use it properly.  Perhaps they do a poor job of communicating, and when the sheep respond with confusion, their actions are misinterpreted as insubordination: any sheep not blindly following the leader is assumed to be a trouble-maker.

There can also be a kind of tyranny that arises when elders see the sheep making decisions that are likely to be bad for them.  Personally, I find that as an elder I often have to remind myself that there are situations that I can’t “fix;” otherwise, I’m tempted to act too aggressively.

As an elder, you can’t keep people from making decisions that are within their authority even if you’re pretty sure that the decisions are bad ones.  You can’t suspend someone from membership for doing something that is unwise or foolish, but not immoral.  You don’t actually have the power to make anyone do anything, in fact; you have only the powers of moral suasion and Biblical church discipline.  Once you step beyond those, you’re probably doing something that Christ hasn’t given you the authority to do.

The topic of tyranny in the church was brought to my mind a few months ago while reading my friend Ed Robson’s book, Dear Young Shepherd: A Guide to the Gentle Use of a Pastor’s Rod and Staff.  In reflecting on 27 years of pastoral ministry, he warns against both pastoral and parental forms of tyranny and notes that pastoral tyranny is “common.”  What has intrigued me since then is the observation that tyrannical behavior must not be rare in Reformed circles, because I keep encountering contemporary Reformed pastors who mention it as a problem.

In writing about “The Kind Husband” in his wife Mary’s book, The Law of Kindness, Joel Beeke warns husbands to provide their wives with “biblical, tender, servant leadership, not ruthless authoritarianism….We are to be the head, not the fist.”

In his sermon on Galatians 5:1-26 entitled “Called to Freedom,” Pastor Edward Donnelly observes,

“In some parts of the Reformed church in general, there are men who are too heavy-handed, too intrusive, too domineering. They pronounce on matters which are none of their business, they intrude into personal family areas which are not their domain. The tragic irony is that there are too many Christians who want to be dominated, who want a pope, who want to be under someone who will tell them when to blow their nose and when to get up and when to go to bed….”

In cases of tyrant sheep, there is shared culpability: the tyrants are responsible for their actions, but the church members who make excuses for them and the elders who fail to admonish them must bear the blame, too.  In the case of tyrant shepherds, the elders themselves ought to bear the blame (WLC #151).

Apparently, whether one is a sheep or a shepherd, it is too easy to become a benevolent despot. Remembering the need for balance, the limits of church government, and our accountability to the Chief Shepherd are all essential if we are to avoid slipping into well-intended tyranny.

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