Leaving a Denomination with Honor

Leaving a Denomination with Honor June 25, 2012


This may be the worst denominational logo ever.

Jason Stellman recently left the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative, Reformed denomination that is the home to the likes of Tim Keller, R.C. SproulTullian Tchividjian. Stellman was an ordained clergyman in the denomination who, from the looks of his resignation letter, took his ordination vows very seriously.

He left, he writes, because of two growing and gnawing doubts. The first:

I have begun to doubt whether the Bible alone can be said to be our only infallible authority for faith and practice, and despite my efforts (and those of others) to dispel these doubts, they have only become more pronounced. In my own reading of the New Testament, the believer is never instructed to consult Scripture alone in order to adjudicate disputes or determine matters of doctrine (one obvious reason for this is that the early church existed at a time when the 27-book New Testament had either not been begun, completed, or recognized as canonical).

And the second:

I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance

A little internet digging shows Jason to be a supremely conservative fellow, having preached sermon series on the “9 Declarations of the PCA” and on Reformed theology. So I don’t expect him to get a nose ring and start and Emergent cohort. In other words I’m not posting this as a “victory” post. This is not about the PCA losing a pastor.

This is about theological development in the life of the pastor. Jason was in a very strict system — one that you might say is almost hermetically sealed. Yet he continued his theological exploration, reading the Bible, studying books, praying, and conversing. As a result, he made an honest and professionally costly realization: he no longer fits in the PCA.

Reading the comments on his blog, it’s obvious that many of his coreligionists don’t appreciate his theological changes, and that’s too bad, because it was just that kind of theological exploration and conscience and courage that led John Calvin to break from the Catholic church.

In other words, Jason is actually living in the spirit of Calvin much more than many of those who remain the PCA and are criticizing him.

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  • Wait, we’re supposed to get nose rings now? I’m still wavering over the tattoo!

    In seriousness, I think that you point to one of my continuing frustrations with myself as well as with how Christian theology is done. On the one hand, asking questions that yield the particular answers that particular denominations or theologians put so much stake in is central to what we do as theologians, yet to the extent that we get hung up on the idea that we somehow have the “right” answer when you begin to dig too deeply into the theological particulars strikes me as increasingly absurd.

    That’s not to say that a good case can’t be made in favor of “more” or “less” adequate answers to the questions, based upon the total shape of the Christian faith and our understanding of the gospel, but when you start to make doctrinal affirmations as though somehow the affirmations themselves are the substance of revealed faith, rather than reflections on the revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, it leads to nowhere good — for example, ossified denominational requirements for membership and ministry.

  • Chris

    Yes, Mr. Stellman did leave with honor, which is what one should do if they feel they can no longer abide by a particular set of statements or vows. And not a few more had/have come out of the denomination that the PCA grew out of.

    Unfortunately not everyone has this kind of integrity, as there are some who believe it is best to try to change from within. They will affirm their vows with smiles on their lips and then 5 minutes after they are in will begin to decry the very vows that they had previously so lovingly embraced as now being oppressive or untenable.

    Honest theological differences I can grant. Deceit and obfuscation, no way.

  • Bradm

    Another similar story comes from John Suk of the CRC. See his blog post here. Suk was the former editor of the CRC’s magazine “The Banner” and also wrote an excellent book “Not Sure.” As a current member of the CRC, I am sad to see him leave even though I understand why he did.

  • Andrew

    From the sound of it, sounds like he is going the reverse of Calvin. Those ideas of his are awfully Catholic!

    • Yep. Looks like he’s crossing the Tiber.

  • Darn, I am so glad to be a part of a denomination that doesn’t (as far as I know) have clergy on clergy councils and trials about the littlest theological differences. This is surely an aspect of denominationalism that can’t die quick enough. The comments on that post are as bad and mean-spirited as any atheist/religious internet battle.

  • Shibui

    And just what about this sounds so Catholic? Sounds sort of truly Baptist to me!