I wrote the following in 1999 to a pastor in the RPCNA who foolishly invited two students for the ministry to visit a local Steelite who has a notable library. The students were amazed by the library, but confused by the Steelite, who is a formidable debater.
Things have been exceptionally busy here so my remarks will be summary in nature. My main difficulties with Steelites are: (not in order)
2) Divisions in their midst.
3) Perfectionistic Ecclesiology.
5) We cannot bind future generations to things which are:
a) not under their direct control.
b) not necessarily applicable to all Christians everywhere.
I have generally resisted criticizing Steelites because I appreciate their serious approach to Calvinism. What I write may not apply to all of them in entire. Some it may not apply to at all, but I doubt it.
Regarding point 1, the wisdom that comes from above is easily entreated, kind, teaching, leading, etc. Some Steelites have adopted what seems to me to be a double-sided approach to criticism. They can give it, but can’t take it. Others slander them, in their eyes, but when I compare rhetoric, the attempt to injure is often stronger on the Steelite side.
On point 2, who are the Steelites? Are there any? There are enough groups off in the wilderness calling themselves Steelites, that it is difficult to sort out which group is right. The divisions are often over narrow (not necessarily unimportant) issues, which I can’t decide for myself. I would prefer to call a church council to decide such things — I am not capable of differentiating between two sides which seem equally likely.
If they unified, I might find them attractive — at least I’d know of a well-identified alternative to the RPCNA.
The third point flows from the second. They can’t unify with each other, much less with established groups. Further, the discredited Traditional Postmillennialism that justifies the fragmentation, as there is no church in the period prior to the Millennium, to me is merely convenient, and not serious thinking. I agree there are boundaries, and we ought to enforce them more tightly (I favor closed communion), but when the boundaries become so narrow that one has practically no one to worship with, there is trouble.
On hermeneutics, church history is an excellent commentary on the Scriptures, particularly because we can see the accumulated results of false and true doctrines, with the results they have had as time progressed. But to limit the scope to one narrow line of the church has dangers. It virtually dictates the conclusion from the premises. When one of the Steelites was asked by me what the difference was between his view, and that of Roman Catholic Tradition, the answer was stark, “Easy. They’re wrong. We’re right.”
If he thought that was convincing, it had the opposite effect. Tradition *per se* should not affect how we interpret Scripture, except to the degree that it teaches us how others viewed the Scripture. We can learn from their arguments; we aren’t the first generation to interpret the Bible. We keep the views of those that have gone before us if those views are correct, and if not, we give their views a dignified burial.
On the final point, I like the Solemn League and Covenant; I believe it is a useful paradigm for how Christian States should interact. But it is primarily a treaty between nations. Once renounced by a nation, it would be a sin to those leaders renouncing it, but not to the next generation of leaders, though the results of the prior sin may still come as a punishment to the nation while they lead.
For ordinary individuals, it is not possible for them to maintain the SLC. The most they can do is pray and lobby. Even that is done once any reasonable chance of reinstating the SLC is gone; it is then outside the power of those having sworn to uphold it. As to binding children, it is even more true that we cannot compel them to maintain something outside their ability to accomplish.
Imagine an oath that binds our children, and their children in perpetuity, only to marry within our fictional denomination, entitled “The Best Christian Group.” It works well for a couple of generations, while TBCG is sound. After that, TBCG begins to decay. Are the great-grandchildren bound by the oath? I say not, and it dangerous at minimum to commit to an oath that we cannot assure will lead to good. I am leery of taking oaths for my children beyond the necessary God-appointed one of Baptism. Beyond that, they must covenant with God themselves.
I am also concerned with binding individuals to something not all individuals would be bound to. With the Westminster Confession of Faith, I believe all Christians are bound to it, indirectly, because it is a faithful exposition of Scripture. With the SLC, not all Christians are bound because of geography and ability. I can see a French Calvinist at the time admiring the principle of International Calvinism, and praying for the day when France would have a similar treaty. But he is not bound by the SLC; he might be bound by the principle involved if it is within his scope of power.
I have gone on too long, and too late. There are probably some errors and inconsistencies in what I wrote. If so, point them out at your leisure. I know my arguments are not nearly as precise as those of the self-called Steelites. They probably can’t be; for them it is a full time vocation. I have burdens.
I am cc’ing A, B, and C on this one, for their review and advice also. If you get anything useful out this Y, you are free to use it more widely. My policy is this: Just ask me *before* you do it; I might have second thoughts.
Then, there was what a friend of mine wrote on the topic. I include it because he is so erudite.
This letter is a warning regarding certain teachings and practices of the Puritan Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This group is causing division and chaos in the body of Christ, primarily through the efforts of Reg Barrow and Still Waters Revival Books. Before I discuss the details, I would like to make it known that I am a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. I believe firmly in the regulative principle of worship, exclusive a cappella Psalmody, exclusion of holy days beside the Lord’s Day, social covenanting, Presbyterian church government, headcoverings and the silence of women in the church, etc. These beliefs are shared by the Puritan Reformed Church, but in their efforts to bring believers back to the old paths, they have clearly gone beyond the requirements of Scripture.
1. All Churches are Unduly Constituted (except the Puritan Reformed Church of Alberta).
The session of this church teaches that the P.C.A., the O.P.C., and the R.P.C.N.A., etc., are not duly constituted churches, therefore apostate and without any authority. They regularly counsel people to disregard their vows of church membership and separate from their churches immediately (in violation of Deut. 23:21-23, Num. 30:2, Ecc. 5:1-7, etc.). They shun transfer of membership, responding to church discipline, or working for reformation within one’s own denomination as this would recognize the courts of other churches as being valid. Here is a typical quote from their literature:
“Therefore, if the P.C.A. is not sound; and this being the case, the authority of the session at your particular church is unlawful. And, if the authority of the session at your particular church is not lawful, we cannot submit to it for conscience sake unless we wish to call God a liar, to have other gods before Him, and to make a mockery of the marks of a true church (by acknowledging the P.C.A. as a true church). Since you have made a claim upon our conscience in calling us to stand trial, we must refuse such a claim, choosing rather to obey God than man. We cannot and will not interact with you in any way that would force us to recognize your (alleged) lawful ecclesiastical authority.” (Larry Birger, “Why the P.C.A. is Not a Duly Constituted Church and Why Faithful Christians Should Separate From this Corrupted ‘Communion'”, 1996, found on the Still Waters Revival Books web page).
The Puritan Reformed Church is thus actively engaged in sheep-stealing, as it views itself as the only duly constituted church known today. If you think this sounds cult-like, you are correct. If you think I am exaggerating ask Greg Price (the pastor), Greg Barrow (a ruling elder), and Reg Barrow (president of SWRB) to name an acceptable, duly constituted church, beside their own. Furthermore, can they name a duly constituted church anywhere on earth before March, 1996 when they adopted these doctrines?
2. Elevating Second Reformation History to the Level of Scripture.
Although they claim to believe in Sola Scriptura, this group in practice regards Covenanter church history as indispensable in obeying the Bible. Reg Barrow writes of his pastor: “Price demonstrates how and why uninspired historical testimony must be a term of communion … Price also proves how one cannot even keep the inspired commandments of God without the use of uninspired history [emphasis mine] (using the fifth and ninth commandments as examples).” He also writes: “How do you keep the fifth commandment without uninspired historical testimony? It’s impossible to keep the fifth commandment if you do not know who your parents are; and you can only know your parents via uninspired historical testimony…” (Reg Barrow, in an email response to a debate on covenanting, April 1997; similar comments are also found on the SWRB home page).
This is simply Romanism in a new dress! The Edmonton group derives this cult-like approach from the writings of David Steele, who split from the R.P.C.N.A. in 1840 to form the Reformed Presbytery. David Steele, in The Law and the Testimony, equates Covenanter church history with the Testimony spoken of in Scripture (cf. Is. 8:20). The Bible is not enough, it must be supplemented with the historical experiences of the one true church (i.e., the faithful remnant church [e.g., the Steelites] ). Reading the literature produced by the Edmonton Steelite group and speaking with them personally, you will find little Biblical exegesis. Various Steelite and early Presbyterian authors are quoted as a defense for the Edmonton position in the same way a papal bishop quotes the church fathers, or an orthodox Jew quotes the Talmud.
3. A Perfectionist View of the Church.
The Edmonton Steelites also have an unbiblical perfectionist view of the church. (this point is intimately related to point number one) They follow David Steele’s teaching that any church that departs from the attainments of the Second Reformation in Scotland (1638-1659) is not a true church. Reg Barrow writes:
“In sum, Christ commands us to flee from unlawful teachers, who are working for the destruction of his church (in perpetuating backsliding from reformation attainments)…we are forbidden by Scripture to remain in ecclesiastical fellowship with those who publicly deny the corporate testimony of the church as it has been attained at any given point in history (Eccl. 3:15) … Back sliding from attained growth in grace (i.e., corporate sanctification) is not edification, but destruction. Therefore, no authority working against any of these former biblical attainments bears God’s stamp of approval: God has granted no authority for backsliding.” (Saul in the Cave of Adullam, 1997, pp. 25, 29, 12).
This is the linchpin of the Steelite heresy; it explains their cult-like isolationism and sectarianism. (Their new “converts” across the country worship in their homes alone with an order of service and a recorded sermon from Greg Price.) Throughout history, Christ’s church has had periods of Reformation and periods of backsliding. But, according to the Steelites, the moment a church backslides from any of the former attainments it no longer is a true church.
This view is wrong because everything that the church was to believe and practice was taught by the apostles in the first century. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) I believe the apostles were psalm-singers, practiced Presbyterian church government, required headcoverings, etc. Thus, the people of the Second Reformation in Scotland were simply following apostolic doctrine. The idea that any deviation from the former attainments renders a church unduly constituted is absurd, for no one in history has perfectly held to the attainments of the apostles. For example, the Second Reformation Church did not reestablish the order of widows taught in 1 Timothy 5:9ff and practiced for over three centuries in the early church. Calvin restored it to an extent, but it lost during the debates of the Westminster divines. Rutherford and Gillespie were in favor of the idea of the order of widows but did not restore the practice. Does this mean that the Second Reformation Church was unduly constituted because they did not adhere to the full attainments of the apostles and of Calvin in the First Reformation? The Steelites cannot even apply their own doctrine consistently.
Furthermore, Calvin regarded the Lutheran church in his day as a true church and was close friends with Melanchthon until his death. Luther did not cling to the attainments of Calvin in Geneva. Was Luther part of an unduly constituted church; a false minister? John Knox regarded the Episcopal church of his day as a true church (though needing reform) and even preached in Episcopal churches when he lived in England. Furthermore, the Scottish church during Knox’s own lifetime backslid from some of the attainments of the First Reformation (e.g., the Tulchan bishops). Did John Knox immediately flee the church because he regarded it as unduly constituted? No. If John Knox, Andrew Melville, and others had been Steelites, there would have been no Second Reformation, for the church would have been abandoned as soon as it departed from the former attainments. The Steelite theories of attainment lead to ecclesiastical chaos — the church would have split every time there was the least bit of declension.
The Steelite doctrine of attainments leads to absurdity, unbiblical perfectionism and ecclesiastical chaos. Furthermore, they are not even consistent with their own teaching. How do they regard ministers in these unduly constituted churches? According to the Edmonton group, all ministers in “unduly constituted churches” are participating in gross evil. These ministers are considered pretenders, false teachers, wicked covenant breakers. This would include Charles Hodge, Dabney, Bannerman, McCrie, John Murray, Greg Bahnsen, Van Til, Machen, Thornwell, G.I. Williamson, Carl Bogue, Shedd, Girardeau, etc., who all rejected Steelite distinctives. However, contradicting his own doctrine, Reg Barrow sells the works of many of these authors. Shouldn’t he be disciplined by his church for spreading this heresy?
The apostle John warned of such men: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.” (3 John 9-10) “Now I urge you brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)
For a more detailed discussion of this type of error, see also Richard Bacon’s book, The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness, and Church Unity: The Sin of Schism by John Macpherson reprinted in Napthali Press, Winter 1989.
I do believe that there is declension in the P.C.A., O.P.C., and the R.P.C.N.A., but these are still true churches of Jesus Christ. They are not apostate like the Roman Catholic Church or modernist churches. As believers we must obey God, honor our vows, respect the church courts and patiently work for reform. Leaving a Calvinistic church should be the last resort, when efforts at reform have been rejected.