Acknowledge the Sin, Accentuate the Grace, Honor the Fathers: Why I love the PCA and RTS

Then he died at a good age, full of days, riches, and honor. And Solomon his son reigned in his place. 1 Chronicles 29.28

There has been some talk lately, quite recently, that has come to me about the publication of a book (by Peter Slade) claiming that racism was at the root of motivation of or somehow involved in the founding of both the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed Theological Seminary. I have read the book cover to cover. Its establishment of a theological framework based on Jürgen Moltmann’s “theology of openness ” with the insights of Miroslav Volf’s theology of “memory” that goes on to test those theologies amidst a cast study, the history of Mission Mississippi and events in racially charged 1960s and 70s, is an engaging read for many. The book is well written and is certainly interesting for those who would know the names and places of the case study. I do not endorse the book, but neither do I critique it in any way further than my short personal summary of it. In this message, I do not respond in any way to that book or any other particular book, but to the talk I am hearing which disturbs me and causes me, pastorally, to want to address it. Indeed, I have a response in my heart to that kind of talk and it comes from the Word of God that provides an exemplary model for acknowledging sin, affirming grace, and showing honor. A “theology of openness” certainly would not look askew at such dialogue. And a “theology of memory” (I happen to be a fan of Volf) demands that we consider more than just the assertions that I have heard.  So let me enter the dialogue with some thoughts on racism and other sins in the lives of people. I do so with trepidation, for the field is filled with pain, with heartache and with memories of hurt that last for generations.  I pray for healing, for an end to the cycle of brokenness because of racism on all sides.

But to the talk. What is our response to an open dialogue with the past?

First, the Bible acknowledges the sins of people. It does not whitewash ( a good term that Ezekiel uses for false prophets) away the deeds of even the greatest of Biblical heroes.  But when there is a work of grace in that person’s life, the Bible also ordinarily, modestly and quite intentionally refrains from naming the details of those sins as that one passes into glory.[1] In fact, there is honor given to that one. In the case before us in 1 Chronicles 29.28, David’s life is shown as “full of days, riches and honor.” Much more could be said of Solomon’s father. Much could be said of his illicit relationship with the new king’s mother and the dishonorable and downright criminal plot to kill her first husband in battle. Much could be said of his polygamy, which cost him so much and left him crying that mournful cry that resounds through the ages, “Oh Absalom, Absalom!” as he learned of his rebel boy’s death. More could be said. But it is not, not here. We know. The story has been told. Now at his death, it is as though the Bible says, “let us only focus on the honor of David and how he served the Lord. Let us go back to the fields of Judah and his shepherding of the lambs, which led to a surprising act of God when he was chosen and anointed to shepherd the lambs of God’s pasture in Israel. Let us talk of his extraordinary gifts of music and lyrics, of liturgical contributions to the very worship of the people of God. Let us think on those beautiful Psalms.” Furthermore, in the New Testament, David is praised as a man of God. Jesus speaks of him as one who worshipped “my Lord’s Lord.” We know the stories. But the Spirit will not allow us to disinter David and label his corpse with a listing of sins at this pont. Why? In a word, “honor.” But there is something else. Look at the second part of the verse: “And Solomon his son reigned in his place.” And here is the thing: his son would be as big a sinner as his father was if not more. And yet Solomon would also display wisdom that was undeniably the wisdom from on high for which he prayed, when he was coronation. Indeed, Solomon sinned greatly in the same way his father did, with polygamous relationships that would ruin his family, but Solomon also wrote the wisdom literature that stands as the greatest in the history of all mankind. This is the man who would instruct his son, and through the Holy Spirit, all of God’s sons and daughters:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Proverbs 3.13-15

Solomon is mentioned seven times in the New Testament. Each time he is mentioned his name is associated with honor. For instance, Jesus referred to him as both one who taught the wisdom of the Word of God (that converted a Gentile queen) and also as one who was “great,” for we read:

The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. Matthew 12.42

What do we learn? We learn that while we remember the sins of our fathers, and while we learn from them, when they come to Christ, we prefer to honor them in their death for the good they did, not the sin they committed.

My father, as I often tell in my own testimony, was an alcoholic. I shall leave it there. There is more. But his honor demands that I say only that. Following the model of Scripture, I also am sure to tell that his alcoholism met and was subdued under the authoritative power of the Holy Spirit in a sawdust chapel in South Louisiana, where I was reared. I will always remember my father and communicate his honor to my children because of his faith in Jesus Christ. I will recount how he turned from his sin to embrace the God of grace. He died in Christ. “Full of days, riches and honor.” His picture is in our living room, as it has been in my living room as a boy: a young sea-going officer graduating from the New London Officer’s Academy. My Aunt Eva who adopted me made sure that his picture was there for me to see. She wanted me to see him in honor, to remember that honor, and I suspect she wanted me to pass it on. My son will ask about his grandfather whom he never knew. I tell him, “Son, your grandfather, for whom you are named, was a great man, a man of God, a man who served his nation in World War Two and the Korean War and was a war hero. He had challenges, son. But we must remember him in honor. I hope you will be like him and receive the grace of God in your life.” I am a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain and I was a Naval Intelligence linguist in the US Navy as a young man. I believe that I have given my life to service in the armed forces because of the honor my Aunt Eva taught me about my father. The mere sight of the photograph of the father I would never know (for I was orphaned at a young age) moved my heart to follow him, to seek the honor of service to our nation, and then as a minister of Christ, to seek to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to others who might be hurting like he hurt. But he shall always be held in honor in our home. That is the Biblical way.

That leads me to talk about the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America and also Reformed Theological Seminary. There are charges of racism among other things in our past (I do have to read a book on it to respond to the many questions that have come to me about it). One thing is for sure, and I say this as one who did doctoral research in the Westminster divines, when you start digging around in human history you are going to surely find sin! But the sin of one or for that matter many does not tarnish everything else done for the God’s glory.[2] Because both the Church and the Seminary (allegedly mentioned in this new book) were born in the emotionally charged days of the civil rights movement, as well as being born out of a theological crisis in the Southern Presbyterian Church (the Presbyterian Church in the United States), and under the influence, primarily, of ruling elders (local “lay leaders” of congregations) rather than ministers, some of whom may have been men of their times and fallen into a sin of racism, the charge seems to be received (whether intended or not) that the PCA and RTS have dark pasts. Based on the Scripture we just read, there are several things to acknowledge and several things to affirm and one major thing to remember:

First, we can acknowledge that surely sin was present in the hearts of those who founded both. We are all sinners. But moreover, perhaps it may be proven that this founder or that founder held racist views, which we all admit is both reprehensible and even universal, not limited to whites or blacks. Yet it is one thing to say that a man was a racist and quite another to say that an entire Church or Seminary was founded because of that sin. That simply was not the case. The documents of both institutions focus on the real issue that pressed them out of the liberalism of their former denomination to establish a training ground for future faithful Gospel pastors and finally, reluctantly but necessarily, and I would say faithfully, to establish a denomination that was “true to the Scriptures, the Reformed Faith, and the Great Commission.”

Second, we learn from 1 Chronicles 29.28, and indeed the whole counsel of the Word of God, that we do not dig up the sins of our fathers for viewing, but we remember their struggles with brief acknowledgement and focus largely on their faith. The founders of the PCA and RTS were men of God who loved Jesus Christ and wanted to train up faithful Gospel pastors and missionaries who would fulfill God’s purposes in the world by founding churches, missions and other seminaries that would carry out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. They risked much. They gave up much. They spent and were spent for the sake of the Gospel. Their lives, their fortunes, their reputations were all put on the line, in a real way, to plant, in much prayer and unsurpassed faith, what became these great movements of God which have and continue to fulfill the Gospel mission. To name just one honorable fact, the largest Presbyterian global missions agency in North America is Mission to the World. Souls are being saved and lives transformed because of that great missions arm of the PCA. In so many other ways, the PCA and her continued commitment to missions and evangelism, to mercy and justice and to the revitalization and planting of churches in North America has been and continues to be a powerful movement in our time. RTS is the largest Reformed seminary in the nation and her ministries of teaching the whole counsel of God touch almost 3,000 students, through the teaching from over 50 faculty (who are also actively preaching and teaching the Gospel not only in our classrooms but across the radio and in pulpits to the ends of the earth) and at six seminary campuses and a virtual campus that is reaching millions across the earth.  Indeed, through a relationship with iTunes University, over four million downloads of our professors’ teachings, will be accessed for free by Peoples around the earth. RTS trains pastors from all over the world and has a rich history of missions, particularly at the Jackson, Mississippi campus. Today, the ministry of RTS continues to seek, earnestly and demonstrably, to reach the whole earth with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, this one point must again be made: the Bible teaches us to honor those who have gone before, not focus on their sins and advertize them. They have sinned. And we too must not be so haughty to think we are better than Solomon who repeated his father’s sins. But yet Solomon is remembered by Jesus for the good he did. Hopefully, as some of us ponder the sins of our fathers, immodestly listing them and dragging up not only alleged sin but also motivation in founding some of our nation’s greatest institutions, may our children be more charitable with us.

I love the PCA. It was through D. James Kennedy’s presentation of the Gospel that I first understood grace. It was a ruling elder from a PCA church in Mississippi, in a room with people from all over the nation and several from around the world, black and white, rich and poor, that introduced me to the Westminster Confession of Faith and that system of doctrine that not only answered the great existential questions of my life, but also led me to truth that has transformed my life and the eternal destiny of my family. It was a ruling elder, Mr. Robert Cannada, one of the founders of both RTS and the PCA, who directed me into the Presbyterian Church in America. It was The Reverend Robert E. Baxter, a PCA minister in Olathe, Kansas, who taught me the warm and winsome beauties of the Reformed faith. It was teachers from RTS like Doug Kelly and R.C. Sproul who grounded me in the Gospel through their faithful Biblical exposition. I was not raised in the PCA. I was born again by Christ and placed in this community. I love her. I admit she is not perfect. I do not always agree with her decisions in the General Assembly, but she is a mother to me and I don’t speak ill against her when I disagree. I would hope, in my better moments, that by the power of the Spirit, I pray for her, and I also seek peace in her house with my brothers and sisters. I love RTS. I did not go there as a student. But RTS represents the dream of my mentor, Dr. D. James Kennedy. He believed that our nation needed seminaries that taught from the position of the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God, inspired a love for personal evangelism and world missions. RTS lives that out. Before he founded the seminary I attended, Knox, he sent all of his “boys”  to RTS Jackson. If you knew Jim Kennedy you knew his strong opinion concerning the equality of all men. Abraham Lincoln was one of his heroes for that reason. He saw RTS as a place where his vision would not collide with his convictions concerning civil rights or any other concern (and I thank God that we have sister seminaries who are strong in those convictions as well). I hold the James M. Baird Jr. Chair of Pastoral Theology. That man, too, worked and labored for reconciliation between the races in all of his pastorates.[3] His legacy includes not simply the legacy of a great Southern preacher, but of a great Southern preacher who wanted to advance Jesus Christ to all men of all races. He gave great leadership in his ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, and for instance, to Mission Mississippi. He hated racism then as he does now, serving on the Board of Trustees of RTS. And I share those convictions. I hate racism. I deplore all divisions in our nation and in our churches between regions, gender, and any other wall that keeps the Body of Christ from enjoying the spiritual unity that Christ Jesus prayed for in John 17.

I don’t have a love for just man-made institutions, yet I love the PCA. I love RTS. I love these ministries of God because these entities are true movements of the Holy Spirit in our generation. I love them because they are visibly seeking to be the people of God who labor to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ and who demonstrate a passion for lifting up Jesus Christ as Savior of the world to all men, all races, all tongues, tribes and peoples. The fathers of these ministries are either aging or have passed into glory. Therefore, I shall acknowledge that they were men like me: a recovering sinner, subject to mistakes and even subject to motivations that are not 100% pure. Maybe that was present in the 1960s when they labored against the winds of liberalism to found continuing movements of the Church. But I will not focus on that, though I will be interested to weep with any who feel hurt. I will remember that the fathers of RTS and the PCA were saved by grace. And this is what I will tell the children of their ministries. This is what I will write here. This is what I will tell our students and the people in the churches where I preach. “Honor the past, my beloved, Remember with love and respect those who have gone before you.” And I will remember that after they leave this world, another sinner saved by grace will take their place. For so we read that David, yes David with all of his sin, died, “…full of days, riches, and honor. And Solomon his son reigned in his place.”

I shall conclude my thoughts with what my Aunt Eva taught me about honoring those who have gone before. “Son, talk only good of those who are with the Lord. Don’t focus on their sins. They had them just like us. But remember their good. Don’t talk evil of the dead.” And as I remember her words in my soul, as I write this day, I remember the words of God that grounded her teaching:

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19.32

The chatter that has come to me about our founding tells me that it is my time for me to obey this passage. I have and will always seek to listen, learn and love through such times. And I will side with the brokenhearted and seek to understand the pain, and work for justice and healing. And I will read the book and carefully answer it if I am called upon to do so. But the time now is to answer harsh statements that are coming to me about our founders. I knew some who have gone before. I know a number who remain. To lump them with an entire group is to wrong (and yes, it is also wrong to disregard the cries of black people who feel hurt in the PCA or in RTS; and I will stand by Dr. Bradley and others who will feel that they need to be heard and I will listen). So it is simply my time to remember Aunt Eva’s teachings from the Bible. It is my time to “stand up” for the godly fathers of the PCA and the fathers of RTS and honor them, and just say, “Thank you. Thank you Lord.” And it is my time to reach out and ask forgiveness for any offense that I have given, seek out those who are hurting and offer God’s love in Christ and ask that these dear souls  join all of us at the foot of the cross, where Christ took our sins and reconciled us to Himself in love. Sin should always be acknowledged. It must not be cloaked. But grace, where God gave it, must be remembered. And honor must be shown. That is my point as I see the Gospel embedded in the David story and in the Paul story and in the Peter story and in my story. For I truly believe that this, too, was the “faith of our fathers.” God has given us open doors into the work of justice with African-Americans, to be blessed by their ministries, to see them as fellow pastors and church leaders. God is on the move even here and I thank God for it.

God even took a poverty stricken orphan from a  “Southern, white rural ghetto,” who felt, as a boy the sting of classism, and made him a minister of the Gospel in a predominantly affluent denomination. A boy who went to school in the woods with barefoot children, black and white, now serves one of the great seminaries. “What a joke!” I think. But one day, by His grace, that “joke” of God which I feel, will be greater.  There will be an African-American, I pray, who leads one of our seminaries, or who pastors one of the historic churches in the PCA. And then there will be more. Then I will be laughing again, the laugher of joy over the paradoxical, upside down grace that God showers on His people, to bring healing and justice. I just think that many of the founders of this institution and this denomination will also be smiling, as it were. For this was their dream also. I have read the stories and details that have given rise to the voices. There can be dialogue (best not on the blogs, but personally) and openness is good and memory is necessary. But my heart is moved to answer the ugly, hurtful things said about the men I knew and the men I know. Honor demands that I say that the Christ who saved them, gave them hearts for racial reconciliation in their own day, will be the Christ who heals us all in our day. This is why I acknowledge the sin (in my life, in David’s life and in all of our lives), accentuate His grace (where it is received), and show honor (unto whom honor is due) to those who will be the first to laugh the laugh of Gospel joy, when an African-American is made moderator or becomes president of our seminary.


[1] It is true, of course, that the histories, like 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles provide us with the story of David’s sin and were written long after David died. But in the story of David we are given the example of how to deal with a man of faith as he is dying or has passed away. We needed to know about David’s sins. But Christ did not focus on David’s sins but David’s faith. Christ did not focus on Solomon’s sin, but Solomon’s teaching and “glory.” Thank God that where sin abounds grace abounds even more!

[2] I did research in the radical wing of 17th century Welsh Puritanism, its possible contribution to the “collapse” of the middle of the Puritan movement, and yet sought to show that despite the tarnished reputation of one Welsh Puritan, Vavasor Powell (1617-1670), he should be recalled among the Puritan worthies of the 17th century. The lives of men are filled with sin and with faith. This is the smaller story behind all of our larger stories that will always be discovered if one looks closely enough!

[3] I have also read about charges in the PCA of the doctrine of the “Spirituality of the Church” and its misuse. While there may be many opinions about that doctrine, it is true that Jesus called Herod “ that fox” and he also said that His kingdom was not of this world. In between, clearly, ministers from Hodge to Thornwell have disagreed. Faculty at RTS vary on the technicalities of that doctrine. But many in the PCA’s history, like Jim Kennedy and Jim Baird—and today a host of others, including Ligon Duncan—seek to wisely apply the Word of God and speak the truth and justice of Jesus Christ into a world of injustice.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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