Monday, August 25, 2008

Philip Wainwright responds to Stephen Noll

On Friday I reposted a paper by The Rev. Philip Wainwright which dealt with the Biblical reasons for staying in the Episcopal Church. One of our faithful readers posted a comment with a response to Philip's paper from Stephen Noll. Below is Philip's response to Steve. It was written last year when the original exchange took place.

The original post is here-

The text of Philip's response follows.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your comments on my essay, which pointed out several weaknesses in it, and I appreciate the opportunity to be sharpened. Now that it's gone as far as TitusOneNine, I do need to correct the record concerning where I stand in the spectrum of conservatives here, and I'm going to take the opportunity to respond to your comments at least in a general way.

I think the root of the difference between us is that we are each going to the Scriptures with a different question in mind. You describe the issue as 'what to do when a fellow Christian or a Christian leader openly violates the clear teaching of Scripture', and quite rightly proceed to the discipline found in scripture and the duty to exercise it. On this I agree with you completely; if I were in a position to exercise discipline, I would do it. (I read Rob Gagnon's piece, as you recommended, and am still not persuaded that Matthew 18.15-17 is about the matter under discussion, but the passages that are about it are clear enough that I think we can set that aside.)

My piece was written for parishes in PECUSA, and the question I was asking, but didn't express clearly enough, was 'what is the biblical response for the rest of us when those who are in a position to exercise discipline aren't doing so?', or aren't doing so fast enough, or don't seem to be willing to do more than admonish and so on. And it still seems to me that the guidance of Scripture for those who can't exercise discipline is continued faithful witness. In Corinth, Paul was able to persuade the congregation that the person whose immoral lifestyle they had been tolerating was to be expelled from the church. In III John 10, it is the false teacher Diotrephes who was more persuasive, and who convinced the church to expel some of the godly and faithful. What were the rest of the faithful to do about this? To avoid any fellowship with them that might suggest toleration of their false teaching, but to continue to live faithfully in the church until John can visit and set things right. It's true that my argument is partly (but only partly) an argument from silence, but the silence of the Pharisees is persuasive against them in their encounter with Jesus in Luke 14.5f, and every reader of Sherlock Holmes knows that some silences force us to re-examine our assumptions. I can find no example in Scripture of someone leaving the church because of its failings, nor do I understand how it would be discipline if there were such an example. A PECUSA parish leaving PECUSA is not exercising discipline, it is leaving a problem that it does not know how to deal with.

As far as the history of the Reformation functioning as an example, I think it possible to find support for both sides of the issue there: for many decades the gulf between the Reformers and the Roman Church was much like the gulf currently existing between reasserting and reappraising Anglicans, and it was the Roman Church that excommunicated the Reformers in the end. But I don't believe Evangelicals should be bound by any historical tradition, even their own; if Scripture shows the Reformers to have been in error in some point, a committed Evangelical will follow Scripture.

Because the question I am asking is different from yours, your point about common sense also doesn't apply. It would not make sense for the pastor of a PECUSA parish to put himself in the position of the father in your parable. I feel like a brother, watching my father trying (not very successfully so far, it has to be admitted) to discipline my brother, and my question is about how I should behave while this agonising and embarrassing process goes on. It is the Lambeth Conference and the Primates (as a body) who, for want of any other, are in the father's role here, and to whom I have appealed as those over me in the Lord, and so far they haven't told me that I should disown my brother.

It may come to that, I realise, which brings me to the assumption I want to correct about where I stand in the reasserting spectrum. I do not believe that separation is never warranted, and I do believe that we need to exercise patience until the Windsor process is fully worked out, which (sadly) I don't believe will be in 2008. It certainly cannot be September 30th 2007; that is merely the day on which the Primates will have the information they need in order to determine their next step. They may take that next step soon, or wait and ask Lambeth to join them in it, or wait longer than that; patience is still what I must exercise. I voted with my diocese to appeal to the Primates, and having appealed to them I believe I must support them as they take up the matter. They have not yet given me a reason to take the law into my own hands.

Finally, I want to echo the point made by some commentators on T19 that the Lord may be doing something for His purposes among both those who feel they must go and those who feel they must stay. The New Testament frequently uses the image of an army to describe the Church, and uses all aspects of the military life as an example for the Christian--not only the sacrifice that a soldier is sometimes called upon to make, but the other aspects of a soldier's life too, and holds them all up as an example of the Christian life. The grunt work, the discipline, even the pay--all of it is used in the Bible as a way for Christians to understand themselves, and as an example for them to follow (Philippians 2.5, Philemon 1.2, II Tim 2.3f, Matt 8.8-10, I Cor 9.7).

In an army, different units are given different orders, and sent in different directions, in order that the final victory may be achieved. Some units are sent into situations in which it's not just that there appears to be no hope, there actually is no hope, they are sent into combat in the absolute certainty of defeat, like the 2nd Battalion of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps sent to cover the retreat of other units from Calais in 1940. Some who serve must go behind enemy lines, hoping to hold a piece of essential territory till the 82nd Airborne Division arrives, like those dropped at Arnhem in 1944. Others are sent to cut totally new pathways and fight in new and untested ways that might or might not work, like the Chindits in Burma in 1943. But all made their contribution to the final victory, even those who with their earthly eyes never saw that day come.

As many of us have been reminded in some of our discussions here in Pittsburgh, we are to look for what God is doing, not rely on our own understanding. When I look at the consciences already so firmly formed, by so much prayer and searching of Scripture on this matter, I have to consider the possibility that God is giving different units different marching orders. If we trust the Holy Spirit to do the strategic thinking, we can be content not to understand the full picture for many years to come.

Nor need our fellowship cease as we carry out our different roles. Evangelicals have always sat loose to denominational differences. Our unity is in the Lord, not in our choice of bishop or primate. If we do end up on different sides of yet another denominational divide, I have no doubt that you and I will remain brothers in Christ, that the different structures in which we will serve will be no more significant than those already obtaining between us and our brothers and sisters across the denominational spectrum.



The Rev Canon Dr David Wilson said...

The editor of Parish Toolbox told me, he doesnt't remember ever seeing Philip Wainwright's response to Stephen Noll not that he consciously declined to post it on Toolbox.

Philip Wainwright said...

I'm not surprised that he doesn't remember, he had a lot on his plate. He never did see it, I didn't send him a copy but told him it was available if he was interested. On 10/09/07 he e-mailed me saying 'These debates are so hard to figure out how to both treat fairly and at the same time not let the back and forth take over the site. Do you have another place to post it? If you do, maybe I could just slip it in
as a link on the posts that are already up on toolbox.'

I didn't press the matter, so I wouldn't say he refused, but declined as politely as he could. I thought his reasoning made sense.


Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Thanks for clearing this up Philip.

I have to say I am a bit frustrated by the shot at here and, by extension, me, as its editor.

Name me another place in The Episcopal Church, where an official diocesan or national church website regularly publishes the articles and documents in full and without comment of those committed to undoing them and opposing their leadership.

Peter Frank
Director of Communications
Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh

Jim Simons said...

Peter: You have been very fair. I have removed the sentence from the post. Sorry for the misunderstanding

Peter said...

Thanks Jim,


Robert Christian said...


What you have written has made me stop and think. So often people look to make the Holy Spirit work for them instead of listening to the Holy Spirit, myself included. I never thought that maybe the answer to this mess hasn't yet been revealed or is process. Now I know why we often say, "patience is a virtue." It reminds me of being at mass and hearing the priest say, "God answer's us in God's time, not ours."