Posted by: reformedmusings | October 4, 2007

Trouble at Knox

UPDATE: I have received new information that has caused me to modify this post for accuracy. In particular, I’ve learned more about the relationship between the session and the seminary. I also drew unwarranted assumptions from the timeline, which I regret. Bottom line is that the situation is still playing out and all would be wise to withhold judgment until a final conclusion is reached.

I debated whether to post on this or not, but I see some Federal Visionists have latched onto this situation for reasons that I cannot imagine. You can read about the situation in greater detail here and here, but there’s obviously more to all this than you will find posted on the Internet. The thumbnail is that a student and a faculty member expressed concern that Professor Warren Gage at Knox Theological Seminary might be teaching a non-Reformed hermeneutic to his students in violation of WCF 1.9. The Knox board held a hearing on Sept 11 with Prof Gage at which they found his teaching out of accord with the seminary’s standards and decided to suspend him from teaching with pay.

The way the late Dr. D. James Kennedy (the man whose teaching, by God’s grace, drove me to trust Christ many years ago) set up Knox, the seminary falls under the supervision of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Session. More on that later. The CRPC session held a meeting on Sept 25 with all players, and decided that Prof Gage did not violate the seminary’s standards and reversed the Knox board decision. They did this from a position of considerable knowledge as he had been preaching weekly at CRPC for nine months prior to this session meeting.

That didn’t go over well with the Knox board, and six board members subsequently resigned. Plus, the letters written by resigning board members charged that the session, by their action, overturned the Reformed theological underpinning of Knox. Those board members who resigned were Dr. R. C. Sproul, the Interim Chancellor and Chairman, Rick Phillips, Greg Miseyko, Rick Penney, Gladys Israels, and Cortez Cooper.

Now, I have little idea what Prof Gage was teaching, so have no real opinion on the core issue of conformity to any standards. However, I believe that the overall oddity of the situation deserves a few words.

UPDATE: Here is a sermon Prof Gage preached last year at CRPC that sort of illustrates his hermeneutic. Definitely different.

First, there’s the built-in conflict in pretty much every Reformed seminary. Teaching elders are held accountable at the presbytery level according to most Books of Church Order. Seminaries, of course, hold their employees accountable according to the their theological standards. So, a seminary can suspend or remove a teaching elder for theological anomalies, but that’s the extent of their power. It is up to the appropriate presbytery then to adjudicate the status of the TE’s ministry credentials if charges are filed, which presumably would follow. The combination can be a long process, which is how Norman Shepherd skated years ago. Westminster Theological Seminary East removed him, charges were filed in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but Shepherd took the hint from WTS and left the OPC for the CRC before OPC resolution of his credential situation. That way, Federal Visionists today can say that he was a teaching elder in good standing in the OPC because he left before his trial. Technically true? Yes, but hardly honest given the fact that he was up on charges which he fled.

Why bring up Shepherd? Well, it provides an example how difficult it is to nail down an errant teaching elder (WTS took 7 years to take definitive action), especially in an academic environment. Even outside the academic world, there are examples of PCA (and other) teaching elders who fled their denomination before their trials concluded, so without a conviction they can also claim to have been in good standing. The other reason I bring the Shepherd case up is that one of the things that forced the seminary’s hand was a letter signed by 45 Reformed theologians expressing concern with Shepherd’s theology, including Dr. R. C. Sproul and a host of folks who are household names. In both seminaries and presbyteries, it often takes an outside forcing function to get them to take appropriate action against their friends. Just that fallen human nature in action.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this is the case with Professor Gage at all. The CRPC session found that he did not violate any of Knox’s doctrinal standards and fully restored him to his teaching position without limitation. The above discussion was simply to show how complex the usual seminary/teaching elder relationship can become when things go wrong. Which sets up the next point.

Second, putting a seminary under the oversight of a church session is problematic at best, although it may help ensure accountability of the seminary to an outside body. With a strong, capable and respected leader like Dr. Kennedy as both the chancellor of Knox and moderator of the CRPC session, things worked well enough. After Dr. Kennedy’s passing into glory, this arrangement was inevitably going to run into problems. Why? In short, sessions don’t oversee teaching elders, only presbyteries do that.

To be sure, a session together with a congregation vote can end its relationship to a TE using the procedures in the Book of Church Order. All a presbytery can do at that point is ensure that the session followed the procedures correctly. A presbytery cannot overrule a session’s and congregation’s severing their relationship with a TE, at least in the PCA. The Standing Judicial Commission and General Assembly have upheld this power.

So the Knox arrangement put the CRPC session in the position of possibly making a theological determination on the orthodoxy of a teaching elder, something only a presbytery can do in the PCA. The way that Knox is organized, the teaching elders on the seminary staff are also called as assistants at CRPC, which simplifies the relationships somewhat, but only for staff TEs in the PCA. In this particular case, it appears that the CRPC session simply exercised their oversight of Knox’s operation in accordance with their bylaws.

Now, I am NOT saying that ruling elders (who make up the vast majority of a church’s session) cannot discern theological errors in teaching elders. Far from it. Ruling elders have exactly that ability and responsibility at the presbytery and General Assembly court levels, being absolutely equal in authority to teaching elders. Remember that ideally, the presbytery and General Assembly courts are composed of a rough 50/50 mix of REs and TEs (though rarely achieve that because REs have day jobs that make it difficult to make the weekday meetings). Running a seminary is a different animal and presents unique challenges. In this case, the fact that Professor Gage maintained a call at CRPC and preached there weekly since Dr. Kennedy’s illness certainly gave the session significant insight into his theology.

I have no idea how all this will end up. Knox has lost some heavy-hitters from their board–including one or two who were probably the most likely to succeed Dr. Kennedy as chancellor–and significant credibility with their departure. The CRPC session was placed in an unfortunate position by their unconventional oversight relationship with Knox, whether their decision turns out to be right or wrong. And now Professor Gage has had what was supposed to be quiet situation become very public. A quick scan of blog comments shows an increasingly polarized atmosphere over the issue. No one benefited from this episode except Satan.

As usual, the truth is rarely well-served by confusion and disorder, though God is sovereign and will use all this to His glory somehow. What a great God we worship!

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