The Courage To Be Presbyterian

The book of Hebrews is full of strong exhortations and sobering warnings for the Church throughout the ages.[1] It was originally written to encourage first-century Jewish Christians not to abandon gospel orthodoxy. It was a call to resist the seductive enticements of religious and cultural syncretism. This urgent message to persevere in the truth — no matter what — is a profoundly relevant one for our current cultural moment. It is a remarkably fitting word for the Presbyterian Church in America, as we gather together in Birmingham for the 49th General Assembly.

Resist the Via Media

Intense cultural pressure and religious persecution made life difficult for Jewish believers in the first century. Being a Christian was never easy. Sometimes the biggest threats to the peace, purity, and unity of the church came from parties within the church. The same challenges were true for the great cloud of witnesses who preceded them— those resolute believers “of whom the world was not worthy.”[2]

Faithfulness to Christ was an arduous and costly road for the Hebrew Christians. Consequently, the temptation to compromise and negotiate the truth was ever before them. The satanic invitation to accommodate doctrinal error, syncretize truth with falsehood, and even apostatize, could at times be palpable. Christian profession meant persecution on some level.[3] There was a very real possibility of social, economic, and physical hardship for those who devoted themselves to Jesus Christ and His objective truth.

There was also a temptation for these early Christians to grow discouraged with the conflict and division within the Church. For the sake of peace and unity, some attempted to forge a theological via media, seeking to amalgamate old covenant shadows with new covenant realities.[4] The move to foster a middle-way with those who taught doctrinal error, however, would only eclipse the glory of the heavenly High Priesthood of Christ, subvert the true gospel, and sabotage the Church’s mission. Therefore, God’s people were admonished in the book of Hebrews not to explore third-way options for the sake of religious respectability, cultural approval, or peace in the church. Rather, they were exhorted to persevere in God’s way, to “hold fast the confession of [their] hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”[5]                   

The temptation for the church to broker God’s truth for the sake of ecclesiastical unity and cultural acceptance is a perennial one. The evangelical world has already made that deal. It’s disgraceful. But we must not! My fellow elders in the Presbyterian Church in America, we must firmly resist the temptation to negotiate biblical fidelity and confessional integrity. The erosion of orthodoxy often begins with the pursuit of counterfeit unity.[6] True unity, however, is always founded upon the unadulterated truth of Scripture.

Lift Your Drooping Hands | Hebrews 12:12-17

In God’s providence, my devotions have recently been in the book of Hebrews. It’s a theological treasure, rich with gospel truth — a ravishing portrait of the preeminence of Christ and His all-sufficient mediatorial work. The church would do well to become more familiar with it. After reading Hebrews 12:12-17, and the corresponding commentary in John Owen’s works, it strongly occurred to me that the passage is an especially relevant word for our current moment in the PCA.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. ~ Heb. 12:12-17

The author or preacher of Hebrews is fully aware of the church’s problems. He understands that there are deadly diseases plaguing the body of Christ. Rather than ignore or dismiss the spiritual contagions, however, he confronts them head-on. He doesn’t want them to take root and spread. He is a faithful pastor. He loves the church. John Owen writes:

It is the duty of all faithful ministers of the gospel to consider diligently what failures and temptations their flocks are liable or exposed unto, so as to apply suitable means for their perseveration.[7]

In this section of Hebrews, the church is being exhorted and admonished through powerful metaphors; that is, metaphors related to his athletic metaphor at the outset of the chapter.

Therefore … let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (12:1)

The preacher compares the Christian life to a race, and his athletics metaphor resumes in verses 12-14 when he exhorts God’s people to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed.” In other words, he is urging the church to be roused from its spiritual lameness, due to doctrinal compromise, and to return to the straight paths of Christian truth and practice. He urges them to “be healed” before they are “put out of joint”, and it’s too late to recover.

Some in the church were like distance runners who had wandered off course. They were lost, slumped over with spiritual exhaustion, hands hanging down, and knees devoid of strength. They were unsteady, accommodating error for the sake of unity and peace. Owen explains that by the preacher’s words

“that which is lame,” the apostle peculiarly intends those that would retain the [Jewish] ceremonies and worship together with the doctrine of the gospel. For hereby they were made weak and infirm in their profession, as being defective in light, resolution, and steadiness; as also, seemed to halt between two opinions, as the Israelites of old between Jehovah and Baal. This was that which was lame at that time among these Hebrews. And it may, by analogy, be extended unto all those who are under the power of such vicious habits, inclinations, or neglects, as weaken and hinder men in their spiritual progress.[8]

Dear fellow PCA elders, shouldn’t we be compelled to ask— In what ways might we, as a denomination, be “made weak and infirm in [our] profession, as being defective in light, resolution, and steadiness?” I would argue that the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) accommodation of certain aspects of the current moral revolution has made us “weak and infirm” and is close to putting us “out of joint.” The accommodation of particular facets of the cultural revolution is the biggest threat to the spiritual health and future viability of our denomination.[9]

The moral revolution has overwhelmed western civilization, and is especially manifested in the LGBTQ+ and critical social justice movements.[10] Intersectionality is the new reigning religion in the West, and her prophets, priests, and rulers are seated on the highest thrones of earthly power. The evidence of the moral revolution is ubiquitous. Sadly, this insidious revolution has found a foothold in a growing number of our churches, presbyteries, agencies, and ministries through side B gay christianity/Revoice, and critical social justice (It gives me absolutely no pleasure to express it. I wish it were not true). What is, perhaps, even more concerning than the ministers who positively and publicly affirm aspects of these false ideologies, are those who quietly acquiesce to them, reluctantly accepting error without protest. This quiet acquiescence is a spiritual cancer to ministers, and to denominations. Owen is right: “A hesitation or doubtfulness in or about important doctrines of truth, will make men lame, weak, and infirm in their profession.”[11] Therefore, there must be no hesitation as it concerns the sufficiency of the gospel, and the divinely appointed means of grace, for the discipleship and mission of the church. We don’t need side B or CRT. In fact, no one needs it. We have the gospel— the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16; I Cor. 1:18)!

Strive for Peace and Holiness

The preacher continues in v.14 by exhorting the Church to “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Christians have a moral duty to pursue peace with everyone, especially those in the household of God.[12] Indeed, it’s sinful and unChristlike to be contentious, quarrelsome, and divisive. By God’s grace, we must strive for peace with one another.

However, the pursuit of peace has its limits. Peace must never be sought apart from the pursuit of holiness. In other words, Christians are never to pursue peace with any man, whether inside or outside the church,

… by a compliance with them in any evil; — not by a neglect of any duty; not by any thing that intercedeth on holiness toward God. Peace with men is not to be followed nor practiced at any such rate. We must eternally bid defiance unto that peace with men which is inconsistent with peace with God.[13]

Paul states in Romans 12:18: “If possible … live peaceably with all.” Regrettably, it’s not possible to live peaceably with those who are determined to perpetuate doctrinal error, and who negotiate holiness (i.e., sanctification). The pursuit of peace, therefore, must always be in accordance with holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord.”[14]

A Garden Metaphor: Pulling Up the Root of Bitterness

Most of us know what it’s like to have weed problems. If we are not vigilant, our gardens can quickly become an assortment of weeds, spreading throughout the yard, choking out fine grass and beautiful flowers. Interestingly, in verse 15, the preacher changes his metaphor from athletics to horticulture. He exhorts the church to “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”

Why did the preacher issue this sober warning to the Hebrews? Because there were some in the church who were empty professors; that is, professing to be orthodox and godly believers, they were in reality sexually immoral and profane. They were like Esau, forsaking the eternal spiritual blessings of the covenant of grace for temporal comforts and fading pleasures. They were slaves of sin, and not slaves of righteousness.[15] In that miserable condition, devoid of faith and repentance, these empty professors would fail to “obtain the grace of God.” But what was this “root of bitterness”, and why did it pose such a clear and present danger for the church?

The phrase finds its origins in Deuteronomy 29:18-19:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.

By quoting this passage, the preacher is warning the Hebrews about the “root of bitterness” that strengthens hypocrisy (often through sexual deviancy), inclines the heart toward apostasy, and leads to the defilement of many in the Church.[16] It’s the poisonous root that J. Gresham Machen warned of during his fight for orthodoxy in the mainline Presbyterian Church, a root that many chose to ignore for the sake of ecclesiastical peace, toleration, and unity.[17]

It’s also important to remember that roots are hidden. They cannot be readily seen growing or spreading. In the same way, the “bitter roots” of hypocrisy, doctrinal compromise, and perverse views and practices of sexuality are often hidden from view. However, when these rotten roots break forth and come into focus, they must be courageously confronted and uprooted through the loving discipline of the church.[18] The spiritual health of the church depends on it. Owen explains:

Spiritual evils in churches are progressive — from small, imperceptible beginnings, they will grow and increase to the worst of evils, 2 Tim. ii. 17, iii. 13. And it will hence follow, that it is the duty of churches to watch against the first risings and entrances of such evils amongst them; which is here given them in charge.[19]

Again, he writes:

Church inspection is a blessed ordinance and duty, which is designed by Christ himself as a means to prevent these contagious evils in churches — And the neglect of it is that which hath covered some of them with all manner of defilements.[20]

A Moment of Opportunity

Dearest fellow elders and dear members of the PCA, the siren songs of progressive Christianity have seduced and ensnared the soul of the broad evangelical world. Every day, it seems, new pastors, teachers, and churches are sailing foolishly into the rocky shores of wokeness. We must not let it happen to us. We cannot let it happen to us.

Future generations of Christians will judge us on the way that we respond to our current crossroads” moment in the PCA. What will be our story? What will future generations learn about us? Will they learn about a denomination that accommodated poisonous cultural trends in the name of contextualization? Will they read about a church that allowed a bitter root of compromise to grow and spread in its own garden, a church that pursued peace without holiness? Will they find out about a church that slowly became a refuge for theological ambiguity and confessional indifferentism? Will they read about a denomination that chose to forge a doctrinal via media for the sake of toleration, peace, and counterfeit unity?

Or will they learn something quite different? Will they hear about a denomination that weathered the storm through a valiant and costly commitment to the whole counsel of God? Will they hear about a church that courageously rejected the powerful secular ideologies of their age, and instead chose to follow the old and worn paths of ministry, mission, and discipleship? Will they tell their children in Sunday school class about the brave teaching elders, ruling elders, and denominational leaders who fought for biblical fidelity and confessional integrity in the face of massive cultural pressure? Will future theological students be inspired by seminary presidents and professors who boldly and clearly took a public stand against the moral revolution, and with humble confidence taught that the gospel alone is sufficient to save every kind of sinner, and to mortify every type of sin? May it be so!

Therefore, my dear brothers, let’s recommit ourselves afresh to a warm-hearted, Reformed and Confessional Presbyterianism. With hearts full of love for God and each other, let’s seek the peace and holiness of the church, and show the courage of our Presbyterian convictions. And let’s listen to the voice of God in Hebrews as we prepare for the 49th General Assembly:

Lift your drooping hands, strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

Now is the time for reformation in the PCA.


[1] The author refers to his epistle as a word of exhortation” in Hebrews 13:22.

[2] See Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2.

[3]Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” II Timothy 3:12

[4] See Hebrews 8:1-6; 10:1-39

[5] Hebrews 10:23; c.f. 3:6; 4:14; 6:18.

[6] Counterfeit unity is a pseudo unity created by mixing truth with error for the sake of peace. Ironically, it’s a “unity” that eventually leads to deeper and more permanent division.

[7] John Owen, Commentary on Hebrews, Works, vol. xxiii (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991; first published 1684) p. 277.

[8] Ibid., 283.

[9] This is true for all denominations.

[10] Two recommended primers on these issues are Carl Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2022), and Thaddeus Williams’ Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan Academic, 2020).

[11] Ibid., 283.

[12] e.g., Mathew 5:9; I Peter 3:11; Romans 12:16.

[13] Owen, Hebrews, 285.

[14] Owen explains: “Now this future sight of the Lord doth depend peremptorily on our present holiness. It doth not do so as the meritorious cause of it; for be we never so holy, yet in respect of God we are ‘unprofitable servants,’ and ‘eternal life is the gift of God by Jesus Christ.’ But it doth so on a double account: (1.) Of an eternal, unchangeable, divine constitution. God hath enacted it, as an eternal law, that holiness shall be the way of our attaining and coming to blessedness. (2.) As it is a due preparation for it, the soul being by holiness made meet and fit to come to the sight of the Lord, Col. i. 12, 13 … in whom this holiness is not, he shall never see the Lord.” Ibid., 287. Thomas Watson writes: “A godly man bears God’s name and image; godliness is godlikeness. It is one thing to profess God, another thing to resemble Him. A godly man is like God in holiness. Holiness is the most brilliant pearl in the King of Heaven’s crown. God’s power makes him mighty; his mercy makes him lovely; but his holiness makes him glorious. The holiness of God is the intrinsic beauty of his nature and his abhorrence of sin. A godly man bears some kind of analogy with God in this … Holiness is the badge and livery of Christ’s people … the holiness of the saints consists in their conformity to God’s will, which is the rule and pattern of all holiness. (Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 30-31)

[15] See Romans 6:15-23.

[16] One of the chief and most crippling sins of sexual deviancy in the church today is pornography. It’s a spiritual epidemic in the church. Teaching and ruling elders who view pornography are unfit for office. They are no longer “beyond reproach.” Officers who view pornography must confess this sin to their fellow elders, place themselves under their shepherding care, and throw themselves into the merciful arms of Jesus for grace, forgiveness, and a way forward in sanctification. Sexual sin and deviant sexual views of any kind cannot be tolerated in the leadership of our Lord’s church. John Owen states: “That church which tolerates in its communion men living in such gross sins as fornication, has utterly, as unto its discipline, departed from the rule of the gospel.” (Ibid., 297).

[17] In a recent article in World Magazine, the author draws attention to the battle for orthodoxy in the mainline Presbyterian Church USA in the early decades of the twentieth century. He explains, “Though having a reputation for being a fundamentalist, [Charles] Erdman ran for moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America expressly on a platform of peace and toleration. Machen opposed him in these words: ‘There are many evangelical men who … have not the appreciation of the danger in which the church stands … so it is with Dr. Erdman.’ Machen added to this a stinging criticism, saying that Erdman represented ‘A policy of palliation and of compromise [that] will in a few years lead to the control of our church … by agnostic Modernism.’ Erdman won the election, and he set up a commission to investigate potential danger in the church. The commission decided that the true cause for concern in the Presbyterian Church was not theological liberalism but overly strident conservatives like Machen. The rest is well-known history. Machen and the most vocal conservatives were eventually ousted from the church. Life seemed to continue as normal for several years, decades even, but eventually Machen was shown to be correct. The mainline Presbyterian Church no longer defends Christian orthodoxy, and it has been experiencing a total membership collapse as one predictable effect.”

[18] The preacher instructs the Hebrews on discipline in the preceding verses, Hebrews 12:3-11.

[19] Ibid., 294.

[20] Ibid.