Beware of Conference Credentials or is Dr Beeke Right?
We are blessed in the UK with many excellent reformed extra-church meetings and conferences. Nevertheless, as well as threats of error from within our borders, we are also connected to the USA ‘conference circuit’ which is developing ever more unhelpful and indeed dangerous characteristics through ungodly compromise. It is our prayer that the following will serve as a warning to both conference organisers and attendees, to both clergy and laity (ministers and church members).
The Local Church Priority
While we have been blessed in the UK with some excellent conference and ‘school’ teaching it is vital to remember that our allegiance and responsibility must be primarily to our local church. In the local church people are gathered together to know and love God, each other and their neighbours in an accountable and meaningful way. Dear reader, yes there will of necessity be rare exceptions, but you will not be fed by conference speakers however eloquent they may be, you will not be fed by reading this newspaper, you will not be fed by internet sermons alone but you will starve if you do not take a committed part in a local biblical congregation.
Conferences for Conferring
Strictly speaking a conference is a meeting at which people meet and ‘confer’. In the fullest sense this is with the purpose of not merely bouncing ideas around but of actually making important decisions. How the church today could do with a conference to iron out some problems.
Historically conferences have been very important in the life of the church. Church history tells us of many Christian conferences including the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) which decided the vital matter of how to welcome Gentiles into the church, the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) which condemned deadly heresy, the Hampton Court Conference (1604) which led to the production of a universal English Bible, the Authorised Version, and the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) which attempted to define the Reformed faith more exactly.
These councils and conferences were ‘one-offs’ called for important reasons, with clear aims and objectives and reached specific conclusions that determined the future course of the Church.
Need for Conferences Today
So what of Church conferences today? Clearly there is much about the church that could do with being sorted out. Indeed, many old heresies are being promoted today just as vigorously as they were long ago. In addition many people have strong divergent views about what the church is and should believe and do. There is a tremendous lack of uniformity today. Some of this is inevitable ‘nonconformity’ and yet many only see their own style of church as the biblical one. Should there not be a conference to resolve these and many other questions?
Sadly such efforts are usually ineffective because of the serious problem of false ecumenism where churches have joined together to talk in this way but without accepting a biblical basis of faith. Examples of this include the General Synod of the Church of England and the World Council of Churches (WCC).
On a smaller scale the Evangelical Alliance and London School of Theology (nee London Bible College) hosted an Atonement Symposium in 2005. This was to discuss the strange theology of men like Steve Chalke who do not believe that Jesus’ death was the bearing of God’s wrath. The conference conclusion was very open ended, stating a traditional position but, presumably not wanting to offend, also agreeing to differ in a very non judgmental way with the strange teachings. This is disturbing to find when decisive judgement is the one purpose for which conferences are called.
Other smaller organisations hold their own private meetings to decide on their exact doctrinal and practical teachings. Affinity (nee British Evangelical Council) even organised a conference with the traditional purpose of ‘conferring’ with papers made available in advance. To date such conferences are limited as they have no authority and are not very successful except in persuading attendees to hold more tightly to previously held views.
When the End is Decided Beforehand
At the other end is extreme separation where churches stick on points to the permanent exclusion of further discussion. Along this line are many today who agree on the conclusion before the conference starts! Speakers are invited to give papers on certain subjects with pre agreed views. While there is a lack of doctrinal clarity in Christendom at large, many such ‘conferences’ are a valuable way of disseminating correct views and doctrines. Even if just a few ‘outsiders’ will attend they may receive guidance to reestablish their Christian life in a new and more God honouring and useful direction. Young men in particular may be positively influenced by reformed conferences and even go on to become pastors of reformed churches.
The Conference Circuit
There has inevitably developed a ‘conference circuit’ and predictably certain ministers have become ‘famous’ as ‘conference speakers’. This is not necessarily as detrimental to their home churches as might be expected. The leading 20th century minister Dr DM Lloyd-Jones was almost always ‘preaching away’ midweek as well as during long summer ‘holidays’ which were often largely filled with preaching tours.
It should briefly but carefully be noted that while Lloyd-Jones ‘conferred’ with the WCC in genuine discussion it resulted in his rejection of the WCC. Furthermore Lloyd-Jones was careful not to share a platform with either the confusingly ecumenical Billy Graham or with the misleading Keswick ‘holiness’ teachers.
Generally as the conference circuit expands so ministers rub shoulders with men with views outside of the ‘orthodoxy’ of their own denominations or alliances. Out of this grows an informal alliance of ‘conference speakers’. Christian charity is rightly exercised between ministers. Some will accept an invitation without a list of all who are scheduled to speak, after all they rightly come to trust those who organise these conferences. However, unless one is to be the only speaker, it is impossible to know who else will speak as not all ministers will be alive and well by the time the conference date arrives and so substitutes may have to be brought in. Other times a minister may have agreed to speak at a conference but then in the meantime one of the other speakers becomes heretical or ecumenical. It is considered rude to cancel an engagement, either by the organiser or the speaker, so they are usually stuck with an ecumenical speaker and what should be an embarrassment all round. Regrettably the embarrassment is usually extinguished by keeping quiet or dissimulation (a great word used in the Book of Common Prayer to describe the lengths to which man will go to pretend he is not a sinner!) or by offering smooth sounding excuses. Such an untruthful practice is highly detrimental to the cause of the Gospel. A ministry outside of the formal structures of a disciplined church finds itself highly compromised and rather than being the ‘handmaiden’ of the churches, becomes a trap and a snare and the blind lead the blind into the ditch.
What is the cure for this ecumenical mess? According to one leading American conference speaker, Dr Joel Beeke, the doctrine of biblical separation cannot be applied to conferences. Dr Beeke therefore feels at liberty to preach at conferences with John Piper who holds hands with new-Calvinists. Dr Beeke also speaks at National Center For Family-Integrated Churches conferences (see www.ncfic.org). NCFIC says it is based on the sufficiency of Scripture but its doctrinal statement is woefully inadequate as its only doctrine is about families.
Is Dr Beeke right? If the conferences at which he speaks really are ‘conferences’ in the historical sense of which we have spoken then of course one would not expect to share the same views as all present. The very point of such conferences was for people of different views to get together and to hammer out their differences by seeking the truth.
However when one agrees to be a speaker at a conference where the doctrinal position is already given and the speaker is set to speak in a certain way on a certain subject, then it is not really a conference at all. There is no place to disagree with other speakers. It is more like a ‘school’, a word which some rightly use instead of conference. At a ‘school’ there is a school ethos and all the ‘teachers’ are expected to hold to that ethos. They are all essentially part of teaching one message. Under such circumstances conference speakers are accountable for the whole conference. Are they giving credence to false teachers?
In summary it is necessary to distinguish between traditional conferences and what should be more correctly termed schools. There is a place for conferences to seek to come to decisions about doctrine and actions. Such conferences depend on a will to reach an agreement and are impossible when there is not already agreement on non-negotiable fundamentals.
Conferences that are more rightly ‘schools’ teach a clear pre-agreed message and are not conferences at all in the proper sense. Schools depend upon a high degree of agreement between speakers who work together for the school. Under such circumstances biblical separation from heretics and false teachers is imperative.
Rev Ivan Foster Comments
We conclude with some extracts from a letter we received from a retired Free Presbyterian of Ulster minister, Rev Ivan Foster:
Since reading the main article on Mark Driscoll in EC7817, my soul has been vexed, not just at what I read of this man Driscoll but by the contacts by which good men have stupidly linked themselves to this devilishness.
Here is a link which indicates that John Piper did not take the same view of Driscoll's comments as did John MacArthur.
Now MacArthur and Piper did not differ sufficiently to part company. They remain "buddies". How anyone who professes allegiance to Christ and His Truth can keep fellowship with someone who defends Driscoll and says that he is "rock solid" doctrinally I cannot understand.
MacArthur and Piper are still friends and have shared "rock concert" type so-called evangelical gatherings.
What is more serious is the fact that Joel Beeke has shared a platform with Piper and others of his ilk and has defended his doing so within the last month or so and says that he would do it again.
A man who became contaminated by touching that which was unclean was refused a place at the ordinances in the Old Testament. Any priest who came in contact with such a man would be deemed unclean himself and unfit for service.
It is wrong, I believe, of Joel Beeke to fellowship with Piper and, in turn, wrong for any to fellowship with Beeke until he acknowledges his wrong-doing and ceases to have fellowship with the likes of Piper.
My old granny used to say: “Show me your company and I will tell you who you are!” That is an entirely scriptural philosophy.
I fear that a love of the "conference" bonhomie is such that it becomes more important to these "circuit riders" than faithfulness to Christ.
It is the rock upon which many are going to make shipwreck of their ministries and effective witness for Christ in these last days.
There is a network of conferences, associations, alliances etc., etc., formed today and it is through this maze and network that the virus of compromise and rebellion is spreading and contaminating many stalwarts and organisations which have served the Lord Christ so effectively. But even a David or a Solomon ceases their usefulness when they forget the commands set forth in Scriptures such as : “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,” 2 Corinthians 6:17,. (Numbers 16:26)
Paul said: “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way,” 2 Thessalonians 2:7,
I have no doubt that what is happening in the world of academic Christendom is evidence of the working of that spirit of iniquity.