Tuesday, November 29, 2005

RC Sproul Jr's Highlands Ministries

RC Sproul Jr's Highlands Ministries -- Highlands Study Center

We've been told by RC Sproul Jr. that St. Peter Presbyterian Church has a "ministry" called the Highlands Study Center (now known as Highlands Ministries). As the name implies, some kind of "study" goes on at the Highlands Study Center, and the people who "study" are called "students."

No original thought involved -- RC Sproul Jr just attempted to copy his father's Ligonier Valley Study Center, RC Sproul Sr's original ministry founded in Ligonier, PA in 1971 with the generous financial aid of Dora Hillman, the woman RC Sproul Jr less than affectionately refers to as "the white witch." There were, however, significant differences between how the Ligonier Valley Study Center and the Highlands Study Center were run. For one thing RC Sproul Sr is smart and has a work ethic.

We're not exactly sure what gets studied at the Highlands Study Center because no one wants to talk about it. Every once in a while we'll actually see a young lady or young man at various St. Peter Presbyterian Church functions who says they're studying at the Highlands Study Center.

Sometimes we might ask them what they're studying and they'll say, "I get to read RC's books. He tells me to read a book, and then at the end of the week he'll get together with me and say, 'Do ya have any questions?' He doesn't ever have a lesson or lecture or anything like that, but I get to ask him questions. I had to come from thousands of miles away, but it's really worth it to get to ask RC Sproul, Jr. questions about his books, and the best part is that I get to party with RC. I've really learned a lot... I guess."

Several "students" have commented that one of the best reasons to hang out,  er, study at the Highlands Study Center is the beer, and RC Sproul Jr is proud to publish that fact:
ETC: "What were your favorite experiences?"
Mark: "After much anticipation I was able to partake of both RC's home brew and Laurence's salsa." A Conversation On Conversation, Every Thought Captive

"While at the Study Center, we ate good food and drank good beer. We had good conversation about leadership, world views, and kingdom building (and good food and good beer). Thankfully we were able to return home with some wisdom and practical ideas for our roles as Kingdom builders for our own ones (and perpetuate the myth that the best reason for a stay at the HSC is for the home brew)." Kingdom Here, Every Thought Captive
Benny HinnOther "students" have been equally motivated for "study" by RC's home brew, and by some accounts RC's "holy brew" even has miraculous curative powers:
"After the shower, one of the other less important reasons to study at HSC is the ample supply of RC's famous homebrew. As I write this, I must confess that this reason would belong on the 'more important reason' list were it not artificially divorced right now from fellowship. I was once sick for a week and my poor health was beginning to take a toll on me, but after I had one of RC's homebrews, I was miraculously restored to health. Benny Hinn himself couldn't have healed me quicker than that holy brew." Showers Of Blessing, Every Thought Captive
Some people think that the Highlands Study Center is just a fundraising scam to pay for RC's brewery and line RC's pockets (cha-ching), but those are just the cynics. 
RC Sproul Jr's basement brewery

Some people think that RC just uses the young ladies as domestics or indentured servants, but that seems a bit cynical too. The young ladies get to live in RC's basement. Sure, they wash his dishes, cook his meals, and babysit his kids, but it's all in exchange for the incomparable privilege of getting to bask in RC's transcendental aura. There's just no way that could be mere indentured servitude... I guess.

Even though we don't often see any actual living breathing warm-bodied students at the Highlands Study Center, er, in RC's basement, we know there must be some kind of studying going on there with some kind of students. After all, people donated six-figures just in the last year to the Highlands Study Center, so we know all that money must be going toward some kind of worthy cause... I guess.

About the only thing we ever actually do see the Highlands Study Center do is publish a Credenda Agenda-wannabe rag called Every Thought Captive. Every couple of months hundreds of subscribers are subjected to a new edition of Every Thought Captive (we call it ETC). Many subscribers never bother to read it (it can get a little bizarre entering RC Jr's world), but being the thrifty agrarians that we are, we'd never just toss them out. We've discovered that if you roll a few ETCs up together real tight and tie them off with a couple of pieces of unwaxed dental floss (preferably Frank Zappa™ brand), they burn almost as well as those compressed sawdust logs. The pages of ETC also come in handy for lining rabbit hutches and other small animal pens. 

RC always has a Top Ten list in the back of Every Though Captive. It's really insightful stuph... I guess. The November/December 2005 issue had this RC Top Ten List:
RC Sproul Jr's Every Thought Captive

RC really digs "authority." Some people call him a "control-freak," but those are just the cynics and former members that we've shunned.

Sure, RC's into stuff like Gary Ezzo and "blanket training" infants, but that doesn't really make him a control-freak, does it? Some people might say it's "abusive" to force an infant to stay on a blanket on the floor by hitting the baby with a wooden spoon everytime it attempts to crawl off the blanket. But RC says it's just about "taking dominion." 

All that "taking dominion" really means is that he is the boss over our lives and we passively submit to his authority. As long as everyone happily submits, no one gets hurt. It's really a pretty good deal... I guess. A lot of people call us a "cult" but we have a hard time seeing why they think that.

Still, "Being Under Authority" is clearly not one of RC's "Things I'm Thankful For." It's got to be a typo. RC isn't under anyone's authority, especially the Presbytery's authority. Probably what he meant to say was, "Being In Authority" or "Being The Authority." 

Or maybe what he really meant to say was "Being Under The Influence."

According to a brand new posting on the Highlands Study Center web site, "The Highlands Academy conducts classes for area homeschoolers and anyone else who is interested in attending. The Highlands Study Center is once again offering classes. . ." Golly, that sure is nice that they're "once again offering classes." There haven't been any classes for homeschoolers for two years. Folks were starting to wonder what had become of "The Highlands Academy." What with RC's busy brewing schedule for the last few years it's understandable why he'd have so much trouble giving up an hour and a half once a week for any of those homeschool kids in his church.

RC sure has a great sense of humor. "The Highlands Academy." What a hoot! Maybe RC figures by having multiple department names it'll sound like there's some actual "academic" departments, and maybe even some actual "academic" instructors that do some actual "academic" instruction to some actual "academic" students. 

No one at the "Highlands Academy" has taught a class to home schoolers in two years. Then this web site shows up exposing what a sham the Highlands "Study" Center is and RC all of a sudden decides, "Gee, maybe I ought to do some kind of teachin' or somethin' that at least looks like teachin'. Let's see, are there any rubes around here I could teach. Oh yeah, we're right here in bumpkinland, Mendota! There's all those St. Peter homeschool kids. I'll teach them!"

And since RC's $85,000 salary (plus $4,000/mo. "ministerial housing allowance" and a generous benefits package) isn't nearly enough, RC's charging those St. Peter kids $50 a head. How very pastoral of him.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Contumacy Is The New Black

by: L' Enfant Terrible, reposted with permission.

When you hear of someone being excommunicated, what crimes come to mind as likely causes for this most severe of sentences? Unless you've been immersed in the culture of high-church Presbyterian splinter groups, you'd probably not guess the most likely sin - contumacy. Basically, contumacy is rebelling against your elders, and thus is a sort of catch-all category for an assortment of behaviors that might earn the ire of an authoritarian elder.

Of course we would all agree the rebellion against authority is a dreadful thing. But the problem is when those in positions of authority have themselves rebelled by overstepping their authority and becoming tyrants. Yes, this sometimes happens in what appear to be good churches. It's happening right now in a fairly notable one - St. Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia, home of R.C. Sproul, Jr. and his Highlands Study Center. Its a story that ought to distress you, and since the offended party has began to tell their story on the internet, I thought I would bring attention to it so as to warn others.

Before we get into this situation, though, I want to talk about another church that provides a good example of tyranny in the church. That example is found in the article Tyranny in Tyler, which concerns an excommunication for contumacy. Yes, this is the infamous "Tyler Church" where several prominent Reconstructionists (including Gary North, Ray Sutton, James Jordan, and David Chilton) showed that they had no earthly idea how to actually apply God's law in the context of the Church. What's interesting in this tale is that two of the church officers (one of which was David Chilton, who in my opinion was the most respectable and genuine men of the bunch) that made the ruling later repented publicly and stated that they had been wrong. The denomination then ruled that the ruling was nullified. The man that had been excommunicated became an officer at another church, First Presbyterian Church in Rowlett, Texas. This church later wrote reviews of James Jordan's books on worship, which Jordan apparently disliked, for he wrote in his response that:

"The Blue Banner," a name taken for Scottish and Scottish Presbyterian history, is published by the First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett, Texas, . . . . The session of this church is listed on page 16 of the magazine, and includes a man excommunicated from Christ's church in the early 1980s, who has never repented and been restored. This page of the magazine also lists as publisher a man also excommunicated who has never repented and been restored. It seems that the First Presbyterian 'Church' of Rowlett is actually a renegade assembly of persons condemned by sound Presbyterian churches, a 'synagogue of Satan,' perhaps."

That quote gives you a taste of the ugliness of the affair, and the story continues in another article for those interested in learning more about it.

David Chilton had quite a bit to say about the climate of fear that existed in the Tyler church. Some more of his comments can be found in an article called Ecclesiastical Megalomania. John Robbins reports on this for obvious reasons - he has an axe to grind against anyone and everyone associated with theonomy and Christian Reconstruction (or should I just say anyone and everyone - period?). Some of Chilton's remarks concerning the Tyler church that I want to bring your attention to are as follows (perhaps they might remind you of other notable churches, such as St. Peter Presbyterian Church):

"One of the things that was going on with this in the [Tyler] church was that we found that the elders of this church were very class conscious.... This church was not primarily built up from the community. That's how local churches usually are developed. The Gospel takes root in a society and the church is built up from the local constituency. But that's not what went on in this church. People moved to come to this church. This was a Reconstructionist haven and so they moved to come there. People at great cost to themselves--people gave up good jobs to get lesser paying jobs and so on...

The sermons became increasingly mystical.... I would sit in church Sunday after Sunday and think, I have read Rushdoony, I've read Van Til.... You know, I may not be genius level but I've got an intellect. And I'm sitting here, I'm rather well-read, probably more well-read than most members of the congregation, and I can't make head or tail of what this man is saying. I have no idea what he is talking about in the pulpit. And if I can't figure this out, how are these other people doing?

Well, one way the other people were coping with it was that they assumed that this has to be really hot stuff. This is profound because I can't understand it. I'm sitting here in awe and wonder at all these things that are being said from the pulpit, I don't understand it, but it must be true and it must be very important. And this is life-changing, culture-transforming stuff. I'm right here on the Inner Circle. Nobody knew what he [the pastor] was talking about. Bizarre, I mean bizarre interpretations were coming forth from the pulpit....

The congregation was given to understand that everything that was being said from the pulpit, that here we are at the central point of the Reconstruction of this country, of indeed the world, and the things that are coming forth from this pulpit you won't hear anywhere else....

[T]he statement was made that we are to submit to every whim of the church leadership. Even to disagree in our thoughts is an excommunicable offense.... So we have to discipline our thoughts and bring them into line with what the elders said.... And the deacon gave a very concrete, you might say rubber meets the road example. He talked about white-wall tires. And he said if you have white-wall tires and an officer of the church comes over to your house and commands you to change them to black-walls, you are required to do so, and any disobedience to that command is rebellion against authority, rebellion against God himself. And you can be excommunicated for that....

I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that I was going to be excommunicated for what I was thinking....

At that point there was this real uneasy relationship between me and them. I was not on the staff of the church at all but I was, after all, David Chilton. And I wasn't the most famous member of the church, but people did come to the church to find David Chilton, and I was one of the advertising gimmicks of that church. And here I am going through these intense, gut wrenching struggles over the issue of whether I'm going to be excommunicated simply because of disagreeing over a subject like white-wall tires....

But it got worse. There were people who disagreed with school policy.... it had to do with fund raising. We were going to let children go out into the neighborhood and collect money.... Well, there were some people in the church and school who didn't like that. They said, I tell you what, you come to me and you ask me. If the school needs money, tell me how much you want me to give and I'll write you a check. But don't ask me to send my children around to the neighborhood collecting donations from heathens to build up this school....

Now they did not start a revolution.... They stayed out of it. They didn't send their children around the neighborhood and on the appointed day, they did not show up. Now I was one of the ones that showed up. I didn't like it. I didn't feel comfortable about it, but we went along with it....

The result of that was they [those who disagreed] began being brought in and interrogated by the elders of the church--interrogating husbands and wives separately, and refusing to allow these proceedings to be tape recorded.... Sometime before this I'd gone out to a bookstore and bought two books that I had read in high school and now was beginning to see the importance of. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984....

By 1985 I was sending out resumes very discreetly and quietly, begging and pleading with anybody to accept me anywhere. I was willing to do anything. Just get me out of here. There was a real climate of fear.... A family in our church who had moved about 20 miles away-our church was very much into liturgy...--these people moved away and there was an Episcopal Church nearby.... They decided that they would like to go there to church. So they applied for a transfer and got it.... You can't imagine the shock waves that went through the church at that point. I had people coming up to me...saying, I didn't know you could get out....

At this point there was something over 60 families in the church. And that one family moved out. And when people discovered that you could move out, people did so.... When that began to happen, that original couple was denounced from the pulpit in the most extreme terms, that they had left the faith, they weren't Christian anymore, and going to Hell....

Perhaps the leading American Theonomist, if I can distinguish that from Reconstruction, but the leading, the most important, the most erudite American Theonomist was very strongly critical of the church there [in Tyler] and yet in his [California] church he routinely excommunicated people for disagreeing with him, excommunicated people for leaving, excommunicated people for transferring to another church in the same denomination. Think about that. You're in a church and you transfer to another church in the same denomination and the pastor excommunicates you for that.... There were members of our church there who, in escaping from this [Reconstructionist] church, fled to the relative freedom of the Roman Catholic Church. Think about that....

That definitely is something to think about! Now with that background laid, let's move on to the situation at hand.

Like the Tyler church, St. Peter Presbyterian Church has become somewhat of a hot place to move to. Those that want to "get serious" about reformed living often toy the idea of moving to St. Peter. Its apparently become some kind of fad for middle-aged, reformed, home-schooling, agrarian-leaning Christians that are in search of the Holy Grail of churches.

Also like the Tyler church, St. Peter Presbyterian Church has an elder, R.C. Sproul Jr., whose sermons and articles are often "over the head" of the audience. I imagine that the typical blog post by Jr. is quickly devoured by desperate housewives (or as he calls them "Prairie Muffins") and passed on to their husbands, who can't make heads or tails of it but don't want to look stupid in the eyes of their wives so they nod and say -"Yeah, that's really brilliant!" I mean, most of us Reformed guys just really can't relate to being Junior High Girls, for example. Nor do we get into Jr.'s novella Ligonier Tales, which is the Reformed equivalent of the trashy romance novel - shorter, less plot, and the pretense of carrying some ingenious moral message, which no one can put their finger on, but everyone is sure its there.

And most significantly like the Tyler church, thought crimes by members of St. Peter Presbyterian Church are an offense that can result in excommunication. This brings us to the story of the John Austin family, who tell their story in a series of articles:

The Journey Out
(alternate link)

I think you'll see that the similarities between this situation and the one described by David Chilton to be very real, and somewhat frightening. The ironic thing is that I disagree with just about all of the doctrinal conclusions arrived at by the Austins during this period of time, yet I am far more disturbed by the behavior of the St. Peter session than I am the theological convictions taken up by the Austins. Basically, the crimes of a) changing one's position on baptism, and b) deciding you'd like to attend a church that reflects that shift, are excommunicable offenses, worthy of being put out of the body of Christ and shunned.

The Austin's haven't been formally excommunicated yet. In St. Peter's denomination, the RPCGA, doesn't allow local churches to officially excommunicate anyone. However, their Book of Church Order allows for local churches to "suspend" members indefinitely, with no formal charges required! This suspension can include barring the offending members from the sacraments and instructing the rest of the body to shun the offending members. This is a dangerous tool. The difference between suspension and excommunication appears to be mere semantics.

Hopefully, if this is raised to the presbytery level, the other elders in the RPCGA will have the common sense to discipline the renegade session of St. Peter, and not the Austin family. If not, this should serve as a strong warning to anyone considering joining themselves to St. Peter or any other congregation of the RPCGA. I wonder how many of the members of St. Peter got a blessing from their home church before relocating to St. Peter? Does R.C. Jr. also consider it a crime for a member of a Baptist church to decide that paedobaptism is scriptural, and decide to leave his Baptist church and find a Presbyterian one?

I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts on how confessional churches can adhere to biblical ecclesiology without succumbing to sessional tyranny. Tiny denominations such as the RPCGA don't seem to offer much of the so-called "court of appeal" which is supposed to be the hallmark of the presbyterian form of government. A denomination that consists of a few egotistical personalities and their hand-picked friends can offer no true court of appeal.

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