So here’s my last post about this visit to PRBC; I wanted to close the loop and write a little bit about PRBC and James White.
First of all as everybody knows James White is an elder at his church; he was until fairly recently one of three, but at the moment he’s one of two. He takes a prominent role in the church, and from some of Donald Fry’s comments he apparently has the blessing of his pastor and by implication his church for his various activities: writing books, traveling as part of his apologist activities, his Web presence, etc. Regarding the latter, he produces so much content in a typical week I rather doubt that his pastor reads, watches, and hears every word he produces, but that would hardly be expected unless he’d done something to merit scrutiny, etc.
Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, unlike some churches I’ll mention in a later post, doesn’t appear to be a church in name only; it isn’t a cult, a protest group, a paper church, whatever.
One of the questions that arose during the Ergun Caner flap was whether White is accountable to his church in the way he was calling for Caner to be accountable to his (Caner’s) church. I’m inclined to think that this was just a rhetorical point raised for the purpose of either a) trying to turn the White-Caner situation into an intermural feud between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, or b) trying to establish some sort of moral equivalence between Caner and White on the basis of superficially similar questions of character.
I honestly couldn’t tell you how accountable White is to his church; accountability is a funny thing. So often it’s like an insurance policy: you can’t tell the good from the bad, or the real from the fake, until something goes wrong. And even in churches where something has gone wrong it’s often next to impossible for a casual visitor to pick up on what’s gone wrong in a single given Sunday.
So I wish White and the folks at PRBC well and I’ll look forward to visiting them again the next time I’m in the Phoenix area.
So the sermon I heard at PRBC [link] is at this writing the 18th in a series of 20 (so far) on the book of Romans. The series appears to be literally verse-by-verse, meaning that Fry covers a verse each sermon, more or less. There are roughly 430 verses in the book of Romans, so it’s probably reasonable to expect that Fry will still be in the book of Romans five years from now and it’s not unthinkable that he might still be there ten years from now. So it may or may not be fair to expect that the sermon I heard is representative of anything, even of this series.
That being said, this appears to be a fairly workmanlike example of a single-verse sermon: an opening illustration; a reading of the verse in context; three points, each with an accompanying story or illustration; and a closing illustration. Fry never says “here’s my outline in three points,” (and thank goodness) and he doesn’t phrase the three points the same way twice, but on the other hand he doesn’t really seem to be preaching to the outline and the three points don’t alliterate or rhyme (again, thank goodness). There’s always a risk when using a formal structure like this that the Scripture used and the points drawn from it will be overshadowed by the points or the illustrations. I think it’s fairly safe to say that doesn’t happen in this case. This is a fairly solid Reformed sermon based on a Reformed proof text.
I am a big fan of expository teaching; in fact, when I sermon starts I’m typically fidgety from the moment the preacher starts talking until he starts reading Scripture. I’m always looking for the foundation of the sermon, and I’m wary of sermons that appear to be founded on stories, illustrations, the authority of the pulpit, tradition, etc. The down side to expository teaching is that so many Scripture passages are thorny things, with phrases that do not appear to contribute to the passage’s plain meaning, and when a preacher sets about using a short text he faces three problems:
- Presenting the passage in the context of the whole of Scripture
- Presenting the passage so it fits the surrounding greater text
- Dealing with these troublesome phrases
For many Reformed preachers the book of Romans is the whole of Scripture, so I’ll give Fry a pass here. And he did read the verse in the context of the surrounding verses, so I’ll note that he did that. The problem, though, is that there are three thorny problems with this passage:
- What is the righteousness of God? Is it something He gives? Something He has but no one else does? Etc.
- What does Paul mean by “from faith to faith?”
- Why Habakkuk? How does Paul’s understanding and portrayal of the quote [KJV] fit its original context? Are Paul and Habakkuk saying the same thing? If so how and if not why not?
Fry namechecks the first two but doesn’t dig into them, and he mentions Habakkuk but doesn’t go back to the original context; it’s as if he considers Paul’s reading (or maybe the 16th century understanding of the quote) to be normative and doesn’t consider the continuity (or the contrast) between the original meaning and later understandings at all. I realize this is a high standard, but I think it’s appropriate for someone doing a verse a sermon.
Fry also tends to leave important terms (“righteousness,” “gospel,” and to a lesser degree “justice”) undefined. This is a pitfall of anyone who prizes “strong doctrine” at the expense of other values; it’s possible to start on a firm foundation and end on a firm foundation but leave the audience with things that can only be understood and believed theoretically. And I’m afraid that’s what happens here.
Finally, there’s Fry’s delivery. Fry is a shouter. Or a dramatic reader. Or something like that. I suspect this is more or less the delivery he learned in seminary, probably at a time when seminary professors had less practice using microphones, etc. and Fry has never seriously reconsidered his delivery. I suspect this because his volume rises at odd times, on phrases that don’t necessarily need emphasis, and he did not seem to be getting worked up emotionally in a way that corresponded with his tone of voice. Preachers shout for many reasons (see e.g. [link]), and I have a hard time pigeonholing Fry’s delivery against the popular explanations.
I choose to believe that shouting is something of a generational thing, as younger preachers (e.g. 50 and younger) are less likely to shout than older preachers. I have to hope that good acoustic spaces and inexpensive amplification will eventually make this a rare phenomenon. It’s one of the remaining rhetorical tricks still in wide use (anaphora being another) that I think distracts from the message rather than contributing to it or supporting it.
Whenever I visit a church I wonder why the people who are there stay there. My best guess in the case of PRBC is that the people there want to hear Reformed doctrine affirmed, like the conservative music, and appreciate the linear, straightforward presentation, so they’re willing to tolerate a little shouting. I hope for their sake it’s not just because they e.g. like being around James White.
Ah yes James White. I think there’s one more post left in this series, and I’m hoping to get back to him in it.
This post deals with the content of the sermon I heard at Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church; the sermon itself can be heard and downloaded via SermonAudio [link]; it runs about 37 minutes, including opening and closing prayer. This post is a straightforward summary; I may follow up with comments, analysis, etc. in a later post.
The sermon text is Romans 1:17 “for in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written ‘the just shall live by faith’” [ESV].
Fry opens with prayer, a prayer that is partly to the Holy Spirit but mostly reminds us that the Scriptures are inspired and preserved, asks for protection against the Evil One, and a request for understanding and strength.
He follows with an appeal to our understanding of the ongoing struggle between terrorists and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and then-current resistance to TSA security measures and says the best of systems have their flaws, including the best security and judicial systems have their flaws. By contrast Jesus (in God’s courtroom) will give out “pure, absolute justice.” And punishment, both for the guilty and the innocent according to God’s law. The only innocent will be people who have kept God’s law perfectly. The multitudes of innocent people will have been declared righteous by God according to Jesus’s perfect obedience.
He then reads the text, starting at verse 8, apparently reading from the KJV or the NKJV.
The sermon outline has three points:
- Where can I find that which is needed that I might go through the day of judgment? Where can I find what is needed?
- What do I find? The righteousness of God.
- How does this become mine?
It has been revealed through the Scriptures; through the Gospel. The righteousness of God was revealed in the Old Testament. After all, Paul is steering toward a quote from Habakkuk, and has already spoken about how Abraham and David were justified by faith, prophetic faith in something symbolic of Jesus’s death. Fry references Hebrews 11 as being people who were saved by faith in the same way, not saved by sacrifices or other religious observances, but by faith; also 1 Peter 1:18ff. Concludes that men have always been saved by the righteousness of God. Also references Romans 3:25.
What do I find? The righteousness of God. Fry I think here makes a passing reference to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and what it means for this righteousness to be “of God,” but doesn’t delve, just saying that this is sometimes a reference to God’s character, His attributes of righteousness and justice. Fry wanders a bit here, making several references to Romans 3 before saying that there’s a righteousness God has and one He provides to sinners, and it is this provision that is good news and saying that this righteousness is shown in Jesus, who kept the Law perfectly.
Fry injects a subtle bit of humor into the sermon by asking us to consider how Jesus could be sinless while living in a real home with sisters and worked a job and dealt with customers. Also, any of us would have been stretched beyond what we could bear by dealing with the scribes and Pharisees.
God has provided righteousness for his people; Fry asks who would rejoice in the provision of the righteousness of God, and mentions that lots of people are out having fun on Sunday and aren’t concerned. Fry says those who seek righteousness are the ones who come under the sound of the Gospel and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. People who have made a real impact are the ones who have been the most convicted: Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, and Spurgeon. Fry says anyone who aspires to be a pastor should have a sense of how sinful he personally is; “the same should be true of us.”
How does this become mine? How does the sinner receive it? Fry mentions but doesn’t delve into the question of what “from faith to faith” means, then passes over it to “justified by faith,” and then goes on to the quote from Habakkuk, a contemporary of Jeremiah (PRBC is studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings). He says saving faith isn’t natural; he contrasts this with ordinary trust, like a person exercises when riding in a car or plane, says it is a gift of God. After claiming that people want credit in salvation Fry says we seldom mention the righteousness of God as part of evangelism.
The closing illustration is about putting on a coat in cold weather; Fry says we should thank God for protection against cooler weather and says we should remember that God has covered us with His righteousness (against the day of His wrath).
The closing prayer asked God to convict people and draw them to Himself.
Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church is a smallish church, and the building has a simple 1950s cinderblock feel; the sanctuary looks like it has had an addition built on in the back on one side, so the view from the pulpit is kind of asymmetrical. I would guess that with the addition included the sanctuary would hold 250-300 people. Like a lot of small rural Baptist churches the sanctuary is done up in light colors (pale wood, white walls) and makes good use of natural light. The windows appeared to be clear or frosted (no stained glass) and were covered with white shades, I’m guessing to keep the interior from getting oppressively hot in the summer.
The sanctuary has a dusty smell, not mildewy (like you might find in a place with a lot of humidity) or hot-dusty (like a furnace turned on after months sitting collecting dust) but a sort of closed-up attic-y smell.
There’s no choir loft and no visible baptismal pool in the front, and the area around the pulpit holds just a couple of chairs. You can sort of get a feel for what it’s like by looking at some of White’s YouTube videos where he preaches from the PRBC pulpit:
Note the blue curtain and darkish pulpit, Communion table, chairs, etc. It’s a bit dark but not gloomy. I think there’s no baptismal pool behind that curtain, but I could be wrong. Note also the absence of scoreboards that are sometimes present in small Baptist churches; some churches use these as literal scoreboards (attendance and/or giving numbers) and some use to hold hymn numbers.
The liturgy was short and serious. There were four hymns, all from the Trinity Hymnal (Baptist Edition) [link], led by the pastor Donald Fry. The church has both a piano and an organ, but nobody played the organ. There were no announcements and there was no “special music.” We recited the Lord’s Prayer, there was a Gospel reading unrelated to the sermon text (and unreferenced in the sermon) and a long, occasionally technical, apparently extemporaneous prayer. And I do mean long: the service started promptly at 11:00AM, the sermon 19 minutes later, and some 8-10 minutes of that 19 were allocated to the prayer.
Lest I forget: as I’ve noted elsewhere I don’t take a side in the Worship Wars on principle, but personally I far and away prefer singing hymns to worship choruses, preferably pitched so I can sing along. The hymn singing was one of the highlights of our visit to PRBC. Even or especially the amen at the end of each hymn.
Dress was casual; I had been concerned that I would stand out in my solid polo shirt [link] and ripstop hiking pants, but nobody batted an eye. A few t-shirts, some with words, almost no jackets and ties outside the pulpit. James White was wearing a sleeveless sweater with what appeared to be the Alpha and Omega Ministries logo in orange over one breast. That was my first clue he wouldn’t be preaching; I believe he always wears a jacket and tie for that.
The crowd was kind of small (somewhere in the 70-100 range; I’d guess 80 people), racially mixed and with people of all ages. I was surprised by both of these: it has been my experience that conservative churches, especially small ones, tend to be all-white and older, with an average age in the fifties or later. Not so at PRBC; I’d love to know how they’re drawing people in their twenties and thirties, or alternately why people in their 20s and 30s attend PRBC. I’m not sure if it’s surprising that there are e.g. Hispanics at PRBC given the ethnic makeup of Phoenix; the conservative Protestant denominational churches in northern New Mexico tend to be very white. I really couldn’t tell you if the church is growing or shrinking, but it certainly seems to be poised, demographically speaking, to at least survive, unlike a lot of churches I’ve visited.
There was no Communion/Lord’s Supper. I wasn’t expecting it, as the Baptist churches I’ve attended rarely have Communion on Sunday morning, and PRBC explicitly states that the sermon is the central feature of their service [link].
The people we dealt with were very welcoming and friendly (in spite of the fact that there was no “right hand of fellowship” for which I am grateful); nobody tried to keep us from taking the baby into the service or gave us dirty looks when he got restless. My wife ended up taking him to the nursery, and the workers there were friendly and accommodating and didn’t mind that she wanted to stay with him.
At the end of the closing prayer I headed out to find my family and head for lunch and then the airport, but the pastor called out after me from the sound room at the back of the sanctuary and introduced himself and made me feel welcome. That’s a practice I rarely see any more outside of small Baptist and Lutheran churches, and I’d almost forgotten what that was like.
On the whole I’d look forward to visiting again if and when we’re back in the Phoenix area, especially if White were preaching. I’m still curious to see what he’s like live in front of an audience that knows him and (by the same token) to see how they respond to him. It’s hard to get a feel for that sort of thing on YouTube or at a conference.
I realize I haven’t dealt with the sermon in the text above; stay tuned. The sermon itself is available at Sermon Audio [link]. I should be able to get to it next week.
Someone from PRBC was kind enough to contact me with some clarifications and corrections. Here’s the promised follow-up:
I wrote earlier [link]
I was a bit disturbed to note that the parking lot only had room for 12-15 cars, and the building seemed quite small, so I was concerned that PRBC was some sort of separatist group, single-extended-family church or even a cult.
The church property extends along 12th from Indianola to Clarendon and the lot on Indianola is complemented by a comparable amount of parking on the Clarendon side. We parked on the street, off church property; I’d guess with overflow there’s parking for maybe 50 cars. I’d refer kind readers to the original post for context for the “even a cult” part.
The person who contacted me was kind enough to let me know that the church property is paid for. My congratulations to PRBC for that; I wish all churches were debt-free.
Second, in the earlier post I wrote
since he is an elder at PRBC and occasionally preaches but isn’t so far as I know ordained or paid by the church.
The person who contacted me was kind enough to tell me that James White “has a regular preaching schedule, is ordained, and is paid by the church.”
For reference sake the church’s website [link] mentions in its frame header that both Fry and White are elders. So far as I’ve seen it doesn’t elaborate on what this means, and casual readers may be confused as a result. It mentions [link] that the New Testament mentions both deacons and elders, and that in RB churches they are distinct offices. If there are any deacons at PRBC I can’t find them on the website. Nor can I find any language to suggest that elders are ordained and paid.
I haven’t been able to find a constitution, by-laws, indication of an affiliation with an association, etc. I’d appreciate any and all assistance here.
To my knowledge in the churches I’ve attended deacons and elders are rarely paid, and they aren’t ordained. I’ve seen the occasional Brethren church that just has elders, with a position of “teaching elder” that is an unpaid rotating position, but I rarely see any other churches where elders preach. I’m accustomed to “pastors preach, elders teach” distinctions, where pastors are professionals and elders are amateurs, for lack of a better word, and elders teach Sunday School or Bible studies but never step behind the pulpit. This strikes me as a situation where Scripture says something, different groups interpret it differently, and there’s plenty of discussion as a result.
Anyway, for the record PRBC apparently has one elder who is also a pastor and one who is not; both preach regularly and both are paid.
Someone from PRBC was kind enough to contact me with some clarifications, corrections etc. that I’ll deal with here soon.
Unfortunately when I responded to him I got back a spam filter response with an attached legal notice I can’t comfortably agree to, so our interaction may not be as neat as we’d all like it to be. Such is the nature of modern electronic communication. Thanks for your patience.
Back in the Seventies the churches my family attended were either rural churches surrounded by farmland or small-town churches located in neighborhoods on the end of town in which the town itself was beginning to sprawl. As the Eighties progressed the churches we attended were more often located on busy highways, in parking lots, and the churches gradually became things we drove to rather than walked to. Today’s prepackaged concept churches almost always look nice from the highway but tend to have a rather sterile feel. One church we attended this year, Centerpoint in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, is situated in a failed housing development, so it is surrounded first by a parking lot, then by a bunch of empty lots that were bush-hogged and hastily seeded, giving the place a sort of misbegotten feel.
Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church (PRBC) on the other hand, is a small church in a handful of brick and cinderblock buildings with a very small parking lot a few blocks out of downtown Phoenix in a neighborhood that is sun-baked but otherwise walkable. Not that we actually saw anybody walking anywhere when we were there; it was early on a Sunday morning, and even in November Phoenix can be quite warm.
A few years ago author Sara Zarr and her husband moved to Santa Fe for the summer and ended up at our church according to what she described as “the parish principle,” whereby a person attends the church that is closest to their house that is closest to their theology, more or less, warts and all. It sounded then and still sounds to me like a pretty sound idea, at least as a basis for picking a church initially.
Reformed Baptists are both Reformed and Baptists: they have a confession and a Calvinist soteriology, but baptize only believers. There are literally a handful of Reformed Baptist churches in New Mexico, most of them in the Albuquerque area, so if I were Reformed Baptist I’d be in a pickle, and would have to choose between a long car ride every Sunday and having to associate with (gasp) Presbyterians. I have a sneaking suspicion that Reformed Baptists living in Arizona but outside the Phoenix metro area face similar dilemmas.
Conversely, while it’s easy to imagine that most of the people attending PRBC are some sort of Reformed Baptist remnant driving long distances to church, it’s also easy to imagine that there aren’t a lot of people from the immediate community attending PRBC.
We arrived about ten minutes early and found the tiny parking lot off Indianola less than half-full, so we circled into downtown to have a look around and to wait for the crowd to arrive at PRBC. There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable for a family of introverts as arriving too early at an unfamiliar church and having to make small-talk with strangers. It might even be preferable to be ignored. Seriously; proponents of the right hand of fellowship take note.
We got a good look at the surrounding area and got back to PRBC with about five minutes to spare. In the meantime someone had reported a fire across 12th Street from the church, and we encountered fire engines, an ambulance, and a host of innocent bystanders hovering outside the main entrance to the church.
We weaved through the fire engines, parked on Indianola to avoid taking a regular’s regular spot, and got seated just as the call to worship (the opening song) was starting. Unfortunately I got in too late to grab an order of service, but just about everything seemed almost jarringly familiar.
I needed to be in Scottsdale for a few days a couple of weeks ago, and my wife was kind enough to extend our visit long enough for us to visit Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church (PRBC). This is the first of several posts from that visit.
There was a church within walking distance of our hotel in Scottsdale, the oddly-named Mountain Valley Church [link], but I wanted to visit PRBC, a twenty-minute drive away, mostly because it’s the church where James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries [link] is an elder.
I am naturally inclined to take a dim view of anyone who hangs out his shingle as an apologist, especially someone with no professional affiliation supporting their claim to being an apologist. The people you meet on the apologetics circuit fall into one of the following categories:
- Former pastors who have turned pro
- Seminary faculty
- Retired pastors
White sort of falls into two categories: he was for a while adjunct faculty at a branch campus of Golden Gate Theological Seminary, but now he’s more in the “Other” category, since he is an elder at PRBC and occasionally preaches but isn’t so far as I know ordained or paid by the church.
“Apologist” is a title anyone can claim, and I’m always leery of anyone who calls himself an apologist. There’s sort of a taxonomy of apologists from credentialed, accountable people who are on a speaking circuit and support themselves and their families by speaking and selling books on down to the online discernment (ODM) crowd and the local preacher who takes off a Sunday or two a year to debate someone or some group safely out of sight of his congregation. And then there are of course the miscellaneous muckrakers, bloggers, gadflies, cultists, name-callers, theological ambulance chasers, grumblers, hobbyists, and the mixed multitude. I am not entirely sure how one would go about arranging all of them sensibly; I’m pretty sure they’re all the children or grandchildren of (say) Walter Martin somehow, but not all of them would do him proud. I’m tempted to arrange them by dollars earned, or publishing record, or business of schedule, but what I would really want is an objective measure of breadth and depth of quality work. The former measures are really just apologetics Q scores [link]; the latter is mostly unavailable without lots of work.
I mean if you had to arrange Josh McDowell, James White, Hank Hanegraaf, David Cloud, Fred Phelps, Chris Rosebrough, and Ken Silva on a single line how would you do it? Alphabetically?
During the recent Ergun Caner flap the question of White’s actual accountability (namely, how accountable could he be if he’s the only elder at his church?) was raised as part of the counterattack, and just out of curiosity I looked up the church he attends and looked at it using well-known online software that provides a street view of an address. I was a bit disturbed to note that the parking lot only had room for 12-15 cars, and the building seemed quite small, so I was concerned that PRBC was some sort of separatist group, single-extended-family church or even a cult. So when I got a chance to visit I jumped at it, hoping to catch PRBC on a Sunday when White would be preaching, and hoping they’d be friendlier than some other small churches I’ve visited. In particular, I was hoping we’d get in the door without someone wanting to search our diaper bag.