One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to www.pc-biz.org and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:

New

  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture

Worshiping

  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world

Community

  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

Lest one thinks that idolatrous worship was a problem only eons ago, as illustrated in yesterday’s post, even today within the PC(USA) it is possible to find events promoted as worship experiences that are anything but. A case in point: the after-dinner “worship” on the agenda of San Francisco Presbytery’s regular meeting of September 9. The “Order of Worship” handed out to us as we entered the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland consisted of the following elements: a call to worship, opening song, Scripture exploration, Communion & Community Prayer, Announcements, Closing Song, and Benediction. The experience unfolded in this manner:

Call to Worship
In the introduction to the service, the Rev. Jeff Cheifetz, a teaching elder of The Sanctuary for the Arts new worshipping community (one of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities sponsored by the denomination), welcomed the worship team: Amy Diane Shoemaker (a spiritual director and InterPlay practitioner) and primary musician Soyinka Rahim. As the African drums (played by two Caucasian TEs) began their rhythms, Ms. Shoemaker led the presbytery in a warm-up of sorts, using practices of InterPlay to “unlock the wisdom of your body.” People were encouraged to move about playfully and demonstratively, in dance steps, large arm motions, and self-hugs.

Opening Song:
“Wiggle and Grow” was led by Ms. Rahim. The words, printed in the bulletin:

Love has the power to conjure up your light
Wrong or right, good or bad, love will make it right.
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization
‘Cause we’re fragile as the baby roots that hold the earth
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization     [Copyright 2014, Soyinka Rahim]

Scripture Exploration
The theme verse was, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), chosen because it was the theme verse of the 2014 General Assembly. Mr. Cheifetz explained that at The Sanctuary for the Arts they do not preach, but offer a verse of Scripture experientially so that the participants can take it in and use it any way they want to. In the Presbytery context, this unfolded as an invitation to accompany many repetitions of the verse with our own body movements.

Communion & Community Prayer
The next segment of the service was an invitation to participate in a variety of options, which included the sacrament of communion, more InterPlay, or writing a prayer or wish on butcher papers at stations around the Sanctuary. No prayer was offered. The words of institution were uttered in their briefest form: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup also, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24b-25). Then the drumbeat resumed and people milled about the sanctuary toward their chosen activity. Ms. Rahim repeatedly sang the lyrics, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum . . .”

Announcements
I don’t recall any, though, in my emotional state, I may not have been listening by then. I think there might have been an offering.

Closing Song
A reprise of “Wiggle and Grow”]

Benediction
I do not remember the content of the closing, if there was one . . .

Think about this for a few minutes, and then compare your list of objections to mine:

  • The experience was centered on “ourselves” rather than God, who was never acknowledged or addressed in prayer. It came very close to self-worship.

  • The narration referred to our energy coming from the earth, a pagan concept if I ever heard one. I expect this language from my Buddhist-inspired personal trainer, but not from a Reformed Worship leader.

  • The song we were invited to sing, “Wiggle and Grow,” made no sense and had no worship value whatsoever.

  • The Scripture exploration was nothing more than a cheap imitation of Lectio Divina lost in a self-referential wilderness.

  • The meaning and richness of communion was diminished as one option among many. There was no ministry of the Word accompanying it, no prayer of Invitation or of Thanksgiving, nor the Lord’s Prayer; and to sing “Yum, Yum, Yum” during the distribution just rendered me speechless and offended. I could not go forward for the sacrament.

The experience was far worse than a waste of time; it conveyed a false gospel. Whether it was an anomaly or an indication of things to come, I felt betrayed by my colleagues, who seem to have jettisoned anything remotely “Reformed” or even “Christian” in designing this service. If this is where “1001 New Worshipping Communities” is going, then the PC(USA) is going to lose its biblical moorings faster than even I have predicted.

I sent a letter of complaint to our executive presbyter ten days ago, and have not received a response.

So many Scriptures come to mind as I reflect on this experience, including Isaiah 55:6-9, Job 38-39 and 1 Corinthians 11:27. With tomorrow’s post, I will try to use this as a teachable moment and review the elements of Reformed Worship and why they are important to respect, enact, and use to order our community life.

 

I have had my diagnosis of lung cancer for just one week now, though I was strongly suspicious for a week or two prior to that: enough time to start getting my head and heart around the possibilities. In those weeks, my cough and an antibiotic were making it hard for me to sleep, so there were so many hours and such a big world-wide-web to awaken my curiosity. Bad idea. I saw just one number (the average 5-year survival rate for lung cancer) and made a decision right then and there:

I’m not going to do this by the numbers. I am not going to get bogged down in this statistic or that probability. Call it denial if you want, but I choose to keep my eyesight clearly focused on the One who actually knows what is going to happen and who is going to take very good care of me along the way. I choose to take one day at a time and make the very best decisions I can toward my health and healing, without compromise or fear of any odds that might be out there. Why use my precious energy going in that direction, when I am promised (and have experienced already) the energizing love of God by keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing?

So many Scriptures come to mind, one sent this morning by a long-time friend:

My child, pay attention to what I say;
listen closely to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight,
Keep them within your heart,
for they are life to those who find them
and health to a person’s entire body.
                                    (Proverbs 4:20-22)

It is nourishing not only to the soul but also to the body to be steeped in God’s Word, the means by which we know God’s power to redeem and heal, Jesus’ love with which we are carried, and the ability of the Holy Spirit to do what is humanly impossible. Jesus only got exasperated with his disciples when they could not grasp how imminent and available was God’s help. (And so many examples during Israel’s exodus, too.)

One of the lessons from Mark 6:35-44 illustrates my point here (not about exasperation but about God’s power):

Jesus and the twelve have rowed across the Lake to a quiet place for a meal and some rest, only to find the crowds had gotten there first. He sees how thirsty they are for the Kingdom of God, so he preaches once again almost all day. By five o’clock everybody is tired and hungry, and the disciples, going by the numbers, are distressed that too many needy people out there in the boonies might cause a riot. Jesus says, “No, no, let’s see what we have available right here in our midst.” The disciples find a little boy with a lunch big enough for himself—five loaves and two little fish—but a very low number indeed to feed a crowd. The disciples say, “No way, Jesus, this isn’t going to be enough.” But the Lord says [I imagine], “This is plenty! Go and organize the folks into eating groups, and I will get the food ready.” And then Jesus thanks his heavenly Father for what he has been given and asks the disciples to feed the people with it. The distribution begins, and there is  an abundance of food for everybody—thousands of people—with leftovers, too!

There’s only one number in that story that is important:  One. The One and Only, Jesus the Lord, is able to do the very thing that is needed. There are no “odds” to consider, except the certainty that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Too many churches I have been a part of or have observed in the last twenty-five years have played it by the numbers. The most common number is the pledge amount that is revealed after Stewardship Sunday and the annual pledge drive for “tithes and offerings.” That number produces all kinds of doubts about what can be accomplished in the next year. A pledge-based budget closes off people’s ministry vision and reduces the question to “What does this amount of money allow us to do?” instead of “What has God called us to do in ministry to our community?”

The declining membership statistics of the PC(USA) represent another set of numbers wreaking havoc in the spiritual life of our denomination. At the last Assembly, it was reported that if the trend continues, the PC(USA) would see its demise in 2041, I think. Okay, this is not a good number. Fear of this eventuality is having a bad effect on denominational loyalists. Particularly in those presbyteries dismissing congregations to other Reformed bodies, numbers are being crunched to “guide” the process. In my earlier post, “Tell Me This Isn’t About the Money,” I gave one example of a situation in which it seems to me the terms of dismissal are computed to guarantee the survivability of the presbytery, not the flourishing of ministry. The scenario is developing toward a cash-rich but member-poor Church that can survive in perpetuity using the funds extracted from dismissing churches.

It is not money—playing it by the numbers—that is going to guarantee future denominational wellbeing, it is going to be faith in Jesus Christ, obedience to his Word, trust in the power of God, and submission to the Kingdom of God that will. When can we get the conversation back on track and stop working this solely by the numbers? Faith in the One who gives life and health according to God’s Word will bear fruit we can’t even imagine.

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.   (Romans 8:31-34)

Yesterday’s blog post gave rise to some interesting comments on Facebook (not here, regrettably), suggesting that a nerve was hit on this question of just what the church is supposed to be and do in relation to “the culture.” I am aware that many books have been written on the subject of the church and culture (or Christ and Culture by Niebuhr and D. A. Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited). I closed my reflection yesterday with the statement that, despite the fact we possess true freedom and righteousness in Christ, believing and acting on this truth is a sticking point for the church and its members.

Why does the church (and the saints who comprise it) choke on the idea that we can, must, and are empowered to act differently from the world? Here are some reasons for the difficulty we have differentiating ourselves from the prevailing winds of our time:

1. Ignorance. Many of us honestly do not know enough about God and God’s purposes for us to recognize, much less live, the godly life. This may be a chosen ignorance, among those who are happily indifferent to the things of God. But I have also observed newcomers to our church, for instance, who exhibit a spiritual knowledge deficit and unfamiliarity with the basics of biblical and moral ideas. This gap limits one’s ability to practice the Christian faith as a way of life.

2. Intractability. It is a feature of human nature that our prideful hearts do not want the fundamental transformation that Jesus empowers. In the flesh, we like what we like when we like it, and we do what we want to do when we want to do it. [This is another of Naegeli’s Laws.] The idea that Jesus might change our ways of thinking and doing, particularly when it goes against the grain with which we feel so comfortable…? Unbelievable!

3. Fear of isolation. Bottom line, we’re afraid we’ll lose our friends if we stand against the prevailing mores they exhibit. The recovering alcoholic, as an example, has some big decisions to make about where and with whom he will spend his time. If “bar” and “drinking buddies” have to be avoided in order to stay sober, he has a painful redirection ahead. It takes a special kind of courage to adopt a new social circle, to learn a new conceptual language characterized by freedom instead of addiction, and to embrace a God-centered worldview. But these are essential movements that go with conversion, and too many of us have gotten stuck somewhere along that process such that our turning is incomplete and we fear the consequences of a total surrender to God.

4. Inertia. It is just plain hard to make the effort (to which grace is not opposed, as Dallas Willard said often) to change a long-standing thought or behavior. It is difficult to swim upstream against the current of prevailing culture and there are risks in doing so. [For those counting my top 20 sermon illustrations, here’s one of my favorites:  At the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, tens of thousands of runners wend their way on 7.5 miles of city streets between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. But there is one runner who dares to be different and, costumed as a salmon, starts at the ocean and runs in the opposite direction, upstream to spawn as it were. Imagine how intimidating it is to come against a wall of runners moving en masse towards you, and the difficulty of navigating through the boisterous crowd going that way in order to go this way toward the Bay. And so it is as we swim against culture’s godless currents.]

So far, my comments have been directed toward the individual, but let’s take a look at the PCUSA for a minute.  What are its reasons for experiencing difficulty in obeying Jesus and the Word Written in areas where biblical and societal norms collide?

PCUSA Ignorant? To get at this, we can point to the occasionally atrocious theology we hear spouted from various microphones at General Assembly and to the biblically vacuous decisions of GAPJCs in the last two years. There are some wonderful and faithful biblical interpreters in the Presbyterian tribe, but the application of biblical instruction to everyday life is left to everyone’s own opinion. The teaching office of the church has abdicated its responsibility to make disciples by teaching them to do everything that Jesus told them (Matthew 28:19ff).  Our confessional heritage has been squandered in the process.

PCUSA Intractable? The outright rejection of Scripture and the Confessions by some who have prominent authority and influence in the PCUSA and the embrace of a false teaching that the male-female union is not a prerequisite for marriage is evidence enough. But the “testimony” of some in the LGBTQ tribe says outright, “My experience is this, and I don’t want to change it.” In light of Hebrews 12:3ff, we have to say that the folks that insist on pursuing same-sex attraction are not willing to undergo discipline and, yes, make the sacrifices that would align their thinking and their behavior to God’s revealed will regarding sexual expression.

PCUSA Isolation? In preparation for the last Assembly, I heard pro-gay-marriage folks saying that to be missional the church had to meet its potential members (LGBTQ people) where they are, affirm their lifestyle, and demonstrate that they are welcome and affirmed in their same-sex attraction. I’ve heard others say, “Our neighbors think Christians are gay-bashing homophobes and on the basis of that opinion have rejected the church. We can reverse their opinion of us by being welcoming and affirming of gays in our congregations.” In other words, folks won’t like us if we hold to a [biblical] position on sexuality; our membership is dropping, but we can reverse this trend by adopting the values our society is trending toward. [Oh, but some of the same people say we are being counter-cultural by being welcoming and affirming long before our culture is! Can’t speak for the proverbial Peoria, but here in the San Francisco area, a pro-gay culture is pervasive, as it is in other large coastal cities in the U.S. Here, the church is “catching up,” on the road to perdition, I would add.]

PCUSA Inertia? A Presbyterian legal system built on precedent, dating to actions and decisions as far back as 1729, is stuck in a mode of decision-making that is veering it away from definitive biblical norms. The momentum (yes, something different from inertia) is moving in the direction of granting such freedom of conscience to every individual Presbyterian that no Presbyterian body can properly administer discipline. What is in a state of paralysis (getting back to inertia) is our inability to see our position in the world as truly prophetic—not hip and ‘on the right side of history’— and reaching it with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. The sheer effort required to learn the Great Story of God and God’s Creation and translate it into living, breathing examples of the Kingdom of God at work has proven to be Herculean for our predominately white, aging, and cocooned constituency.  

After this critique, please note that I am still a PCUSA pastor and have no plans to seek dismissal any time soon. Why not? Because I believe that there are still a few ears that hear what Jesus is saying to the churches, and I’d like to help them bring the Word to life. Tomorrow, on the suggestion of one of my commenters yesterday, I’m going to ponder the choices we have in relation to the culture: the church moving with the culture? The church moving counter to the culture? Or is there another alternative?

Next stop on our great Africa adventure itinerary was Kakamega, Kenya. Two features drew us to this city in the west:  the Kakamega Forest Nature Reserve, home to many unique birds, and the Kenya office of Village Enterprise. I will cover VE tomorrow, but for this Sabbath, let me share some thoughts evoked by the experience of walking through a rainforest before dawn.

The Kakamega Forest is an equatorial, tropical rainforest of about 250 square kilometers. It used to be the eastern end of a vast forest that stretched uninterrupted all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. But over time, especially in the last 100 years, the human population explosion and clearing for farming and grazing has isolated this Kenyan patch from the greater (and shrinking) whole. It fosters a unique ecosystem and harbors animals and birds rarely seen anywhere else. But the forest’s density (another sign of health) is diminishing; conservation efforts are underway and not fully effective.  

It rains here—a lot—and the red earth is muddy after a storm that starts our visit. As the shower abates, we take a walk through the grounds and gardens of Rondo Retreat Center, our lodging for two nights. Kakamega Rain Forest (Rondo Retreat)Binoculars in hand, we are here to see some of the unique bird species at home under the canopy. But we are disappointed. The forest is too thick! Think of Tolkien’s description of the great Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings, and you get the idea. Sun cannot penetrate to the forest floor. Birds, heard but not seen, can flit about undetected. You somehow know they are there, but you cannot get sight of them for identification. The only way to view birds, from the ground, is to get back onto the road and get a little distance from the trees. But on this day even that effort yields poor results.

The Christian life is often like this experience. The blessings, the consolation of faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, are real, and yet half the time we cannot see them out in the open. It is a matter of faith without sight to know that God is present and active, God surrounds us with his love, and we are known and redeemed by his merciful salvation in Jesus Christ. Those truths are colorful and pervasive, and yet we cannot see them for the forest that envelops us. “Now we see in a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We see leaves rustling in the wind of God’s Spirit, but we do not see the Spirit directly. What we are called upon to cultivate as followers of Jesus is a perspective, a heavenly view of what is real. To illustrate:

We were told that a particularly good way to appreciate the rainforest was to hike up a big hill before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the canopy of trees. Our guide Winston met us at 5:30 a.m. and we walked one mile up the road to a forest trail entry point. We heard the birds wake up; we heard the colobus monkeys give shrill warnings to each other (staking out their territories); and we heard the delicious silence of early morning, as we walked by flashlight. We climbed another 40 minutes to the top of Lirhanda Hill with plenty of time to spare before the sun peeked over the distant horizon. Along the way, we heard avian activity amidst the trees. Winston recognized birdcalls and told us what we were “seeing,” but they didn’t “count” according to our personal rules for checking birds off our list. Another disappointment.

Once we got to the top of the hill, we could see for miles. Above the Rainforest CanopyStretched before our eyes was a dense green blanket of tree cover, and above it a few large birds floating in serene command of the scene. As the rising sun illuminated the treetops to the point of glowing, we recognized an entirely different atmosphere here above the canopy. It was light, airy, and free. C. S. Lewis captured the contrast in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair. In the Underworld where the witch reigned, it was dark, stuffy, and confining. She had managed to convince all her minions that there was nothing beyond this bleak reality. Yet, the children of Narnia and their companion the Marshwiggle had dropped into the Underworld from up above, and they knew there was something more to life than this oppressive place. They knew there were sun, and air, and breezes, and vistas up above. Lewis used this image to convey the perspective of faith and hope that is gained by seeing reality from God’s vantagepoint.  And we, tramping through the rainforest, believed Winston—though we could not see proof—that there were amazing birds within a stone’s throw of our path. So we listened and appreciated what we could perceive and trusted that he was right, and that we had “seen” it.

You and I may feel ourselves to be in a dark, discouraging place sometimes. But we are reminded that there is far more going on around us than the eye can see, and God is Lord of it. Sometimes we simply must climb the hill and get above the fray in order to experience the serenity of God’s dominion.

One year at the PCUSA General Assembly, the week had dragged on and we were waiting for a particularly difficult and controversial piece of business to come before the Body. Interminable delays pushed the debate time back, and I was about to lose my marbles. So I pulled out my iPod, stuffed the earbuds into my ears, and cranked up the volume on a Michael Card album called Unveiled Hope. [This 1996 album puts to music all the hymns and songs that appear in the book of Revelation.] I distinctly remember with some amusement the moment when heaven and earth met:  the Presbybabble was a steady undercurrent of words and sentences while, at the same time, a splendid rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” rushed in waves over the whole scene. At that instant, I saw the sovereignty of God, the insignificance of much of our talk, and the deep need to tap into the glory that is God’s movement over, under, and through us by his Spirit. I almost laughed out loud in delight and still recall this moment when the matters of this world envelop me like a dark forest. Under the canopy we see evidence of God at work if we look for it, and someday we will see from above the canopy the full glory of our Risen Lord and the completion of his purposes for us.

Tomorrow: Village Enterprise and Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

The issues have been confused for years and I’m ready to stop out for a couple of days from the marriage curriculum and address a question that keeps coming up. The second form of the question popped out in the one-minute speech of a GA commissioner, who said, basically, that if it were up to the Book of Confessions, she would never have been ordained. The first form of the question, around for years, asks: “The Bible requires silence of women in the church, yet we ordain women. Why can we not ordain committed homosexuals despite the prohibition of homosexual practice in the Bible?”

So today let’s start with the one-minute speech (fast forward to 39:40). The commissioner claims that a strict application of the Confessions would mean that women could not be ordained. But I challenge this claim on two counts:

First of all, when the decision to ordain women as teaching elders was made in the predecessor bodies (UPCUSA in 1955 and PCUS in the 1960s), there was no “Book of” Confessions; both bodies embraced the Westminster Standards alone. Westminster makes no statement whatsoever that prohibits or limit the ecclesiastical role of women; it is silent on the subject.

Secondly, when the Book of Confessions was adopted in 1967 by the UPCUSA, it compiled two ancient creeds (Nicene and Apostles’), four reformation confessions (including two that the English church replaced with Westminster), and one contemporary declaration (Barmen) into our confessional collection. A search of those seven creeds, catechisms, and confessions yield two passages of prohibition of women’s ministry. From The Scots Confession (BOC 3.22):

The Right Administration of the Sacraments
. . .  we abandon the teaching of the Roman Church and withdraw from its sacraments; firstly, because their ministers are not true ministers of Christ Jesus (indeed they even allow women, whom the Holy Ghost will not permit to preach in the congregation, to baptize) and, secondly, because they have so adulterated both the sacraments with their own additions that no part of Christ’s original act remains in its original simplicity.

And from The Second Helvetic Confession (BOC 5.191):

THE MINISTER OF BAPTISM. We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.

But there’s more. At the time of the adoption of the Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 was also drafted and included. One of its particular objectives was to affirm the equality of all people (regardless of social-economic status, race, or sex [NB: not sexual practice], based on Galatians 3:28). It was this declaration that compelled the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in 1975 to declare affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement. In fact, that decision (Maxwell et al. v. the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in the matter of Walter Kenyon) stated explicitly that our form of government derives from our confessional faith:

“Our form of government must be inseparably connected to the faith we profess. The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of people before God is thus essential.” (Minutes of the General Assembly, UPCUSA, 1975; 257)

The significance of this piece of history is that the church made a confessional affirmation intentionally to reverse statements within previous Reformation confessions. They chose to keep the text of the Second Helvetic and the Scots confessions intact, but to speak to the concern of the 1960s about social equality in C67 and later to the controversy regarding women’s ordination in A Brief Statement of Faith (10.4, 64) adopted upon reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS:

The same Spirit . . . calls women and men to all ministries of the Church. 

So the GA commissioner spoke in error, that the Confessions alone would have prevented her ordination. The opposite is true, and not just conceptually but in historical experience. Our confessions formed the defining piece of the puzzle, “compelling” the GAPJC to make affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement for service in the church.

In summary, this is one of those cases of “evolving theology” reflected in the Book of Confessions. The church chose to include “women and men” in the Brief Statement of Faith (10:4), for instance, and not change the reference to women clergy in 5.191 (2nd Helvetic, Ch. XX). This was done as a result of intentional action at the GA level to include women in the manifold ministries of Christ. It was a conscious choice to revise the confessional witness to be consistent with Scripture’s witness about women. With this revision, the church could continue to practice the discipline of faith shaping a way of life.

Tomorrow, applying the same rationale and method, can we affirm the ordination and/or marriage of committed homosexuals on the basis of an inconsistency within the Book of Confessions?

The charge given to the PCUSA by the General Assembly is to “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” Implicit in this assignment is the exploration of Christian marriage, which gets its definition from Scripture and the history of Scripture’s application within the church. Discernment is necessary when a particular teaching requires a particular doing. Since as Presbyterians we hold fast to the principle that learning is pursued so that we can behave rightly (“truth unto goodness”), the process must aid us in making decisions about what we do regarding marriage. So far, so good. Everything I have contributed to the discussion so far has moved in this direction.

Today I would like to take a step back and regard this task from another vantage point. My reason for doing so is perhaps a fatigue about the many complications brought up when we begin talking about marriage. In my weeks of silence (due to vacation as well as reading and consultation with others), I have come to believe that the various approaches to a curriculum on marriage fall somewhere between overly simplistic and very complicated. In Q & A before the GAPJC, the team arguing for Parnell was told that our understanding of Scripture prohibiting all homosexual practice was “too simple,” that life is more complicated than that. I do not concede the point, but note that on the other hand, justifications for gay marriage are based on overwrought biblical exegesis, arguments from silence, and a perceived superiority of personal experience over God’s Word.

And so, as I have been traveling through the gospel of Matthew this month (in my ‘other life’ as a teaching pastor), Jesus’ comments in the first few verses of chapter 18 jumped out at me. These suggest that a curriculum for adults should be judged on the impact its teaching would have on children’s faith.

Matt. 18:1-7
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

I rely heavily on Dale Bruner[1] for insight into these verses. I trust Bruner, a Presbyterian layman and retired Whitworth professor, because he gathers input from early church fathers and contemporary theologians, works well with the Greek, and considers all the angles. He is no simpleton when it comes to biblical exegesis. And yet, when the meaning becomes clear, his commitment to God’s Word is refreshing and challenging. He is a good tutor.

Bruner puts these two paragraphs into a larger section on the nature of Christ-like love. Matt 17:24-27 declares that “Love Limits Its Freedom (Flexibility).” Matt 18:1-5 demonstrates that “Love Redirects Its Ambition (Humility).” And Matt 18:6-9 observes that “Love Doesn’t Want to Hurt Anyone’s Faith (Sensitivity).” In all three segments, Jesus addresses the loving nurture of others’ faith, and the avoidance of making faith difficult for others. In particular, he repeatedly mentions the spiritual welfare of children.

Without going through the entire exegetical chain here, one conclusion I draw from Christ’s teaching is that we must test the purity and propriety of our teaching based on how it will lead children in the faith. Jesus refers to children, and Bruner expands this to mean “little people” or those who are dependent or of low status.

From an educational standpoint, there is a developmental aspect to this, of course. When we teach children about marriage and sexuality at an early age, the terms and scope of our discussion are limited to the concrete (because that is how small children process things—they are not conceptual thinkers yet) and on the need to know. They also need to know what is appropriate behavior and what is not, even before they know the reasons why. (This despite the frequency of the question, “But why, Mommy?”). Have you ever noticed that the person who is more acquainted with the complexities of a subject is in a better position to summarize and “simplify” it so that a child can understand the basics? Children make us check our work; if our rendition doesn’t make sense to them, it may not make sense.

But Jesus seems particularly concerned that nothing would deter or scandalize the faith of children, so it is incumbent upon us adults to point them (and ourselves!) in the right direction. The worldview basic to all teaching, and particularly in the area of sexuality, focuses on the object of our faith: the existence of God, God’s role and sovereignty as Creator; God’s goodness, love, and benevolent nature; and God’s order in creation. This is the basis for Paul’s description of faith’s foundation in Romans 1: showing gratitude to God and giving God the glory. Even adults must cultivate the discipline of remembering  the Creator and not worshiping God’s creation, and hold the attitude and position in Christ as grateful recipient and responder.

Tomorrow, with “children” in mind, I will demonstrate the necessity of teaching what God has said in his Word (“Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” in the Great Commission, Matt 28:19-21), rather than starting with what we wish to be true on the basis of our experience.

 


[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 207-216.

Step Three in the process of developing a curriculum on marriage is to identify learning indicators in each of the four domains (knowing, feeling, doing, and becoming). If we haven’t already encountered a sticky wicket, this step gives pause to many. The development of learning indicators is predicated on the following givens:

1. There is something to learn; there is knowledge to be discovered and applied to everyday life. Yes, Virginia, there is truth and you can know it because God has revealed it in his Word.

2. Feelings are going to come out, if we do our job right as teachers. How we handle these is based on an understanding of the truth and wise compassion given by God. Some feelings, in Christ, must be overcome; other feelings are indicators of work yet to be done. And we can hope for a “peace that passes understanding” if we align ourselves with God’s will and resolve to repent and believe the gospel.

3. This course is not for hobbyists who desire merely to speculate about different doctrines, but for those who understand a changed life may be their response to the transforming gospel of Jesus. I remember not-so-fondly a time when an adult class I was teaching was homing in on application of the Scriptures, and one person in particular was quite resistant. Her comment was, “Hey, I thought I would learn something new here, but I had no intention of actually changing the way I act!” Right.

In the first century, the Apostle Paul dealt with similar dynamics I think are in play in Presbyterian fellowship. If comments made in debate at GA are any indication, we as a people are suffering from darkened understanding if not ignorance. Here’s what Paul had to say about that, to a church (Ephesus) that was struggling to maintain sound doctrine and a pastor (Timothy) who was encountering resistance to orthodox teaching:

Eph. 4:17-25
17Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.  19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  20That is not the way you learned Christ!  21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.  22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.

1 Tim. 1:3-7
3I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, 4and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.  5But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.  6Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, 7desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.

The curriculum I propose requires courage to uphold, patience to teach, and faith to promote. Maintenance of a biblical worldview in today’s pluralistic and double-minded denomination is not easy, but it is necessary for us as a church to get back on track.

The most expected criticism of such an approach is that this curriculum outline is one-sided, representing a “stacked deck” against the homosexual lifestyle. Criticism accepted, only because the Scripture does not give us room to start or finish our study with an affirmation of same-sex behavior. So why would we teach that? It would demonstrate a lack of faith to second-guess God’s clear word on the subject. So take courage for the task, remain clear-eyed for study, and embrace the grace and truth of the gospel for this generation.

 

The second major step in developing a curriculum on marriage for congregations in the PCUSA is to unpack the overall goal, which was stated yesterday:

“The purpose of this course is to arrive at an understanding of marriage that can be affirmed and practiced, with joyful confidence and a clear conscience, in the church.”

A careful examination of this guiding statement points to sub-goals in four areas: what do we want the learners to know (information), to feel (emotional impact), to do (together in class activity as well as in application elsewhere), and to become (transformation). In other words, we want to design a course that fosters learning in four domains:  the cognitive (“an understanding” and “affirmation”), the affective (“joyful confidence”), the behavioral (“practice”), and the existential (practiced with “a clear conscience, in the church”). A comprehensive set of goals reflects the integration of our human nature; if we are going to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then all these areas must be addressed in Christian teaching. But just two minutes of reflection and a review of the comments to my blog yesterday highlight the deep divisions in the church that show up even at this early stage of planning. The dividing lines will become clear as I line out more concretely what these sub-goals entail.

1. KNOW (cognitive, information)—A study of marriage as affirmed and practiced in the church is founded upon the Scriptures, so we start there. Biblical input on marriage begins in Genesis 1 and 2, the narratives of God’s creation and the significance of Adam and Eve as the prototype of all humanity. Both Jesus and Paul quoted from Genesis 1 in discussions about marriage, so we are following their lead and planting our feet firmly in Edenic soil. We want our learners to have a firm grasp of God’s intention for marriage (which includes “between a man and a woman”), an appreciative examination of those who honored God’s intention for marriage (for instance, early on we have Joseph honoring Potiphar’s marriage vows), a fearless look at the deviations from this norm and their consequences (Solomon comes to mind). We want them to be acquainted with the limits God places on sexual intimacy, including the prohibition of homosexual practice throughout the biblical narrative, and discover through a reading of the entire Bible that nowhere is homosexual activity affirmed. [Before my readers get anxious about this point, please note that even liberal scholars admit that there is no Scripture that specifically affirms homosexual relations.[1]] There are other topics to examine in Scripture as well, including the nature of covenant-keeping, community, and love.

We also must explain and demonstrate a “right handling of Scripture” (i.e. how to exegete the text, interpret it, and apply it), that carries the process from strict observation of what the text says to interpreting it in light of its genre, historical and cultural context, and full biblical context. From this process we gain insight into the principles (norms, commands) to be applied to the present day, and how they are to be carried out in practical, concrete terms. We check our work by examining our affirmations and practices as a church in light of clear biblical commands and go back to the drawing board if the two are in conflict with each other.

And further, it will be important to get a handle on why we have the controversy, a bit of its history in the PCUSA, the sociological dynamics at play, and the hermeneutic that yields a different interpretation of the same Scriptures.

2. FEEL (affective, emotional impact)—I have suggested in my overall goal that joyful confidence is a sign that we have arrived in a right place and can call it “resolved.” But in a classroom setting (or its equivalent in your church), there are many steps and movements to get there. My hope would be that anxiety would dissolve, fear would be banished, hope would be instilled, and joy would be evident, as God’s people yield to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. I believe what Paul affirmed, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance,” suggesting that teachers and learners alike are to exhibit the greatest kindness and mercy while speaking the truth in love. We all are obligated to repent, even in the sexual area, and it is safe to do so in the loving arms of the Savior.

3. DO (behavioral, learning activities)—The specifics here will reflect the creative teaching methods of the one who takes this curriculum in hand. Learning activities range from the mundane (listening to lecture) to the fun (making posters, acting in a skit), but the point is to offer students the opportunity to reflect what they have learned and confirm that they are getting it right and internalizing it. The “doing” also entails commitments outside of class (working a homework assignment, observing a particular behavior, replacing a bad habit with a good one, etc.) which accumulate to demonstrate the fourth goal

4. BECOME (existential, transformation)—Unlikely to be manifest fully in the course of a six-week class, but the goal toward which everything points, is a transformed life. In the area of marriage and sexuality, a transformed life is one that has faced the areas of sexual brokenness, deviation from God’s intention, and flat-out disobedience, and made new commitments to sexual purity, chastity, faithfulness to one spouse in marriage, refraining from pre-marital sex, abstaining from use of pornography—whatever it is. We have followed the Great Commission, “teaching them to obey everything I have told you” when as a church, as a class, and as individuals, we forsake sin for Christ’s sake and commit ourselves to behavior consistent with God’s design.

 

 


[1] On October 28, 2007, Jack Rogers and Marion Soards debated the issue of homosexual practice at Trinity Presbyterian Church, San Carlos. In Q & A they were asked, “Is there any support in the Bible for homosexuality?” Rogers was first to answer “No,” and Soards concurred.

To give you an idea of where I am headed in the next few posts, let me outline the general plan for how to develop a curriculum on any topic. The foundational work of such a plan is important, because it sets the direction for the whole project. It reveals the starting point for discussion, and offers the measure for success at the end. As you read through this outline, think about its application for a course on marriage in your church.

1. Set the overall learning goal for the course. This is the “big picture” statement of what one hopes to accomplish by getting people together around a topic.

2. Unpack the overall goal by describing more specifically: what does one want the students to know (information), to feel (emotional impact), to do (together in class activity as well as in application elsewhere), and to become (transformation).

3. Identify for each of the stated goals what behavior or response in class would indicate the student is learning. (These are called “learning indicators”).

4. Gather the resources and devise class activities that will give the students a chance to process the information, judge its value, practice new skills, or otherwise demonstrate that they are “getting it.” (There are several sub-tasks under this heading.)

5. Design an evaluation tool to measure success of the class and compare/contrast its actual outcome with the overall goal with which one started.

The above outline is enough to get us started, but the process of designing a new class curriculum includes several more steps that will be included as we go along.

So now, in reference to a congregational study on marriage, as directed by this year’s General Assembly, we start with Step I, the overall learning goal for the course.

I would propose the following overall goal for a course on marriage:  “The purpose of this course is to arrive at an understanding of marriage that can be affirmed and practiced, with joyful confidence and a clear conscience, in the church.”

Arrive at an understanding of marriage:  the point is to explore the meaning of marriage, and will, no doubt, include discussions of creation and natural law, covenant keeping, community, and love. The question of whether a marriage can occur between two people of the same sex will be addressed early, since, from a biblical perspective that subject comes up in chapter one of Genesis.

That can be affirmed and practiced: our efforts will be based on what we believe in order to know how to act (“truth unto goodness” [F-3.0104]). It would not meet our goals to determine that we believe one thing about marriage but are allowed to do something else.

With joyful confidence and a clear conscience: The effort here is to determine what is life-giving, based on true knowledge and correct authority, and what is moral and ethical. This goal also captures the need for a decision we embrace and carry out as part of our Christian discipleship.

In the church: The scope of application is the church, not the society, because we understand our position relative to the world to be “in but not of” the world. It is possible that we will come to a conclusion that is counter-cultural, and if so, we bear it and live it joyfully as a witness to the world of the Kingdom of God.

We may refine this purpose statement as we go along, but this is a good start. In my next post, I will unpack this goal in terms of “know, feel, do, become” goals.