2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!

Advertisements

Spring training has started! The Giants are warming up their pitchers and catchers in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. Assessments are being made, recovery from injuries celebrated, starting lineups tried on for size. Next week the full team checks in. As of today, Major League Baseball has exactly forty-five days until opening day, April 6.

What we do not hear much about, however, are the umpires. The roster of 68 umpires qualified for “the Majors” is a traveling band of baseball experts. Their calls are sacred—even with official reviews, also made by umpires—and they bear an authority that elicits respect from little kids all the way up to grannies watching the game on TV. [Last June, a fascinating article told the story of a Christian ministry to umpires. The human side of their role—schedules, travel, and stresses of the game—awakens the compassion of a pastor called to minister to them.]

I bring up umpires, because there is a word in today’s Colossians 3 passage that hints of umpiring.

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.

The word is “rule,” and it connotes the overarching judgment and voice of authority, such as an umpire would administer through a game. What is it that is to rule, or umpire, your hearts? The Peace of Christ! So let’s explore this a bit.

When we hear “the peace of Christ,” we are probably more inclined to think of it in terms of personal, inner reassurance and contentment. This is the focus of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians (4:4–7). There, he talks about trading in worry for prayerful petition and thanksgiving, the result being peace in one’s heart. So this individual, inner peace is certainly legitimate and necessary in the Christian life.

However, in Colossians, Paul takes a different spin by indicating that this peace is a quality to which we “were called in one body.” This points to a corporate condition of peace, relational peace, that is to guide and adjudicate our dealings with each other. Keeping the peace is a virtue in Paul’s playbook.

Thinking about my fellow Presbyterians for a moment, the peace in our ranks has been shaken greatly in the last twenty-five years or so. Discontent and dysfunction have disturbed the peace, unity, and purity of our denomination for almost as long as I have been a member. My desire is not to replay any of those fights, but only to illustrate that peace is truly a precious commodity in short supply. And yet, we are called to it. So how do we manage it?

The conditions in which the peace of Christ can flourish include the following:

  1. single minded and pure hearted recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

  2. an agreement (yes, “being of one mind”) about the essentials of the Christian faith

  3. the exercise of the fruit of the Spirit in community with fellow believers, with love as the tie that binds all others together

  4. in the reality of conflict, discernment of those matters that fall under #1 or #2 above and dealing with them clearly and thoroughly in a timely fashion.

Speaking only for the conflicts of which I have been a part, we have failed to realize the peace of Christ, even yet, because

  1. there is still plenty of human competition for the role of “Lord” in the church

  2. we cannot state and therefore cannot agree on what is essential for Presbyterians to believe in order to remain within the fellowship

  3. we have betrayed one another’s trust and given confusing messages about loving one another

  4. our dealings with the issues at hand have dragged on now for decades, have been ecclesiastically clumsy, and have created mixed messages for the church and the world. The solution currently under scrutiny by the presbyteries will only confuse matters more, for what its new statement about marriage does not say, as much as what it does say.

So I do not hold out much hope that “the peace of Christ” will reign in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) anytime soon. It makes me very sad to say so.

It reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel’s indictment against Israel, which included, “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” (cf. Ezek. 13:8-16). Lest we join the prophets who are making statements simply out of their own imagination, leading to dead-ends, let us submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, hold fast to the faith, and bear with one another out of love for Christ.

For those done with church, this passage probably comes across as a lament. If only the church had let peace rule, we say . . . so now what do we do to promote the peace of Christ, to live in it in community? We are going to have to listen more, talk less, pray more, walk alongside, anguish in the Spirit and long for purity that is wrought by God’s thorough work in our souls and in our fellowships. A tough call, and we may not be up to it yet. But still, we must affirm that Paul’s admonition is on target: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

The third mandate Jesus issued regarding the witness of his followers is found in John 13, right after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. His humble and socially shocking demonstration apparently got a conversation going among the men. Jesus said to them (among other things):

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34f)

Jesus knew human nature pretty well to put his finger on the Achilles heal of many a church (and denomination). To state the matter positively, “The mutually lived-out heart love of Christians for one another will be the single greatest missionary force in the world.” (Dale Bruner, Commentary on John, 796). On the negative side, a lot of damage to our Christian witness occurs when, within the life of our congregations, we are unkind, rude, argumentative, or otherwise unloving. In every church I have served, my administrative assistant has been reduced to tears by the abusive incivility of callers who are members of the church! The wail always is, “But they are Christians; they’re supposed to be kind and loving.” Right on. So it hurts the Body when some find it justifiable to be condescending or demanding—not in the Spirit of Christ!

It is interesting that John focuses on Christ’s exhortation to his followers that they love one another. Matthew lifts up Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43), and we certainly must do that. But John, in his gospel and in his letters, emphasizes the importance of loving one another as a sign of our faith’s genuineness and a requirement for our Christian witness. He is not saying, “Enjoy the love fest. Keep it to yourselves.” No, John’s Jesus is saying, “Love one another for the sake of others, so that nothing will obstruct their trust in Me.”

I checked in with my Coffee Ladies this week about this exhortation, and yes, sure enough, they each had a story of so-called Christians who turned them off to the church because they gossiped, bickered, or bad-mouthed others. It was truly a bummer to hear this. But when we do these things, we undermine and invalidate the gospel’s message; and who wants to take a chance on that kind of group?

The Apostle Paul is helpful here for describing love for the church. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 is not a passage about love in marriage, it is a description of what love is and is not in the life of the church:

06.13.14.Love Is Grid

In summary, love is not self-centered or insecure. Love extends tenderness to others, while abiding in God’s truth in full submission.

As many of my friends travel to Detroit today and tomorrow for the General Assembly of the PC(USA), which starts on Saturday, I am painfully aware that ours is a Christian tribe having trouble demonstrating love for one another. I do not think love, as Jesus promotes it, precludes honest and respectful debate. Nor do I think it is our prerogative to define for God and others what love is. Some “insisting on their own way” are saying to the church, “You must love me, and to do that you must accept my commitment to homosexuality. More than that, in order to love me, you must celebrate my commitment to homosexuality.” I do not think this is what Jesus meant by loving. Certainly one is to show utmost kindness and courtesy to the homosexually committed. There is no justification for rudeness or arrogance, which are unloving. But we are called to be patient (waiting for something yet to come), happy in the truth (obedient to the Word of God), willing to share the burden of others in the meantime, and hopeful for the transformation Jesus promises (new Life, free from sin).

So as you pray for the members of your own congregation and presbytery or district, could you also offer a prayer for the commissioners and observers as they begin to meet this weekend? “By this everyone will know that you are [Christ’s] disciples, if you have love for one another.” Make this a reality, Lord Jesus!

 

The study of history was never my strong suit in high school, and though I had a couple of world-renowned history professors at Stanford, the discipline did not capture my imagination. I was at the time much better suited as a mathematical sciences major (first) and ultimately music major. Problem sets and musical analyses were more my forte in these formative years. I’ve been on a remedial course ever since.

What turned me around was Church History in seminary. I took three courses: Early Church, Reformation History, and American Church History to fulfill my requirements. For the first time (with the possible exception of Music History in college), I could attach ancient events to my own life and see the relevance of history as something important to my life’s work. Through the lens of church history, I have been able to circle back and appreciate biblical history, political history, art history, and even music history.

It also helps to have lived through several decades of personal history. To this day I am an avid reader of the daily newspaper, a habit I started in grade school at the suggestion of my mother. This accumulation of knowledge and experience contributes to a long-view perspective on the shake-up we are now experiencing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This week I would like to ponder the dynamics of dismissal from the PC(USA). There is a long view (version 1), and local view (San Francisco Presbytery), and another long view (version 2) that I would like to describe eventually. But my starting point is this observation: most departing churches I know have come to their decision as the result of a gradual accumulation of concerns rather than any one precipitating event.  For many, it has and is a slow-motion process of waking up and realizing something is terribly wrong. For others, there was perhaps one piece of bad news coming from a GAPJC or a GA; but because Presbyterians rarely do anything quickly, a process of discernment has revealed a spiritual and ecclesiastical osteoporosis that is only now causing pain.

Taking the long view, from an evangelical perspective, I see two movements in particular that have sent the PC(USA) off the orthodox path. In each case, there was a precipitating event, unrecognized for its import at the time, but a decision that changed the course of history within our tribe (if not the world).

The first trajectory is a distinctly Presbyterian one, and it focused primarily on the American Church. It was the outcome of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the 1920s. The issue boiled down to whether one’s identification as Presbyterian rested on subscription to basic fundamentals of Christian faith. I have written about this before (here, and here), and only remind us today that an unwillingness to define ourselves doctrinally has allowed Presbyterian leaders to believe and preach whatever they want. “Whatever they want” has crossed the line of orthodoxy in practice, if not in our books. The fact that our Confessions and Book of Order remain as orthodox statements of our faith is irrelevant to people who want to do what they want to do. Freedom of conscience has been enshrined as the only truly meaningful (that is, universally applied) principle of our governance. There is no such thing now as doctrinal purity, because there is no belief standard by which that can be measured. This alone is enough to drive evangelical churches crazy.

The second movement—relevant to our consideration of why conservative churches leave the denomination—is the sexual revolution, and specifically the invention of the birth control pill. What has become a reliable means for family planning in the marriage context has also been permission-giving to sexually active folks regardless of their relational context. It is obvious that over the last fifty years, there has been a significant upsurge in promiscuity (sex without any anchoring commitment), sexual exploitation of women (without the commensurate commitment to raise a family together), and so-called advanced reproductive technologies that have made possible the creation of babies without a relationship at all (sort of a reproductive Tower of Babel). For challenging and insightful reading on this dynamic, read What Is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  

The pressures that result from these trends have all come to bear on the Presbyterian Church, culminating now in its debate about what constitutes marriage.  For the evangelicals who remain in the PC(USA), a redefinition of marriage, possibly (though not inevitably) next summer, would be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Tomorrow: A case study from my Presbytery

Following and Leading

September 11, 2013

San Francisco Presbytery passed two of three overtures related to Israel/Palestine last night. Its decisions (by fairly close margins) reflected a particular view of the PCUSA’s place in the world and the realms in which it is called to lead. That whole Middle East issue is incendiary and difficult and not my area of expertise, so I defer to friends Viola Larson and Alan Wisdom for any detailed discussion. But the question of whether the PCUSA has standing to insert its political solutions into the international mix is a real one, and germane to my current topic: the church and its relationship to the world and its culture.

The PCUSA would do well, I think, to review its true position and to take the opportunity for a mid-course correction in its trajectory toward the world. In these posts of late we have been reflecting on the term “counter-cultural” in reference to our calling, after John Stott’s book title Christian Counter-Culture on the Sermon on the Mount. But before we can discern where we are to lead in the world without being of the world, it is imperative that we understand, as a prerequisite, whom we are to follow and which culture is ours.

When Jesus invited his new disciples to follow him (Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21), he was committing himself to apprentice them, equip them, empower them, and direct them to “the fields white unto harvest” (John 4:35; Matthew 9:36ff). In the course of his ministry, Jesus described to them the environment in which they would find abundant life, the Kingdom of God. The realm in which they would flourish and the vision of God for all humanity was described and demonstrated throughout the gospels through parables, Q & A sessions, healings, and preaching. Even Jesus’ tussles with the Pharisees were intended to clarify what is God’s way and what was the world’s way of relating to God and the world.

Our first task is to learn how to follow Jesus Christ, savior of the world, Lord of all, and shepherd of our souls. It is vitally important for us to be aware of those ideas, worldviews, and gods that continuously woo us into thinking we are following a good cause for a good reason to empower good people. What we must be very clear about is that we are bid to follow Christ, to believe God and align ourselves with God’s purposes for us, to breathe the air of the Kingdom of God, and to live within its life-giving parameters. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). This requires of us a deep trust that what Jesus has said and claimed is true and a life-changing conviction that if we align ourselves to Christ we will be in a solid position to do God’s will in the world.

Faithful followers of Jesus Christ are the ones qualified then to lead God’s people into the corridors of culture and society, to make God’s Kingdom visible in genuine, humble witness to Jesus’ salvation. We are not in a position to force the world to conform to a biblical way of life but to invite people to “come and see” (John 1:39). Our first power of persuasion, in the direction of true and lasting change, is to live the life that Jesus empowers and invite people to watch and learn. How can we expect any element of the world to adopt the Way of Jesus unless people can see what the Kingdom of God looks like, recognize its goodness, and be taught its meaning?

In its decision-making, the PCUSA would do well to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ, which gets us knee-deep into the discussion of Jesus Christ, his person, his work, his power, and his goals. The debates within our denomination are derivative of incomplete or inaccurate views of our Savior and the faulty theologies that emerge as a result. What would it look like if we were to stop out for a time, away from debates about how to pressure government and business into a particular policy and aside from word-smithing to redefine social norms, and instead abide in the One without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). This is a basic response to our calling to follow Jesus. Who is Jesus and what does it look like to follow him? My experience in my own presbytery is that there is not a true consensus on Jesus’ person and work, and I know we differ greatly on what it looks like to follow him. It all gets back to the meaning of Lordship, about which the PCUSA has claimed to: “ . . . desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” (BOO, G-2.0104b).

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?

Naegeli’s Law: Making something legal does not necessarily make it moral.

I am energized by the latest “The Edwards Epistle”—sent out to friends of Dr. Jim Edwards of Whitworth University—which focuses on the topic “The Difference between Legal and Moral.” Every quarter or so, Jim (with the help of Rev. Phil Olson and team) sends out a two- to four-page essay on a particular topic. This missive is always worth reading, pondering, appreciating, and passing along. Yes, it is the snail-mail equivalent of a blog; I have a big fat file folder collected, treasured, and consulted over the years. So Jim, if you are reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for your effort, intellectual gifts, spiritual passion, and good biblical and historical sense. The church should be very grateful for your clear reasoning and insight.

Jim has provided me with a great launch pad for blog discussion in preparation for the 221st General Assembly.  Yes, it is that time of year. Vacations are over, presbyteries are meeting again, and organizations are making their plans for PCUSA’s next biennial decision-making meeting scheduled for next June 14-21 in Detroit. After summarizing his essay, I would like to address the questions the essay raises for us Presbyterians relating to our identity as a church body, our mission in the world, and our moral authority.

Jim Edwards reflects on his summer tour of Reformation and German Church Struggle sites in Germany. In particular, he describes the villa in Wannsee, where on January 20, 1942, fifteen German leaders determined “a total solution to the Jewish question.” Some of the most notorious figures in Nazi Germany (like Adolf Eichmann) were present at this meeting, but noteworthy was the inclusion of the unassuming Dr. Gerhard Klopfer, “Permanent Secretary, Department III, State Affairs.” He was a lawyer who drafted the legislation that made the Holocaust legal, opening the door to a transformation of German infrastructure to facilitate the extermination of millions of people. Jim observes:

The presence of a man like Klopfer at the Wannsee Conference makes it much more terrifying than it would be if only Eichmanns were present. Not many of us are like Eichmann, but it is easy to be like Klopfer. Indeed, it is hard not to be like him. We do not know to what degree he was aware—or whether aware at all—of the gap between legality and morality. From our perspective, the gap was catastrophic. In this respect . . . he is a graphic reminder that the question of legality cannot be properly answered apart from the larger and ultimate question of morality.

The PCUSA is under terrific pressure, now that marriage laws have changed in thirteen states, to declare same-sex marriage morally acceptable, even something to be celebrated by the church. [A reminder is in order here: gay marriage is explicitly banned in thirty-five states.] Overtures to change our Directory for Worship to refer to marriage “between two persons” are expected in June’s debates. But I am hoping that a sufficient number of commissioners will be equipped to argue that “making something legal does not necessarily make it moral,” and in the case of same-sex marriage, its legality in some states simple calls the church to rise to its prophetic calling and declare gay marriage inconsistent with God’s intention for humankind.

As a Theology Matters email points out this week, history has demonstrated that even those social movements that seem inevitably successful have been turned back by the moral resistance of people who believe God’s Word has more authority than permissive laws. Take the abortion issue as an example. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, many states have availed themselves of the opening SCOTUS gave them to regulate the practice after the point of viability and certainly after 28 weeks gestation.  The still-staggering abortion rate nevertheless has decreased to its lowest rate ever (through 2009, as far as CDC data go), and Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project continues to show that approximately half the U.S. population views abortion as morally wrong (and only 15% consider it morally acceptable). Support for the legality of abortion before the 28th week remains strong, but its practice evokes a moral dilemma. Even the Democratic Party platform has reflected this dilemma by promoting the legality of abortion but also reducing the need for it: “Safe, legal, and rare.”

While the trends nationally seem to be shifting slowly, what has been the responsibility of the church in this debate and other social issues all along? It is the church’s calling—whether or not we have actually done it— to believe and proclaim what is right in the eyes of God, instructed by the Scriptures. Our job is not to be relevant or to tickle people’s ears with messages they want to hear. Our mission is to demonstrate and proclaim the grace and truth of the gospel to this generation (F-1.0304). The only way the PCUSA can minister with moral authority is by acting in obedience to Scripture, our only rule of faith and practice, regardless of the prevailing winds of the world (F-3.0107). Doing so puts the PCUSA in a counter-cultural position, but isn’t that where we are supposed to be? We must let God define for us what love is, what marriage is, what is expected of human beings, what is important in life, and what is moral. We’re the church and God is God. We’re about furthering his agenda, not our own. The world has legalized all sorts of activities that are not morally clean, ostensibly under the protections of the U.S. Constitution.

The job of the church is to hold out to folks—otherwise confused, conflicted, addicted, or enslaved—an alternative, biblical worldview. In Christ we possess true freedom and the power to live rightly, but believing this and acting on its truth is where we get stuck. Why this is so is tomorrow’s subject.

 

Yesterday, I pondered spiritual boldness and the need for Christians to pray for it in an increasingly pluralistic society. From a cultural point of view, uttering certain viewpoints is risky and costly, leading some Christ-followers to be circumspect if not silent about their faith. I found out yesterday that one of my former students, applying for a ministry internship, was challenged by the interviewer for having me as one of her references, “because [I am] against gay ordination.” The student, taken aback by that attitude in what was supposed to be an ecumenical environment, stood up for me. [For the record, they never called me, but they probably googled my name out of curiosity. Great way to “check references,” when it becomes an evaluation of the reference rather than the applicant!] Upon hearing about this uncomfortable interchange, I was sad that my views and actions would penalize her—obviously, a completely unintended consequence. But it would explain why some, with less mettle than my friend, would distance themselves from me if they felt their livelihood threatened.

There is growing concern that teaching a biblical view of sexuality may some time soon be considered “hate speech,” if it includes an injunction against homosexual practice. It doesn’t matter to those of an opposing view whether the speaker is of good character or gracious manner. If she holds the now politically-incorrect view that homosexually committed persons must repent before being ordained to the ministry, she is believed to be a bigot, or worse, a hater, and must be isolated out of fellowship among “rational” and open-minded people.

In any other generation, the constitutional guarantee of free speech and exercise of religion alone should protect a Bible teacher; but alas, now if someone feels hurt by what a teacher says, regardless of the intent or the content of speech, those feelings “prove” a wrongdoing.  We are entering a period of serious threat to reasonable discourse, historic constitutional interpretation, and even academic freedom. Some of my Presbyterian colleagues have felt this much more acutely than I have, and I empathize. This is no figment of the imagination.

And even in the PC(USA) I am hearing of more clergy who feel they cannot teach from the Bible on certain subjects, for fear that viewpoint would divide their congregations. There is great timidity out there, based on the desire to keep church members “in the boat” and not lose them. What I hear, however, is that members are leaving congregations for at least two conflicting reasons: the belief that the pastor is too conservative or perhaps not liberal enough. The fact is, because the issue itself exists and cannot be navigated in an emotionally healthy way, church membership is dwindling. Pastors cannot win for losing, so to speak. The challenge to a biblical and confessional belief about marriage and sexuality is slowly (though more quickly now) eroding the heart and soul of the church. Is that really what homosexualists want—to destroy the church?

If it isn’t their church members calling pastors to task, it is higher-ups who pressure conformity to the new standard (which is no standard at all, as I have previously written). What was generally touted as the removal of a restrictive standard has now morphed into a new “standard” forbidding consideration of a pre-established biblical standard of sexuality when evaluating candidates. Whatever happened to “the Scriptures, our only rule of faith and practice”?

So where does boldness come in? What is a person of conviction to do in a world and a denomination growing more hostile to a biblical point of view on sexuality? Careful consideration must be given to consequences, if only to prepare for them. But negative consequences did not deter the apostles from boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the transforming gospel. Peter and John, as mentioned yesterday, were strongly exhorted to never teach in the name of Jesus again (Acts 4:18). Paul, previously a persecutor of the church, was challenged constantly for proclaiming Jesus Christ, working miracles, and casting out demons (cf. Acts 16:16-19). And of course, we are inspired by the Savior himself. He knew what his job was—the atonement of humanity’s sin and the ushering in the Kingdom of God—and nothing deterred his progress toward that end. It meant momentary alienation from his family (Matthew 12:46-50 & parallels), the betrayal of friends (John 18), and ultimately his own death.

What about us? As the writer of Hebrews observed, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). What a convicting word! If our goal, navigating the waters of pastoral leadership, is not to suffer, we are missing the opportunity to develop under Christ’s discipline. If we are acting (or not acting) out of fear, we are to remember Paul’s exhortation:

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7) The Christian faith is not a security blanket keeping us cozy in the safe confines of our homes and churches. The Christian faith, held with courage and conviction, puts us in danger or at least into trouble, where we can do the most good.

The presentation at a recent Covenant Network gathering by Plains and Peaks EP Dan Saperstein on “Marriage Equality in the PCUSA” is an articulate and careful assessment of political realities within our denomination. Dan is what I would call a moderate liberal, although in this talk he embraced all the progressive watchwords, concepts, and assumptions familiar to those who have debated sexuality issues for years. He represented well the dilemmas we have faced; and while I disagree with his conclusions, I think his characterization of conservatives in his speech was fair and balanced.

So this post today should not be read as a slam of a colleague I respect, but an engagement with an idea he is proposing. I think he offered his idea in that spirit, albeit among Covenant Network followers, not necessarily for conservatives’ consumption. But consider this post to be conservative/evangelical “feedback” on his suggestion of “how to create space to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in PCUSA churches.”

After a good summary of the issues and polity dynamics of the last twenty years, Dan suggests that openly redefining marriage within the Directory for Worship (DFW) would be ill-advised and inflammatory. He is certainly right about the effects of such an attempt, and I can promise strong opposition to whomever else is contemplating a same-sex marriage overture. But with an eye to the ultimate goal of so-called marriage equality, he suggests another approach based on a concept he feels is not particularly controversial in the church. This is “the historic right given to pastors to exercise discretion in the conduct of pastoral care.”

First, I would like to unpack this claim, and then examine how he extends the concept to include “discretion regarding the conduct of worship as pastoral care.”

Discretion in the Conduct of Pastoral Care. Pastors are given wide latitude in decision-making about pastoral care, I think because the belief is that one’s education, pastoral preparation, and accumulated wisdom through a candidating process adequately prepares one for pastoral discernment. Confidentiality in the conduct of pastoral care is a legitimate necessity. Situations already in process come to a pastor’s attention at midpoint, and sound guidance is needed to work through the messes of real life. We have all been there. We do the best we can, under the inspiration and with the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to lead people to Christ, to the throne of grace and truth, for proper diagnosis, prescription, and healing action. We might give excellent counsel, but it falls on deaf ears. We might give lousy counsel, and a person surprises us with a much better response to a difficult situation. What pastors are called to do, though, is to represent the will of God, the compassion of our Savior, and the prophetic courage of Nathan as we come alongside those who see us as their shepherd.

Worship As Pastoral Care? What happens in private stays private as long as the counseled one requires privacy. But what happens in worship is by its very nature a public act, subject to the ordering of God’s Word enacted by Christ’s Body. A pastor in the Reformed tradition does not have full discretion as to the conduct of worship. The limitations are not only imposed by a session (e.g. regarding the conduct of sacraments, choice of hymnal) but also by the Directory for Worship, which outlines the essential elements of every service for the Lord’s Day and gives guidance for other occasional services. This guidance can be quite specific. For instance, the DFW strongly discourages an open casket or Masonic ritual during a memorial service held at the church, because we understand that this is a worship service celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ (DFW, W-4.10005).

Further, it is important to note the definition of worship and question whether it is proper to designate worship as pastoral care. Worship firstly is the corporate expression of praise, gratitude, and submission to God Almighty (DFW, W-1.1001). Worship is worship, directed to God. But as people join together to worship God, their corporate voice to God ministers consolation to the souls of those worshiping together. But it ceases to be worship if the events of the service turn away from God’s revealed will, promote disobedience, wallow in hopelessness, or otherwise focus on something other than the One and Only. [Do not misunderstand me here. This is not strictly a liberal vs. conservative issue; I’ve witnessed “evangelical” services that were not really about God at all. And memorial services can become simply idolatrous, on that scorecard.]

The issue at hand is this: with this proposed constitutional amendment, does pastoral discretion include the freedom to marry a same sex couple, so long as the worship service is necessary for “pastoral care”? Dan Saperstein believes that it does. But I think Dan is in error to believe that the worship of God can affirm and give permanence to a relationship God cannot bless. Yes, we have come to different conclusions about what the Scriptures teach on this matter. But I respectfully submit that the tie-breaker here is not what our society says is now okay. We must hold fast to the male-female prerequisite for marriage, which is never questioned in Scripture.

In the meantime, let us not get confused about what worship is and what pastoral care is. Invoking worship as a means of blessing something specifically proscribed in the Bible is nothing short of blasphemy, attributing to God what is not of God. God has abundant grace and power to transform the lives of repentant people; God has a deep love for all and welcomes them all into worship. But worship is a cleansing experience for all of us, as we bring everything to God’s throne and submit all of life to God’s refinement, reformation, and yes, extreme makeover. That may mean that one must give up expectations for a particular form of “pastoral care” and another must give up “tickling peoples’ ears” (as in 2 Timothy 4:30).

 

Thesis promoted by the President of the United States: Same-sex couples should enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples, and therefore, should be given the constitutional right to marry.

What follows sounds like boiler-plate language shared with Presbyterians who have engaged in this debate for several years. The president himself said, in his 2nd Inaugural Address of all occasions, that everyone should have the right to marry the person they love. This argument, if it can be called that, is as wrong for the American people as it is for Presbyterians who believe the Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice.

This argument is insufficient and inaccurate on its face, as there are legal limitations of marriage, most especially of age (age of consent laws) and number of spouses (only one). However, it the president’s argument gets traction in today’s open-minded world, the door opens to marriage of children and polyamory (a more general term than bigamy, which refers specifically to a man with more than one wife).

“The right to marry” is given to all citizens. Though it is not explicitly stated as such in the U. S. Constitution, it is a derivative of the basic right Americans have to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every citizen has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex. This right reflects the societal norm that has been in place for millennia. It was the operating assumption of American founders. Since the writing of the Constitution, applications have been rendered regarding marriage between people of different races or social classes and of “marriageable age” and parental consent.

The president in his press conference today stated that those in favor of California’s Proposition 8, now before the U. S. Supreme Court, deny marriage to same-sex couples simply because they are same-sex couples. The president is right in his observation, but it is a formidable truth he dismisses rather easily. It is a matter of definition that goes back to the very nature of persons as male and female; to the very sexual functioning for which we were, in part, created; to the necessary conditions for the conception and birthing of children; and, therefore, for the perpetuation of the human race. Heterosexual marriage supports all these natural requirements; homosexual unions by definition cannot. Yes, the president is correct in his observation.

The president is also wrong in his inference. In a culturally relativistic environment, which he is now illustrating perfectly, who is to say that same-sex marriage is inadmissible? By the same token, who is to say that it is admissible? Is it only up to what an individual person wants? To what an individual person defines? To what a specific couple justifies to the world? To personal conscience, even though it be warped and misinformed? The president is getting very dogmatic on the point that there is to be no dogmatism regarding marriage. He faces the ultimate conundrum of the cultural relativist. “Anything goes” until you violate my particular justice issue, and then it is important enough that I must impose my view upon you as a new dogmatic order.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims understand that God created human beings “in order.” That means God—above and beyond the cultural whims of various generations and beyond the pursuits of individual life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—drew some boundaries around acceptable behavior by designing human beings to complement each other sexually. As onerous as this sounds to the cultural relativist, the authority for Proposition 8 comes from divine design and instruction. I have made those scriptural cases on this blog many times.

What is being proposed is not the remedial granting of a previously denied but constitutionally guaranteed right, it is the extension of a new right to a particular class of people (the president’s term), and therefore an entirely new thing. It is not “the right to marry” that is granted to people who previously had that right. It is “the redefinition of marriage” to satisfy a specific class of people. When the definition of marriage revolves around “living in sexual intimacy with whomever you choose,” the very nature of marriage itself will be taken out of societal definition for the good of the human race and into the realm of mere personal preference. And we all know, from reading the newspaper, those preferences without boundaries will take us to places we do not want to go.