The human lust for power is a natural outflow of Adam and Eve’s resistance to God’s authority. When a person, a group, or a nation believes itself to be any equivalent of “the center of the universe,” bad things begin to happen. Adam and Eve’s choice may seem innocent enough to modern eyes, but within a generation, murder had entered human experience. The desire of one to dominate another comes out of the irreconcilable demands of two adjacent egos vying for the center of the universe.

If a culture adopts the philosophy that all people are free to do whatever they wish, to pursue happiness on their own terms, to be in essence the center of their universe, then several things unravel:

  • people get locked into competition mode in order to win the pot of finite resources

  • politics seeks personal power above the common good

  • the basis for law erodes and it becomes impossible to protect individual rights against the libertine advances of others

  • no one can be truly happy as long as an opponent or a rival, exists

  • there will be wars

If this isn’t a picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

But it is rapidly becoming the picture of the world, including American culture, and some of its micro-systems. It would be an interesting exercise simply to read the newspaper through these lenses and count the number of stories that relate to the above list. As a side note, I would observe also that these dynamics exist within the church, including my own tribe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Disputes over property, doctrine, and inclusivity have their genesis in human resistance to God’s authority and power.

Power in the hands of human beings who are flawed and damaged by sin can turn into exploitation very quickly. This is one reason why Presbyterians, for example, generally exert power through their governing bodies rather than through individuals. But even so, original sin permeates the system because it has infected every person involved.

Power-seeking can also turn violent, as we saw in the Waco meeting of rival motorcycle gangs this week. Power corrupts the human spirit, because people have nothing within themselves to stop its insistent march toward dominance.

This is where God comes in.

The Bible teaches, and I believe, that God is the center of the universe. More than that, the one and only most holy God is bigger than the entire creation. You can get the picture through God’s thunderous objection to Job’s complaints, in Job 38-39. By virtue of his eternal existence, his unmatched might, his complete knowledge of all reality, and his inherent goodness, God holds all authority and possesses all power to rule the universe. His is not an idle interest in the affairs of the world, for he has known and governed every person on earth and through all history. God’s care is active, personal, and effective, and no person is beyond God’s reach, whether one is aware or not.

If it is true that God possesses all power and dominion, then we mere mortals do not. This is a fact that does not depend on our feelings about it. Here is where we find relief, if we want it, for the lust for power. The god of self must stand down. The fundamental transaction requires us to give up, give in, and give to the One who is sovereign over all. A tall order for sure! Who really wants to do this, in their heart of hearts? Nobody! That’s why we’re in this mess to begin with! But if giving up, giving in, and giving to God are required, what is to be done to make this happen?

For now, let’s frame some questions that will direct future thoughts:

  1. Is God worthy of my trust?

  2. Can God help me give up, give in, and give to?

  3. Is the effort to reorient my life going to be worth it?

Stay with me in this discussion, which will unfold slowly for some. I am laying a groundwork for Christian faith.


The Church and Culture

September 10, 2013

The question of whether the PCUSA is leading our culture or following it with regards to views on same-sex marriage needs some careful consideration. How the church is to relate to the culture (“the world” in contrast to God’s Kingdom) is best addressed by some biblical data collection:

  1. The culture is characterized by what people want, what they prefer, what they invest in, and what they think makes them happy. Eve’s little speech in Genesis 3 outlines the worldly point of view completely. The Kingdom of God is characterized by what God wants and how we invest our lives in furthering God’s desire for humankind. Inherent in culture is the establishment of idols, maybe not the stone monuments found in Athens (Acts 17) but their functional equivalent in 21st century western culture: that thing or person we worship and trust with the important matters of our lives, the one to whom we pledge our allegiance, the one who “owns” us, the one for whom we live.

  2. The reality is that we are in the world but not of it. This statement by Jesus is not a command to be in but not of the world; rather, it is a statement of a reality perhaps only he sees. To be in the world means to be incarnated in its context, to be present to it, to be a part of it. To be of the world is to draw one’s identity and strength from the world and to adopt the world’s priorities. To not be of this world means that we do not draw our marching orders from it, we find our identity by some other means, and we derive our power and our message from the One above all others, God, who sets the agenda for healthy and whole life (shalom).
    There is a very real sense in which the church should never really fit in culturally, lest it accommodate a worldly point of view. But it should never disengage, either. The church, for better or worse, is in the world; but it gets is power elsewhere.

  3. Jesus said the world would not know us, and there would be a chronic misunderstanding of the church’s goals by people of the world. The world doesn’t recognize itself in the church, because #1 is true: we are citizens of another Country and are accountable to another standard set by God. In one sense, we do not speak the same language as people of the world, or, alternatively, the world misunderstands our use of language and cannot process its true meaning. Jesus addressed this grand Misunderstanding by becoming a human being and entering fully into life among mortals, without losing his heavenly citizenship or identity. He was also not appreciated or recognized—rather, vilified—for being the heaven-sent Savior of the world. We the church cannot expect that our worldview will be acceptable to the society at large. In fact, if we ever finally feel like we have “arrived,” we should take a close look at those areas where we may have assimilated.

  4. The church’s role is not to condemn the world, but to participate in God’s redeeming of it.  Redemption is accomplished by the work of God through Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to himself. The process of redemption began with the naming of the problem: alienation from God due to Adam and Eve’s prideful rebellion against him in the Garden. The restoration of unhindered relationship with God could only be accomplished if God did something radical: render forgiveness for the unforgivable through the sacrifice of the Just One. When we—the church—participate in this act of reconciliation, we are agents and proclaimers of the transforming message of the gospel. “In human frailty, we have sinned; Christ, we are forgiven. Receive what God has given and live the new life he has offered.” How we have sinned becomes the grist for the mill of critique and prophecy within the church and out in the world. It is pretty clear that Martin Luther King, as a contemporary example, was a prophet not only to the church but to wider American society. He called it as he saw it, and as God saw it, and put his life on the line to help Americans own up to a great evil, repent, and adopt a new way of living with each other. Was this being “against” culture? No, the movement represented a longing for a society to become a place of shalom. Was the movement “for” culture? No, because it called out our falling short and critiqued a manner of life that was contrary to God’s intention. Was it “ahead” of culture? Maybe we’re getting closer, because a vision called us as a nation to something better. None of this is to deny that the Civil Rights Movement, or any other we might name here and around the world, had its flaws, missteps, ‘bad apples,’ or pockets of idolatry. This of course is why we all must remain humble even as we address the ills of the world around us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

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.


Topic: The Now and the Not-Yet of the Kingdom of God
Scripture: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven
Source: Kent Richardson, “A History of First Presbyterian Church, Concord, California,” revised by David Stearns, FPCC website (scroll down to “Service”).

Fourteen years before my arrival as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Concord (California), the congregation had been dealing with a vexing problem. Situated just one block from Concord’s central square, the church had a rear property line in common with the Showcase Theatre. The art deco building faced the city square, and in its heyday was known as the Enean Theatre, a family-friendly movie house easily accessible by all. However, in the 1970s, the building’s owners leased it to another company that renamed it The Showcase and played pornographic movies within. Not only was it a moral bother to have an adult theatre adjacent to the church but a civic embarrassment, particularly as the theatre drew an unsavory crowd. The city plaza soon became a rundown haven for drunks and illicit activities.

For years, the church made several attempts to raise money to buy the theatre. But the price was too high, and their efforts were thwarted. In 1980, through a miracle (according to the elders of the church), the church was able to acquire $800,000 in financing and a down payment, and the owner was willing to come down in price to accept it, and the purchase deal was finally made.

Only one small problem: In the course of making this transaction, it was discovered that The Showcase held an unbreakable lease. So for almost three years, the church was the proud owner of a porn theatre, until that lease expired. The church possessed the deed to the building (“already”), but the devil occupied it (“not yet”), making headlines around the world. [An elder residing in Paris at the time brought home a French newspaper that carried the AP story.]

When the day of liberation finally arrived, the building was gutted and transformed into the Presbyterian Community Center. For several years the church staffed a fitness center and offered exercise classes to the community. By the time I got there in 1997, alternative formats were explored, and the building was ultimately leased to another (non-Presbyterian) church in search of worship space. The whole idea was to expand the real estate footprint of God’s Kingdom and bring light to the city.

And just as the visible presence of the Kingdom of God has a positive impact on a neighborhood or society, so the transformation of this building made a difference in municipal planning. Prior to this transformation, the city had been unable to muster the political and financial energy to renovate its central square, but after the porno theatre disappeared, the city invested over $1 million to completely redevelop Todos Santos Plaza. To this day, it is a very family-friendly place where two weekly Farmers’ Markets and summer concerts are held.


This past weekend I had the joy and privilege of speaking five times for a church’s family camp at Mount Hermon. The topic was “Hearing the Voice of Jesus,” and my objective was to demystify the mystical, if you will. If God is alive and active, then surely God continues to communicate with his people. Prayer, after all, is not monologue but dialogue. The question is, How does God “speak,” what is he saying, and how do we know it’s God? I relied heavily on two favorite books: The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T. Smith and Hearing God by Dallas Willard. After an invitation on Friday night to take time to listen, on Saturday and Sunday I addressed God’s word of direction, correction, election, resurrection, and affection (and I’m pretty proud of the rhyme, too!—Once a preacher, always a preacher). My overarching framework came from Psalm 139, and it is from this text I make some new observations today, in light of recent national events.

The news is still dominated by the Boston marathon bombings, of course. Such a scary and damaging event for that fine city. And now, locally, the talk turns to how to secure San Francisco against such an attack when the Bay to Breakers race is held here next month. In a newspaper article this morning, San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr publicizes his request for “more security cameras along Market Street.” The purpose for these would be to enhance real-time surveillance, have a record to go back on if anything happens, and, presumably provide a deterrent against crime.

In that context, I am comforted and informed by Psalm 139:1-2:

1          O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2          You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
                       you discern my thoughts from far away.
3          You search out my path and my lying down,
                       and are acquainted with all my ways.

 God always knows what is going on. God can see everything and process it in no time. God can do what humans wish they could: be everywhere at once and know even what people are thinking. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. The problem is that we mere mortals possess none of those attributes, and yet, after Boston we are compelled to erect the Babel-like structure to deters terrorists.

I have no real objection to the installation of surveillance cameras, because I have nothing to hide. There are genuine constitutional concerns, for sure, but this is not my issue. My question revolves around the need to have someone—a person—watching. We are in this sad state because people have lost the sense or the belief that God is watching and they are accountable to him. Where I live, it is estimated that 93% of the population has no regular contact with a religious setting. The generation of young adults now entering society has had no exposure to Christian themes throughout their schooling. Their ethical (not “moral”) training has been based on the concept of mutual respect, but there is nothing to stop them—or the rest of society—from establishing a me-first attitude, attention-grabbing behaviors, even violent “strategies” to accomplish their goals.

Have Presbyterians added to this mindset that has corroded the morals of our society? Yes, indeed, by making or implying the following statements in recent years:

• we do not have reliable moral guidance from the Scriptures or our Confessions

• it is nobody’s business what a church officer does in his private life

• the individual conscience is sacrosanct, whether shaped by Scripture or misguided by worldly principles; nobody can tell me I am wrong

• the Presbyterian-defining church discipline of past generations has lost its teeth, and nothing in a moral or doctrinal category is enforceable now. [I know this reaches a little far, for someone somewhere can make sexual misconduct charges stick, but not because they are violations of biblical law but merely breaches of civil law.]

Unfortunately, some Presbyterians (a minority, who now rule the roost) have even said God blesses what the church has long held as immoral behavior. With such a false claim embedded now in church systems, people are being deceived, bad examples are confusing our children, and society cannot see the difference between a redeemed and obedient life and the moral climate the world now tolerates.

But God is watching. When we are listening to him, we can hear his breath flutter when we entertain a lustful or wayward thought. When we are in tune with his will and ways, we see yellow flags before they become red and steer clear. When we welcome God’s scrutiny, we can confess the wayward thoughts before they become immoral actions. How I pray that our neighbors can experience the joy of that kind of protection! How I desire for people to know God’s love for them and submit to his gracious discipline!

How can the church make an impact that reduces crime, keeps people safe, and unites communities around goodness and non-violence? Food for thought!

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).


In Matthew 18:1f, Jesus is clarifying for the disciples “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ teaching so far in Matthew has painted the picture of an upside-down kingdom, where the poor are rich, the lowly are great, and the meek will inherit the earth. This theme continues here, as Jesus draws a child close to him as a sermon illustration, and says:

3“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

The first point, explored in earlier posts: children in their smallness and lowliness are the ones for whom the kingdom of heaven is home. We would all do well to become like them, recognize our smallness and lowliness, humble ourselves before God, and listen and learn from God who is sovereign.

And then Jesus goes on:

5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Jesus considers himself lowly, too; certainly not the grandiose political type. People will have to “stoop” to honor him, in the context of early first century Roman empire. He so identified with the meek and lowly that he told his disciples, If you want to find me, welcome those in your midst who are small and insignificant, and there I’ll be. He reiterates this theme in Matt 25:34-40, the judgment scene about caring for “the least of these.”

And then Jesus becomes a protective advocate of the small and lowly, and places upon the disciples a mantle of responsibility for their spiritual safety:

6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” [NIV]

Here we arrive at the punch line of Jesus’ view of the ministry of teaching. He is urging his followers to avoid misleading the lowly, the uneducated, the naïve, the ill-informed. One would cause a little one to sin by the content of one’s teaching. Presbyterians understand that we study and learn in order to behave rightly. If the content of our teaching is corrupt, the outcome in the lives of our students will be sin or at least the permission to sin. The Apostle Paul warns the Romans in a later context of this great evil. [The “they” in this passage refers to those who had darkened minds and foolish hearts to sin in all manner of ways listed in Rom 1:29-31.]

32 “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

For those of us preparing to teach a curriculum on marriage, the mantle of responsibility requires us to teach what God has revealed on the subject of sexuality, not some twenty-first century rendition of an enlightened new-normal that includes homosexual practice, polygamy, or polyamory, to mention only a few of the variations promoted in newsmagazines and on prime-TV this season. Lifting these arrangements up as possible, legitimate life choices for Christians would qualify us for the millstone.

And our concern here is not just for children, but for all the potential students we hope to reach with a marriage curriculum: young adults, elderly singles, married couples experiencing the seven-year itch, those cohabitating outside of marriage, Olympic swimmer Steve Lochte and other one-night-standers, and anyone who is confused or uninformed about the Bible’s foundational understanding of the proper place for sexual intimacy.

This is why the marriage curriculum I devise will not include anything that can be construed as a recommendation for sexual practice outside of marriage between a man and a woman. To do so would be to violate the charge Jesus gave us (“teaching them everything I have commanded you” Matt 28:20), endanger our students with false information, and subject ourselves to the millstone. Rather, by remaining faithful to what the Scriptures teach (within the parameters of Reformed faith and practice put forth in the Confessions, since this is a Presbyterian/Reformed curriculum), we retain the moral authority given to us by Christ and affirmed in our historic principles of church order:

“That all Church power . . . is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no Church governing body ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God.”

Since God has made his will known regarding sexual practice and marriage, we teach from the Scriptures and trust that our faithfulness and obedience in this matter will lead to healing and restoration in  relationships and blessing in the church.

“[Jesus] called a child, whom he put among [the disciples], and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3)

Scholarly discussion—in which, I can assure you, children do not take part—revolves around just what childlike qualities Jesus had in mind when he talked about entering the kingdom of heaven. Was it their helpless dependence? their innocence? their lowly stature in the community? their teachability? Within the gospel context, Dale Bruner favors the notion of childlike humility based on their low social status, which required them to listen and obey (Bruner, Matthew II, 208). From an educator’s standpoint, I see several aspects of childhood that set us up for fruitful exploration:

1. Children are wired to learn. Innate curiosity is a strong motivator.

2. Children thrive in a guided learning environment. Curiosity is expected and welcomed but not unbridled, for the child’s own safety. Listening and obeying are essential.

3. Children know they don’t know everything, and humility accompanying their questions is the appropriate attitude.

4. Children trust their teachers and take their words at face value. It is up to teachers to be truthful and trustworthy, though the wider community has responsibility to hold teachers accountable, as we all too sadly recognize in today’s world. A teacher who misguides or abuses a child-learner is despicable. This is Jesus’ point in Matt 18:6-9.

So how this applies to teaching adults about marriage and sexuality:

1. Our people may have forgotten it, but they are wired to learn. It is a spiritual and emotional issue whether a person is ready to learn, not primarily a cognitive one. However, I know adults whose intellectual “curiosity” was really masked spiritual rebellion, echoing the question that rattled around in Eve’s mind, “Did God really say . . .?” Because this is always a possibility, a wise teacher is also a spiritual director, helping learners anchor in God’s Word for God’s sake to do God’s will. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

On the subject of marriage, people bring all sorts of experience and history to the learning environment. The teacher’s prayer is that God would instill in learners a holy desire to relearn and reorient their thinking about marriage and sexuality to conform with God’s design. A good deal of repentance is required, and in fact is necessary for learning to take place. If our personal sexual experiences define “normal,” then how open can we be to God’s authoritative word on the subject? “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

2. A prepared learning environment sets parameters for teaching and learning. Our parameters are scripture-based, and our consciences are held captive by the Word of God. This is why it is imperative to develop a curriculum of Bible study on marriage, as opposed to leaving discussion completely open-ended at the whim of the participants. It is also why teacher and learner alike come to the learning task with the mutual desire and drive to know the truth and to commit themselves to it. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

3. We know that we adults do not know everything, and our childlike position places us in God’s circle as obedient learners and listeners. It is a statement of faith and commitment to acknowledge that God knows what is right and how to act, and that God has revealed his will to us in his Word (2nd Helvetic, BOC 5.001-5.003). Sometimes a child must be told, “Because I said so,” and obedience does not come naturally, as any two-year-old will demonstrate. Nevertheless, the discipline and order God applies to our lives is for our own good and for the well-being of the community of faith. And God’s promise is that his children will experience his love if they will listen and obey (Jn 15:8-11). “Unless we change and become like children . . .”

4. We trust God not to have misled us, and can trust God’s Word to lead us into all truth (Ps 25:5; Jn 17:17). We do not second-guess God’s intention or his teaching based on our limited experience or our feelings on the matter. Dr. Mark Patterson suggests the following image: Christian teaching is a top-down exercise (from God to us), not bottom-up (our experience defining what God must have meant). Dr. Parker Palmer prefers the circle of learners gathered around the truth they are all trying to discern and live within. Both illustrations understand that God’s truth is outside of us (as God is wholly ‘other’—Martin Buber). Learning entails internalizing the truth to change our thinking/beliefs and incorporating it into our life to change our behavior. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

5. The role of teacher is very important, and a bad teacher bears a strict judgment (James 3:1). This thought will be developed in my next post as we explore Matthew 18:6-9 and the care we must exercise in teaching ministry.

This week I am putting on my “Christian Formation and Discipleship” cap to analyze the best approach for a congregational study along the lines directed by the General Assembly. The content of our study, the methods employed, and the desired outcomes will be discussed through this week here. But before we can get to that standard protocol for curriculum development, the question must be addressed: “What will be considered authoritative and foundational for the study?” What can be identified as “information” and “true knowledge” as we start out? I realize this is a Modern approach, but the post-Modern alternative poses some real problems for coming together on an issue, unless the objective is simply to share how we feel about it. It is not good enough, given the constitutional crisis and crying need for clarity we are experiencing, to collapse all arguments into “Everybody can believe and do what they will, so long as it is authentic to them.” The implications of such a statement reach not only to the marriage debate, but into the very nature of denominations and the Church. And I might add, God has been dealing with wayward humanity on this question since the beginning of time.

Friends are sharing their memories of Jack Rogers in his Fuller Seminary days giving an illustration on Presbyterian authorities: The Bible goes on the table first, as the foundation for all that follows. On top of that is placed the Book of Confessions, our “authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do” (W-4.4003c). On top of that falls the Book of Order, how we put what we have learned into practice. What seems to have happened gradually over the last few decades is that this stack of books has been inverted and placed upon another foundation, that of our feelings and “recent discoveries” (however that term might refer). My mother used to call this the “We Now Know” shift, which is itself a fruit of Modernism, especially if it supplants the knowledge we gain from God’s Word.

As noted in yesterday’s posts and comments, our problem lies in what we consider foundational for our theological development. Therefore, I propose to drill deeper on the question and suggest that uncovering and comparing those two underlying assumptions will be necessary for us to get anywhere. I’m going to need some help from the liberal side of the aisle to represent a “progressive” view fairly and accurately. John Stuart’s picture here is not meant to be a taunt but an illustration of how conservatives view the challenge before us. If someone on the other side of the debate could kindly and clearly explain to me how you would alter this sketch, let me know and I bet artist friend John will render it for use here in future discussions.

Somehow we are going to need to understand the question often addressed to me: “How can people reading the same Bible come to such radically different conclusions about what it says?” I have experienced twenty-five years membership in San Francisco Presbytery, served lengthy terms on COM, CPM, a blue-ribbon mission statement task force, and a one-year high-intensity small group with liberals of the presbytery. In the course of this exposure to alternative Bible study methods, I believe I can describe the difference in approach to Scripture that yield such diverse results and will share it in my next post. In the meantime, think about this question: In a study on marriage, what would you want to know (i.e. what information would you need) and what would motivate you to learn it?