Are we a church separated by a common language?


Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.


The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.



The curious case of the praying valedictorian


My Facebook feed has recently started to light up with editorial responses to the young man in South Carolina who, as valedictorian of his graduating class, set his prepared remarks aside and elected to recite the Lord’s Prayer in violation of the school district’s prohibition of religious observance.

Here’s the video.

Your response to this act of defiance will likely differ based on your religious convictions, your political persuasion, and where you live in the country. Clearly those in the audience at the commencement exercise appreciated the gesture. From the video, it’s hard to tell what the faculty are thinking. Plausibly, “oh crap” is one possibility.

The decision to do this raises many questions…

  • About the student: is he brave or stupid? Heroic or reckless?
  • About the audience: how would they have responded to a muslim student doing something similar? Is applause a sign of belligerence rather than the appropriate reaction to the worship of God?
  • About us: how is our response conditioned by our prejudice? Against Southerners? Against Christians? Against fundamentalists?
  • About the act itself: is it really an exercise more of devotion to our Constitution and our conception of freedom in a liberal democracy than it is one of devotion to God? How does this relate to the biblical admonition to honor the civil magistrate?

This young man, I’m sure, intended that his act be one of positive witness to our Lord. I hope that in the lives of many it will be received as just that and that perhaps some will incline themselves to God in a new way. However, many will see this as something akin to an act of defiance by a dwindling majority.

It may be both.

What do you think?


Seminary as trade school: parish-based theological education?


As a leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and an ordained Presbyterian minister, I spend my life sandwiched between the university and the church. InterVarsity is both a para-church and a para-university movement–we work within and beside both institutions to advance their respective missions as well as our own.

InterVarsity contributes to the mission of the church by making disciples of students and faculty and sending them into the world as agents of Gospel-change. We contribute to the mission of the university by creating diverse, center-set believing communities that seek the welfare of the university and value respectful dialog and a common life with those who also call the university home.

One of the places where church and university encounter one another, in addition to campus ministry, is in the training of pastors and religious leaders. Historically this task has been performed by theological seminaries (usually stand-alone institutions) and divinity schools (of universities) related to the a church (as in denomination).

Regardless of whether there is a legal relationship between a theological institution and a denomination, there is the functional relationship that exists in that most denominations required their ordained clergy to receive a theological education from an accredited institution of higher education. It may be their first, second, or tenth priority, but all institutions of theological education train pastors.

These relationships often create tensions between the academy and the church:

  • How does academic freedom relate to theological and confessional integrity?
  • Can pastors be trained to perform their calling by those who have little to no parish experience?
  • How effective are seminaries in connecting academic learning with the practice of ministry?
  • Is the cost of seminary burdensome to future clergy whose earning potential is depressed?

Leadership Network reports that in light of the above issues (and more) some churches are stepping into the task of preparing ministers for parish service:

In 2011, the church [Sojourn Community Church] launched a one-year “Pastor’s School” as part of a residency where potential church planters attend intensive classes and serve as ministry leaders. Pastor’s School meets weekly, and the primary teacher is always a Sojourn pastor. The other training components focus on service in the local church. Each student must volunteer at least 5 hours a week in church ministry. The program will soon become a fully accredited, church-based theological education. Until then, Sojourn has negotiated with nearby Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY for 30 hours of Master of Divinity credits to be completed while serving in the church.

The church believes that this initiative can provide greater theological integrity among those called to plant church as well as pastor existing congregations. Says the pastor, Daniel Montgomery,

Too many pastors and church planters practice a ‘mutt theology’ of gleaning here and there—a bit of Tim Keller, of Francis Chan, of David Platt, of Mark Driscoll…. We recognized that one of the things missing in training church leaders is a community of practical and intellectual virtue. Sure there’s a place for the classroom, but learning is best done in residence in the church.

There is much to applaud about a project like this. Many para-church organizations (like InterVarsity, CRU, YoungLife) provide experience-based training in ministry that is complemented by classroom instruction during the summer. It seems to me that this model serves us reasonably well. By way of confession, my theological training took place full-time in a residential Master of Divinity program rather than a church- or ministry-based experience.

There are some things that concern me about this model as well. Chief among them is the risk of provincialism. A program like this could well lead to pastors with a stunted vision and philosophy of ministry overly limited to a single school of thought. It’s one thing to be rooted in a theological tradition, it’s another to be largely ignorant of anything beyond your own branch of the church.

Seminary isn’t a trade school. Instead it is a community in which we learn to think and live theologically, to practice ministry and deepen in the life of Christ. It is a specific, time-limited experience that forms the basis of a life devoted to theological reflection and practice now experienced in the context of parish rather than seminary. 

What do you think?


Incivility on College Campuses


CNN is reporting that Karl Rove was seriously heckled while delivering a speech at the University of Iowa. Members of the crowd apparently mocked him and repeatedly interrupted his speech. Since the university was paying $40,000 to listen to him, one might be tempted to think that these were some seriously expensive interruptions.

There is a growing incivility in our society. I think that this is partly what makes Barak Obama’s campaign so compelling. He seems largely able to be civil in the midst of a rather dirty business. It’s also what make a film like Purple State of Mind pretty darn compelling. Simply: two people/parties can disagree with one another on pretty darn important (even foundational issues) and do so in a way that honors both the personhood of the other person and the content of that other person’s opinion.

I think its worthy trying to recapture a sense of meaningful dialog between deeply divided and different people/parties that allows both to maintain their particularity and yet to understand the other more deeply. In a pluralistic society its the only healthy way forward.


Academic Freedom and the Chemerinsky Debacle


Inside Higher Education reports on the firing of Erwin Chemerinsky as founding Dean of the Bern School of Law at the University of California Irvine, before he even made it out of his Duke University office. At some point between signing the employment contract and the beginning of his official duties as Dean, Chancellor Michael Drake decided that Chemerinsky was not someone who ought to fill the Dean’s position and the university rescinded the contract. Chancellor Drake defends his actions on the editorial page of today’s L.A. Times.

Distilled to its essence, the issue seems to be that of academic freedom and leadership in higher education. There can be no question that Chemerinsky was qualified for the deanship. In fact, it might be more accurate to state that getting him would have been, for UC Irvine, a coupe. It is Chemerinsky’s contention that it was his status as a public “liberal” that caused the contract to be rescinded (also argued in the L.A. Times).

Drake contends, on the other hand, that Chemerinsky would have been a polarizing figure. As such, he contends that he began to have uncertainties as to whether Chemerinsky would be able to step out of the spotlight in order to put his time and energies into developing a new law school. It is, of course, one of the principle roles of a Dean to raise money and some have claimed that as an outspoken jurist Chemerinsky’s appeal would have been limited.

The fact of the matter, at the end of the day, is that he is a first rate constitutional scholar and that his firing will hurt UC Irvine. On the other hand, the idea of academic freedom has never extended to donors. In other words, donors are always free to refrain from giving on the basis of not liking the views of an administrator. We might call this narrow or prejudiced, but it is a reality and one faced by more than one or two schools.