Come, let us reason together

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Krin Vantatenhove has issued “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family” (read it here). Since I’m a member of the family, and since what Krin names in his post is something I’m observing too, I’d like to respond.

Krin’s central point is that the real fault line within the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t between those who support or oppose the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of non-celibate people who identify as homosexual. The fault line is between those who hold “orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine” and those for whom that expression of faith has become empty or irrelevant: “…there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine.” 

It’s important to note that just as this blog post expresses my opinion–and mine alone–Krin’s post expresses his opinion alone. He is no more a representative of our denomination than I am. What he is expressing–and what I agree with him on–is that the words we use in our corner of the Christian church mean very different things to different people. What he is describing is also far from uncommon in our church. In other words, he’s not describing the fringe left but some very respectable leaders in our churches and our denomination.

The progressive position is something that is rarely explicitly expressed. It’s typically hinted at or implied by things that pastors fail to say rather than what is actually stated, as he notes:

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

Krin refers to himself and many of his colleagues as “universalists,” for lack of a better term and goes on to say:

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus…

From my point of view, I take Krin at his word when he states that he hasn’t abandoned things like “Jesus’ teaching,” “the Good News of grace” or “the pursuit of peace and justice.”

From my point of view he hasn’t abandoned them; he has allowed these concepts or beliefs to evolve beyond the scope of what is recognized as the classical Christianity expressed in our Creeds and Confessions.

He provides an example:

We might say, “[Assent to essential tenets], on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Without wishing to put words in another’s mouth, the claim to “sincerely receive and adopt” something “on many levels” is a warning sign. I’ve taken other vows–one’s to my wife–and I didn’t assent to them “on many levels,” which is typically code for some deviation from classic Christian belief. Instead, I simply said “I do.” I assented to these vows in a manner consistent with the received tradition of Christian marriage.

Our church allows ministers to “scruple” parts of our Confessions. A scruple is simply a stated point of departure from a doctrinal formulation. One might scruple the observation of the Lord’s Day believing that it’s fine to eat out after church.

The thing about scruples is, however, as Krin admits, pastors don’t typically scruple of their own accord despite the fact that our Book of Order places an affirmative duty on pastors to do just thatThey keep their non-traditional views to themselves, perhaps for a variety of reasons some of which are understandable.

The existence of such a broad range of views in a single organization means that it is incredibly difficult for that organization to have focus or to collaborate on common projects. He notes,

…Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

It’s true. When I was in campus ministry I was significantly more likely to partner with Catholic Campus Ministries than with either my own denominational ministry or one of the other mainline groups. The reason? A profound variance in essential belief.

I recall going to presbytery meetings (I was in North Carolina at the time) and being asked to share bright spots of ministry. To a person, every bright spot was some service project or another. We celebrated hikers’ ministry, renting out a fellowship hall to a church youth group, food banks, you name it. There wasn’t a single example of someone having a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and being converted. There wasn’t a single example even of a new Bible study or some new evangelistic discussion group. The reason we didn’t celebrate these thing is that for many of the people at that meeting the idea of a saving encounter with Jesus was a totally foreign concept. People don’t get saved in presbyterian churches–if you want that, try the baptists.

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

In the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Mt. 5:37).

Do you worship the Bible?

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Precisely twice in my life a conversation partner has warned me lest I be guilty of worshipping the Bible. It’s an interesting warning and, depending upon the context, there could plausibly be some merit to it. By and large, however, it’s a red herring. In my case, there is rather more danger to be had from worshipping popular interpretations of the Bible than worshipping the Scriptures themselves.

Ours is an age not given to the discipline of reading. We are functionally literate. We can complete forms. We can read and respond to emails. We can read one to two verses from the Bile or a page from a classic. We can follow printed instructions to assemble a new stand for our flat screen television. Beyond this, however, our literacy is sadly lacking. We haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of the classics of Western Civilization, let alone other races and cultures. And the Bible? The Bible demands way too much from us in order to understand it. Better to simply follow the guidance of someone who will confirm your pre-existing bias.

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Source: http://franklinchurchofchrist.com/blog/
  
John Stackhouse makes precisely this point in his recent post at the blog of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The wave of evangelical defections to affirm and endorse GLBT+ as normative is based not a new and closer reading of the Scriptures. There is virtually nothing in any of the documented “conversions” that evince a careful study of the Bible. Rather, most come from a reorganizing of the Scriptural witness to place a higher and broader value on Biblical witnesses the affirm values consistent with those predominant in culture today: unconditional love, acceptance, inclusivity, etc. 

These verses and witnesses become the lens through which other, more specific witnesses are dismissed as somehow inconsistent with Jesus’ message of unconditional affirmation. To borrow the title of a book by J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus have I loved, but Paul…? 
Everyone loves Jesus; some get bent out of shape when the apostle applies Jesus message to the specifics of messy lives in the ancient church.
And once your favorite pastor has endorsed the GLBT+ message then those who follow him–who, incidentally, rely upon him for their knowledge of the Bible–immediately and easily turn the corner to believe as he does and in line with the culture. It’s as easy as stopping swimming against a current. Off you go; it feels so easy, so natural. And yet it is so wrong.

If we consider briefly what the Bible says of itself, we may set aside some of anxiety some have regarding our esteem for it.  The Bible’s purpose is to provide guidance in our belief and practice (2 Timothy 3:16). It is a rod that prompts us to remain faithful as we follow our risen Lord. This guidance isn’t arbitrary or entirely culturally bound. The Bible’s guidance flow from it’s source, which the Bible itself and the earliest church affirm is God himself. 

The Bible is a efensive weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Paul refers to the Scripture as “the sword of the Spirit.” It is the weapon the Spirit uses to do his convicting and sanctifying word. When wielded toward us this sword is and any wound is superficial and short-lived. Wielded against the world, the flesh, and the devil the blade cuts through to the heart of the matter delivering us the counsel of God and the grace to persevere.

The Christian who uses the Bible often and as the source of his beliefs shouldn’t be too concerned about the charge of worshipping it. It is, after all, the word of his master and his lord and should be esteemed as such.
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Answers to 5 multi-site objections

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I stumbled across a post by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks offering a critique of multi-site churches. You can read the post here. He offers twenty-two objections to a multi-site approach. Some of his objections are reasonable, others fail. In many respects the validity of his argument depends on factors that are not established in the post itself and widely vary from church to church (more on this in a minute).

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Here are his top five and my responses beneath:

1. There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition. “Well, surely, the Christians in a city could not have all met…” (but see Acts 2:465:126:2).

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the verses Leeman cites establish that the New Testament practice was for all of the believers in a city to gather for worship at a single location. I don’t think this requires a one-to-one correspondence in our practice today (i.e., its not a sin to gather in congregations). I’d suggest that these verses suggest more about the value of worshipping community (since our faith is covenantal, worship is first communal then individual) than it does about the internal organizational structure of the fellowship. 

2. If a church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys, every “campus” where those activities transpire is actually a church. “Multi-site church” is a misnomer. It’s a collection of churches under one administration.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, church and congregation are not the same thing. Here Leeman writes out of his baptist tradition with its emphasis on the autonomy of primacy of the individual congregation. For presbyterians these marks of the church are no less true. However, in presbyterian practice a congregation needs to be self-governing under the rule of a session (a council of elders). As long as an individual site has some degree of appropriate representation on the session of the sponsoring church, I see no problem. With Leeman I do see a second congregation (in function if not in polity), but I don’t see a problem with that.

3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.

This is a concern, but not necessarily. At least, the same can be said of large individual churches–multi-site or not. It’s a generous preaching pastor who will share her pulpit with a junior colleague so that he can develop as a preacher-teacher.

4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.

Here Leeman assumes that these factors–budget, pastor charisma, and brand identity–are the only things uniting a multi-site. I disagree. What unites a multi-site congregation is its theological vision and ministry expression. The other things are factors, but they’d be factors in a single-site church too.

5. To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.

Leeman would need to say more in order for me to believe that this is more of a problem at a multi-site church than in a single-site. 

What do you think?

 

Questions about the Creeds [Part 1] Did Jesus descend into hell?

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One of the most puzzling articles in the Apostles’ Creed is the sentence “he descended into hell, the third day rose again from the dead.” As our congregation has started to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the reformed tradition I’ve started to receive questions about what some of our confessions mean. What does this line of the Creed mean?

For most people the problematic word is “hell.” In popular theology hell is a literal place designed to punish people. It seems problematic the God’s Son should “descend” into a place designed for punishment. And it raises the question, why is Jesus going there? Is he being punished? Is he being purified? Just what exactly is he doing?

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Reformed Christians are deferential to the creeds and confessions. I like to say that we assume the veracity of our confessional standards unless and until a clear, compelling, and widely-received counter argument is produced. And since the Reformed tradition teaches that confessions are subordinate standards–that is they rank below God himself and God’s revelation of himself in Scripture–we should seek to understand the Creed in light of the Bible.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ words to the thief who believed him seem to call the Creed into question. Christians who affirm Jesus’ descent into hell often argue that it took place after his death and before his resurrection (i.e., on Holy Saturday). What do the Gospels recount. One contains a promise that Jesus and a criminal crucified would be in paradise “today.” The others barely mention the event or ignore it completely.

Luke is unique in recounting that one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus petitioned Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Jesus’ replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (43).

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ encounter his two fellow convicts and Matthew simply states that the robbers insulted Jesus (Matt. 27:38, 44).

John records that two men were crucified with Jesus, but not that they were robbers or that they interacted with Jesus at all (19:32).

If we are to interpret passages of Scripture that appear to be unclear or ambiguous in light of those that are clear then we have to find some other biblical evidence that supports the Creeds’ assertion and clarifies what Jesus is recorded to have said from the cross.

A passage that seems to meet that description may be found in the first letter of Peter. In 1 Peter 3:18-19ff.:

For Christ dies for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison….”

Of course, Peter isn’t entirely clear as to who these “spirits in prison” are and he doesn’t make clear precisely what Jesus preached, why he preached it, or what the outcome was. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He had already declared that his work of atonement was finished.

In all likelihood his purpose was as R. C. Sproul puts it, “He goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.” the Old Testament saints being those, who like Abraham, believed in God before Christ’s advent and their belief was credited to them as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22).

So, yes Jesus descends into hell. However, the English word “hell” isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful translation of the original Greek and Latin versions of the Creed. The hell referred to in the Apostles’ Creed isn’t a place of suffering, but more about that in our next post.