One View: Our way forward in the PCUSA

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I am embedding a document produced by the Office of Theology and Worship at the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s worth reading critically in order to get a handle around what we as a denomination have actually done with respect to the ordination of people who engage in same sex sex acts (i.e., homosexuals) and also in terms of the the redefinition of marriage.

Later this week and after Christmas day I’ll work through the document and offer some thoughts and responses. Initially, the paper seems to be an attempt to describe the current reality of the PC(USA)–a helpful offering since we as a denomination occupy a space that the culture suggests oughtn’t to really exist (i.e., neither affirming nor denying the faithfulness of same sex marriage). The culture may be right though not necessarily, and its important that we not rush to occupy the patterns of thought that exist outside of the church.

At the same time, it’s important to make sense of whether the current arrangement is (a) faithful to Scripture and to the Christian tradition, and (2) whether it is a tenable way forward. I’ll allow you to form you own opinion as I develop mine hopefully under the Lordship of Christ and in subjection to the word which is Christ’s.

Some counsel in challenging times

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O Gracious Father, we humbly beseech Thee for Thy Holy Catholic Church,

that Thou wouldst be pleased to fill it with all truth and in all peace.

Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it.

Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it;

for the sake of Him who died and rose again and ever liveth to make intercession for us,

Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord.

Amen.

The Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1946, 1964.

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It is a tumultuous time to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our culture is shifting and with it our church. Some changes are for the better, some relate to things indifferent, and some run counter the tradition we have received as members of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic church. I have my opinions which readers of this blog will likely know. Rather than write about issues, today I’d like to offer some words to those of us (which is really all of us, regardless of our theological orientation) living through these times of change. In a sense, I am writing this post to myself as much as to anyone else. If, then, you are so inclined, join me in reflecting on how we can respond to the challenging times in which we live.

  1. Do not be afraid. Offering God’s help to Israel, Isaiah prophesies: “[D]o not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:10). Fear is natural, but fear can give way to faith when we prayerfully recite and rely upon God’s covenant promises to us found in Scripture. The reformers used a motto that captures the broader perspective of the trials we know face: post tenebris lux–“After the darkness, light.” Christ is Lord of his church and he has not forsaken her.
  2. Do not be hasty. The Proverbs contain this admonition: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way” (19:2). When we are afraid or anxious, it is easy for us to rush to judgment. In so doing, we easily move too fast and perhaps move further or faster than we ought.
  3. Do not cease in prayer. Prayer is central to the Christian life: it is one of the chief means of grace. Paul writes, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). God both hears our prayers and by our prayers works in our lives to give us comfort and care.
  4. Do not compromise your convictions. Scriptures gives us the example of Daniel, who remained faithful to God even when instructed not to pray. If there are matters upon which, like Luther, we find that the Word of God will not allow us to compromise then we must stand firm. It may mean that you’re the only vote against a motion; it may mean that you do not participate in some service or action of a church of council. Regardless of what it is, stand firm.
  5. Do not cease confession. Nothing is more dangerous to the soul than sustained theological disputation. By nature we are prone to sin and nothing is more tragic than winning a theological argument while losing one’s soul. Martin Luther remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” He also is famous for having said, “I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.” The heroes of our faith were all men and women who dedicated themselves to prayer.

Final Question: How do you deal with challenging times?

 

 

We're moving!

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I wanted to let you know that I have accepted a position at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA. Effective April 1, 2014 I’ll serve as Director of Discipleship. I can’t tell you how excited both about the position and about the church.

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One of the passions that animates my life is developing fully devoted disciples of Christ who love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength. A church is never stronger than its ability to make disciples.

As Director of Discipleship I’ll lead a team of dedicated and excellent staff who minister to children, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and through the church’s weekday preschool. Each of these ministries is strategic and critical to the church’s fidelity to the Great Commission and I deeply believe that all of them is incredibly important. I’m eager to see these ministries continue to thrive, to grow, and to develop to be even more effective in forming students as Christians.

The ministry of formation doesn’t stop when a child goes to college or even when s/he graduates. Discipleship is central for the entirety of our lives. As Discipleship Director I will work to build on the effective ministry of small groups established by my predecessor. On top of that, I will work to develop a discipleship program that provides a meaningful context for growth as Christians. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to explore ways in which the resources of the reformed tradition can enrich our devotional lives, facilitate growth in the use of spiritual disciplines for growth in Christ-likeness, and many other ways to make adult disciples.

Would you pray for me as I turn this corner in my vocation life and enter into a new phase of ministry? Would you also pray for our whole family as we prepare to uproot from Winston-Salem–our home for the last seven years and where both of our kids were born–and transition to Bethlehem?

Thanks in advance!

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Can only followers of Jesus Christ be saved?

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“Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” This tricky little statement appears on the Presbyterian Panel Study, a statistical sample of responses to a set of questions posed to PC (USA) teaching elders, ruling elders, and members over a three year period. 

Less than 50% of respondents typically agree or strongly agree with that statement. This often leads to the conclusion that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist in theology. Many attempting to be dismissed from the PC (USA) point to this as a central issue precipitating their departure. in 2010 Peter Chang, administrator of the survey, reached that conclusion himself.

“There seems to be some universalist streak in Presbyterianism, where some Presbyterians are open to the idea of other paths that folks in other faiths might be taking.”

Is the PC (USA) functionally universalist? It’s understandable that many reach this conclusion, but probably not warranted on the basis of this survey question alone. In other words, to argue that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist, it’s necessary to point to evidence other than this survey.

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In my view, it’s the question itself that is problematic. It forces the respondent to venture out into the realm of God’s possibilities stepping beyond Scripture into speculative theology. 

Respondents who disagree may do so for a variety of reasons including the belief that God, in himself, is not limited in what he can do. The answer is technically true, but intellectually unsatisfactory because it poses a question whose answer tells us more about the nature of God in himself than it does about the way God acts in the world. It moves into the realm of speculative theology and out of the realm of biblical theology (i.e., theology that has the Bible as it’s evidentiary foundation). The response moves into the world of medieval-like theology where scholars discussed matters like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” To be sure, the nature of the relationship of the spiritual to the temporal and material is not unimportant, but I think we’d all agree that (at least superficially) the answer to this question has little to do with our experience of God today. 

It’s sort of like another question–a perennial favorite of youth groups–“can God make a rock so heavy that He is unable to lift it?” The best answer I can come up with is, “why would God want to do this?”

 

Calvin had little time for speculative theology like this. His theological method was driven by appealing to the text of Scripture, which he read primarily in relationship to other parts of Scripture in consultation with the teaching of the Church Fathers. We do well to follow him.

In following Calvin, and in reading this question closely, we will likely be forced to be open to God’s ability to save those who are not followers of Christ, at least hypothetically. However, “can God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ” is not the same thing as “will God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ?” The former is a question of ability or power, the latter a question of intention.

In the end, we don’t know whom God will save other than to say–with the Scriptures–that he will save his elect. Wisdom is found in the Westminster Confession which notes:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. [14.1]

Put simply: God ordinarily saves those who (1) encounter the Gospel message, (2) are enabled by God’s Spirit to embrace it, and (3) respond in faith to the message they have heard, by (4) turning away from their sin, and (5) relying on Christ to be their surety and substitute.

To the extent that Teaching Elders in the PC (USA) tend to enter into speculative theological answers in reference to this tricky question and not the Confessional heritage of the church is really the central problem. As a result, I’m more comfortable saying that the PC (USA) is un-catechized than that it is functionally universalist. Both, to be sure, are significant problems.

Making sense of Calvin on church unity

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When the going gets tough, the tough quote Calvin. It’s interesting that as soon as a congregation begins to consider seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), Calvin becomes everyone’s best friend. If you can’t have the Bible one your side, the next best thing is to have Calvin at your back. The problem arises when Calvin–sort of like the Bible–becomes simply a tool to be used to buttress an argument arrived at prior to consulting him. And to be honest, much of what we do is appeal to authorities that we believe support our received view rather than affirmatively creating our own perspective. It’s not to say this is wrong so much as that it is inevitable.

So, let me ask the question: when is it okay to depart the visible church (the visible church being the institution of the church marked by a common way of ordering life and belief? 

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In order to justify leaving a church (or denomination for our purposes), Calvin required that you be able to answer each of these questions in the affirmative:

  1. Is there an error of doctrine or practice in the visible church?
  2. Is that error significant in nature (i.e., touching on an important, primary belief or practice of the church—Calvin’s examples focus on the person and work of Christ)?
  3. Is that error promulgated by a higher authority and more pervasive than a single pastor, session, or congregation (i.e., it cannot be a local peculiarity)?
  4. Does the error in question necessarily involve, affect, or compromise one’s own ministry or the ministry of the local church (Calvin argues that if 1-3 are true it will necessarily mean 4 is also true)?

 If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Calvin asserts that church or denomination in question has so compromised its belief and practice that it may be characterized as a false church. As such, individual believers or member congregations may seek dismissal with a clear conscience.

It’s important to note that, for Calvin, a true church may have numerous errors, notorious sinners, unfaithful ministers, and yet be a true church (this point is often made by those arguing against departing from the PC (USA)). Likewise, a false church may have pockets of faithful ministers, flourishing congregations, and lively saints (perhaps something that needs to be pointed out by more evangelicals). 

Drilling down in The Institutes (IV.1-2), we can follow the development of Calvin’s thought:

A church exists where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered.[1] Calvin argues that one cannot choose to leave such a properly ordered church simply because of some doctrinal defect or practical error.

For example, arguments that appeal to solely or primarily to efficiency of church structure don’t, I believe, fall within the scope of Calvin’s argument. So while appealing to the ‘flatness of ECO’ is nice and even compelling, Calvin would likely not accept it as an exclusive or even primary argument for leaving the PCUSA.

Likewise the argument that “what they do in Louisville doesn’t affect me” or “they can’t make us do something we don’t want to do” aren’t necessarily recognized by Calvin either. He makes clear in IV.2 that any substantial error on a core doctrine necessarily affects the whole church.

The visible church, for Calvin, is analogous to the Old Testament people of God. He anticipates that there will always be people in the (visible) church who are not truly converted and there will always be some measure of doctrinal impurity just as there was within Israel.

In this he is responding to the Anabaptists who placed a high emphasis on “regenerate church membership,” in distinction from the reformed church and its emphasis on baptism of infants as the entryway to church membership.

In order to leave a church, it’s necessary that a serious doctrinal or practical error has occurred that has actually moved the church from the category of “true” church to “false” church. A serious doctrinal or practical error includes such cardinal or core beliefs as those expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds.

For Calvin this error(s) had to be more than an isolated occurrence(s). Instead, it had to be a doctrinal or practical problem rooted in the structure, belief, and practice of the whole visible church itself.

Calvin deals with this corruption in terms of his own interaction with medieval Catholicism, which he asserts has been compromised by the institution of the papacy. Here our closest analog is actions of the General Assembly, which are binding upon all teaching elders, councils, and churches.

In our current context, it is necessary to point to some doctrinal (belief) or practical error (practice) that is promulgated by an authority higher than a single pastor or congregation in order to determine whether or not a church is true.

Calvin himself acknowledges that though the Catholic Church is a “false” church—and thus he is free to depart from it—there are many congregations of faithful people within it.

We may look around the Presbyterian Church (USA) and see many faithful congregations and pastors, yet this alone is not sufficient ground to declare that the denomination is a true church.

We must determine whether there is a significant theological error that is substantial in nature, touches upon an essential doctrine of the faith, and that materially affects the integrity of our ministry in the local context.

Late this week we’ll delve deeper into the sort of issues that meet this criterion.

 


[1] Inst. IV.ii.1.