Click above to listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Solent, Impression for Orchestra (1903). The piece is a musical reflection on The Solent, the body of water that stretches between mainland Britain and the Isle of Wight (see map below).
unspecifiedIf it’s possible to feel a fondness for a body of water; I feel one for the Solent. As a child, I would spend hours on the shore watching the yatchs with their billowing, colorful sails. Merchant ships would steam through the channel headed for Southampton. Ferries to the continent would depart and arrive with regularity in Portsmouth.

Periodically, naval vessels would return to Portsmouth Harbor, the home of the Royal Navy since at least the time of Henry VIII.

At times a fog would descend in the evenings, windows open, I’d hear the gentle roll of fog horns as ships crept through the shrouded night toward their destination. Other times, squalls would pick up and drive waves in to the beaches and up to the roads, lashing the stones and tumbling them back and forth along the ground.

palmerstons-follies-in-the-solent-looking-toward-iow

It was a magical place to grow up, especially because of Lord Palmerston’s follies, a chain of Victoria forts built to defend the United Kingdom from invasion by a continental foe.

There were forts on the shore and in the channel itself. They seemed like mystical, inaccessible places when I was a boy.

As I listen to Vaughan Williams’ composition, it brings a wave of nostalgia over me. The power of music!

Christian media are reporting that Perry Noble has resigned (or been fired) as Pastor of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. NewSpring boasts a congregation of 32,000 people across more than ten campuses, each of which see Noble preach weekly via telecast.

I learned about the Noble situation when a friend commented in reaction to missiologist Michael Frost’s sharing of the story (screenshot below). I can’t tell from context whether Frost is being sarcastic when he writes, “We pay our pastors to grow our churches.”

Based on what I know of him, he likely is.

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That he could even make that statement, however, points to the reality that many Christians see pastors as the growth engine of the church.

Such a view is nothing short of idolatry. The Holy Spirit is the growth engine of the church.

When pastors are elevated to such a height, we will let you down. Every. Time.

And we should.

The apostolic witness is clear that God alone grows the church.

Pastors may participate in that work of God. We pastors may be open to God’s working and we may lay our gifts and strengths and limitations and weaknesses before God, and God may choose to grow the work.

We may do all of that and God yet decides to permit slow to no growth, or even decline.

In the end, ministry isn’t a technique and God’s ways are beyond our comprehension.

 

@jeffgissing

Introduction

All creeds and confessions are created in a context, and that context is important both in understanding them and applying them to the life of the church. Some creeds and confessions manage to plumb the depths of the faith in a way that remains true across many times and many cultures.

Others, are profoundly limited in their ability to rightly confess the faith outside of the immediate context in which they were written. The Belhar Confession is an example of such a confession–it served well in its immediate context, but is not robust enough to carry the weight of the church’s confession to the world. It’s not without merit, so we’ll consider those before we consider it’s weaknesses.

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Strengths

First, it speaks clearly to the issue of the racism and systemic injustice codified in the South African Apartheid system. Apartheid was an evil system–a profound rejection of the image of God in humanity as well as Christian gospel that affirms all people to be equally condemned before God apart from Christ–black and white, male and female, Jew and Greek. 

Second,  Belhar comes from the global south. It represents the witness of Christians outside of our predominantly european tradition. As reformed theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, “It is a brief confession and in many ways quite beautiful, a doctrinal statement filled with some precious truths that the white church in South Africa had tragically lost.”

Third–and this is a strength and weakness simultaneously–it is mostly an extended arrangement of Scriptures. In one sense, the Confession is biblical–in the sense that it is comprised of mostly biblical witnesses. At the same time, it is also–at points–sub-biblical in that I query the way in which the witness of Scripture is arranged in this confession.

Weaknesses

As mentioned above, Belhar is an extended biblical quotation. However, one of it’s weaknesses is that it’s theological framework does not align with that of classic reformed theology or the Canon of Scripture. Specifically, Belhar applies a liberationist lens. What in classic theology is said to be true of the church–both in its Old Testament and New Testament expressions–is now applied to those who suffer injustice:

We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.

Hear me well when I say that God cares for the poor, and God instructs we as the church to care for the poor as well the orphan. Scriptures doesn’t view God’s primary allegiance to those who suffer or who are oppressed. Rather, God binds himself to a people and does so by means of a covenant of grace.

Simply put, God makes a promise to Abraham that is expanded and later applied to the church: “I will be a God to you, and you shall be my people” (see Genesis 17:7). Abraham is the pioneer, if you will, the first object of God’s promise. That promise is inherited by successive offspring and then, spiritually, by the church (Gal. 3:5-9).

God cares for the poor and oppressed, but God is not the God of the poor and oppressed–he is the God of Abraham and his offspring. Indeed, the Old Testament shows that God is partial neither to the poor nor to the rich (Lev. 19:15).

This is not a weakness of the confession, per se. However, many advocates of Belhar care more for the implications of adopting it than the theological acuity of the document. Basically, Belhar is a confession that can be used to signal a progressive stance on any situation where injustice actually exists as well as where it is perceived to exist.

One of it’s principle drafters, Allen Boesak, used the confession as a foundation to argue for the normalcy of homosexual practice in the church. This is the motivation that underlies its adoption today.

As Fuller Seminary President Emeritus Rich Mouw noted,

Boesak was also instrumental in drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession, which I welcomed at the time as an important confessional statement about race relationships. He now appeals to that document in support of his advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination. In a recent insightful blog posting, “The Belhar Confession & God’s Final Revelation,” Violet Larson argues that this is a good reason to question the theological adequacy of the Belhar Confession, precisely because of the use to which it is being put these days by proponents of full inclusion on same-sex topics. I agree with her. While that document spoke forthrightly against the injustices of apartheid, it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority.

That it can now be seen by some of its drafters as capable of being extended to the full inclusion of active gays and lesbians in ministry says something about the weaknesses of Belhar—not as an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but as a statement that can stand on its own as a normative confession.

My conclusion is that Belhar’s merits are outweighed by its biblical and theological deficits. In Mouw’s words, it cannot “stand on its own as a normative confession.” I’m grateful to be serving in ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, where Belhar is not part of our confessional standards. That allows us to use it selectively and prudently rather than leaning on it as a weight-bearing element of our theological vision–something which the confession is incapable of being.

 

 

 

Therapeutic theology

June 28, 2016

What does it mean to live in a “therapeutic” culture? How does this way of life subconsciously affect our worship?
TERM TO LEARN — “Therapeutic Spirituality”
Today’s spirituality is novel in the sense that it is based upon a person’s felt needs, as opposed to an authoritative person or text. Self-expression has become the new form of worship in both traditional and innovative religious practices, rather than God forming us through worship practices. This spirituality adopts preference as a means of self-actualization (i.e. a way of becoming the fullest expression of yourself as a human being). The commitments to these preferences are deeply personal and subjective, which results in the expression, “Your own personal Jesus” who neither confronts with his transcendent ‘Otherness’ nor deals in categories of sin, hell, or judgment. Therapy as a model of spirituality has replaced traditional norms due to the secularization of culture (i.e., the cultural shift that has resulted in religious beliefs becoming wholly individualized and disassociated from the social sphere). Divine Providence over mankind has been replaced by the invisible hand of economic forces. Whereas the Almighty beneficent being was previously seen as integral to daily life and well-being, today, he is seen as a cosmic bellhop who comes at our beck and call.
With the loss of life’s ‘center’ by these competing visions of reality, faith has been left only with an interior and subjective expression which allows ‘believers’ to cope with the ‘real world’ science and technology have given them. In the face of this modern nihilism (i.e., the belief that there is no true reality beyond that which is apprehended through the senses), religion has often attempted to fill the vacuum through such therapeutic modes of expression. Even in traditional, conservative contexts orthodox worship and practice may succumb to this mode of spirituality, ultimately leaving little effect upon the practice of the worshipper or in the public square at large.
Concrete, external liturgical practices (such as the reading of the law, corporate confession, a declaration of pardon, and corporate supplication) are often displaced by personalized small groups that help believers in their life journey. This is deemed as more ‘relevant’ to the therapeutic man, and an improvement upon the ‘dead rituals’ that don’t speak to the hearts of worshippers. Worship thus becomes a therapy ‘session’ something akin to Alcoholics Anonymous, a place where kindred spirits can hear one another’s stories and help one another cope with their weaknesses and failures, rather than a place of divine judgment and salvation where sinful people meet with a holy God, and through faith in their Savior, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are forgiven for their rebellion, and comforted by the assurance of their salvation.
(Timothy W. Massaro, “Therapeutic Spirituality”) https://goo.gl/4v7AYK

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What are people for?

June 18, 2016

anscombe

What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It’s this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God of such a kind as even to be sharing in his nature, which Christianity holds out to people; and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, must be treated as precious. Its potentialities in all things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it’s for. We can’t ever know that the time of possibility of gaining eternal life is over, however old, wretched, “useless” someone has become.

G. E. M. Anscombe, “Contraception and Chastity” [link]