Reformed Catholicity

“Though this would perhaps come as a surprise to many in Britain, this tradition [the Dutch Calvinist tradition from Kuyper to Dooyeweerd] remains quite powerfully alive in the United States (for example, in the influential “Reformed epistemology” movement associated with Plantinga and Wolterstorff), and it has of course always constituted the main background ideology of InterVarsity [Christian] Fellowship, a movement that has shown increasing sophistication in recent years.”

-John Milbank, “Foreward” to James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

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Some thoughts on gun control

I have never owned a gun nor have I lived in a house with a gun. I’m uncomfortable with guns as a general rule. That’s not to say I’ve never fired one, but I think the largest rifle I’ve ever fired is a .22–not a terribly powerful rifle.

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As our society tries to process the terrible tragedy that happened in Aurora last week, many will point claim that an armed civilian or police officer would have been able to protect the crowd. That’s probably true. After the first several seconds, this was a fairly unambiguous event. There was a room full of people. There was a deranged man in a gas masked popping tear gas and firing weapons at the front of the room. Clearly, in this situation an armed civilian who could have disabled the shooter would have been a good thing.

The reality is, however, that if you own a firearm you will rarely (if ever) find yourself in a similarly unambiguous situation. Most of the time you will find yourself in a very ambiguous situation. You hear a noise at night and go to investigate. Someone approaches you in what you perceive to be an aggressive or suspect manner. From there, the situation escalates and you find yourself in some version of the George Zimmerman’s nightmare or worse, like Treyvon Martin–dead.

I can’t tell you what the “Christian” thing to do is. I can tell you that because of the ambiguity inherent in the vast majority of threatening situations and because (out of personal conviction) I do not wish to risk killing even those who may assail me, I will not now or ever own a gun. The message I received growing up in the UK, and still believe, is that if you wish to fire a gun–join the army.

The long defeat

I am periodically asked: why do you remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? For some it’s an honest question. Others ask it with the ulterior motive of expressing their disapproval of my denominational home–an implied judgment. If I’m honest, I periodically pose the same question of myself. My answers are not uniformly affirmative. I have periodic moments of severe malaise where it seems that the weight of our faithlessness is more than I can bear.

One of the realities that helps me to stay is my Augustinian understanding of history. My understanding of the story of the world, and of the church in it, is profoundly shaped by the presence of human sin. With J. R. R. Tolkien, I understand the unwinding history of the race of humanity to be something of a “long defeat.” Things will get a lot worse before they get better. Wrote Tolkien,

“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Don’t get me wrong, there was no utopian age in which the Christian church existed as heaven on earth. A straightforward reading of the Epistles is enough to suggest that the Christian church has been dysfunctional at least since Pentecost. The church has ever and always existed in a fallen world and consisted of fallen men and women. Assurances that the Holy Spirit is perennially “doing a new thing” aside, there is a remarkable consistency to the brokenness and failure of the visible church.

We are in the midst of a story that has to get worse before it gets better–a tragicomedy–a happy ending arising from a story marked by suffering and decline. This stands at odds with the triumphal assertion of progressive Christians who believe that they can usher in utopia through structural change. It stands at odds with the classic evangelical belief that simply by saving people we can change the world–one person at a time.

Tolkien’s phrase captures a certain bleakness–a constant awareness that despite winning (church or governmental) elections or changing (church or civil) laws or even redefining things like marriage to make them more inclusive–sin will remain constant until the day when its death is made complete and the eschatological kingdom of God is inaugurated.

The thinking of many friends who have left the PC(USA) is that they could not, in good conscience, be part of a church that has compromised the Good News of Jesus Christ. I’m profoundly sympathetic to their contention and, at times, find it very compelling. However, at the end of the day, I find myself coming back to Tolkien’s little phrase, “the long defeat.”

Let’s be honest, the church often screws things up. Here’s a little secret–all of our screw ups are not distant history. Some of them are happening right now.

I don’t think that the purity of the church is a small matter. However, history gives me little reason to believe that simply being faithful or orthodox will mean being victorious in church disputes or cultural disagreements. Far from it.

As the story of the world unwinds, the voice of faithfulness will likely be still and small rather than grandiose or esteemed. It will likely be ignored or derided–part of the judgment coming on the world for its foolishness. What is true in the world, is true in our church. As a result, unless and until I am instructed to go; I will stay and perform small acts of faithfulness and seek to model fidelity to the vows I have taken.

Growing your faith through catechesis

Catechesis is an on-going discipline necessary for growth in godliness. Many people, however, hear the word and associate it with kids–it’s something done in order to prepare for admission to the Lord’s Supper as communing members.* Our congregation uses a version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has been designed for use in instructing children. This is a wonderful approach and it has much to commend it, but it needs to be supplemented.

It’s weakness is that it assumes a linear progression from child to adolescent to adult in the same church. That is no longer a realty for many Christians. Most people change churches with alarming regularity, which demonstrates not that doctrine is unimportant but that being the church requires more than doctrinal orthodoxy.

As a result we need to reconsider how we train and form adult believers in the Christian faith, remembering that ultimately doctrine (in it’s purest expression) is not academic speculation, but an attempt to make sense of the Christian experience in light of self-disclosure of God in the Scriptures. In this sense, instruction in doctrine is as much spiritual formation as walking a labyrinth praying the Jesus prayer, perhaps more.

Here are seven theses about the place, role, and content of adult catechesis in reformed churches:

  1. The word “catechesis” should probably not be used–it’s alien to most contemporary people and sounds sort of surgical.
  2. The purpose of learning the content of faith is more, though not less than, learning the content of the classical theological expression of the Holy Catholic Church (generally) and the tradition (particularly) of which you are a part.
  3. This learning should begin with the content of the Grand Tradition–the expressions of the Christian faith held in common by all churches (the Ecumenical Creeds).
  4. It should progress to the specific major doctrines held by the particular denomination of which you are a part, but should be done with civility and generosity for those churches which disagree.
  5. It should ideally take place in community and with the opportunity for casual discussion.
  6. Doctrine should frequently be connected to its ramifications to the life of the Christian–doctrine has an essentially pastoral function after all.
  7. Instruction, in some form or fashion, ought to be strongly encouraged for all members of the church (and a prerequisite for membership) and required for all officers (whether elders or deacons).
  8. If any drafters of the catechism or confession is alive, it should not be used.

How were you instructed in the content of the faith? How does you present congregation tackle the need to form our hearts and minds around the content of the faith?

*In many presbyterian churches all children of members are baptized and considered non-communing members until they complete confirmation.

Why introverts make great pastors

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

Our culture struggles to recognize the value of introverted people. Church, especially, can be a difficult place for introverted people to feel valued. I know. I’m an introvert in ministry. To some people the idea that someone who derives strength from solitude could be a minister beggars belief. Introverts are fine, they think, we just don’t want one as our pastor. There are two reasons that this is wrongheaded. First, it confuses introverted with being socially awkward. Second, it ignores the fact that much of great pastoral value is done or created in isolation (think, prayer and study). I think it’s time to embrace a deeper vision for pastoral ministry–one that places a higher value on prayer, study, and thoughtful leadership.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds us that the body of Christ (the Church) is complex organism, a complicated family, that exists and carries out its mission under the headship of Jesus. Paul points out that Christians are given a variety of spiritual gifts, each for the building up of the body. Introversion is, in many ways, a gift although it doesn’t show up in our traditional “spiritual gifts inventories” and isn’t listed as such in Scripture.

Being introverted means being oriented toward the the inner life. It doesn’t mean socially awkward any more than being an extravert means being an annoying lip-flapper. It simply means that social interactions are depleting and that in order to experience rejuvenation, an introvert will enjoy quiet time in isolation.

There are at least three reasons that you should consider calling an introverted minister:

  1. Introverted people often naturally enjoy the disciplines necessary for effective pastoring. Prayer and reflection come naturally to many introverts as well as study. The notion that pastoring exclusively involves “quasi-therapeutic” relationships with parishioners is something of modern invention and it is ultimately detrimental to the health of a congregation. Study and preaching is as pastoral an act as counseling. Parishioners need pastors who will proclaim the Gospel faithfully from Scripture and model engagement with the Scripture just as much (and perhaps more) than they need a “listening ear.” They also need pastors who pray and who envision prayer as one of their central callings–just as the Apostles did in Acts (“the ministry of the Word and prayer”).
  2. Introverted people are able to offer insight into difficult situations. Since introverts draw strengths from quiet thought, they have greater opportunity to mull over a problem and engage it from different angles, which very often produces effective ways to address it. It’s worth noting that there is often no relationship between the quality of an idea and the willingness of its proponent to dominate the conversation.
  3. Introverts are often effective leaders who deliver consistently excellent results. Since introverts tend to think before they speak, they leave room for others to contribute ideas. Effective answers and quality strategies are often the result of an assortment of ideas from a variety of people. Spiritual leadership, especially in the presbyterian context, requires a plurality of elders who together guide and shepherd the congregation. There is no solo CEO pastor in Scripture. Instead there is a group of elders, qualified both by their manner of life and their spiritual maturity, who share in the work of pastoring the congregation. 
If you want to read more on the topic, I recommend Adam McHugh’s excellent book, Introverts in the Church.

Hearts and minds on fire

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

Lauren Winner is interviewed at Comment, a journal of Cardus (a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture). It’s an interview that’s worth reading. I’ll pull out some highlights below. Thanks to Andy Byers (@Byers_Andy) for the link.

Two Qualities of a minister…

 I teach future pastors at a divinity school because I believe that thinking well matters—I want my students’ future congregations to be guided by pastors who know how to think clearly, think well about (among other things) theology, politics, and history.

-Lauren F. Winner

Two qualities ought to be present and mutually-reinforcing in a minister: vital piety and a well-formed mind.

Parts of the church have elevated piety and made it to stand alone. A heart of fire is enough for these people, and they do not trust the mind. Others have emphasized the life of the mind and have come to distrust the heart.

In reality the two must go together–a heart burning with love to God and others as well as a keen mind with which one worships God and seeks to know God through His self-disclosure in Scripture. 

Five books you should read…

Reading is indispensable for those in leadership, especially for those whose leadership is in the church. Guiding a community of people is a complicated task at the best of times, especially when that group of people are “strangers and aliens” in the midst of a culture that no longer (if it ever really did) understands its story in the story of God.

The minister has an essential task of being rooted in the redemptive history of God and, at the same time, interpret and apply that story to a people who are also located in the world (which has a competing story). It’s impossible to do either of these things without reading. The Biblical world requires both knowledge and understanding. The contemporary world also requires hermeneutical skill and tools. The minister is, as John Stott’s book puts it, between two worlds.

In what ways do you think it important for ministers to be trained?

Don Quixote de la Vanderbilt

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

They’re tilting at windmills again! Thirteen campus ministries are continuing their attempt to get Vanderbilt to reverse its decision to implement an all-comers policy for determining qualification to lead a student organization. As I understand it, the policy prohibits religious groups from using religious criteria to select their leaders. It has effectively revoked university recognition for more than ten student groups.

The saga continued this week with the publication of an Open Letter to the university. Personally, I have never seen the point of Open Letters (but that’s just me). Here it is:

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It is challenging to believe that university will reverse itself based on this letter. Parents, alumni, and donors of the university have expressed concern over the policy–to now avail. The Tennessee legislature passed a bill threatening state funding to the university. They had their bluff called by the university aided by the Governor who (not unreasonably) vetoed the bill.

Do InterVarsity, et al, really believe that they can prevail against an institution with the money, influence, and time that Vanderbilt enjoys (the university has the money and influence to outlast a protest movement)?

I haven’t the faintest idea. However, I do know a couple of things.

  • First, it is never wrong to fight for what is right though it may cost a great deal.
  • Second, truth is stronger that falsehood. Regardless of the outcome truth will, in the end, prevail.
  • Third, the Christian God specializes in using the marginal to overcome the powerful, using folly to outsmart the wise, and using the weak to defat the strong.

I guess that means that, in the end, the Don Quixotes of Vanderbilt have more going for them than one might think.

Gay Marriage 2 – The case for


This post is part two of a four part series on the issue of gay marriage prompted by the upcoming vote here in North Carolina on a constitutional amendment intending to define marriage as between a man and a woman. For my introductory post go here. Tomorrow I will post a case against gay marriage. Later this week I will post about my convictions on this matter. Oh…my lawyer asked me to direct your attention to my disclaimer.

A couple of notes…

In this post I will make an explicitly Christian case for allowing (or at least not objecting to) the state recognizing gay marriages and/or civil unions. Note that this is only a version of the Christian case, I am not claiming that it is the only case and by writing it I am not claiming that this is my conviction. It is simply my attempt to think through the issue using my own presuppositions as a reformed evangelical Christian.

Here we go…

There are several justifications a reformed evangelical Christian person could point to in order to support (or at least not object to) the state’s recognition of gay marriage–I have chosen to limit myself to three.

  • The distinction between the church and the civil authorities.

Sphere sovereignty – the principle of sphere sovereignty (developed by Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper) holds that each sector of society has its own particular and peculiar duties and responsibilities, and each sector is has its own integrity apart from the others. Each sector (the family, business, the church, government) ought to limit its role to the part of creation it is responsible for.

One way to apply this principle to the case in point, granted not the only way and perhaps a corruption of the principle’s original intent, would be to argue that often (not always) marriage has two actors (it co-mingles the church and the state) in a single act.

Church and state should be differentiated in the act of marriage such that the government could (as it does already) recognize a marriage independent of sanction by the church (as in when a marriage is conducted by a judge). Separating church and state involvement makes broadening the definition of marriage much more sensible, if not palatable.

Why? Because the separation of the two authorities exposes a definitional problem. Increasingly society answers the question “what is marriage?” in a way that is distinct from procreation (perhaps the single greatest argument to bar same sex marriage). Where marriage is defined as a way to give tangible expression to love and love is defined in first person terms (i.e., what fulfills me) the state (the electorate) has little reason to object to the broadening of marriage.

In fact, the broadening of marriage may even be seen as a good in that it provides legal protections for more people and creates greater social stability. Not to mention, any argument to limit marriage would need to appeal to arguments not explicitly Christian in nature (since the government is not the church and ought not to rely upon theological rationale for its policy decisions). Using the definition of marriage found above it is difficult to find a non-Christian argument against allowing same sex unions/marriage–perhaps not impossible, but probably not terribly compelling to society at large.

Spirituality of the church. This is a peculiarly Presbyterian and American (especially Southern) way of understanding the relationship of the church to civil society (in some ways it is similar to the concept of sphere sovereignty). This view emphasizes the differentiation between the roles and responsibilities of the church and state.

The church is concerned with matters “spiritual” and the state is concerned with matters “secular” and “civil.” The church shouldn’t wander into secular and civil matters even as the government ought to restrain itself from intervening in matters of theology or spirituality.

Insofar as one sees marriage as something that the church does and that the state does, those holding consistently (rather than selectively) to the spirituality of the church would hold strong views about the theological integrity of gay marriage (or lack thereof), but would likely conclude that the state ought to be free to regulate and expand (if it wishes) marriage beyond its traditional form.

Note: the doctrine of the spirituality of the church had, I understand, a great deal to do with the Southern church’s reticence to become involved in the Civil Rights movement. Rights, so it would seem, are a secular and civil matter which could lead Christians to be as politically uninvolved in this issue they are perceived to have been in the Civil Rights movement.

  • The principle of hospitality. 

Throughout the Old Testament we see a principle of hospitality to the alien and the outsider as a prevalent theme. Some Christians might draw a parallel between Gentiles in ancient Hebrew society and those whose sexual identity is other than heterosexual. Such a person may not believe that homosexual relationships are good, right, or ideal, but at the same time wish to be generous in extending to someone in a class of people often treated poorly by parts of our society the right to express their love through the legal act of marriage.

  • The principle of accommodation.

Why do we recognize divorce? Is it not because we recognize that our world is not a utopia (we’re east of Eden). Divorce, in the Biblical witness, is an accommodation on the part of God to the hard-heartedness of humanity. Might we consider same sex marriage as a similar accommodation? We might think that same sex attraction and homosexuality are not good or right, but as a practical matter we often make provision for the less than ideal. Is same sex marriage part of this category?

At least in the case that I’ve outlined here, the Christian case for gay marriage rests heavily on drawing a distinction between the purpose of the church and the purpose of the state. To reiterate, I have tried to limit my case to exclusively Christian beliefs or ideas and not appealed to sources like the U.S. Constitution, etc.

These are my thoughts…what are yours?

Gay marriage 1 – an intro

Next month the people of the state of North Carolina will have the opportunity to vote on a Constitutional amendment that will define marriage as between a man and a woman. This issue is exposing cultural fault lines in North Carolina and dividing what is commonly known as a “red state.”

In this post and the next I will offer two arguments: one will be the Christian case against allowing the state to recognize same sex unions/marriages; the other will be the Christian case for allowing the state to recognize such unions.

Notice the phrasing these two sentences. I will in neither case be arguing that Christian churches should recognize or solemnize unions between two people of the same sex. I am of the conviction that a Biblical case cannot be made for expanding the definition of marriage beyond the marriage of a man and a woman. We may argue about the evolution of the meaning of marriage or the rights enjoyed by the husband and wife, but what cannot be argued is that marriage has ever included more than one person of the same sex–in polygamy, for example, a husband has multiple wives, but those wives have a single husband (not a husband and a series of wives).

Nor will I be discussing the specific language of the proposed amendment. Several voices have made the case have been made that the language of the proposed amendment is overly broad and will reach beyond the actual intent of the drafters (to adversely affect existing domestic violence laws). This is worth considering, but not in these two posts.

Monday I will post a Christian case in favor of state recognition of gay marriage, and on Tuesday I will post a Christian case opposing such state recognition. Notice that I have used the qualifier “Christian.” I am writing as a Christian minister and as a Christian voter. I believe my calling as both is to think Christianly on a topic as significant as the ordering of our society. While I may touch on issues like the purpose or nature of the law, my chief concern is to root my comments in the tradition of the Church’s reflection on Scripture.

I invite your civil comments and interactions around these two posts and the issue in general. Any incivil comments will be moderated and removed from the blog. Thanks for playing nicely!

Note: I will try to link to appropriate articles or posts either in my own posts or in a separate post providing resources for a Christian discussion of this issue.

The infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture

“The best way to look at these words [“infallibility” and “inerrancy”] is to see them as essentially juridical. The Bible is the written constitution of the church and must be interpreted as such. Its authority is absolute, and therefore it is both infallible and inerrant as far as the life of the church is concerned. No Christian preacher or teacher has any right to distort or minimize its teaching, and every word in it must be carefully weighed and its meaning considered. We do not have to worry if some parts of it (such as the Old Testament food laws) are no longer immediately applicable today, because that is often true of human laws as well.”

-Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic TheologyCrossway, 2012: 56.