Are there really two marriages? (Part Two)

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Yesterday I rehearsed Jones’s historical and theological objections to the connivance of state and in marriage. I will argue today that Jones fails to recognize that marriage is, for the Christian, necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world:

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….Marriage matters because we are embodied and what we do with our body matters.

The church has affirmed over the centuries—almost with no exception—that marriage exists not only for the mutual aid and comfort of husband and wife, but also for the procreation of children.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”[1]

We’d likely all agree that a marriage may be legitimate without children being born to the couple—having children does not a marriage make. However, it is a relatively recent innovation to believe that childbearing and marriage are totally unrelated.

Jones seeks to trace the changing nature of matrimony as grounds for a continued development of marriage to include same-sex couples. For example, in the ancient world marriage was simply the exchange of property with the consequent production of progeny.

Today marriage has become simply, “formalizing and cementing a romantic attraction.” It is emphatically not about having children. If it were, we would not allow “celibate, infertile, post-menopausal, non-producing” people to be legally married.

The reference is to restrictions on marriage, principally state laws that forbid consanguinity but that fail to forbid marriage between people unable to conceive. To derive a mandate for the church simply by the absence of state law on the matter is not a terribly good way to do affirmative theology.

As a pastor, were a couple to ask me to marry them and state up front that they would not be sexually intimate with one another nor would they even consider attempting to conceive, I would likely not marry them. Marriage is intrinsically linked with both sexual intimacy and with procreation. That some are unable to conceive doesn’t invalidate the rule, rather it’s the exception that proves it.

In all, Jones fails to build a compelling case for changing the nature and definition of marriage either in the state or in the church. He assumes that since people will always be gay—which is true—we should incentivize gay monogamy in the context of marriage. On the surface this may appear sound. However, Jones’s contention fails to consider that in the Christian view it is not simply that homosexual polyamory is wrong, but that all homosexual practice is not only inconsistent with Christian holiness, and is detrimental to human wholeness. To change marriage means more than “live and let live,” it necessarily encourages destructive behavior and, moreover, will inevitably lead to restrictions on religious groups that fail to recognize the appropriateness of same sex marriage.

[1] Book of Common Prayer

The dangerous work of ministry

The way I was going about doing the work of God was destroying the work of God in me.  -Anonymous Pastor

I love pastors. Really. Yes, I know that in our current moment it is more hip to be cynical of religious institutions and to reject the notion of religious authority. I get it. And I admit that there have been people and events and trends that perhaps give some justification to this cynicism. At the same time, I know too many pastors.

Many people only know a succession of ministers who serve their church as pastors over the years–they come and then they go. Some linger longer than others, but eventually they move on. There’s a tradition in presbyterian pastoral ministry of virtually renouncing all contact with members of a prior congregation once a pastor leaves. In some ways it makes sense, but it also means that few parishioners retain any contact with ministers who aren’t their pastor.

It’s easy to misunderstand people we don’t really know and whose lives we really don’t get. Of course, it gets complicated when we’re talking about pastors–especially, your pastor. It would be weird to ask her, “So…what’s it really like serving us?”

What seems a weird question for an individual to pose is actually a very appropriate question for a session and personnel committee to ask. Here’s the bottom line: the work of ministry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to use “god” to run from God. We can easily employ busyness in god-work and god-talk as a substitute for an on-going transformative relationship with God in Christ.

Ministers need the support of their congregations to really flourish in their work, and the session has to be an ally and advocate in creating a culture of appropriate clergy care.

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Ironically, churches sometimes believe that they’ll “get more for their money” if they drive their pastors harder. Preach more sundays. Do more visits. Be available in the office during business hours. Attend meetings on week nights, do funerals and weddings on saturday, and get to the church building at 6am Sunday morning to lead an exciting and life-changing encounter with the living God at 8:30 and 11:00.

None of these is a bad thing. In fact, one or two weeks as above is probably okay. What’s not okay, however, is expecting the above schedule to be the normal routine. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. In the end, both the church and the pastor will pay a steep price.

How to train key leaders as disciples and leaders

Last week I joined staff and area directors from sixteen campuses, along with our executive coaches, for training in ministry building. It was the best training of my ministry career. One of the things that made it powerful was the synergy that emerged from sharing the experience with one of my direct reports and our coach. All told, we spent more than 40 hours together face to face, which is more than we’d normally get in an academic year.

Key to the training is a tool—we received more than thirty tools over the week—called the “discipleship cycle.” It’s illustrated below. The discipleship cycle is the most effective way to both guide Christians in maturing as followers of Christ, but at the same to move them along a continuum of leadership development as well.

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“Hear the Word” – Through prayer, scripture, and in shared discernment, we come to agreement on what God is asking us to do. It may be agreeing to reach out to three people whom God has brought to mind. It may be taking the risk to approach another graduate student and encourage him in his faith. It could be any number of things.

“Respond actively” – When God leads us to do something—regardless of what it is—we respond actively. Hopefully out active response is also a full response rather than a marginal effort.

“Debrief and interpret” – This is critical to growth both as a leader and as a disciple. In community with another, we consider what God asked us to do and how we responded to his invitation. How did we feel? What was the outcome? What did we like about the experience? What was uncomfortable? What held us back from full obedience? You get the idea.

 

Asking questions is an incredibly fruitful way of coming to understand another. Answering questions is also an incredibly rich way to come to understand ourselves. Put these together with a trusted guide or coach who can, in reliance on God, attempt to bring some degree of interpretation to the experience and the combination is dynamite.

What’s so beautiful about this approach is that it can be deployed quite easily and naturally throughout the day and even a brief five minute encounter can become a micro-seminar with a very concrete, very particular lesson.

During the week, we used this tool and I found that it forced me to stop, consider the action or goal I had undertaken, evaluate my response to it, and then connect the two in the company of a coach who could help by clarifying, observing, and interpreting.

What tools do you use to help train followers of Christ as leaders?

 

 

 

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.

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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?

Five reasons the church should care about the arts

The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.

It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
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Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:

  1. Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
  2. Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
  3. Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
  4. Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.” 
  5. Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.

Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.

Your guide to pastoral facial hair…

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Facebook is a treasure trove of graphics, many of them pretty crappy. However, this little gem stands out! It’s masterful–I can think of at least one person I currently know who approximates each of these, except perhaps the angry whiskers.

Which one’s your favorite?

 

What is a pastor?

This week I’m in Madison, WI for InterVarsity’s annual leadership meetings. This year we’ve been hearing from Dr. Dan Meyer, Senior Pastor of Christ Church, Oak Brook (IL). Dan is the co-author of the IVP book, Leadership Essentials. In this morning’s session, Meyer quoted Augustine, the fifth century Bishop of Hippo on the role of the minister. It’s one of my favorite quotes on ministry.

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“Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with and all are to be loved.” -Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

This is a tall order, isn’t it? As I reflected on Augustine’s words I was reminded that in order to come anywhere close to doing this list requires that a pastor be–before all things–a saint, someone who is holy. Consider your pastors, are you giving them time, opportunity, and encouragement to become holier? I sometimes wonder whether the relative weakness of the American church has been caused by the relative functional godlessness of many of our leaders.

What needs to change in order to better facilitate godly leadership?

The Celtic Way of Evangelism – A Review

George G. Hunter, III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. 10th rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010). 130pp.

A single question is central to the mission of the local congregation: how can we translate the gospel message for our context? The answer to this question will have implications for every part of our life together. It will influence our discipleship, and it will shape our engagement with our city.

The last sixty years have witnessed significant change in American society. In 1953 few would have anticipated an African American President, the legalization of same sex marriage in several state, or the church being moved to the margins of society. Yet, these are the days we have been given and our commission is to faithfully and effectively communicate the gospel in this new milieu.

George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism offers insight into how the Christian community can engage these new realities. To do so he draws on the Irish mission work of Saint Patrick, a British Christian who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. He escaped and years later returned to engage in a highly effective apostolic mission to the land of his captivity.

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Hunter provides a significant amount of historical background that helps the reader come to know Patrick as well as the key distinctions between the Celtic and the Roman expressions of the Christian faith.

This book does not contain a strategy so much as express a vision of what the Christian community can be, and must be, in order to do effective mission in our post-Christendom culture. Hunter identifies ten characteristics of Celtic Christianity the translate to characteristics of effective missional communities today. I will highlight four: contact, community, contextualization, and conversation.

Conversion almost always happens in the context of a relationship (i.e., contact) with both an individual Christian and a community of Christians. Authentic, trusting friendship with a Christian is often a key avenue through which the Holy Spirit draws a not-yet Christian into the kingdom. Relationships–with all that is entailed with sustaining them–were central to the Celtic way of evangelism. Are you intentionally nurturing an authentic friendship with a not-yet Christian?

A unique understanding of community marked the Celtic approach to mission–belonging preceded believing. Celtic communities were hospitable to people, encouraging them to become a part of the community without the expectation that they change in order to be welcome. This is an echo of the gospel–God doesn’t require us to change before he welcomes us. Instead, he welcomes us in order to change us. As a church, are we welcoming strangers and people who aren’t like us? Or, do we inwardly expect people to change (learn “Christian etiquette) before they become part of our community?

Christian missiologist David Bosch informs us, “the Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated’ into a culture.” The job of the church is to work to effectively and faithfully ‘translate’ the message so that it can be heard by the members of our culture, one in which the Christian worldview is no longer ascendent. At the very least the work of contextualization requires taking seriously the changes in assumptions that are now evident in culture. For one, there is no longer an assumption that everyone ought to at least publicly give lip service to the Judeo-Christian ethics. If we start by assuming traditional ethics, our witness to the gospel will go nowhere fast.

Celtic Christianity placed a high value on conversation as opposed to presentation. Conversation is bilateral; presentation is unilateral. The ministry of conversation is central to becoming a new creation in Christ since we encounter the gospel most fully through relationships. Conversation is also significant for discipleship. Celtic Christianity emphasized the role of “spiritual friends” as companions as we follow the way of Christ–people who help us to live out the message in the midst of the realities of life in a broken world.

The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a helpful book that offers much to prayerfully consider as we collectively try to discern what it means both to love God ourselves and to lead our city to God as well.