The Bible and America – Five Guiding Principles

America is having problems with the Bible at the moment. Political liberals and conservatives seem to be cherry picking verses in order to justify their own assumptions.

In just over a week there have been marches against the inauguration of Donald Trump, for the rights of women, for the sanctity of human life, and against Trump’s order to halt immigration from several primarily Muslim countries.

The Bible was present in all of these protests in some way, shape or form.

What do we make of this? For one thing, it goes to show that the Christian faith remains a vital part of American culture. The faith we Americans collectively espouse is, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, largely a heretical blend of Christianity, individualism, and moralism. This isn’t anything particularly new. Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity pointed out how even in the early Republic, this uniquely American blend trumped the classical Calvinism that came across with the early settlers.

Here are five guiding principles about how to employ the Bible in addressing actions taken by the government of a nation-state.

  1. The Bible is the rule of faith and practice for the Christian church. It is not, strictly speaking, binding upon the civil magistrate.
  2. The Bible does, however, point to laws of nature that are beyond it. Those laws of nature are binding upon all people everywhere. They are discoverable by the use of reason guided by tradition. However, in our current context these laws will remain disputed.
  3. The purpose of the state is to punish the evildoer and to protect its citizenry. This may include limiting refugee resettlement and immigration.
  4. In extremis, the church may petition the civil magistrate by appealing to scripture and reason. Generally speaking, however, the church’s purpose is not to be conflated with that of the government. See Westminster Confession XXXI:iv.
  5. It is an abuse of Scripture to use it in such a way as to contort it to fit a preconceived political purpose. If you wish to make a political point, make it. I’d prefer that you not cherry pick scripture in order to do it.

All this isn’t to suggest that I am in favor of the draconian measures the Trump administration has enacted (which have been blocked, incidentally, in federal court). My point is that Christians must be cautious in how we handle the Bible and apply it to policies enacted by the secular state.




the seriousness and the joy of worship

Pastoral Prayer – January 15, 2017

Gracious and Ever-living God

Thank you for welcoming us into your presence and meeting us in your Word and prayer.
We come into your presence claiming the merits of Christ alone and thank you that He is both our ransom and our surety—reconciling us to you.

We thank you that in this room we are echoing the praises of angels and archangels who with the saints that have gone before us are singing, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty: the heavens and the earth are full of your glory!” Remind us of the seriousness and the joy these moments together in your presence.

The apostle John tells us, “this is confidence we have in approaching [you]: that if we ask [you] anything according to [your] will, [you] hear us” (1 John 5:41).

We pray for those covenant children who today have received the sacrament of baptism. We pray that through the love, nurture, and instruction of their families, and by the supernatural work of your Holy Spirit, they would one day claim Christ as their own.

Help us to honor the vow we have made to assist these parents in the holy calling of making disciples of our children. May we never forget the promise we have made in your sight, to participate in the lives of these families, to offer our encouragement, to study and prepare that we may instruct these children in the faith.

We pray for the families of those members who have recently died: Helen Weaver, Mary Faith Carson, and Delight Alexis Czaplicki. Grant them your peace and the hope of life eternal after the valley of the shadow of death.

Now prepare our hearts to hear your Word as it is preached. Remind us what we believe concerning the Scriptures:

That your creation and your working in the world show your goodness, wisdom, and power, and leave us without excuse for not knowing you. Yet they are not sufficient to give us the knowledge of you and of your will that is necessary for salvation.

Open our ears to hear and gratefully receive your Word. May your Spirit convict us of our sin, lead us to change, and empower us to live faithful lives to your glory.

Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

[Updated] The glory has departed


In what is becoming a pattern across the country the Presbyterian Church (USA)–acting in and through its presbyteries, often pressured by Synod officials–is increasingly opting to hold congregations hostage rather than permit them to even consider affiliating with another denomination.

The latest instance of this is in Athens, GA where Central Presbyterian Church was informed by its presbytery that despite offering a substantial financial settlement, that governing body would not permit it to even consider departure.

As a result, the congregation was forced–as so many others have been–to defend its rights in the civil courts. Again, from first hand experience, I can tell you that there is not a sane person in the world who wants to litigate. It is always that the avenue of last resort. And it is only done when the alternatives have been exhausted.

The real question is: what is driving these actions by the Presbyterian Church USA? Why would a voluntary association wish to compel churches to remain that no longer wish to associate with it? The question is even more perplexing in the face of a proposed settlement (as in the instant case) that is more than generous to the denomination.

The answer, in many cases, falls somewhere between radical incompetence and belligerent ignorance. 

My observation is that when it acts through its courts, especially in these sorts of disputes, the Presbyterian Church USA has ceased to be a discernibly Christian body.

Personal grudges surface.

Insecurity percolates beneath the public shows of confidence.

The decisions of presbyteries and synods are, in my experience, reactionary, rooted in expediency, and designed to rally the troops around a failing institution.

In short, its Chicago politics–nasty and brutish.

The glory has departed.




The cruelty of heresy

The Anglican Fitzsimmons Allison wrote a beautifully-titled book, The Cruelty of Heresy. I haven’t read it, but the title is bewitching. It captures the moral character of heresy as well as its deleterious on true faith.


We tend to think of heresy as simply “unconventional beliefs” or “incorrect beliefs.” For others, heresy is simply about power. They write books about the documents the church kept from you or the hidden story of Jesus and his wife. Something is heresy–in this view–principally because the establishment looked down on it rather than that it is erroneous.

Heresy is more than simply wrong belief. It’s something other than establishment-quashed beliefs.

Heresy is a belief or perspective that does not accord with God’s self-disclosure in the Scripture and in the church’s theological reflection on that revelation. So, in a sense, you cannot have heresy without orthodoxy just as you cannot have a counterfeit without an original.

Heresy isn’t dangerous because its an intellectual failing. It’s dangerous because it does not comport with reality, with God himself. We have to acknowledge that all theology and all that we think about God is limited.

We don’t know God as He is in himself. We can’t climb into God’s head and know how he experiences the day. Of course, we cannot even know our wives or husbands to that extent yet we all would claim to know them.

At the same time, we do have the Bible. And we can affirm that it is contains all that is necessary to life and godliness. It contains all that we need to know about God in order to believe.

Michael Horton–one of my favorite contemporary theologians–writes  in the Wash Po about how we evangelicals should be troubled by the celebrity pastors President-Elect Trump has chosen for his inauguration:

Inaugurations are always curious rituals of American civil religion. It would not be surprising to see a non-Christian religious leader participating. But what’s problematic for me as an evangelical is how Trump’s ceremony is helping to mainstream this heretical movement.

The prosperity gospel — the idea that God dispenses material wealth and health based on what we “decree” — is not just fluff. It’s also not just another branch of Pentecostalism, a tradition that emphasizes the continuation of the gifts of healing, prophecy and tongues. It’s another religion.

Americans are optimistic. As such we can be a people who naturally gravitate to snake oil salesmen, cheerleaders who will gloss over our troubles and sin, and accentuate the positive. 

We’re happy with motivational speakers who masquerade as preachers even though God is a negotiable part of their system:

One gets the impression that God isn’t necessary at all in the system. God set up these spiritual laws and if you know the secrets, you’re in charge of your destiny. You “release wealth,” as they often put it, by commanding it to come to you. “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan,” White told a television TBN audience in 2007. Oops. It was Jesus who said “anyone who would come after me” must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

At the end of the day, the duty of the church and of her ministers is to proclaim faithfully and accurately the body of divinity (theology) that derives from Scripture. Yes, we lead. Yes, we encourage. Yes, we counsel. Yet all of these things have to be firmly rooted in and faithful to the Scriptures in order to be effective.


Salvation, sacraments, and Sunday sports


I wrote yesterday about how churches need to consider contemporary realities in the way we schedule our programs. In other words: the time, energy, and gifts and resources of families has changed significantly over the last twenty years. If churches fail to take these shifting realities seriously then our ministry will become less effective.

It might sound like I’m advocating that churches accommodate and adjust to the preferences of attenders like any business might. I don’t think that such an approach is either biblical or prudent.

No, there are certain things that churches ought to be able to expect of their members. Of course, the truth is that you cannot expect something from someone unless you first instruct them. We sometimes assume that people intuitively know what it means to become a Christian and to become a church member. That is a fatal assumption.

In a post-Christian culture people intuitively know very little about the faith, its content, its practice, and about the significance of church membership in the life of faith. People have a cultural category for, say, joining a Country Club or a Swim Club; for joining a gym or the YMCA. They carry that notion over into the life of the church, which, after all, is (in the eyes of many) another service organization rather than the very Bride of Christ.

Instruction is part of the solution to this cultural challenge, but only part.

Teaching elders, ruling elders, deacons, and other ministry leaders need to become very clear on the importance of church membership to the life of faith. 

As a Calvinist, I have a very definitive answer to why join and attend church. Those reasons come variously from the Bible, the Westminster Standards, and the great theologians of our tradition. Chief among those theologians is John Calvin, whose view of the church is significantly “higher” than many people realize.

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion. John Calvin’s approvingly uses the metaphor of mother to describe the church. The church is, according to the head of the chapter, “mother of all the Godly.”

In doing this Calvin mirrors an earlier writer, Cyprian of Carthage, who affirmed in De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.”

As children cannot become fully-formed, healthy, functioning adults without the assistance of a mother and a father, so Christians cannot come to spiritual maturity in Christ absent the ministry of the church.

Calvin refers to the ministry of pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) as helps provided by God for the nurturance and practice of true faith. These pastors and teachers are placed within an authority structure—the visible church—that is a means by which God sustains and develops Christians.

Calvin then turns to biblical examples of marriage and motherhood as analogs to the church. God has joined us to himself through the church, therefore “let not man separate” the one from the other.

So, why go to church?

If you want to be a Christian, you must be joined to the church which is itself united to Christ and draws its sustenance from him. Unless we can communicate this important element of church to ourselves, and to our people we will be lacking the foundation that undergirds all of the ways that we think and act about the church.