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.


The church’s biggest challenge

“Consider the circumstances of the average family in a local church. Families have those same four resources—time, energy, gifts and resources—but the deck is dealt very differently. A family with young children; with one or two people working; with school and associated commitments; with life-administration; who also want to have meaningful relationships within their community… People in this stage of life have extremely limited time resources, and very limited energy. Their gifts have by now emerged and been developed, and there is often now a stable income with a base for sustainable giving. But time is very precious, and every draw on that resource is a zero-sum game. It’s the same with energy. A late-night, poorly-chaired elders meeting can take literally two or three nights to recover from in terms of the sleep-debt. The weekend lie-in is a long way off. At certain stages of family life, it does not exist. Time and energy are finite resources.”

Rory Shiner [Read here]

The church’s biggest challenge isn’t maintaining buildings, meeting budgets, or communicating its existence to its community. No.

The church’s biggest challenge is scheduling.

It’s the easiest thing in the world for a church, especially a large one, to have something every night of the week.

It’s easy to have a dozen or so major ministry events spread through the year.

Roy Shiner bring up an interesting point in the blog post I linked to above:

“There is a concept in medicine called iatrogenesisIatrogenesis refers to the harm done by the healer. For example, before we knew we were supposed to wash our hands, unintended harm happened all the time. Think about that: an encounter with someone genuinely wanting to heal you often left you worse off.” [Read here]

Shiner’s question is: can the way we schedule our life as a church unintentionally harm people and hurt our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ? I think the answer has to be: yes, possibly.

He writes, “The idea that a good church member is someone who’s there every Sunday, at small group every Wednesday, and active in another area of service, is an assumption at which we need to pause. For some people, that’s a very reasonable or even light expectation. For others (let’s say, the single mother), simply to make it to three out of four Sundays is positively heroic.”

I’ve wondered this myself. Each time I lead a new member class I realize that we present to those desiring to join our church the opportunity to commit to more things than they could healthily sustain.

Because of this, we limit our explicit expectations to: (1) attending worship, (2) being part of a group, and (3) finding a way to serve inside or outside the walls of the church.

It’s not perfect, but its better than making people feel like Jesus will only be happy with them when they come to the church building every day.

I even take it a little further sometimes. I’ll often say to new members that I hope they will take one step of obedience to Christ as they join the church. That may be joining a group. It might be some other type of service. I try to start small, and then encourage growth from that point on.

My life as a patient


2017 has arrived with a whimper while 2016 has gone the way of the dodo while making a rude gesture, pneumonia.

I’m almost a week into this thing, and I’m growing tired of it.

Of all the things to get? Pneumonia? I feel like I ought to be in cottage hospital at Downtown Abbey. The doctor will have said there’s no hope for me–I should just cough my way into the world that is to come.

It’s clear to me that in Downtown, I would be the chap who mucks the stalls not the guy who drinks champagne and sleeps in the guest room. The storyline will have needed something “earthy” to balance out the sheer ebullience of life in a family that wants for nothing and managed to create a society ostensibly designed to meet its every need.

Of course life in contemporary America is nothing like, so ever now and again there needs to be a working lad thrown into the story.

Matthew Crawley’s annoying mother would, however, not permit me to shuffle off this mortal coil. Armed with some half-remembered remedy her late husband had once used, she would surreptitiously swan into my room and inject me with some unknown concoction that would, within the confines of the episode, restore me to health.

Gratefully, I would return to shoveling manure grateful that what’s her name from “the family,” had condescended to save me so that I once more might smell the sweet aroma of horse crap.

The story line would then move along to something infinitely more interesting like the seduction of the heiress by an Turkish diplomat or the delightful Maggie Smith issuing one-liners that eviscerate an opponent without seeming impolite.

I didn’t think real people got pneumonia. It’s known as “the old man’s friend,” because generally as one approaches death, pneumonia slips in and finishes the job started by some other illness.

Apparently pneumonia is typically contracted after something else, in my case the flu. Yes, 2016 really did give me a special send off didn’t it?



Does anyone else hate December?

Over the eight years since we first became parents, I have found December to be the hardest month of the year. Period.

And it’s about this time every year–that is, mid-month–that I start thinking to myself, can’t we just cut December from the calendar?


No. My middle name isn’t Ebenezer or Grinch. I really do love Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas.

It’s just that around mid-December each year a perfect storm hits my kids’ lives. The result isn’t pretty… it’s like each factor compounds with the others and right about now there’s a balloon payment due.

Three months of 8:00-4:00 schools days compounds with…
four-day, multi-hours of nightly homework sessions, and…
Three months of evening activities, some very physical, and…
Weakened immune system from sickness, and…
Short, frigid days with little sunlight, and…
Simmering excitement about a visit from St. Nick, and…

You get the picture. The most wonderful time of the year, it isn’t.

Perhaps other parents understand what I’m talking about. Perhaps we’re the only family who experiences this.

Either way–if you’re the praying sort, say a prayer for families bowing under the weight of, well, life.


How to please everyone

A colleague shared this mantra the other day: if you want to please everyone don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.


You know what? He was right.

Selling ice cream is a great way to be popular. The thing is, in the grand scheme of things, selling ice cream isn’t all that important.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ice cream; but selling it doesn’t demand much. It’s just giving people what they want.

Leadership is not giving people what they want. It isn’t telling them what they want to hear. 

Leadership is describing reality, telling the truth, and painting a picture of a preferred future.

It’s often difficult to be told the truth. It’s easier to hear what you want to hear, even if it’s untrue.

To speak the truth is often difficult. It’s easier to tell people what they want to hear, even if it’s untrue.

That’s not leadership; it’s not love. When we love a person, we tell him the truth. We needn’t be overly harsh, but we must direct.

Anything else–if we’re honest about it–betrays a self that craves approval.

No. Even when it’s hard, we tell the truth.


[Homily] Advent Hope

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:1-10


For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” And again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:4-13

 In our backyard in North Carolina we had a bunch of fruit trees—apples, pears, and peach. One of our peach trees stood at the very back of the garden. So far back that I rarely paid any attention to it. It was in a place that made it hard for me to get my lawn mower around it–especially when the tree was covered with leaves and fruit.

One day I decided to take my chainsaw to it, and turn it into firewood. I cut it all the way down to ground level–just level with the tops of the grass. I could get by with my lawn mower, and life was good.

Several months later I was mowing the grass and I noticed something. Sprouting up from the base of the cut-down tree was a young sapling. A shoot was reaching skyward—the start of a new tree was beginning. God makes new things grow out of old and broken down things.

Isaiah uses this image–the tree stump–to talk about God’s fulfillment of his promise to David, and their fulfillment in the birth of Christ.

          “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…”

King David was Jesse’s son, and David’s dynasty had come to an end. The line of David had failed—it was a cut-down tree.

Just a chapter earlier the Prophet proclaims that God had lopped down the boughs of Jerusalem with terrifying power. In exercising his judgment against Jerusalem and its King, God has brought them to nothing.

Yet, in the very next chapter we’re told that God’s plan didn’t end there. No, God was not yet finished with David’s line nor was he finished with Israel

David’s line would one day come to prominence again and Israel be restored through Jesus the Messiah who is the fresh growth, the sprout, of the lineage of David.

God had made a promise or covenant to David that he would be the Lord’s anointed and King of Israel—to that end he had been anointed by Samuel (see 1 Samuel 16:13).

Yet, David died and his lineage ended.

There are times—aren’t there—when we begin to wonder if God is really going to keep the promises that he has made to us.

It must have felt that way to Israel as they wandered in the desert for forty years.

It must have seemed that way across the 400 years of silence that elapsed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of thew New.

Yet. God always keeps his promises.

It doesn’t always seem clear when or how he will keep them, but God will keep his promises: to Israel; to the church; and to you.

Our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans both quotes the prophet, and also shows us why–at least in part–we have been given the Scriptures. We need instruction; we need encouragement; and that we need hope.

Hope comes from believing God—from saying despite appearances, what God has said is true; and God will do as He has said.

Hope springs from faith. And our faith is strengthened as we see the ways in which God was faithful to generations before us in the pages of the Scripture.

And in those same pages we are instructed in all that we need to know of God, of ourselves, and of the world.

Earlier this week my kids asked me what about Christmas makes me the most excited?

My answer was instantaneous: My favorite thing about Christmas is putting you two kids to sleep on Christmas Eve and seeing the excitement and the magic in your eyes.

In our hyper-connected, over-informed, and generally cynical world, we don’t often get to experience anything magical, mysterious, or sublime.

We ingest data packets, take our coffee on the go, and move from one thing to another with a speed that would, a century ago, have been unthinkable.

In an age of science and technology we think that “seeing is believing,” and that there is little or nothing beyond our sense perceptions.

We so often forget that we are living in a world that is charged with God’s grandeur; that is home to millions of souls that will live everlastingly; that interfaces with a spiritual realm; and whose history is moving towards the purposes God has for set for it before the foundation of the world.

We so easily forget that Advent and Christmas are a profound part of God’s working in our world and in our lives—it’s the story that stands behind the story of our world and of our lives. At Christmas, the edge is peeled back and we get to see something of how God is at work in our world. Let’s pay attention for the magic.

And May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.