Up and Coming Apologist to Speak on Islam at our Church!

This coming Sunday, Feb 9th, First Presbyterian Church, Edmond, OK (where I pastor) will be hosting a fascinating speaker in our morning worship services and an afternoon seminar. Nabeel Qureshi, formerly a devout Muslim, will be speaking on the theme “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.”

Coming from a long line of Muslim leaders and apologists, Nabeel sought to continue this defense of Islam as well as to become a medical doctor. The latter goal he accomplished, graduating with an MD from Eastern Virginia Medical School. But in 2005, he gave up Islam to become a follower of Jesus Christ, causing great consternation in his extended family. We are excited to hear Nabeel’s testimony, and to learn of the evidences which convinced him to take this often dangerous and certainly life-changing step of leaving Islam to become a Christian. Such radical changes are not undertaken lightly, and I am sure that all who hear Nabeel will find both strength and challenge in his presentations.

All are welcome this Sunday to hear Nabeel, either at our 8:15 or 11 AM service, and then again for his afternoon seminar from 4-6 PM. Q&A time will be especially lively, I should think. Nabeel has guest lectured at a number of U.S. universities, and participated in 17 moderated, public debates in the U.S., Europe and Asia concerning Islam and Christianity. He is particularly adept in the areas of the foundations of the Christian faith and the early history and teachings of Islam. I have seen Nabeel in action, and am deeply impressed with his grasp of the Quran and Hadith traditions, as well as with contemporary Muslim devotional practices.

If you have any interest in such topics and are within driving distance of Edmond, please avail yourself of this opportunity to benefit from the ministry of a rising Christian voice in the field of Muslim apologetics. I’m definitely looking forward to it!

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What Can Sister Sledge Teach Us About Islam and Christianity?

With regard to ultimate truth, there cannot be a positive without a corresponding negative.

Every enduring religion distinguishes itself by its unique claims to ultimate truth.  If its central beliefs were common to itself and another religion, then it would cease to be a religion standing on its own. Instead, it would be simply a minor “variation on a theme” — what we would call denominations or sects.

I point this out to highlight the futility of trumpeting what competing religions hold in common (and yes, I use the word “competing” intentionally, because every religious or philosophical world view denies that others “get it right” in the ways that matter most).

To politically correct ears, it sounds appealing to seek the common ground between opposing systems of thought.  And certainly this is important when attempting to live in peace with those of different convictions.  Yet when it comes to seeking ultimate truth, settling for the lowest common denominator is a waste of time.  What matters is a discussion of the competing truth claims, wherein one can weigh the positive, unique claims of each religion. 

For example, let me compose a list of 10 areas of common ground between Christianity and Buddhism:

1) Both were founded by thoughtful individuals;

2) Both recognize that worldly pursuits will not lead to fullness of life;

3) Both agree that human suffering is caused in large measure by wrongful attachment to things and relationships.

4) Both religions are reform movements, Christianity of Judaism and Buddhism of Hinduism;

5) Both Jesus and the Buddha practiced meditation;

6) Both teach that wrongful actions have consequences;

7) Both call their adherents to speak and act in truth, non-harmful ways to others;

8) Both believe that all human being inherently seek happiness;

9) Both believe that ignorance is a great impediment to spiritual growth;

10) Both agree that life in this world is always evanescent.

11) (Bonus points) Both commend prayer, bowing, sacrifice, pilgrimage, fasting, etc., as regular spiritual practices of adherents.

So, what do you really learn about each religion that is useful? Would a Christian say that this list presents what is at the heart of orthodox Christianity?  Hardly.  Would a Buddhist tout this list as a fair reflection of Buddhism? No way.  So what have we accomplished?  Perhaps we have made ourselves feel better that we have some bridges to walk over together, even though they won’t get us very far on the road to truth.  Perhaps, if we are feeling apologetic or ashamed of our own religion’s bold and exclusive truth claims, we can squirrel those away behind the smokescreen of what we believe in common.  In the end, though, the exercise of promoting what we have in common with other religions in leaves us with a false syncretism that does injustice to the unique convictions of each religion.

Back in May, during a weekend men’s conference I taught a seminar entitled “10 Ways That Jesus Outshines Muhammad.” It was a clear, well-documented presentation that received much attention and positive response.  Recently I learned that a Presbyterian minister (Mr. Matt Curry) who attended the conference but did not come to my seminar was apparently unhappy with my focus highlighting differences between the two religions.  Unhappy enough to write a blog about it soon after the conference end — “10 Areas of Common Ground Between Muslims, Christians.”

His contention? “…knowing that Christians are called to live in peace with everyone to the best of our abilities (Romans 12:18) and coming from a theological perspective seeking positives instead of negatives, I began to wonder if I could make a list highlighting common ground.” Apparently, my negativity needed to be countered by his positivity. The problem is, only the most grossly self-evident statements are free from the need for many qualifications. A couple of his common agreements are actually incorrect.

I won’t bore you with a full analysis, but let me offer some salient points to drive home the truth that we learn most about what others believe when we do a “compare and contrast” that is fair to both sides..

His first point of common ground: Muslims and Christians both bear the image of God.  From a Judeo-Christian point of view, this is accurate.  However, Muslims do not believe that human beings are created in the image of God — in fact, such a statement verges on blasphemy since God is wholly other.  Mankind bears no special likeness to God.  Hence in this statement, Mr. Curry misrepresents Islam in seeking to create common ground.  His approach is naively “bibliocentric,” and hardly politically correct. 

Second, God plays no favorites, hence none of us can speak from a position of superiority but only seek understanding from the Light we have been given. This sounds good, until Christians declare that Christ is the Light of the world, and the Bible is the unique, infallible revelation of God that points us to Jesus. Muslims counter with the unyielding claim that the Quran is composed of the literal words of God, spoken to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.  Both groups claim to speak from the platform of God’s revelation, which privileges their declarations over those of anyone holding to a different authority.

Third, Muslims and Christians both acknowledge they are sinners, we are told.  But for Muslims, sin is basically seen as forgetfulness of God’s sovereignty through neglect of His commands. There is nothing so serious as to demand atonement. God simply forgives or doesn’t according to His will.  No mediator, no sacrifice, no cross, only reminders not to forget God in the future. For Christians, sin is an irreparable breach in relationship with God, irreparable from the human side, but covered from the divine side by the atonement of the Son of God on behalf of helpless sinners.  It is true that both religions speak of sin; but what they mean by it is discovered only by contrast, not by common verbalizing of the word.

I could go on, but you get the point. Well, let me give one more statement of common ground, only because it makes me smile. Mr Curry in statement #5 says, “Like Christianity, Islam has many different interpretations.”  Now that’s something we can really sink our teeth into.  Except that one could substitute any religion or serious work of thought for “Islam” and say the same thing. “Like Christianity, the Constitution has many different interpretations…, the Law of Maritime Admiralty…, the PCUSA Book of Order…, voodoo…, European Union common law…, The Iliad and the Odyssey…. 

Finding common ground is certainly essential when one is trying to build relationships, but not when trying to discern unique truth claims or to test them.  Then it is crucial to do the hard work of uncovering the real meanings of words and practices rather than skimming along on surface appearances while humming “We Are Family” with Sister Sledge.

 

 

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“At the Next Available Exit, Please Make a U-Turn”

Most new cars come equipped now with a GPS mapping system. We’re all familiar with those voices which prompt us to make the appropriate adjustments in our driving to get us to the destination we’ve entered into the unit. All too often, when I’ve gotten lost, I’ve heard this embarrassing refrain, “At the next available exit, make a U-turn.” When I’m not too stubborn, I usually obey.

Metaphorically, I see my writings concerning the PCUSA (and other mainline denominations) as one of those GPS voices. The destination for the church has been plugged in by the Scriptures and our confessional documents, but for a long time now, the drivers have been ignoring the suggestions given to keep them going in the right direction, and are so lost they are headed away from their intended destination. Much of my blogging could be summed up with the exhortation, “At the next available exit, please make a U-turn.” Those in the driver’s seat are so tired of hearing this that they have turned off the GPS, or just tuned it out completely. In their minds, they are headed the right way, even if it is at odds with the stated destination coded into the unit.

There are many voices serving this guiding function. I have been but one, and a minor one at that. Yet recently I have come up on the radar screen of a neophyte PCUSA pastor who vented some negative energy by blogging about me. A good friend from my congregation drew my attention to a piece entitled “PC(USA) antagonist to lead conference in denomination he fled“. It was written by Matt Curry, whom I don’t believe I have ever met. Yet he seems to believe he knows me well enough to characterize my mind and heart, in a less than flattering way.

*****UPDATE: THE BLOGPOST IN QUESTION HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM http://www.witnesstograce.com AS OF 7/24/2013*****

I am an antagonist to the PCUSA, stirring up rancor through my blogs, writing only negative things about the leadership and apparent theology of the denomination, “a bitter opponent who helped form a rival denomination,” “someone engaged in open warfare with the PC(USA).” But what sticks most in his craw is that I have accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the next Presbyterian Men’s Conference at Mo Ranch. Mr. Curry seems offended that I would be offered this opportunity, even more so that I would take it. Perhaps a few facts will soothe his ruffled feathers:

- I accepted the Mo Ranch speaking invitation over two years ago, more than a year before the 2012 GA and long before our church session made the decision to seek dismissal from the PCUSA.

- After our church determined to seek dismissal, the incoming president of the Mo Ranch Men’s Conference Council (whom Mr. Curry rightly identifies as a member of our congregation) and I contacted the leadership of Mo Ranch with the offer to step down from our commitments so as to spare Mo Ranch any potential embarrassment. The trustees and president of Mo Ranch decided not to accept our offers to resign, but in the spirit of deeper unity in Christ to reaffirm our roles.

- I have participated in three of the last four Mo Ranch Men’s Conferences as a seminar leader (I missed two years ago to attend our daughter’s graduation from pharmacy school). No one could come away from encounters with me at the conference and have the impression that I am in open warfare with the PCUSA, or an antagonist in any form. Each of my seminars had to do with teaching on Islam, and I am told they were the highest attended of any seminar each year. In another blog, Mr. Curry — who did not attend my seminar entitled “10 Ways That Jesus Outshines Muhammad” — nevertheless seeks to undermine my teaching by offering 10 areas of common ground between Muslims and Christians. I will respond to that specific blog tomorrow. In any case, I have done nothing at any Mo Ranch Men’s Conference to stir rancor or ill will toward the PCUSA.

- The new Presbyterian movement (ECO) to which my congregation and I now belong has never defined itself as a “rival denomination” to the PCUSA. Instead, we see ourselves as a sister Reformed denomination. The fact that Mr. Curry describes ECO this way says more about his own ecclesiology than it says about me or the Covenanted Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

- It is true that I have used the word “apostate” with regard to the PCUSA. To my knowledge, I have not used that word of any individual in the PCUSA, but applied it specifically to the institution and the direction it has unrepentantly and increasingly headed for the past 40 years or so. (Anyone interested can view my arguments in support of this found in an August 2011 post entitled “An Evangelical Declaration.”) Mr. Curry seeks to link me to those of another age who burned apostates at the stake, though relents a bit by admitting I confine my pyrotechnics to the blogosphere. I resist this categorization: the farthest I will go is to admit that I have burned many steaks in the past on the grill. I am willing to debate anyone on the merits of the arguments I have put forward concerning the present state of the PCUSA. I am not impressed by those seeking to sway others by innuendo and mischaracterization of my position.

- Mr. Curry notes that most of my 43 blogposts have had to do with the PCUSA. He has taken the time to comb through them enough to discover that I have apparently used the word “homosexual” some 50 times total (make that now 51). What can one learn from this? He apparently leaves that to the reader’s imagination. I recently did an RSV Bible concordance search for the word “pomegranate.” Did you realize it occurs 33 times throughout the Bible? What would you conclude from this? Nothing, I hope, without going to each of the references and reading them in context. Innuendo is often the mark of a weak or lazy argument. I would prefer a cogent response challenging my suppositions or conclusions on biblical/theological grounds. Then perhaps we could make some headway.

– I am not bitter toward the PCUSA as a denomination of real people. I am deeply saddened by the long slide into sin, darkness and disobedience allowed (perhaps even encouraged) by those in leadership who felt they knew a better way than the teachings of Scripture to pilot a once honorable denomination into a free-fall of theological and behavioral ignorance.

- As a Christian committed to seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, one does not need to be a member of the PCUSA to express concern and attempt to speak truth to power. It is certainly possible that I have failed miserably as a GPS voice pointing out the misdirection of the denomination. If so, leaders and people like Mr. Curry have every right to ignore my voice. But what I have found is that few take issue with the matters I and others point out as signs of lostness; instead we are merely castigated for urging a U-turn at the next available opportunity.

- Lastly, Mr. Curry’s blogsite goes by the name “Witness to Grace,” a phrase taken from the Confession of ’67 which emphasizes the theme of reconciliation, a truth Mr. Curry heartily endorses. Since I have apparently so offended him unwittingly by my writings and speaking commitments, I would have hoped he would have sought to be reconciled by following the teachings of Jesus outlined in Mt 18, coming to me personally to address his concerns before airing publicly his faulty assumptions about my actions and character. Perhaps, if he continues to have concerns in the future, he will do just that. In the spirit of Christian charity and unity, I certainly hope so.
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful witness to grace! On the other hand, our Lord does not let me off the hook. In Mt 5 he declares that when we know someone has a grievance against us, we are to take the initiative in seeking reconciliation. I guess it’s time for me to make a U-turn….Pray it goes well, please.

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A Long Oblivion in the Same Direction*

*With apologies to Eugene Peterson

Like one who has reluctantly left the environs of a dysfunctional family, but looks in hopefully for signs of health, I continue to scan the PCUSA for news of renewal and reform. Unfortunately, dysfunction still reigns, especially at national leadership levels.

Yesterday Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons released the denomination’s 2012 annual statistics. Normally, amidst each year’s dreary numbers, Gradye is able to find a silver lining among the massive, gray clouds. This year, even the silver lining was gray. The 47 year streak of net membership losses for the PCUSA remains unbroken.

2012 turns out to have been a record-breaking year for the denomination in terms of numbers. Back in 2009, it was reported that 2008 broke all negative records in terms of net member loss (numeric: 69,381 and percentage: 3.1) since the Reunion of 1983 (the formational year of the PCUSA). 2008 contained the disastrous GA in San Jose. 2011 saw another record-breaking year, in terms of net member loss by percentage though not by raw numbers (numeric: 63,804; percentage: 3.2). Now, 2012 has completely blown away those negative records. After another disastrous GA in June-July, the denomination has seen churches and individuals departing at staggering rates (numeric: 102,791; percentage: 5.3).

2012 saw the net loss of 2% of the PCUSA’s churches across the country from 10,466 to 10,262. Of this 204 differential, 86 were dissolved (closed as unsustainable), 110 were dismissed to other denominations (a 400% increase over 2011) and the rest apparently lost numerically in mergers with other churches so as to create new, hopefully self-sustaining congregations. 13 new congregations were formed in 2012, the bulk of them coming apparently from mergers. The largest net loss of churches for the PCUSA prior to this was 97 in 2010. Last year’s loss is more than double this. Not good.

The total number of active ministers has decreased by 215, no doubt in large measure to the 126 who were dismissed to other denominations (a 400% increase over last year). Together with decreases in numbers of ordinations and candidates for ordination, signs point to growing disinterest in serving at the helm of a sinking ship.

Since 2000 (the last annual statistics I had in front of me) the gross total of new members added each year to the PCUSA has declined from 149,277 in 2000 to 86,645 in 2011. In 2012, this figure reached a new low of 78,150 (a drop of 9.8%). What this says is that the PCUSA is attracting into membership roughly half the number it was adding just 13 years ago. That’s scary.

On the other hand, the denomination is leaking like a sieve when it comes to membership retention. The number who transferred out to other denominations by certificate was up 126% from 2011 (52,064 compared to 23,082). The number lost through “other” means (cleaning the rolls, usually) was up about 4% (from 95,613 to 99,067). The only category showing a slight decrease in losses from that of 2011 was in number of deaths. This is small consolation. Considering the aging nature of the PCUSA population, within a decade this category will no doubt show a steady incline in numbers.

In terms of spiritual health statistically, the number of infant/child baptisms decreased by 1560 (-7%), maintaining the trajectory of recent years. And the reported Christian Ed attendance decreased by 64,069, again in line with the past trajectory. Overall general contributions among all PCUSA churches fell roughly 5% (-$92,769,555). However, one category improved: The number of adult baptisms increased by 389 to 6,129 across the denomination for 2012. This shows the 2011 number of 5740 to be an anomaly. The 2012 figure is less than but close to the number of adult baptisms performed in 2010: 6148. it will be interesting to see what 2013 reports, especially as a larger number of evangelical congregations are departing the PCUSA.

No one can rationally dispute the dismal nature of these statistics. But they simply report what has happened in the past. One might look with hope to the national leadership for a new direction to pull the PCUSA out of its slide into oblivion. However, from the words of Gradye Parsons, it seems the leadership is oblivious to the damage it has caused by its neglect of church and gospel essentials, and by the need to drastically change course from that of vying with other mainline denominations seeking to serve as the religious flagship for political, economic and social causes of the progressive armada.

Gradye’s explanation of the decline we are seeing in the PCUSA boils down to two things: 1) All the mainline churches are in decline; the PCUSA is a mainline church; therefore it is in decline. 2) Our culture is increasingly resistant to affiliating with religious institutions — how can we help it if people today don’t want to sign on the dotted line…? Both these reasons, whether true or not, show a desire to excuse the leadership from responsibility rather than a passion to turn things around. There are certain churches that are growing in this environment. Why not study them and invest the denomination’s significant resources in retooling itself to become a more effective proponent of the gospel? Why not return with passion to the heart of the biblical gospel rather than giving itself over to causes that are ancillary to the church’s true mission?

Gradye points to the recent Pew Forum report on the state of religion in the USA to undergird his explanation of the state of the PCUSA. In glancing at it, I noted a few of its assessments which have bearing on the mainline PCUSA.
In the last five years, the number of Americans who self-identify as Protestants has declined from 53% to 48%.
Within that category, the largest losses from the mainline church have been WASPs, who have now become WASUs (white Anglo-Saxon unaffiliateds). Black and other minority percentages have remained stable among Protestants.

In the political realm, those who self-identify as liberal (principally Democratic among party lines) are two and a half times less likely to want to affiliate with a religious institution as those self-identifying as conservative ideologically.

Lastly, the religiously unaffiliated strongly believe that religious institutions are far too concerned with money and power, and are too involved with politics. These two assessments deter them from seeking any allegiances with organized religion.

In light of these factors, I have a few suggestions for Gradye and other PCUSA leaders seeking to reach more Americans with the gospel and reverse the decline of the denomination:

1) In the name of racial diversity, invest more effort in reaching out to white Anglo-Saxon Americans. This is still the largest segment of American society, but the group that is fleeing evangelical and mainline churches in largest numbers. On the other hand, failure to do this will at least lead the PCUSA to perhaps reach an expired GA goal of 20% minority membership by 2010. As more WASPs leave the church, and minority numbers hold steady, overall minority percentages will increase dramatically. Not what was originally envisioned, I’m sure, but hey, at least it’s a goal to check off.

2) Since Jesus said to go where the fields were white unto harvest, and since the Pew report indicates that those most likely to affiliate with religious institutions are the politically conservative, begin a top to bottom house-cleaning of social, political and economic endorsements that lean leftward, and replace them with ones that lean right. This will attract those most likely to affiliate and give you a chance to welcome larger numbers into membership. Right now, you’re pitching your message to those least likely to respond. Isn’t that a waste of time and energy?

3) Since the unaffiliated (that fastest growing segment of the younger American population) is turned off by power-grabbing, money-grubbing religious institutions, and since you obviously want to reach this segment of society, rein in all the presbyteries and synods and GA entities that are lording it over individual congregations seeking to leave the PCUSA. Instead of ignoring or secretly encouraging them as they abuse their institutional power to cause as much pain as possible and extract as much money as they can in exchange for permission to legally become part of the body of Christ in another denominational structure, why not remove the property trust clause from the Book of Order, or declare that all churches are free to leave, no strings attached, no fees assessed? Any wishing to stay will do so voluntarily, and all unaffiliateds will see that the PCUSA is in fact not a money-grubbing, power-obsessed institution. Perhaps in observing such Christian grace, they will begin flooding into the new PCUSA.

These suggestions are, of course, made with tongue in cheek, though they each contain a kernel of truth worth considering as the denomination reels with its losses. It would be nice to see some solid, theologically cogent, thoughtful strategies as to how to reverse the decline of the PCUSA in ways truly bringing glory to God. Right now, all I’m seeing is leadership saying, “It’s not our fault that we happen to be a mainline church. The problem is with American society.” That may explain why the PCUSA is only successfully bringing in half as many members as it did in 2000 (though I personally reject this as an adequate assessment). It offers no reason why 150,000+ members (excluding those who left by death) decided the PCUSA was not the place for them. Worst of all, it offers no compelling reason why the PCUSA should continue to exist. Instead of rehearsing again and again all the hurdles mainline institutions face, why not try a new approach that begins with newfound passion for the gospel of Christ as found in the Bible and Reformed confessional documents of the faith? Who knows what might happen then? It certainly couldn’t be worse than what we are all beholding now.

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It’s a Topsy-Turvy World in PCUSAville

One slightly humorous occurrence at the 220th GA surfaced during the ecumenical worship service as we were invited to join in reciting the printed words of the Nicene Creed.  All went smoothly as we spoke the words “…On the third day he rose again from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures,” but then most all of us were disoriented by a typo in the next line: “he descended into heaven….”  I kid you not — most unfortunate.  The more I thought about this, the more appropriate it seemed as an unintended display of what is wrong in our denomination — up is down and down is up.  It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.

The first sign of this should have been apparent GA’s theme.  It was paraphrased from Isaiah 40:31 as “Walking, Running, Soaring into Hope.”  Interestingly, this phrasing reverses the flow of the text in the Bible, which reads, “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”  In the context of Isaiah 40, Israel is a tired, beleaguered nation because of her spiritual infidelity, and God is calling her away from trust in idols to hope instead in Him alone.  He promises that even in her exhaustion He will be with His chosen people and carry them through their hard times.  To hope in Him means to trust in His unfailing Word; it is here in Isaiah 40 that we first read the this statement picked up again in the NT (1 Peter 1:24-25):  “All flesh is grass….Surely the people is grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:6-8).  Why the reversal of order in our GA theme?  Who knows?  My personal opinion is that the intent of the rewording was to encourage optimism for an ever brightening future, from walking to running to soaring.  This is a belief in optimism for optimism’s sake.  If we just speak what we want to see happen, it will happen — a new form of “name it, claim it” theology.  Instead of calling us back to a renewed hope in the Lord, based on the promise of His unchanging Word, we take a portion of Scripture and reword it to stir up a pollyannish optimism, because we want so badly to soar into the bright future of our own making. It’s not enough to trust that God will give sufficient strength for increasing trials to those who actively wait upon Him, and will bring us through.  Instead, we need to boost our sagging spirits by reframing Scripture for psychological reasons.  Instead of true hope in the Lord we settle for humanly concocted optimism in a future we have promised for ourselves.  Ironically, where the Word of God warns us not to trust in our human efforts but to trust in the Lord, we instead take that same Word and change its order to foster optimism by our human efforts rather than to rest by faith in what God has declared He will do.  It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.

Though as many have commented, the final decisions coming out of this General Assembly basically maintained the status quo, my assessment is that even the right decisions were in most cases made for the wrong reasons.  The most obvious instance of this was the vote to retain our “traditional definition” of marriage.  Notice that we are not willing to acknowledge that this “traditional definition” is the biblical tradition; we want to leave open that perhaps we can redefine God’s truth and still have it be acceptable to God, or at least to the church.  By a razor-thin margin (if 16 commissioners out of 668 had changed their votes, GA would have approved same-sex marriage), marriage as the Bible and our Confessions have unequivocally defined it was spared from perversion for another two years, until our next GA.  Why did the vote go this way?  Because the scant majority was convinced by biblical and confessional evidence?  Hardly.  The primary argument was that a redefinition of marriage at this point in time would decimate the PCUSA, perhaps even eviscerate it.  Many presbytery executives were privately whispering predictions that the move to redefine marriage might mean the departure of 30-40 per cent of our congregations from the PCUSA.  This would tear the heart and soul of the denomination from the remaining skeletal structure.  “We can’t do this now.  Give us time to live into these new realities.  Perhaps in two years, Presbyterians will be ready for this progressive change,” was the advice we were hearing from moderate liberals.  Why support traditional marriage?  Not because it is God’s design and biblically faithful to do so, but because to support redefinition might destroy our denomination as an institution, and we must not let that happen.  The foundations of our biblical and Reformed theology may be allowed to crumble, but we must not let the foundations of our ecclesiastical institution fall apart.  It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.

This same breathtaking blindness was seen in a ruling by our denominational constitutional “scholars”, upheld in turn by our Stated Clerk and the new Moderator of the denomination.  When the motion to approve same-sex marriage was brought to the floor of GA, it was challenged as out of order because Roberts’ Rules does not permit a motion to be considered that stands in contradiction to an organization’s constitution.  Since the first part of our PCUSA Constituion is our Book of Confessions, and the confessions speak with one voice on the definition of marriage, the motion to redefine marriage must be out of order.  Sure makes sense to the neutral observer.  But our constitutional “scholars” advised that the Confessions in general are capable of many interpretations on many subjects (though they failed to note that on marriage they are eminently clear) and so we cannot be shackled to their statements as we make decisions about how we govern ourselves with our polity.  The Stated Clerk happily announced his agreement with this ruling, and the Moderator quickly voiced his support as well.  As a result the motion was placed before the body for debate.  The stunning consequence of this decision is that we now have a ruling from the highest advisory parties in the PCUSA which declares that how we decide to order our lives as a denomination has no necessary relationship to our theology.  The Book of Confessions, though the primary part of our Constitution (as recognized by our Book of Order, which is the secondary part of our Constitution) no longer stands over the Book of Order, but rather holds the position of a quaint museum piece of what our forebears once believed.  The will of mostly theologically unschooled commissioners by majority vote now trumps the carefully crafted, deep and weighty theology of our confessional documents.  Instead of submitting ourselves in humility to the wisdom of the church down the ages, we have cavalierly decided that we, who are lightweights in terms of biblical knowledge and wisdom, nonetheless should be free to decide whatever we want.  It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.

One last example, out of the all too many provided by this GA.  I’ve been asked by friends how our GA could have strayed so far from the gospel in pursuing a left-leaning political agenda and ignoring the time-honored, clear teachings of Jesus to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, preaching a gospel of forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe.  The answer, it turns out, is deceptively simple.  Most well-meaning liberals believe with all their hearts that they are indeed pursuing the gospel.  It’s just that they have redefined the gospel.  Instead of a full-bodied message of good news that addresses salvation at all levels, they have truncated the message to be this-worldly only.  The gospel is the announcement of the Kingdom of God come here and now.  The Kingdom is seen where justice, peace, diversity, redistribution and ecological harmony are advanced.  God is no longer really needed except as the source of this vision; Jesus is irrelevant (certainly his atoning death is) except insofar as his serves as an exemplar to “energize the base;” the Holy Spirit serves not as the One who sanctifies us increasingly into the image of Christ, but as the One to whom we can appeal subjectively to baptize our vision and to empower us to work for peace and justice.  The Kingdom of God is no longer our personal and corporate surrender to the reign of God, but the utopia where our personal definitions of what is just and peaceable and equitable and ecofriendly will ultimately come true.  It is up to us to make this utopia come to fruition.  Liberals believe that by zealously pursuing these social policy alterations they are bringing the gospel to the world, thereby honoring Jesus’ vision of life. 

That may sound wild to many, but here’s one quote from Luciano Kovacs, a young “progressive” who was the keynote speaker at GA’s Ecumenical Breakfast on July 4th: “We are addicted to economic models that are the antithesis of God’s justice, which is not a political system or a social gospel but THE gospel — the good news for the hungry is a piece of bread….A church that is not committed to God’s justice is not really a church of Jesus Christ.” The fullness of the gospel addressing the totality of our human predicament has been reduced to a plan for make sure everyone has enough to eat (and no one has too much). “God’s justice is THE gospel!” So why did Jesus come, and suffer crucifixion and death? Apparently so that no one would go to bed hungry. Full bellies for everyone! Unfortunately, such a gospel is no gospel at all. The apostle Paul has harsh words for those who make the gospel a utopian enterprise: “Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil 3:18-20). Godly love must entail addressing the full range of human need, not just the physical, this-worldly concerns of those in need. In light of eternity, the good news is first and foremost the offer of forgiveness, reconciliation and eternal life with God. If we crusade to wipe out poverty, hunger, oppression, pollution, prejudice, economic disparity, etc., but we fail to urge people to faith in Christ, we will have cared for their bodies and surroundings at the expense of their eternal destruction. But the liberals don’t seem to believe in the reality of hell and the need for saving faith in Jesus. Their god, it seems increasingly clear, is the belly. It’s a topsy-turvy world in PCUSAville.

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Whose Hand Is Guiding Our Stroller?

I was touched during opening worship at GA last Saturday afternoon by an endearing scene that took place out of the view of most folks in the hall. A mother and toddler were standing together in the wide, smooth concrete expanse between the edge of seating and the convention hall walls about 25 feet from my seat. The little toddler would not be still, and his mom wisely let him stand behind the stroller, grasping its back and pushing it forward as he expressed the energy God so mightily worked within him. Of course, this little boy could not see anything but the back of the stroller as he pushed it for all he was worth. Naturally, he didn’t know where he was going as the front wheels of the stroller turned in sharply changing directions. This could have become problematic but for the fact that his mother was hovering behind him (without his apparent knowledge) close enough to be able to lay her hand on the stroller handle whenever it began to swerve into errant territory. He was free to follow his heart’s desire, with regular correction from his mother to keep him going where she wanted him to end up. So it is with the church and God.

Interestingly, at the end of that worship service came this charge and blessing: “Eternal God, You call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that Your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

That has led me to the uncomfortable question, “How do we know that God’s hand is hovering over the handles of the stroller that we are pushing, whether the stroller of our individual lives, of our congregational communities, of our denomination?” Can we assume that since we belong to a certain group, even one that uses theologically correct language and has a long, storied history, that God is like that loving mother who watched over her active toddler, and that whatever we do in our decisions and activities, God will be there to correct our swerves and stumbles?

I can’t remember how many dozens of times here at GA I’ve heard it declared that God is with us, guiding us unerringly by His Spirit in what we are doing. It makes me wonder what gives us such assurance. In Jesus’ day the religious rulers, both priestly and lay, regularly claimed that those who followed them were following God. Jesus disputed those claims. Obviously, it’s not enough simply to assert that God is with us. And to repeat the mantra ad nauseam may lift our spirits, but it doesn’t establish the reality. So how do we know whether we can have confidence in God’s sovereign, beneficent hand upon us or not?

The key of course rests in whether our relationship with God is real or imagined. Are we children of God or impostors? None of us sinners is a child of God by nature (Paul makes it clear in Eph 2 that we are by nature “children of wrath”, “having no hope and without God in the world.” So how do we become children in God’s family, sure that He will shepherd us through life? Reformed theology, anchored in the Scriptures, teaches clearly that our status with God changes when we are linked in true faith to the only-begotten Son of the Father. In and through Jesus Christ, the true Son, we are adopted as sons and daughters into God’s family. This life-giving personal relationship with Jesus Christ manifests itself in our love and devotion to him. It is intimately connected to our desire to live under and in obedience to his will. How do we discover that will. Through his word (which in the Sermon on the Mount to be the culmination of all God’s prior revelations). In John 14:23 Jesus promises, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” He assures the disciples of the Father’s love in 16:27: “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.

Reformed theology has always maintained that true faith in Christ can be measured by increasing pleasure in and obedience to the Word of God. Believing this, we logically conclude that assurance of the Father’s love depends on our proper relationship with His Son, and our proper relationship with Jesus depends on love that is evidenced by our desire to grow in obedience to His Word. Now of course in this world none of us is always obedient to the Word of God, written and living, but we all can tell the trajectory that we are on over time. If the Scriptures are becoming less and less central in our lives, that should set off the alarm bells. If our hearts are yearning to drink deeply from the Word and live out the truth we find there in daily partnership with Jesus, then we should be encouraged.

One of my deep concerns for the PCUSA arises from the observation that the Bible is strangely absent from General Assembly deliberations, both in committee meetings and on the plenary floor. Sure, the Word is read in worship, and sermons are preached, but apart from formal times where one would expect the Word to be proclaimed, biblical input is a rare oasis in an unrelenting desert. Even allusions to Scriptural truths are few and far between. In many committees, quotations from the Bible are actually scoffed at, and those seeking to provide such input are demeaned, treated as “unsophisticated fundamentalists.” If at our national denominational gathering such is the stance we take to God’s Word, what does this indicate of our relationship with God?

It doesn’t matter how passionately we declare that God is with us, how often we recite the religious mantras of peace, justice, inclusion, love, grace, faith, concern for the poor and marginalized and disenfranchised, how proud we are of being Presbyterian, how entranced we are with social concerns, how enthralled with what our Reformed ancestors accomplished; if we have deserted the Word of God at the center of our life together, if we have no passion to grow in “the whole counsel of God” (see Acts 20:27), we are betraying the absence of a true relationship with Jesus Christ. If that is absent, we are not abiding in the love of the Father. If we are not in His love, there is no hand hovering over the handles of the stroller was are so assiduously pushing. Should that really be the case, then in spite of all our claims that God is with us, the stroller of the PCUSA will end up in the ditch, or even worse, over the cliff of destruction. May the Spirit of God hear the prayers of the faithful, and restore to us a true love for Jesus Christ and his Word.

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“Integrity Matters!” — When It’s Convenient

First off, I have an apology to any who have read my last blog.  Yesterday, the Spirit convicted me that it was not my place to judge the motivations of our former PCUSA Vice-moderator as he led the communion portion of GA’s opening worship time.  Since he has not shared what was going on in his heart and mind, I was wrong to assign ill intent and to paint him in a negative light.  Christ calls us to think the best of others unless and until they give us objective evidence to the contrary.  I failed to do this, and I apologize.  Fortunately, not too many read my blogs, so perhaps I have not done much damage.  Now on to some related thoughts concerning yesterday’s happenings at GA.

Back at the 1993 GA, the leadership came up with the defensive mantra, “Theology matters!”, in response to the heretical “Reimagining God” conference in which some denominational staff had participated.  Many of us were heartened to see this emphasis, led well by our Office of Theology and Worship even up to today.  However, as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  You can lead others to good theology, but you can’t make them embrace it.  Theology matters, but only if it is woven into our lives.  Our denomination seems to show increasingly that we don’t actually believe what we mouth.  If “theology matters”, then “Integrity matters!” as well.  We should live in accord with what we declare to be our shared convictions.  Two things occurred during yesterday’s business which bring this into question.

First was the election of the Vice-moderatorial candidate who had been selected in advance as part of the “ticket” of the new GA Moderator.  Her name is Tara Spuhler McCabe, a minister serving in the Washington, D.C. area.  Her nomination had been problematic for many because it “came out” a few weeks ago that she had conducted a same-sex wedding in the District of Columbia, something permitted by secular law in the District, but forbidden for PCUSA ministers to participate in by our church law.  When asked directly if she had performed this ceremony, she refused to answer affirmatively, instead saying only that she stood with the lesbian couple, and that her name is affixed to the wedding license as officiant.  When people use words to avoid the truth without denying it, we all know what that means.  As a minister of the church, Tara took the same vows we all do, including “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?” Nevertheless, she knowingly violated our present Constitution and spurned this vow.  That would be bad enough as is.  But having done this, she is still willing to stand as the Vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, serving to represent our “order” and faith in the second highest elected office of the denomination.  To the credit of some of this year’s commissioners, this lack of integrity was troubling, and so what would normally be a perfunctory confirmation vote by acclamation turned into a tepid show of support as she was elected by a 60% majority.  Still, the majority elected her, and demonstrated by their vote that “Integrity doesn’t matter,” even at the highest levels.

The second sign has to do with another minister recently in the news.  Brian Ellison appeared last night before the Middle East Peacemaking Committee to inform them of the general work of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, which he presently chairs.  Their work is to oversee how denominational monies are invested so as to help shape ethical behavior in companies which otherwise might place profits before justice.  The activities of the MRTI Committee have generated some controversy over the years, and this year is no exception, but the integrity issue I’m concerned with lies not with them but with Brian Ellison.  He has been pastor of a congregation in MO for 13 years, and last month submitted his resignation in order to pursue a new call to serve as the Executive Director of Covenant Network, a liberal advocacy organization committed to normalizing the gay agenda within the PCUSA.  Brian also serves as a board member of the Board of Pensions of the PCUSA, which recently passed a controversial decision to extend full benefits to same-sex partners and dependents of church employees.  In his announcement letter to his congregation, Brian not only told them of his new call but “revealed” to them that he has been in a committed homosexual relationship since 2003.  Apparently, the fact that this lifestyle has been a violation of his ordination vows for all of his ministry (up until the striking of any standards from ordination vows last July) never concerned him enough to give up this behavior or to demit his ordination.  Instead, he wanted to continue in a vocation which prohibited his lifestyle, so he just flew under the radar.  Now that it is “safe” to admit, he has written this “Oh, by the way…” letter to his congregation.  On top of that, as a board member of the Board of Pensions, he apparently participated in the discussions and vote on extending benefits to same-sex partners of church employees.  We’ll never know for sure, unless he discloses this, for all their deliberations are privileged and private, but I sure hope he recused himself from the decision-making process.  What makes me doubt it is the fact that he hid his lifestyle from his own congregation until last month – why would he disclose it to a group he only meets with periodically?

Now here he is, addressing a GA committee on making ethical decisions….Integrity matters, it seems, only when it is convenient to our purposes.  Sadly, we are an unconverted denomination, perhaps like the alcoholic at the inner city mission who comes for his nightly meal but has to sit through the sermon first in order to eat.  When you talk to him, he can share with you all the essentials of the gospel, and he’ll affirm whatever you want him to as long as he can get his hot meal and then go back to his bottle.  We mouth the Reformed confessions that others risked their lives to pen, but then live in defiance of them.  I’m reminded of Jesus’ assessment of the religious hypocrites of his own day: Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mt 15:7-9 RSV).

Theology matters, but only when we say it does; integrity matters, but only when it’s convenient; words matter, but only according to our private definitions.  These seem to be the slogans of our denomination today.  Our ancestors would be ashamed.  May our Lord have mercy.

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