Wednesday, November 26, 2003


At this time of Thanksgiving, I need to pause to give some thanks, myself.

I'm thankful for the many faithful people of Presbyterians For Renewal, whom God has placed around me. This begins with Joe Rightmyer, our beloved executive director, and extends to dozens more of the finest people I know. They are intent on doing the right thing the right way, in faithfulness to God.

I'm thankful for good Presbyterian folks--dedicated pastors, elders, and members in church after church across this denomination--who haven't traded their Christian birthright for a silly pot of cultural porridge. They pass on the faith they received, so that it will be transmitted undiminished and untarnished to future generations.

I'm thankful for people like Terry Schlossberg of Presbyterians Pro-Life, who labors unstintingly for denominational reformation; for publications such as the nifty Presbyweb and the feisty The Layman, which at their best deliver news good and bad that I need to know; for issues analysts such as Bob Davis of the Presbyterian Forum and Mark Tammen of the OGA, who can dissect a matter with clarity and insight.

I'm thankful for kind people who write me, both to encourage me and to sharpen me. They far more than balance the people who write to disparage, dispirit, or disdain me.

I'm thankful for caring hearts who act with godly wisdom and Christlike compassion. They care and keep caring and don't give up. They love with a rock-solid love that is based on God's infallible Word, which reveals God's infinite wisdom and immutable will. They care enough that they are willing to push upstream in a society rushing downhill.

I'm thankful for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. She may be sick or confused at times, but she's still my mother! Within this denomination I was taught the Catechism, trained in orthodox faith, tapped for ministry, and teamed with champions.

I'm thankful for the blessings of family, food, and freedom. I know full well that many do not share these blessed gifts of God, and I know even better the responsibility such gracious gifts lay upon me to make something from their abundance that I enjoy.

Most of all, I'm thankful for my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, and for whom I am wholeheartedly willing and ready to live.

A most blessed Thanksgiving to each of you who read the Berkley Blog.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Honestly dissing devious defiance 

Sometimes, some of the most gung ho homosexuality advocates are the most unblinkingly honest.

The Louisville General Assembly in 2001 passed an overture that would have eliminated our ordination standards and wiped out our fine Authoritative Interpretations, which elucidate our continuing biblical understanding of the immorality of homosexual practice. Many sophisticated progressive strategists were trying to portray this massive betrayal of Christian morality as just an inevitable shift toward what they would consider justice. But in unbridled triumphalism, lesbian activist Janie Spahr crowed about getting "the whole enchilada!"

That was an honest assessment of the situation, unfettered by political spin. However, in God's providence, the presbyteries proved far wiser and more faithful to our biblical standards by overwhelmingly defeating the amendment. We honestly retained our standards.

In Cincinnati, the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church has long been a hotbed of in-your-face defiance of our constitutional standards. First pastor emeritus Hal Porter and then the recently disciplined former pastor Stephen Van Kuiken openly and defiantly ordained practicing homosexual persons and performed "weddings" for gay and lesbian couples. When charges were inevitably brought against these unlawful demonstrations of disobedience, Van Kuiken refused to play word games: He considered the services weddings, and he wasn't going to mess with definitions or change his practice. He was honest, honest but wrong--and appropriately disciplined.

Hal Porter, on the other hand, made a deal with the PJC. In a long and tortured statement, Porter basically said that he wouldn't marry gay couples--although he would preside over services just like wedding ceremonies, in which they married themselves. By playing with technicalities and the definition of terms, he bluffed his way through a statement that, surprisingly, got him off the hook with the PJC. Without substantially amending his practice of marrying same-sex couples, he could merely explain away the terminology while continuing to do essentially the same thing. However, he notes recently that he will abide by the strictures imposed by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in the confusing Benton case. (In a similar statement, he commended Christ Church of Burlington, VT, for the same kind of redefinition of terms: still intending to ordain practicing homosexual persons, they just will call it compliance rather than defiance. It's stunning how well that deceptive and essentially dishonest tactic works among Presbyterians, eager to avoid confrontation!)

Now Jack Harrison comes along to say it like it is! In an amazingly blunt and undiplomatic statement in Presbyweb, Harrison accuses Porter of sophistry. He writes: "Mt. Auburn, like its allies in the Covenant Network, claims to comply with G-6.0106(b), while at the same time clearly violating it for anyone who has eyes to see. It's all done with a 'wink, wink,' 'nod, nod' and a sleight of hand."

Harrison makes another stark but perceptive observation, if he's speaking of sexually active persons: "For 20 years now, through the exercise of the 'radical principles of Presbyterian church government and discipline,' the PCUSA has, through vote after vote in ever widening margins, unequivocally said that gay and lesbian persons are particularly not welcome into leadership and are not welcome to celebrate their relationships by asking the PCUSA community to bless them."

You have to realize that Harrison describes himself "as a former member of the PCUSA church [Mt. Auburn] and as a gay seminary graduate who has been both ordained at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church and married by Mr. Porter in violation of the PCUSA Constitution." Thus, Harrison's perspective on that denominational reality is one of rueful disdain. He doesn't like it. Unlike our denomination, he wants the reality to change. But at least he is honest enough not to pretend the reality isn't clear-cut. Harrison is absolutely right about the fact that it is perfectly clear that Presbyterians have, with eyes wide open, decided to maintain their affirmation of biblical moral standards regarding sexual practice.

It is one thing to protest what one believes to be unfair and unjust. That, one may lawfully do. But it is another thing altogether to defy the rule of law, either outright, as Van Kuiken chose to do, or through semantic smoke screens, which Porter falls into, along with Katie Morrison and Christ Church, Burlington, Vermont.

Everyone knew what G-6.0106b meant when it was approved and twice sustained in our Constitution. They knew, because they either supported it or fought against it. They especially knew what it disallows, and that is precisely why the Covenant Network was formed, and why other groups like the Witherspoon Society and the Three Sisters protested loudly, and continue to do so. It is simply disingenuous to suddenly claim at this point that the meaning is unclear, that we don't know the meaning, or that it means something entirely different, and thus to defy the will of God as understood by a large majority of our denomination in repeated votes of our presbyteries.

A little honesty is refreshing, and in a moment of what appears to be beligerent lucidity, Jack Harrison was bluntly honest about sophistry in this matter. We would disagree sharply with Jack about what should be done with our Constitution, but here he touched on something obviously salient: the reality of clever words covering obviously forbidden deeds.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Evangelical and evangelistic 

I'm hearing a confusion these days over the terms "evangelical" and "evangelistic." They're being used interchangeably, and some lexical utility is being lost in the process.

For instance, at the Covenant Network convention, Moderator Susan Andrews, said she wanted a church that is evangelical. I believe she meant "evangelistic," unless she was suddenly abandoning her liberal roots to join the other side.

"Evangelical" has been a handy term to describe a whole theologically conservative, orthodox mindset and theology. It's more of a subculture than anything else. with evangelical seminaries, evangelical interest groups, and evangelical magazines and publishing houses. Billy Graham (also an evangelist) comes to mind, or Fuller
Theological Seminary, or "Christianity Today" magazine.

On a spectrum, evangelical would be a little less rigid than fundamentalist and a little more conservative than moderate. Evangelicals are evangelistic, meaning they believe in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, but to be evangelical is more than being a witness.

"Evangelistic" means that one wants to evangelize others. An evangelistic person is excited about the Gospel and seeks to share it. Certainly theologically radical, liberal, moderate, conservative, and fundamentalistic persons can be evangelistic--as Susan Andrews wants to be. Even a company like Microsoft has "evangelists" who spread excitement about their software.

But not all evangelistic people are evangelical. If we use the words interchangeably, then we'll just have to come up with another term to carry the socio-theological freight that "evangelical" has borne.

Instead, why not take the care to use "evangelical" and "evangelistic" as distinct terms, each with its own unique meaning? It's not all that hard, once we get the knack of it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

A liberal education 

For evangelicals raised in an environment where people pretty much think alike, here's a one-essay excursion into the thinking of someone very exotic. Read Patrick Henry's witty and entertaining address to the Covenant Network Conference.

You'll not agree with either his reasoning or conclusions, I would expect. I certainly didn't. But you'll find yourself better acquainted with the mindset of someone definitely not in the evangelical camp and even antagonistic toward it, in an intellectual sort of way.

In seminary, we called going to a movie on Friday night "general sermon preparation." In other words, it broadened our world and was interesting. And "general sermon preparation" sounded a whole lot more important than "goofing off." Consider reading Patrick Henry "general churchmanship preparation."

And, since you ask, no, he didn't shout, "Give me libertines or give me death!"

Monday, November 10, 2003

When push comes to shove 

Returning from the national Covenant Network Convention in Washington, D.C., Saturday, I had an insight that makes a lot of things clearer to me. (I know it may sound like "Well, duh!" to some who read this, but what struck me was how pervasively the identification resides.)

There seem to be some people who deep down, most likely unconsciously, find it more important to be socio-politically liberal than to be "I'll go where you lead me" followers of Jesus Christ. And thus they find themselves struggling to awkwardly conform their theology somehow to that prior liberal mindset. For these people, their socio-political liberalism is the default, and theology must serve that liberalism. (How different this is from primarily being biblically orthodox and then working mightily to put that magnificent faith into practice socially and politically--perhaps in liberal ways!) When ideas collide for these liberals, when push comes to shove, they keep intact their liberalism, and make everything else fit around it. For the most devout, religion gets packed with that liberalism somehow, tucked in around the corners as an important adjunct. But being fully, classically liberal is the fundamental given of their self-image.

If this is true, it makes a lot of things clear: how they treat Scripture, where energies are spent, why politics become so mixed into churchmanship, what makes structural adjustments more inviting than personal discipleship, and so on. The greatest affection is for what is considered a grand tradition of liberalism; secondary affinity is felt for the grand traditions of the faith.

But lest evangelicals like me feel superior, I must be fair.

There are some evangelicals who are more enamored with forms and traditions, more enmeshed in culture and convention, more conservative than Christian, too. Their first love is not so much the Gospel as it is a mindset they have always known. They are more interested in denying change than in changing denial. It cuts both ways, this idol of ideology.

And now to really get myself in hot water: I've witnessed an analogous tendency in two congregations. In one, there were people more interested in being Masons than in being disciples. When push came to shove, loyalty to lodge was greater than loyalty to church; belief in lodge ritual was greater than understanding of orthodox faith. And in another church, for some people, patriotism pretty much shared the space in the heart that belongs solely to devotion to Christ. Church and country, cross and flag got all enmeshed, and when you came right down to it, were nearly indistinguishable. Deep down, it was almost as important to honor the flag as it was to honor Christ.

Anything--ANYTHING--that takes the place of God is an idol that must be identified and then subordinated to Christ. When push comes to shove, we must default to Christ in us, telling us exactly what he told us in the Scriptures, giving us our most essential identity. Deep down, God must have priority. Everything must fit around God's presence; God must not be required to fit around anything else. Everything must conform to God's will.

Otherwise, we're idolaters.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Sweeping away the righteous with the wicked 

A little story, occasioned by Genesis 18:16-33:

Then some pessimistic Presbyterians said, “How great is the outcry against the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and how very grave its sins! We must determine whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to us, and if so, we will destroy its very structure.”

Then optimistic Presbyterians came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous congregations within the denomination; will you then sweep away the denomination and not forgive it for the fifty righteous congregations who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring down the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from you! Shall not biblical Presbyterians do what is just?”

And the pessimistic Presbyterians said, “If we find within the PC(USA) fifty solid congregations, we will forgive the whole denomination for their sake.”

The optimistic Presbyterians answered, “Suppose five of the fifty solid congregations are lacking? Will you destroy the whole for lack of five?” And the pessimistic Presbyterians answered, “We will not destroy it if we find forty-five there.”

And again and again, the optimistic Presbyterians asked of the pessimistic Presbyterians if forty, thirty, and twenty solid churches would suffice, and they answered, “For the sake of twenty, we will not destroy it.”

Then the optimistic Presbyterians said, “Oh do not let our fellow Presbyterians be angry if we speak just once more. Suppose ten solid churches are found in the denomination.” The pessimistic Presbyterians answered, “For the sake of ten, we will not destroy it.”

Then the optimistic Presbyterians pled: “Because God is slow to judge; and for the sake of the hundreds, yea thousands of faithful churches, and not just ten; and because there is only a sprinkling of the wicked, let us labor to build up the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—to transform it with God’s power into something good and glorious. And let us turn away from any plans to divide or destroy it from within.”

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