Friday, May 28, 2004

Home-grown and imported heterodoxy 

I love the humor in what's actually a very dangerous situation for David in 1 Samuel 21. David plays a madman before King Achish of Gath, who utters the memorable line: "Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?" (v. 21)

I often wonder the same thing about speakers brought to certain Presbyterian events, or writers chosen to place their work in various publications.

Is the PCUSA so lacking in heterodox communicators that we have to bring in outsiders to play the madman in our presence? Heck, I thought we had plenty of our own! Why look elsewhere?

Remember Presbyterian Dirk Ficca, whom the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference had speak in 2000--the guy infamous for his "What's the big deal about Jesus?" question? Remember the enormous controversy he spawned, that took both the 2001 and 2002 General Assemblies to finally put to rest by repudiating his universalism with a doctrinally sound "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ"? Why did the peacemakers choose him, of all people, to speak in the first place? And why, pray tell, in the light of his thoroughly repudiated message, did the Witherspoon Society tap Ficca, of all persons, to be their featured speaker at General Assembly last year in Denver? Oh yes, we've got our own crazy-making voices in-house!

This year at G.A. in Richmond, More Light Presbyterians are not to be outdone by the Witherspoon Society. They're bringing in Presbyterian mal-ethicist Marvin Ellison as their marquee speaker. Take a look at how Ellison pushes the envelope of even the secular gay viewpoint, from an article by Richard Ostling of the Associated Press (click here). Ellison advocates multiple partners, wondering "How exactly does the number of partners affect the moral quality of a relationship?" Ostling writes that Ellison "finds it 'troubling' that ethicists would see 'marriage is a necessary social control mechanism to tame men's sexuality.'" That, folks, is the bizarre voice More Light Presbyterians chose above all others to speak at General Assembly. Does anyone else tend to wonder about their judgment?

But others import their nonsense. The Covenant Network, after all, found and published, both in their newsletter and on their website, the sermon by Episcopal seminary professor William Countryman, which counsels Christians to ditch portions of the Bible (see May 26 posting below). I can see the sales pitch: "Fine imported dross: Get some today from Covenant Network!"

Presbyterian Women sometimes imports its bedlam, as well. There must not be enough eccentric female voices within the PCUSA for them, so they've had to search outside for a supply. A common example is Rita Nakashima Brock, visiting scholar at Unitarian Universalist seminary Starr King School of Ministry. Her books are recommended as "rooted in the Reformed tradition" on the Women's Ministries website. She was the invited speaker at an August 2003 denominational women's retreat at Montreat. Moreover, she was a plenary speaker at the notorious Re-Imagining God conference in 1993--that's right, the one declared "beyond the bounds of Christian faith" by General Assembly in 1994. She scorns the atonement (convinced as she is that "no one was saved by the execution of Jesus") and worships Sophia ("She is the erotic power, the Heart of the Universe"). One would think that Presbyterian Women might just be able to do without such heterodox and even blasphemous imports!

The great loss is the failure to utilize truly faithful and inspiring speakers and writers who would lead us back toward discipleship in Jesus Christ. There is no shortage of such sound Christian voices, both domestic and imported! But, alas, Paul's message of "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" must just lack the forbidden razzmatazz some Presbyterian groups hunger for, so they import their own entertainment.

Still, I ask: Do we lack madmen, that you have to bring these persons to play the madman in our presence?

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

How to discard God's Word 

I got my "The Covenant Connection" spring 2004 newsletter in the mail a while back, courtesy of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. An article by Rev. L. William Countryman (page 2 and page 3) caught my attention and then elicited a deep sigh.

Countryman gives a lesson on how to discard those parts of Scripture that one doesn't like because they don't pass a prior hermeneutical principle imposed on the text. I knew such wholesale disregard for the Bible happens in fact, because I'd seen the mangled interpretation of those who don't really honor the authority of the Scriptures. But I didn't realize that junking the Bible text was such a, well, blatant and conscious process. I guess I kind of thought it happened subconsciously, or by accident. Not so.

Here's Countryman's prior hermeneutical principle, the die through which he urges us to press every text: "The purpose of God all through Scripture is the well-being of God's beloved human creatures." It's comfortably human centered. It's vague: What exactly determines "well-being"? It sets us up at the center of the universe, as if God were created for OUR glory. In other words, it's right in tune with what an egocentric, psychologically coddled postmodern wants to make religion out to be. And it's mush.

So, how would Countryman use that hermeneutical principle? He follows with this: "If you find things in the Scriptures that seem to speak otherwise, consider who benefits from that. Whose hardness of heart caused that blemish in the sacred text?" (emphasis added) Note that to him, there are obvious places where Scripture is flat out wrong: bad people wrote bad stuff into the Bible. According to him, we've got to be on the alert in our human wisdom to discover such blemishes in the sacred text. Can you believe the audacity?

Countryman speaks of passages in Scripture that "cater to your particular kind of hard-heartedness...." He contends that Jesus was one to "pick and choose what [to] take seriously" in Scripture. He writes that Jesus expected that "...some of the details enshrined in the sacred text will be revealed for what they are, as concessions to the hardness of heart--and they will have to go."

This is nothing less than the polar opposite of the Scriptures being "unique and authoritative" and "God's Word" to us. According to this, Scripture is blemished. The Scriptures need not be taken seriously at face value. Scripture passages ought to be discarded if they fail our test. The Reformed cry of "Sola Scriptura" has warped into "Solo me!"

There's more. Countryman fashions his big sermonic climax by asking: "But how do you decide which [details of Scripture] to discard...? When Scripture seems to confirm your own hardness of heart, it's wrong. Ditch it, just the way Jesus did" (emphasis added).

That's right, he says "DITCH IT!"

That, my friends, is the sage wisdom brought to you courtesy of the Covenant Network, who valued this article so much that they chose it above all others to grace their spring newsletter. What WERE they thinking?

We've already had multiple General Assembly Moderators emerge from this theological fog. Might it be time NOT to elect more leaders for our denomination who represent THAT shocking manner of unReformed, unChristian theology? And what CAN we believe from that source on ANY matter, given such cavalier disregard for the authority of Scripture?

Monday, May 24, 2004

A tired Moderator? 

Perhaps Susan Andrews is getting tired from the road, and thus a little sloppy with her thinking and theology. Or maybe she was misquoted or poorly quoted by the reporter.

Or maybe, just maybe the article in the Toledo newspaper actually renders a clear picture of a logically challenged thought process about moral law and the role of a church. If so, I am disappointed but not surprised. Susan Andrews is a bright and capable pastor, but if this article accurately reflects her theological reasoning, she is all too representative of a church faction much better at emoting and vaguely wishing than at grasping God's will and acting consonant with it.

In this newspaper article, her logical arguments aren't. For instance:

1) "I don't want anybody to leave," she said. "I need a church that has people in it that disagree with me on this issue because it helps me grow." Very subtly she is missing the point. Andrews's viewpoint is a slim minority. A few people hold it and voice it loudly and repeatedly, to the frustration of the faithful. In addition, Christians throughout all of history have been in complete disagreement with her understanding. But to hear her speak, one would think that it is the OTHERS--those who disagree with her--who are the few divergent voices in danger of leaving. She has--perhaps unaware--painted herself and her aberrant belief as central, and the others as quaint folks worth keeping around to add a little spice to her viewpoint. Easy to do. Understandable. But inaccurate.

2)In a like manner, she considers the vast mainstream as people who represent "the diversity within the unity of Jesus Christ." There are two problems here: First, the vast majority IS the central strand of Christianity; she and those who believe like her are the oddity. Not vice versa. Second, and more important, THEOLOGICAL diversity is not something God particularly likes. Take a look at the first and second commandments about an exclusive and even "jealous" God who is rather particular about what we believe. Jesus was THE way, THE truth, THE life, not one of several cool options. God wants us to believe him and what he told us in the Bible, not an endless stream of human-centered revisions being pawned off as some faux "virtue" called "theological diversity."

3) We have a Moderator who gives a nod to the very biblical and historic policy of our church on sexual matters, but who then expends her energy to undermine it, which is her personal desire. (Why does a denomination so sound in its documented beliefs regularly elect Moderators who deny those very foundational beliefs? What kind of institutional suicide is this to make detractors our spokespersons? Foolish, but that's G.A.'s fault, not Andrews's fault!) The news story reads: "[T]he eloquent and feisty minister said she hopes that ban [on ordination] will be lifted for gays and lesbians committed to monogamous relationships." Does Andrews know that such a change, although tragic for the faith of the PCUSA, would please far fewer than one in ten practicing homosexual persons? A "committed" relationship among gay men is rarely expected to be monogamous. What heterosexuals call "open marriage" is much more their norm. Yet Andrews would do enormous damage to the faith and witness of the PCUSA in order to push across a measure that few actual gay and lesbian persons would truly buy into, because of what they would consider the restrictive insistence on strict monogamy. Hers is an unrealistic understanding of the gay and lesbian culture, seen through Christian heterosexist glasses.

4) Andrews states, "If two human beings want to be faithful and loyal to one another for the rest of their lives in a covenant of monogamous love, I find that, for me, that fits within my theology...." She says it in relation to same-sex marriage. But on what grounds does that reasoning demand that it be same-sex marriage? If the only criteria are (1) two human beings (and on what grounds, just two?), (2) faithful, loyal, and monogamous love, and (3) a lifetime covenant, then on what grounds would that eliminate such pairings by an adult and a child, a mother and a grown son, a father and a grown daughter, two grown siblings, or other such pairings? Certainly she doesn't intend these pairings, but wouldn't her reasoning that allows same-sex pairings logically apply just as readily to any of these other pairs? If her resoning provides a legitimate basis for same-sex marriage, it is just as legitimate a reason for pedophilic or incestuous marriage--IF the three factors Andrews states are the only criteria for marriage.

5) But, Andrews says, she rejects "arguments claiming that the ordination of homosexuals will lead to a domino effect resulting in an 'anything goes' mentality within the Presbyterian Church." She argues, "Conventional wisdom goes: 'What's next--adultery, pedophilia, incest?' All of which I find quite offensive...." Ah! NOW we see what her root theology is: She is opposed to logical manifestations of her own reasoning that she would find offensive! It's all relative. If it's something she finds offensive--such as incest or pedophilia or promiscuity--then it's wrong. If it's something she can go along with--such as partnered homosexual sex--then it's okay. Funny, I thought GOD was the one who made such subjective determinations, not Susan Andrews's offense meter! Apparently, this has very little at all to do with biblical theology for Andrews, and everything to do with what she finds permissible through other means of determination. That insight is most telling! Everything hinges on whether SHE is offended. God is left out.

6) Andrews "cited several Bible verses that, in her opinion, make homosexuality acceptable in a Christian church." She did? I'm dying to know what it is that intelligent and faithful Christians throughout ALL of history have missed as they have read their Bibles. I'm all ears. So what is this airtight biblical case Andrews makes? She cites: (1) I Cor. 12, about the body having many parts with various gifts, and (2) Acts 10, where Peter decides the ceremonial law is no longer necessary. And...? Uh, that's it? That's all she's got to stand up against the many instances of clear, direct, and univocal condemnation of homosexual behavior in the moral law (as compared to the ceremonial law) in both testaments? Are these weak, tangential, and stretched-to-the-breaking-point examples her only arguments to make homosexual behavior acceptable? If you were grading a theology exam for ordination or a theology paper in even a high school religion class, would such threadbare biblical exegesis come close to passing? Theology by whim and wishful thinking hardly passes as sound work.

7) The reporter quotes Andrews about the Acts 10 passage as saying: "It's a classic passage to show how within the body of Scripture the old becomes the new when there's a vision." Huh? This MUST be a misquote by the reporter. This can't be an accurate statement from someone as intelligent and experienced as Susan Andrews. I'll leave it at that.

8) About the precipitous decline of PCUSA membership, Andrews is quoted as saying, "I believe that the Presbyterians who are now with us are people who dearly love the church, are very committed, and want to see the church grow." Then one must assume that as of this exact moment, we have a different group of Presbyterians than we've had for about 40 years, because in each of the last 40 years or so, thousands and thousands of Presbyterians have left the church, indicating they weren't all that dearly in love with the denomination, nor committed to it, nor wanting to see the church grow. And hundreds of thousands more have determinedly joined churches other than the PCUSA, causing those churches to grow and us to decline all the more. Yes, there are many lovely people who love the Presbyterian church and are committed to it. Praise God for them. But their numbers are diminishing rapidly and will continue to do so with more statements like this that are unrelated to reality.

Oh, dear! I know and like Susan Andrews and expect much better than this from her. Our fragile denomination certainly needs theological thinking and proclamation superior to this from its leadership if it will be faithful to God and have any opportunity for stemming an ebb tide of membership and mission.

Someone give Susan some rest, so she can come up with something better than this (or forgive me and blame the reporter if she has been misquoted). And isn't it about time we elect a General Assembly Moderator who actually believes in the policy faithful Presbyterians have followed and defended throughout our history--someone who will speak biblical truth and Presbyterian policy with love and wisdom, rather than spout marginally rendered personal opinion?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Moot in Cincinnati; meaningless elsewhere 

The Stephen Van Kuiken case in Cincinnati takes yet one more turn. You will remember that Van Kuiken was considered by the Presbytery of Cincinnati to have renounced jurisdiction (removed himself from Presbyterian ministry) by his direct and self-publicized defiance of an order to obey our Constitution.

Then the synod Permanent Judicial Commission inexplicably reversed the action (scroll down to the May 3 blog entry) and reinstated Van Kuiken as a minister, although he did not return to his former pastorate at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, which he had resigned. This poorly reasoned decision was appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC).

But in the mean time, although he had been reinstated as a Presbyterian minister, Van Kuiken has decided to leave the PCUSA to pastor a splinter group that left Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church. He cannot pastor that schismatic group and remain a Presbyterian pastor, and so he has chosen to leave the denomination. Thus, the GAPJC has properly ruled that it cannot hear the Van Kuiken case, since it no longer has jurisdiction over Van Kuiken, who at this point is neither a Presbyterian pastor nor church member. Thus they dismissed the appeal.

So where does that leave us? According to the local news story, Van Kuiken erroneously contends that "the ruling sets a precedent. 'It's like any other appeals court decision in that it stands unless it's overruled by a higher court,' he said."

Van Kuiken is wrong again. He is most reckless and bold to contend things that simply aren't true. At least he's consistent in this case--consistently in error.

The lower courts (presbytery and synod Permanent Judicial Commissions) do not set precedent in Presbyterian law (see May 20 Office of General Assembly statement). Their decisions apply ONLY to the case at hand within that jurisdiction. Case law comes only from GAPJC decisions; only those decisions are binding on the entire PCUSA as "authoritative interpretations" of the Constitution.

Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the Department of Constitutional Services of the Office of General Assembly in Louisville (whew!), states clearly what Van Kuiken either fails or refuses to understand: "... the dismissal [of the case by the GAPJC] leaves the [synod PJC] ruling with no effect beyond the parties involved in the Van Kuiken case."

In other words, no one can dare cite the Van Kuiken case to justify someone else attempting to do what he has done. Van Kuiken was sadly wrong. He has received the penalty for his error. Anyone else employing his reasoning and methods can expect to be justly dealt with in the same manner.

We Presbyterians are a people bound by our beliefs and our Constitution. Those who neither hold the beliefs nor deign to abide by the Constitution cannot expect to be enabled as leaders. Stephen Van Kuiken directly (to his credit) and bullheadedly (to his destruction) found that out.

We would be wise to learn from another's mistakes rather than lend them the false appearance of precedent.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Honorable diversity 

Many of the letters in the May 10 Presbyweb give me a sense of what an honorably diverse PCUSA might look like. Richard Mouw makes a good point about evangelism, for example, and Casey Jones gets us thinking about prophecy. They are well worth reading.

But what really struck me was the integrity of Daniel Saperstein and the clarity of Ed Koster.

Saperstein writes, "I am personally sympathetic to the cause for same-sex marriage." But in spite of this, he has the integrity to speak out against a flawed Permanent Judicial Commission decision that he would applaud if he were simply partisan rather than honest. Saperstein has the magnanimity not only to argue that the PJC decision favorable to his position is nonetheless in error, but also to publicly commend Parker Williamson's similar conclusion.

Saperstein, a presbytery executive, brings particular expertise to this matter: He chaired the group that wrote the Benton decision that is so misinterpreted in this new decision. He knows better than anyone else what the Benton decision meant, and the recent synod PJC decision got it all wrong.

This reminds me of the Woody Allen movie (I think it was "Annie Hall") where the character played by Allen was standing in line for a movie and being subjected to an inane blowhard's error-strewn pontification about Marshall McLuhan's theory of communication. Finally in a magical moment, Allen is able to produce McLuhan on the spot. McLuhan breaks into the fool's stream of misinformation and says something like, "You've got it all wrong." Ah, how we'd all like to produce our own expert at times to silence error like this!

Here, Saperstein plays that McLuhan role with a PJC that got it all wrong. I love the drama and conclusiveness of this real-life scene. And it is made all the more dramatic because Saperstein is standing up to say something important and true that is COUNTER to his own personal wishes in the matter.

He understands--and I wish everyone would so understand--that "our judicial process is not governed by personal opinion, but by constitutional authority. Whenever we substitute the former for the latter we hinder justice and violate the peace, purity, and unity of the church by subverting the covenant which binds us." Amen!

In a similar manner, Ed Koster, a presbytery stated clerk, writes with great clarity about the fuzzy state of Presbyterian theology: "We can no longer distinguish ourselves by our theology," "we have abandoned those things that distinguish us from just about anyone," and "by the 1970's we reached the point that by our Book of Confessions we can justify or forbid nearly anything."

About our polity, Koster writes: "And now, now there are governing bodies and ordained officers who are intentionally in disobedience to the covenant of organization that we have all ostensibly agreed to accept and obey. I believe that strategy has put us in extreme and dire jeopardy."

I'm not sure exactly where Koster personally stands on ordination standards, but here we see a person committed to FOLLOWING rather than dismissing the vows all of us took as ordained officers to be governed by the church's polity and to abide by its discipline. Here again is integrity and a refusal to bend words and rules to please personal desires.

I'm sure there are many points in which I would differ from Saperstein and Koster. But as they evidence character, integrity, clarity, and adherence to God's Word and our Constitution, I'm pleased to be in the church with them. Diversity that has this kind of theological and personal integrity is a fine thing. But I want nothing to do with an ungodly "anything goes" and "nothing sticks" type of diversity that is antithetical to Christian faith and would be the ruin of the PCUSA.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

The spin cycle 

For every action, there is an opposite and equal ... spin.

That's what I thought as I read the More Light Presbyterians' May 4 media release about the Van Kuiken serial tragicomedy being played out in slow motion in our Presbyterian Permanent Judicial Commissions (see May 3 blog below). Seizing upon a particularly bizarre and indefensible decision that is nonetheless in their political favor, MLP makes it look like a wonderful thing not only for their own interests but also for the PCUSA as a whole. And in the process, they try to fashion themselves the denominational loyalists, when in reality they are the subversives working overtime to obscure, re-imagine, ignore, and defy our constitutional provisions. It’s spin at work.

Let me give you some examples of rather, uh, “creative” wordsmanship in the MLP statement:

1) MLP writes that the Book of Order “does not explicitly prohibit ministers from performing” same-sex marriage ceremonies. That’s true on the surface, but not necessarily true in reality. The Book of Order doesn’t explicitly prohibit filming snuff porn videos either, or sending out computer viruses. Does that mean such behaviors should be allowed? Of course not.

The Directory for Worship in the Book of Order DOES very explicitly say a number of times in a number of ways that marriage is between a man and a woman. Spin, however, conveniently ignores that fact. It also conveniently ignores the fact of the Authoritative Interpretation of our Constitution (see last six pages), which clearly calls homosexual practice sin.

2) MLP writes: “As our society moves toward a greater understanding of what it means for two people to love one another, it is important to resist inflexible positions and ungraceful postures toward one another.” Note two simultaneous spins going on here: First, apparently the church is supposed to take its lead from society and be conformed to this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of its mind, so that it may discern what is the will of God (see Rom 12:2). Second, steadfast moral faithfulness to God is being spun as “inflexible” and “ungraceful.”

3) There’s straw-man spin going on in characterizing the moral position of Christians throughout history as based on “shaky definitions of gender status and procreative ability.”

4) MLP is quite content to impose a number of constraints on marriage themselves. Apparently to them a marriage must involve “two people” and “life-long relationships based on love and mutuality,” or elsewhere marriage must be about “committed, mutually loving adult relationships.” So, the spin assumes it’s perfectly okay to demand a limit of two people, life-long commitment, love, adult partners, and mutuality. But, inexplicably, it’s somehow impermissible to demand that the relationship involve two sexes rather than one.

How convenient to impose only those restrictions one likes while decrying a key restriction God wills! If applying restrictions is inherently wrong, then ALL restrictions must be wrong. But if ANY restrictions are allowed, then the illegitimacy of any one restriction must be proved rather than merely assumed. Spin hopes we don’t think with logical precision.

5) MLP expresses confidence that “the full PCUSA will honor these [same-sex sexual] relationships,” spinning on into predicting the future. It’s a future they certainly would like to foist on a dozing PCUSA, but it is not one a wide-awake, biblically literate denomination wanting to adhere to the will of God would seek.

The church cannot “honor” what God has called an abomination, whether it’s done mindlessly or willfully. It’s not our call to make, no matter how disoriented the spin attempts to make us.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Meanings: Voided and avoided 

I guess we can forget meaning and intent now when we interpret words. Who cares what the originators of the text meant, or what all reasonable people have been led to believe by the obvious wording of the text. If weasels are determined to find loopholes, they can and they will engineer a way to make the text say something else, something THEY want it to say.

Meaning? What meaning?

That's what the jury did in the United Methodist judicial case concerning pastor Karen Dammann in Washington State (see March 22 below). Never mind that the Methodist Discipline states clearly that "since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church," the jurors fastened their attention on the word "declaration" and said they "did not find a declaration that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Has the Synod of the Covenant's Permanent Judicial Commission been taking its lead from the Methodists? A recent decision on the Stephen Van Kuiken case gets similarly hung up on the meaning of "should not" (instead of "shall not") and "would not be proper" (instead of "is not allowed"). The court mindlessly assumes that "should not" means "can be allowed," and "would not be proper" means "is okay." They mistook careful, moderate speech for permission. And in doing so, they reversed the presbytery PJC's decision that had convicted Van Kuiken of doing something prohibited.

More than a little creativity and wishful thinking must have been behind the synod PJC decision, because they also appropriate Van Kuiken's specious argument about an "existing tension in the Book of Order between the spirit and letter of the law" and thus confusion about what Presbyterians mean. This is in the face of a whole string of legislative, judicial, and administrative evidence that proves just the contrary.

Yet, some PJC members must want so badly for a good, clear rule to be otherwise that they are not averse to changing law rather than applying it. Judicial activism sadly isn't confined to secular courts.

Four of the ten synod PJC members dissented with the decision (see their dissenting opinion at the end of the PJC decision). Their reasoning is clear and critical. Their viewpoint would be the majority in any world where meanings are affirmed, rather than voided and avoided.

Ironically, however, the decision probably won't mean much, according to Bob Davis, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Forum and candidate for Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. Van Kuiken is leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in order to pastor a splinter group that broke off of Cincinnati's Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church. Thus the ruling will apply to Van Kuiken alone and will become moot with his leaving. It does not set precedent since it will not be appealed to the General Assembly PJC.

At least the United Methodist Church is getting it right again, following up on the Dammann debacle. But how soon until the weasels nibble that judicial decision into bedding litter, too?

Ah, for the days when words actually retained common meaning and one could count on Presbyterian Permanent Judicial Commissions to act with integrity!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?