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Monthly Archives: June 2006

After spending a few days pondering the precarious position of the denomination to which I belong, my mixed feelings about the passage of the PUP report have reached some resolution, though not necessarily a clear-cut one or one that you might expect. Let me explain.

First, I do not think PUP is as good as people want to spin it to be. Having read Edward Koster’s article from the Outlook on PUP’s passage, I’m not convinced that the action of the GA in any way strengthens the authority of the Book of Order. Koster seems to think that because the amended version of recommendation five allows for juridical review, everything’s ok: “Whether the examination and ordination and installation decision comply with the constitution of the PCUSA, and whether the ordaining/installing body has conducted its examination reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately in deciding to ordain a candidate for church office is subject to review by higher governing bodies.” Koster might be right, if every PJC in the denomination was committed to upholding the Book of Order as it stands including G-6.0106b. The simple fact is that they aren’t. Look at the recent acquittals of William Parr and Jane Spar, who both performed wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, but were declared by committees in their presbyteries not to have contradicted the denomination’s constitution. Simply making decisions “subject to review by higher governing authorities” does nothing to win the trust of people who have watched the governing authorities contradict their own constitution.

But (secondly), I do not think PUP is as bad as people want to spin it to be. Given that we live in a post-denominational society, where very very few people actually choose a church solely because of its denominational affiliation, the approval of recommendation five does seem to allow an appropriate decrease in institutional power. Yes, it gives leeway to practices contradicting Scripture, but in so doing, it lays groundwork for the deconstruction of the national institution of the PC(USA). As Kruse Kronicle has diligently noted from the inside of the GAC, they are downsizing in recognition of the PC(USA)’s no-longer-privileged status in America. I would say that the institution of the denomination as we have known it is honestly in hospice, and rightfully should be if Presbyterians want to effectively work for Christ within American society. Presbyterian history, tradition, polity, and theology are all worth preserving, but can be done so without the bureaucracy that the national institution has become. People throughout the denomination realize this, but few are putting it into practice. The up-side of PUP, and the only positive spin I will put on its passage right now, is that it sets in motion significant changes in what we think a denomination is, and that very concept is in need of rethinking.

Though my obsession with Presbyterian politics for the past two weeks may not indicate this, I would like to identify myself more with the emergent church movement in terms of missiology and ecclesiology. Though it may sound strange, I think that PUP’s passage is forcing us to redefine our denomination in ways that favor a shift toward emergent styles of church leadership. Fellow Presbyterians and emergent church friends – do you think there is any truth in this?

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The General Assembly of the PC(USA), an hour and a half ago, approved the Report from the Theological Task Force on the Peace Unity and Purity of the Church, including recommendation 5, by a vote of 298-221. That means that ordination standards, including sexuality, are now considered a “local option”, and that presbyteries across the country can choose whether or not they follow the “official” standards of the denomination’s book of order.

Any opinions from fellow Christians who’ve been following this saga? What’s next for the PC(USA)?

Thanks to the technological miracle of webcasting (http://www.pcusa.org/ga217/streaming.htm), I was just able to watch as the General Assembly of the PC(USA) approved the new paper on the Trinity which has caused some controversy this year. Andrew Purves, a professor here at PTS suggested that the passage of this paper could be more serious in its inherent meaning than the PUP report because of its implications for how we address and name God. The paper only affects worship and study resources produced by the Office of Theology and Worship, however, so it’s not a doctrinal or confessional statement.

Good or bad? Meh. Here are some thoughts I wrote about it after reading it this spring: “This paper sounds rooted in traditional non-heretical understandings of the Trinity, but I’m left with a few points of discomfort. Line 631 – Can the Holy Spirit be analogized as a womb when the Spirit’s function is so much greater than this? While “Mother, Child, Womb” at least retain the personal aspects of God, why neuter Son to Child? Also, in the public eye, this would risk confusion, even though unintended, with Mary as Jesus’ mother, and necessary caution should be taken to avoid suggesting that we are worshipping Mary. 777-778: the idea that in proclamation of the Word of God, God is Speaker, Word, and Breath is very interesting, but is a triad like other analogies, useful for understanding, but not for a name. 885- The Rainbow, Ark, Dove triad is cutesy to the point of being laughable, devoid of personal meaning, and perhaps in danger of being perceived by the general public as childish and/or idolatry. 937 – Giver, Gift, Giving – this triad forgets that in the NT the Spirit is our “deposit” of salvation, a gift of sorts as well. Perhaps “Purchaser, Ransom, Deposit” would convey that. 938- Truth, Goodness, Beauty – this triad confuses the attributes of God that are common to all persons of the Trinity.” I do think the metaphors suggested might be useful in understanding the Trinity, especially Speaker, Word, Breath, but it is not a name for God. Enough fuss has been made about the paper, though, that most people will understand the distinction between names and metaphors. So, while I’m not thrilled, I’m not upset that it passed – worse things can happen.

Watching GA has also been fascinating as I’ve watched online as Doodle Harris (our TSAD) and Robert Gagnon (one of our professors) have asked questions or spoken in the plenary. Tomorrow should be interesting – especially if Gagnon speaks on the PUP report and G.60106b. Anybody have predictions?

I’ve also found several other blogs from commissioners, GAC people, and advisory delegates that have been fun to read as the assembly continues. Here are some of the best: http://futuremoderator.blogspot.com/ , http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/ , http://ariel-at-ga217.blogspot.com/ , and http://gruntledcenter.blogspot.com .

Gracious Lord God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, please work in and through the actions of the General Assembly this week. Bless the commissioners with diligence, attentiveness, and hearts in tune with your will. Grant us all the ability to hear You speaking into the important decisions at this time. Amen.

As the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) begins, the delegates and commissioners there who’ll be voting about important matters in the future of the church are in desperate need of our prayers. As a former YAD at GA in Richmond, I know how exhausting all the politicking, arguing, and debating can be, and I can also tell you that it usually happens with very little worship or prayer actually happening at the Assembly. People on both sides of every issue come in with predetermined ideas about what’s best for the church and rarely take the time to listen to each other, much less listen to God.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to pray for God’s concerns for this world before our own. In saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying for three specific things to happen: 1) We pray that God would be revered as holy by all people (that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord”), 2) We pray that the Kingdom of God in all its facets (physical, social, spiritual) will continue to extend throughout our world, and 3) We pray that God’s will and desires will be actualized in this world.

Whichever side of whichever issue you take, please pray those three things for General Assembly this year, namely God will be glorified, that God’s will may be done, and that God’s Kingdom will be made manifest in the actions of the General Assembly. When we pray for our own opinions, we’re bound to see more hatred and division within the church, but if we would all pray solely for God’s glory and will for the PC(USA), and actually listen to God’s leading in Scripture and the Holy Spirit, then there may be hope for a new peace and faithfulness at this General Assembly.

My gratitude goes out to Brian for his thoughtful comments on my last post. In response to those comments, here are some more thoughts. First, I’m using “consumerism” to refer to a culture/lifestyle which makes the pursuit of material possessions a chief priority in life. Regardless of what the possession is (a t-shirt or a big-screen-tv), the pursuit of it for its own sake characterizes consumerism, and if we take seriously Jesus’ teachings about possessions and who will inherit the kingdom of God, we would have to say this consumerism is flat-out sin.

I take for granted that there are some necessary possessions, such as food, clothing, and even our homes. In every one of these cases, the buyer can treat the possession properly (with modesty and gratitude to God) or sinfully (idolatry). The real estate market definitely adds elements of materialism to even modest homes, but the attitude of the purchaser is the issue. Is the house purchased because of what a nice house it is, or because of the opportunities for mission and fellowship come along with it? For example, buying a house in a neighborhood where you live and work is fully appropriate when it is done incarnationally (i.e. for the sake of living in proximity to the people with whom you are called by God to work), but not if it is simply because a person wants a nicer house. Either way, a lapse into the sinfulness of the community (be it buying drugs from a crackhouse near by or buying a brand-new Hummer) would be inappropriate.

The reason is this: When we contextualize the Gospel to translate it to American culture, we have to do so in a way that uses different languages and media to convey the truth of Jesus Christ, but remains faithful to that truth. Thus while we use the culture’s language, we still have to critique the culture’s sin.

As Brian pointed out, the use of expensive electronics by churches may seem extravagant materialism to some, but there is a difference between using tools and idolizing status symbols. A projector and a laptop enable praise songs to come alive in the voices of a young generation. Mp3 players and the internet allow people who wouldn’t or couldn’t step foot inside a church to access the Gospel. The culture’s language (up-beat music, film, etc) is used to communicate Christ, and Christ convicts us of the need to repent of the sinfulness of other parts of the culture, including empty impractical consumerism.

I’m raising this question in regard to American culture because I think some other efforts at contextualization fail at effectively critiquing the culture’s sin of consumerism. Example 1: Should someone ministering to high schoolers or college students wear Abercrombie and Fitch to be attractive to his/her target people group? I would say no. Doing so would convey a truncated Gospel, one divorced from action, because it conveys a subliminal endorsment of senseless materialism, human rights abuse, racial stereotyping, and sexual objectification. Certainly the Gospel can be made attractive to a younger generation without compromising moral standards demanded by Jesus Himself.

Example 2: Christmas. Everyone knows that Christmas commercialism is not Christian, but we still spend billions of dollars on it as a country every year. Last Christmas, as part of the “Buy Nothing Christmas” campaign, I saw an advertisement with a picture of Jesus and the caption, “When did I tell you to buy this much stuff for my birthday?” Here the medium of communication was an advertisement. The message was conveyed using our cultural language (advertising!), but the message was fully congruent with Biblical teachings. Contrast this with trying to Christianize Christmas by just reminding people that “it’s the Incarnation we’re celebrating” but still encouraging them to buy and sell needlessly. Which is more effective at conveying Biblical truth? Which is the better example of cultural contextualization?

If in Jesus Christ we are forgiven of our sin, but also convicted of the need to repent, how do we translate the Gospel to the cultural language without subliminally endorsing sin through the media we use? Doing so in America requires some very creative thought, and I would love to hear more suggestions.

So I’ve been reading a book called “The Shaping of Things to Come” by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsh. It’s about being missional churches in the midst of the secularized society we’re increasingly finding ourselves in, and has some great points about the contrast between the way today’s Church does things and the way the early Christians of the first three centuries did things. I understand their view of the Church, and of missions, except I ran into something today that seems hard to apply in our setting. After describing how some foreign missionaries in a Muslim country “contextualized” the Gospel (i.e. made it possible to understand in terms of that country’s culture), they say this on page 93: “Their approach is to fully embrace the host culture in every way, but without sinning.” Excellent point. But if we turn it around and apply it to how we reach out to American culture today, can we fully embrace our culture without sinning?

Overall, it seems American culture is based solely upon consumerism, which can quickly become sin. Add to that the fact that most of what’s marketed in our society is sinful in some way: explicit sex in pop-music and movies; sweatshop labor in the clothes we wear; unabashed gluttony in fast-food chains; etc. If we were to strip away consumerism and all its companion sins, what virtue is there left in contemporary American culture which Christians can “fully embrace . . . but without sinning”? I do not intend to seem anti-American in this – I’m just having a very hard time understanding what there is in our culture that is not sinful, and would welcome any suggestions. What is there about American culture that Christians can honestly endorse and embrace? How do we contextualize the Gospel to communicate it to this culture without compromising our integrity and getting caught up in a host of other sins? Any ideas?