Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Church Power and "High Church" Presbyterianism

In a conversation happening elsewhere on the web (in which thankfully I am not taking part), the problem of church power and the longing to be "High Church" Presbyterianism has been central. It struck me in reading the back and forth that many Presbyterian and Reformed types love to talk about being "High Church" (whether with ecclesiology or sacramental views) when it supports their view of things, but hate it when it does not.

For example, in the old PCUS, conservatives abominated progressives' charges that the former were not loyal to their ordination vows when failing to support financially the church's missions and education programs. And yet, if the church corporate speaks under the guidance of the Spirit and lordship of Christ, doesn't that carry weight? Is that or is that not Christ's voice? Conservatives said, no, that was backroom politics; and they left the church.

Likewise, in more recent times, a certain denominational body adopted a study report with an overwhelmingly affirmative vote, standing firm for what it conceived to be doctrines under some measure of attack--justification, union with Christ, perseverance, election. There are those who have charged this denomination with abusing process and resorting to back room politics, even after the opportunity to debate a motion to postpone/recommit. So, did Christ speak through the church's action? Was the Spirit present or not? Many are saying no and are fighting the church's action.

Both examples are interesting because they get at the issues of church power or church authority, which for Presbyterian-types is a major issue of concern. In fact, James Bannerman's classic two-volume treatment on ecclesiology organizes itself around these issues of church power. And the reason this is the case is simple--most Christians are quite fuzzy on what the church's authority is and how they should respond to it. As a result, most conversations about church power devolve to independency on one side or "sacramental magisterium" on the other.

However, genuine Presbyterianism (especially in its "High Church" or "Old School" varieties) has historically represented a third option, melding together the recognition that the resurrected and ascended Christ has granted authority to his church (in line with congregational polities) and that this authority is delegated to representatives who act on behalf of Christ's people (in line with episcopal polities). Tied with this recognition is that "all synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both" (WCF 31:4); and so, church authorities make mistake and must be held accountable by Christ's people through a careful investigation of Scripture (WCF 1:6, 10). Yet when their counsel is demonstrated to be biblical, their voice is Christ's own voice.

And this is where the rub is coming in the conversation elsewhere in cyberspace. One party certainly appears to be saying--we are just a conversation and we want to change things in our respective denominations, but we don't want to be held accountable (which appears the position of congregationalism). Another party is saying--but what about the church? what about ecclesiology? Why are you not submitting to the voice of the church in your respective denomination? And this failure to communicate may be a failure to understand that at the heart of "High Church" ecclesiology is church power, centered in our respective Presbyterian denominations.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The manners of friendship

Richard Mouw blogs about how a biblical understanding of friendship leads to good manners, even towards one's "enemies."

On friendship and the church, no. 4

Part one
Part two
Part three

3. The Place of Christian Friendship: The Church
In other words, genuine friendship should happen as we live in faith and faithfulness to one another as the body of Christ. The Church, as Christ’s body, ought to be a place of friendship, a place where we can speak the truth in love and listen to one another. It ought to be the place where we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. And it ought to be the place where together we heard the Word, speak the Word, sing the Word to one another.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, yes; but we also must be friends. Why? We are able to share friendship with one another because we are friends of Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself said, John 15:12-17 (ESV), “"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Because we know God’s love, demonstrated by Jesus laying down his life for us; because we hear Jesus call us his friends; and because he commands us to love one another in the same way as he loved us—with the same sacrificial love demonstrated in friendship, we as Christ’s body, as the church, must demonstrate loving friendship for one another. We must be a people who are able to practice Christian friendship with each other. We must be able to speak to each other words of comfort, rebuke, wisdom, vision. We must be able to listen to each other. We must worship together as God’s people.

If genuine friendship, based on faith and faithfulness, does not occur here, where in the world will it happen? And if friendship perishes from the face of the earth, if faith and faithfulness disappear from human existence, do we not become something less than human?

May God then grant us love for one another that we might extend ourselves sacrificially to one another in loving friendship. May God grant us faith, to trust in him and in those with whom he has placed us. And may God grant us grace, to be faithful and loyal to one another, living out lives of Christian friendship with one another. For, after all, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Amen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On friendship and the church, No. 3

Part one
Part two

2. The practices of Christian friendship: talking, listening, and fellowship
So, faith and fidelity are absolutely vital for relationships of any sort. But faith and faithfulness are particularly important for friendship.

Friends make and keep promises to one another. In some friendships, these may not be verbal promises; in others, such as a marriage, they are. Even when unspoken, we know what we expect of friends, we know what they have promised. We expect our friends to listen to us, to keep our secrets, to dream with us, and to stand with us in times of trouble. We expect a “friend to love at all times”; we expect “a true friend to stick closer than one’s nearest kin.”

With our friends, our behavior creates expectations, needs, and loyalties with the other. Even if we don’t say so, there are promises that we make when we enter into a friendship. What we must recognize is that these expectations are based upon trust and loyalty, upon faith and faithfulness. When we enter into a friendship, we implicitly or explicitly promise to do certain things and we trust the other person will do the same. As long as we faithfully keep our promises, and the other party does as well, then the relationship works. When there is break down, when there is broken faith, then the relationship is wounded; our friend feels betrayed; and forgiveness needs to be sought.

What, then, are the promises that we make in friendship? Or to put it differently, what practices or habits do we develop in order to be a friend to another?

a. Speaking
There is great potential benefit in our speaking with our friend. The writer of Proverbs says, “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16.24). Our words penetrate and spread their effects in the lives of our friends. When we as a friend can speak to another and unburden our souls, we find a renewing of our hearts.

There are four kinds of speaking we do with our friends. First, there is the word of comfort. When we sense that our friend is in pain or despair, we deliver “a word fitly spoken [which] is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25.11). We point them to the comfort that is found in our Triune God:
· To the one who has experienced sorrow, we point them to the One who in the last day will make sorrow and sighing to flee away (Isaiah 35.10)
· To the one who is weary, we point them to the One who invited all those who are tired and weary to himself
· To the one who is fearful and who despairs, we remind them that God himself will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13.5)

We say to our friends: “do you not know? Have you not heard/that firm remains on high/the everlasting throne of him who formed the earth and sky…Supreme in wisdom as in power/the Rock of ages stands;/though you cannot see, nor trace/the working of his hands.” In delivering words of comfort to such ones, we demonstrate our faithfulness in walking with them in their sorrow and suffering for we know that “anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12.25).

Sometimes we speak the word of rebuke. We know that the Proverbs say, “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear” (Proverbs 25.12). And while we fear the others response, we must have courage to blame and scold in a sharp way—in doing so, we let our friends know that we are willing to lose constant contact with them in order to be faithful to them.

As friends, we also may speak words of wisdom. Our friends will face challenges and difficult decisions—when they come to us for advice, they do not want “yes men,” but rather they seek wisdom. We must keep faith with our friends by looking at the situation from our perspective, sifting it through Scripture, and giving them wise words. The Scriptures tell us that “the wise of heart is called perceptive, and pleasant speech increases persuasiveness,” and “the mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips” (Proverbs 16.21, 23). Those who speak wise words know that wisdom is communicated not only in what is said, but also in how it is said. The manner in which we give advice can be just as or even more persuasive as the advice we give. When our friends come for advice, we must entreat them and persuade them with a kind and gentle tone, helping them trust that we have their best interests at heart.

Finally, friends speak words of vision and dreams. I don’t mean that friends experience dreams and visions from God about each other and then relay the information on. Rather, I mean that friends that keep faith will dream what their friends might do and envision further spheres of usefulness for their friends. Thus, when we speak, we open ourselves, our souls, up to our friend in speaking the word of rebuke and of comfort and of wisdom and of dreams and visions.

We keep faith to them and dream for them; we seek their betterment with our words and not their hurt. We are willing for them to see themselves as sinners, for who else will be so faithful?
And we are desirous that they be comforted in times of grief and pain. Speaking is one of the great practices necessary for keeping faith for our friends. In speaking we keep promises and live faithfully with one another.

b. Listening
However, not only is speaking an important practice for faithful friendship, but listening is equally important. Listening is important because communication is always reciprocal. In order to trust another enough to extend ourselves in speech, we must believe that the other will listen to us.

And good listening is difficult. It is difficult because there is so much in our age to hear, both outside and inside ourselves. But we are called upon to “be quick to listen” (James 1.19).

Listening faithfully to our friend involves two things.

· First, listening involves the restraint of ourselves.
We must set aside the voices that we hear inside ourselves, and two in particular, the voice of self-promotion and the voice of self-protection. Self-promotion cries out to us, particularly when our friend is speaking. We want to set ourselves forward as witty, funny, intellectual, aware, sophisticated, and so forth. However, in order to so manipulate our words in order to put ourselves forward in this light, we must be unfaithful to the person speaking largely by ignoring them. In order to set this voice aside, we must practice humility, looking to the interests of others rather than to the interests of self-promotion.

The other voice we must set aside is the voice of self-protection. This is the voice that refuses to bear our soul to our friend—we protect ourselves from our friends from the point they say, “How are you doing?” to the point they say, “Well, see you later.” We never would actually listen to their pain and grief or their successes and happiness for fear that it might demand something from us. And so, much of our conversation devolves into mere hearing and grunting noises to attempt to lull the other person into believing that we are actually listening. Here again, in order to keep faith with our friends, we must be those who are willing to involve ourselves in their successes and failures.

· However, a faithful practice of listening also involves the extension of ourselves.
Listening is a grace which is patterned on how God listens to us. The Psalmists continually asked God to hear their prayers. In Psalm 5, David sings, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God. O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice” (Psalm 5.1-3a; cf. Psalm 17.6, 54.2, 55.1; 61.1; 86.1, 6). And in Psalm 86, David asks God, “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me” (Psalm 86.1). God is pictured as one who will interrupt what he is doing in order to bow down and hear the prayer of God’s people with a single-minded interest.

In the same way, we are to set aside what we are doing and listen to our friend with a single-minded interest. For it is in this faithful listening to one another that we are able to carry out James’ admonition to be quick to listen and that we might keep faith with those who are our friends.

c. Fellowship
A third practice which both demonstrates friendship and preserves faith and faithfulness is fellowship. Commonly, evangelicals have thought of fellowship as that which was done over coffee and doughnuts after church or in a week-night Bible study. And in the evangelical mind, fellowship would entail swapping stories about how the week past went and what is going to happen in the week coming. Or perhaps “fellowship” pictures for many what happens at a place of spiritual experience where there is a lot of people, whether at a retreat or a camp or Christian pep rally—Christians will return from such events and talk about the “fellowship.”

However, I would suggest to you that this is a truncated view of fellowship—for fellowship means that friends worship together, as in Acts 2.42: Acts 2.42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”

· When we practice fellowship with our friends in worship, we share the Word.
And in order to share the Word with them, we must awaken ourselves to our various practices of worship—attentive listening, quiet meditation, thoughtful prayer, heart-felt singing, focused reading. It is only as we practice worship in these various activities that we can in any sense share the Word with our friends and thus practice fellowship with them.

· Likewise, the practice of fellowship means we also share the Lord’s Supper.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, and as we pass the elements among our friends, we are expressing a mystery that we cannot fully understand—that we, disparate people from various backgrounds and experiences which we cannot even guess, come to this table as a mob but in partaking the Lord’s supper, we are Christ’s body.

· Finally, fellowship means we share discipline together.
We share the discipline which the body of Christ receives from God; and we share in the discipline we practice in our own midst. It is only, then, in the means of grace, in the Word and the Supper and discipline, that we can truly practice fellowship.

These three practices—speaking, listening, and fellowship—represent some of the promises on which Christian friendship is based. As we speak and listen to each other and as we worship together, our hearts are tied together in Christian love and affection. We rejoice together and weep together; we speak comfort to each other and listen to one another’s rebuke; we sing songs of praise and heard the Word of God.

On friendship and the church, No. 2

Part one

1. The basis of all human relationship: faith (trust) and faithfulness (loyalty)
“If men no longer have faith in each other,” one modern theologian once asked, “can they exist as men?” At the base of this question is the assumption that human beings exist in connection with one another in faith, or covenant; that faith and faithfulness, or loyalty, is at the root of all relationships; and that if human beings, and particularly if Christians, fail to trust each other, and to act in faithfulness to each other, they will cease being Christians and even worse, will cease being human.

All relationships—whether between God and human beings or human beings with one another—operate on faith and faithfulness, or trust and loyalty. We can only have relationship when we trust the other to be loyal to us and when we reciprocate that loyalty. Once that faith, that trust, is broken by faithlessness or disloyalty, then relationship becomes difficult, if not impossible.
What is the nature of keeping faith and exercising loyalty? How are Christians to keep faith and exercise loyalty in a world that does not embody faithfulness but faithlessness?

Even in our beginning steps into this world of faith, we run into road blocks. For “faith” is a word which is very much like “nice” and “grace” and “holy”—it is a word which we use all the time, but have not a clue what it really means.

Even in Scripture, the closest thing we come to a definition seems to be no definition at all: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1).
The nineteenth-century Scottish divine, John Brown of Edinburgh, said of this verse, “I have always felt it difficult to attach distinct ideas to these English words.” Certainly Brown’s words could be uttered by many of us. For at bottom, there are not many things in this world that we are absolutely sure of; and we are particularly skeptical of those things we cannot see. Thomas is the patron saint for most of us.

And so, in order to illustrate what he means, the writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of stories which illustrate his definition:

Abraham obeying the voice of God, leaving his homeland, going to a land which he did not know, believing the promises of God concerning a son, and then willingly offering that son to God, all the time believing that God could raise the dead;

Moses, a special child, being protected by his parents, refusing to be called to son of Pharoah’s daughter, suffering with his people for Christ’s sake, keeping the Passover when the “destroyer” was killing firstborn children all over Egypt, passing through the Red Sea on dry land;

and finally, Jesus, not clinging to those things which could have easily entangled him, running our race, gaining our salvation in the Crucifixion event, and counting death on the cross a joy and not a shame.

Certainly other figures are mentioned in that eleventh chapter of Hebrews—but the main three figures stand out clear: Abraham the Promise-Receiver, Moses the Law-Giver, Jesus the Gracious Redeemer. These three teach us of faith.

And ultimately Abraham and Moses and Jesus’ faith all rested on the promises of God—they believed that God, who made many promises, would in fact keep those promises. The reason they believed this was because they knew God’s character—they knew that God is just and merciful and gracious and truthful and faithful. As a result, they knew that when God made promises God would keep them.

Yet, Abraham and Moses and Jesus’ faith did not stop simply at believing God would keep promises; they acted on that trust. They displayed faithfulness and they displayed it in action, often actions which were based directly on those promises.

Abraham is promised a place which he would received as an inheritance—he believes God and goes to find it, living in tents as an alien in a foreign country.

God promises Moses that God would deliver the people of God, and that Moses would play a starring role—Moses believes God, against his better judgment, and confronts his countrymen and Pharaoh and the wilderness.

Jesus is promised that not only would he die for his people’s sins but that he would be raised to life again—he believes God, scorns death, and willingly goes to the Cross.

Faith that acts is alive and is genuine; faith that sleeps, that does nothing, is dead and is false. In short, faith trusts God to keep God’s promises and acts accordingly.

If the nature of faith toward God is to trust God to keep God’s promises and to act in faithful response to God, then does it not stand to reason that human faith finds its basis in trusting other human beings to keep their promises and to act in faithfulness toward them?

I think so. Faith which stands at the basis of our relationships with one another—our friendships, marriages, churches and societies—demands faithfulness, it demands faith and fidelity. In truth, this trust and responsive faithfulness is absolutely vital for relationships to function normally. Marriages which excuse unfaithfulness by one or both spouses generally do not last long;
parent-child relationships which are characterized by unfaithful dealing and resentful distrust are termed “dysfunctional”; congregations which cannot trust their ministers and begin to act in unfaithfulness by failing to attend to the Word and Supper and disciplinary fellowship will soon be putting the “for sale” sign outside their sanctuaries; and societies which sow the seeds of dishonesty, greed, and cynicism born of distrust and infidelity will begin to implode.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On friendship and the church, No. 1

[I've been thinking about friendship as a way for understanding the nature of the church for quite a while now. In fact, I believe that Christ calls the church to exist as a community of friends; I first explored that claim in this meditation that I preached five or six years ago. Remember, these are notes for a sermon (and it was a little long); but it may provide some background for some things I may post in the future.]

In his recent book, A Visit to Vanity Fair, Alan Jacobs asks provocatively, “Why are there so few attempts, by Christians anyway, and for all I know by Jews, to formulate a theology of friendship?” Pondering that question the other night, I had to admit that it was a curiosity indeed. After all, friendship was a major issue in classical Greek thought—one writer observed that while it would be false to say that the entire history of Western thought about friendship is a series of footnotes to Plato, yet if we said to Plato and Aristotle, we would be closer to the truth.

In addition, the Christian Scriptures were not devoid of texts that could be used to construct a theology of friendship. Perhaps some of you can think readily of familiar accounts—

We think of Ruth crying out to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1.16-17)

We remember David’s friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, which led the writer of Scripture to observe that “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18.1)

We recall texts like the one we have read in the Proverbs, and one that counsels, “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18.24).

And yet, though we know that Scripture teaches us on this matter of friendship, most of us have never considered fully what friendship means, what friendship consists in, and what Christian friendship might look like.

Perhaps we think that friendship is something that teenagers should be concerned with, but once we become adults, it is no longer an issue.

Perhaps the most we have ever heard was the text most frequently used in my youth group growing up, 1 Corinthians 15.33, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’.”

Perhaps we approach friendship with the consumer and managerial mindset of our generation. We become “one-minute managers” of our friendships—our talk has a minute of praise, a minute of rebuke, and a minute of concern.

Or perhaps we reduce friendship to mere “accountability” on some moral issue so that we might live more “productively” for Christ’s sake.

As Christians can we say more than this? Is it possible to develop a picture, a theology, of Christian friendship? I think it is possible; I think we need to take a step back and attempt to think theologically about this vital area of human relationship.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Snicker, no. 2

Rodney Trotter/Carl Trueman and another "separated at birth"--I suppose this is why Ligon prefers to preach the Sunday and Wednesday evening services??

New Presbyterian "Style"

...Machen's Warrior Children clothing line.

[HT: Warfield List]

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Back from Little Rock

I got back last night from Little Rock, Arkansas, where I was presenting a paper at an international conference on "The Little Rock Crisis: Fifty Years Later." This past week was the 50th anniversary of the attempt by the Little Rock 9 to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957. The conference was arranged to focus on issues of Civil Rights, both as narrowly applied to the Little Rock Crisis and more broadly.

As it so happened, my paper was slated for a plenary session and represents one of the chapters in the book that I've been working on forever (at least, it feels that way; I started researching in 2002). The book is tentatively titled, For a Continuing Church: Fundamentalism in the Presbyterian South, 1934-74 (I keep fiddling with that subtitle); the chapter and paper was titled, "'Red and Yellow, Black and White': Southern Presbyterian Conservaties and the Crises of Postwar America." In the essay, I look at how PCUS conservatives developed an anti-progressive ideology that used biblical and theological warrants to link anti-integration, anti-Communism, and anti-centralization.

As such, these leaders serve as an important signpost on the road from the Old Christian Right (1910-1930) and the New Christian Right (1970-present) as well as a bellwether in the South's movement from the Democratic to Republican Parties. After all, Corwin Smidt has demonstrated in Pulpit and Politics that 93% of PCA clergy voted Republican in the 2000 Presidential election; I think the story I'm telling is important for understanding how this happened. Needless to say, told in its entirety and truthfully, it is always not a pretty story, especially our abysmal and unbiblical positions on race and segregation in the 1940s and 1950s--and yet, it needs to be told in order to continue to foster the truth and reconcilation that our denomination began in 2002 (with the passage of overture 20, apologizing for Presbyterians' covenantal role in slavery and segregation) and 2003 (with the adoption of the pastoral letter on racism).

The other thing I did while I was there was go to the Clinton Presidential Library, which was about a mile from my hotel. Since I am a presidential library junkie (surprise, surprise--I've been to Nixon, Carter, and Reagan as well; next summer we plan to go to Truman and maybe Ike), I was interested in seeing what they did with it.

Observations: 1) The building, which was hailed in 2004 when it opened, felt very sterile; while it was supposed to represent a bridge, connecting with the railroad bridge next to it, it reminded me of a double-wide trailer. 2) There was a ton of staff and police there; especially when compared to the number of tourists (no school kids the day I went), it seemed like overkill. 3) For the size of building, there weren't that many displays, especially compared to Reagan and Nixon's libraries. 4) The most enjoyable displays were the ones that showed Bill Clinton's essential humanity--the guided tours of the White House in which you touched a monitor and Clinton would appear to talk about various artifacts in a given room; and the video of Clinton's talks at the White House Press Dinner (which were very funny). Regardless of your politics or how you feel about Clinton's presidency, I thought the visit was worth it, especially if you are in Little Rock anyway.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A theology of hugging

Richard Mouw posts some thoughtful reflections on a theology of hugging. One story along this line: when I became the interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in June 2005, one of our elders, John Hancock, asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said, "Yes, there is. Every Sunday you are here, if you were to give me one of your big hugs, it would help me immensely." And for nearly 20 months, every Sunday, Hancock would give me a hug.

I have to say--it was such an encouragement. Even when the voices in my head and my heart told me that I was worthless, foolish, pointless, John's hug was God's grace coming to me saying, "Not only are you not worthless, you are loved by God and by God's people." Those hugs sustained me in a sacramental sort of way--by being means of grace to my often doubting soul.