What we call fellowship others call felonious

I walk into the coffee shop on the corner of Main Street and there is almost always someone reading a Bible, devotional or the latest Christian best-selling book. This week its the Benham brothers, next week I’m betting it will be Chelsen Vicari. The point is that we talk about religion freely, openly, and honestly because we live in a nation where freedom of religion is real and realized. We pray over meals in public, we attend our churches without fear of being arrested, we invite others to join us in studying the Bible and we share our faith freely.

But what we call fellowship others in the world call felonious.

The stories coming out of Iran and other despotic regimes should drive us to our knees in prayer for our Christian brothers and sisters. The “offenses” with which they are charged, tried, convicted and imprisoned (for up to six years) include:

  • attending a house church
  • spreading Christianity
  • having contact with foreign ministries
  • propaganda against the regime and
  • disrupting national security.

Consider that list.

These are not people who are proselytizing in the streets or forcing their religious convictions upon others. These are people gathering in homes. Accepting the gifts of tracks and CDs and MP3′s that well-meaning Western ministries send to them.

Christians who fellowship with one another and communicate with other Christians outside of Iran are considered threats to national security and they are sent away as felons to do hard time.

At issue is what we casually refer to as the freedom of religion or religious liberty. It is precious and it is serious under threat.

In America, we have a model of religious liberty that takes a positive view of public and private religious practice. That means that we not only protect the right of individuals and groups to practice their religion in private settings – like home and church – but also to live out their religion in public, engaging their faith with the world.

Because we are like fish who have been living in the water of this kind of religious liberty for so long that we can’t even imagine what life is like in another environment, Americans often fail to appreciate just how unique a brand of religious liberty we enjoy.

In just one month (February 2015) The Heritage Foundation “Religion and Civil Society” page identified a litany of religious liberty related stories:

This is both the tip of the iceberg and the tip of the spear.  These stories rise to the level of public awareness but simmering just beneath the surface of our desire driven secularism are a mountain of threats to the everyday religious expression of countless Americans. Those are the stories we don’t read but they are being lived out everyday in classrooms and cubicles and court rooms – places where people of convictional faith are told to shut up and keep their religion to themselves. And then the very Constitution that guarantees the right of free speech to both the bully and the bullied is used to browbeat the religious person into the closet because of the mis-application of the so-called “separation of church and state.”

This is a fight for which every person of convictional faith must be equipped lest we find our own fellowship felonized in the future.

 

The Year of the Sheep?

Shepherd and Sheep
Is it the year of the sheep or the goat? That is the question.

Well, it’s not really a question that those celebrating Chinese New Year are asking but it seems to be a question that many Westerners are stymied by.

““I’ve never thought about that question before,” Chen Xufeng, an office clerk in Beijing, told Xinhua. “Do we have to tell them apart? I’ve seen more goats in zodiac images, but I prefer to buy a sheep mascot, as sheep are more fluffy and lovely.”

So, yesterday marked the end of the year of the horse in the traditional Chinese zodiac that dates back some 3000 years. But whether or not “this” year is the year of the goat or the year of the sheep remains a matter of interpretation.

The similarity and distinction of sheep and goats may be of more interest to Westerners than to those in China because of the lingering shadows the Christian Scriptures caste generations after the faith is actually practiced.

Even if your neighbor is not a practicing Christian, they may well know that when it comes to the final judgment, when Christ returns, the sheep and the goats will be separated. The sheep to eternal life and the goats, well, its not a happy ending for the goats.

So, to Mr Xufeng’s question, “Do we have to tell them apart?” maybe not, but there is One who stands outside of manmade calendars who makes a distinction.

What is clear from the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 is that the sorting is not up to us. God will sort out the sheep from the goats in the End. What matters is not that we know the sheep from the goats but that we know, and live in relationship to, the Shepherd.

Whether you are a sheep or a goat, this is the year of the Shepherd. He is the reference point for all of human history. Even the Chinese zodiac keys it count to the birth of Christ. It may be the year of the sheep or the goat but it remains 2015 Anno Domini – the year of the Lord.

Moral Universalism

Carmen Logo

Sunday lunch continues to be an extraordinary opportunity for the intersection of unrushed conversation and table fellowship where Christ is made known in the breaking of bread. This past Sunday was no exception. Having launched into and been thoroughly engaged by a new class on the cultivation of a Christian worldview, we invited our teacher to lunch. The table conversation was the kind I imagine people had centuries ago when time was plentiful, relationships matters and distractions were few.

We talked about many things but one of the subjects was the prevalence of moral universalism in American leadership. Moral universalism is the idea that there are certain moral categories which exist throughout the world and which provide an adequate moral code but which have no basis in a personal God. A person with a moral universalistic worldview might say, “Well everyone knows that’s wrong.” The fact that they are unable to articulate any basis for right and wrong is irrelevant to them. Their epistemology does not require that “knowing” be based in anything, or anyone, beyond their own awareness.

Moral universalism is writ large in such documents as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also happens to be the compass of our current President.

In his Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, he said:

“And when all of us, together, are doing our part to reject the narratives of violent extremists, when all of us are doing our part to be very clear about the fact that there are certain President Obamauniversal precepts and values that need to be respected in this interconnected world, that’s the beginnings of a partnership.”

What are the narratives that need to be rejected? Might any and all narratives that are “exclusive” or exclusionary be considered extremist? What if a narrative includes the convictional belief that if you do not believe and follow the particular individual at the center of the story then you will be cut off from real life now and eternal life forevermore? Must that narrative be rejected? You see where I fear this is headed.

A system of thought, a plan for global peace, a moral code constructed on the kinds of “universal precepts” espoused by the President is on shaky ground. The only firm foundation for an integrated worldview that leads to governance based on the rule of law (and not a tyrannical ruler or elitist class) is the Logos, the Word: eternal, unchanging, all sufficient, living, active, knowable, personal, objective, True.

The attempt to derive law without a Lawgiver is futile because in the end, each human act is personal. In a world run amok where God is rejected and the accumulation of matter is all that matters, then Darwin’s observations hold: the strongest, meanest, most selfish individuals and systems prevail.

Of equal hubris is the attempt to reconcile warring sinful people without a change of heart and mind that leads to a consistent pattern of peace governed not by external law or force but by the inward presence of the peace that passes all understanding which flows from the One whom alone is the Prince of Peace.

Divest from America?

The College Fix was first to report that the board of the University of California Student Association approved a resolution that calls on the UC system to divest itself financially from the United States.

The UC system has investments totally some $91 Billion and are already subject to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing. But the Student Association does not see the UN going far enough alleging the U.S. commits violations of human rights through its allegedly racist criminal justice system, deportation of those in the country illegally and the use of drones to combat terrorism around the globe.

According to The College Fix, in addition to calling on the Board of Regents to divest all UC holdings from U.S. treasuries, the resolution also called fund managers “‘to withdraw investments in securities, endowments, mutual funds, and other monetary instruments with holdings’ from the governments of Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Sri Lanka and Mexico, as well as the U.S.”

Mainline Christians have grown accustom to calls for divestment from companies the end use of whose products are used for “non peaceable pursuits” in the Occupied territories eternally argued over by Israel and the non-Israeli residents of the West Bank and Gaza.  More recently divestment calls have also been heard related to companies who own the rights to fossil fuels still in the ground. But the call to divest from America is a new twist.

What would that practically mean?  Is the Student Association saying that the UC system should not accept Federal money for programs, research or student grants or loans?  As citizens in a state that functions by utilizing hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal funding for welfare, education, transportation, eldercare, healthcare, etc., are these California students really ready to live without access to clean water, electric power from the national grid, access to airline travel, and the removal of all Federal agents from California’s southern border and coastlines currently curtailing drug and human trafficking?  Are the students ready to give up all access to the more than 11 million acres of California that are governed and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management?

Maybe the UC system needs to re-evaluate admissions criteria and certify that students in their system have a basic understanding of how the world actually works and verify completion of a basic course in civics. When the Board of Regents meets and the resolution from the Student Association is presented, maybe someone should educate those present that the predator drone is a product of a California company that pays taxes – including taxes that support the UC system. Uh-oh.  Maybe the resolution should be expanded. Maybe the UC system should not accept money from the State of California that is tainted by the nature of the products produced and sold in California.

Should the UC system also forgo benefiting from taxes paid by:

It seems to me that the students need to do their homework, and some coursework in how capitalism works and the benefits of it.

Is the U.S. system perfect? No, certainly not. But there’s reason that the U.N. headquarters is in New York and there’s a reason that many more millions of people are trying to immigrate TO the U.S. than those seeking to leave it.

On the other hand, it does occur to me that the resolution proposed by the Student Association would have the effect of bankrupting the UC system over time. And maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing if these students are any indication of what the system is producing.

 

Did you catch what the President did not say?

 

Like you, I’ve heard what the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. But did you hear what he didn’t say?

Yes, speaking about the barbaric hideous murderous violence that man perpetrates against man, the President said:

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Was this a jab at Christians? Maybe, but maybe not.  The President did not say that “Christians” had committed terrible deeds nor justified slavery. He said that terrible deeds and slavery had been justified “in the name of Christ.”  The President’s words are carefully chosen and his speeches carefully crafted and he would not have delivered those barbs without forethought.

So, parsing out what he said from what he didn’t say–what’s the difference?

The President consistently rejects that terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko-Haram are Muslim. He continually seeks to segregate them from what he perceives to be the majority Muslim faith. If you understand that, you can easily connect the dots to what he was trying to communicate at the Prayer Breakfast.

Were the Crusades and the Inquisition “Christian” or were they “done in the name of Christ” while perverting the Way of Christ?

Are ISIS and Boko-Haram “Muslim” or are they doing what they are doing “in the name of Allah” while perverting the way of Islam?

Serious debate surrounds the answer to that question but you can see the parallel that the President was seeking to draw. Maybe he could have said it better, but let us not say that he said something he didn’t say. Remember, words matter.

Now, to read an excellent assessment of why the President should not have said what he chose to say, read this from Front Page.

More Reformed?

Reformation WallReformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God is one of the mantras that emerged from the Reformation in the 1500’s. However, in the last 30 years, the Reformation slogan has been truncated by some who embrace the “always reforming” idea–without actually holding to either the Reformed theology nor the binding of how those reforms might come, the “according to the Word of God” foundation.

The subject then is discernment. Discerning the perfect and pleasing will of God. Discerning the mind of Christ. Discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit as distinct from the spirit of the world.

The case in point is marriage. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the church (Roman Catholic) taught that marriage was one of the seven sacraments.  The Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, could find no Biblical evidence to support the continuance of five of the seven sacraments, so they pared them down to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That is part of what it means to be Reformed: we look to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments for direction and guidance on issues of faith and practice.

So, when considering the current question of redefining marriage, the Scriptures must be our first source of counsel. And as the Church, we are then obliged to follow God’s Word no matter how much we might like to do something else.

More reformed?
Based on what the Reformers meant by being Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God, being “more reformed” would be to be more fully aligned with God’s will as revealed in the Bible.

But Brian Ellison, Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (CovNet) argues that the recent push to redefine marriage in the PC(USA) is “more reformed” because it provides greater clarity on the relationship between the church and state.  He says, “Couples marry each other by exchanging promises, not by being awarded a special sacred status that only the church can grant.”

His claim that this is more reformed twists the very definition of the term.  To be more reformed means that it is now closer to Scripture’s clear teaching.  In both the Old and New Testaments, marriage is always and everywhere defined as a union between a man and a woman.  There are lots of pictures of marriage in Scripture that are not monogamous (polygamy is most commonly brought up) but nowhere does God bless this. Instead, all marriage related departures from one man and one woman are attributed to the fall of humanity, that means they are categorically a part of sin. If we read the texts closely we see this. Case in point: according to Jesus, divorce is allowed because of the hardness of heart not because God blesses divorce

Jesus’ AI on marriage
Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of Genesis 2:24-25 is found in Mark 10:6-9. Here Jesus affirms the teachings of the Old Testament and lays out God’s clear design for marriage.  Notably Jesus affirms that it is God who designed and blesses marriage. Jesus does not say that marriage is primarily a function of the State, nor does He say that marriage is simply a human institution. Jesus affirms that marriage is instituted by God and then He affirms the one man, one woman design. Jesus offers no alternatives to that design.

The effort to be more reformed requires an interpretation closer to the Scriptures not further from them. Which means that to be more reformed cannot lead where Ellison suggests: a redefinition of marriage that includes expressions that Scripture uniformly condemns.

What do the Confessions say?
The Reformed heritage is not without its own witnesses.  The Book of Confessions, which all ordained officers of the PCUSA vow to be instructed and led by, uniformly define marriage as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.  This is not on the basis of a society’s historical or cultural perspective, but because it is what the Word of God has laid out from Genesis to Revelation. What the Confessions say about marriage is clear.

When Ellison declares that “by honoring the marriages of all people, we lift up the value of covenant commitment, which reflects qualities of the relationship between Christ and the church…. It is time for our constitutional documents to acknowledge the lives and faith of all families, including the many families formed around same-gender couples in our churches.”

I could not agree more.  But to be more reformed we would first start with our covenantal relationship with God and be conformed to the promises we made to Him in our baptism:

  • to turn from sin to Jesus Christ as our Lord and to be His faithful disciple,
  • obeying His Word and showing His love.

Starting at the font we can begin to talk about the realities of sin and grace, the power of the Cross of Christ to free us both from sin’s penalty (death) and sin’s power (proclivities and practices that are contrary to God’s revealed will). To suggest that God would overlook sexual sin and instead bless it as sacred is to completely pervert the message of the cross and strips Christ’s sacrifice of its atoning power.

Here then we see the connection between the contemporary debates about sexual practice and the interpretation of the Bible, Christology, atonement theology and beliefs about salvation itself.

Living in redemptive reality
In redemptive reality (where the very real sin of the very real sinner is atoned for by the very real sacrificial death of the very real Messiah of the very real personal, infinite, Trinitarian God) marriage is not primarily about us.  Human joy, human fulfillment, and human desires are not the axis around which the redemptive world turns. That cornerstone, that moral compass, that point of integration is the Cross of Jesus Christ.

So, from that perspective, the redeeming value of marriage is spiritual. God chooses the image of marriage between Jesus, the bridegroom, in union with the Church, His bride, to open a window of understanding into heaven.  The Bride of Christ will be presented to Him pure, undefiled and Holy.  The exclusively feminine representation of the Bride and the equally exclusive presentation of Christ as masculine is inescapable. If God had wanted to introduce other options He certainly could have done so. But the witness of Scripture is not divided on this subject and the Bible is the final authority for our faith and life as Christians.

Our denominational decisions ought not be guided by our desire for everyone to be happy but instead, God’s holiness and glory. Likewise, our constitutional documents ought not be conformed to our sinful nature, but to the life of obedience into which Jesus leads and calls. The PC(USA) as an expression of the Church of Jesus Christ, is to be reformed and always reforming- in all ways and always according to the Word of God who promises to conform us to Christ’s nature.

Christ made clear the Church’s calling and commission when He sent His disciples into the world “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything” Christ commanded. That “everything” includes what Jesus commands about marriage. He was not silent on the matter. By His presence at the wedding at Cana He demonstrates His blessing of that marriage between a man and a woman. In His answer about divorce He affirms the Genesis text and blesses again male/female design. In His description of the Church as the Bride being prepared for Him, Jesus affirms again God’s perspective on the nature of marriage.  For the church to now teach otherwise is to be conformed to the world, not to be transformed or more reformed, according to the Word of God.

“If any persons are joined together, than as God’s Word allows, their union is not blessed by him” (Book of Common Worship, PCUSA, 1948, p. 184).

LaBergeCarmen Fowler LaBerge is president and executive editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. 

Is PCUSA decline just a ‘rummage sale?’

churchwide srummage sale2The Rev. John Buchanan, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the editor and publisher of Christian Century has said in an interview that the decline of Protestant denominations does not suggest that they are doing something wrong, but that the church is going through a major shift. ““I think we’re in the middle of a rummage sale. We’re trying to figure out what comes next,” he said.

His comments in the Tulsa World article include:Buchanan’s ideas are not new.

According to one sociologist, Buchanan said, about every 500 years the church undergoes the equivalent of a rummage sale.

“Things that are old and worn out get sold to make room for new things,” he said. “Every 500 years there’s a major shift.”

The Protestant Reformation was 500 years ago, and 500 years before that was the split between the Roman Catholic Church in the West and Orthodox Church in the East.

“So we’re due. … There’s a great shake-up going on among all Protestant denominations,” he said.

“Lots of congregations that have served wonderfully for 100 years, 200 years, are seemingly in dire straits. Their membership is down. Their membership is aging.”

He said the reasons for the decline are complex, including changing demographics.

“I think we’re in the middle of a rummage sale. We’re trying to figure out what comes next.

“And I think something new is going to emerge out of this. We don’t know what it is yet.”

 

Buchanan’s ideas are not new. He is repeating the thesis of Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  Tickle argues that every 500 years the Church makes a transition and something essentially new emerges. Buchanan is characterizing that as a rummage sale.

The question then is what’s up for sale in American old-line Protestantism?

One answer would be buildings. According to LoopNet.Com, there are more than 1300 churches for sale nationwide. The five states with the largest number of churches for sale are also large geographically and demographically. The sites lists 146 in Texas, 135 in Florida, 129 in California, 110 in Georgia and 76 churches on the market in New York. But church facilities are just part of what Buchanan sees as a national religious rummage sale, also up for grabs are the historic doctrines of the faith.

The United Church of Christ (UCC), The Episcopal Church (TEC), Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) have placed on the curb many of the doctrinal distinctives of the Protestant Reformation faiths in which they were forged. The ELCA is not recognizably Lutheran if what you mean by that is attached to theology espoused by Martin Luther. Nor is the PCUSA recognizable as a body that upholds the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster standards. Buchanan is right in his observation that there’s “a great shake up” in all Protestant denominations. But what he sees as positive progressive emergence others see as loss.

Isn’t that often the way with rummage sales? What one person sees as well-worn, worthy of preserving, and integral to the life of the household another sees as worn out, in need of replacing and utterly dispensable.

So it would seem, taking Buchanan’s analogy, that even in theology the adage holds true: one man’s treasure is another’s man trash.

Your thoughts? Is American Protestantism in the midst of a rummage sale? And if so, what’s being jettisoned in your local church to make room for the new?

LaBergeCarmen Fowler LaBerge is president and executive editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also visit Carmen at her website, CarmenFowlerLaBerge.com.

You stink. Get used to it.

you_stinkI find myself in more circular conversations these days than I’d like to admit. I’m still waiting for even one exchange that spirals up and not down. Just yesterday one such conversation ended with a person calling me names and then adding with physically animated angry flourish, “You literally stink! I can’t stand it!”

To be clear, I have no hope that everyone will like me. In fact, I know that most people don’t and likely won’t. I stopped worrying about it long ago when I realized one crucial truth: I stink.

There is no doubt that human pheromones are powerful. The scent or smell of another person can actually affect the behavior of others. Some may be drawn in but others may be repulsed and repelled.

Consider for a moment what makes you salivate when you catch a whiff of it …

Now consider what makes you gag when it wafts your way.

What is a fragrant aroma to the one is the very smell of death to another. But that is no surprise to those who have read II Corinthians 2:14-16a. I like the J.B. Phillips translation:

14-16a Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on His own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of Him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume! We Christians have the unmistakeable “scent” of Christ, discernible alike to those who are being saved and to those who are heading for death. To the latter it seems like the very smell of doom, to the former it has the fresh fragrance of life itself.

So, the accusation of stinking is unavoidable for the Christian. If you are in Christ and Christ is in you; if you are indeed a temple of the Holy Spirit and God is making His appeal to the world through you, then — face it — you stink.

It’s time evangelical Christians wake up to the reality that to be like Jesus is to be rejected by the world. For the most part, people hated Jesus. Herod had dozens of young boys slaughtered trying to rid the world of the infant Christ. The people in His home town of Nazareth tried to stone Him after He preached in their synagogue. One of His best friends sold Him out for a handful of silver. And the crowds who on one day hailed Him as “Hosanna,” four or five days later called for Jesus to be crucified.  Most people thought that Jesus stank. He didn’t give them what they wanted: liberation from Roman occupation, tyranny and suffering. What He gave was Light and Life and Salvation, but people loved darkness and hated Jesus.

For too long we have hoped that we could have it both ways: With Jesus on the one hand and yet popular with the world and its ways.  But the only way that’s ever going to be true is when the world is aligned with God’s will, which is not the world we now inhabit.

G.K. Chesterton put it poetically in “The Song of the Quoodle,”

They haven’t got no noses,
The fallen sons of Eve;
Even the smell of roses
Is not what they supposes;
But more than mind discloses
And more than men believe.

In case you need a decoder ring for that: People are not going to find you fragrant because since the Fall, they think God stinks.

Embrace it Christian, you stink.

 

Government sets a price on life while others march for it

18-20The two headlines reveal the variant values placed on human life by Americans.

March for Life 2015 forty-two years after Roe v Wade we still march on” and

CBO: Saving unborn babies from abortion will increase the budget deficit

Those who march for life today in cities across the nation recognize the intrinsic value and worth of every human life.  Those seeking to estimate the burden to society of protecting children whose mothers wait for more than five months of pregnancy before deciding to terminate them, see things differently. How then do we count the cost of a human life? Is a person a blessing or a burden?

Fifty-six million American babies have been terminated in the past 42 years. What might their value have been to society? What might they have added to our common life? What might they have discovered, achieved, learned and taught us? To suggest, as the CBO financial analysis assumes, that many or most of those people would have been a burden on the rest of us is not only an economically derogatory assessment of the women who have late term abortions, it is pessimistic about the children whose lives are in the balance. Who knows that one of them wouldn’t be the next Bill Gates?

So, what’s a life worth?

From God’s perspective, who the Bible says “knit you together in your mother’s womb,” and describes your pre-born form as “fearfully and wonderfully made,” you are precious.  And from God’s perspective the orphan who never amounts to anything in the world is as precious in His sight as the billionaire Nobel Peace Prize winner.  You may remember Mother Theresa … this is the truth that she embraced and the value she expended her life seeking to teach the rest of us.

If people are just well-organized accidents of the intersection of time and chance and matter, as some would have us believe, then the CBO’s assessment makes rational sense. If the Bible is right and every human being has intrinsic value then we all better head out now to join the March for Life.

Related articles:

Abortion and the gospel, by Russell Moore, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Christians declare solidarity with unborn at March for Life, by Mark Tooley, Institute on Religion and Democracy

Cardinal: No pro-life victory without reaching the marginalized, by Matt Hadro, Catholic News Agency

March for Life: 42 years after Roe v. Wade, half of Americans say abortion is morally wrong, by Melissa Barnhart, the Christian Post

When no experience is necessary, by John Knight, DesigingGod.com

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