Monday, July 31, 2006

In Response (Again)

This blog is consciously written with two audiences in mind: my own congregation and those who are generally interested in what is going on in the PCUSA. Today’s blog is primarily addressed to the former.

I make no secret of my frustration with what is going on in the PCUSA because as a pastor, I am deeply concerned with the PCUSA’s departure from long-held Biblical beliefs and practices. Some of you have expressed concern (to others, not to my face) that I am “bashing” the denomination. Some have even, so I’ve heard, said that I am making things appear worse than they are through “half-truths.” Neither one is true. I’m simply stating things as they are.

This is the denomination into which I was ordained—by choice, not family history, pressure, or anything else. Even now I believe that Presbyterian/Reformed theology is the best expression of what Scripture truly teaches. I believe that our organizational system (polity) is the best among all. Why, then, am I negative? I am so because our theology has been discarded and our polity gutted—as evidenced in the 271th GA’s ruling that individual sessions and presbyteries may declare beliefs and practices that the PCUSA has historically insisted are essential now to be “non-essential.”

Some of you, apparently, wish that I would say some good things about the PCUSA. I admit that the Presbyterian church has done much good. Individual congregations and presbyteries continue this tradition of blessing. But our national denomination has gone so wrong that this situation must be addressed.

Suppose that you went to a doctor who had had a wonderful reputation as a careful, scientific diagnostician. He was solely responsible for saving thousands of lives. More than that, he’s a nice person—you like him a lot.

But things of late have changed. Now he is consistently wrong in his diagnoses. People he once might have saved are now dying because he is simply wrong. More than that, he has begun to abandon traditional medicine (maybe this is why patients are dying) and has convinced a significant minority of his patients that the use of crystals and chants are more effective than antibiotics, surgery, or other typical medical procedures.

Would you continue to entrust your family’s health to him? Or would you say “We have to say good things about him because of the good he did in the past”? Would it be healthy to say “We need to stay with him out of loyalty”? Would it be appropriate to say “We’ll stick with him because we can ignore his unscientific medicine and treat ourselves”? Would it be more important to balance critical statements with positive ones, or would it be more important to save lives?

To me, this seems to be the kind of argument I’m hearing. Some believe that denominational loyalty is the highest good. And a number of churches are saying that they can do what they want on their own, so why should they be concerned about the denomination?

People have expressed the hope that we can change the problems from within. This is what hundreds of pastors and even more elders have struggled to do for the last 30 years. The problems haven’t improved; they’ve only worsened in that time.

Friends, it would be much easier for me to ignore what is going on in the PCUSA. I am eligible for retirement in just five years, so it would be easy to ride this out and leave the problem to my successors. We cannot be so short-sighted. What is happening in the PCUSA now will have long-term effects on all congregations in the denomination. Ignoring negative issues and saying what is positive might feel better for the moment, but it will in no way correct the problems we face. In fact, it will make the problems worse.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hope for the future.

We live in a particularly frustrating time for mainline denominations—for all denominations. The existing institutions are in rapid decline, and most people looking for a church today find the denominational connection to be irrelevant. As I look to the future, though, I can imagine some very good things.

First, and the best, would be the renewal of the PCUSA. If we refocused on a Biblical theology and doing what the church uniquely can do, we’d flourish. This is still a possibility for which I pray daily.

Benefits of Denominations
Second, we may well join another Presbyterian denomination, of which there are many in the USA. I believe that a denominational structure is important on several levels. First, it provides a system of accountability for pastors and congregations. There are numerous horror stories of independent churches and pastors that have gone far astray theologically and morally without such accountability.

Cooperative Mission
Another benefit of denominations is the cooperative mission that we can do. If we have theological harmony, we will have a common purpose in mission. I think that this will bring powerful focus to congregations and build up a connectivity that is not based strictly on legal issues.

New Church Development
Denominations also can provide a fertile base for building up new congregations. Presbyterian/Reformed theology is what I believe our culture needs, with its emphasis on God’s sovereignty, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of teaching the clear meaning of Scripture.
The best way to expand our teaching is through starting new churches. Presbyterians generally have a poor record of new church starts. The last new churches founded in Eastern Oklahoma were in 1982. Four churches started then, three are still here today. Of those three, only one shows signs of healthy growth.
I believe that our own church could start several new ones in the next ten years. If we are part of a denomination that really believes in new church development, and helps larger congregations make that happen, this could be a major part of our mission outreach.

Greater Spiritual Focus
While I believe that denominations should have an impact on our culture, I believe this comes more from teaching our faith than from political influence. All the mainline denominations have invested great time, effort, and money in trying to move our country on highly politicized issues. Commissioners to General Assembly (as I know from personal experience) have to read hundreds of pages of background information for voting on issues like the reunification of the two Koreas, or labor/management issues in targeted industries.
While these are important issues, I don't believe that denominations are the best entities to address them. The Church has a unique mission--to spread the news of Jesus Christ. When people come to know Him, and to know the Word, it will appropriately affect how they live in and influence the world. I would rather have a dozen faithful, equipped people engaged in their world on a daily basis than a majority vote of the GA favoring my favorite political issue.

Spiritual Unity
Finally, if congregations and pastors no longer have the tensions of political and theological infighting, we can go about the work to which we were originally called. I have a limited numbers of years left in ministry. My first three decades have been in the midst of frustrations with a denomination without a solid core of beliefs and standards. I deeply desire to have whatever time is left for me be a time of denominational cooperation and growth.

I don’t ever expect to be in a denomination where there is complete agreement. But I do want to be in one that knows what it believes, and graciously holds to it. One way or another, I expect that we will arrive there.

More Responses

I’ve been away for a week, resting up from the convocation and for whatever lies ahead. I was out of email contact, so I wasn’t able to see the latest comments on this blog. There have been a couple of significant ones, with similar themes, so I’d like to address them here.

The first theme addressed my comments on the need for the church to be Scripture centered in order to teach and protect us and our children. One comment stated “We cannot protect our children from bad influences in the world or in our church.” The respondent went on to say, “In a church like the PCUSA we are in a unique and privileged position of not being able very much to avoid the current fads of unbelief, as they go right through our church, which forces us to know them and to answer them.”

I don’t think for a moment that we can avoid contact with the bad influences in the world, but I do believe that we can provide protection against whatever in it is harmful. A good analogy is driving. We teach our youth the rules of the road for their protection. If they ignore them, it is to their peril (and, perhaps, anyone else on the road with them). The fact that we teach the rules is because we KNOW that they will encounter bad driving and dangerous situations. So it is, I believe, with Scripture and life. Scripture sets out what is right. If we truly KNOW it, we will fare better by acting as God created us to act. Just as good drivers occasionally fail the rules of the road, all of us occasionally faith Scriptural precepts. That we do is occasion for confession, not the abandonment or diminishing of Scripture’s role in our lives.

I don’t see what is positive about our “unique and privileged position” in the PCUSA. If we were Biblically addressing what is happening in culture, that would be great. Trouble is, we seem to be joining culture as quickly as we can cast off the restraints of a common-sense understanding of Scripture.

A second theme is about the focus on sexuality. The reason this blog has been focused there is because our denomination is focused there. I didn’t ask that we have a conflict over sexual mores. People have come into or out of our denomination demanding change, creating the conflict. Not to respond would be unfaithful. If the current debate were over greed, or gluttony, or any other human failing being redefined as a “good” part of God’s creation, that’s what the subject would be. That we are talking about this now in no way means that I ignore other important issues.

The third theme is about all the negativity concerning the PCUSA. If you believe that this is made up, I believe that you are in denial. If you believe it is true, but that we shouldn’t address it, I believe that you are in even more dangerous denial. The issues we are addressing are not minor. They go to the very foundations of our faith.

There can come a time when the negatives so outweigh the positives that it is a form of denial to “balance” things. When you go to the doctor with a particular complaint and she diagnoses a life-threatening condition, the focus will need to go there. If you’ve been having chest-pains, it’d be smart to talk about them instead of addressing a sore knee.

Our denomination has been declining for the last 40 years. This decline has to do with demographics, theological disagreements, and moral tension. Those of us in renewal groups have joined them to try to bring these issues to the attention of the denomination while there was time to change.

Sadly, it seems that such a time may be past. The 217th General Assembly demonstrated that, faced with the naked truth, the denomination still supported falsehood. It was not and is not open to change that will effect spiritual and numeric growth. If a patient ignores the doctor’s diagnosis and treatment, the doctor moves on, leaving the patient to his own devises.

I wish that I could say more good about our denomination. I realize that there are good Christians throughout the PCUSA. I see acts of love and kindness because of this denomination in response to tragedies like the Katrina disaster. But—unless the negatives before us are addressed and corrected—there will be little or no opportunity to maintain or increase the good that is being done.

Unless we begin to reach out effectively to younger people, there will be no PCUSA in just a generation. Unless we begin to affirm a Biblically consistent theology, the Lord will not bless this denomination or others through it. I believe that we are on an incredibly slippery slope toward demise.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

How Would You Respond?

I received a comment to one of my recent blogs that deserves special attention. I’m truly thankful for any responses to what I write. When you put out what you think, you should expect legitimate, contrary opinions. What follows is the comment sent by Jodie. I reply below it.


I hope the reason you have a public blog is to invite comment without taking offense. I grew up as a Presbyterian PK and MK, and both of my grandparents were Presbyterian pastors as well. I am not unfamiliar with church politics. However I am not ordained and my adult life has been as a member of the church, not of the clergy. So I am bicultural even when it comes to the church itself. There is a huge chasm between the church you attend and the church we attend - the members of churches such as yours. You live in a completely different universe than we do. I give you this feedback in the knowledge that as with Plato's parable of the men in the cave, it is almost impossible to communicate across this chasm, but I must. For your sake and ours.

In your universe it is important to you who my congregation and presbytery ordains and how, and whether you get along with the commissioners of the GA and whether they are conservative, or liberal or other. In ours, it is not. I am a member of a big church. It makes no difference to my fellow church members and me whether your presbytery ordains fat people, skinny people, gay people, divorced people, liberals, fundamentalists, or neither. When we hire a pastor, the fact that they are ordained only means they get to apply for the job. After that, it is a matter of who they are, whether their skills and gifts match our needs, whether they like us and the opportunity we offer, and their own priorities.

Their priorities, your priorities, should be your own congregation.

Our lives are not filled with church polity but they are full nevertheless. There is scarcely any room in our lives to add to them the problems the clergy have with each other. In fact, one measure of a good pastor is how well he or she protects the congregation from whatever nonsense may be going on with the church at large. I think this may be what Bill is at least in part trying to tell you. What we need from our pastors is the word of God for our lives, fresh air - the breath of God - for our lives, teaching for our lives, prayers for our lives. The Gospel for our lives. If we then interact with the world and the world changes for the better because our lives are filled with the Spirit of God, that is when your ministry is fulfilled. Not when you go around trying to spear the windmills of the whole denomination. Whatever evil happens with the denomination only affects us if you drag it in. Please do not. As my mother used to say, before you come in the house wipe the mud off your shoes.

Church politics serves only to distract you (and us) from our primary purpose. It will always be there, like the devil, pretending to be important; telling you if you only do this one thing for him, he will let you save the world. Silly. If it's not one thing it's another. If you want to leave the PCUSA and find another church to pay attention to, you only need to look out over your own congregation.

In my humble opinion,

Dear Jodie,
No offense taken at all. I realize that all of us are centered on the world we live in—not that of other people.

The place where I’d disagree with you is at the intersection of these things. You wrote, "Whatever evil happens with the denomination only affects us if you drag it in. Please do not." Can we ignore what goes on in a denomination when it may eventually have a spiritual, moral effect upon those who have no idea of what is going on right now?

I have a granddaughter who is a sixth grader. She has been a part of my congregation since birth and, because of that, I believe that she is getting a good, orthodox Christian background. Should she be the only sixth grader I care about? There are many of that age in my congregation, but millions more outside it. If our denomination is teaching that abortion is a strictly personal choice, that all expressions of sexuality are equally moral, or that Scripture may or may not be true, isn’t that of concern beyond my church’s walls?

In high school I attended a church where I met my wife, Chrissie. We were taught Biblical values there as a real, practical guide for our lives. At that age, of course, some of the Biblical injunctions on sexual expression were particularly timely and important.

I did a paper in my junior year on changing views of sex (this was the mid-60s). In my research I came across a copy of the Presbyterian magazine, Church and Society. There I read that premarital sex was natural, moral, and normative. My first reaction was to think that I could buy in to this kind of church teaching—after all, it matched exactly what my hormones were telling me.

Thankfully, the Biblical teaching I received, and continued to receive, kept me on the right track. This, I believe, is why I am still successfully and happily married after 38 years (this after being married at age 18!). I thank God for the people who, in my childhood church, were faithful in the teaching of Scripture and its practical application to daily life. The fact that certain actions are normative in society does NOT mean that they are right, healthy, or even helpful. Add to that the fact that Christians are called to live a life in obedience to Christ and Scriptures apart from whatever the world might be teaching.

When a denomination leaves Scripture, it leaves its people defenseless. This may not be apparent at the outset, or even for many, many years. Eventually, though, it will take its toll in human lives and souls. Just consider how dangerous life is today (sexually, in terms of addiction, crime, etc.) compared to the time of my childhood. No one really thought that the “little” changes we were making then for the sake of personal “freedom” would have any negative effect on anyone else. After all, our philosophy told us, “if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s alright for me.”

Sadly, we now know first hand what Donne wrote: “No man is an island.” What I teach affects generations. What my denomination teaches does so on an even greater scale. We all should be VERY concerned.


Justified Pride

The next-to-last action of the NWI convocation was to invite the Kirk staff and volunteers forward for thanks and prayer. The attendees gave us a long standing ovation. I am so proud of the Kirk. You have shown hundreds of people from all over the nation just how warm, hospitable, and faithful you are.

I have attended many conferences and, although I’m deeply prejudiced about the Kirk, I believe it’s accurate to say that I’ve never seen any other church or staff do better. More than 250 of you volunteered. Some of you were there all hours of the day and night. Our staff was there with you. For weeks before, all of us have been working behind the scenes to make it all run as smoothly as it did.

It showed. This was a conference that was excellent in content and execution. It wouldn’t have been without you. Dozens of commissioners and observers stopped me to say that they feel the same way.

I was going to blog tonight on what I thought would happen next. The fact is, I’m just too tired to think as clearly as I’d like, so I’ll save that for next week. I will also begin to blog about our future—not so much where, for we’ve not decided that, but what. I believe that wonderful things lie ahead of us. I’ll be sharing those thoughts with you.

Keep praying--keep the faith.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Sad Smell of Fear

Twenty years ago I attended a conference with pastors from many denominations. One pastor was from a denomination that believed only they were true Christians. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and any others were unlikely to go to heaven. This pastor made each of us assure him that we would tell no one that he attended. If his denomination found out, he said, he would be immediately fired and defrocked. I could hardly believe the atmosphere of fear his denomination inspired.

Tonight I sensed the same kind of atmosphere, and it was my denomination inspiring the fear. New Wineskins’ board (of which I am a member) proposed forming a group of nine people to, among other things, prepare strategies for any church considering separation from the PCUSA. As we debated the proposition, many came forward to say that, if we made such an overt statement, their home presbyteries would punish them—just for attending our conference.

I am in a presbytery that, while not sympathetic to our struggle with the PCUSA, has not been hostile to us. But these folk are truly in a scary place. How sad it is that some Presbyterians are afraid even to speak out for fear of retribution. Their primary fears are two: that pastors’ ordination will be removed and that church property will be confiscated. For some, sadly, these are rational fears.

Contrast this with a discussion I had with the leaders of another Presbyterian denomination who told me that pastors and congregations may freely move in or out of their organization without prejudice. It seems clear that people in this denomination are united by belief, not fear of what they might lose. In contrast, the PCUSA, while completely tolerant of theological deviation, is rigid about finances, property, and polity.

We passed the motion for this group to form. They will be appointed by our board and do their research over the next couple of months, reporting back at another convocation to be held in February, in Orlando, Florida (I suggested that, since they spent the hottest time of summer in Tulsa, we should at least schedule our winter meeting in Minneapolis). I expect that many, but not all, New Wineskin churches will make a decision to withdraw from the PCUSA at that time. Some will leave before that time, and others we don’t know now will join in years to come.

How sad it is that ANYONE should have to make such a decision in an atmosphere of fear instead of Christian love.

Keep praying—keep the faith.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The entire convocation is built around worship. Michael Card, a very gifted composer and singer, leads us in worship. As he listens to our speakers, he adjusts his selections of songs to fit the underlying themes and concerns he senses.

Michael, leading worship.

Michael not only sings, but teaches, as well. His teaching and songs are Biblically grounded. It’s obvious that his heart is in tune with the Lord and the Lord’s people. As we get caught up in the problems of the day, we are brought back to the solutions to our problems, Jesus Christ. As we are focused too much on our needs and fears, we are led back to our hope and comfort in Jesus Christ.

Michael’s clear tenor voice soars throughout the sanctuary, lifting up the Lord and, thereby, us, too.

The Direction Seems Clearer

As we prepared for this convocation, I was unsure where people would be concerning our denomination. Are we going to stay, fight, and hope to win? Will we all walk out en masse? The truth is in-between, as usual, but just barely.

Listening to people at the pre-convocation seminar on New Wineskins opened my eyes. We had been prepared to present what we are, and what we stand for, and then take questions. All that happened was that we answered questions. Without exception, people cried out for leadership that would find a way out of our denomination. Folks are dismayed, worn down, and desperate for new wine.

Delegates and observers in the Kirk sanctuary

How will this happen? Well, nothing official will come until we’re through with our delegates’ meeting on Friday. The sense is that we will thoroughly investigate how congregations together can seek dismissal from their presbyteries. Property questions are important, but they’re not primary. Moving on in faithful, evangelical, orthodox ministry and fellowship is key.

We’ll keep praying and singing and talking. The Lord is beginning to speak in clearer tones. We’re listening…

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It's Going to Be a Hot Time in Tulsa

Today is the first day of the second national convocation of New Wineskins. Last year we met in Edina, Minnesota, with beautifully mild weather. This year we’re in hot Tulsa at its hottest in years. The temp tomorrow is going to push 105 (fortunately, with low humidity, it will only feel like 115). Still, it’s a cool 73 throughout the Kirk buildings and the only hot thing in here, we hope, will be our hearts on fire for the Lord.

I’ve seen many, many friends coming in the early hours of registration. More than 250 of our wonderful members are serving as much-needed volunteers. Our staff has been printing, collating, stuffing and distributing material non-stop. There’s a real sense of impending blessing.

One of the differences between the NWI convocations and others I’ve attended is that ours are worship-centered. We believe that all good—including good decisions—come as we glorify the Lord. So, we’ll hear great music led by Michael Card, sermons by many great teachers and preachers, and we’ll have ample times of prayer and reflection throughout.

What will come of this? I can’t tell. I do know that hundreds of congregations are dismayed with the direction of our denomination—that’s already been expressed by mail and in person here so far. There are many options, none of them easy, for us to follow. But there is one that is the Lord’s. This is what we’re here to discern. Pray for us.
Your brother in Christ,

Monday, July 10, 2006

Countdown to the New Wineskins Convocation

It’s just a little more than a week until the NWI convocation begins. There’s still just a little time left to register for it. You can go to for specific information or you can talk to either Nan Clark or Michelle Iverson at Kirk of the Hills (918-494-7088). Nan and Michelle can help you with hotels, too.

You can go onto the New Wineskins website for the schedule of events. We’re going to have plenary speakers who will set the tone for where we are going in the next year. There will be innovative and exciting worship. Break-out sessions will deal with issues from denominational ethics to legal and property issues. There will be opportunities for those of you who are completely new to NWI to find out who we are and how you will fit. For everyone there will be regional meetings to help you set up your own network (if you haven’t already) and get to meet people from like-minded churches.

There is a LOT going on behind the scenes, and this isn’t just with our convocation. The aftershocks from the GA are shaking people awake in a way they’ve never been before. You’ll be heartened and amazed at what the Lord is doing, and how some of His Presbyterian churches are preparing for the immediate future.

Keep the faith,

It's Time to Speak Up

At the 1978 GA in San Diego I distinctly remember the proponents of a progressive view on homosexuality and homosexual ordination assuring us that they would not regard opposition to homosexual lifestyle as homophobic. I also remember that the issue involved only gays and lesbians (GLs).

Fast forward to today and we hear that, if we are opposed to same-sex marriage, we are homophobic. And it’s not just about gays and lesbians anymore. It’s about GLBTs (so far).

Had such a change occurred over one or two years, the majority of the church would have arisen in righteous protest. But it’s happened one small step at a time. Now we’re thrilled that the last GA wasn’t as bad as we expected. We celebrate “victories” like “receiving” a report on the Trinity instead of adopting it. We add a few words to a contentious PUP paragraph and then put our hope in the Stated Clerk’s opinion or some vague PJC decision in the future.

That opinion will be able to be interpreted to the favor of all sides. We’ll sift through the minutiae of the PJC reports and hold up whatever hopeful scraps we find as a sign to hang on.

Pastors of churches large and small are thankful that they’ve not spoken out on these issues, or that the press coverage is slight, because that means they won’t face a reaction from their congregations. Such thinking avoids the fact that their congregations’ reactions might be truly righteous and timely.

It’s time to recognize the truth: the PCUSA not going to get better without radical intervention, and that soon.

This debate isn’t an argument over social standards. We’re talking about people’s eternal souls and subsequent eternal condition. In the off chance that the Bible might be true, the message is that an unrepentant life or lifestyle leads not to heaven but to hell. It’s not popular to say that, but it was said long before our time by people illuminated not by opinion, but by the very Spirit of God.

What should we traditionalists demand of our denomination? Just the Biblical minimum.

1. Call all people to repentance. If the Bible identifies a sin and people persistently describe that act as “not sin,” they must be graciously confronted with the truth. This means that cannot call any sin a legitimate “exception.”
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:10)

2. If repentance is refused there must be discipline. Those who will not live by Scripture must leave the fellowship.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12, 13)

3. If the denomination will not call for repentance, or demand discipline, then we must separate ourselves from it.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17)

The current trend is for us traditionalists to sign public statements, withhold funding, rearrange how we’re organized, or set up our own mission agency. These may be fine things on their own, but they historically haven’t made any difference. We have to move from talking about Biblical holiness to demanding it from ourselves and our leaders. If that is not forthcoming, we must disassociate from the PCUSA because it has first disassociated itself from being a Biblical church.