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.



Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

We cannot protect our children from bad influences in the world or in the church. Protecting them -- if that were possible -- would make them weak and unfit for ministering outside the protective bubble. Even if they would go to a college that also protects them from what we consider bad influences, that protection would harm them -- from doing the kind of ministry to which we are all called. We are called to go out of our save environment. If you put a great emphasis on protecting, you disable ministry. The Amish are very good at protecting (and remaining pure by removing those that looking to the outside). They don't evangelize. That's sinfully bad.

Instead, we have to teach and preach the Gospel as well as how to function in the environment of the current fads of unbelief. We have to give our people reasons for believing certain things and reasons for not believing other things, so they can communicate with their world. We are missionaries, all of us (but some more than others).

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. We are on the frontlines of evangelism.

In the days of the New Testament there was absolutely no way of protecting people from the outside bad influences. It was chaotic. Within the church there were heresies. The only answer was persuading people that those were indeed heresies, and what the true Gospel was in contrast to that. In that chaotic world, God did mighty things. The Church became an enormously powerful influence. See also what happened in China in a very few short years since the Red Revolution. (without church buildings, trained leaders, printed bibles, task forces and fund raisers).

We better trust the Holy Spirit, preach the word, warn against false teachings, and love those who are caught in their claws, instead of looking for protection from the world we are supposed to love as God loves it and reach it with the Gospel even if it would mean our crucifixion.

It is easy to serve God in the PC(USA) compared to the price people have to pay for preaching the Gospel in many areas of the world where the church is growing fast. We get paid for it, while we have total freedom to preach and teach what we want. We even have a pension and health insurance. And we live in relative luxury and comfort, contrary to so many of our brothers and sisters.

But you know what, God has led me into ministries where there was no pension fund (and little money for salaries) -- I knew that and I trusted him to provide, either in the form of money, or in the form of health and strength and ability to work until I die. God has never had financial problems, and he has never had a problem in supporting those he wants to support. I am glad to report that He is still doing fine providing for those who trust him.


TomGray said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks for your comment.

You misunderstand me. I do not believe in sheltering us from the world. As I wrote in my blog--I was exposed to the changes in the world. It was the teaching of the church that protected me within that environment. Without that, I could easily have mistaken my hormones for the guidance of the Holy Spirit

We are in a kind of frontline evangelism in the PCUSA. For 30 years, I and others have been trying to be faithful to that. I don't believe, though, that is is a blessing for a denomination to be in heresy.

I have trusted in God all my life. I've been in minstries where the pay was little and sporadic. I've had decades of trusing in the Lord. What was important then and now was learning and teaching the Truth.


Mark Hildebrand said...


I feel that you are being misunderstood by your respondents, as well. You did not say that we should protect our flock from the outside world, but to "not leave them defenseless." Although it is evident that we are responsible for our own faith walk, it is a fact that most parishoners are less than critical thinkers, scripturally, and are vulnerable to the preaching from their pulpit. I value your preaching and teaching, but I still confirm what you teach by comparing it to the Word. If this practice was more prevalent, then heresy would be recognized. In the absence of the "Berean" approach, it is imperative that heretical teaching be exposed. We think nothing of a hard-hitting new report on some business or government scam. Why should our outcry against post-modern theology and the loss of scriptural authority so offensive? I would rather speak out rather than have a "millstone tied around my neck and be cast into the sea."


Anonymous said...

Well, here's 2 more cents:

I am a Presbyterian. I’ve always been proud to say that. Yes, I was born into it; my Dad was a Presbyterian Pastor and Missionary, my Granddad was a Presbyterian minister – Executive Presbyter of New Castle Presbytery, Delaware. I’ve two brothers and cousin that are Presbyterian pastors as well as a number of relatives who are elders in their respective Presbyterian churches.
I’m an elder. But beyond being “born into it,” I’ve grown to understand and respect the reformed theology and traditions which are the Presbyterian church. It is a church that fully embraces the sovereignty of God and allows us as pilgrims the luxury of not having to understand all things spiritual. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We have as much hope of understanding the mind of God as our dog has of understanding what we are doing as we sit and read.” The Presbyterian church has always been a “big tent” allowing seekers to come together in a common fellowship and “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling before Almighty God.”
But we are called to grow in knowledge and spiritual wisdom. And to me that means focusing more on God and His word and less on the world. To become, day by day, year by year, more who God wants me to be and less what the world demands. The problem of course is that the world is simply louder. But God is faithful, and as we are faithful to be in fellowship with Him and His word, we grow – day by day – into who he has called us to be. Often, it’s only as we look back that we can see how far we have come.
As I look at the Presbyterian church, I see something that’s not real familiar. A church whose commitment to the Great Commission is slipping; whose commitment to the sovereignty of the Word is watered down; a church which on second look is real familiar – not a church set apart, but a group of people who are beginning to look like everybody else. A church of accommodation, whose theology is derived not from the Word but the world. A church whose theology is based more on Rodney King’s memorable line “Can’t we all just get along?”
We’ve survived questionable forays into areas of social justice (Angela Davis’ defence fund). And good for us; so long as the vision and mission of the church remains strong. But as we look back, it is troubling to see how far we as the Presbyterian church have strayed. Yes, we have had our squabbles over the years and left in our wake variations of our heritage like the PCA and EPC, but for me and many others, the PCUSA has crossed the threshold into a pluralistic agenda which no longer resembles my Presbyterian church.
Many in our denomination have had the courage of their convictions to stand up and draw a line in the sand. To say enough is enough! We can’t just make up our own set of rules apart from the clear teachings of the Word. I am thankful for Tom and Wayne for standing up for their convictions and I chose to stand with them.
Yesterday I broke down and cried. I’m not sure why; maybe for my church or my denomination. As I sit and write this I am again close to tears. Why indeed can’t we all just get along. I still hope I’m wrong, but separation is coming and maybe it was appropriate yesterday’s sermon was on divorce. Has the denomination become unfaithful? Do we understand the mind of God more clearly than others? Surely we are all “good” people, but separation is coming; maybe that’s why the tears. How sorrowful when children of God have to choose sides. My hope and prayer is we can come to a place as did Laban and Jacob at Mizpah, and say to each other “may the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.”

In Christ,

Roland Rice

Pastor Lance said...

A missionary couple our church supports visited our congregation a few weeks ago. We have a lot of dead opossums on our county roads. My sermon example was that the opossums were doing what came naturally to them, playing dead as a car approached. The result was a self-fulfilling event. Upon hearing about the decisions of the '06 General Assembly the missionary told me that the PCUSA is like the opposum. There were good people at General Assembly that are "behind the wheel." But that car (the General Assembly) will kill the opposum (the PCUSA). The Word of God matters! Theology matters! Truth matters! Sexual ethics matter! Sin matters! Forgiveness matters!

Pastor Lance

Anonymous said...

Like Roland, I too have broken into tears about decisions made by the PCUSA. Years ago I was on a Presbytery committee that decided to recommend voting against the "fidelity-chastity" amendment. I remember coming home, sitting down in the middle of the floor, crying like a broken-hearted child, and pleading with God to send revival to this denomination.

Repentance is a turning around, a changing of direction and that is not possible as long as those in leadership positions in the PCUSA are convinced that men and women can make their own standards of morality by consensus. It's just like Adam and Eve in the Garden deciding that they could make their own decisions about what was right and what was wrong--never mind what God said.

I was called by God into the PCUSA and I'm not sure why. Perhaps my calling was "for such a time as this"--to make a stand.

It's not hard to go along with the crowd; peer pressure is a powerful thing. It's also not hard to hide your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away.

This mess in the denomination has been going on since the 1960's. Since then we've lost about 2.3 million members and we've only got 2.3 million left. Math is definitely not my best subject, but the numbers don't present a rosy picture for the future of the PCUSA unless something very drastic is done quickly.

Christian history indicates that splits have often led to reform both in the old movement needing renewal. (The Methodist movement came about because of the corruption in the Anglican Church in England and the willingness of such men as the Wesleys and George Whitefield to "stand up against the establishment" and boldly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We need to engage in up some serious, lengthy prayer both individually and corporately in the days ahead to seek the clear will of God for us.

If I am backed into the corner and have to choose between what the Word of God says and the PCUSA says, there's no question which side I'll be on!

His grace and peace always,
Peggy Alexander

Christine Boos said...

As we travel down this dangerous road I am reminded of an analogy: When you are on a long trip, it's easy, eventually, to lose focus of how critical it is to stay within the lines that were painted there to keep you safe. So, you veer right a bit and hit those little mini warning bumps and "Ooops." you straighten yourself out. Then after awhile, you lose focus, again, and drive into those bumps and think, Oh, big deal, I can always move back to safety." You get jaded to the warning. You deny the importance of staying in the center of the road where the rules assure you you belong.With this attitude, along the way, you may find your un-focused self upside down in the ditch. What on earth would I have done to raise three christian straight arrow adults if I had not had the WORD--the only certainty--on which to raise them? Stay the course, brothers and sisters. How can you be a good steward and stand on a Rock if the rock is sand or a sponge or a cardboard cut-out of a rock? I and my unborn grandchildren are counting on you to keep His commandments.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

I did not realize you had responded to my post. Your reply is a model of decorum and shows your deep character. I value and respect that. I am not surprised, but I thank you. I wonder if you would indulge me just a little further, because I still have a bone to pick.

It has become almost impossible to know what "the denomination" is teaching lately, mostly because of all the shouting going on. The moment anybody from what I will call "the establishment" says something, the right wing press recasts it in the most negative possible way. Its authors criticize and ridicule their own version of what was said, and whip a lynch mob up yelling for blood. Right wing op-eds show up in the main newspapers all over the country saying the PCUSA said this and decided that, and all of it are the words of the right wing media, not the words of the PCUSA. It is a strange and disgraceful fruit. Very hard to rationalize it as being from the Spirit of God. Plus it takes everyone's eyes off the Gospel. To me, that is the real evil that is loose - that whole groups of people decide to put the Gospel itself on hold in order to go and have a fight.

I am very concerned about the witness this represents.

You devoted quite a bit of your reply to ethical sexuality and sexual morality. I think that according to the Scriptures God hates divorce, and remarriage after divorce is adultery. Their common practice in our churches and in our society has rendered fidelity and faithfulness a lost art form. Nevertheless, we all ordain divorcees and folks who are remarried. If you don't have any on your Session and board of deacons, you are unique. But the Gospel is not about sex. You mentioned abortion. It plays out weird in practice. Is it supposed to be about the sanctity of life or about making sure that people assume responsibility for their sexual behavior? Is it about not paying for the sins of adults with the lives of children? Does it mean not killing children in general, or just in special cases? Is it OK, not OK, for you and me to turn a blind eye to children killed by the bombs and planes you and I paid for? We have become the world's greatest merchants of death, but it would seem that is OK so long as we don't ordain gays and lesbians. Still, the Gospel is not about these things either.

What about the morality of giving good healthcare and education only to the children of the rich? Or the morality of consuming our environment for financial profit? Or the morality of leaving our children with an insurmountable national debt?

I applaud your stated interest in biblical morality. I just think you stop way too short and by doing so you hide the very character of the Gospel message. Why be a Mead when you could be a Hubble.

You said "When a denomination leaves Scripture, it leaves its people defenseless". Assuming this is true, what is the root cause of this "leaving the scriptures"? I find that the greatest impediment to getting others to live in the scriptures is Evangelicals who use them as a battering ram. Liberals are pretty sure the conservatives are wrong about what they believe, say and do. Most often, however, they think the conservatives are right about what the Scriptures say (they sound so sure of themselves, you see). So they reject the Scriptures along with the conservatives, when all they meant was to reject the conservatives. Is that ironic or what?

The secret of the Gospel is that the victory of the Kingdom of God takes us through the path of what every cell in our body calls defeat. If what you seek is victory, you are not on that path. On the other hand, if you do not seek a victory, then why do you pick a fight? And why drag your congregation into it? Be wise. Although the path to victory leads through defeat, not all paths through defeat lead to victory.

Again, in my humble opinion,

PS Peggy Alexander said "If I am backed into the corner and have to choose between what the Word of God says and the PCUSA says, there's no question which side I'll be on!"

Why does she think she might be backed into that corner? As far as I can tell, the PCUSA is not even close to asking you to choose between the Word of God and PCUSA. When I hear what it is saying as an institution, and I admit it's not easy with all the shouting going on, I hear it saying that it is not going to tell me what to do, except to abide by the Scriptures and the Book of Order as best as I can, and to use my own best judgement. Taken literally at face value, and nobody has the right to take it any other way, it's not at all unscriptural. It's just not very authoritarian.

For that, you want a divorce?!

(OK, I'm done. Sorry it got so long.)

Anonymous said...


I feel that I owe you an explaination why I feel the PCUSA is backing me into the corner and that I may have to choose between what the Word of God says and what the denomination says.

You have made some excellent points about what is currently going on between the liberals and the conservatives in the PCUSA. Yes, there is indeed a lot of shouting going on between them.

For the past 40 years the liberals have exercised leadership over the PCUSA. As I mentioned, the denomination has fallen from 4.6 million to 2.3 million in that time, and may well cease to exist before the middle of this century.

The problem is that the PCUSA is not abiding by the Scriptures or the Book of Order. If it were, we wouldn't be having this division.

Let me point out a few things the PCUSA has done recently that has upset me and many others.
(1) A few years ago prominent leaders in the PCUSA participated in the "Re-Imagining Conference." Sophia (Greek for wisdom) was exalted. Rather than a closing communion service there was a service of milk and honey and prayers and songs addressed to "out maker, Sophia." A professor of theology at Union Seminary was quoted as saying, "I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all....we just need to listen to the god within." When the publicity and tapes came out about this, many Presbyterians were irate about these events.

(2) A number of presbyteries have ordained a practicing homosexuals and lesbians as pastors in spite of the fact that this is unscriptural and contrary to the Book of Order. There is a lack of discipline both in these instances and in the continued performance of same sex marriages by some PCUSA clergy.

(3) A keynote speaker at the 2000 General Assembly also stirred up a lot of controversy with his "What's the big deal about Jesus?" address. Many of the speakers at General Assembly and other Presbyterian events adhere to theological beliefs that are not Biblically sound or part of our reformed theology.

(4) There is a willingness to compromise Biblical teachings in the PCUSA. A very recent example is the "Trinity Paper" that was received at the 2006 General Assembly. Again, many people are disturbed at the willingness of the PCUSA to sacrifice Biblical truths for the sake of political correctness. "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" have stong Biblical basis to the relationship of the parties of the Godhead to each other and in the creation, salvation, and guidance of the people of God where "rainbow, ark, and dove" do not.

This political correctness was also illustrated in the Presbyterian Women's Gathering in Louisville earlier this month where Scripture was altered to avoid any male pronouns when referring to God. A number of the speakers used the meeting to promote homosexuality and lesbianism. Rather than closing the conference with a worship service on Sunday, a portion of a socialist play "Nickled and Dimed" was presented in which Jesus' name was used as profanity.

(5) In spite of the fact that in 2002 over 70% of the Presbyteries voted to affirm the fidelity-chastity portion or the Book of Order which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, the liberals keep pushing to have it removed. The PUP report approved at the 2006 General Assembly appears to have opened a back door for this to happen by allowing the ordaining bodies to set their own standards.

At any rate, I have gone on far too long. I feel that things have gotten to the point that the line has been drawn in the sand. The PCUSA is a house divided against itself and as such it cannot continue to stand. (Even Jesus confirmed this reality.)

At this point we have to look at church history and ask ourselves the question, were Luther, Calvin, Knox and the others wrong for breaking with the Roman Catholic Church? Would the Catholic Church have ever seen its errors and reformed without these outspoken opponents? Good came out of the Reformation in that the Roman Catholic Church did make reforms and the Protestant Churches reached many with a fresh approach to the gospel.

We also have to remember that Jesus was very much at odds with the institutional religious leaders of the day. He came bringing a message of repentance, salvation, and transformed life which threatened the establishment of the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests. He offered new life and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, but this "new wine" couldn't be contained in the old wineskins. Jesus was unwilling to compromise, even to the point of death.

There are many people who are hungry for God and are going unfed because the PCUSA and other mainline churches are in chaos. The parting words Jesus left to His followers were to go into the world, make disciples, and teach them His commandments. That is the mandate of the church of Jesus Christ, and that should be our first priority. Our sole focus should be on Jesus Christ as our Savior and as Lord of our lives.

What we need now is revival and renewal in whatever way God will sent it!

His grace and peace always,
Peggy Alexander

Anonymous said...

Oops, I have a typo in the last sentence. It should read: "What we need now is revival and renewal in whatever way God will send it!"

Peggy Alexander