Great Song, But Can you Preach It?

Imagine preaching a prayer.

Sometimes Tim Challies includes prayers from the congregation where he worships (the pattern seems to be using a common text for confession of sin rather than producing a transcript of the pastoral prayer):

Merciful God, we admit we have sinned. We have not nailed it in our spiritual lives. And even if we have not sinned badly, like David, we all stand together in need of Christ — the proof of Your mercy. He is our salvation. Our Rescuer. Our Redeemer. Our only hope to stand before You is to stand in His mercy… secured for us by His cross. So we throw ourselves upon You, God. For you are full of mercy. Amen

Of course, it is much easier to find Christian prayers in the prayer books of liturgical communions. Here is the Prayer of the Church from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for August 30, 2020:

Knowing the will of God that all would come to the knowledge of Your Son and find salvation in Christ, let us pray on behalf of our parish community and for all people according to their needs.

Brief silence

For our faith and faithfulness, especially for those persecuted for the cause of Christ; and
For our strength in time of trial and for us to persevere in grace in the day of trouble, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For the Church, Jerusalem on high, our mother in Christ until Christ is fully formed in us;
For the pastors who serve us, that they may be faithful stewards of God’s mysteries; and
For those at home and abroad, who bring the message of salvation to those who have not heard, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For Donald, our president; _____________, our governor; and all legislators and civil servants;
For those who must render judgment and impose punishment upon lawbreakers; and
For those who work for peace among the nations, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For favorable weather and for those who tend the soil and harvest its fruits;
For business and industry, service workers and artisans;
For generosity toward those in need; and
For the unemployed and underemployed, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For those married, that they would live in fidelity to their vows and promises;
For parents as they teach their children to know and love the Lord;
For single adults, that they may find fulfillment in their service to others; and
For our lives together showing the love of Christ one to another, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For grace to take up the cross and follow the Lord wherever He leads;
For courage in the face of challenge and adversity; and
For compassion and harmony in our life together, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For holy lives of faith;
For faith to receive the Lord’s gift of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament; and
For this holy assembly, that we may present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For our remembrance of the saints and grace to follow their example of faith;
For God to grant us a place with them in their fellowship; and
For our eternal life in God’s kingdom without end, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy….

Would you, if you were a pastor, preach either of these prayers? That may seem like a silly question. But if pastors preach from the Psalter, which they do, I’ve seen them, then preaching prayers is fairly routine at least among Reformed Protestants.

Take, for instance, Psalm 5:

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
2 Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you[a] and watch.

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.

9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.

But just because preaching the Psalms is familiar, the idea of preaching prayers is strange.

That could explain why, aside from how challenging Hebrew poetry can be, sermons on the Psalms can be hard to follow. Or often the three-point sermon treatment of a Psalm can seem artificial. I’m not sure that even H. L. Mencken is any help. He believed the Old Testament contained poetry “so overwhelmingly voluptuous and disarming that no other literature, old or new, can offer a match for it.”

That is high praise, but worship is not a seminar either in aesthetics or poetry.

The Stumbling Blocks Whom You Should Read for Edification

Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania could do a better job of teaching the public about the significance of historical monuments, the reasons behind them, and how to sort through the defects and achievements of figures that past generations esteemed.

The church has a different and better tool kit. Unfortunately, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, did not use it. The officers there have decided to remove the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, two southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery, from lecture series, walls, and publications. In the pastoral letter sent to congregation members, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote the following:

Some, seeing the wanton destruction meted out by mobs elsewhere in our society, may worry that we, too, are effacing our history. I do not think that is the case. There is much more to learn from Thornwell and Palmer in
their writings. Thornwell’s four-volume Collected Writings is still available in our church library and for purchase on the internet. His works on the nature of God, creation, the Scriptures, and justification will continue to be taught and read, whatever the names of our buildings may be. The same is true of Palmer’s works, in particular his superb The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. In any case, I doubt very much whether either man would wish his name assigned to a church building. 

I have been an admirer of both James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer ever since I was introduced to their writings at seminary in mid-1970’s. To mention but one issue, Thornwell’s contribution to the understanding of the office of ruling elder shaped my direction into Presbyterian convictions (I was a Baptist) and continues to be important. Palmer’s The Broken Home and Theology of Prayer are two very fine works. I fully intend to read them again.

For years, I believed that we could honor the good while conceding to the bad. But their views on slavery and race were not just bad and wrong, they are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. I recall a black preacher, some forty years ago at a Banner of Truth conference in England, saying, “I love Thornwell on this issue, but he was horribly wrong on race and slavery.” That narrative does not work anymore. The names now are a “stumbling block” to our ability to witness to our African-American brothers and sisters. They are an impediment to enable us to witness on college campuses. And they are hurtful to our African-American members.

I can only imagine the pressure a congregation like this one senses in the current climate and do not intend to pile on from one side when they are likely receiving lots of pressure from the other. But I still have trouble understanding how you recommend Thornwell and Palmer as theologians while also declaring they are stumbling blocks. Who will pick up their works now? Even more, who is better situated to defend the value of their theology despite their objectionable political views and the doctrine they used to support them? If not officers and members at congregations at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, don’t expect the folks at Redeemer New York City or Christ Presbyterian Nashville.

Another puzzle is the timing. The names of Thornwell and Palmer are objectionable now? They haven’t been since the Civil Rights’ movement? Or since 2016 when the ARP General Synod confessed “the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism”? As in the case of Princeton and Penn, the action of removing a name or a statue does not make up for the years that your institution was content to live with those names and figures. Simply admitting your fault does not create a new institution with new officers and staff. It’s the same people today making apologies who yesterday were unmindful of anything wrong.

The thing is, the defense of good theologians who got social institutions wrong is not all tricky since it involves the very word of God. Christians who read their Old Testament, maybe not as large as they once were, know that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was not necessarily the man most fathers desire as a spouse for their daughters. He deceived his own father to acquire Esau’s birthright, and later deceived his father-in-law about livestock (for starters). He played favorites with his sons and should have exerted more control in the unseemly retribution for Shechem’s sexual infidelity with Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34). The patriarch was no saint as some communions evaluate sanctity.

And yet, the Old Testament authors did not cancel Jacob. His name occurs over and over again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — thirty-four times in the Psalter alone.

If any Old Testament figure qualified as a stumbling block, it was Jacob, not to mention that if you were looking for parts of the Bible over which to stumble, the Old Testament has to be considered.

All of which is to say that Christianity, even the very Word of God, has lots of challenging material for contemporary believers. In our time of safe spaces, certainly the likes of Thornwell and Palmer have little appeal. But if you start to jettison figures long regarded for their insights and contributions, how do you protect the Bible itself?

Transcending Partisan Politics is Sectarian

Evangelical Protestants suffer from a tic. It is an unwillingness to identify with a political party. Evangelical writers about politics can spot the defects of both the left and the right, though they don’t often calculate which side has the most flaws. They act as if Christians really are above politics. When believers follow the Bible, they will not have to settle for either what liberals or conservatives propose.

A couple examples: the first on race.

The danger is that Christians who rightly reject the first (conservative) view as sub-biblical will merely pick up the second (progressive) view uncritically and use the terminology that it provides. But both are secular, reductionistic and simplistic. The Bible’s account of justice includes both individual and systemic dimensions—and more. We are not merely individual and social, but also soul and body. Indeed, the term “world” (kosmos) in the New Testament has not only a material reality (as in God loving the world of human beings, John 3:16), but also a spiritual reality, an inevitable tendency to make counterfeit gods out of good created things (1 John 2:15-16). “Doing justice” on the basis of the biblical view will include extraordinary prayer and evangelism along with everything else. The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.

The second on communism.

Liberation theology, which puts a Christian face on Marxist social analysis, retains an enormous mystique on the Christian left. This isn’t because left-leaning Christians admire Stalin but because they are profoundly skeptical of the alternative to communism: economic systems built on property and contract rights protected by the rule of law. These systems produce economic growth, but as wealth has grown we’ve also seen a growing worldliness and materialism in our cultures. Christians on the left (most famously Gregory Paul) point to the radical economic community of the church in Acts 2–5 and ask if this doesn’t implicitly delegitimize market systems of price and exchange.

Right-leaning Christians, meanwhile, often seem indistinguishable from secular conservatives. They rail against communism, yet almost none of them seems to have read serious theological analysis of communism—not even from anti-communist Christians like Chambers. In almost every case, their top priority is to protect free markets and economic growth rather than oppose the atheistic inhumanity of the communist worldview. And their zeal to defend free markets often leads them to downplay, or even celebrate, the worldliness and crass materialism that have been associated with economic growth.

Why is the church haunted by communism, even though in Christ crucified we already possess the real answer to the world’s suffering and injustice? Because the church hasn’t put a Christian economic ethic into practice systematically. We need, but don’t know how to develop, an organized and operational Christian economic life.

Actually, the Amish have developed an economic system by some measures. But even their herculean efforts to retain Christian solidarity depends on the “English’s” society of property, currency, a legal system, and the political process that functions in, with, and around economic systems. Talk about systemic.

This does not mean that Christian academics should refrain from connecting dots between revelation (general and special) and politics or economics. What it does mean is that Christians trying to be Christian about everything, including politics and economics, separate themselves from the institutions most responsible for those areas of society. Christian w-w thinking is really a product of a ghetto that is isolated from bodies of learning and institutional structures in which political and economic decisions are made.

It is functionally Amish. Is that where New Calvinists want to be? Sectarians on the margins?

Names Change, Systems Abide

Let the record show, Princeton University, during the last wave of heightened aesthetic consciousness about public art, had a chance, just like Mayor James Kenney in Philadelphia (with the Frank Rizzo statue), to get rid of Woodrow Wilson’s name at its School of Public and International Affairs. The university, with the same president as today, Christopher Eisgruber, decided to keep the Wilson name. Here is part of Princeton’s reasoning:

The challenge presented by Wilson’s legacy is that some of his views and actions clearly contradict the values we hold today about fair treatment for all individuals, and our aspirations for Princeton to be a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. On the other hand, many of his views and actions – as faculty member and president of this University, as governor of New Jersey and a two-term President of the United States, and as an international leader whose name and legacy are still revered in many parts of the world – speak directly to our values and aspirations for our school of public and international affairs and for the first of our residential colleges.

… There is considerable consensus that Wilson was a transformative and visionary figure in the area of public and international affairs; that he did press for the kinds of living and learning arrangements that are represented today in Princeton’s residential colleges; and that as a strong proponent of education for use, he believed Princeton should prepare its students for lives in the nation’s service. These were the reasons Wilson’s name was associated with the school, the college, and the award.

The question that immediately comes to mind is how do the people who punted on Wilson in 2016 get to keep their jobs and positions? They looked at the evidence, and even heard from scholars who were decidedly negative in their estimates of Wilson, such as this one from the University of Richmond’s Eric S. Yellin:

Far from being merely ignorant “men of their times,” Wilson and his administration sought to do something new when they delegitimized public objections to segregation by marking any protest as both insubordinate and fallacious. African Americans and some allies never accepted this argument, of course, but the vast majority of white Americans did not question it. In this way, federal discrimination, including administrators’ explanations of it, played its part in the national institutionalization of white supremacy in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Again, for the record, Princeton’s president and board of trustees read these words and decided to keep Wilson’s name. Why don’t they too need to vacate Princeton the way Wilson has? Could you have a better indication of racism according to 2020 standards?

By the way, it was a curious group of advisors to Princeton who commissioned reactions from historians and issued a report that kept Wilson’s name. It had nary an academic on it except for a retired president of Brown University. Otherwise, the ten member committee, chaired by an African-American attorney, Brent L. Henry, consisted of executives, financiers, lawyers, leaders of non-profits, and one writer (five men, five women — cisgender I presume; five whites, five non-white). Anyone of a social justicey inclination might well wonder whether these people too need to be cancelled.

Princeton’s administration did see in 2016 the ripple effects of Wilson’s reputation. In 1948, when the school of government took Wilson’s name, Harold Willis Dodds was president (a Grove City alum). Instead of removing Wilson’s name in 2017, the University decided to move Dodds’ name within the Robertson Hall (the modernist building from 1961 designed by the same architect behind New York City’s World Trade Center. What the University did was to rename Dodds Auditorium in Robertson as the Arthur Lewis Auditorium. Dodds’ name was downsized to Robertson Hall’s Atrium.

Relatives of Dodds were not happy. John A. Dodds, a nephew of the former president, and member of the class of 1952, wrote to the alumni magazine:

it appears to me that my uncle has been inadvertently affected by some of the fallout over Woodrow Wilson 1879. This change was planned to go into effect as of July 1.

Now it appears that Princeton is even more interested in fulfilling its mission of amplifying diversity and political correctness than honoring a man who served longer as president of Princeton University (1933–57) than any other Princeton president in the 19th or 20th century. He brought the University through some difficult times during World War II, and his longevity as president attests to his inherent skills.

What next, a potted plant with his name on it?

These odd details amplify what Ross Douthat wrote about the name change as being more ephemeral than substantive:

the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.

Which means, in turn, that the school will remain his school, whatever name gets slapped upon it, so long as it pursues the projects of enlightened progressive administration and global superpowerdom. Obviously there are people, right and left, who would prefer that one or both of those projects be abandoned. But they aren’t likely to be running the renamed school. Instead, it will continue to be run by 21st-century Wilsonians — who will now act as if their worldview sprang from nowhere, that its progenitor did not exist, effectively repudiating their benefactor while accepting his inheritance.

Like Nike’s turning Colin Kaepernick into an emblem of social justice while also turning a profit, so Princeton maintains its standing among the nation’s elite institutions, in a Vanna White way, by changing a few letters.

That’s systemic.

Thinking is a Many Splendored Thing

There is thinking like a historian:

we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. …

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Only once students “understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique.” Thinking historically is understanding someone else, maybe even being ready to forgive, or withhold judgment.

This could be the gospel compared to the law of thinking like a Christian. When you do that you pretty much go into righteous indignation (as in “they will know we are Christians by what we condemn”):

It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

Neither of these ways of think is political (Bill McClay on vandalism):

the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order.

Almost thirty years of integrating faith and learning and Christians still struggle with thought.

Memories (the way we were debating monuments three years ago)

Andrew Young on monuments, the Confederacy, racism, and Antifa (via):

“I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together… I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people – to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.”

Specifically, Young was speaking of Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to pull down the 1956 state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The move was a primary reason he lost his bid for re-election, split the state Democratic party, and ushered in the current season of Republican rule. Said Young:

“It cost us $14.9 billion and 70,000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act – which we probably would have had if we hadn’t been fighting over a flag… It cost of us the health of our city because we were prepared to build a Northern Arc, 65 miles away from the center of the city of Atlanta – an outer perimeter that would have been up and running now, if we had not been fighting over the flag.

“I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery….”

Young also had some advice for the “antifa” movement. Boiled down: If you haven’t seen Nazis and Klansmen in the streets before, perhaps it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been here before. Said Young:

“I grew up in New Orleans, La., 50 yards from the headquarters of the Nazi party. Before I went to kindergarten, I was having to look in the window on Saturdays, and watch all these folks [shout] “Heil, Hitler!”
“In 1936.

“And my daddy said, those are sick people. They’re white supremacists, and white supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad, you get smart. You never get angry with sick people, because you’ll catch their sickness. That’s what I worry about with our young people. Anger and this emotional militancy will give you ulcers, give you heart attacks.

“Don’t get mad, get smart. Your brain is the most important thing you have.”

Confrontation doesn’t change mind. Engagement does, Young said. During the press conference, Mitchell had said much the same thing:

“As a community, as a society, we’ve got to speak up and stand against racism, and bigotry, discrimination and oppression in any form, coming from anybody.

“With that being said, we’ve got to find a pathway to reconciliation.”

Afterwards, I approached Mitchell about the petition that had been presented to Mayor Kasim Reed, demanding the renaming of Confederate Avenue in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta. Said Mitchell:

“It’s going to be a community conversation among people who live and own property on that street, and I’m willing to entertain that. I would just caution us, as a city – you can‘t replace an angry, evil mob with what we believe is a righteous mob.

“We have a complicated history as a country, in the South and certainly in Atlanta. There’s so much good and bad intertwined and tangled together. We need to be able to untangle the good and the bad, get rid of the bad, and make it part of the past.”

Are Some Sins Easier to Condemn, Easier to Erase?

What if bigotry were as hard to discern and remedy as same-sex attraction and concupiscence?

Think about the categories used in the PCA report on Human Sexuality:

Second, according to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not be surprised, but rather expect that concupiscence in general, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would continue in the life of a believer. The Confession is clear; corruption remains “in every part” (13.2). We would never say to a new believer who has a history of destructive anger, “Now that you are a Christian, you will never again feel a rush of anger rise up within you at the wrong time, for a selfish reason, out of proportion to the situation, or in any other way that contradicts God’s law.” Neither should we communicate to a believer with a history of homosexual attraction bigotry the expectation that this will simply disappear.

“…according to the doctrinal system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not rule out, but rather expect that concupiscence in general antipathy to others, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would be areas in which the believer would see some progress toward truly righteous feelings and actions. Our previous point had to do with the danger of creating the expectation that our experience of corruption will entirely disappear in this life if we are regenerate. This point addresses what might be considered an error on the other end of the spectrum, the error of asserting that change is not possible or not to be sought. But just as the Confession is clear that corruption remains in every part, it is also clear that the sanctifying work of the Spirit is felt in the “whole man.” Someone with homosexual attraction who hates other groups ought not close himself or herself off to the pursuit of, and hope of, real change in those attractions inclinations, even if that change is incomplete and mixed. …

Finally, we can discern a very practical value to the distinction between the sin that is constituted by our “corruption of nature…and all the motions thereof” and the “actual transgressions” that proceed from it. Even where original sin is manifested in the form of sinfully disordered desires or feelings inclinations, including homosexual attraction bigotry, there is significant moral difference between that initial “motion” of corruption and the decision to cultivate or act on it. To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attraction hatred (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, “both original and actual” earns God’s wrath (WCF 6.6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of the WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attraction who are bigoted to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attraction bigotry itself makes them the most heinous of sinners. On the contrary, their experience is representative of the present life of all Christians. John Owen has said, “…yet sin doth so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, whilst they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent upon them.” Our brothers and sisters who resist and repent of enduring feelings of same-sex attraction bigotry are powerful examples to us all of what this “daily mortification” looks like in “the best of believers.” We should be encouraged and challenged by their example and eager to join in fellowship with them for the mutual strengthening of our faith, hope, and love.

Is it possible to think about tribalism, bigotry, undue attachment to groups, or racial supremacy the way the PCA instructs officers and members to think about same sex attraction? Both are disordered inclinations. But when people condemn bigotry between racial groups, they tend not to see it as something that lurks in a fallen human being, even in a regenerate soul:

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

Would the authors and signers of this statement ever add, “there go I but for the grace of God”? Or is such a condemnation an indication to others that you do not approve of racism in those who are. As such, a statement is mainly a way to avoid confusion. By signing or issuing a statement, I too show that I am not a racist and detest those who are.

Wait. What about hate the sin, love the sinner?

Even more difficult – what if the sins of the sixth and seventh commandments — heck the whole darned Decalogue — reside in each and every Christian’s heart? That might produce statements that are less finger wagging, and more understanding like the PCA’s report.

It might also indicate that human beings are not Pelagian when it comes to racial bigotry. That is, the soul does not have a racist switch that you flick on after coming into the world loving and kind, and then flick off when you repent and condemn racism in yourself and others.

In fact, if sin can be systemic, no better place to look than not in bureaucracy but in the human heart.

Acting as if Majorities are in the Minority

I keep scratching my head. For the last two weeks plus, I have read various cultural authorities on how evil racism is. At the same time, none of those condemnations of racism at mainstream and elite institutions count as evidence against the United States’ deep and abiding racism. Here is one example of the barrage of assertions that both condemn and apologize for racism:

Over the last few days, I have received numerous emails from institutions and organizations feeling compelled to issue statements on the George Floyd killing and the ongoing protests. I have an email from Strava, an app that tracks personal athletic endeavors, titled “we must do better, and we will” and stating that “we know our practices have bias because we haven’t designed them to make sure they don’t.” The Institute for Policy Integrity and NYU Law School declares: “[W]e stand with the Black community in the face of unconscionable racially motivated violence, [and] we understand that such violence is aggravated by retrograde, prejudiced policies.” The Tufts University Alumni Association says the protests “are the result of deep-seated racism and injustice that exists within our society.” Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy calls “for an end to the illegal measures taken to prevent people from gathering and protesting peacefully and to the police aggression that targets Black citizens rather than protect them.” The executive council of Lewis & Clark College, from which I am retired, declares that mere expressions of support for the protests “runs the risk of removing responsibility from the majority and requiring the work be done by communities of color.” Society, not the cop, is responsible.

I have also heard from Cape Eleuthera Island School, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, The Explorers Club, Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun, the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, the Oregon Historical Society, and American Bar Association president Judy Perry Martinez, all declaring that they must do better.

If this had been the reaction to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that featured Rosa Parks (1955-1956), the nation would not have had to wait roughly ten years for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Heck, if the sentiments today of opposition to bigotry and white supremacy had been around in 1955, Rosa Parks could have sat wherever she darned well pleased.

The simultaneous condemnation of racism and insistence that the United States is a racist as Virginia was in 1619 is akin to evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer lamenting the immorality and unbelief of the nation even as a born-again Protestant occupied the White House. Remember what Schaeffer argued at a time well before Monica Lewinski, Stormy Daniels, and Obergefell v. Hodges:

“People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of those presuppositions than even they themselves may realize,” Schaeffer wrote, and he was talking this way when most evangelicals were unaware of the storm of worldviews that was coming. He perceived the presuppositions of the looming humanistic and secular worldview as showing up first in art and high culture. He was right. While most evangelicals were watching Gunsmoke and taking their kids to the newly opened Walt Disney World, Schaeffer was listening and watching as a new worldview was taking hold of the larger culture.

Americans’ outlook may well have lacked the tools to defend standards of decency and good government, but to complain about a culture that celebrated the rule of law in western towns and family-friendly cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, as if that culture is producing Lena Dunham’s Girls or Tacoma FD, is a bit like saying silence is violence.

Of course, the difference between the discussions today about racism and Schaeffer’s complaints then about cultural decadence are that no one at the New Yorker, Harvard University, the San Diego Mayor’s office, or Spotify was issuing statements in support of evangelicals’ morality, nor were they producing reading lists about the Ten Commandments and sanctification.

Will the PCA Repent of Homophobia?

I have not read the PCA report on sexuality, but from reading and listening to comments about it, I am inclined to think that leadership in the PCA thinks about racism differently from same-sex attraction, that one is something the church needs to condemn vigorously, the other is a condition around which the church needs to tread delicately.

Consider the following expressions of repentance:

As an organization, we need to more deeply self-examine and change. While there have been some strides over the last eighteen months, we haven’t been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing, supporting and developing Black and Latino leadership in the US. We repent. Though we have aspired to be a trans-denominational ministry, our training materials and events in the US have lacked the rich presence and leadership of Black and Latino theologians and are still largely distilled through a majority culture theological lens and ministry practices. We repent. A significant portion of our time, expertise and resources in the ministry have been focused on educated white leaders in center cities, and we could have done more as it relates to the historic and systemic segregation in the American church. We repent.

be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10); …

In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.

If, as the Confession of Faith has it, sanctification is “imperfect in this life” and part of “a continual and irreconcilable war” (13.2), these repeated expressions of repentance make sense. Less plausible is how they fit with the idea of private confession of sin, as in, “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” (15.6)

First Part of Review of PCA Statement on Same-Sex Attraction

Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:

Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One

The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”

Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.

In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.

Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.

Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”

Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.

The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.

Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.

The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.

The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.

The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:

The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:

What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?

How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?

How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)

So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:

Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.

Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)

The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.

Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.

This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.

But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.

Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference

clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)

Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.

This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.

Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.

I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.