The Old Testament Church and Plague(s)

During the blizzard-like conditions of COVID-19’s spread, Christian writers have been thinking about ways to minister during a plague. Some appeal to Luther. Some about the ongoing urgency of preaching the gospel. Some discuss the tension among commitments to love neighbors, serve God, and obey civil magistrates. Some compare COVID-19 to an atomic bomb (seriously). And some describe at great length and with much unction how the church needs to respond redemptively.

Ed Stetzer may be the best example of evangelicals’ historical imagination during a major, worldwide illness. His is exclusively post-canonical:

Sociologist Rodney Stark explored one such one example where during a plague AD 251 swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population. In his Easter letter around AD 260, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.

Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”

Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

In Christians in the Age of Outrage I offered a more recent example of sacrificially living out the gospel in the midst of suffering. During the Fall of 1793, yellow fever gripped the city of Philadelphia. Historian Richard Newman writes that, “from the moment it began, the yellow fever epidemic was a public-health crisis. Thousands of citizens fled, hospitals became overwhelmed, and dead bodies rotted in homes.”

Within this crisis, it was the emerging black church under the leadership of Richard Allen which entered into the suffering. Some assumed that persons of African descent were immune to Yellow Fever, and the free black community was approached to provide help. Spurned by the church they had served and slandered by others, Allen and his church served the sick when others isolated themselves for fear of catching the disease.

…Through both examples, we are reminded that the gospel calls us to live sacrificially in the face of crisis.

If these Christian authors had the Old Testament background to the New Testament more in mind, what might they say about the mother of all plagues, the one that forms the background for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, even the Mass. That plague, as Psalm 78 has it, was also at the center of the Exodus, the Old Testament redemptive historical event that inspired many of the modern world’s social justice activists:

42 They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
43 when he performed his signs in Egypt
and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers to blood,
so that they could not drink of their streams.
45 He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46 He gave their crops to the destroying locust
and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamores with frost.
48 He gave over their cattle to the hail
and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49 He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50 He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51 He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52 Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountain which his right hand had won.

If Christians identified more with Old Testament saints than with modern humanitarians, then, would they be more inclined to view COVID-19 as God’s judgment on a neo-liberal, morally indifferent, systemically unjust society and a hypocritical evangelical church? You could even turn in this into God’s judgment on a nation’s president who is entirely without a moral compass.

Then again, invoking God’s righteous judgment on a wicked society is so Pat Robertson (though anti-Trump prophets are hardly Mr. Rogers).

Two Kingdom Theology and Same Sex Attraction

Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:

To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.

Jake Meador partly agrees:

Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.

Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.

Do Senior Christian Market Church Leaders Talk?

With the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020 (which may turn out to be the political equivalent of Dave and Busters), some political commentators have observed that Democratic and Republican leaders have not served the American voters well. Party elites continued to play by old rules of analysis and missed the effects of economic and cultural changes on the electorate. The same point could well be made about leaders of the PCA — leaders, that is, who emerged as such through the platforms created by big evangelicalism.

Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell have emerged as pastors whose assessment of the church and its relationship to the world matters. Like E. F. Hutton, when they speak, people listen.

But why? When it comes to assessments of the culture and what Christians should do in response, consider the following. Remember in 2015 when during what was approaching peak intersectionality awareness, Chapell identified pluralism as the major challenge facing the PCA:

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

Without clear identification of the external enemy’s magnitude, the dynamics of a largely homogenous social and doctrinal association will only make us less patient with our differences. We will also become increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Two years later, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Keller corrected course. Uniting in response to a perceived enemy — looking for denominational cooperation — is part of what produced evangelical support for Trump:

In a book published earlier this year, “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis,” the historian Kenneth J. Stewart makes the case that the evangelical impulse in Christianity has been with us for centuries, taking on many different forms and bearing many different names, while maintaining substantially similar core beliefs. Many have analyzed the weaknesses of the current iteration of this movement. The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory. This has made present-day evangelicals more vulnerable to political movements that appeal to their self-interest, even in contradiction to Biblical teachings, for example, about welcoming the immigrant and lifting up the poor.

The lesson appears to be that a broad interdenominational cooperation by post-World War II evangelicals made born-again Protestants more political and less ecclesiastical.

It is at the very least, advice with a mixed message and could raise questions about the capacities of pastors to assess culture and society.

It is also a tad ironic for Keller to critique downplaying denominational differences when City-to-City is hardly a program of the PCA’s Mission to North America or Mission to the World.

Have Senior Christian Market Pastors Served the PCA Well?

If Tim Keller is someone to read for political philosophy, what about urban design and planning? It turns out that much Christian reflection on the city is similar to Christian thought about government and society — it is pietistically utilitarian. The city or politics are ways to evangelize or carry out God’s will for me and others, not a common arena of human life that relies on the sorts of human inquiry that may involve both sides of the antithesis.

Here is one of Tim Keller’s typical briefs for the city:

social scientists tell us that across the whole planet there are at least 5 million people moving into cities from the countryside every month. The number of churches per capita in the country and towns dwarfs the number of churches in cities. People are moving to cities with fewer places of gospel witness for the population, and that situation is worsening by the day. For example, New York City will be gaining a net of 1 million people over the next 25 years. That’s bigger than Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet will we be planting as many new churches here as there are churches in Charlotte? Probably not.

So put the balance like this: we need churches everywhere there are people—but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is. Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20). If we fail to go where the world is going, then we aren’t heeding our Lord’s command. Certainly we must never insist that everyone should do city ministry, nor that gospel ministry in one place is intrinsically better than in another, but we shouldn’t shrink from emphasizing city ministry as never before.

Don’t romanticize or demonize or shrug at the city. Love the city, as Christ loved you.

Treat cities like a mission field.

But if you are going to transform a city with a gospel ecosystem, you may need to read urban designers and planners. And if you read the history of the cities, you may encounter a less than onward-and-upward understanding of the city. Cue James Howard Kunstler:

The city is perhaps the greatest cultural artifact of the long-running human project, which now faces an array of predicaments at a larger scale than at any previous inflection point in our history. These include population overshoot, the fossil-fuel quandary, competition over dwindling resources, an unsound banking system, climate uncertainty, and much more. These dynamics are expressing themselves currently in political disorders and cultural hysterias, and the anxiety over what happens next appears to be driving us crazy. . . .

The urban metroplexes of the U.S. have assumed a scale and complexity of operation that cannot be sustained in the coming disposition of things. They will contract substantially. Some of them in especially unfavorable locales—Tucson, Miami, Houston—may disappear altogether, but the rest will have to become a lot smaller and the process is liable to be messy as various groups fight over who gets to inhabit the districts that retain value: for example, riverfronts and original urban cores. This will occur against the backdrop of more generalized political disorder and the failures of national government, especially where fiscal management is concerned. State governments, too, may be broke and impotent. (That implies a devolution of political power from the grand scale to the local level, where decisions and action will matter.)

Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity. Professional observers like Krieger’s colleague, Edward Glaeser of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (author of Triumph of the City, 2011), is exactly one of those who expects only more-bigger-higher-denser cities in the years ahead. That will be another disappointment for the wishful-thinking techno-narcissists of this land. More likely we will see skyscrapers and megastructures convert from being assets to liabilities in very short order. We may not even have the financial mojo to pay for their disassembly and the salvage of their modular materials.

The places in our country that stand a chance to carry on are the very places that have gone through the most catastrophic failure and disinvestment the past 50 years: the small towns and small cities that are scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future—especially the ones that have a meaningful relationship to food production. Many of these places lie along America’s inland waterway system (the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Great Lakes, including the Hudson River estuary and the Erie and Champlain Canals). As the trucking system collapses, we will have to move more things by boat. The conventional futurists don’t even see this coming.

But you don’t read about this side of the city when you see descriptions of gospel ecosystems:

When a gospel movement is underway, it may be that the Body of Christ develops to the point that a whole city tipping point is reached. By that I mean the moment when the number of gospel-shaped Christians in a city reaches critical mass. The Christian influence on the civic and social life of the city—on the very culture—is recognizable and acknowledged. That means between 10 and 20 percent of the population.

. . . In New York City, some groups have a palpable effect on the way life is lived when their numbers reach at least 5 to 15 percent and when the members are active in public life. . . . In other words, something is going on in New York that goes beyond one church, one network, or any one denomination. It goes beyond any particular race or ethnic group. It’s a movement.

We’re a long way from getting to the place we need to be, a city tipping point, when 10 to 20 percent of the population goes to those churches, and you begin to realize that the whole city, the whole culture is going to change because of the impact of Christians in a place like New York.

That’s what we’re after. It takes a movement to reach a city, and that’s more than just planting a church, or even seeing your denomination growing.

Someone needs to ask, what will remain of the city when the movement arrives?

The PCA’s Strategic Plan Was So “Sleep”

It can be a cliche to say that the church’s task remains the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But more Presbyterians may be tempted to adopt that somewhat stodgy outlook if you look at what has become of the PCA’s Strategic Plan from a decade ago. Finding it on-line is a challenge, but a video of Bryan Chapell introducing the Plan gives a fairly good indication of the concerns that animated its authors:

About six minutes in, you will see a list that includes:

Strangled secularism

Loss of Piety

Loss of the Young

Loss of Mature Members

Longing for Biblical Responses

Those concerns contrast with those that motivate Presbyterians in pursuit of social justice (from Covenant Seminary’s website):

While some branches of liberal theology have erred gravely by equating issues of social justice with the gospel and downplaying or eliminating the call to repentance and personal faith in Jesus, we must ensure not to make the opposite mistake of removing the biblical call for social righteousness and justice from our understanding of the gospel.

What situations do our neighbors find themselves in as they hear this proclamation that require tangible acts of Christ’s love that flow out of that gospel? Today, we face a wide range of issues that are matters of neighbor love expressed in biblical social justice. These include but are not limited to abortion, human trafficking, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, abuse of women and children, misuse of power, criminal justice, and lack of educational and economic opportunity for the marginalized in our society. The Bible starts with creation and ends with new creation, and the impact of the fall affects everything, including the creation itself and the structures of society. The gospel of God’s saving and restoring grace is set into this framework. Love for God and love for neighbor are always to be held together by the people of God.

Covenant Seminary is the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with our main campus located in St. Louis, Missouri. As the denominational seminary, we exist to serve the denomination and its churches as we prepare leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. A key current issue in the PCA is racial reconciliation and justice . . .

That way of looking at the church’s current ministry is distinctly different from Chapell’s remarks a decade ago.  If some thought the Strategic Plan sounded New School Presbyterian — somewhat uncomfortable with confessional narrowness, the old Strategic Plan looks downright Old School compared to the advocates of social justice.  What a difference a decade makes.

But now, Bryan Chapell is back with a statement about the PCA’s current predicament as he explains how he will serve as Stated Clerk if chosen by the upcoming General Assembly:

I believe our beloved PCA is at a crossroads with regard to her influence in both the wider church and surrounding culture. We carry a unique calling as a Reformed church with a missional zeal. Our historic strength has been maintaining a Bible-centered mission that does not yield to the singular pressures of Reformed fundamentalism, distinction-less Evangelicalism, mere social progressivism, or strident political conservatism. Each of these emphases have sought ascendency in our ranks, yet we have continued to evaluate ideas and establish priorities based on Scripture. Most in our movement remain committed to respect those among us who differ in perspective but prioritize God’s Word. Still, as our culture polarizes and our denomination becomes more distant from her roots, it becomes increasingly difficult for the strands of our biblically Reformed rope to stay woven together for the purposes of our original vision and our future calling.

All things considered, Chapell looks like a moderate and the advocates of the 2010 Strategic Plan look conservative compared to progressives in the PCA.  That is actually encouraging to other churches in NAPARC.

But it does cast doubt about the wisdom of calculating the church’s mission in relation to changes in the culture.

Spectacle in American Life

Someone who attended the National Prayer Breakfast and observed reactions to President Trump wrote this to Rod Dreher:

It was disturbing, and I was equally disappointed by the applause lines, campaign rally atmosphere, and lack of concern by many of my fellow Christian’s at the event. I’m not from or much familiar with the evangelical world so I admit that, but responding with “yeahs”, “amens”, and other affirmations when an obviously angry and contemptuous man is lashing out at his enemies during a PRAYER BREAKFAST WHERE WE JUST TALKED ABOUT LOVING OUR ENEMIES was crazy. I can’t think of another word to describe it. The speech came as close to possible to saying Jesus was wrong about loving our enemies without going there.

I wonder, if Christians could resist the spectacle of the Super Bowl, would be they be better equipped to spot the cringe-worthy feats of presidential politics?

This is one way not to gain such perspective:

See the players as image bearers. I watch guys like Randy Moss with his freakish physical ability and I marvel at the God who made someone who can jump, run, and catch like this guy. I watch Tom Brady dissect a defense in a matter of seconds and throw a pass between two defenders and hit his receiver in stride on his outside shoulder and think of his creator. I look at the size of a guy like Adalius Thomas whose arms are bigger than my thighs (seriously) and watch how quick he is and just think about how amazing the human body is, the way God made it so that we can, by hard work, strengthen, condition, and improve it. I watch a coach like Bill Belichick who has opposing coaches staying up all night trying to be creative because they know the guy is a football genius; I watch him and worship the God who gave him such a great mind.

Or, perhaps you could try to see the image-bearing aspects of Donald Trump and his freakish ability to escape investigations by Special Counsel and Congress. But maybe not.

But if you regarded the Super Bowl this way, you won’t have any trouble with Trump:

The Super Bowl is not just another NFL game. It has become an intensified concentration of vulgarity and ego, with enough athletics in the game and cleverness in the commercials to trick me into watching. It’s simply not what I’m living for.

That was my last Super Bowl.

Now, the question is those who go along with the Super Bowl and draw the line at POTUS. I wonder, for instance, what Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, and John Fea think this year’s half-time show says about “one nation under God.”

Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

And You Thought Presbyterian Polity Is Onerous

So many alliances and networks, so little church discipline:

The roots of the Sojourn Network go back to the early 2000s, where Sojourn was invited to join Acts 29, a diverse global family of church-planting churches. Mike Cosper and other members of Sojourn participated in boot camps and events, using this experience of brotherhood and curiosity to influence the development of the Sojourn Network.

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

Soon realizing that Sojourn was the only network who chose to make the change to an infinity network, Acts 29 inspired them to go out and start something new. It was an exciting time for everyone to see new networks growing and moving forward in new directions.

Wanting to put more resources to the church planting mission, Mike Cosper and Daniel Montgomery set out to find a leader with a passion to coach and mentor church planters. The ideal candidate had to be devoted to the local ministry while pioneering the network simultaneously. Finally, they discovered Brian Howard, a member of Acts 29 and a church planter in Southern California looking spend more time on church planting and working with planters.

After joining Sojourn, Brian not only served as a pastor, but he helped launch the East campus and the J Town campus, evolving the network’s vision. Dave Owens first joined the Sojourn Network in 2011 as Brian’s administrative assistant. Though his experience as an assistant was humbling and transforming, Dave knew his passion lied with planting churches and helping other planters.

Defining the vision
With several leadership transitions redefining the network’s mission, the Sojourn board of directors wanted to focus on crafting lasting values and a vision for the future.

Many church planters believe a network can only be a head or hands network, meaning the focus is either to take time to ensure beliefs are lined up or to just get it done. The Sojourn Network questioned this status quo and wanted to bring both soul and a healthy posture back to ministry. With this value, Sojourn became known as the place where church planters came to be healthy, quickly shifting the network’s grand visions of planting thousands of churches to simply helping church planters recover from spiritual warfare and disillusionment. Mike recognized many church planters were burnt out, working as both a pastor and a planter. Sojourn realized this was not a sustainable or healthy path. Knowing Sojourn would take a few years to take off, the members focused on holistic renewal to prepare church planters for multiplication, growth and outward energy, driving passion for church planting.

At this time, Sojourn started to look inward for inspiration to develop the vision and values. Sojourn ran the 930 art center, a diverse, artistic place from wood carving to videography to skateboarding. This culture around art, music and literature helped the network realize the ultimate goal is transforming communities and lives.

As God continued to send creative and artistic people to Sojourn, the network understood their culture flows from creative contextualization coupled with health and wholeness. Praying for the lord to lead the way, Sojourn found themselves defining a vision based on sustainable, healthy growth.

This may be the most challenging paragraph:

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

What is an affiliated network as opposed to an allied network?

What is an infinity network as opposed to a finite network?

What is wrong with Redeemer NYC that it has not solved the “extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches”?

Acts 29?

Presbyterians in Charge

The news of Julius Kim’s appointment as president of the Gospel Coalition should put the organization’s sometime fascination with Anglicanism in perspective — Anglophilia runs deep in Americans (as does venerating the Founders many of whom were Anglican).

Worthwhile to recall is that when TGC aired differences over church polity, they did not include a brief for episcopacy. Instead, it was mainly a choice between Presbyterians and Congregationalists (read Baptists).

On the Presbyterian side were Kevin DeYoung and Mark Jones. DeYoung wrote in defense of the office of elder:

I hold to the Presbyterian position because of the overall New Testament teaching about eldership. The office of eldership is one of teaching and authority (1 Tim. 5:17), which is why the position is reserved for qualified men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-7). Elder-pastors are given by Christ to be overseers and shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Eph. 4:11). The leaders in Hebrews 13:17 who must watch over the souls of God’s people are almost certainly elders. We know from 1 Peter 5:2-3 that elders must exercise gracious oversight in the church. They are the under-shepherds serving and representing Christ, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (1 Peter 1:25; 5:4). It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.

Jones dug in with presbytery:

Despite what you may think, Presbyterian ecclesiology is not primarily defined by churches governed by elders, but by churches governed by presbyteries. Presbyteries can encompass the elders of a local church, a regional church, and what is termed a “general assembly.” This view is established from the oneness of the visible church. Based on the sufficiency of Scripture, Presbyterians hold that the church is governed jure divino (by divine right). There are certain fixed principles in the government of the church. We hold that Christ has blessed the church with the Scriptures, church officers, and sacraments. In doing so, Christ has “ordained therein his system of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom” (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order).

While there is much that Presbyterians and classic congregationalists can agree on, nevertheless, against the congregationalist view, Presbyterians affirm the authority of presbyteries beyond the local church. That’s the crux of the issue between Presbyterians and congregationalists: authority.

From the other side came Hunter Powell, a Baptist pastor, in defense of Congregationalism which appeared first at Gospel Coalition, vanished, and then moved to IX Marks:

Elders have authority given to them in the Bible. They should be obeyed. The problem is whether that paragraph says all there is to say about church power. If church members are to vote on their elders, and if church members have a right to vote in excommunication (which many Reformed divines, particularly some notable Dutch divines, argued for), then we must say that there is some church power in the congregation as a whole. But that does not by any means argue against the unique role of elders and the fact that the Bible commands churches to submit to their elders. Nor does this mean that people are mini-elders arbitrarily deciding when and where they actually submit to their leaders. If a church feels a tension there, then that is actually a good thing. The reformed divines certainly did….

It is true some congregationalists fear elders because of the tyranny of the few, but on the other hand some presbyterians fear members involvement because of the anarchy of the many. But fear never leads to good polity. The question really comes down to this: Did Christ give any share of church power to the congregation? If so, then we must account for it.

Again, no brief for bishops. The world of New Calvinism seems to have little room for the rule by one in the palace of the church. It may owe to church history like this.

How Small Are Your Ten Commandments?

Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?

He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:

First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)

Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.

… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.

But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)

That might be a good idea — having the magistrate (as long as it’s not Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner) evaluate worship — if the church is struggling with veneration for POTUS:

For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?

Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:

no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)

I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.