Buyer Beware

A common refrain among converts to Roman Catholicism is a lament about the sorry state of Protestantism, especially the mainline Protestant churches. Betsy Fox Genevose spoke for many when she described the lack of Christianity she had experienced while growing up a Protestant:

Throughout my non-churchgoing, non-believing adult years, I had always considered myself a Christian in the amorphous cultural sense of the world. Having been reared on the Bible and Protestant hymns, I was conversant with the language and basic tenets of Christianity. I had, moreover, been reared with a deep respect for the great Hebrew prophets, assorted Protestant leaders and Catholic saints, and even the unique value of Jesus Christ as the preeminent exemplar of loving self“sacrifice. Never, I am grateful to say, did I, like too many secular intellectuals, denigrate or disdain believing Christians, whom I had always been inclined to regard with respect. But for long years, I did not give much thought to joining their number.

So why is it that the communion that was supposed to elevate former Protestants and give them a better grade of faith is entering into ecumenical discussions with one of the churches, mainline Lutherans, that sent Protestants in search of witness firm on sex and the body?

Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic church.
The “Declaration on the Way” was approved 931-9 by the 2016 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly held last week at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the Wednesday vote.

That’s right. A female bishop welcomed the news of entering into closer relations with church that will not ever ordain women.

But some Roman Catholics are not happy (the unhappy Lutherans are already in a different synod — LCMS):

The ecumenical drive has been part of the check-list of popes before the current pontiff. The joint worship service has been described by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” in order to avoid further controversy. Some Catholics, especially traditionalists, have criticized the prospect of a pope celebrating a schism. Another issue that has traditionalist Catholics and some clerics baleful is the issue of the differing theologies held by the Catholic Church and Lutherans regard the nature and the confection of the Eucharist.

On the upside, Betsy Fox Genovese, who died in 2003, will not have to witness her church’s pursuit of unity with her former church.

When All Means Some

One of the favorite arguments of Neo-Calvinists is to go to Col 1 to support every-square inch Christianity:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

But Rick Phillips puts limits on “all”:

What are some of the things that I have through the gospel of Jesus Christ? The answer is the cornucopia of salvation theology! I have justification so as to be accepted before God’s justice. I have adoption so as to be embraced into God’s fatherly love as a beloved child. I have sanctification as the Holy Spirit graciously works within me. And I have glorification, as the return of Christ is destined to admit him into his eternal presence. Through the gospel, I have the past, where Jesus lived and died on my behalf; I have the present, in which I am kept for eternal life by God’s grace; and I have the future, which holds no fear for those who are treasured in the hand of the Almighty. Through the gospel I have heaven, where my name is enrolled forever, and I have earth, over which my Savior exercises all power and authority. I have Christian fellowship through communion with the saints and I have participation in the church with its ordinances of nurture and care. Through the gospel I have perfect liberty to live above the world and sin and I have beloved bondage as a willing slave to Jesus Christ. Through the gospel, I have a new nature that partakes of the character of God, and I have the blessing of the law of God to guide me in the way of life. I have the Word of God shining within. I have prayer, which grants access to the very throne of grace. I have the sacraments, bearing the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. I have worship, service, sacrifice, and solace. Most of all, best of all, I have Jesus Christ – the whole Jesus Christ: Lord and Savior; Prophet, Priest, and King; Master, Helper, and Friend. And in union with Jesus Christ, together with communion in the gifts and graces of his blessed kingdom, through the gospel, I truly have all things!

That sounds like the Confession of Faith on Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

In other words, that sounds like an otherworldly faith, not one that redeems cities, plumbing, and foreign policy.

I’m okay with that.

Who's Radical Now?

After lots of push back (at least from some readers) on gay marriage and resistance to it (the Summer of SSM), an attempt to reset the 2k thermostat might be in order.

Once again, a common objection to 2k is that if you don’t oppose same sex marriage or support Kim Davis “the way I do,” then you must really favor same sex marriage and the imprisonment of Kim Davis. It’s the same old problem that J. Gresham Machen faced because he opposed Prohibition. Taking issue with legislation or those who support it is not the same thing as favoring what the legislation opposes. Just because you object to Prohibition (Kim Davis) does not mean you favor drunkenness (political tyranny). The nooks and crannies of politics and legislation don’t allow for such simple calculations. But that doesn’t stop some attorneys from being simplistic (oh the inspirational qualities of Kuyperianism to hyperventilate away complicated matters).

But beyond this besetting problem of Americans (looking beyond the cause to the tactics of pursuing the cause), another obstacle that 2k faces is the charge of cowardice. For some Christians, apparently, serving the Lord and pursuing holiness is insufficient if it is not also creating problems for the wider society. In other words, if Christians try to make accommodations with the new legislative and marital landscape, for instance, they are not being faithful to their Lord. Only if they stand out like a sore thumb can they be counted among the true, the faithful, the holiest.

What needs to be observed about this inclusion of obnoxiousness to the fruit of the Spirit is that it is not the practice we see among some of the heroes of Reformed Protestantism. Did J. Gresham Machen try to be a pain in the neck for the ruling authorities, such as when he objected to the proposed Federal Department of Education? No. He testified before Congress, showed respect and deference in his testimony, and tried to figure out ways for Christians to pass on the faith even in the midst of legal challenges (which is why he supported private Christian schools)?

Or how about Abraham Kuyper? For all of his emphasis on the antithesis and his opposition to political liberalism (read secularization), Kuyper figured out a way to accommodate the diversity of Dutch society such that Calvinists would be able to maintain their faith and associational life even while accepting the presence of Roman Catholics and secular liberals as part of Dutch nation.

The way that previous Reformed leaders have tried to get along in their society — rather than taking the Amish or Islamist option — suggests that the real radicals today are not 2kers but the anti-2kers (RA2K). It is indeed radical to oppose the social and political order. Sometimes it may be necessary. But to make it a badge of Christian faithfulness is not only historically unprecedented but anti-biblical. Peter and Paul preached submission to and honor for the emperor, and Paul said Christians should pray for peace and quiet so they could live out their lives faithfully. But if 2kers employ arguments designed to secure such social stability, we are traitors and deny our Lord.

Funny thing is, we are actually in the majority of Americans:

62 percent of those polled support jailing people for contempt of court; only 15 percent said they opposed it

Of Republicans polled, 64 percent said they supported jailing people for contempt of court

Strong majorities in every demographic category (except for African-Americans) supported jailing people for contempt of court The region where support for jailing them was strongest? The South, Kim Davis’s home region

An overall majority of people (53 percent) believe religious liberty is under threat in America. Four out of five Republicans believe that, and 55 percent of Independents do. The only demographics that didn’t believe that? Democrats, those making over $100K per year, and those living in the Midwest (though in the Midwestern case, it was a plurality).

A slight overall majority (52 percent) believes that elected officials should not be given a religious exemption from doing their job, though the numbers break down along partisan and regional lines. Republicans alone among the political orientations are divided equally.

Majorities in all regions except the South believe elected officials should be required do their jobs regardless of their conscience — and in the
South, the “do your job” faction polled a 47 percent plurality, versus 38 percent of Southerners who believe in the conscience deferment, and 16 percent who aren’t sure.

An overall majority said Kim Davis, in particular, ought to have gone to jail for contempt of court. Interestingly, Republicans, who answered generically that someone in Davis’s position should go to jail, were evenly split when Davis’s name came up.

Big majorities across every demographic category say that Kim Davis ought to resign as a matter of principle. It’s not even close. Only 22 percent of people say she should keep her job and remain defiant

Those numbers may suggest salt that has lost its savor. I actually think it indicates which Christians are on their meds. But it hardly makes us radical.

Making Straight the Way of the Green

Lots of excitement in certain quarters of the Roman Catholic Church about Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical about the environment, but Protestants wonder where the energy was when Protestants beat the papacy to the punch.

First, what’s coming:

Vatican officials announced Tuesday that Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical letter on the environment is now finalized and is being translated into various languages, with an expected release date sometime in June.

The announcement came during a Rome summit on climate change co-sponsored by the Vatican and the United Nations, headlined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

An encyclical letter is considered the most important, and most developed, form of papal teaching. This will be the first-ever encyclical entirely devoted to environmental themes.

Next, the excitement:

Ron Pagnucco of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University “would like to see Francis continue to use the concept of ‘solidarity’ in the encyclical, discussing what global solidarity means in regards to the environment.”

“Just as Catholic social doctrine teaches that no person exists without society,” said Vince Miller of the University of Dayton, “we need to also learn that our species does not exist without the rest of creation.”

“How climate change and related environmental issues connect with other important concerns, including war and peace, economics, and health care,” needs to be articulated in the encyclical, according to Tobias Winright of St. Louis University.

“It is very important to discuss the environment, conflict and peace,” Pagnucco agreed, since environmental degradation is a “threat multiplier.”

The relationship between the environment and the economy is especially important.

“Environmentalists are looking to the pope for continued linkages to poverty and impact of degradation on the poor,” said Catholic Climate Covenant’s Ellis. Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of Boston College would also “like to see the sustainability issues related to climate change woven into issues related to economic inequality.”

Environmental problems are also connected to racism, said Alex Mikulich of Loyola University New Orleans. And “it would be important to consider the connection between the desire to dominate the earth/cosmos and domination of women,” according to M. Shawn Copeland of Boston College.

One of the reasons environmentalists are embracing religion is because it is one of the few things that can motivate people to sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of others.

David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary’s University calls for a “forthright confrontation with so-called lifestyle choices.”

“It’s all the choices we make that cause the per capita carbon footprint of the average American to be roughly twice that of most European countries, and that cause the insanity of California lawns and water-thirsty agriculture,” he said. “I’m all for better laws and structures, but until we stop expecting strawberries in February, spacious living quarters, and large SUVs, I’m not sure how those structures change.”

Likewise, Scheid said he hopes for “a critique of consumerism and a ‘scrap culture’ or ‘throwaway culture’ that uses and then discards as trash people, especially the poor, created goods, and the Earth as a whole. I hope he ties the preferential option for the poor and solidarity with ecological concerns.”

Grazer said he hopes the pope “will call upon the larger and more wealthy nations to lead and make the ‘sacrifices’ needed to make urgent progress regarding climate change, and in particular, helping the most vulnerable people and nations mitigate and adapt to climate change.” The pope “needs to call for much greater leadership on the part of wealthier nations and also for sufficient changes in personal and corporate life style, moving away from consumerism,” he said.

But Miller of Dayton University stressed that structural change, not just individual choices, is essential. “Our moral and Christian obligation is not simply to change our consumption as individuals, but to collectively build a culture/society/civilization that is sustainable,” he said.

It requires “a broadening of moral responsibility to care for creation from individual choice to the larger, structural, policy responses that are required to address the environmental crises we face,” he said. “Yes, greed is a problem, but environmental despoliation is cooked into the system we have built.”

Peppard agreed that “market processes are not morally trustworthy guides to long-term flourishing of the physical bases on which all life depends” because the markets are oriented “towards short-term profit and economic growth without a recognition of natural capital as a substrate of those developments.”

How people and governments respond to the encyclical will be critical. “The theology of the encyclical is important,” said Marian Diaz of Loyola University Chicago, “but the implementation or the lack thereof matters more.”

But Protestants have been there and done that. First came the National Council of Churches in 200friggin’6, almost a decade ago:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES IN CHRIST:

Expresses its deep concern for the pending environmental, economic, and social tragedies threatened by global warming to creation, human communities, and traditional sacred spaces.

Urges the Federal Government to respond to global warming with greater urgency and leadership and gives support for mandatory measures that reduce the absolute amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and in particular emissions of carbon dioxide, to levels recommended by nationally and internationally recognized and respected scientific bodies.

Urges the Federal, State and Local Governments to support and invest in energy conservation and efficiency, sustainable and renewable, and affordable and sustainable transportation.

Calls for business and industry to respond to global warming with increased investment in conservation and more efficient and sustainable energy technologies that are accessible, sustainable, and democratic.

Stands firmly with all of God’s children by urging that adaptive measures and financial support be forthcoming from government and industry to aid those directly impacted by global warming and in particular those least able to relocate, reconstruct, or cope with the current and pending impacts of climate change.

Calls on all Christians, people of faith and people of good will the world over to lead by example and seek active means whereby they may, individually and in community, quickly reduce their emissions of green house gas emissions and speak out for engagement by their elected officials on matters of global warming.

In the same year, evangelicals added their moral heft:

The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.

There are several reasons for urgency. First, deadly impacts are being experienced now. Second, the oceans only warm slowly, creating a lag in experiencing the consequences. Much of the climate change to which we are already committed will not be realized for several decades. The consequences of the pollution we create now will be visited upon our children and grandchildren. Third, as individuals and as a society we are making long-term decisions today that will determine how much carbon dioxide we will emit in the future, such as whether to purchase energy efficient vehicles and appliances that will last for 10-20 years, or whether to build more coal-burning power plants that last for 50 years rather than investing more in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

In the United States, the most important immediate step that can be taken at the federal level is to pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market-based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program. On June 22, 2005 the Senate passed the Domenici-Bingaman resolution affirming this approach, and a number of major energy companies now acknowledge that this method is best both for the environment and for business.

We commend the Senators who have taken this stand and encourage them to fulfill their pledge. We also applaud the steps taken by such companies as BP, Shell, General Electric, Cinergy, Duke Energy, and DuPont, all of which have moved ahead of the pace of government action through innovative measures implemented within their companies in the U.S. and around the world. In so doing they have offered timely leadership.

Numerous positive actions to prevent and mitigate climate change are being implemented across our society by state and local governments, churches, smaller businesses, and individuals. These commendable efforts focus on such matters as energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, low CO2 emitting technologies, and the purchase of hybrid vehicles. These efforts can easily be shown to save money, save energy, reduce global warming pollution as well as air pollution that harm human health, and eventually pay for themselves. There is much more to be done, but these pioneers are already helping to show the way forward.

Finally, while we must reduce our global warming pollution to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, as a society and as individuals we must also help the poor adapt to the significant harm that global warming will cause.

Conclusion
We the undersigned pledge to act on the basis of the claims made in this document. We will not only teach the truths communicated here but also seek ways to implement the actions that follow from them. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we urge all who read this declaration to join us in this effort.

I understand that critics often blame Protestantism for encouraging modernity and lacking a sense of tradition, and once again Protestants seem to be out in front of Rome. But does 9 years count for establishing one’s traditionalist bona fides?

Why Religion Goes Private

This story about religious dissenters at Ontario York University is one of those reality checks for 2k’s critics who say that the notion of faith being a private affair is audaciously perverse or perfidious:

J. Paul Grayson, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s York University, received what he described as an unusual request from a student in his online research methods class last fall. The student requested that he be exempt from an assignment requiring him to meet in-person with a group of his peers, writing to Grayson,

One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women… It will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.

Grayson ultimately refused the student’s request for an accommodation, believing that to grant it would be to render him, and the university, “an accessory to sexism.” Grayson said that the student, whom he surmised is either Muslim or Orthodox Jewish – his identity has not been revealed for privacy reasons – graciously accepted the decision. He has since completed the assignment in question.

It would seem to be a case in which a sensitive situation was resolved satisfactorily enough. However, Grayson’s denial of the student’s request came over and above the objections of York administrators, including the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Martin Singer, who, in email correspondence shared by Grayson, said that the university had a legal obligation to accommodate the student’s religious beliefs and argued that to exempt him from group work would “in no way have ‘substantial impact’ on the experience or human rights of other students in the class.” Although, in what Grayson described as a tacit acknowledgement of a potential impact, the dean also wrote to Grayson, “It is particularly important, especially as you are concerned about the course experience of our female students, that other students in 2030.60B are not made aware of the accommodation” (a directive that Grayson said he is currently challenging through the York faculty union as a violation of his academic freedom).

Is it just (all about) me, or do believers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, not have an obligation to accept the standards of an institution — such as religious pluralism and no religious tests for enrollment or teaching — when they decide to take courses and pay tuition? If a non-Christian enrolled at Moody Bible Institute and then complained that he was shocked, just shocked to find so much Bible and prayer in classrooms, wouldn’t Christians think the secularist should have known what he was in for? So why doesn’t this logic apply to believers at public institutions? Why do they think that when they arrive on campus, all of a sudden the place is going to turn faith-friendly or maybe even emulate the norms of their faith community?

So, when we have an institution — university or civil polity — that includes a diverse array of believers, believers have to figure out a way to distinguish their public conduct from their religious convictions. (What I say in my prayer closet is not what I say in the classroom.) One way to do that is to say that I am a Christian all the time but this religious identity is not going to be visible or public when participating in a community and abiding by a set of rules where Christianity is not the norm. Perhaps some forms of Christianity are incapable of making such a distinction. If so, then Christians should have nothing to do with religiously mixed polities or institutions. The Amish take that position (and I have great respect for it). But continuing to insist that public institutions comply with a person’s religious convictions when such an institution includes a variety of believers is either disingenuous or just plain recalcitrant.

And thankfully, we have the apostle Paul and John Calvin to sort this out. In his comments on 1 Cor 5: 12-13 — “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” — Calvin writes:

There is nothing to hinder us from judging these also — nay more, even devils themselves are not exempt from the judgment of the word which is committed to us. But Paul is speaking here of the jurisdiction that belongs peculiarly to the Church. “The Lord has furnished us with this power, that we may exercise it upon those who belong to his household. For this chastisement is a part of discipline which is confined to the Church, and does not extend to strangers. We do not therefore pronounce upon them their condemnation, because the Lord has not subjected them to our cognizance and jurisdiction, in so far as that chastisement and censure are concerned. We are, therefore, constrained to leave them to the judgment of God.” It is in this sense that Paul says, that God will judge them, because he allows them to wander about unbridled like wild beasts, because there is no one that can restrain their wantonness.

Was He Thinking of Tim Keller?

I ran across an Eastern Orthodox reaction to the New York Times story on the immature and unsettled. And here is what one of the interlocutors wrote:

This is where the word “Calvinist” has no objective meaning. It is interesting from a sociological perspective, though. 25 years ago everyone thought the PCA was going to [be] the “Calvinist” option for thinking baptists. However, a number of articulate, deep Baptist thinkers who loosely adopted “Calvinist” loci were able to offer Calvinist Baptists something besides a Presbyterian alternative.

Implication: the PCA (and OPC) will grow at slower rates because Baptists will have fewer reasons to abandon some of their key identities.

Without Lines, When I Listen to J.S. Bach Am I Listening to Jay Z (whoever he is)?

NPR did some religion reporting recently to fit the mood of a holiday season that left Jewish believers awkwardly behind in early Advent (for the liturgically gifted). One story was about the Mark Driscoll of the mainline Protestant world, Nadio Nadia Bolz-Weber, the woman who started out Church of Christ and is currently “orthodox Lutheran” by NPR’s reporter’s account:

The congregation here resembles the crowd at a downtown bookshop — hipsters and college professors, gay couples and Democratic grandmas. But even in this crowd, the congregation’s pastor, with her short, moussed hair and armloads of religious tattoos, stands out as she launches into a sermon about Jesus on the cross.

“In our win-lose way of understanding things, it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and been a superhero — kicking ass and taking names, showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game,” she tells the congregation.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bit of a Lutheran rock star at the moment, although the term makes her cringe. Her new book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, recently hit the New York Times best-seller list.

What she and her church are trying to do, she says, is simple and radical: create an authentic Christian experience without the pretension that can come with church.

“I think people’s tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low,” she says.

I was glad to see that the story irked even one of the bloggers who writes for the CRC-RCA blog, The 12 (though challenges from readers prompted the irked one to take it back).

The story on Jane (why call her Nadia or pastor since we want to be transgressive and draw outside the lines), came the day before Christmas. The day after NPR featured a Christian musician who according to Wikipedia is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He is Josh Garrells. And one of the story‘s sources said this about Garrells’ music:

“There are movements within postmodern Christianity that are saying these lines between sacred and secular are false constructs,” says Christian Piatt, a blogger and author in Portland who writes about faith and pop culture. “They don’t really exist. And, therefore, we don’t have to choose whether or not we’re going to listen to U2 or Amy Grant, or Josh Garrels or The Avett Brothers. I can have them all on the same rotation in my music and not consider myself an apostate or a heretic or anything like that.”

Amy Grant!!??

Christian Piatt needs to say hello to two-kingdom theology, which may be post-postmodern or popomo. 2k keeps the lines. The sacred is different from the secular. Nadia is different from Jane. Church is different from coffee house. Baroque is different from punk. Sunday is not Monday. Lines matter, as any wearer of tattoos should know.

Christians may and do walk on both sides of the line. But they know what is appropriate on each side. What Piatt and Bolz-Weber don’t seem to understand — along with the rest of the world dominated by boomers who still don’t want to color inside the lines — is that if you remove the lines, everything is the same and nothing is special (or set apart or sacred). Finding a place that is unique, where truth abides no matter whether Amy Grant or Bono or Vaughn Williams or Josh Garrells flourishes, is the source of real comfort and genuine liberty.

How long? How long, O Lord, will it take for the line-transgressors to see how liberating the lines are?