The Next Presbyterian Church?

Notice which denominations the Presbyterian Lay(man’s) Committee tries to connect:

CONNECTING WITH OTHER PRESBYTERIANS Presbyterian Denominations:

ECO: A Covenanted Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
EPC: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church
PCA: The Presbyterian Church in America
PCUSA: The Presbyterian Church (USA)

Are the Seceders (Associate Reformed), Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterian), and Orthodox (OPC) chopped liver? The TKNY effect? The legacy of leisure suits?

Ministry Inside the Bubble

Redeemer NYC has been in existence for almost twenty years and by this point it may be worth asking whether Tim Keller and company have transformed or been transformed by the bubble. Consider, for starters, that Redeemer spawned churches that cover Brooklyn — bubble central — about as well as Verizon. Notice as well that Keller speaks of the dangers of white nationalism the way many in the academy, Hollywood, Washington, and the Times do (though he also worries about secularism).

More substantive than these atmospheric impressions are the way that the Kellers promote the big city and its culture. Does anyone remember how Kathy Keller lauded the benefits of living in the city?

Lifestyle Benefits

simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments

immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely

apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house

you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores

no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead

no school snow days—the subway is always working

sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood

for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world

many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured

fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere

great food in every restaurant—no bad meals . . .

General

airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers

closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans

less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand

wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends

easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs

access to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of cities for many of these reasons. But Ms. Keller doesn’t seem to understand that urbanism separates her from lots of other Americans, while signalling to urban dwellers that she and her husband’s ministry “get” — nay, love — the city (even if the big steeple PCA churches in the South or the social justice warriors in St. Louis do not: “bless their hearts for being urban, but they don’t know NYC the way we do” – read they aren’t bubblicious). How do you then challenge the bubble when you’re on the same side as the bubble?

Tim Keller himself earlier this year showed that he was not as comfortable with urban artistic life as many might assume given Redeemer’s Faith & Work Center:

Contemporary art is dominated by either critical theory or commercialism. Much art is aimed at transgressing and debunking all social norms in order to liberate the individual. Or it is designed to provoke in such a way that attracts eyeballs and income. It’s possible that gospel-changed Christians in the arts would bring far more hope and less nihilism, and could express visions of community and shared values.

Isn’t that all the more reason to wonder whether Redeemer’s ministry did anything to prepare New Yorkers for what happened on election day. Or, were they part of the constituency that Saturday Night Live mocked?

They pride themselves on being open-minded, but they actually close themselves off to contrary arguments; The Bubble is a “community of like-minded free-thinkers—and no one else.” They think they’re more thoughtful and intellectual, but they’re really just confirming each other’s biases; a “wide array of diverse viewpoints” is two people doing nothing but agreeing with each other. They think they’re well-informed and cultured, but they draw from a very narrow range of trendy lifestyle fads and “only the good websites.” They think of their lifestyle as simple and accessible, but only the well off can afford it. (“Anybody is welcome to join us,” the ad proclaims, but a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1.9 million—not far off from reality in Manhattan or San Francisco.)

They say they are above racial division, but they’re the ones obsessing over it. (“We don’t see color here—but we celebrate it.”) Then there’s the preening, condescending race-consciousness of the privileged white “progressive”—who, in this sketch, ostentatiously points to the “black power” button on his lapel and gets a subtly exasperated roll of the eyes from his black co-star.

Most important: They depend on the support and protection of blue-collar workers who don’t share their values and culture.

Can’t Presbyterians ask what happens to Presbyterian frogs in the New York City kettle? Isn’t that what Presbyterian polity is about? Or are we supposed to be awed by Redeemer exceptionalism?

PCA Trumped

Or, how politics matters more than communion:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

All the racial reconciliation that last year’s General Assembly allegedly accomplished was thin compared to a PCA minister or member’s status in the world of evangelicalism. Does the PCA now need to repent for its members who voted for Trump? Or can its pastors, theologians, and elders help members understand that belonging to the visible church — the kingdom of Jesus Christ, mind you — is so much more significant than what federal politicians do (or votes for them)?

Now more than ever, the PCA needs a healthy dose of the spirituality of the church. It needs to understand that the politics of this world are trifling compared to the realities of the world to come, and that the freedom a Christian enjoys in Christ has nothing to do with politics (just ask the peasants who used Luther’s gospel to advocate an egalitarian social order). But that doctrine is now in the rear view mirror.

Teflon Megachurch

Jake Meador blames the poor styles of Jen Hatmaker on the megachurch. Evangelicalism of the 1990s relied more on personal branding than on churchly boundaries. The result is Hatmaker’s inability to see what’s at stake in LBGT debates. She’s a product of her megachurch culture.

Meador is especially hard on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek:

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

My question is why does Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC get a pass? Redeemer is a megachurch, uses strategies designed for its urban context, and it came along at the same time as Willow Creek.

Meador may object that Hybels is not Keller when it comes to communicating or defending the truth of Christianity. But Meador forgets that Lee Stroebel was a big part of Willow Creek’s brand back in the 1990s and no one could apologize better for the faith than an atheist-journalist who studied at Yale Law School turned Christian teacher.

Plus, if you consider where some of the junior pastors in Keller’s New York City outreach landed, Meador could conceivably add Redeemer to his lament about evangelicalism and millennials. Anyone remember this (two years before Jen’s hatmaking went haywire)?

This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

So I ask, what gives?

Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.