American Greatness

Liberalism may be failing, but at least the voluntary character of church life in the United States means that communions here do not need to worry the way those in Scotland do where the establishment principle is still in effect even for those outside the established church. David Robertson highlights the contrasting responses of Presbyterians — Church of Scotland vs. Free Church of Scotland — to the Scottish government’s proposal to allow Scots to self-identify their gender. Spoiler alert: the Free Church dissents, the Church of Scotland goes along.

But the arresting matter here is the degree to which a communion self-identifies with its nation:

Lets talk not about gender identity but the identity of the Church. It seems to be that the Church of Scotland is no longer self-identifying as a biblical, prophetic Christian church. It now self-identifies as the spiritual wing of the progressive state, affirming its every action and endorsing its liberal theology. State churches always run the danger of avoiding the prophetic, because they are tied in with the State, and therefore will find it difficult to tell the State the Word of God. If John the Baptist had been a Church of Scotland minister, he would have affirmed Herod in his sin, told him ‘he didn’t want to judge’ and offered to produce a booklet of stories of adulterers like him! I hope and pray that the faithful ministers who remain in the Kirk will not hand out this propaganda, but will challenge 121 and the bureaucracy that has collaborated in this document. Its time for faithful people to be faithful and to at least be prophets to their own denomination.

What about the Free Church (and other churches). We can moan from the sidelines – refuse to get involved – shout in anger or shrink in despair. Or we can be a biblical Christ loving church which does what we can to welcome and help transpeople who are seeking Christ. They need to know him and be saved from their sin – not their trans. And we must have a prophetic voice into the culture – whether its challenging schools when they seek to indoctrinate our children with Queer theory, or making representations to the Scottish Government. And of course we weep and pray….

God have mercy and save Scotland from itself.

At what point do you see the folly of ecclesiastical establishments? Nothing possibly could go wrong here (ever since Constantine).


When the Evangelical Left and Theonomic Presbyterians Agree

Shane Claiborne mocks Jerry Falwell for tweeting this:

Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome-he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor. That’s our job.

Such two-kingdom thinking is heretical for the student of Tony Campolo:

Honestly, this is some of the worst theology I’ve ever heard. And this heresy is from the president of the largest Christian university in the world.

Not only is this “bad” theology… it is also deadly theology. Similar ideology was used to justify apartheid and to excuse Hitler… this notion that sin is personal but rulers are immune to it.

The idea that Caesar or a Roman soldier… or anyone… is exempt from God’s command to love our enemy, care for the poor, or welcome the stranger is heresy. Jesus said we will ALL be asked how we cared for “the least of these.” (Mt.25)

Larry Ball has a similar gripe against two-kingdom theology (inspired by Andrew White’s run for the governor of Texas):

Both natural law and the democratic process determine civil law for the body-politic. The Bible has no place in the body-politic. The Bible is a religious document and it must be restricted to the realm of the church and personal faith. The State must remain neutral toward religion.

Thus, the result of two-kingdom theology is that Religion (Christianity) is personal, restricted to the heart, and the rules for the body politic must not be determined by the Bible. In America all religions are equal, and therefore all religions are equally irrelevant in the public square. Religion is only useful in so far as it makes people good citizens who are obedient to the law of the land.

Either natural law or the voice of the Supreme Court makes right in society as a whole. Mr. White admits that he and his wife would personally not choose abortion, but this is only a personal and therefore a religious matter. The Bible must not be brought into the arena of the civil magistrate. This is to mix church and state.

Two-kingdoms aside and whether Jesus had anything to say about God and Caesar, why is it so hard for evangelicals to separate what America does from what they as believers do? I don’t build bridges, therefore the United States government should not. I would not declare war on another nation or shoot another person, therefore American governments should not fight or enforce the law by force? Can you say delusions of grandeur? Sure you can.

But if you want to side with the feminists that the personal is political, then welcome to evangelical political reflection.

John Fea Has Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

John may think that the 2k growing in Presbyterian gardens is something he has never heard before, but I’m not so sure. This is from an interview John did with Jacques Berlinerblau for the book, Secularism on the Edge:

Fea: I’m a little skeptical about this whole-term secularism catching on within Christian churches, espeically of the evangelical variety. The Christian Right has done such an outstanding job of demonizing this word that any kind of alternative vision of secularism is going to raise red flags. If you want to lead a revitalization of secularism among the evangelical community, you will have a lot of work to do.

When I told some of my friends about this conference they said, “What are you going to a conference on secularism for?” If you read my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and elsewhere (or at least my work when I am not writing generally detached history, you will see that I make no bones about my faith. I am an evangelical. I can affirm everything that Barack Obama said at the Easter Prayer breakfast we discussed earlier. I might say that I have some problems with the president using that languate in his official capacity as the president, but the theology and the doctrine about the Resurrection — I believe that.

Berlinerblau: But you don’t shove it down my throat. You don’t want me to believe it — well, maybe you do want me to believe it. Do you?

Fea: Of course, I do, Jacques. My faith as an evangelical requires me to try to win you to Christ. My desire would be to evangelize you and have you become a believer.

Berlinerblau: Me?

Fea: Yes, but I don’t believe that the state or the government should be trying to evangelize you. Rather, I would love the opportunity to talk about my faith with you, perhaps in a series of conversations over coffee. . . . Evangelicals should not see the practice of sharing their faith with others as a political issue. It is something that should be done locally and individually as a manifestation of the church’s work in the world. . .

I think this is how evangelicals can embrace secularism. Evangelicals want to change the world; they want to be — as the Sermon on the Mount teaches — “salt and light.” They want to be a witness for what is good. They do not need politics to practice such a witness. We don’t need to have a Christian nation in order to live faithfully in the world. (pp. 31-32)

If this is how John looks at church-state, religion-politics relations, then why does he associate 2k with Robert Jeffress’ recent remarks but not see that he himself agrees with the Dallas pastor?

John’s agreement with Jeffress is evident when you consider, first, the way Mike Bergman critiqued Jeffress who compared the Baptist pastor’s views on immigration to those of a pro-choice advocate (a charitable construction – not):

The worldview of those who support abortion is flawed by utilitarianism. The difference between a fetus being something to be cherished or something to be destroyed is its usefulness to the woman carrying the child. Is the child wanted by the woman? Is the child not going to be an excessive burden upon the life of the woman? If the child is unwanted and/or deemed burdensome, then the child can be aborted upon demand.

It is ultimately the attitude: “You add no value to my life, and might even cost me more than I am willing to share, therefore I will not let you into my world.”

Rightly, conservative Christians in our culture have long said, “This is wrong! The child in the womb is valuable because it is a child. She deserves to be born into this world!”

Recently, President Trump referred to certain other countries using a far-from-flattering term when discussing immigration. Many have criticized his message, but some under the banner of “conservative Christianity” have supported it.

Bergman goes on to quote Jeffress:

“What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background. I’m glad Trump understands the difference between a church and country. I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”

If I understand Jeffress and Fea, both distinguish the U.S.A. from the church of Christ. Both recognize that the state and the church have different standards and tools. Jeffress talks about the difference between church and country, Fea between politics and evangelism.

So why does John conclude he’s never encountered anything like this version of 2k?

What is remarkable is that more Protestants did not see the problem, and that contemporary Protestants who advocate religion in pubilc schools do not understand the way in which their religion is abused when used for only its ethical norms while neglecting the centrality of its redemptive message. One plausible explanation for the disparity is that the believers who desire a common morality for public institutions like schools are actually better republicans than they are Christians. For the impulse behind public school morality stems much more from republican ideology about restraining liberty with virtue than it does from Christian teaching about a religious standard for ethical conduct. In fact, in both the Old and New Testaments, the ethical instructions given to Jews and Christians were for the believing communities themselves, not blueprints for public morality among the Chaldeans, Philistines, Romans or Greeks. To follow either the law of Moses or the teaching of Christ, a person first had to affiliate with the Jews and Christians respectively, by worshiping their God and renouncing all others. That American Protestants thought their exclusive faith could provide the moral standard for a republic conceived in religiously neutrality is one of the more surprising twists in the history of biblical religion. Not only was the misunderstanding of religious liberty in the United States glaring, but the distortion of the Christian religion was enormous. (A Secular Faith, 93)

Those who believe they have a Christian duty to condemn the immorality of the President, assume implicitly that Christian morality is the standard for American public life. And that imports Christian norms into a secular society and government.

John Fea apparently wants to embrace secularism and keep evangelism distinct from politics. When Robert Jeffress tries to apply that distinction to President Trump, John acts like he’s never seen or heard of this kind of separation before.

Why? Has Donald Trump made everyone crazy?


Alabamans Went with Augustine

Or so argues William Jason Wallace:

Christianity is not very helpful for negotiating political differences. In AD 410, when the Rome fell to Alaric and the Goths, traditional Romans believed instinctively Christians were responsible for weakening the empire and causing the calamity of decline and invasion. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, determined to respond to this claim in his enormous work The City of God. After a careful deconstruction of Rome’s history and beliefs, Augustine turned his attention to theology and the meaning of history in light of Christianity. His stunning conclusion is that although Christians and pagans share separate eternal destinies, and understand human purpose and ends differently, they nevertheless desire the same peace and justice that good politics provides. Christians, he argues, can pursue the common good with non-Christians while rejecting the notion that politics is the highest human pursuit. Liberals and conservatives, especially in Alabama, are guilty of claiming ownership of the Christian message. Augustine implores that while the aims of Christianity and the aims of politics are infrequently congruous, they both should be respected. Alabama, in this election, was with the ancient bishop.

That’s even biblical — put no trust in princes (or Democrats or Republicans).


2K in the PCA

And Stephen Wolfe is young, to boot:

Voting does not therefore endorse all parts of the moral life, even the principal part. But why? Because proper worship and good soteriology do not concern the civil realm. Worship concerns heavenly life and the ecclesiastical administration, not the civil. The Second-Table concerns civil justice, order, and our earthly duties. Voting does not endorse all of the candidate’s moral life, only the part relating to earthly life. This is a matter of civil righteousness.

So the principle so far is:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of a candidate’s moral life as it pertains to civil righteousness.

Civil righteousness at this point refers to one’s perfect obedience to the Second-Table of the moral law. Let’s remember however that the Law has an external and an internal component. One must act outwardly in conformity with the Law and internally in accordance with the correct motivation (or principle, mode, and end). In our sinful world, even if one seems outwardly blameless, he cannot be internally blameless. He will be covetous, for example, without showing any external indication of it. Surely when people vote for such a person they are not endorsing one’s past or present propensity to sin internally. Why?

Because what matters in the civil realm is civil action, not internal motivations seen only by God. This hypothetical candidate’s internal sin has no impact on his outward behavior. Since there are no adverse consequences, the vote does not endorse evil. So the principle is:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of a candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness.

But has there ever been such a blameless person, one who though internally sinful (like all of us) is perfect as to civil righteousness? Surely not. Everyone outwardly sins. Does voting for him endorse that evil? If a candidate badly failed to honor his parents decades ago, does one endorse that sin by voting for him? I think that most people would say it doesn’t. Why? Because one endorses another’s sin in voting for him only when those sins adversely affect the suitability of the candidate for civil office. The sin must relate in some way to civil office. So:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office.

We’ve significantly reduced the scope of sins that voting can endorse. We have shifted away in part from who the candidate is to what he does. More precisely, we now care about his personal features pertaining to civil action. A civil officeholder fulfills a civil function, which necessarily involves action for civil ends; and qualifying for civil office is necessarily a matter of possessing characteristics conducive to producing good, long-term civil outcomes by means of civil action in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances.

In other words, what’s good for Al Franken is good for Kevin Spacey.

Living in a fallen world really is complicated.


Wedding Cakes Are Not Simple

I wish Jack Phillips’ case was easy but after listening to Ben Domenich’s interview with Mike Farris I can’t side entirely with the baker who refused to make a cake for the gay couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig. One of Phillips’ lines of defense is that he refuses to do something that contradicts his religious convictions about marriage. And making a cake for a gay marriage would be to participate in a religious ceremony that violates Christian teaching.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the couple and guests at a marriage do not consume a wedding cake during the service. Cake is not like the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. A wedding cake is not sacramental (neither is marriage for Protestants). Are receptions biblical? Do we have a “thus saith the Lord” about the necessity and exact order of a reception? Personally, if I were a dad, I’d be saying to daughters from an early age, “cake and punch, cake and punch.” Have the reception in the church basement. Get on the road to your first night. And save the money on the meal and cake for a down payment on a car or home. (In parts of the U.S., homes are as cheap as cars — ahem.)

Which is to say, if I were Mr. Phillips’ pastor, I’d encourage him to rethink how narrowly he identifies a cake with his beliefs. Heck, I think 5:00 each day is borderline sacramental, but the regulative principle helps me draw a line.

As for Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig, did they really need to take Mr. Phillips to court? Did they have nowhere else to find a cake for their wedding reception? Turns out they did:

As for Mullins and Craig, they got hitched without any other major hitches, marrying in Massachusetts before going back to their home state of Colorado to celebrate with family and friends. After their story spread across the Internet, the couple was inundated with cake offers — “even from China,” Craig noted — and, ultimately, they landed on a special plan.

When whites denied blacks access to certain schools or luncheon counters, African-Americans did not have a long line of people signing up to educate or sell them a meal. This is why gay rights, for starters, is different from ending racial discrimination. Gay people since roughly 1990 have had a remedy for services desired — another business down the block. African-Americans did not have such a remedy.

That is why blacks had good reason to make a federal case of Jim Crow. Gays of decorated cakes? Not so much.


An Answer to Prayer

At its 81st General Assembly (2014), commissioners of the OPC heard a report from the chaplains’ committee that asked for prayer for the recently released Bowe Bergdahl:

Finally, given the media attention surrounding the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and in particular his relationship to the OPC, the following statement was placed in the minutes:

In the wise providence of our Sovereign Lord, we acknowledge thankfully, the 31 May release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl USA from Taliban captivity; and that he is in the custody of the United States Army.

Consequently, for those who ask how to pray, we suggest the following, or similar, petitions:

For grace to resist the temptation to rush to judgment, in the absence of sufficient information
Thanks to God for the release of Bowe
For Bowe’s recovery from any and all ill effects arising from his captivity, with healing as well for his family members
That truth will triumph and justice will be done
That, in the months to come, it might please our Lord Jesus to use the events of the past five years to draw Bowe and his family increasingly closer to Himself and give them His peace.

As one of the commissioners, I sensed that the chaplains were playing at the heart strings of those gathered. Reports from chaplains always brings out the God-and-country inner self of Orthodox Presbyterians who are generally spirituality of the church in their deliberations.

And so, I wonder if this is an answer to the prayer request for justice:

Things have changed since 1979, when a Marine named Robert Garwood, who claimed to have been captured by the Viet Cong in 1965, was tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion and sedition. The military court rejected Garwood’s claim that he had been tortured and had collaborated with the enemy only to survive, sentencing him to a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances during his alleged captivity. The Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

There are many similarities between Garwood’s case and that of Bergdahl, but in fact Bergdahl’s case is weaker than Garwood’s. For one thing, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to the charges. Nonetheless, for unexplained reasons, the military judge in the case refused to impose prison time.

At Powerline, Paul Mingeroff has noted the hubris of General Mark Martins, a highly decorated and celebrated brigadier general in the United States Army JAG Corps, who declared that “law embodies and summarizes human experience about right action in a particular context.” That may be true in a perfect world but it fails in the context of military justice and the goal it is designed to serve.

Some will argue that President Trump’s tweets regarding the case constitute “unlawful command influence” (UCI). That may have influenced the sentence. But if Trump is guilty of UCI, then certainly former President Obama is, too, given the Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents and earlier comments by Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, claiming that Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.”

The actions of both Obama and Trump helped to politicize the Bergdahl case, but none of that should have negated the purpose of the military justice system. Bergdahl’s actions were premeditated. They also led to American casualties. Nothing in mitigation justifies a decision that mocks not only the practical goals of good order and discipline in the military but also such military virtues as honor and sacrifice.


Beware Medical Missions

Frederick Lugard, a British colonial administrator and Governor at distinct times of Hong Kong and Nigeria, included this estimate of medicine and preaching in his report on the “Rise of our East African Empire” (1893):

I think the most useful missions are the medical and the industrial, in the initial stages of savage development. A combination of the two is, in my opinion, an ideal mission. Such is the work of the Scotch Free Church on Lake Nyasa. The medical missionary begins work with every advantage. Throughout Africa the ideas of the cure of the body and of the soul are closely allied. The “medicine man” is credited not only with a knowledge of the simples and drugs which may avert or cure disease, but owing to the superstitions of the people, he is also supposed to have a knowledge of the charms and dawa which will invoke the aid of the Deity or appease His wrath, and of the witchcraft and magic (ulu) by which success in war, immunity from danger, or a supply of rain may be obtained. As the skill of the European in medicine asserts its superiority over the crude methods of the medicine man, so does he in proportion gain an influence in his teaching of the great truths of Christianity. He teaches the savage where knowledge and art cease, how far natural remedies produce their effects, independent of charms or supernatural agencies, and where divine power overrules all human efforts. Such demonstration from a medicine man, whose skill they cannot fail to recognize as superior to their own, has naturally more weight than any mere preaching. A mere preacher is discounted and his zeal is not understood. The medical missionary, moreover, gains an admission to the houses and homes of the 10 natives by virtue of his art which would not be so readily accorded to another. He becomes their adviser and referee, and his counsels are substituted for the magic and witchcraft which retard development.

Meredith Kline had a point.


Evangelicals Need to Take a Page from Roman Catholics (year 501)

Inspired by some minor reflections on personal identity and politics, I present recent findings on Roman Catholics and the 2016 Presidential election.

According to our May 2017 survey, just over three-quarters of American Catholics said that they voted in the November 2016 presidential election. Of those who voted, 43 percent said they voted for Trump while 48 percent said they voted for Clinton. The other nine percent voted for minority candidates. This is fewer Trump voters and more Clinton voters than the percentages among self-identified Catholics as reported in the exit polls, which reported 52 percent voting for Trump, 45 percent voting for Clinton, and 3 percent going to other candidates. But this survey took place six months after the election and some may have been recalling the candidate they wish they had voted for rather than their actual vote.

We began our 2017 survey with a series of questions about the possible role religious beliefs might have played among American Catholics In the 2016 election.

The responses of American Catholics to the questions cited in Table 1 make clear their assertion that their religious beliefs were not relevant to their vote for president in the 2016 election. The great majority (86 percent) said that religious beliefs (their own or that of the candidates) played no role in their vote. Just one in ten said that they voted for their candidate because of their own personal religious beliefs and even fewer — just 4 percent — said that they voted for their candidate because of the candidate’s religious beliefs.

Beliefs and values that are essential

That raised the question whether and to what extent did Catholics who voted for Trump differ in their religious beliefs and practices from Catholics who voted for Clinton. We have a standard block of questions about the beliefs and values that many consider essential to being a “good Catholic” that we have asked, in some form, on every survey since 1987. Table 2 compares the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters who say that each item is “essential to your vision of what it means to be Catholic.”

Catholics who supported Trump and Catholics who supported Clinton generally share very similar beliefs about how essential each of these items is to their vision of what it means to be Catholic. Differences of less than 10 percentage points between the two are not statistically significant. Both types of Catholic voters rank all ten items in virtually the same order.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus, devotion to Mary as the Mother of God, and the papacy are essential to more than half of Trump voters and Clinton voters. Only about half saw charitable efforts to help the poor as essential and the percentage who saw the celibate male clergy as essential continues to have only a small percentage of support among either Trump or Clinton voters.

In other words, religion had little to do with the vote. That seems precisely what evangelicals should be doing. If you can segregate politics from faith, you don’t have the problem of evangelicals leaving the fold because of the movement’s political significance. Faith is one part of your life. Politics another.

Roman Catholics are doing it. Why can’t evangelicals?


Celebrating a Reformed Church

I saw a story today about the U.S. bishops having to calculate the uprightness of the Republican tax plan:

After Paul Ryan told an audience at Georgetown University that his legislative work conforms to Catholic social teaching “as best I can make of it,” he homed in on the importance of reducing the federal deficit. “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” he said. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are `living at the expense of future generations’ and `living in untruth.’”

That was in 2012—a smart (if incomplete) retort to scholars, bishops, and commentators who argued that Ryan’s budget priorities ran afoul of Catholic social doctrine. But on October 25, House Republicans under the Wisconsin congressman’s leadership approved a budget blueprint that would bring about an alarming increase in federal debt to achieve tax cuts weighted to benefit the rich. Even in the annals of federal budgeting, an additional gap of $1.5 trillion or more over ten years is a lot of money. When the Senate put forth this plan, which the large majority of Ryan’s caucus rubber-stamped, the Congressional Budget Office warned that “the high and rising debt that is projected would have serious negative consequences for the budget and the nation.” . . .

To give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, there is still time to work out a more principled budget. But, like just about every American politician who claims support in Catholic teaching, he needs to go beyond cherry-picking. He’ll need to consider factors beyond the deficit—especially distributive justice, which, as Pope Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, the church has highlighted “unceasingly.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted this facet of Catholic teaching in an October 25 letter on “moral criteria to assist Congress during deliberations on possible tax reform.” The letter said that the tax burden should not be shifted from the rich to the poor, and noted that the Republicans’ “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code” states that a revised tax code “would be at least as progressive as the existing tax code.” . . .

The bishops’ moral criteria also include concern for the poor; strengthening families; “adequate revenue for the sake of the common good”; avoiding cuts to poverty programs to finance tax reform; and encouraging charitable giving.

I don’t know what Ryan would make of this list, which was part of a letter to all members of Congress from Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. But these are points the bishops have made time and again as they advance the notion that a budget is a moral document. Before the House vote on October 25, the bishops’ conference took the step of posting a notice online saying that “Christ teaches that we should find Him the `the least of these,’ (Matthew 25). Call on your Representatives to not forget the poor as they debate and vote on the budget resolution.”

On Reformation Day 2017 I’m so thankful for pastors who actually attend to God’s word and leave politics to politicians.

I’m also glad for reformers who created a separate realm for the church so that secular society could be secular.

I’m especially glad that Orthodox Presbyterian pastors and elders, as gifted as they are, don’t feel responsible for explaining tax policy to Congress.