The Point of Being Presbyterian

Yes, Presbyterianism is historic — it predates the conversions provoked by Jonathan Edwards. But that doesn’t mean that Presbyterianism uses whatever bits of Christian history that also qualify as historic. Presbyterianism says history doesn’t matter compared to something even more historic — God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments and the acts of redemption therein revealed.

This lesson from Presbyterianism 101 comes from awareness (supplied by our northern correspondent) that the Presbyterian pastor identified in the following article is part of the PCA, and therefore a man eligible to preach and administer the sacraments in our local OPC congregation.

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~Traditional Ash Wednesday Blessing

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

The thing is, praying before a meal, conducting family worship, attending worship every Sunday morning and evening is also a reminder of our limits and mortality. Ash Wednesday comes once a year. But you can hear “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8) every Lord’s day and remember that you are a finite critter who depends on God almighty.

The Presbyterian pastor involved in this Ash Wednesday service has his own justification for observing Lent:

Lent spans 40 workdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating on the Saturday before Easter. The Sunday’s within Lent are not counted part of the 40 day duration, but rather are called Sunday’s In Lent. The significance of 40 days can be traced to many things within the bible, but in this instance refers to and honor’s the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Within CVP, Lent is a time of preparation and prayer spent in readying for Easter and our Savior’s resurrection. As such, we don’t “give something up for Lent”, but rather if something is distracting from focusing on Lent and Christ’s sacrifice, we may set it aside temporarily.

As one gets closer to the end of Lent, we enter what is known as Holy Week. This is started with Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Passion Sunday, and observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where folks waved palm branches proclaiming him as the messianic king. The word passion refers to the final journey of Jesus to the cross and crucifixion. Next would be Maundy Thursday which refers to series of events that took place the day before Jesus was arrested. These events include the last supper where communion has it’s origins, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and ended with Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest to be taken before Caiaphas. Prior to the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples feet to illustrate the humility involved in servanthood. He also taught his disciples a new commandment quoted in John 13:45-45 NIV “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Good Friday and/or Tenebrae are one and the same day and come on the last Friday of Lent. The church observes the day of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Not even a week before on Palm Sunday, the people proclaimed Jesus king and now on this day, they demand his death. Tenebrae is a way the church observes the coming darkness of a world without God by selected bible readings and a growing darkness (either by turning off lights one by one, or extinguishing ceremonial candles). Tenebrae typically concludes with a loud noise symbolizing the closing of Jesus’ tomb. Lent concludes on Holy Saturday – the day Jesus rested in the tomb.

Nifty. I guess this points to something a little more mysterious, a little more cosmic, something with a little more umph than your average Protestant service which — oh by the way — only relies upon the inspired and infallible word of God, recorded, written, and given over five centuries before anyone dreamed of using ashes to put the sign for addition on someone’s face. The Bible, as common as it is, really is spooky. Of course, it doesn’t help when Protestants turn Scripture into a manual for everyday living, complete with instructions for thinking the right thoughts while you cross the street (unless you get distracted by a fast-approaching car).

Yes, low church Protestants messed up the awe and reverence that God speaking to you and memories of Christ’s death (in the Supper) should instill. Why and how Presbyterians contributed to this debasement of worship is a long and sorry story. But today’s Presbyterians who are trying to be historic should know better because Reformed Protestants did something to upend the direction of Western Christianity. You really can turn the clock back before Whitefield and Edwards without losing your Presbyterian self. Keep it simple, keep it biblical, and remember you are a sinner coming in the presence of a holy God. You don’t even need to wear dirt on your forehead.

But Larry Ball does not blame Ash Wednesday practicing pastors for problems in the PCA. He blames 2k. Easy peasy.


Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

At Least It Makes You a Curmudgeon

Presbyterianism, that is.

Bill Smith a good on-line friend is kicking up a little dust of late against Reformed Protestantism or Presbyterianism and maybe a tad triumphal about his own communion (Reformed Episcopal Church) which, the last I checked, was where you still needed to kneel in order to receive grape juice – ba dop bop.

It’s time for pushback.

First, he starts with a legitimate complaint about Presbyterian worship and blames the regulative principle:

Across the PCA you can find strict regulative principle worship (few), traditional worship, contemporary worship, black worship, near charismatic worship, blues worship, revivalistic worship complete with the invitation system, gospel-driven worship, and all sorts of blended worship. You can find ministers leading worship in black Geneva gowns, suits with white shirts and ties, blazers and open collar shirts, polo shirts and sandals, khakis or jeans and sports shirts tucked in or out standing behind pulpits, sitting on stools, walking across and an empty stage. You can find pulpits, baptismal fonts, and communion tables prominently displayed, or entirely hidden. You can sing Psalms and historic hymns, gospel hymns, praise and worship songs, accompanied by nothing, organs, pianos, orchestras, acoustic guitars, and rock bands. Depending on your worship principles, preferences, and personality, you can find the worship in a PCA church comfortable, compatible, challenging, relevant, irrelevant, or offensive.

All of this is true. But you can’t fault the regulative principle which only identifies the elements (as opposed to circumstances and forms) of worship. Those are word, sacrament, prayer (song), and offering (never forget to collect the offering). The RPW does not guarantee uniformity in congregations. It should exclude silliness and frivolity. But if you have officers who are willing to tart worship up to make it relevant, convincing them of the RPW won’t solve anything.

Conversely, rule by one (episcopacy) is fairly effective in generating liturgical conformity. But then there’s Rome. Doh!

Second, he moves to the tragic death of Iain and the allegations swirling around it to argue that Presbyterian government doesn’t work very well. I actually wish Bill had not gone here. It’s still fresh and details are uncertain. But there he went. And his point is that harsh forms of discipline is what Presbyterians are good at:

it also set me thinking again, as I often have, about the way discipline of ministers was handled in my former connection. And it impresses me that it was handled in the way a particular kind of father might deal with his son. The son took the family car out on a Friday night without permission. The father becomes aware of what the son did because (1) the son confessed it, (2) someone who witnessed the son with the family car told the father, or (3) the father himself discovered it.

What does this particular type of father do? (1) He takes away the son’s keys and intends to return them (a) never or (b) after observing his son’s repentance for a long time. (2) He beats the hell out of the son. (3) He requires the son to confess his disobedience and avow his repentance at a council of the whole family.

Now the father may cry. He may even cry with the leaders of his church. He may pour out his heart to God about how he has gone wrong in the bringing up of his son. He may ask others to pray for him and his son. He may tell his son he loves him and that his heart is broken. Still, he takes the keys away forever or an indeterminate time. Still he beats the hell out of the kid. Still he requires the son to humiliate himself before his family.

Does Bill think that the threat of draconian measures were what drove pastor Campbell? Perhaps, but the analogy of a son taking out dad’s car without permission is not necessarily on the same order of a man who has taken vows to a wife and — wait for it — a church (can we get a little high church Reformed Episcopalianism here?). And what is Father Bill going to say to the wife of a man who has cheated on her or abused her? Has Bill Smith had to face down Valerie Hobbs?

Finally, Bill goes all in and defends Lent against its Reformed Protestant critics (“war”? On-line?). He notes that Banner of Truth once had to rearrange a conference because the Dutch Calvinist participants needed to hold Ascension services. He concludes:

Those who object to Ash Wednesday and Lent on principial grounds should recognize that that what they object to on principial grounds is the Christian year. For those who do not reject the Christian year, but allow for the observance of some parts of it, the issue of Lent is one of preference and discretion.

No problem. I’ve been arguing against the church calendar for years. The inter-advental liturgical calendar is 52 Sundays a year.

But at least, Bill still has a Presbyterian attitude.

H. L. Mencken Wasn't Roman Catholic and He Could Write

First Christian presidents and now Peter Leithart explores Christian writers. Why do Christians feel the need to describe human activities in the context of sanctification? Isn’t that a tad provincial?

Leithart’s argument is that because Roman Catholics rely more on sacraments than Protestants who treat them as merely symbols, Roman Catholicism produces better writers:

Marburg is important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality. J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that “Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension, but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real presence. For Zwingli, “myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” In short, “Zwingli was the chief architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed Zwingli in the event.”

For many post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.

Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.

And Reformed Protestantism is particularly lacking:

Many Protestant churches (often the didactic ones) celebrate the Eucharist infrequently; many are deliberately, self-consciously anti-sacramental. Their worship consists of teaching but not doing, word but not sign. When they do celebrate the Supper, many Protestant churches are informed that it is a sign rather than a reality.

This is a simplification of what goes on in many Protestant churches. It is not, I think, a caricature.

The argument, based on the assumption and the assertion, comes in several stages: Churches whose worship focuses on didactic, doctrinal teaching are going to shape minds, imaginations, and hearts in a particular way. Churches with infrequent communion, and churches that treat communion as “mere sign” are also shaping the imaginative lives of their members.

Churches with didactic preaching and unsacramental worship, I submit, do not produce poets.

A poetic imagination is cultivated in churches where the beauty of Scripture is as important as its truth. Poetic imagination is cultivated in churches that celebrate Eucharist regularly. Every week, their worship climaxes with a great sacramental metaphor, a metaphor that is more than metaphor, a metaphor that also states (in some fashion) what is the case: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

By this argument, some forms of Protestantism – Anglicans with their prayer books and Eucharistic piety, Lutherans with their ins-withs-unders – are more conducive to cultivating poetic imagination than others.

What Leithart doesn’t consider apparently is that the logocentric quality of Protestantism, attention to the meaning of Greek and Hebrew involved in the study of Scripture, consideration of different biblical genres, or even the oratory involved in preaching — all of these could fire the imagination and fascinate young boys and girls with words in a way that could create good writing every bit as much as looking at statues, paintings, a wafer, and a chalice from which you’re never served.

At the same time, what does Leithart do with all those good writers who have no dog in the hunt of Christianity, like H. L. Mencken, who somehow learned to write even without going to church:

. . . the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon. Think of immersing a delicate and sensitive soft crab, the noblest of decapods, in a foul mess of batter, drenching it and blinding it, defacing it and smothering it — and then frying it in a pan like some ignoble piece of Pennsylvania scrapple. As well boil a cocktail, or a smelt, or a canvasback duck.

There is, of course, but one civilized way to prepare soft crabs for the human esophagus, and it goes without saying that it is the one way never heard of by the Greek bootblacks who pass as chefs in New York. It is, like all the major processes of the bozart, quite simple in its essence. One rids the crab of its seaweed, removes the devil, and then spears it with a long, steel fork upon the prongs of which a piece of country bacon, perhaps three inches long, has already made fast. Then one holds the combination over a brazier of glowing charcoal or a fire of hickory . . ., say three or four minutes.

What happens belongs to the very elements of cookery. The bacon, melted by the heat, runs down over the crab, greasing it and salting it, and the crab, thus heated, greased and salted, takes on an almost indescribable crispness and flavor. Nothing imaginable by the mind of man could be more delicious. It is a flavor with body, delicacy and character. Slap the crab upon a square of hot toast and then have at it. (“Callinectes Hastatus,” from The Impossible Mencken, 449)

The man could write and eat.

Creatures of Habit

Just watch students over the course of a semester. They have free wills to choose whichever seat they want. After the first week of classes, they have found the seat from which they will not depart for the rest of the semester. It is “his” seat. We have no need for assigned seating. We create our own assignments.

The same applies to worship. Liturgy repeats itself even in the most anti-liturgical of sectors of Christendom. Just ask Randall Balmer:

The biggest change in evangelicalism is its worship, which has become almost formulaic. Virtually every evangelical gathering these days opens with “praise music,” which generally consists of simple lyrics and a lilting, undemanding melody — all led by a “praise band” or “worship team” consisting of guitarists, a keyboardist, a drummer and several vocalists clutching microphones. The music is hypnotic. Members of the congregation raise their hands in the air, and the singing seems to last forever. As my friend Tony Campolo says, five notes, three words, two hours.

The second part of evangelical worship is the sermon or, as evangelicals prefer, the “message.” Whereas the preachers in my youth wore suits and neckties, the standard these days is jeans and T-shirts, and probably a nest of tattoos. If the first part of the service is “feel good,” the second part is “be good.” Again, it’s formulaic. Sometimes it’s a political sermon disguised as theology, but more often the preacher enjoins the congregation to behave, to adhere to evangelical standards of morality, which are usually expressed in negative terms, with a heightened emphasis on sexual behavior. And then, with a prayer and maybe another song, it’s over.

What’s missing here? When I attend evangelical gatherings these days, I generally leave asking myself, What was “church” about that? I sang a few songs and listened to a sermon, but where was Jesus? Yes, the preacher may have invoked his name a couple of times, but in the absence of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, evangelical worship these days strikes me as barren.

Whereas Episcopalians or Roman Catholics believe in the “real presence” of Christ, that they encounter Jesus himself in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, most evangelicals take a dim, even dismissive, view of the sacraments. At most, they offer communion once a month or even once a quarter, and the bread and wine (actually, grape juice, a hangover from the temperance movement) merely remind us of Jesus.

So are the habits good or bad?

Ending Liturgical Embarrassment

When on the road, the missus and I will visit the congregations of Protestant road teams (non-Presbyterians) and we find that liturgical churches (Lutheran and Episcopal) save us the embarrassment of sitting through very strange and often irreverent worship in settings where prayer books, liturgical orders, or lots of Scripture reading are absent. A set form of worship generally covers the liturgical food groups and restrains those preachers or congregations who wind up asserting more of themselves into the service than a visitor without local knowledge can take.

The one exception to the liturgical service is the so-called Passing of the Peace, after the confession of sin. This used to be performed, as I understand it, by the priest or pastor in the form of a declaration of pardon. Now in most liturgical churches the assurance of forgiveness is a communal exercise in which everyone plays a part. I’ve even been in Missouri Synod congregations where the pastor felt compelled to shake hands with everyone while church members embraced, shook hands, and exchanged greetings — with the missus and I looking on stiffly and anxiously. It is a moment when liturgical worship becomes even more awkward than standing through praise songs you’ve never heard. At least you can stand during the song in relative impersonal safety; with the peace passed, you have nowhere to hide.

But the Vatican may have come to the rescue (and may be making up for Vatican II’s liturgical reforms which kicked off the Passing-of-the-Peace painfulness). The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has clarified what the “sign of the peace” means and how it is to be observed. I was especially heartened to read this:

. . . [Bishops] should do everything possible to end “abuses” such as:

— “The introduction of a ‘song for peace,’ which is nonexistent in the Roman rite.”

— “The movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves.”

— “The departure of the priest from the altar in order to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.”

— People using the sign of peace at Christmas, Easter, baptisms, weddings, ordinations and funerals to offer holiday greetings, congratulations or condolences.

Let the clergy run the show. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.

I Want A Church In Which I Can Feel Influential (not about me)

In a follow up to yesterday’s plaint about the plight of Reformed Protestantism comes a jumble of comments about what people are looking for in a church. One of the problems that Reformed Protestants face is that their provisions are so meager, more cheeze-wiz than brie. Paul did seem to be on to this in his first epistle to those saints in Corinth who wanted a glorious church. Preaching is folly, both its content and form. And these days, the ministry of the Word cannot sustain the show that would-be ministries can. “You preach the Bible and your services are full of Scripture?” “Great, but what about Trayvon Martin and the Muslim Brotherhood?” “You don’t get out much, do you?”

So what will millennials who think biblical instruction so 1990s find if they follow Rachel Held Evans?

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Well, she could find some of this in a confessional Reformed church minus the bits on sex and welfare, but I’m not holding my breath that Ms. Evans will be joining even the PCA soon.

Jake Meador, whom I assume to be a millennial, thinks Evans is bluffing (or worse):

It’s true that the younger evangelicals doing their Chicken Little routine are completely ignoring what happened to the last generation to insist that “Christianity must change or die.” But the far more amusing thing is not the historical ignorance on display in such comments, but the ecclesiastical arrogance of such declarations. Hearing it, one can’t help being reminded of the late George Carlin’s rant about environmentalists intent on “saving the planet”:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

Meanwhile, Anthony Bradley calls Evans bluff and ask why she doesn’t find the United Methodist Church to be the communion millennials are looking for:

The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.

Again, herein lies the core question: Why doesn’t Evans, and others who embrace her critique of “the church,” simply encourage Millennials, who do not believe Jesus “is found” in their churches, to join churches like the UMC? If someone is passionate about Jesus and is truly looking for him, but doesn’t find him in one church, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a genuine search would lead that person to another church where it is believed Jesus actually is? It makes me wonder if the Evans critique is not about something else.

One reason Evans may not join the UMC is that she might find there another version of the culture wars, one that goes on under the old name, Social Gospel. Here, for instance, is a description of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod (John Winthrop and John Williamson Nevin are turning in their graves, though in opposite rotations):

Earnest discussion and debate focused on the status of women in society, tax reform, immigration reform, financial support for seminary students (backed up with a synod offering), mountaintop removal coal mining, racism, discrimination, and denominational restructure. An outdoor rally in celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA affirmed the church’s position on gay marriage. Delegates and speakers lamented the ruling on voting rights.

Deep commitment to advocacy and justice matters was and is inspiring. I hope for critical thinking about gospel justice and advocacy at any RCA General Synod. In Long Beach, as discussions wound up and down, I marveled at the impassioned advocacy. Yet, my RCA yen for a solid biblical foundation kicked in. Sometimes I yearned to hear a word of scripture or more of the theological premise behind a passionate speech.

Worries about the Social Gospel even exist among Protestant converts to Rome, where the Social Teaching of the Church has become one of the top items on the list indicating the Vatican’s superiority and which Francis appears to be stretching in ways that call upon various and sundry lay Roman Catholics to explain what the Holy Father is up to. Here is one worried priest:

The social gospel is a heresy, and like every heresy, it is not completely wrong. It is only half right. We are supposed to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick and work for justice and peace, but this is the fruit of our faith in Christ. It is the result of our redemption, not the primary point of our faith. The first objective is the salvation of our souls, and from this faith in Christ we are transformed into his likeness, and as we are transformed into his likeness we begin to do his work in the world. If we jump straight to the good works, then we are guilty of the old heresy of Pelagianism: trying to be good enough under our own steam.

The reason I say this is a problem for the new pope is not because I think he teaches the social gospel, but because it will be perceived and promoted that he does. I am convinced (despite the worries of some of my friends) that Pope Francis is God’s man for the church today. I’m convinced that he is fully orthodox, and that he will not compromise the Catholic faith at all, but instead will build up Christ’s church and be a wonderful global evangelist.

What concerns me is that the man and his message will be hi jacked by the worldly powers who would love nothing more than to emasculate the message of Jesus Christ and reduce the whole of the Catholic faith to an nice system of inspiring people to be nicer to one another. The stupid worldly powers try to persecute and obliterate the church. The really smart ones embrace the church and use it for their own ends. Henry VIII, for example, was one of the smart ones. He did not seek to abolish the Catholic Church. He simply stole it and turned it into an instrument of English nationalism and a force for consolidating his power over the English people.

Likewise the really smart worldly powers of today would like nothing better than to co-opt the Catholic Church into a one world system of bringing about peace, justice and niceness for all. If the Christian gospel can be reduced to a message of good will and kindliness, and if the Christian religion can be reduced to a network of soup kitchens and homeless hostels, the worldly powers will be happy.

We have seen the capitulation of most Christian groups in the developed world to this agenda already. The mainstream liberal Protestant denominations adopted the social gospel long ago, and are now not much more than a group of peace and justice campaigners who meet on Sunday for strategy sessions. The hip Evangelicals have gone a different, but similar route. Increasingly their message is one of self help, success strategies, rehab therapies, good parenting and how to manage your money. The cross of Christ and the need for repentance and redemption is quietly downplayed, diluted and discarded.

Pope Francis’ admirable emphasis on simplicity, ministry to the poor and justice for the marginalized will play into this tendency in our modern world. That’s why he is, at least at present, such a media darling. The mainstream media will play up his social gospel appearance and quietly ignore everything he says about true Catholicism. They will ignore any call for repentance and the need for forgiveness. They will ignore the cross where Christ the Lord was sacrificed for the sins of mankind. They will ignore everything he says about the Mass, the communion of the saints, the reality of heaven and hell and the need for the salvation of souls.

Meanwhile, for millenials thinking that the High Church traditions may hold the solution, consider this (thanks to Jeff Polet). Maybe I should say no thanks since not even the feline factor can redeem such blasphemy.

All of this makes me very thankful (all about me) for a local church where the pastor proclaims the word and administers the Supper every Sunday. It’s not very flashy. Then again, neither was manna in the wilderness.