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.

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What Princeton Seminary Could Learn from the Pentagon

Peter Berger notices a sector of American religiosity where true inclusion and diversity reigns — the military chaplaincy:

One particularly interesting development is that the military chaplaincy, in its Protestant group, is increasingly filled with Evangelicals, who feel more at home in the military than among largely liberal mainline clergy, whose concerns over gender and multiculturalism Evangelicals don’t resonate with. Some years ago I presided over a seminar dealing with whatever issues members of the seminar were concerned about. One of the seminar students was an Evangelical Air Force chaplain. This was the issue she wanted to think through: She served on a small base in the Arctic where she was the only Protestant chaplain. Of course she was not expected to perform religious services that did not agree with her own beliefs. But she was expected to facilitate services for any group of Air Force personnel. A group of Air Force women wanted to perform the rituals of Wicca, which defines itself as a modernized version of the old witches’ Sabbath. How, she asked, could she help organize a worship service of the devil without betraying the core of her Christian faith? I tried to convince her that the devil part was not to be taken seriously, that Wicca was a rather harmless form of nature worship—dancing naked in the moonlight and showing respect for menstrual blood. She said that the way I spoke about this showed I did not take the religious beliefs of this group seriously. I’m afraid she was quite right. In the end she had no choice unless she wanted to resign from the chaplaincy—so the would-be witches did their thing as facilitated by a nonsectarian Evangelical minister. (Religious freedom bears strange fruit, including the struggle of conscience of an Evangelical pastor ordered to go against her conscience by her commanding officer.)

Here’s the thing: if NAPARC communions and the PCUSA wonder about the fit between Tim Keller and a liberal Presbyterian seminary, why are those same NAPARC communions willing to send their pastors off to work not only with ordained women but even witches? I keep asking. I’m still not hearing many answers.

That Funny Thing You (military) Do

Is it wrong to be ambivalent about the U.S. military, or at least about the ways that Americans manipulate empathy for soldiers to produce a faux patriotism? A couple of recent incidents rekindled this question (which given its length may need a lot of kindling).

During halftime at the Crisler Center at the University of Michigan, the athletic department decided to honor one veteran recently home from the Middle East. The announcer asked for standing applause on the basis of what this young man had done to keep the United States free. The crowd responded positively, even the university students who one might have thought were more interested in the legacy of pacifists like the Big Lebowski than in the foreign policy of two different White House administrations.

Since I was grading papers and didn’t want to drop my pen again below the seats (occupied) in the row ahead, I remained seated and clapped my hands in a way that an Edwardsian would have charged as simply going through the motions. But as I looked around I wondered if the security guards at the arena would receive a similar standing ovation for making possible a peaceful space to root on our team. Or what about the police of Ann Arbor or Hillsdale who do put their lives on the line everyday also to make the United States a free society (though not everyone sees the police of America that way)? I certainly respect the courage and sacrifice that U.S. soldiers make and it is a calling that is conceivably more dangerous than monitoring fans at a basketball game (though I’m not entirely sure that all soldiers face the same dangers that police do). And while I admire the service that soldiers give to their country, what if I don’t think the United States should have military bases all around the world where the nation puts at risk the lives of her military? I certainly support wars of national defense when foes truly threaten our homeland. But can we really say that regime change in Iraq is protecting national security? It may be indirectly, though which citizen is privy to the intelligence reports that allow the government to make that case? But do I really need to think it my patriotic duty to support soldiers who are functioning in some way as global cops, that is, trying to bring order to other places in the world but not really protecting the security of Michigan’s residents?

When it comes to the military, the churches — my second incident — are not much more discerning about the U.S. military. For Veterans Day, Joe Carter posted 9 things we should know about military chaplains (doesn’t Carter know 7 is the perfect number?). One thing he did not mention, that we really should know, those of us who want ministers to be free and uncompromised in their ministry of word and sacrament, is that OPC or PCA chaplains minister alongside not merely Roman Catholics or United Methodists but also Muslims, Jews, and Wiccans. According to Carter:

The denominations with the largest representation (more than 100, both active and reserve) are: Southern Baptist Convention (787), Roman Catholic Church (350), United Methodist Church (274), Evangelical Church Alliance (174), General Council of Assemblies of God (153), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (149), and Evangelical Lutheran Church In America (128)

The spread sheet that comes linked to Carter’s post also indicates that the PCA has 1194 active chaplains compared to 2392 Wiccans.

I can appreciate the Defense Department’s reasons for employing military chaplains:

The purpose of chaplaincies. . . is to “accommodate religious needs, to provide religious and pastoral care, and to advise commanders on the complexities of religion with regard to its personnel and mission, as appropriate. As military members, chaplains are uniquely positioned to assist Service members, their families, and other authorized personnel with the challenges of military service as advocates of religious, moral, and spiritual well being and resiliency.”

Since Reformed Protestants (unlike Anabaptists) have no inherent objection to Christians serving in the military (in just wars, anyway), I certainly support provision for the spiritual well-being of soldiers. But if an Orthodox Presbyterian Army private is in a unit in Afghanistan where his only options are an American Baptist, a Rabbi, or a Mormon, I guess I encourage him to go to the Baptist’s services. But is the Department of Defense really providing for the religious needs of soldiers if they don’t have a chaplain for each soldier’s religious tradition or communion? One way around this is to have denominationally or religiously specific units — a unit of Wiccans with their own Chaplain and a unit of conservative Presbyterians with theirs. Another might be to fight exclusively wars of territorial defense — that way soldiers scattered across the United States might worship and receive spiritual counsel at local churches.

But why is it that confessional Protestants are generally so bullish on military chaplaincy? (Hint, the manipulative patriotism that goes with uncritical support of the military.) And why is it synods and assemblies allow men under their oversight to minister in contexts that are far worse spiritually (e. g., doctrinal indifference, religious syncretism) than those liberal Protestant communions (or their ecumenical agencies) that those Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and elders left behind?

One Way to Tell the Difference between Two-Kingdom Theology and Its Critics

Two-kingdomers want Reformed ministers to avoid compromising entanglements like those surrounding chaplains in the U.S. military. Critics of 2k want to keep women out of the military. That difference says a lot about the way each side views the church and the nation.

Thanks to Tim and David Bayly for reminding me of this important difference. In their typically slash-and-burn manner, they demean David Coffin, a well-respected PCA pastor and long-time defender of the spirituality of the church, for an interview in which Coffin said that mixing religion and politics was a “kind of apostasy.” The nerve.

It should be noted that the man who advocates a strict separation of Church and state in this interview is the same man who told my brother Tim, during the 2002 General Assembly debate, that the PCA should not oppose women serving as combatants in the U.S. Armed Forces.

So here’s a minister of the Word of God pedantically parsing his Biblical obligations in such a way that he can justify turning an official blind eye to one of the most depraved aspects of our culture’s destruction of women–almost as bad as urging them to kill unborn babies in their wombs.

To lodge his Uriah Heapish kowtowing to our culture’s attack on motherhood in the Westminster Standards is ludicrous. Has David read Reformed history–any at all?

Umm, the answer would be, yes. In fact, I’m betting Dave has read more Reformed history than the Bayly boys put together.

Mind you, I’m not wild about women serving in the military, nor about men for that matter who have to fight in places that would not matter to the United States if our nation had not super-sized its republican form and become an empire. I can certainly understand how mixing men and women in military situations could be a problem for tactical purposes. But I’m not sure that the Bible has a lot to say about the matter such that the church would call it “sin.” And I’m not sure that you would want to tell grandma Machen that she was wrong to defend her northern Virginia farm from Union soldiers who had designs on her chickens and cutlery during the Civil War. May not women defend themselves, their homes, or even their nation if circumstances warrant? Would the Baylys really conclude that a German woman, who could have saved the lives of her Jewish neighbors by shooting a Nazi soldier, should not pull the trigger because such an act would degrade her womanhood?

Meanwhile, the brothers B, who know about the pressures upon Reformed chaplains to compromise their convictions, don’t seem to mind ordained pastors serving as chaplains. The 2k objection to chaplains does not stem from anti-military prejudices or indifference to the spiritual needs of soldiers who are honorably and courageously serving their country. The problem for 2kers is that Reformed chaplains are having to submit to rules and work not only with liberal Protestant chaplains but also officers (some of them women — look out Tim and David!!!) from other faiths. Conservative Reformed churches would never allow this kind of cooperation in ecumenical or parachurch organizations. Some Presbyterian churches will not even join the National Association of Evangelicals because such membership would mean turning a blind eye to Arminianism. But the Baylys remain surprisingly calm when it comes to Reformed ministers serving alongside female Methodist chaplains in the military of the greatest nation on God’s green earth.

So once again, the anti-2k side takes an absolute stand on a debatable position, doubling down on the sex front of the culture wars. Meanwhile, 2kers avoid the culture wars for matters that directly bear on the witness and integrity of church officers.

If the Baylys actually knew Reformed history, they would understand they are on the wrong side of the Old School-New School controversy.

To Ask and Tell, or Not to Ask and Tell: This is the Contradiction

Rabbi Bret is baaaaaaack from vacation (apparently) and he didn’t waste anytime piling on his favorite virus – the infectious disease known as Radical 2K. He reports that the URCNA Synod has decided to send a letter to the U.S. Armed Services official, drafted by the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Miltary Personnel (PRJC), that petitions the Pentagon to to hold the line on the current military policy – “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In the current state of affairs, the various branches of the military do not inquire about the sexual orientation of personnel. But if the Obama administration has its way, “don’t ask, don’t tell” will cease and instead gays and lesbians will be able to come out of the closet. According to the PJRC letter, such a change of policy might force conservative Protestant chaplains to resign because their teaching and preaching of God’s word, especially on homosexuality, will open them to the charge of discrimination. The new policy might even force chaplains those passages in Scripture where God condemns homosexuality.

Bret interprets this URCNA decision as a major smack down of two-kingdom theology.

Despite the ongoing assault against Biblical Christianity from Westminster West Seminary and it’s specious Radical Two Kingdom Theology the URCNA rightly voted to weigh in on a “common realm” issue with an almost unanimous vote to resist, by way of appeal, the US Military’s overturning of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Apparently the Synodical body was not persuaded by the R2Kt ratiocination and argumentation that the Church has no business speaking beyond the realm of the Church. With this vote there can be no doubt that the URCNA has implicitly rejected, root and branch, the foreign theology now commonly referred to as “R2K.”

One would have thought that after a well-deserved break from pastoral duties and service at Synod the good rabbi would not be so quick to hyperventilate about the meaning of this news. I can think of any number of better indications than this letter that the URC has repudiated 2k. Do the formation of a study committee or an actual report with recommendations against 2k come to mind? But if this gets Bret through the night without having to use his inhaler, so be it.

At the same time, Bret may want to regroup and consider that the policy that PRC now favors – “don’t ask, don’t tell” – was precisely the one they opposed back when President Clinton introduced it during his first weeks in office. Maybe Bret was running for Senate or doing something time consuming like that, but Reformed communions like the OPC and PCA both sent letters in 1993 informing the president of the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality. These communications were supposed to provide the official cover for Reformed and Presbyterian chaplains whose consciences might be violated by openly gay soldiers and officers taking up duties under their charge. In a contest between church and state, supposedly, the chaplains could now appeal to the explicit teaching of their own communions.

What is important to remember, though, is that these letters, also hatched by the Presbyterian and Reformed chaplains, came in reaction to the policy that the PRJC now supports. In which case, in the name of biblical Christianity, the PRJC has reversed course and determined that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is just fine and that Obama will damage the military and the nation if he tinkers with allowing gays now in the closet, to come out.

So the question for Bret and supporters of the PRJC is this: is this what healthy 1k looks like? Can the church really change its mind about the policies the Bible requires? Or is it simply the case that the Bible opposes whatever a Democratic president proposes? (Could a GOP Study Bible be in the offing?)

Even more troubling is the propensity for the chaplains from Reformed communions to manifest their opposition to homosexuality to the exclusion of other sins that the Bible also condemns. I wonder why PRJC doesn’t instruct the president about the idolatry of Mormon worship or the blasphemy of the Roman Catholic Mass? Surely there are Mormons and Roman Catholics out of the closet in the military. Some of them are likely chaplains. Does PRJC think that Clinton and Obama understand the regulative principle of worship but need help with the seventh commandment? Or is it that PRJC thinks sexual sins are more eggregious than false worship?

It could be a tough call since the Westminster Standards allow that not all sins are equally offensive. But if sexual sins are more objectionable than liturgical infidelity (you’d have trouble proving that from Israel’s experience), then why not go after porn in the military, or divorce, or adultery among heteros? I personally don’t buy the logic – on display in spades in American Beauty – that the biggest homophobes are really gay. But if PRJC wanted to avoid that sort of canard from the Hollywood left, why not send a letter or two to the president about stealing and lying?

Mind you, I understand at least some of the difficulties that gay rights create for our society and the Armed Services. Rabbi Bret is well within his duties as a citizen to register his concerns. But I sure wish he’d get his facts straight (no pun intended) about biblical teaching and the PRJC’s flip-flop on don’t ask, don’t tell.

Military Chaplains — What's Up with That?

I have long wondered about the propriety of military chaplains. Mind you, I know some military chaplains and even have them for friends. But the complications to jure divino Presbyterianism that come from ministering as an agent of the state pale in comparison to the sort of ministerial promiscuity that goes on among the denominations (both liberal and non-Protestant) represented in the chaplaincy.

And sometimes you find support for your views in the oddest of places. I was reading John Frame’s book, Evangelical Reunion, recently and came across this:

A fellow minister in my presbytery is a navy chaplain. He is a pretty strict Calvinist, zealous to maintain doctrinal purity in the church. He would, I have no doubt, strongly oppose any candidate for the Presbyterian ministry who was charismatic in his theology.

Yet, in a recent report of his work as a chaplain, he told the presbytery that God had given him a fellow worker who was a member of the Assemblies of God. The chaplain rejoiced, for this worker was a real evangelial believer who proclaimed the gospel. There was little if any conflict between them; the theological difference seemed small compared with the great gap between the Christian and the non-Christian servicemen.

I could not help but remark (mentally!) that my fellow Presbyterian was rejoicing in a kind of alliance that he would certainly repudiate within his denomination.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Of course, Frame was using this as an argument for greater unity and cooperation among Presbyterians and evangelicals. But can’t it also be used to pull the plug on ordaining men as military chaplains?