Are Some Sins Easier to Condemn, Easier to Erase?

What if bigotry were as hard to discern and remedy as same-sex attraction and concupiscence?

Think about the categories used in the PCA report on Human Sexuality:

Second, according to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not be surprised, but rather expect that concupiscence in general, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would continue in the life of a believer. The Confession is clear; corruption remains “in every part” (13.2). We would never say to a new believer who has a history of destructive anger, “Now that you are a Christian, you will never again feel a rush of anger rise up within you at the wrong time, for a selfish reason, out of proportion to the situation, or in any other way that contradicts God’s law.” Neither should we communicate to a believer with a history of homosexual attraction bigotry the expectation that this will simply disappear.

“…according to the doctrinal system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not rule out, but rather expect that concupiscence in general antipathy to others, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would be areas in which the believer would see some progress toward truly righteous feelings and actions. Our previous point had to do with the danger of creating the expectation that our experience of corruption will entirely disappear in this life if we are regenerate. This point addresses what might be considered an error on the other end of the spectrum, the error of asserting that change is not possible or not to be sought. But just as the Confession is clear that corruption remains in every part, it is also clear that the sanctifying work of the Spirit is felt in the “whole man.” Someone with homosexual attraction who hates other groups ought not close himself or herself off to the pursuit of, and hope of, real change in those attractions inclinations, even if that change is incomplete and mixed. …

Finally, we can discern a very practical value to the distinction between the sin that is constituted by our “corruption of nature…and all the motions thereof” and the “actual transgressions” that proceed from it. Even where original sin is manifested in the form of sinfully disordered desires or feelings inclinations, including homosexual attraction bigotry, there is significant moral difference between that initial “motion” of corruption and the decision to cultivate or act on it. To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attraction hatred (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, “both original and actual” earns God’s wrath (WCF 6.6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of the WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attraction who are bigoted to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attraction bigotry itself makes them the most heinous of sinners. On the contrary, their experience is representative of the present life of all Christians. John Owen has said, “…yet sin doth so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, whilst they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent upon them.” Our brothers and sisters who resist and repent of enduring feelings of same-sex attraction bigotry are powerful examples to us all of what this “daily mortification” looks like in “the best of believers.” We should be encouraged and challenged by their example and eager to join in fellowship with them for the mutual strengthening of our faith, hope, and love.

Is it possible to think about tribalism, bigotry, undue attachment to groups, or racial supremacy the way the PCA instructs officers and members to think about same sex attraction? Both are disordered inclinations. But when people condemn bigotry between racial groups, they tend not to see it as something that lurks in a fallen human being, even in a regenerate soul:

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

Would the authors and signers of this statement ever add, “there go I but for the grace of God”? Or is such a condemnation an indication to others that you do not approve of racism in those who are. As such, a statement is mainly a way to avoid confusion. By signing or issuing a statement, I too show that I am not a racist and detest those who are.

Wait. What about hate the sin, love the sinner?

Even more difficult – what if the sins of the sixth and seventh commandments — heck the whole darned Decalogue — reside in each and every Christian’s heart? That might produce statements that are less finger wagging, and more understanding like the PCA’s report.

It might also indicate that human beings are not Pelagian when it comes to racial bigotry. That is, the soul does not have a racist switch that you flick on after coming into the world loving and kind, and then flick off when you repent and condemn racism in yourself and others.

In fact, if sin can be systemic, no better place to look than not in bureaucracy but in the human heart.

Will the PCA Repent of Homophobia?

I have not read the PCA report on sexuality, but from reading and listening to comments about it, I am inclined to think that leadership in the PCA thinks about racism differently from same-sex attraction, that one is something the church needs to condemn vigorously, the other is a condition around which the church needs to tread delicately.

Consider the following expressions of repentance:

As an organization, we need to more deeply self-examine and change. While there have been some strides over the last eighteen months, we haven’t been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing, supporting and developing Black and Latino leadership in the US. We repent. Though we have aspired to be a trans-denominational ministry, our training materials and events in the US have lacked the rich presence and leadership of Black and Latino theologians and are still largely distilled through a majority culture theological lens and ministry practices. We repent. A significant portion of our time, expertise and resources in the ministry have been focused on educated white leaders in center cities, and we could have done more as it relates to the historic and systemic segregation in the American church. We repent.

be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10); …

In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.

If, as the Confession of Faith has it, sanctification is “imperfect in this life” and part of “a continual and irreconcilable war” (13.2), these repeated expressions of repentance make sense. Less plausible is how they fit with the idea of private confession of sin, as in, “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” (15.6)

First Part of Review of PCA Statement on Same-Sex Attraction

Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:

Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One

The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”

Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.

In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.

Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.

Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”

Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.

The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.

Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.

The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.

The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.

The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:

The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:

What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?

How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?

How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)

So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:

Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.

Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)

The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.

Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.

This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.

But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.

Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference

clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)

Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.

This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.

Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.

I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.

The Wrinkles of Cultural Ministry

L. Roy Taylor’s retirement as stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly prompted a few questions about a Reformed church’s understanding of its responsibility to minister to “the culture.” Taylor himself sounded remarkably antithetical about the relationship between church and culture even while affirming the need to reach out to the wider world:

Few would disagree that our postmodern culture is morally, epistemologically (dealing with knowledge and facts), and theologically relativistic. After the 1960s, the worst thing one could do was to be certain or intolerant. Postmodernism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s have corroded our culture and even our churches. As we deal with modernity, we can either 1) accept the culture’s norms, 2) isolate ourselves from the culture, or 3) bear biblical witness to culture.

For Bible-believing Christians, accepting the culture’s norms is not an option because we believe in absolute moral standards, objective truth, and definite theology based on the Bible. Throughout history, some Christians have sought to isolate themselves from the culture either physically (monastics or hermits) or socially (having few or no non-Christian friends). Given the downward spiral of our culture, isolation is attractive for some Christians. For believers with a biblical worldview, however, we must bear witness to our culture.

Disagreeing with that assessment would require a Reaganesque invocation of “Morning in America” and could sound as naive now as it did then. Taylor suggests that if the church is going to “speak” to the culture, the words will be largely confrontational.

A similar theme was in the incoming stated clerk, Bryan Chapell’s assessment of the PCA from five years ago:

The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

The word “beauty” perhaps takes the edge off an antithetical relationship to the culture, but the threat Chapell identifies in the broader society leaves no sense that a little elbow grease is all you need to get the job of cultural transformation done.

To find a more positive less adversarial understanding of the PCA’s relationship to “the culture” you need to go back to Tim Keller’s 2010 remarks about what he “likes” about the PCA:

The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists. Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.

This is a view of the culture that is open, willing to entertain novelty, and learn from secular scholarship, whether about religious matters or society. It is not antithetical but friendly.

If you had to guess which of these outlooks was most predictive of the PCA’s future and you looked at the age of the authors, you might say that Chapell who is the youngest (and not retired) reflects the communion’s posture for the next decade or so. From another angle, Keller’s own stature as successful New York City pastor and author of many books suggests that his outlook will carry the most weight, at least for a while.

But when it comes to cultural transformation, the wrench that gums up the works is the ministry of social justice. Those most concerned about racism, inequality, and structures of exclusion and privilege likely have no trouble seeing the church at odds with cultural structures that are systemically unjust. These Presbyterians could well agree with Taylor and Chapell’s warnings about cultural captivity. And the social justice Presbyterians could well think that Keller’s estimate of the modern world, from scholarship to big cities and the economies that make such urban centers possible, is naive. Missing from the social justice outlook, though, is an awareness that lots of people who have no Christian profession adopt the same causes (more like the other way around) that believing progressives do. In other words, the antithesis for social justice Christians has much more to do with politics than regeneration.

All of which makes a cultural ministry anything but simply the gospel.

Two Kingdom Theology and Same Sex Attraction

Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:

To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.

Jake Meador partly agrees:

Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.

Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.

Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

Fun With Numbers

Would it surprise readers to learn that Tim Keller and I, according to the intersectionality meter, enjoy more privilege than 96 percent of the rest of Americans? Would it also surprise anyone that Tim Keller and I have more privilege than Donald Trump? Because if you move the slider on Christianity from Christian to Not Christian (sorry Donald), your oppression footprint decreases, from a 5 to a 14, which means Trump has more privilege than 88 percent other Americans. Throw in income, with differences for religion, and here his how the picture changes: Trump (rich) 11, me (moderate) 5, Keller (more than me), 4. So in the intersectionality sweepstakes, Tim Keller has more privilege than Donald Trump and I. (And since Keller and I are Christians, that may make both of us Christian nationalists.)

This fits what Keller himself has even admitted.

Keller acknowledged white privilege and ways he’s benefited from it, but with his characteristic wit he added, “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself because that is a very white thing to do.”

Or:

John [Piper] and I are both old enough to remember the complicity of evangelical churches and institutions with the systemic racism in the US before the civil rights movement. I took my first church in a small town in the South in the early 1970s. The courts had recently ruled that the whites-only public swimming pool, operated by the town with taxpayers’ money, had to be integrated. So what did the town do? It shut the pool down completely, and the white people of the town opened a new private swimming pool and club, which of course, did not have to admit racial minorities. Because I was a young pastor, our family was often invited to swim there, and swim we did, not really cognizant of what the pool represented.

Here’s some more fun with numbers. What does minority and majority populations mean without nationalism? The world’s total population is 7.7 billion. The United States’ population is roughly 330 million. That means Americans (third in total behind China and India) are 4 percent of the world’s population. In majority/minority statistics, that looks decidedly like a minority.

But I get it with power and wealth Americans look a lot bigger and wealthier than the rest of the world’s peoples. Doesn’t some of that size and power extend to minorities within the United States, such that Amish or Armenian-Americans in the United States have more power and wealth than people living in Nigeria or Guiana?

And what about minority groups not based on race or ethnicity but on religion? Are members of the Presbyterian Church in America — roughly 350,000 — a minority compared to Japanese-Americans at 1.4 million, or Korean-Americans, or Chinese-Americans at almost 5 million? Can ethnicity and wealth simply turn those numbers around so that a denomination that is 7 percent the size of Chinese-Americans has the same sort of privilege as — well — Tim Keller?

And don’t even get me started on how flawed Asian-American is as a category?

However you slice it, the numbers only make sense if you start with the United States and its population, which makes you some kind of nationalist.

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.

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.