Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Denomination with No Beliefs

“I don't believe in God. I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists. Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church. Standing before the congregation of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, I affirmed that I: (1) endorsed the core principles in Christ's teaching; (2) intended to work to deepen my understanding and practice of the universal love at the heart of those principles; and (3) pledged to be a responsible member of the church and the larger community. So, I'm a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.”

This quote is from Robert Jensen as found on the March 11 edition of the Houston Chronicle’s web site He is a member of the PCUSA but doesn’t believe in God! Doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God! Doesn’t believe that he rose from the dead! Let me try to get a grasp on this… a church session (for the non-Presbyterians out there that is the church board) questioned Mr. Jensen concerning his beliefs. I guess they don’t hold that a belief on God, Jesus or the resurrection as critical beliefs for church membership in the PCUSA.

Has the PCUSA become so diverse that it is no longer a Christian church? I don’t think so, at least not yet. However, the day may come…

Hang around at presbytery, synod or General Assembly and you will hear the phrase “Reformed Tradition.” Stay a little longer and you will hear the phrase “essential tenants.” Now here is the fun part—ask thirty people what those essential tenants are and compare their answers. Now try to find them listed in our Book of Order. Not there! On top of that, a session or presbytery could just ignore them if they were there.

In the early 1980s a man named John Hicks wanted to become a member of San Gabriel Presbytery. Hicks was (is?) a theologian who had an impressive list of published material. Hicks did not believe in the virgin birth, that Jesus was the son of God, that Jesus did any miracles, that Jesus died for our sins, or that Jesus rose from the grave. The presbytery accepted him as a member-at-large. Thankfully there were complaints that the presbytery did not allow any questions to be ask of Hicks on the floor of presbytery. His membership was removed until he could be questioned at presbytery. At that point he with drew his request for membership. The presbytery’s leadership was very aware of Hicks’ beliefs (or lack there of). They saw nothing wrong with them!

It is time for the PCUSA to establish some minimum core beliefs that cannot be waved by a session, synod, or General Assembly.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lessons from my ordination.

The first call I received following seminary was at a small, rural church in Presbytery de Cristo. The ordination process required that I preach at a Presbytery meeting. There was a special meeting of the Presbytery to hear me preach and ask me questions; then they were to either approve/disapprove of my ordination.

Things were going well until a particular question was asked of me. The question was, “What are the two greatest challenges facing the PCUSA? What a loaded question. I was ready for them to ask me about my call to ministry. I was ready to talk about the Trinity. This question blind-sided me! My answer was… 1) the large annual membership loss in the PCUSA, and, 2) the ordination of practicing, unrepentant gays and lesbians. I wasn’t sure I would ordained after giving that answer. One member of presbytery told me that the gay issue was settled in 1978. I told him that was not the case. I had recently taken a class from Jack Rogers at Fuller Theological Seminary where Professor Rogers told us that there were people in the denomination that would keep pushing for gay ordination until it was accomplished. He said that there were influential people in the denomination who had sons, who were gay, and daughter, who were lesbians, which wanted to be ordained. The parents were going to press for ordination of gays and lesbians. Period.

Well… almost 20 years have passed and Rogers was right. Oh, by the way, I was right on this issue as well.

The PCUSA has continued to have catastrophic membership losses (see my earlier posting on this blog). Sadly, I was also correct on point 2.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

1978 Revisited

Today’s post is strictly from memory. Some of the “facts” of what actually happened may be different from what I post. My intent is to let the reader understand my thought process at a critical point in the life of the PCUSA.

I was a student at Washington State University in 1978. I had come to faith through the ministry of First Presbyterian Church, Ellensburg, Washington. I was leading one of several Bible studies in our dorm. Jesus was doing great things in the lives of the young men in our dorm.

At the same time and on the same campus there was a ministry on campus supported by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (hope I’ve got that correct—the former “northern church”). It was known as the “K” house. That ministry actively taught that there was nothing wrong with same gender relationships and sexual intercourse. I was aware that a group within the denomination was studying the issue of homosexuality and the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians. I expected the K house to be supportive of gay ordination. They were very supportive of gay ordination.

What surprised me was that a pastor from the campus ministry in Ellensburg was a part of the group and was openly supportive of gay ordination. You need to understand… Ellensburg is a “cow town.” Pickup trucks have been “in” for as long as I can remember. The campus pastor regularly attended First Pres. First Pres. was very conservative in it theology. I was shocked that the local campus pastor would advocate such an unbiblical position (since then I have learned A LOT about UMHE).

To make a long story a little shorter… I was prepared to leave the Presbyterian Church in 1978 if the denomination moved to ordain practicing gays and lesbians. How could I be involved in ministries that were leading people to Christ and encouraging them to read their Bibles while attending a denominational church that would be taking a stand on sexual ethics contrary to scripture?

Fortunately, the Presbyterian Church took a strong Biblical stand in saying that homosexual sex is a sin. End of story? I’m afraid not.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

From Papyrus to the HP Pavilion

Times change… The last original manuscript of the Biblical material was written approximately 1900 years ago. 1900 years! In that time we have gone from people walking from Nazareth to Jerusalem to people riding in a space ship and walking on the moon. The struggle back then was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Romans. Today we have the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well as the Israeli/Arab conflict. During the centuries the Roman Church split into the east and west churches (1000 c.e.). The Reformation would happen several hundred years later. World Wars I and II would become history. The sexual revolution would come and go. Times change…

In the midst of all the change we are faced with a challenge—how do we interpret the Bible in the twenty-first century? Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have written a marvelous book on that very subject called “How to Read the Bible for All its Worth.” It has a companion book called “How to Read the Bible Book by Book.” They give some very helpful guidelines for Biblical interpretation.

To begin we have to ask “what does the text say.” That is always the first step. The next step is to determine what it meant to the original audience. The text cannot mean for us today something that was impossible for it to mean back then! Here’s the full of thumb for Biblical interpretation… let the Bible interpret the Bible.

How does that work?

The Old Testament tells us which foods in clean (can be eaten) and which are impure (to be avoided). Then in the Book of Acts we have Peter and the vision given to him by the Holy Spirit concerning food. So… the dietary rules were cultural. What about religious festivals and some of the Torah regulations? Again, the New Testament removes some of the regulations that the Jews were never able to keep. But let’s be honest—the topic here is sexual ethics, the Bible and the PCUSA. The New Testament does not remove the sexual holiness code. Jesus had the opportunity to change it… and didn’t! Peter had the opportunity to change it… and didn’t. Paul had the opportunity to change it… and didn’t. Why? Because the Holy Spirit didn’t direct them to. The holiness code as it relates to sexual ethics transcends time and cultures.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Hanky Panky and the New Testament/Covenant – Part 2

Yesterday’s posting was just an introduction to the New Testament and sexual ethics—it needed more specifics. So here goes…

Jesus hates the sin, yet loves the sinner. An excellent example of this is found in John 8 where the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring a woman before Jesus. The woman was caught committing adultery. How embarrassing—to the woman, her family and friends. Public humiliation! Scorn. Death. Jesus knew that the woman deserved death; yet, he told the crowd, “Let any one of you who is without in be the first to throw a stone at her.” (vs. 7, TNIV) No stones were thrown. Does Jesus let her off the hook? No! He tells her that he does not condemn her and that she is to “go now and leave your life of sin.” (vs. 11, TNIV) Jesus gave her life. Jesus told her to stop sinning! Purity… what a concept. The TTF could learn from this example of our Lord Jesus.

The Apostle Paul wrote very clearly about “sin” in general. He wrote specifically about sexual sin. Romans 1 spells out what the Holy Spirit told him concerning sin, and more specifically, sexual sin. He talks about people knowing God, but not glorifying him or thanking him. People are so fickle—we turn to God when we need help but we seek after things that displease him. We are foolish to seek after things that God forbids. Oh how wise we think we are.

The Holy Spirit begins this section on sin by talking about “sexual impurity.” Imagine that—there are some things about sex that are not pure! Paul says that we “exchange the truth of God for a lie.” We lie to ourselves. We lie to others. We lie to God. But what do we lie about? The lie is that we would rather fulfill our sexual desires than follow what God’s Word says. We justify our desires. We justify our fantasies. Paul goes on to mention “shameful lusts.” Notice… this applies to all people, not just GLBT persons. All persons are open to sexual sin. Jesus said that to look at a person lustfully was to commit adultery with that person. I digress, lets get back to Paul… Paul gets very specific. He starts with lesbian sex and then moves to gay sex. He calls them “unnatural,” “indecent” and “perversion.” Those are strong words! They are words that transcend time and cultures. The meaning of this section of scripture is clear—sexual intercourse between persons of the same gender is SIN.

To be true to the text, Paul doesn’t stop there. Our human disobedience goes way beyond sexual sin. People gossip, lie, cheat, steal, are arrogant. Paul says that we not only do these things but we also approve of those who practice them.

So what should we do? We all sin. Period. End of story? Wrong! It is the beginning of a new story called repentance and forgiveness. God wants us to be broken before him and then experience his grace. Will we sin in the future? Yes. Does that make it right? No. So, since we are going to sin should we approve of sinful behavior? No.

But what about people who are born with a sexual attraction for those of the same gender? What about those who are bisexual? What about those who feel trapped in the body that is of the wrong gender? First, let me say that my heart goes out to those folks. It is never easy when people have to reject their natural desires. As a teenage male I “desired” to have sex. Fellow male athletes were regularly having sex with females. Was it easy for me to not act on my desires? Heavens no! I felt left out and different. Here’s the key—I knew what the Bible said about sex outside of marriage. I knew what God demanded. I had a choice… my way or God’s way.

The Reformed Tradition has a doctrine call “total depravity.” We have to remember that the doctrine of “total depravity” says that every aspect of our lives is affected by sin. Our morals are affected by sin. Our desires are affected by sin. Our sexuality is affected by sin. Our reason is affected by sin. “Total depravity” is why we need to hold fast to God’s Word. It is trustworthy. It is dependable.

The great news of the Gospel is that we can find forgiveness in Jesus Christ. He spares our life like he did the lady who was caught while committing adultery. Jesus gives us new life. But it doesn’t stop there. He told the lady to leave her life of sin. He demands the same of us.