Friday, November 16, 2007

San Francisco Theological Seminary President Disappoints Me.

The Presbytery of Olympia held its November meeting yesterday. There was a pre-Presbytery workshop led by the Reverend Dr. Phil Butin. The Presbytery information packet said that Dr. Butin is a Professor of Theology as well as the President of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). The title of the workshop was “The Trinity and Christian Unity.”

Dr. Butin is an engaging communicator. He did a good job of trying to get audience participation—and to minimize the possibility of a few people commandeering the discussion. He did a good job of listening to the comments from the audience.

Dr. Butin’s basic premise is that the Trinity is a unity based of profound diversity so the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can only be a unity based on profound diversity. He said that churches should never separate from the denomination but that they should stay and work to change the denomination. To “prove” the point Dr. Butin used 1 Corinthians 12.

Not once in his entire presentation did Dr. Butin mention that 1 Corinthians 12 is talking about spiritual gifts that are given to believers by the Holy Spirit for the common good. I waited… and waited… and waited… Dr. Butin talked about the importance of “context” early in his presentation. Yet, when basing his whole premise on 1 Corinthians 12 he never once used that passage in its context!! I weep for the PC(USA) if this is how our seminary folks do theology.

Dr. Butin stressed that each church is like a part of the body. He said that the body needs each of those parts and that those parts should not ever leave. Dr. Butin said that there would be differences on how we define Jesus, what it means to be Christian and what individuals believe they are called to believe and do. Dr. Butin was asked if there are any boundaries as to what it means to be a “Christian.” He said that those boundaries do exist but that fallible humans do not have the ability to define what they are. He said that it would be presumptuous for a believer (or group of believers) to say that they know what those limits are and to impose them on the whole body.

One member of the audience brought up the example of cancer in the human body. The audience member said that cancer is made up of cells from within the body that are acting in such a way as to destroy (kill) the whole body. Dr. Butin would not say that there could be cancer in the PCUSA or that the cancer should be removed. His only response was that we should pray.

Here are a few of my concerns with Dr. Butin’s presentation.

  1. His exegesis and hermeneutics were deplorable. He would have failed those classes at most seminaries with the way he interpreted texts during the workshop. Here at Evergreen we are striving to help our people be good students of scripture. We regularly offer a class that spends a lot of time talking about exegesis and hermeneutics. It was troubling to find out that I have a high school student who does exegesis and hermeneutics better than a Professor of Theology and President of a denominational seminary’s president.
  2. Using Paul as a model for staying together at all costs shows a complete lack of scripture. Take a look at Acts 15:36-41. Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement that leads to a split!! Was the disagreement over the person of Jesus? Was the split over Jesus being the only way to God? Was the split over the definition of sin? The answers to these questions is “no.” The split was over whether to take John Mark on the next missionary trip with them. The split was over who should accompany them!! Additionally, Paul tells the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5) that they should remove a particular person from their “fellowship” for being sexually involved with “his father’s wife.” Paul DID NOT believe that the church (or Christ’s followers) should stay together at all costs.
  3. Dr. Butin would not define the boundaries of what it means to be a Christian. He continually said that it would be presumptuous to say that we can know those boundaries—after all, we are fallible.

There are good, biblical reasons for churches staying together as denominations. It is unfortunate that Dr. Butin used the examples that he did. This is a difficult time for the PCUSA. We need to hear good biblical reasons for staying connected. Churches, sessions and denominational leaders need to know what those reasons are.

There are good, biblical reasons for churches to leave a denomination (remember, denominations are not even mentioned in the Bible). For some reason we tend to think of a denomination as the “Church” – which it isn’t! We need to hear what the Bible teaches about staying connected to “believers” who do and teach those things we have come to call heresy. Churches, sessions and denominational leaders need to know those things and those local churches will follow those scriptural mandates.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Inter-faith Relations, One of Many Ways to God or an Abomination to God? (conclusion)

Working beside: It has been a couple of years since hurricanes bought destruction to the Gulf Coast. The rebuilding process will be going on for years to come. It would be wise if the various relief groups coordinated their rebuilding efforts. It would be great if a group of Presbyterians was working on a house and a group of Mormons was working on the house next door, a group of Buddhists working on the house across the street, and a group of Muslims working on the house across the back fence. We can work “beside” people of other world views to assist those in need.

Worship: The Bible is very clear about worshipping other Gods. Woe to the person, pastor, church or denomination who worships other gods!! Are there Presbyterians who disagree with the Bible on this matter? Of course there are. If the Bible is wrong and those people are right—well, good for them, they will be in heaven and all will be well and good. If the Bible is right and they are wrong—what they will be experiencing for all eternity will be worse than horrible. I have heard individuals say that they would never want to be in a heaven with a God who would exclude “good” people from heaven—it is easy to say that when we sit in our comfortable homes, wear our fancy preaching robes and create our own brand of “Christianity.” Remember, God dealt very harshly with his people when they bowed down to other gods!

Conversion: Like it or not, we are called to be involved in making disciples of Jesus! The disciple-making process includes conversion! All have sinned and fallen short of God’s commands. Salvation is only found in Jesus. Through evangelistic efforts we show that we truly have love for that other person. Building relationships are an important step in gaining the “right” to be heard by the other person. We must be ever mindful of the “Great Commission” when we develop inter-faith relationships.

The Redefining of Christianity: We live in a time and place where we do not want anyone to tell us what to believe and how to live. There are many who claim to be “Christians” but their world view has seriously departed from the Christian world view. Many pastors and seminary professors fall into this group of people. Here are the options that such people face:

  • Become a part of the Unitarian Church. This move is unacceptable to some because the Unitarian Church “allows” people to believe anything they want (I suppose there have to be some limits in the Unitarian Church or else they would have people who include sex with children in their worship). To be a part of the Unitarian Church would give these folks “zero” political clout. Thus, they stay in the PCUSA, United Methodist and Episcopal Churches—to mention a few.
  • Become a part of the Baha’i faith. This would probably fit well with their world view. The problem with such a move involves the loss of political clout! The Baha’i church is viewed as a politically irrelevant group and has no political influence.
  • Leave the Christian Church and become a political activist. Most political activists don’t make a living at it! It pays much better to be a pastor in a mainline denomination—with benefits!
  • Stay in the “Christian Church” and redefine what it means to be “Christian.” This is the easiest path to choose. When was the last time that a Presbyterian was removed from the church for heresy? It is almost impossible for us to remove someone for “heresy” when we have no written essential beliefs. Thus, we have the Presbyterian Church of today.

Inter-faith relationships are complex. The politically correct thing to do is to say that all faiths worship the same God. The difficult thing to do is to build relationships of understanding with the goal of sharing Christ.