When Calling Yourself a “Christian” Isn’t Enough (Adam Parker)

As a new Christian, I was very interested in studying cults. I studied the nuances of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarianism, and so on. When we think of cults, we tend to think of groups that not only pervert what the Bible says about salvation, but especially that depart from what Christianity has long taught since the very beginning. One of the other interesting features of cults is that they desperately want to be seen as in the mainstream of Christianity. When the Mormons come to my house, they insist that they’re “Christians” – in fact the last ones that came to my house told me they’re evangelicals.

Recently, I was reflecting on an important point that Dr. Trueman has been making for a number of years–namely, that the term “evangelical” has not only lost its meaning, but that it probably needs to be abandoned altogether.

Is it possible that the term “Christian,” like “Evangelical,” isn’t enough? Since the Nashville Statement was released this past week we have seen a number of negative responses from people also wanting to claim the name of Christian. I have seen many people claiming that suicides among the LGBTQ community will skyrocket every time Christians reaffirm what they’ve always said on these issues. I have seen nobody try to argue that what is in the Nashville Statement is innovative or foreign to what Christianity has always taught.

Truthfully I don’t see engagement from the dissenters when it comes to the text. I do see the modern shaming, naming, and bullying tactics of the crowd being employed in full-force. I don’t see anyone carrying the flag for historic Christianity who is opposing the Nashville Statement. There is no effort on the part of the dissenters to make any connections with the teachings that have been part of the catholic (universal) church since Christ established it.

In this regard, one of the most important books that have been released in the last year was the book Unchanging Witness, by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Unchanging Witness approaches the theological question of human sexuality from two fronts–the historical front and the exegetical front. Fortson and Grams spend most of the book examining every biblical text that refers to human sexuality, and especially to homosexual behavior. They spend about a quarter of the book surveying direct quotations from the early Church Fathers, the church during the Middle Ages, and the church during the renaissance/Reformation period. Their overall argument is that not only do the Scriptures teach with unanimity and clarity that homosexual behavior is sinful, but their larger point is that the church in history has spoken with one unanimous and unchanging voice on this specific question. Lutherans and Calvinists may differ on the Lord’s Supper. Methodists and Baptists may disagree over how to baptize. Baptists may disagree with Baptists over the five points of Calvinism (the list goes on). No Christian church or denomination ever disagreed on the morality of homosexuality.

Here’s the real money quote from Unchanging Witness

“On the issue of homosexual practice, no person or church or group should say that biblical texts mean something other than what the church has said all along because…both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching” (Fortson and Grams, pg. 5).

This is precisely where I wish to come back around to the question of whether it’s enough to just claim the name “Christian.” The people who are spearheading the ‘Gay Christian’ movement are innovators in the extreme. They must argue that there is no relevance to the church’s teaching on the subject of sexual behavior, because there is no argument to be made in that regard. Can someone really claim to be Christian while enjoying the church’s teaching (perhaps) on the doctrine of God while they at the same time willfully jettison its interpretation of what the Bible says about human sexual behavior? They can, perhaps, but they would be ‘Christian’ in name only. It is our relationship to the history of the church that makes our claim to be Christians meaningful. Wolfhart Pannenburg said this:

“If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norms, and recognized homosexual unions as personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, pg. 37).

Whatever you think of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood… whatever you think of the helpfulness of issuing public statements signed by hundreds of professors and pastors… whatever you think about the CBMW’s willingness or unwillingness to deal with the errors that they put forth during the ESS controversy… an objective reading of the Nashville Statement ought to ring true to all people who are Christians in any sense that our forefathers would have recognized. Those who belong to the cult of Evangelical Libertinism are howling in pain right now, but they should be recognized for what they are: a fringe cult masquerading as Christians, just like the Mormons and Watchtower folks.

 

Just Thinking… (Nick Batzig)

As more and more is being written about ethnicity, I thought that I’d point our readers to the B.A.R. Podcast (Biblical And Reformed), hosted by my friend, Dawain Atkinson. Dawain has had some the most noted pastors and theologians on the show (e.g.Derek ThomasMark Dever and H.B. Charles, Jr.). Additionally, he regularly interviews Christian hip hop artists and various local pastors. Recently, he interviewed Darrel B. Harrison, a fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The biblical and theological emphasis in this particular episode brings much to the table for your consideration, in light of current discussions about race and social justice. So, do yourself the favor and go listen to the episode titled, “Just Thinking…For Myself!”

Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope (Richard D. Phillips)

A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell’s prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God’s Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell’s trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups–as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from “the counsel of the wicked” to “the way of sinners” and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to “the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had placed them in peril. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is…well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell’s progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women’s ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid “touching the Jesus Box.”

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women’s ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible’s clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls “the admission of persons to sealing ordinances,” i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone’s sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment cultural of peril seems urgent: “Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.

 

*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.

Very Superstitious (Gabriel Williams)

Many Christian social commentators have lamented the devolution of American culture into a form of anti-culture. It is certainly true that the rejection of the Christian religion in our society has led to moral degeneration within our culture. However, sin not only affects the moral faculties of a person (or society); it also affects our rational/intellectual faculties. In other words, the rise of the anti-culture has also been coupled with irrationalism. It may be a surprise to some, but the secularization of our society has not led to a more rational society. Rather, the rejection of the Christian religion has led to a more speculative, less rational, and at times, a more superstitious society.

In a number of ways, this can be thought of as an expected result. Science historians have pointed out that modern science arose in the context of a Christian worldview, and was nourished and sustained by that view. An example of this can be found in a consideration Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech,and night to night reveals knowledge.There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.Their voice goes out through all the earth,and their words to the end of the world.

Regarding Psalm 19:1, John Calvin comments,

“As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme Architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at His infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.”

Calvin was deeply moved by both the beauty of creation and the wonder of providence. As mentioned in a previous blog, Calvin lived the same kind of scholarly piety exemplified by the scribes, teachers, and biblical scholars of Wisdom School. Consistent with mode of devotion from the Wisdom School, Calvin often speaks of the spiritual benefits of meditating on the glory of God in creation. Regarding Psalm 19:2, Calvin noted:

“[Natural] Philosophers who have more penetration into those matters than others, understand how the stars are arranged in such beautiful order, that notwithstanding their immense number there is no confusion;… David, therefore having spoken of the heavens, does not here descend from them to other parts of the world; but, from an effect more sensible what we just now said, namely, that the glory of God not only shines, but resounds in the heavens.”

What is interesting here, and is quite typical of the wisdom theology of the Old Testament, is that the glory of God is not only seen but heard. The sages of Israel (and the saints of the early Church) were inspired by what we might call the intellectual beauty of creation. They perceived in it a certain divine law – a certain order or purpose. The creation is understandable and this understandable order is beautiful because it teaches about the order and purpose of live. The creation has a didactic structure which witnesses to the Creator and His righteousness. It has both an intellectual and a moral beauty. One has only to look at creation to feel its beauty and its glory is that it speaks to us of divine things.

Glory is usually thought of as being seen, but in this instance it is being heard. The beauty of the heavens, the order of nature, according to Calvin, is a “visible language.” Calvin commented:

“David here metaphorically introduces the splendor and magnificence of the heavenly bodies, as preaching the glory of God like a teacher in a seminary of learning… the glory of God is written and imprinted in the heavens, as in an open volume which all men may read… Thus we are taught that the language of which mention has been made before is, as I may term it, a visible language, in other words, language which addresses itself to the sight; for it is to the eyes of men that the heavens speak, not to their ears; and thus David justly compares the beautiful order and arrangement, by which the heavenly bodies are distinguished, to a writing.”

Using more modern language, this is not a mere “God of the gaps” theory in which people only invoke God to account for gaps in modern scientific explanation. God’s works of creation and providence include all of the regularities of our natural world (cf. Genesis 8:22; Psalm 104:14, 20; Psalm 147:15-18), which includes those areas where science does best (i.e regular and predictable events, repeating patterns, etc.). From the perspective of the Scriptures, natural/scientific law is really the law of God or word of God (albeit imperfectly and approximately described by human investigators). It is His word that order, harmony, and beauty to our natural world. The mere existence of such “beautiful order and arrangement by which the heavenly bodies are distinguished” implies a rational lawgiver whose speech can be clearly articulated, illustrated, and understood. In examining Psalm 19, we see that the natural and moral order of our world all come from the same source – the Word of God.

It was this observed harmony and order that led the saints of old to ponder the works of creation and stirred the thoughts of early scientists to study the natural world. In contrast to this, one should notice the unhinged speculation associated with modern scientific theories today, particularly scientific theories which address origins. For example, in response to the harmonious order of our universe, there are now well-known scientists who postulate the existence of up to 10500 universes in order to explain the “apparent” fine-tuning of cosmic laws. Such a theory is not immediately disregarded because there is now discussion that science now longer needs to be falsifiable in order to be considered science.

Along with this, there are scientific theories that now require very little evidence in order for them to be discussed. One recent theory postulates that the origin of life follows as an inevitable consequences of the “laws of nature” and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” No theory on origins can be devoid of philosophical presuppositions and the prevailing thought today is that the origin of life is completely natural. This perhaps will explain the relatively new confidence among scientists in finding extra-terrestrial life (despite the lack of evidence) and the continued in belief in the existence of UFOs, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena in from many Westerners (and let’s not discuss the rise of flat earthers).

As is often the case, the appeal for secularism has not produced what it has promised. The rejection of the Christian religion has offered liberation, not from the bonds of superstition but from the burdens of evidence and rationality. Christians should be honest and forthright about this and we must address the fact that increasing numbers of young people are embracing this form of liberation.

Wisdom Christology in James and 1 John (Gabriel Williams)

In the previous post in this series, we briefly considered how Calvin’s appreciation of wisdom theology is particularly present in his comments on the Johannine literature. In Calvin’s commentary of 1 John, we discover one of the marks of the wisdom theology, namely, its appreciation of the transcendent nature of God’s Word. For Calvin, The Word “which believers we have heard and believed” is the same Word who is from the beginning the divine Wisdom. We find this very clearly in the following comment by Calvin:

“Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word.”

The Word of God is a transcendent reality. In fact, it is the fundamental transcendent reality of our salvation. We also notice from Calvin’s commentary that the Word of God has the capacity to enliven. Wisdom, as it is understood in Scripture, is far removed from the sort of abstract intellectualism that many associate with an education in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. Wisdom is a way of life, but more than that, it is a power and “sacred vitality”. This, too, is a mark of wisdom theology. When the text speaks of the “Word of life”, Calvin interprets this to mean the “vivifying Word.” This vivifying “Word of life” was with the Father, according to the text. Calvin comments:

“This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for He was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by His eternal wisdom.”

As Calvin understood, the eternal Wisdom is a creative, redemptive, and sanctifying wisdom; therefore, this Wisdom is a fountain of life. This divine Wisdom is a redemptive, transforming power. The ability of the Word to transform human life is the basis of its authority and its glory. It is this Word of life – the divine Wisdom – which brings us into fellowship with God and restores the bond of love between believers and God, and between believers one with another.

A very different aspect of the biblical wisdom theology is found in the Epistle of James. James describes Christian wisdom – both its theoretical knowledge and practical application – as embodied within the covenant community. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, is a collection of wise sayings on good conduct which reverberates with themes from the biblical wisdom tradition. Neither of these books tells a story nor develops a systematic line of thought. Typical of the wisdom writers (such as the sages of ancient Israel) is this delight in collecting proverbs on living the godly life.

As is well known, Luther had little appreciation for the moral concerns of James because it seemed to him to be be bogged down in works righteousness. Calvin was of a different mind, as he relates in the introduction to his commentary on James. In responding to the claim that James was not as clear on the subject of the grace of Christ as an apostle ought to be, Calvin commented:

“See how the writings of Solomon differ widely from the style of David. The former was concerned with the training of the outward man, and with handing down rules of social behavior, while the latter is noted for his profound attention to the spiritual worship of God, peace of mind, God’s lovingkindness, and the free promise of salvation. Such diversity does not make us praise one and condemn the other.”

This passage clearly indicates that Calvin recognized a “Solomonic theology”, that is, a wisdom theology. By saying that James is to the rest of the New Testament as the writings of Solomon were to the Old Testament, we discover Calvin agrees in substance with what modern biblical scholarship has recognized concerning the strongly Semitic and sapiential character of James. The whole nature of Calvin’s piety was positively disposed toward those beautiful passages in the Epistle of James which speak of the character of wisdom. Consider Calvin’s comments on James 3:13-18:

“For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious… For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others.”

Consistent with the sages of Old Testament Israel, Calvin understands that wisdom is truly a divine gift. The notion that wisdom is obtained by asking God for it is rooted in the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 3) and the relationship between wisdom being a gift and, therefore, the need to ask for it is developed in Wisdom of Solomon 8:17-9:18. In addition, because true wisdom comes “from above” it is inappropriate to boast about it. True wisdom is therefore humble. Calvin elaborated on this point further in his commentary, when he wrote:

“He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity.”

It’s clear that Calvin appreciated wisdom that was calm and well composed – the kind of wisdom that was learned but without pretension. Rather, Calvin admired simplicity, sincerity, and sobriety. Following the biblical wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, this sobriety is most clearly demonstrated in speech ethics (cf. James 3:1-12) and humility (cf. James 3:13-18). Calvin understood that true divine wisdom produces ethical fruit primarily because it is the “vivifying Word”. Because this divine Word transform human lives, it is expected that the wisdom from above produces true humility, true learning, and true godliness. The Epistle of James taught exactly the sort of piety that he so much admired and that he lived to emulate throughout his life.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Race and the Imago Dei (Editors)

In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

“To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are ‘like us’ and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ.”

In this video, Rob and Vanessa talk about race, all mandking being made in the image of God, and how the cross gives meaning to all of life

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Posted August 18, 2017 @ 6:58 AM by Editors

Mr. Moral Magoo? (Adam Parker)

I’m sure there’s a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you’re under 30, there’s a good chance that you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have “Magooed” themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn’t give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul’s words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said – maybe people are thinking it, but there isn’t any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they’re been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God’s own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God’s revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they’ve never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they’ve spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. “Of course it’s sinful! I find it gross!” But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there’s no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It’s a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this “magooing” of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn’t tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, “What has God said?”

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I’ve yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, “You know, I look at the word ‘arsenakoitai’ in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed.” The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God’s self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.

Feeling Forsaken, But Not Forgotten: An Infertility Story (Nan Whitney )

I met my husband, Pete, in April of 2004. We were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend who knew both of us well, and our friend thought we would be the perfect match. The only glitch, I lived in South Carolina and he lived in Germany. Pete had been stationed there for several years and had come to visit some friends in the States. That’s where our story began. We met for coffee that afternoon and talked for hours, only to say goodbye–never to know if we would meet again. Several months, many emails and phone calls later, we met again and spent a few weeks together getting to know one another’s family. After a nine-month deployment, Pete proposed and we were married over Labor Day weekend in 2005. Just after the wedding, I moved to Germany with two suitcases and my violin. It was truly a whirlwind romance.

Living in Germany was like a fairytale. Castles around every corner, rolling meadows, idyllic landscapes, open-air markets, and cobblestone streets were part of my new home–not to mention, the best cappuccinos ever! We traveled as much as we could and we tried to consume all of Europe in the short time we had left. After about 18 months of bliss, we left Germany to begin a new adventure. Pete had a strong desire to become a pastor so we began to pray about the when and the how of our new adventure that were ready to start as soon as possible.

Sadly, all fairytales come to an end. Joanna, Pete’s 23 year old sister, was battling brain cancer for the third time, and we made the decision to move to Boca Raton, Fl, to live and work near family so we could support Joanna. Shortly after we moved to Boca, Joanna went to her eternal home where she was finally healed and made whole. It was a very long and painful goodbye, but we thank God for the opportunity we had to be with her daily. 

During this time, we were also beginning to feel the weight of our inability to have children. After our first few months of trying, we thought it would just be a matter of time. As months passed, I became more and more confused. I was only 31. I thought this would be easy, but I quickly discovered that this process would be very difficult and painful. I started asking questions. Was there something wrong? Was I exercising too much? Did I need to gain weight? Did I need to change my diet? Did I really just need to take a vacation and stop stressing? When struggling with infertility, the irrational thoughts and strange questions you have never cease. Even more, trying and concerning are the dark and twisted questions you ask about your faith: Is God angry with me? Is He punishing me for my past sins? I was starting to re-write my theology and it was dangerous. When you endure long periods of silence and suffering, this is one of the greatest pitfalls the enemy seeks to weave into your life.

Every doctor will advise you to wait at least 6-12 months before seeking out medical testing and intervention. After a year and a half without success, we began the long road of tests, procedures and more questions. It is an incredibly stressful and emotional process. And for us, this process went on for the next 6 years. My whole life began to run by the calendar, my body’s cycle, medications, blood work, tests, surgeries and a lot of waiting. 

Where do you turn when your emotions vacillate from happy to sad in one day? What do you do when you can’t handle baby showers, Mother’s Day, or just seeing families together at church? I knew all the theologically correct “answers” in my head but connecting them to my heart was the most challenging part of living out my faith. 

I began to withdraw from social settings centered around babies and would cry after spending time with families whose children I adored. Being a high energy over achiever (aka – a “Type-A control freak”), I naturally wanted to solve my problem quickly. I researched everything on the subject of infertility, met with several different doctors for second and third opinions, changed my diet/lifestyle, went to counseling, joined support groups and prayed fervently. We asked people in our small group at church to pray. We asked our pastors to pray, our family, friends and anyone else who asked, to pray. Psalm 121:1-2 says, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” This was our answer. I knew God’s promises were true and that He always hears the prayers of His people. Not always answering according to our desires or on our timetable, but always in His wisdom and time.

After 5 years of medical treatments, testing, as well as naturopathic and holistic medicines and treatments, we were still barren. We decided to pursue adoption simultaneously with treatment, hoping and trusting that the Lord would answer our prayers to grow our family. Our friends, family and church community truly carried us through this trial with their prayers and encouragement as we pressed on. Our pastor and church officers offered us a special prayer and anointing service and prayed over us, asking God to bless us with children. Next to our wedding ceremony, this ceremony was equally as sacred and beautiful. Witnessing the tears and cries of men as they pleaded with God on our behalf was moving and transformational for our spirits. We left with new life and joy in our hearts.

A year later, we had finished our adoption home study and were waiting for placement. Around the same time, the reproductive endocrinologist had sent me home with sad news – he wouldn’t be able to perform another IUI (In-Uterine Insemination) because my ovaries were covered in cysts. It was in these darkest moments, that the Lord met me in the most unexpected ways. I had kept a praise journal over the many years, chronicling all of the ways He had met me.  Notes, gifts, phone calls, surprise visits and many more examples of unexpected encouragement. This day was no exception. As I cried and prayed, I picked up the mail only to find a package with a book inside. A friend had ordered a book for me which arrived the very day I needed it the most. The Infertility Companion had been on backorder and arrived that day. What a gift it was my to my heart! I gave thanks to God for His faithfulness and the strength He continued to supply for my weak spirit.

The next month, I was a few days late in my cycle and laughed off the thought of a pregnancy, knowing it was seemingly impossible. A week later, I humbled myself and took a pregnancy test. It was positive. I drove to the store and bought about ten more tests, to to be sure! I was filled with disbelief and bewilderment. How could this have happened?! Surely the test was wrong and had expired from old shelf life and dust in my cabinet. After the sixth positive test, I decided to get a blood test just to confirm the results. I wish I could say that I was filled with joy but my heart was anxious. We had struggled for so long that the reality of having a baby was too hard to grasp. The results came back positive. We were pregnant! And it took the entire 9-month pregnancy to accept the new reality that we were really going to be parents. God had answered our prayers in His time. Brynn Piper Whitney was born February 19, 2013 and we moved to Savannah, July 6, 2013 as Pete was called to be the Assistant Pastor at Kirk O’ the Isles Presbyterian Church.

Two years later, on June 1, 2015, I gave birth to twins–a boy and a girl. I often joke that the prayers of the saints were too powerful. Ecclesiastes 11:5 says, “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.” God had answered our prayers in the most miraculous and mind-blowing ways! And just to make sure we were removed of any doubts and concrete in our faith, He has opened my womb again at age 41 and given us another miracle that is due in 4 weeks! As if twins weren’t enough for our hearts and home, our hearts are so full now they feel as if they might burst at times. Every tear, heartache and disappointment was caught and carried in the hands of God. Psalm 58:6 says, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”

Our faith has been tried, twisted, strained, strengthened and fortified tremendously over the last 10 years as we’ve witnessed His faithfulness in our lives! Spurgeon says, “No faith is so precious as that which lives and triumphs through adversity. Tested faith brings experience. You would never have believed your own weakness had you not needed to pass through trials. And you would never have known God’s strength had His strength not been needed to carry you through.” Soli Deo gloria!

 

Nan Whitney lives in Savannah, Ga with her husband, Pete, and their three children, Brynn, Sadie and Landon. Pete is the Pastor at Kirk O’ the Isles Presbyterian Church. You can friend Nan on Facebook

 

The Blessing of Sunday Evening Worship (Mary Beth McGreevy)

Soon after my husband and I moved back to St. Louis from Philadelphia and rejoined Covenant Presbyterian Church, we got a call from a friend inviting us to join a new supper club that she and her husband were forming. After she described it to me, I asked when it would meet.

“On Sunday evenings,” she replied.

“Do you mean you’ll have it after the evening worship services?” I asked.

“Well, no, Mary Beth…you know, we’re not under the Law anymore; we’re under grace. You don’t have to attend your Sunday evening worship service.”

“Oh,” I said, “I know I am free to miss it–but why would I want to? These are the people that have stood with me through the hardest times of my life. It’s the most wonderful way to end the Lord’s Day, being with them and worshiping together. Thank you for your gracious invitation–but we would just miss too much if we intentionally missed evening church once a month.”

It was clear that my answer surprised my friend, but it impressed her, too. It piqued her interest to the point that she and her family visited our church for a while, just to see what caused me to love it and its people so much. (They continued to hunt for a church home and ended up in the church where she grew up–perhaps that’s where she found her people as well.)

My answer also caused me to reflect on why attending Sunday evening worship is the habit of our lives. Even before we met, both my husband and I had the habit of regular Sunday evening worship attendance. So, when we married, it was only natural that the habit would continue, as it has to this day, 42 years later.

One reason why both of us attended evening worship as single young people was the fact that we were both relatively new Christians and had a hunger for learning the Bible and being with other believers. Both of us really liked our pastors (before we met we belonged to different churches in different denominations) and their preaching. Both of us had made good friends at our churches that we enjoyed being with during and after the evening services. I especially loved our elderly Scottish assistant pastor who led the hymn singing with passion and a heavy brogue! For both of our congregations, the evening service was simply an important part of the life of the community. And as typical singles, we liked being out and about with other people rather than being home alone.

After we got married, we received more teaching about the Sabbath principle of observing the Lord’s Day. When George Robertson was preaching through the Psalms, he showed us how Psalm 92 refers to evening worship. The introduction to the psalm says “A psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day.” And the first two verses say,

“It is good to praise the LORD and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, [italics mine] to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp.”

We learned that the principle of Sabbath rest goes back to creation. That is how the Lord explained it when He gave the fourth commandment to Moses in Exodus 20:8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

In the New Testament we learn that Jesus fulfills all of the Law for us, and He Himself is our Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4; Romans 5:19; Hebrews 5:8-10). We find the disciples, after His Sunday-morning resurrection, gathering on the first day of the week, “the Lord’s day,” or Sunday. So, as G. I Williamson explains, “it is the proportion alone–and not the order–that is fixed by the commandment.”1 J. I Packer concurs: “The relation is just a new way of counting six-and-one, so that Lord’s Day observance is the Christian form of Sabbath-keeping.”2

Whether you call it the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, the day recurs weekly; it recognizes some sort of distinctiveness for one day in seven; it celebrates redemption in Christ and his resurrection, which is a fulfillment of the concept of rest embodied in the Sabbath; the one who is worshiped on the Lord’s Day is the bringer of the truth of the Sabbath rest of salvation to which the Old Testament Sabbath pointed (John 5; Hebrews 3-4), prefiguring the future rest of the consummation; and includes the notion of worship and, finally, the concept of lordship.3

There is great freedom in how we choose to keep the day “holy” or set apart, yet we ignore observing it to our peril. God made us; He knows we need rest. And He has graciously provided the means that give us true restoration–including a day of rest set apart unto Him and for us–because we were created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (WSC Q & A #1), which includes the here and now.

Countless lists can be found with suggestions about what should and should not be done on Sunday. A simple and helpful one comes from H. G. G. Herklots. Paraphrased, he says that the Lord’s Day should be:

  • A day of worship.
  • A day of rest in the sense that Christians do not cause others to do unnecessary work for them.
  • A day of real recreation, which by its changed occupation refreshes the mind and body and spirit “after divine service.”
  • A day when a Christian goes out of his way to help those who are in need.4

He sums it up this way: “For Christians, Sunday is the most important day of the week. A week without Sunday can be like a ship without a rudder. On the Lord’s Day Christians come together into the presence of their Lord: it is here that the Christian family realizes its unity as at few other times. This does not happen automatically. Sunday must be remembered. But if it be also hallowed it may hallow all the week.”5

On so many Sundays, such as one recently when assistant pastor Chris Smith gave a wonderful message during the evening service on Psalm 13, we drive away from the church saying, “Can you believe what we learned today?” And, “What better way could there be to end this day?” To be able to express prayer concerns and have them prayed for by the men and women of the congregation; to see a little hand go up during hymn requests and hear the child’s voice say, “Number 100, please, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ verses 1 and 4;” to hear God’s word faithfully and thoughtfully preached; to sing new songs as well as familiar old hymns; to spend time afterwards talking with church family members–yes, I’m free to miss all that. But why would I?

If attending Sunday evening worship is not the habit of your life, I encourage you to give it a try–especially during the summer, without having to get your children up for school the next day. Train your children and your own hearts in the blessing of setting aside the whole of Sunday to the Lord, book-ending it by morning and evening worship. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, and believe you will find it to be a very good thing.

1. G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism for Study Classes, Vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 43.

2. J. I, Packer, The Ten Commandments (Appleford, England: Marcham Manor Press, n.d.), 6.

3. A. T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Investigation,” ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 398-400.

4. H.G.G. Herklots, The Ten Commandments and Modern Man (Fair Lawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1958), 81.

5. Ibid., 81-83.

Mary Beth McGreevy (M.M., UTSA; M. Div., Covenant Theological Seminary) has been an Adjunct Professor at Covenant Seminary for over 10 years and has taught piano in her home for over 40. She is the Interim Director of Women’s Ministry at Covenant Presbyterian in St. Louis and a frequent speaker for women’s retreats and conferences. She and her husband of 42 years, Bill, love to travel together.

A Historic Framework for Social Responsibility (Jay Harvey)

How shall the church think about social issues of race, justice and power? It is increasingly popular for these issues to be framed and discussed in the church using the categories of social justice and racial privilege as defined by the social sciences. In secular academic settings such categories find their genesis in and are tethered to Marxist systems of analysis. These systems emphasize the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Marxist frameworks may have surface resonances with Biblical concerns for justice, equality and the poor. However, these frameworks emphasize the ongoing Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis without a clear pathway for resolution. Therefore, the insights gained from such analyses are not placed within a framework adequate to provide a healthy response to the social problems posed.

Rather than relying–almost exclusively in certain sectors of the church–on categories that find their genesis in systems hostile to orthodox Christianity, the church should rediscover the corrective guidance of its own tradition and draw upon its creedal and confessional resources. One such resource is the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), a document famous for its exposition of the moral law of God. The WLC offers a paradigm for social responsibility, a framework for robust ethical reasoning, and points toward the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Paradigm for Social Responsibility

We don’t need to rely on Marxist paradigms to teach us about social responsibility. The WLC’s rules for interpreting the moral law make it clear that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. WLC 99 states that “what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.” Similarly, rule eight sates “what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.”

The WLC does not envision a Christian unconcerned with the moral obligations of their neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes helping them obey God. In the WLC’s exposition of the Ten Commandments, this concern extends to the physical welfare of our neighbors too (see WLC 141-142). Pietistic isolation is not an option. As human beings we are knit together in social relationships which incur moral obligation.

However, the WLC pushes past the simplistic collectivism of Marxist paradigms which posit blanket responsibility or victimization in collectives of race, class and gender. Accordingly, moral guilt or a claim to justice will accrue to these same collectives. The result is a powerful, yet vague and ultimately unhelpful, angst. By contrast the WLC goes further, providing a framework that has the capacity to yield particular pathways for repentance, obedience and advocacy. The WLC teaches that our moral obligations will also be informed by our places and our callings.

On the one hand this is freeing. The single mother working two low-wage earning jobs does share the same kind of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO for her neighbors, but she does not share the same degree of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO. On the other hand, it is morally challenging. True righteousness is measured by deeds not by angst. Marxist paradigms that call for awareness, angst and protest allow us to rest content with awareness, angst and protest. The WLC pushes further, calling for actual righteous deeds to be done according to your place and calling. When we stand before God we shall not be judged for how we felt, but for what we have done. Therefore, we need theories of social responsibility that provide particular guidance for obedience.

A Framework for Robust Ethical Reasoning

Pastors and historians alike can tell you that evil deeds are often justified through painfully atomistic readings of Scripture. Our sinful hearts are prone to suppress obvious moral implications from Biblical texts. Jesus summarized the ten commandments with two great laws of love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus reasons even as he appeals to the heart.

The WLC follows Jesus and embraces a well-reasoned use of the law of God. Good and necessary inferences are drawn from the commandments, always with a view to the whole counsel of Scripture: “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included.” The WLC encourages a robust moral reasoning intended to give expression to the spirit of the law, lest our sinful hearts rest content with the letter of the law. Both the WLC’s exposition of the commandments and the type of moral reasoning it encourages offer resources to fashion a Biblical response to issues of race, justice and power.

The Hope of the Gospel

The WLC makes it clear that the moral law of God binds all people at all times (WLC 91-93). It is the ethical standard that defines what Christians labor for in the public square as much as in the home. For example, the WLC reminds us that we are not to exercise “undue silence in a just cause” (WLC 145). We should “endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others” (WLC 142). In these matters the moral law of God will be our guide.

And yet, the WLC reminds us that ethics and morality are not social goods with which we can rest content. For love of God and neighbor we pursue earthly righteousness. But we accept that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Therefore, there is no lasting hope without Christ. The law that guides our vision for justice will, if handled rightly, at the very same time convict us of our inability to keep it. For the regenerate this means that the law will “show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule to their obedience” (WLC 97). Here we see that the law moves us to worship and adore Christ when we realize that he kept it for us when we could not and bore its curse in our place. The WLC would have the law move our hearts to love Christ, and from that place of love to obey Christ.

For the unregenerate, the moral law is of use “to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ” (WLC 96). The law serves salvation by driving the unregenerate to Christ. We can never rest content with social transformation or the alleviation of earthly suffering. We will always be burdened to see spiritual transformation and the alleviation of eternal suffering. This is not to deny the God glorifying, neighbor loving value of alleviating temporal suffering. It is simply to remember that temporal suffering is temporal. Of course, to lean on the temporality of suffering as an excuse to ignore our neighbor’s pain is wrong. But to forget that our neighbor faces eternal suffering is equally heartless, and with even greater consequences.

This understanding of the usefulness of the law for the unregenerate will inform how we exercise co-belligerence as Christians. Augustine famously coined the phrase City of Man to describe that realm of civil society where Christians labor with unbelievers for the common good. But, those with whom we labor in matters of social concern must take us as we are. We cannot make common cause with those who would demand we lay down the cross of Christ in order take up another cause. We cannot be silenced, for we must save both ourselves and our hearers.

Conclusion

In the spirit of avoiding what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” just because the Westminster Larger Catechism is old (1648) does not mean it is old-fashioned. It remains relevant today. Nor should we presume that because it was not heeded in earlier days that it did not speak clearly enough to be heard. Hearing was not the problem, heeding was. Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted that in the late 18th century the American Presbyterian church removed the word “depopulations” from the WLC’s exposition of the eighth commandment. This ban “was embarrassing given the ongoing European settlement of territory once belonging to native Americans.” One might wonder whether 19th century Presbyterians were not similarly embarrassed by the prohibitions against manstealing, defrauding one’s neighbor and enriching oneself unjustly.

The WLC is not our only Biblical resource to address concerns over race, justice and power, but it is an important one. Our forebears seemed to have heard the WLC without heading it in these areas. We may find that tomorrow’s embarrassment is not that we deleted a word from the WLC because it made us uncomfortable, but that we never bothered to read it seriously in the first place.

   

1. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), xxii.