Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Random Thoughts From My Last Two Posts

This has been an intense week since my last post. Several things have cause me to continue to reflect on what I’ve written in the last two blogs.

First, recalling a past conversation on a list serve on which I am a lurker. The idea being expressed by fellow pastors who share many of the same theological and biblical prejudices was that we Christians couldn’t make gay marriage a big issue because we would loose our “right” to talk to the younger generations who feel strongly about gay rights and equality. I think this is what concerns Rick Warren in his recent “about face” regarding his support for Prop 8 in California.

I suppose the answer came in a subsequent conversation with a colleague. “You won’t have a seat at the table by betraying what you believe,” he said. And I think he’s right on the money. Yes, the “young” are far more likely to embrace social license and call it equality. But the next generation also has no time or respect for those who betray what they believe in order to be hip. They’ll see right through those “Bible believing Christians” who are fudging on the issue of gay marriage and rightly call them hypocrites. I think we will do much better as stewards of the Gospel by being true to what we profess we believe, namely that the Bible is True and is the authority for us in how we are to live, if we stick to our guns and say about gay marriage, “It isn’t part of God’s design.” That is biblical truthful, faithful, and not hateful. It simply states what we believe.

Second, to back this up, a recent article in Leadership Journal caught my eye. In that article, a Muslim professor at a Christian Seminary (yes, you read that correctly) stated that in his experience, Christians frequently were willing to compromise their beliefs in order to prevent others from feeling “uncomfortable.” This is his response to that kind of behavior, which, in my opinion, has taken over the Church:

“If you enter a ministerial gathering as a Christian minister and downplay your Christian identity in an attempt to make everyone comfortable, as a Muslim leader, I’m immediately suspicious. I don’t trust you. Embracing your identity as a Christian creates safety for me to be Muslim.” - Eboo Patel, McCormick Theological Seminary and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Patel goes on to remind Christians: “If you don’t use the Christian narrative to define reality for your people, then someone else will define reality for them with a different narrative.” This is most certainly true. We have allowed those proponents of gay marriage to define the entire debate in terms of “feelings” and not kept the debate centered around Jesus, who loves sinners but doesn’t leave them hostage to their sin.

Finally, a good conversation on FB with a great friend who is Roman Catholic. He follows my blog and has written the following in three or four different responses:

“I think it isn't so much re-defining (christian) marriage in light of the same sex stuff as it is reclaiming the original meaning. The (christian) Church was the arbiter of marriage until this power was ceded to the state. The state was, after all, more favorable to divorce than the Church. Call it the law of unintended consequences, 500 years on.

“Some might argue that this was (in part) the original motive of moving marriage from church authority to state authority (convenience). The state no longer recognizes the authority of Scripture. A democratic state is by nature interested in equal protection of its citizens. Seems to me this same sex stuff is only the natural outcome of transfering this authority to the state (which in addition to being arbiter of divorce includes the ability to define it). Perhaps the mistake on the part of some sects is in too closely identifying with state authority and too willingly cedeing authority over marriage to the state? The only way out I see is the theological way...

“I think the answer is theological. legal contracts don't make a marriage because it is a spiritual covenant - i.e., God is the third party, not the government. In short, because marriage is covenant and not a contract, government doesn't define it. God defines it. Government can only define a contract, not a covenant.

“We need a theology of marriage that is not dependent upon the civil contract. In Mexico (and all over Latin America), couples go to the courthouse the week before their church wedding to finalize their civil union, which can only be done before a civil judge. Interestingly, couples don't generally regard this as their wedding date. They regard the day of their church wedding is the start of their marriage. Marriage as Sacrament needs to be restored...a marriage begins when Jesus is invited into the relationship, not when the papers are signed because it is a covenant, not a contract.”

I argued in my previous blog that supporting gay marriage as a denomination means that we nullify Scripture. And as a Reformation Church that staked everything, including our identity, on the authority of Scripture, that leaves us with no reason to do mission because we have no Holy Book, no reason to exist. Without Scripture, as a Reformation Church, we have no reasonable basis on which to base our identity. If we can pick and choose what we like and don’t like about Scripture, then that means that we can pick and choose what is true and what isn’t, and if that’s the case, there is no reason to believe that Jesus was right when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

My dear Catholic friend responds from the heart of his tradition, which, unlike my own, gives equal standing to the tradition of the church along with Scripture. He writes, “Losing the Authority of Scripture is a particularly difficult problem where tradition has no authority. I see the "slippery slope" argument here. What else is left?”

Indeed. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Abandonment of Discipleship in the Denomination

Last blog: the Iowa Supreme Court decision that insists same sex marriage is a right. This blog: our denomination's (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)) decision to try and amend our code of clergy conduct to include the ordination of openly gay and lesbian pastors and to permit the blessing of same sex unions. Oddly enough, the Iowa Supremes mentioned divisions within the Church on the topic of same sex unions as one of the reasons they thought they should order the practice to be allowed. Please, bishops of the ELCA, don't ever tell me again that there is no harm in discussing things like this. Behold! The results of your openness to discuss what is contrary to Scripture: the Iowa Supremes used you and other alleged spiritual leaders as justification for their decision.

Let's be clear about something from the very beginning. Jesus doesn't allow his followers to hate anyone. The opposition that I as a pastor and that Zion Church has to what is being called Gay ordination and the blessing of same sex unions isn't motivated by hate. It's motivated by our love for the Scriptures which identify homosexual (sexual) relations as a sin and our love for our neighbors and brothers and sisters who are being sold a bill of goods by those who have sworn an oath to teach and preach God's Word. Our argument is not against those engaged in the lifestyle, rather, our argument is with those who are teaching others to ignore Scripture and leading them down a path that leads to disaster. We are simply on record as believing that because such activities are forbidden by Scripture, the Church has no business practicing them or condoning them. Simply put, our high view of Scripture means that we trust God's Word above human wisdom. Those whom we oppose in this argument elevate human wisdom and feeling above Scripture.

As part of our efforts to call the denomination back to biblical faithfulness, we send letters to other churches hoping to inform them of what is going on within the denomination. Our opinion is that many of the people in the pews simply have no idea what the leadership of the denomination is doing. One such letter recently elicited a response from a pastor who told us that there was no prohibition against homosexuality in the Greek of the New Testament. While the term 'homosexual' wasn't developed until the 19th century, the various Greek words describing same sex relationships in the original Greek are quite clear and it's quite clear that such activity is forbidden. No serious scholar can disagree that the Bible says what it says. It's sinful behavior, period. It ranks right up there with adultery, murder, gossip, slander, false witness, stealing and other sins.

Since the Bible is so clear about calling it a sin, the proponents of Gay ordination and the blessing of same sex unions have only two arguments that remain:

1.) The Holy Spirit is doing something new here. God wants us to unsin homosexual acts because he has changed his mind about them. This represents a new initiative on God's part. The Holy Spirit has spoken to some of the leaders of the church through the witness of the Gay community and they are being led by Him to change the rules and their interpretation of Scripture. My goodness. If I made such an argument about anything else, I'd be defrocked. This argument doesn't even take on Scripture, it ignores it and claims "new revelation" as the basis for decision making in these matters. As one scholar said to me, "We believe that the Apostle Paul wasn't fully informed about the science behind being Gay." You can see why those of us who have a high view of Scripture cringe at this argument. What it means is that God has more to say than sending us Jesus. I can't even conceive of something more un-Lutheran or un-Orthodox biblically and theologically.

2. ) The second argument is the argument from feelings. Since we are called to love everyone we also have to accept their behaviors. Because people feel bad when we tell them their actions are sinful, we need to allow them to continue in their sinful actions as a way of affirming who they are. Wow. According that argument, there will be no more life change or conversion or even repentance in the Church. People won't be radically changed by an encounter with Christ, they will just keep on being the same. This denies the power of the resurrection, the very power of Christ. Yes, we need to love people, that is clear. But Jesus loved people so much he never left them as he found them, he left them changed. Can you imagine Jesus going up to the woman caught in adultery whom he had just saved from being stoned and instead of saying, "Go and sin no more," saying, "Go and keep on sinning"? This second argument denies the power of Jesus to forgive sins by unsinning sins and saying that some behaviors, previously sinful, no longer need his forgiveness. It also denies the power of Jesus to heal. The argument basically says, "this group of people over here is fine without your help, Jesus. They really aren't sick after all despite what Scripture says."

Here is where this leads: When you fail to believe what Scripture labels as sin isn't sin, how can you believe Scripture when it says that through Jesus you can be saved? You simply can't pick and choose what Scriptures you want to believe and which ones you reject. Scripture itself condemns that practice. And if you believe that there are people whose sins don't require forgiveness, are you not making a mockery of the suffering and sacrificial death of our Savior?

I know there are a lot of feelings about these issues. But I invite us all to take this debate back to Scripture. Ultimately the question at stake isn't Gay ordination or same sex unions, it's about whether or not we'll believe our own Holy book. If we don't believe it or pick and choose what we believe from it, how can we expect any one else to be swayed by it either? We won't make a single disciple by saying, "This is our Holy Book, we only believe half of it." And if we have no Holy Book, then we have no Holy Gospel, no Holy Savior, nothing to offer a world lost in great darkness.

Every survey of spiritual growth says the same thing: the one thing that is necessary for growing closer to God is a high view of Scripture. Why on earth would the denomination open the doors it has and then trample upon the Word of God? It defies explanation.

Thanks for reading. Please continue to pray that the Truth will carry the day. God bless you.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Discipleship and Same Sex Marriage

I expect this one might elicit a lot of comment.

Our church is in Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court just declared that same sex couples have the right to wed in Iowa. Uh-oh. As a church that strives to be biblically faithful, what do we do now?

Within hours of the announcement of the decision, I started receiving e-mails. They basically said the same thing: “That this thing happened is the fault of the pastors and the churches. You didn’t do enough to mobilize people to oppose this.” Ouch. I suppose I agree, at least on one level, with the critics. This is what I would say: I don’t think the pastors or churches of Iowa did enough to make disciples of Jesus Christ. If we had done that, this decision may never have been reached.

To be clear, for the record: Jesus isn’t in favor of same sex marriage. Jesus affirms marriage between a man and woman. Jesus, as God of the Old Testament Come to Be With Us in the Flesh, isn’t down with the current world order, including but not limited to, same sex marriage. Nowhere in Scripture can you make a case that the God who so clearly created marriage meant it to be for anyone but one man and one woman. It doesn’t mean that Jesus hates gay people or that they are worse sinners than the rest of us. It merely reinforces 2,000 plus years of Church teaching that any sexual relationship outside of biblical marriage is a sin. Even heterosexual people have to deal with that. It’s what the Bible says. Take it up with the Author.

Here’s what I’m thinking: as a church, our prime directive from our Founder and First Martyr, Jesus Christ, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We can’t make disciples of Jesus if we demand that before they follow Jesus they have to live “the right lifestyle.” Jesus didn’t demand that of Peter, a surly fisherman. He didn’t say, “Clean up your act and then follow me.” He just said, “Follow me.” And they did. The life change and transformation in the disciples clearly takes place along the way. So too with modern day disciples. So we can’t expect sinners to become followers of Jesus if we demand they quit sinning before they meet Jesus. Doesn’t work. Only Jesus can change people’s hearts.

I’m also struggling with the fact that “everyone” who is “anyone” in church stuff these days is saying that we live in a post-Christian society. In other words, the church, pastors, religious people, don’t get authority because of who they are. They have to prove their relevance and earn their right to have any authority over their followers or society as a whole. That probably means that going out as a congregation and protesting in the streets won’t win us any disciples or even help our cause. Yes, I’m saying that we have come to a point in our culture where our society doesn’t care what the church says and isn’t impressed by picketing Christians. That’s probably why we still have institutionalized abortion on demand as well. It isn’t that we, the pastors or the church, haven’t said something. It’s that nobody out there much cares.

I’ll bet, and I don’t know this for certain, but I’d wager that most of the Supreme Court Justices in Iowa go to church. But I bet that they have been trained in law school and by society as a whole and perhaps even by their own church (shame on them), that what they believe about God must somehow be separated from their decision making process in order to be truly fair. This is the point at which I think we’ve failed. A disciple cannot separate out what he believes about Jesus from the decisions he makes about life, liberty and happiness. He or she would not be a disciple if that were the case. To be a disciple is to be a learner, a follower, a practitioner of the Teacher, Jesus. You cannot separate the man from the message. And a disciple cannot separate the message and the man from the decision making process. Where we have failed as a Church is in allowing people to compartmentalize their faith and believe that “for the good of society, I need to keep my religion out of my decision making process.” Rubbish. It’s at that point when good societies loose their moral compass and head straight for the rocks. This is why I said at the start, “I don’t think the pastors or churches of Iowa did enough to make disciples of Jesus Christ. If we had done that, this decision may never have been reached.” We have failed to take our societal presuppositions head on.

There are a lot of folks at work to overturn the decision of the Supremes. I think we also need to be stepping up our efforts to make disciples who will take what they believe into the courtroom, the classroom, the workroom, the boardroom and the bedroom. Thanks for reading. Peace be with you. PJ

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Catching My Breath

I have really been struggling lately with this topic of "blowing it." Every time I sit down to pen my thoughts, it gets more and more complicated. I think it's because one thing leads me on to something else and I'm learning as I blog instead of learning and then blogging. So pardon me for "thinking out loud."

My most recent difficulty came about because I was thinking about what the church does. My thought went like this: The most important thing the church does is preach the word of God. That sounds like a no brainer. But then I was overwhelmed by a feeling of uncertainty. I think Jesus meant that the church was to make disciples. That's the most important thing. Preaching is often an important way of doing that, but not the only way. Disciples are always made by relationship. Preaching helps. Preaching urges people into that relationship with Jesus but I think that preaching alone cannot make disciples. This then led to lots of Lutheran soul searching on my part. After all, we're the Word Alone people. The proclamation of the word (by preaching) is what we do. But I think I'm quickly arriving at the conclusion that it isn't enough. Preaching is important, but there has to be more or discipleship won't happen. There has to be relationship, one to one teaching and learning. "Follow me," Jesus said. Then they watched him, then he let them practice, then he sent them out to make disciples. That's the method.

For the last 60 years we've been building churches in this country but not so many disciples. It isn't any wonder then why things seem to be going down hill so fast. We've been preaching but not discipling. And it's going to take some pretty drastic measures to recapture discipleship.

Something else that is weighing heavily on my mind these days: I think almost every church in America needs to be re-evangelized. We have so many good, faithful people. But so often times they are in relationship with the church (as institution) and not in relationship with the Lord of the Church, Jesus. This means that the role of the pastor has become even harder than before. For we must seek to re-educate our people as well as reach the lost.

Those are my thoughts these days. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ