Archive for September, 2006

PCUSA: Is it time for Davis Perkins to go?

Saturday, September 30th, 2006

Davis Perkins first came to my attention (and many others’) as the result of his scathing attack on the Confessing Church movement. This entirely gratuitous assault appeared in his introduction to a pamphlet about contradictory statements in some of the confessions the PCUSA purports to embrace. He wrote:

The term “confessing church” has come to mean something altogether different in the current Presbyterian context … as right-wing organizations seek to use confessional statements as theological sledgehammers to bludgeon Presbyterians into a rigid orthodoxy ….

Give Perkins credit for one thing (and only one thing); he came out of relative obscurity wearing his colors for all to see. His terminology identified him as a left-wing ideologue. Centrists seldom use the term “right-wing” while radicals always use it to describe centrists.

This terminology usually signals that the writer views theological differences primarily as political disputes – the term “right-wing” is, after all, a term from politics. People who see the Christian faith primarily as a political tool usually believe that “everything is politics” and tend to express themselves accordingly. There are many of this sort in the PCUSA; former moderator Rick Ufford-Chase is a high-profile example.

“Progressives” like Perkins have no use for orthodoxy. As he noted correctly in his mean little diatribe, orthodoxy is somewhat rigid, not pliant and accommodating like these folks want the PCUSA to be. And like many in PCUSA leadership positions (Clifton Kirkpatrick, Elenora Giddings Ivory, and Jack Rogers come easily to mind), he is not reluctant to use his bully pulpit to “bludgeon” those with whom he disagrees.

If I thought about Perkins at all after reading his cheap shot, I probably figured that he would just fade back into bureaucratic obscurity. It never occurred to me that, as a publisher, he would invest (misappropriate might be a better word) the resources at his disposal to promote the ultimate radical cause. But no; as president and publisher, Perkins decided to drag the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) into the weird la-la land of David Griffin’s silly fantasy, Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action.

I was shocked and angered by this dumb decision, not only because of the content of the book, but because of the sort of crackpots the author chooses to hang out in cyberspace with. But there was something more troubling than that, more troubling than the lame excuses PPC offered for this bonehead play, even more troubling than the denomination’s rush to peddle this trash on the official PCUSA web site. I discovered that, like the PCUSA itself, Perkins was betraying the mission entrusted to him. According to the PCUSA, this mission is as follows:

Building on the Reformed tradition, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation seeks to glorify God by contributing to the spiritual and intellectual vitality of Christ’s church. To that end, PPC publishes resources that advance religious scholarship, stimulate conversation about moral values, and inspire faithful living.

Um, right. Let’s see if stamping Griffin’s goofball conspiracy theory with the PCUSA’s imprimatur furthers this “mission”:

I think not.

Perkins, however, must believe the answer to these questions is yes. That being the case, I suggest that he move with all possible haste to get the PPC into the highly profitable supermarket tabloid business. He would be comfortable with the product and would probably find the frantic pace of new “scholarship” quite stimulating. And I’m sure the PCUSA would be happy with the enhanced revenue stream.

Occasionally, the PCUSA recognizes a failure of judgment so monumental as to require action. On rare occasions, the PCUSA moves decisively when a staffer allows professional judgment to be overwhelmed by personal prejudice. After the notorious Re-Imagining God conference, Mary Ann Lundy, the staffer who secured the PCUSA’s participation, was fired. After the world learned that the PCUSA was visiting Hezbollah terrorists and praising them, the responsible staffers – Kathy Leuckert and Peter Sulyok – were also fired.

With the PCUSA turned into a laughingstock, at a time when its reputation as a hotbed of anti-israel bigotry has been slightly diminished by backtracking on divestment, it’s time for PCUSA leaders to take a moment to focus on something other than their cumbling empire.

Is it time for Davis Perkins to go? I think the answer is obviously yes. Sadly, the obvious is all too often an impenetrable mystery to PCUSA bureaucrats.

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PCUSA: Is it worthy of our love?

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

In a word, no.

From the run-up to the 217th GA until now, there have been countless expressions of “love” for the PCUSA and endless concerns for “our beloved PCUSA”. Many of these sentiments have been expressed by Task Force members, perhaps trying to justify their unity-at-all-costs recommendations. Many more have come from hand-wringing renewalists, perhaps trying to explain why they continue to cling to a failed “stay, fight, win” strategy.

But I can’t find much to recommend this sentimental regard for the PCUSA simply because it is the PCUSA. As Christians, we know whom we are called to love. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Jesus isn’t telling his disciples that they can’t love anyone but Jesus, only that they – and we – can’t put anyone ahead of or even on a par with Jesus. Not even our church or our denomination.

So what else does the Bible tell us we should love? Here is a short list – God the Father (Matthew 22:37), neighbors (Matthew 22:39), enemies (Matthew 5:44), other Christians (John 13:34), spouses, children, and parents (Colossians 3:18-21). These are all persons. Truth – emobodied by Christ – also shows up on the list, but I find no mention of earthly organizations, no matter how noble their intent may be – or once was.

The Bible doesn’t address denominations directly, but perhaps Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 are instructive:

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into[b] the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.

Are we so different when we say “I follow John Knox”; “I follow Martin Luther”; “I follow John Wesley”? There is only one body. There is not a Presbyterian body, a Lutheran body, a Methodist body, or any other body. Just one.

(Among the PUP report’s many errors was the implication that unity with the PCUSA somehow equates to unity with the body of Christ. I don’t know why they made such an absurd claim. I get the impression from the report, their selling of it prior to the GA, and their defense of it afterwards that they were simply blinded by their love for the denomination. Maybe it was just hubris.)

And what are faithful Christians to do when our denomination turns into John’s vision of the church at Ephsesus, when the denomination that once persevered and endured hardships for Jesus’ name forsakes its first love and falls from its once-great height? (Revelation 2:3-5)

What are we to do when the PUP report tells to be like the church at Laodicea – neither hot nor cold but lukewarm – for the sake of superficial unity; when our money, property, influence, and prestige (all dwindling but still great) have blinded us the to the fact that the PCUSA is “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”? (Revelation 3:15-18) Should we love this human enterprise?

Again, in a word, no.

Perhaps those who believe that they can bring about renewal with their own efforts or who believe that God will yet do the job himself should persevere, but not for “love” of the PCUSA. To them I say, do it for love of the people who are being misled. Do it for love of the people who are being shown the wide way to destruction. Do it for the love of the one who is worthy of our love. These are persons worthy of love.

But here is the dilemma for the renewalists: Which is better? To try to protect the people from falling debris in case the building collapses? Or to get them to a safer place and just let the dilapidated old building go?

When I think about leaving and staying, my thoughts turn to a different metaphor. I imagine myself as a passenger on the Titanic. I imagine myself as part of a large family, scattered around in different cabins on different decks, some asleep, some running around looking after themselves, some paralyzed with fear.

I ask myself if this mighty ship has been irreparably damaged by its captain and crew. Is the damage so great that no human effort can save it? I imagine myself going below to examine the vast tear in the ship’s hull and asking God if he will somehow close the wound.

If I believe that the damage is beyond repair, that pride, arrogance, sin, and love for the world have doomed this ship to its deserved fate, what should I do? Proudly stay and go down with the ship? Tell my family to do the same? Tell them do decide for themselves?

Or should I try to round up as many as I can, tell them of the dangers, point to an available lifeboat, and implore them to board it with me? As an elder in the PCUSA, these are questions I cannot ignore. They are questions I cannot answer without discerning God’s will.

I can’t let the Titanic metaphor go without making this observation: It seems that to our captain, Clifton Kirkpatrick*, the anguish of the passengers is of no concern. He seems to want to hide the lifeboats and tell the passengers to either jump in the water or go down with the ship. All that matters is that they leave their possessions on board.

* Yes, I’ve demoted him from emperor to captain in successive postings.

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PCUSA: The return of the Jedi

Saturday, September 16th, 2006

After blowing up the planet Alderon with his secret weapon, the Death Star, Emperor Palpatine believed he had crushed the Rebel Alliance and imposed peace on the Galactic Empire. From his capital in Coruscant, Palpatine deployed his vast army of storm troppers to root out the remnant of the Alliance and consolidate his iron-fisted rule. But the Alliance came back even stronger as Jedi knights – long suppressed, persecuted and sometimes compromised by the Empire – came forth in the power of their ancient faith and defeated the Empire.

Now Jedi-like presbyteries are striking back against Emperor Clifton* and the empire wannabes in his capital of Louisville. After blowing up the constitution with their secret weapon, a phony Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108, the PUP task force and a compliant GA thought they had imposed peace too.

Their ploy of evading the process for altering the constitution seemed to have circumvented the presbyteries altogether. Armed with a pair of lawyers, Emperor Clifton has set out consolidate the PCUSA empire by acquiring either the loyalty or the property of every church and member. But he didn’t count on Presbyterian knights of the ancient and orthodox faith to rise up to oppose him.

All along, there have been members, churches, and organizations that have resisted the worldly drift of the PCUSA. But for the first time that I know of, administrative bodies of the church itself are defying the denomination’s imperial directivesCentral Florida and Sacramento have done so. Others (Whitewater Valley, Pittsburgh, Mississippi, even San Francisco) are being asked to seriously consider defiance. Still others have taken different approaches to saying to the PCUSA “enough is enough!”

It’s encouraging to see that the PCUSA empire has some cracks in its fortress. Blowing up the constitution was not the clean kill that blowing up Alderon seemed to be. Both empires were wrong about where the heart of their opponents lay and from where they drew their strength. But when we ponder the future of the PCUSA, does the Star Wars metaphore hold up?

A different end for this empire

I don’t think so. Courageous presbyteries are to be admired and supported. They can slow the empire’s onslaught and ease the pain for Presbyterians who stay, if only for a while. But even if Kirkpatrick were to be removed, the rot and corruption in Louisville are pervasive. The power and influence of the modernists and humanists are greater than even what Kirkpatrick imagines he can wield.

There is a fundamental structural flaw in the PCUSA, a flaw that seems to be common among all constitutional democracies of any size, of which the PCUSA and USA are both examples. These polities contain the seed of their own destruction – a complacent citizenry (whether members of the PCUSA or voters in the USA) that allows power to escape from its hands into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats at the highest level. With their own vested interests in mind and with the power to implement their personal ideals (which are often lofty in their own way), these powerful insiders lose sight of the original mission of the entity they lead.

When that happens, the constitution that was created to further the original mission becomes a hindrance to the current one and must be circumvented in any way possible. As constitutional democracies, the PCUSA and the USA provide eerily parallel examples of this flaw. The difference, of course, is that the mission of the USA was not given us by God and we are not accountable to him for its completion. (Interestingly, of all the PCUSA renewal organizations and denominational branches, the NWAC is the only group that has addressed this flaw.)

The PCUSA cannot be saved by human effort. It appears to me that God has turned his attention to faithful Presbyterian churches in Asia and the Global South. He seems to have given the job of renewing the American church to denominations and independent churches that remain faithful to him. Those are the places faithful Christians should be laboring. We should be following God, not imploring him to follow us.

The end of the PCUSA empire is not in defeat but in departure.

* Some commentators have likened the Stated Clerk to a pope, but I didn’t want to risk offending our Catholic brothers and sisters. It’s been a long time since a pope in Rome has behaved as reprehensibly as our emperor in Louisville.

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Christianity: What’s wrong with teaching creationism?

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

By “creationism” I don’t mean the fundamental truth that the universe was created from nothing by an intentional act of God. I accept this truth without reservation. I take “creationism” to mean a strictly literal interpretation of the seven days of creation described in Genesis 1:1-2:3. I would not dissuade anyone who embraces this understanding of the text. But teaching it as an irrefutable fact has long troubled me. Here are ten reasons why.

There is no Biblical command to teach creationism. Christians are called to make disciples, to baptize, to serve, to be obedient, to preach the gospel. Nowhere are Christians told to preach creationism.

The Bible does not itself claim to be a source of scientific truths. It reveals its spiritual purpose in many passages in both Old and New Testaments, but nowhere more clearly than in Paul’s words to Timothy: “… from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17, emphasis added) The Bible’s eternal significance is in the fact that it is God’s own witness to His son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not appear to attach any special importance to the seven days of creation. He referred often to the Old Testament in his teaching. Yet the only time he specifically mentioned creation was in the context of marriage when he referred (in Matthew 19:4-6) to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:5-25.

Focusing on the mechanics of creation diminishes the glory of God’s act of creation. The four most important words in the Bible may be the first four – “In the beginning, God”. God wants us to see that He himself existed before He created everything else. How He created everything else is insignificant compared to the fact that He did create everything else.

A 15 billion year-old universe takes nothing away from God or His work. Many Christians find the idea of God lingering over His creation for thousands of millions of years truly awe-inspiring. To know that God could create in an instant a universe that would explode into the vast expanse it is today, that He could foresee the ages which would yield exactly the product He intended, that He infused His reason, order, and laws into the material universe and that it has remained obedient to His commands ever since – to know these things is to know of an infinite God who is powerful and majestic beyond human comprehension.

Using the Bible to contradict science invites science to contradict the Bible. To say that any scientific principle lies at or near the foundation of our faith is to expose our entire faith to scientific evaluation and criticism. The Bible is full of scientific inaccuracies. Science’s complete exoneration of Galileo after the Church’s fanatical persecution of him probably did as much to undermine public faith in the Bible’s teachings as any event in the past thousand years. It produced the illusion that everything in the Bible can be disproven by scientific means.

To a seeking non-believer, creationism can be an impediment to faith. Many people appreciate the obvious utility and validity of science. Yet it is possible to show someone with an appreciation of science that the story of Jesus, if true, was an event so extraordinary as to be beyond the reach of science. For this person, belief may begin with an understanding that while Jesus’ story might have been a myth, there is no evidence that it actually was a myth. It could have happened. Science has no means of disproving the Biblical account of Jesus or of evaluating his eternal spiritual significance. An understanding and appreciation of science is not an impediment to faith in Christ.

So far, so good. But creationism goes on to demand that the hearer accept more than Jesus’ miraculous birth and resurrection and the plan of redemption these events fulfilled. He or she must also accept a story about creation that is directly contradicted by a large body of credible scientific evidence. This person can easily equate faith with myth and abandon it – not because of unwillingness to accept Jesus for who he is but because of unwillingness to accept a secondary, non-essential understanding of a passage at the beginning of Genesis. This is tragic. Nothing about Jesus – his person, his work, or his central role in salvation – is in any way dependent on the amount of time it took to create the universe. It is Jesus himself, not the story of creation, to which we are to be witnesses.

Creationism compels students to choose between school and Sunday school. If teachers and scientists are portrayed as foolish, ignorant or evil when it comes to the origin of the universe, why trust them at all? To be sure, students need to know that scientists sometimes overstep their bounds and attempt to answer spiritual questions. But they must also realize that the Bible does not address all human concerns and can be misapplied when its message of hope for salvation is taken out of context. Students need to be guided into the spiritual maturity necessary to evaluate claims made on both sides and to find the boundaries of such claims for themselves.

Creationism demonizes science. This produces mistrust, suspicion, and cynicism where there should be openness tempered with healthy skepticism. After all, science is not the invention of Satan. Science grew out of a deep and abiding faith that the God of the Bible created the universe and that it embodies His own characteristics of immutability and order. The last thing we need in an era of stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering is for Christians to withdraw from the debate because they cannot engage the scientific community.

Creationist dogma marginalizes Christians who accept the idea of an ancient universe. These Christians see much in modern scientific thought that validates the Bible’s account of God’s causative role in creation. Do they have an inferior faith? Do they love Jesus less? Insistence on one view or the other creates an artificial division in the body of Christ that must delight the Enemy. All Christians share a common belief in God the Creator of Heaven and Earth and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord. We can reasonably and lovingly disagree on how long God spent doing the creating.

I sometimes think that this is a disagreement that should never have escaped from the seminaries. But there is an opportunity as well. Jesus said that our unity will show the world that God sent him (John 17:22-23). Our unity is based on our common identity in Christ, not on our views of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Perhaps we Christians can show the world that despite our disagreements over the details, we are one in our love for Christ and for each other.

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