United Methodists Repeal Support for Roe v. Wade

This is great news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church yesterday. The UMC has repealed its forty year support for Roe v. Wade and for the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The UMC has never been as theologically “progressive” as other mainline denominations, but this sort of shift doesn’t happen by itself. It is the result of decades of hard work by faithful Methodists who never gave up on the denomination, despite all of its missteps over the years.

Conservative Christians often tell a narrative where denominations only decline, usually due to a leftward shift. It is a narrative of pessimistic resignation, one in which the only appropriate response to theological or ecclesiastical error is to split and start a new denomination. But Christ’s church remains Christ’s church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).

This is why unity, hope, fidelity, and hard work remain our call wherever God has placed us. Kudos to those Methodists who never gave up.

The Hypocrisy of the Christian Right

Never has the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Christian Right been on greater display. I think Pope Francis’s comments implicitly questioning the faith of Donald Trump were impetuous and misguided (and I think they have been misrepresented by the media somewhat as well). The pope has no business making off-the-cuff judgments about the faith of particular American presidential candidates based on their policy proposals.

But the rush of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham to defend Trump’s faith makes me want to gag. We can be sure they will regret it, far more than Jerry Falwell, Sr., regretted defending segregation, and far more than Billy Graham regretted his warm alliance with Richard Nixon.

Do not forget that Franklin Graham openly speculated that Barack Obama – who in my view has made a far more credible profession of faith than Donald Trump – is a Muslim. These are men who – like their fathers – have attached themselves at the hip to the Republican Party, dismissing various Democratic presidential candidates as godless liberals determined to wreck Christian America. And yet they are thoroughly enamored – Falwell is outright seduced – by a man far more likely to wreck this country than any Democratic candidate in recent years.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no conservative. And while he is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has openly bragged about his adulterous affairs, routinely slanders his opponents, and demagogically panders to the worst prejudices in an angry American public. Even more dangerous, he has routinely declared his intention to rule by executive order without regard to constitutional processes, as Senator Ben Sasse has vigorously pointed out. If you think President Obama’s unilateralism has threatened the constitutional order, get ready for far worse with a Republican President Donald Trump.

The blindness of many among the Christian Right is on display as they rush toward Trump as their savior while failing to grasp that he poses a far greater danger to the United States than any candidate in the Democratic Party (just read this comment thread). I sincerely hope Republicans can rally around an alternative before it is too late.

The Kingdom and Its Righteousness: Rightly Defining the Spirituality of the Church

Sean Michael Lucas’s fascinating book, For a Continuing Church, highlights in no uncertain terms the vital importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to the origins of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Next to the authority of Scripture, no other commitment played a more important role in forging the identity of the evangelical Presbyterians who established the PCA. These Presbyterians insisted that the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) had exchanged its spiritual mission of evangelization, summarized in the Great Commission’s call for the church to make and train disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), for the activism of the social gospel.

And yet, Lucas’s book also makes clear just how misleading these evangelical Presbyterians’ self-understanding was. For in point of fact, they were just as concerned about the social and political impact of Presbyterianism as were their progressive rivals, and just as likely to use their religious authority to argue against communism or racial integration as were their opponents to argue against the Vietnam War or segregation. As often as not, it seems, the spirituality of the church doctrine was invoked simply to shut down efforts that were deemed too progressive, only to leave the church free to proclaim the implications of Scripture for a conservative social worldview. In short, many of those who appealed to the doctrine interpreted it through the lens of their own reactionary politics rather than from the standpoint of the gospel of the “kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), biblically understood. The whole church, the right wing as well as the left, was all too politicized.

Read the rest of this article at Reformation 21.

Interview About Calvin Seminary Appointment With Glenda Mathes

At her blog Glenda Mathes has kindly posted her interview with me, which appeared in the August issue of Christian Renewal, following my appointment as assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary. Glenda concludes the article with my comment on the need for a fresh vision for faithful Christian witness:

We need a vision for faithful Christian witness that is thoroughly Reformed and evangelical. Given the times in which we live, faithfulness will require a greater willingness to be conformed to Christ in his suffering. Standing for the faith, for love, and for justice in conformity to God’s will for his creation is going to be costly. We need to have a clear understanding of the gospel, and we need to recover a clear understanding of what is means for the church to be the church—in preaching, the sacraments, discipline, and the diaconate.

You can read the whole piece here.

Trump, Cruz, and the Politicization of the Gospel

At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”

What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.

Mouw writes,

Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.

Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”

Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.

You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece here.

Following Jesus in Every Area of Life

In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society – the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament’s version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an “ethics from below,” how are we to implement it when we need an “ethics from above”? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ in to a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.

I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament’s basic principles.

I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament’s ethic – the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve – must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?

Read the rest of this article here, at Reformation 21. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Death and Resurrection with Christ

In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the prominent attention the New Testament gives to the call to Christians to imitate Christ. I introduced this theme as the first step in defending my thesis that the central paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics) in the New Testament is union with and conformity to Jesus Christ, in whom all of God’s purposes for creation are fulfilled. Here in Part 2 I want to argue that the imitation of Christ should be understood as the practical outworking of the Christian’s obligation to be conformed to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is, of course, the Apostle Paul whose writings most clearly emphasize the decisive significance of the Christian’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. What I want to emphasize here, following the Heidelberg Catechism, is that Paul consistently makes the believer’s union with Christ the paradigm for his instruction regarding the Christian life… The driving theme of his exhortation is not a return to the law; it is conformity to Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled.

To read the rest of this article, the second part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue here at Reformation 21.

What Would Jesus Do? The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.

Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.

To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.

Pope Francis and the Need for Christian Political Liberalism

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.

This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”

Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”

There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,

Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.

The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.

[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.

Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”

Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”

These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.

I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.

Pope Francis Fails to Mention Jesus Before Congress

If the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter were given the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress, do you think they would mention the name of Jesus? Pope Francis allegedly occupies the place of St. Peter, the bishopric of Rome. Though often introduced as the “leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics,” his primary claim is to be the vicar of Jesus Christ. And yet the pope did not find it necessary to name the name of Jesus when he addressed Congress yesterday (transcript here; Nor did he mention Jesus’ name when speaking at the White House reception on Wednesday).

I am not the sort of person to be instinctively critical of Pope Francis, and I have praised his work before. Indeed, I largely agree with what he said in his speech about the importance of hospitality to the immigrant, care for the environment, justice for the poor, the protection of life, and the nurture of families. But I cannot get my mind around the fact that he mentioned all of this without saying why any of it matters. He did not even mention the name Jesus, or Christ, let alone say anything about Jesus’ death, resurrection, or future return.

Some of my Catholic friends are concerned about this too, and rightly so. Is Francis not as committed to the “new evangelization” as we had hoped?

Pope Francis has the attention of virtually the entire United States right now. The media is covering every word, every act, every moment of his visit. And what is the media talking about? Politics. Whether the pope’s comments benefit the right or the left, whether he’s helping Republicans or Democrats. No one, it would seem, cares much about the substance of the pope’s faith regarding Jesus. And why should they? The pope hasn’t mentioned Jesus, so Jesus must not be an important part of the pope’s message to America.

An atheist friend enthusiastically wrote on Facebook yesterday, “I am an atheist, and I love this Pope!” A writer for the Huffington Post happily declares that America has a “man crush” on Pope Francis. All people are speaking well of him.

There was a time when Jesus warned his disciples that such favorable reception on the part of “all men” is not a good sign (Luke 6:26). He warned them that the world would treat those who speak Jesus’ message as it treated Jesus himself (Matthew 5:11; 24:9). Prepared for this, the disciples insisted on doing everything that they did “in the name of Jesus,” using every opportunity, even when confronted by those in authority, to proclaim the good news of his death, resurrection, and future return. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).

The disciples’ opponents didn’t mind the good works, the acts of healing, the care for the poor. What bothered them was that the disciples were doing these things “in the name of Jesus.” As we read in Acts 4:18, the authorities permitted the disciples to carry out their ministry but “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” Peter’s response was that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). When it became apparent that the disciples were more than willing to defy the authorities, they were arrested again. The council reminded them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name” (5:28). What did Peter say? “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).

This was precisely the point of conflict that cost the disciples their freedom and eventually their lives. Even when prohibited from speaking the name of Jesus on penalty of imprisonment, torture, and death, they insisted that this was fundamental to their basic witness.

Yet in the land that the Pope himself described as the home of the free and the brave, to enthusiastic applause, he cannot find it in himself to even mention Jesus’ name.

This was the first time a pope has ever addressed a joint session of Congress, and Francis is a very popular pope. He has the ear of the country.

He didn’t have to beat the heads of Congress with a jeremiad. He didn’t have to get theological or even evangelistic. He didn’t have to highlight any particular moral or political issue. He was more than justified in being, as Jesus put it, as crafty as a serpent and as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16).

But he could have, at the very least, reminded his audience that he speaks for Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us, died, and rose again, that human beings might have life in his name. He could have winsomely described that hope in just a few sentences, as we know he has done so eloquently before, before moving on to other matters appropriate for a joint session of Congress. No one would have questioned it. He is, after all, the pope, whose most basic claim is to be the vicar of Christ on earth.

Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity.

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