Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bloomberg’s Nanny State

According to today’s story in the New York Times,

New York City plans to enact a far-reaching ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts, in the most ambitious effort yet by the Bloomberg administration to combat rising obesity.

The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.

Welcome to the nanny state. Have whatever kind of marriage you want, destroy your fellow citizen’s marriage in any way you find amusing, kill the child within your womb if it strikes your fancy, but please don’t purchase a soda of more than 16 fluid ounces. For the same of the common good. For the good of the commonwealth.

According to the old proverb the need for many laws is directly proportional to the lack of virtue among the people. The view of the founding fathers that a government of freedom by the people depends on the virtue of the citizens is so well-known as to be a cliche.

But really, what do you do here? After all, we have a serious problem.

In New York City, where more than half of adults are obese or overweight, Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner, blames sweetened drinks for up to half of the increase in city obesity rates over the last 30 years.

Don’t forget that the trend in this country is toward government-subsidized health care. I don’t know the statistics for New York, but I suspect hundreds of thousands of the city’s citizens are already fully insured by Medicaid. And New York, unlike most cities, likes to do things. At least so says Mayor Bloomberg:

“New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” he said. “I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

So is this really what Americans want? Do we all agree that government should not legislate morality in any way, shape or form, let alone try to promote virtue within the populace? Do we prefer government to limit our choices rather than to be forced to choose well? Should government pay for all the health costs that arise when we don’t make those choices wisely? If so, is it really so bizarre for government to tell us how to eat?

I’m really not sure how the broader public would answer these questions. But it strikes me that the real lesson of this story, in light of other high-profile controversies of the past few months, is that as Americans we are entirely confused about what government is for and what it is supposed to do. That confusion, of course, is directly related to our view of ourselves. Augustine said that those who love themselves above all use the goods of this world in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with true justice. I’m not sure what he would have thought about the American experiment of self-government. But I doubt he would have been entirely surprised at some of its silliness.

Patience with the Next Generation: passing on a tradition without bitterness

When I was a boy, my father, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), consistently taught my siblings and me always to ask why we do what we do in church. Never accept as a reason for doing something that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” To be Reformed was not to be traditional or conservative. It was to be biblical. To be sure, we were taught that our Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort are faithful expositions of Scripture. But we were never told we could not question those confessions, or probe whether or not they were truly biblical. We were allowed to argue, to debate, and to claim the confessions not on the basis of the authority of our parents or our church, but because we were convinced that they were biblical.

In contrast to my father, I have known many people who grew up in homes were questioning and argumentation were not tolerated. Signs of push-back from the young people were interpreted as rebellion. Changes of conviction on practical or controversial issues were viewed as betrayal. The CRC of the mid-twentieth century was a bastion of conservative Reformed Christianity, and it was all too easy for the conservatives to look with anger and frustration on the rising generation that questioned old traditions. Trust and dialog gave way to bitterness and politics. The very dogmatism and rigidity that made the CRC look so Reformed made its rapid slide into liberal evangelicalism utterly breathtaking. In many instances, the younger generation simply threw off the conservatism of the older. They could see that being conservative was not the same thing as being Christian.

This overgeneralizing account of what went on in the CRC is not historical and it is not the only factor in what happened. I’m not trying to offer any sort of definitive interpretation. I’m simply pointing out one part of the story, a part that Reformed Christians need to think about and to think about deeply.

I have now been living in PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) circles for 11 years (my whole adult life) and I have attended PCA churches for the balance of that time. My first and most formative pastoral internship was at a historic, rural PCA church that was being wisely and carefully transformed through the ministry of Don Clements. There I met many people who had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, or married into it, but had no clue what it meant to be Reformed. They had never been taught, and they had never been exposed to consistent biblical preaching. When they were taught Reformed theology from Scripture (rather than from tradition or simply from a confession) they ate it up eagerly. Thanks in large part to Don’s hard work, the church is now a thriving Reformed church.

During my time in the PCA, however, I have grown concerned about two dangerous trends. On the one hand, it has become far too ordinary of an experience for me to visit a PCA church – whether traditional or contemporary in style – and be disappointed by the quality (and quantity) of the preaching. The emphasis in worship, in many of these cases, has shifted to congregational singing or choral presentations, much of which is as thin in Scriptural content as is the preaching. In one instance (in a traditional church) a pastor even decided to preach on Pilgrim’s Progress rather than Scripture.

On the other hand, I have been very disappointed with the quality of teaching on worship itself. Far too often, it seems, “traditionalists” merely complain (or vent) about the trends in the church away from the confessions, or from the Directory of Public Worship. Rather than lovingly and laboriously returning to Scripture and making a clear New Testament case for what Christian worship should look like, we have to listen to complaints about “rebellious” trends such as support for women deaconesses, social outreach by the church, or things like “intinction.” Indeed, we are told, those who push these causes are not concerned about Scripture at all. They are simply rebels wanting to parrot our culture. They should just leave the PCA.

This is terribly unhealthy for any denomination. Trust and solidarity seems to be breaking down. Progressives view traditionalists as committed to a tradition rather than to Scripture, and traditionalists view progressives as informed by the culture rather than the Bible. Neither side seems willing to do the hard exegetical and biblical-theological work of lovingly persuading the other (or of taking the arguments of the other seriously).

It is not that the Scriptural case for Reformed worship is difficult to make. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul points out that the problem with the worship of the world (and much of the worship of the church) is that it is shaped by worldly or fleshly instincts about how to please God. In other words, it focuses on the use of external or physical practices and circumstances that pander to human desires rather than on Jesus Christ. Why, Paul argues, if you have died to this world in Christ, do you still pander to its thinking about worship? Why do you still follow Old Testament instructions? Instead you should hold fast to Christ, and let him grow you. What are the means by which he grows you? As Ephesians 4 clearly tells us, they are those associated with the ministry of the gospel, that is, the preaching and teaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments. Everything else that we do in worship is simply our testimony to God’s work of growing us by taking his own word upon our lips (in prayer or song) or sharing his gifts with one another.

There are some voices out there pointing us back to this sort of ministry. At his thoughtful and helpful blog The Reformed ReaderShane Lems points us to letters by the 18th Century English pastor John Newton demonstrating just how concerned Newton was to get his parishioners to hear his preaching, and how hard he tried to communicate to them nothing but the clarity of Christ’s word.

I have done my best to avoid whatever might give you needless offense.  I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers would be displeased.  But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been careful not to needlessly provoke you, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties in your way.

I am not a polished orator nor do I wish to capture your attention by the elegance of my words.  If I had the ability to use elegant words and capture your attention with them, I would not do it.  I speak to the unlearned and the wise, so my principal aim is to be understood.  Yet I hope that I am not wrongly charged with speaking nonsense, with flippancy, carelessness, or disrespect.  But alas! There are too many hearers who seem more desirous of entertainment than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!

If the vocal traditionalists who so often complain about those ruining the PCA would display this spirit and devotion to faithfully and lovingly explaining Scripture it would do a world of good for the conversation. Derek Thomas offers a helpful example in a recent piece on worship. I wish that Thomas would be more clear about the unique authority of the New Testament as opposed to the Old, but that aside Thomas’s emphasis is refreshing.

Of particular significance are Paul’s responses to errant public worship at Colossae and Corinth. At one point, Paul characterizes the public worship in Colossae as ethelothreskia (Col. 2:23), variously translated as “will worship” (KJV) or “self-made religion” (ESV). The Colossians had introduced elements that were clearly unacceptable (even if they were claiming an angelic source for their actions — one possible interpretation of Col. 2:18, the “worship of angels”). Perhaps it is in the Corinthian use (abuse) of tongues and prophecy that we find the clearest indication of the apostle’s willingness to “regulate” corporate worship. He regulates both the number and order of the use of spiritual gifts in a way that does not apply to “all of life”: no tongue is to be employed without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27–28) and only two or three prophets may speak, in turn (vv. 29–32). At the very least, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians underlines that corporate worship is to be regulated and in a manner that applies differently from that which is to be true for all of life.

The health of any church depends on both the authority and teaching of Scripture and on a spirit of loving patience and careful communication. No part of the church can say to another, “I have no need of you.” We need the next generation with all its questions and challenges, even if it sometimes strikes us as rebellious. After all, you cannot pass on a tradition with bitterness. Loving patience, the hard work of persuasion based on Scripture, and a willingness even to see the tradition itself corrected is the only way forward.

Calvin on the Church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom: getting the two kingdoms doctrine right

One of the misconceptions about Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine I occasionally encounter is the idea that Calvin viewed the government of the church (and indeed, the whole visible church) as part of the political kingdom rather than as part of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. This is a somewhat surprising reading of Calvin that suggests a conflation of his views with those of Martin Luther rather than a close reading of the Institutes or of Calvin’s commentaries (although, of course, Luther also worked out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of two governments). Part of the confusion is the result of the fact that people fail to realize that for Calvin the kingdom of Christ proclaimed in the gospels is a spiritual kingdom. I showed how Calvin defines that kingdom in a previous post. For now it is crucial to note that in Calvin’s two kingdoms distinction the “spiritual kingdom” is the kingdom of Christ proper, while the “political kingdom” is a product of God’s providential rule. The latter, as I noted, can submit to and promote the kingdom of Christ, but it does not become that kingdom. That’s why Calvin consistently identifies his kingdom with the church or with the ministry of the gospel.

Calvin introduces the two kingdoms distinction with the following words:

let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life – not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. (3.19.15)

Now it is quite evident that when Calvin refers to the spiritual kingdom he does not mean that this government is unmediated by human beings. Rather, what he means is that this government has power to shape the “inner mind,” thus affecting the welfare of the soul for eternity. This is clearly the contrast that he has in view when he writes, “For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.” The comparison is not between unmediated authority and mediated authority; it is between government that can touch the soul, and government that can only touch the body. It is a distinction between government by the Word and Spirit, and government by the sword.

It is also crucial to note that when Calvin distinguishes what pertains to piety and the soul from what pertains to the body and life in this world he is not making the two kingdoms distinction a separation of two realms, as some theories might suggest. Rather, contrasting the heavenly with the earthly, the soul with the body, and the spiritual with the temporal is Calvin’s ordinary way of distinguishing between the two ages. The earthly, the bodily, and the temporal pertain to the “present age” while the heavenly, the soul, and the spiritual pertain to the age to come (i.e., the kingdom of Christ). The very reason for the two kingdoms doctrine is that the kingdom of the age to come breaks into the present age through Christ’s spiritual government. It’s institutional expression is in the ministry and offices of the church.

In fact, Calvin tells us explicitly that when he distinguishes between the two kingdoms he is not breaking with the medieval tradition of distinguishing between the two kinds of institutional jurisdiction. As he notes, the twofold governments “are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction.” As the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin is invoking the language of the thirteenth century debates over papal claims to the fullness of power in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Calvin notes that he likes this classic way of making the distinction because it indicates that political government pertains only to “the present life,” while the latter pertains to the eternal soul. To be sure, Calvin intends to reform the classic understanding by clarifying the nature of spiritual government as that which operates by the power of the Word and Spirit alone. He utterly rejects the claim that the church possesses temporal power. But this does not mean he thinks civil government possesses spiritual power. Emphasizing the distinction between the two will form the heart of Calvin’s critique of the Catholic view of ecclesiastical government throughout Book IV, and it was a basic theme of his ministry in his struggle with the city government of Geneva to establish an autonomous church government with independent spiritual offices.

Finally, it is crucial to see that Calvin insists from the start that the two kingdoms or governments must be considered separately. “Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other.” (3.19.15) This leads us to expect that in the coming pages we will find a discussion of church government separate from that of civil government. And in fact, that is precisely what Calvin tells us he is doing in Book IV, and that is precisely what we find there.

In three places Calvin tells us what he is doing in Book IV, and it is consistent with his declaration that the two kingdoms must be examined separately. First, at the end of his introduction of the two kingdoms doctrine in 3.19.15 he informs us that he will speak of civil government in “another place.” Then he adds that he will “also … forebear” to speak of “church laws” until Book IV, where he will discuss the “power of the church.” Clearly Calvin is distinguishing between the government of the church and civil government, both of which he will discuss in Book IV.

Second, in 4.1.1, as the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin outlines Book IV: “Accordingly, our plan of instruction now requires us to discuss the church, its government, orders, and power; then the sacraments; and lastly, the civil order.” So here again, we are told to expect the discussion of the church, its offices, its discipline, and the sacraments separately from civil government, or the civil order. And this seems to line up nicely with the two kingdoms distinction.

Finally, in case we are still not clear on what he is doing, in 4.20.1, at the beginning of his discussion of civil government, Calvin sums up what he has done up to this point and what he is about to do, explicitly invoking his earlier two kingdoms discussion. He writes, “Now, since we have established above that man is under a twofold government, and since we have elsewhere discussed at sufficient length the kind that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life, this is the place to say something also about the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality.” In other words, Calvin views all of the precedeing discussion about church government, its offices, its discipline, and its worship as the government “that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life.” In contrast, he is beginning his discussion of the other kingdom, which pertains to civil justice and outward morality, only in “this … place” in Chapter 20. The entire outline of Book IV, in short, is built on the two kingdoms distinction.

It is quite clear that Calvin viewed the ministry of the church and the civil government as the institutional expressions of the twofold government in human beings. Indeed, over and over one finds Calvin identifying the kingdom of Christ with the church, or with the preaching of the gospel. In the next post on Calvin I’ll look a little more closely on how Calvin works out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of the specific ministry and government of the church.

Richard Land, respected warrior of the Christian Right

The Tennessean has an excellent article out on Richard Land discussing the investigation of Land’s controversial remarks on the Trayvon Martin shooting as well as his confession of having been guilty of plagiarism on his radio show Richard Land Live! Land has been a crucial figure in contemporary Christian public theology for the past few decades. He has far more influence among most Christians (and with the media) than does anyone in the Reformed world. Lest we be distracted to the point of obscurity by our own petty in-house debates, we should pay attention to Richard Land.

Land, as the article points out, is a warrior for the Christian Right, closely identified with the Republican Party, even as he has degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He understands how to engage liberalism and academia in a thoughtful and friendly way, and so he holds grudging respect from many in the academy and the media. Indeed, Senator Joe Lieberman, recent Democratic nominee for vice-president, wrote the Forward to Land’s latest book, The Divided States of America. While Land takes traditional conservative positions on matters of sexuality, abortion, the size of government, and taxation, he has also been a leading figure in more liberal causes like immigration reform and racial reconciliation. Land strongly defends the Baptist tradition of the separation of church and state and was critical of Alabama Judge Roy Moore for defying authority by refusing to take down his display of the Ten Commandments.

What makes Land so interesting is his view of America and the church’s role in America. Land believes America was an essentially godly nation before the 1960s hit, and he argues that many of the problems our country faces today are a direct result of the turn away from God since that time. He wrote a whole book explaining how the famous promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”) continues to apply to America. As he put it in that book, “In this passage God defines the conditions for His blessing on any nation – the people of God must get right with Him.” (xii) God is waiting for his people to turn to him, and if a sufficient number of people do that with a sufficient degree of piety and faith, they will reach a “divine tipping-point” at which time God will pour out his blessing on their land. “God has already established the conditions under which He will bless America, and what that America would look like. This primary Scripture passage provides a blueprint for restoration of a nation.”(13)

Land wrote a sequel to that book explaining “how it could happen and what it would look like,” urging Christians to take up their tasks of cultural engagement in order to bring about a God-blessed America.

Let us refuse to leave the future of this country to those who dream impossible dreams of man-made utopias. Let us refuse to settle for merely ‘Christian’ dreams, which never rise above wishful thinking, while we wring our hands and tsk our tongues over how much worse things will get before Christ returns. Let us commit ourselves to a vision of humbling ourselves, praying, seeking God’s face, and turning from our wicked ways … a vision of what our country might become if the blessing of God Almighty began to turn the tide. (xiii)

Land pounds his readers with the warning that it is our own fault if this does not occur. “But if we don’t envision it, it won’t happen. And it won’t happen unless individual people of faith commit themselves to living godly lives.” (5)

Land, it is crucial to remember, is not just a thoughtful Christian employed by a think tank or university. He is a minister of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). His office is to speak for the church, and under his leadership the ERLC urges Southern Baptists to vote their values by rejecting policies like Obamacare, or Cap and Trade. If you think the church should apply Scripture to policy and politics in concrete and practical ways, Richard Land is your man.

Any man with the influence and prestige of Richard Land will create many enemies. And in recent months those enemies have struck, accusing Land of racism and plagiarism. It is no accident that these are charges that hold most power among the mainstream media and among academic elites. As the Tennessean quotes one critic,

[Robert] Parham thinks Land is more a Republican activist than a Christian leader. He said Land’s influence among Baptists is waning.

“I don’t see Land as influential among rank-and-file Southern Baptists, not as a mega-church preacher or a seminary president would be,” he said. “His main constituency is probably the media, which given the media’s aversion to plagiarism ought to be a major problem for him.”

While it is true that Land does not speak for all Southern Baptists, and while it is true that the media probably enhances his influence and prestige because of its own fascination with him, Land nevertheless does speak for massive numbers of Evangelical Christians in this country. That’s precisely why his enemies want him removed.

Not all of Land’s opponents are liberals, however. Some recognize that there is something inherently problematic about having one man speak for a whole denomination in such concrete political ways.

The Rev. James Porch, former head of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, believes it’s time for Land to go — and not just because of the current controversy. He believes that for many people, Land has become the face and voice of the Southern Baptist Convention. But no one person speaks for Baptists, he said.

“Any time someone tries to speak for the denomination, they have exceeded their authority,” he said. “It’s a violation of Baptist polity.”

What happens to Land in the next few months is a crucial story to watch, not so much because of what it says about Land, but because what it says about what kind of denomination the Southern Baptist Convention wants to be. Given that it is the largest Protestant denomination in America, and a conservative Evangelical one at that, we should pay close attention.

Ponzi Schemes and Public Pension Funds: The Reckoning is Coming

Talk about Ponzi schemes. The New York Times published an excellent article yesterday on the terrible state of public pension funds across the country.

While Americans are typically earning less than 1 percent interest on their savings accounts and watching their 401(k) balances yo-yo along with the stock market, most public pension funds are still betting they will earn annual returns of 7 to 8 percent over the long haul, a practice that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently called “indefensible.”

Now public pension funds across the country are facing a painful reckoning.

Local governments across the United States are something like $3 trillion short based on pensions and similar long-term commitments. Programs established based on the false assumption that the market would always perform at a high level are discovering that they have to choose between breaking those promises and pillaging the other services of government to pay them. But the first step in the process is honesty and openness about the dire state of affairs. And it turns out, that step may also be the most difficult:

Public retirement systems from Alaska to Maine are running into the same dilemma as they struggle to lower their assumed rates of return in light of very low interest rates and unpredictable stock prices.

They are facing opposition from public-sector unions, which fear that increased pension costs to taxpayers will further feed the push to cut retirement benefits for public workers.

Yes, there is an interest group here, and it is a powerful one. It just so happens that it is made up of the people who run our governments. And they do not want government to adjust its “laughable” and “absolutely hysterical” (Bloomberg’s terms) estimates of return because this will wake up the public to the real costs of these programs. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted this problem a long time ago. Thankfully, in states like Wisconsin the public-sector unions have discovered that for all the support of the mainstream media for their cause, the broader public gets what’s at stake. Governor Walker will probably win reelection on the back of his public sector reforms despite the best efforts of the unions to defeat him.

Walter Russell Mead continues to offer his excellent yet pragmatic analysis:

We’ve been warning readers for some time at Via Meadia that the politicians and union leaders in this country have been engaged in a systemic lie of epic proportions. How big and ugly is the lie?

Very. Private pension funds assume a standard of 4.8 percent return on their pension funds. As the Times notes, governments also use various tricky accounting loopholes not available to private companies to hide their liabilities. As far as we can make out at Via Meadia, if you tried to run a private pension fund the way unions and government-appointed trustees run public ones, you could go to jail for fraud.

But while lies can win elections, they can’t pay bills, and as the unsustainable commitments to municipal and state pensions come due, services will be cuts, taxes raised and benefits to retirees will be slashed as reality sets in.

America is fortunate enough to be able to watch the example of what happens when we avoid reality play out before our very eyes.

Today we are seeing what happens when Big Lies come unglued: all over Europe people who believed those sweet delicious stories politicians told them about their pensions and their futures are waking up to one horrible shock after another. Somehow we’ve come to the point in this country also where it’s considered “liberal” and “progressive” to lie like rats to the voters and to government workers about how solid their futures are.

Where there is denial about the problem, however, it is not the government employees or the middle class who will suffer most. It is precisely those that a liberal safety net is designed to protect.

Listen up, blues. The mother of all wedge issues is knocking on your door: when the pension crunch comes, who will you throw to the wolves: the retirees, the unions and the producers of government services — or the schoolchildren, the poor and the consumers of government services?

We should care about this not primarily as an instance of the age-old American struggle between the right and the left, but because when things go bad, it is the poor and the weak – not the guilty – who are likely to suffer most. We can all pad our coffers as much as we want, but when the bill comes due and we are left with our false promises and commitments, we are accountable not only for our lies and our abuses, but for all the tragic effects that bankruptcy and default brings upon those who can afford it least. These are the people government was ordained to protect. As citizens, it is our responsible to keep it accountable.

Memorial Day

Since 1775 approximately 1.4 million American soldiers have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Not all American wars have been just, but all have contributed to the stability and prosperity that we enjoy today. Memorial Day is not ultimately about American nationalism. It is about remembering that peace, order, and freedom always come at a terrible price. Human beings are violent and human beings are brutal, and someone has to bear the sword to keep the rest of us (and the rest of “them”) in check.

Being a soldier is a profoundly difficult occupation, especially for a Christian. The early church generally prohibited Christians from serving as soldiers because it found that the vocation was simply too compromising for those committed to following the example and virtue of Christ. For most of church history, however, Christians have followed the cue of the New Testament and rightly recognized that a person can serve Christ as a soldier.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy. From my conversations with veterans I have learned that fighting your enemy while struggling to conform to the image of Christ is a form of suffering greater than virtually any other. Most entirely give up the struggle. One soldier told me that to love your enemy while shooting him is impossible. Another told me that when he is involved in combat he places the virtue of Christ as far from his mind as possible and focuses on the example of David.

There are many soldiers, however, who seek to walk in Christ and take up his cross even as they serve their country by bearing the sword. We need to pray for these men and women, showing our support for them not simply with rah rah American patriotism, but with the love and strength of the gospel of Christ. They place themselves in harm’s way, both physically and spiritually, on a regular basis, and they do it in loving service for their neighbors. For the soldiers that have died, we need to remember just how much they have given up for us. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Why Christian Worship is Different: the body of Christ

Today I have the privilege of preaching at two different churches. In the morning I will be preaching on Romans 6:1-11 at Brookwood Presbyterian Church in Snellville, Georiga. In the evening I’ll be at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Georgia, preaching on Colossians 2:16-23.

Colossians is a remarkable book. Paul keeps pounding the same theme over and over, that everything that could possibly matter to human beings is caught up with Christ, that he is the fullness of God in whom is found all wisdom and knowledge. There is no reason to look anywhere else for anything else, because all things in heaven and on earth exist in him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out in his Ethics, to view anything in creation apart from its relation to Christ is to view an abstraction. Apart from Christ, it has no real existence.

The problem with human religion – wherever it is found in the world – is that it always tries to transcend the human and the worldly by means of the human and the worldly. Human beings practice asceticism or mystical contemplation, they fix their minds on imagery or symbolism, and they play musical instruments or burn incense to somehow conjure up an experience of the divine. Yet none of this has any effect because what is from this world cannot transcend this world. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor can what is perishable inherit what is imperishable. You cannot get to what is substantial from what is abstract. The worship experiences conjured up by those whose worship does not transcend flesh and blood are nothing more than abstractions. They are not real. They have no future.

Why is Christianity different? It is not the abstraction of a human invention. The object of Christian worship is the body of Jesus, in whom all things exist (Col 2:7; 1:17). In his body Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly, by giving up his body he paid the ultimate sacrifice, and with his body he arose from the dead, having conquered and transcended this world of sin and death. In short, he accomplished what no human worship can accomplish and in so doing he inaugurated the new heavens and the new earth. Christian worship is different because it consists of holding fast to this Jesus, and so following him in all that he did.

What does this look like in practice? Our only distinctive ceremonies are the Lord’s Supper and baptism, in both of which we testify to our union with the body of Christ. The focus of what we do is to hear and accept our Lord’s word to us, conveyed by the ministers he has appointed. Our only necessary response is to call upon his name by taking the word of Christ upon our own lips, in song and in prayer, and to share the gifts he has given us with one another. Nothing else really matters. Theologians have called this the Regulative Principle of Worship. Paul calls it holding fast to Christ.

Christian worship is different because whereas human beings rely on all sorts of fleshly practices to transcend this fleshly world, you cannot transcend flesh with flesh. You cannot get from death to life by means of things that die. Only by holding fast to the one who has gone before us and died to this world can we be raised up to life everlasting.

The PCA Needs to Stop Letting Culture Dictate Its Practice: We’ve been here before and it wasn’t pretty

There has been a vigorous debate on Wes White’s blog regarding whether or not establishing the office of deaconess (or placing women in the office of deacon) would push the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) down the same slippery slope followed by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). For those not aware of the history, the CRC voted to allow deaconesses in 1984, with the idea that the change was to hold no implications for the ordination of women to the offices of pastor and elder. Eventually, however, the CRC opened all of its offices to women, and the denomination has become increasingly liberal in recent years. Once a bastion of the confessional Reformed world, it is now moderately Evangelical at best.

The question is whether this path is inevitable for those who ordain women to the office of deacon. As one pastor writes,

When I was a pastor in Holland, I observed how the Reformed Church (GKN) began by allowing female deacons. They asserted that that was all they really wanted. A few years later, they got female elders; another few years and they had female pastors. From there they got male and female homosexual pastors. I really don’t care what name you give it (slippery slope; domino theory) there does seem to be an element of truth in the process.

Deaconesses is still around and some PCA pastors have a huge ethical dilemma by refusing to conform to PCA standards on this point. Now we have intinction and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Can we not discern a slip towards the slope? We need to ask ourselves who the main players are in these movements. I submit that it is basically the same people every time.

Of course, others point out that there is solid precedence for ordaining women to the office of deacon within the Reformed tradition. Advocates point to John Calvin as well as to modern denominations like the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The latter can hardly be considered a liberal denomination. It prohibits instruments in worship and demands that its congregations practice exclusive psalmody. Many of its women wear head coverings, but the denomination also ordains women to the office of deacon.

Now my concern here is not to defend one side or the other in the debate over whether or not the PCA should ordain women as deacons. What worries me is the tendency of conservatives within the PCA to argue that this issue should not be addressed as an exegetical issue but as a cultural issue. In other words, while it may have been legitimate for the RPCNA and the ARP to ordain women to the office of deacon, and while Calvin may have been right to see some sort of public office of ministry in the church open to women, in our context of feminism and liberalism today, we should not take these steps.

With all due respect for my fathers in the faith who have observed and experienced with pain the decline of the CRC, allowing culture to provide our cues for how to handle theological, ecclesiastical, or moral problems is just as dangerous of a path as is liberalism. It is built on the assumption that the only real danger facing the church comes from the left, as if there are no dangers coming from the right. It implicitly suggests that Jesus’ kingship over the church should be set aside for the more important struggle of preserving America’s culture. And it has historically been a disastrous path.

It is not hard to find an obvious example for this. During the 1960s the conservative wing of the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), out of which the PCA arose in 1973, was battling a liberalism within the denomination that threatened to lead the PCUS down the same liberal path once taken by the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) earlier in the century. Liberals were pushing an egalitarian agenda that clearly compromised the authority of the church and that was more in tune with the politics of the 60s’ New Left than with historic Christianity. The problem was, they were right on perhaps the hottest issue of the day: racism.

The cultural conflict over racial integration had immediate practical implications for Presbyterian churches. Should the churches allow blacks as members, or even as pastors? Should they condemn the social reality of racism all around them? Many, many conservatives within the PCUS believed that the lessons of history and culture were obvious. It was the liberals who were pushing racial integration, the same people who destroyed the Mainline churches of the North. Everyone knew what these people wanted to do with the church, and the examples of other churches that had gone down that slippery slope were clear. This was not an issue about Scripture or even about justice. This was a matter of preserving the church from liberalism.

Cultural concerns like this shaped the founding of the PCA just as much as did a desire to be confessionally Reformed. While the denomination has repented of the racism in its past, it is still deeply shaped by the forces of cultural conservatism in a way that the other denominations of NAPARC are not. This creates reactionary tendencies on both ends of the cultural spectrum. Those ashamed of the sins of cultural conservatism tend to push a progressive agenda that seems only partially grounded in Scripture. Those worried about the liberal slide reject anything progressive regardless of its biblical merits.

If the PCA is to learn from the sins of the past, it needs to recognize that culture cannot dictate the church’s worship and life. If Scripture is truly authoritative and if Scripture suggests the church should recognize an order of women deacons, it does not matter at all that this has become a point of conflict in the culture wars. Indeed, the very integrity of the church demands that the church take the unpopular position of standing with Scripture rather than with conservative culture.

There are many people in this country who dismiss the claims of conservative Christian churches to stand on the authority of Scripture because they find those churches to be culturally selective in their use of Scripture. Many of these people – thoughtful Christians – simply become cynical. They turn away from those churches because they want nothing to do with a politicized gospel.

The gospel can be destroyed by cultural conservatism just as easily as it can be destroyed by cultural liberalism. Racism has driven just as many from Christianity as has feminism. That’s why we need to learn to trust Christ and allow him to be the king of the church. Our own cultural perceptions are influenced by worldly philosophy and our own sin. We need to choose whether Scripture or culture will be our guide.

More Basic than the Culture Wars: when communities collapse

In a recent article on his Via Media blog, Walter Russell Mead highlights a development getting little attention in the mainstream media: the collapse of the once great city of Detroit amid decades of economic transition, incompetent management, and corrupt government.

The latest scandal, which leaves even hardened observers of the abysmal Democratic machine that has run the city into the ground bemused, involves a real estate firm which gave the felonious mayor massages, golf outings, trips in chartered jets and other perks as this enemy of the people went about his hypocritical business of pretending to care about the poor while robbing them blind. The firm, apparently run by a sleazy low class crook named by the reprehensible Kilpatrick to be the Treasurer of what was left of Detroit’s finances, used Detroit pension funds to buy a couple of California strip malls. Title to the properties was never transferred to the pension funds, and they seem to be out $3.1 million.

Mead wonders why this story has received so little attention.

I honestly don’t know why there is so little national outrage about this despicable crew and the terrible damage they have done. The ultimate victims of the crime are Detroit’s poor and the middle class and lower middle class, mostly African-American municipal workers who may face serious financial losses in old age.

As he points out, this is a catastrophe that transcends the divide between left and right, and it should be taken seriously by concerned Americans of both political parties.

There is something profoundly wrong with an American political culture that accepts chronic misgovernment in major cities as OK. It is not OK; the people who do these things may call themselves liberal Democrats and wear the mantle of defenders of the poor, but over and over their actions place them among the most cold blooded enemies and oppressors of the weak.

American cities have been festering pits of graft and bad governance since at least the early 19th century, but there is a difference between the “honest graft” of Tammany Hall and the nihilistic destruction practiced by some of today’s urban machines. Today’s situation, in which some city machines are so dysfunctional that the parasite is literally killing the host (and not just in Detroit), is new and, again, the most vulnerable in our society suffer the worst consequences. Minority children are the greatest ultimate victims of this loathsome corruption: they attend horrible schools and grow up in decaying, unsafe urban landscapes where there is no growth, no jobs and no opportunity for the young.

To be sure, Detroit is a city that has long been run by the Democratic Party alone. But as Mead points out, the culprits in Detroit use party and political theory as a cover, not as guide. Today the great tragedy takes place in the Democrats’ backyard. Tomorrow it might show up in that of the Republicans.

The lead article posted by the Drudge Report this morning shows just how bad things have become in Detroit. Posted in Bloomberg, the article explains:

Detroit whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

This step may not be unprecedented but it is certainly not normal. For people and businesses in the areas that will lose their funding, the results are disastrous.

A single, broken streetlight on the northeast side brings fear to Cynthia Perry, 55. It hasn’t worked for six years, Perry said in an interview on the darkened sidewalk where she walks from her garage to her house entrance.

“I’m afraid coming in at night,” she said. “I’m not going to seclude myself in the house and never go anywhere.”

Jamahl Makled, 40, said he’s owned businesses in southwest Detroit for about two decades, most recently cell-phone stores. He said they’ve have been burglarized more than a dozen times.

“In the dark, criminals are comfortable,” Makled said. “It’s not good for the economy and the safety of the residents.”

Of course, most of us can’t do anything about the problems in the city of Detroit, even if we were interested enough to follow the details of the story. But colossal messes like Detroit should remind us that there are elements of justice and basic governance even more important to daily life than the hot-points of the culture wars. These are elements that transcend party and ideology and have to do with essential principles of accountability, common sense, and order. The main reason why we need to approach politics in a spirit of love and cooperation – rather than bitterness and conquest – is because at the most basic level, we need to keep our communities running. That, not inaugurating the kingdom of God, is the primary task of government.

How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society

Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.

The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.

In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:

Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,

According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”

Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.

Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.

But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.

As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,

Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …

Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.

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