Down With the Establishment…Clause?

The Aquila Report ran an article yesterday detailing the frustration of many NYC church leaders with the pastors of their city’s megachurches, that they have been remarkably silent regarding the school district’s decision to bar religious groups from renting their facilities for worship space. Although I am inclined to let the Caesar keep what is his, our congregation has been praying regularly for the affected congregations nonetheless. So what struck me about this article was not the disinterest of NYC’s megachurch pastors. Rather, what rankled me was this quote from our own Presbyterian Tim Keller:

“I disagree with the opinion written by Judge Pierre Leval that: “A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church.” This is an erroneous theological judgment; I know of no Christian church or denomination that believes that merely holding a service in a building somehow “consecrates” it, setting it apart from all common or profane use. To base a legal opinion on such a superstitious view is surely invalid. Conversely, we concur with Judge John Walker’s dissenting opinion that this ban constitutes viewpoint discrimination and raises no legitimate Establishment Clause concerns” (emphasis added).

For a man of Keller’s ability and intellect, this assessment of Judge Leval’s opinion is unacceptable. Think about it: a judge on an American bench declared that Christian worship consecrates space. And by Keller’s own admission, that was a theological judgment. Since when are American magistrates allowed to make theological judgments in official legal opinions (it now amazes me that the Supreme Court refused to hear the case)!? Furthermore, how then can Keller write that “this ban…raises no legitimate Establishment Clause concerns”? From the standpoint of the churches renting from the NYC school district, that is no doubt true. But what about from the standpoint of an American magistrate making theological judgments on behalf of the Christian church? From this standpoint, the ban raises lots of legitimate Establishment Clause concerns (at least American courts were being consistent when they refused to hear theological arguments in the 1930s as many seceding Presbyterian congregations were trying to keep their property).

I will kindly thank Judge Leval, as an American magistrate, to keep his opinions about my religion to himself. And I would encourage my brother Rev. Keller, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the case and for the sake of his brothers, to do a much better job of holding Caesar’s feet to his own fire. Judge Leval’s opinion was not just “superstitious” and “invalid”; it was downright unconstitutional.

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An Important and Less-Than-Positive Lesson from the Conservatives (which no one really wants to admit out loud)

Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman has a post on the coming night of full-time ministers in America. His contention is that, as the bigger-is-better mentality continues to affect the Church, pastors of smaller congregations will eventually get squeezed out of their full-time salaries. Their churches and their positions will still exist, but in a much smaller form. Enter center stage: the liberals. According to Mr. Trueman’s liberal counterparts at liberal seminaries, this reality has already set in among liberal churches and liberal clergy. “Liberal friends at mainline seminaries tell me that bivocational ministry has become an established pattern…” According to Trueman, such a pattern might very well be the “key to survival” among conservatives as well.

At first, I thought Trueman’s post was brilliant. After all, I and my peers are currently living its truth. I am a rural pastor. I serve in a poor presbytery where the ministers are generally not well-paid. Many have other sources of income besides their pastoral salary, or they have simply learned to live on very little. I myself work two jobs in order to provide adequately for my family. In fact, I have often contemplated writing the very post that Dr. Trueman wrote. But let’s be honest: he has the credentials to be heard. I do not.

With that said, drinking Trueman’s insightful post to the dregs left me with much more sediment that I expected. More specifically, this postscript left my mental palette all scrunched up:

Postscript: A week or two before Christmas, the congregation where I have worshipped for over eight years and where I now sit on session voted to call me as its pastor from August 1 next year. If the presbytery decide to place the call into my hands at its February meeting, I will most certainly accept it. The call is part time and is, I suspect, the shape of things to come for many of the more modestly sized (i.e., the majority of) churches in the USA, given the current condition of the economy. In this instance, at least, I am hoping to practice what I preach – and indeed to do so while I preach.

With all due respect to the good docent theologiae (did I decline that correctly?), this is not what he preached. How is a full-time professor (with an adequate salary and benefits) moonlighting in the pastorate analogous to a full-time pastor struggling to fulfill the demands of his ministry while eking out a living at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s or some sort of part-time government work? It is not. Furthermore, while Trueman says his work will be part time, it is unclear whether the church he will be serving is capable of hiring someone full time. If it is, Trueman is not practicing his preaching, but rather blatantly violating it. He would be filling a position that another minister or ministerial candidate (the OPC is full of them right now) might otherwise fill. So then it would appear that the lesson of the liberals is that underpaid pastors should get another job. But the lesson of the conservatives is that they should have gotten their Ph.Ds and published something in order to double dip in both academia and the church.

Think I’m being too hard on Dr. Trueman? Think again. The Aquila Report reported today that the Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan has been elected as a regular faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary while remaining in his pastoral position (Senior Minister) at First Presbyterian Church. “But it ain’t the same!” you say. Well, yes, that’s formally true. Trueman is adding the church to his W-2; Duncan is adding the seminary. But aren’t they both adding lots more work to already adequately paying work? Of course they are. How could the Senior Minister of an almost dozen-member ministry staff possibly be in want or bored, especially when formerly occupied with regular “national speaking engagements”? Are we to believe that an academic dean and professor of church history at one of the top Reformed seminaries in America needs a part-time call to minister at his local church in order to pay the mortgage? Of course not. Yes, Messrs. Trueman and Duncan are bivocational; but their bivocational ministry resembles very little of the bivocational pattern that I and my peers know and live.

In fact, if we are going to be truth tellers, their pattern, like mine, also has a counterpart in liberalism. It’s an open secret that while many liberal congregations are poor and weak, their denominational headquarters are well-funded and vigorous. I know, I know: neither Duncan nor Trueman work at their denomination’s headquarters. But like their liberal counterparts, they do form an elite by virtue of their respective educations and positions. And like any elite–liberal or conservative–they have more well paying work than they can probably handle. 

So I guess the lesson then is neither from the liberals nor the conservatives. The lesson is from life in a world governed by God’s providence: there are have’s, and there are have-not’s. Patronizing the latter certainly isn’t going to change anything. 

American Presbyterianism…Who Cares?

Over at Old Life, Dr. Hart offers some valuable thoughts on John Frame’s new book that argues against the recent run of Two Kingdoms theology (2K) coming out of Westminster Seminary California. I will let you read Dr. Hart’s thought for yourself, but I found the following to be particularly lucid regarding all the hubbub surrounding 2K:

I guess if you still think that Christian societies should exist — what to do with Roman Catholics, Jews, and Mormons is never really clear in this nostalgia for the Reformed nation- or city-state — then 2k theology may look bizarre. At the same time, if you have lived in the United States with its religious diversity as long as John Frame has, and if you have been an officer in one of the churches that uses the revised Westminster Confession as Frame does, then you may not be shocked to find that some contemporary Reformed authors actually follow the teaching not of James Jordan or Greg Bahnsen but of the Reformed churches.

The two issues that Dr. Hart raises here, in my view, are really the two issues at the heart of all the rancor surrounding 2K theology. First, should Christian societies (i.e. Christian bodies politic; the church is already a Christian society according to the WLC, but not a political entity) exist? Second, do the Reformed churches, particularly in America, have an established view in regard to this question? As Dr. Hart’s comments indicate, the answer to this second question is an emphatic “Yes!”, and the fact that the Westminster Confession has been revised in American Presbyterianism speaks very clearly about the official teaching of the Reformed churches that have adopted it. The history of American Presbyterianism is such that the “covenanting” aspect of the Confession were struck and subsequently replaced with language much more friendly to notions of religious liberty.

But who cares? Who cares what American Presbyterianism historically teaches? Or more to the heart of the 2K debate, who cares about Roman Catholics or Jews or Mormons or Sikhs or any other religious group that isn’t WASP-ish in character (notice how vague the character of Christian America becomes once you get rid of the “infidels”…are the Reformed churches even Reformed anymore in such a scheme)? Who cares if we return to medieval and renaissance Europe, where Christians were compelled to fight the wars of one “Christian” king against another? For all of the vitriol spewed at the 2Kers of Escondido, they (and those who hold to the teachings of American Presbyterianism with them) seem to be caring all by themselves.

Somehow, such questions always seem to lead critics to the judgment that 2Kers are opposed to the involvement of Christians in politics. Balderdash. I have never encountered anyone (2Ker or otherwise) opposed to bringing the gospel to bear on contemporary social and political life. But such criticism misses the point: the real question is what should be the nature of that influence? Should it be spiritual and moral, or constitutional and legislative? If the latter, how are we to evaluate Christians, for example, in North Korea? Have they been derelict in their religious duties since a totalitarian dynasty successfully transitioned to its new leader last week? But I digress…

After all, who cares?


Takes One to Know One?

Today, I finally got around to reading some of the material surrounding atheist Christopher Hitchens’ death, and I came across the obituary by Doug Wilson in Christianity Today. As with most of the material surrounding the death of The Atheist’s Atheist, Wilson’s words were circumspect but complimentary, cordial but cautionary. Several remarks, however, struck me in particular. At one point, Wilson writes,

…we were thrown together in a number of situations. One time we shared a panel in Dallas, and I told the crowd there that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends. During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have.

Obviously, Wilson separated the public Hitchens from the private one. The public Hitchens was an enemy, very versatile with tongue and pen. The private Hitchens was almost a friend, definitely an intellectual traveling companion (albeit hoeing a different row). How could these two personae exist in one man? Wilson actually resolves the tension a few paragraphs earlier. Concerning Hitchens’ caustic polemic and vitriol, Wilson writes,

But this was all part of Christopher’s very public rhetorical strategy, not a function of an inability to domesticate a surly temperament. He was actually an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman. He was fully aware of the authority an enfant terrible could have, provided he played his cards right, and this was a strategy that Hitchens employed very well indeed. One man who delivers a terrible insult is banned from television for life, and another man, who does the same thing, has people lining up with invitations and microphones. In case anyone is wondering, Christopher was that second man.

So in private, Hitchens was quite respectful (at least of opponents he considered intellectually worth his while), but his public persona as a hostile atheist nurtured his speaking and writing career, thus paying the bills. Fascinating.

I wonder if we learn as much about Wilson in this obituary as we do about Hitchens.

If you think about it, Wilson’s career represents a rough parallel to Hitchens’. Concerning the latter, Wilson himself observes, “A defining characteristic of his life was a willingness to break with the last group he was identified with. Whenever Orwell’s ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ began to develop, Christopher would be down the road.” Hmmm. Didn’t the name of Wilson’s church go from Community Evangelical Fellowship to Christ Church? Isn’t Wilson a Westminster man, with just enough exceptions to keep any confessionally Reformed denomination from ever ordaining him? And speaking of enfants terrible, hasn’t Wilson built a publishing empire on being just a little bit (to be read: a lot) different than your average Presbyterian? A little more satirical? A little more classical (not theologically, of course)? A little bit smarter?

Call me Ruby Cornpone, but if you ask me, it takes one to know one.

The Lure of Rome

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey gives a great interview to Dr. R. Scott Clark over at Office Hours that focuses on the relatively recent departure of many prominent evangelicals to Roman Catholicism . I only had time to listen to the first five minutes or so of the interview, but it’s title (I stole it for this post…sorry!) and lead in stimulated my thinking on the attraction of Rome from a different perspective. Here in the hinterlands of South Dakota, people don’t really join up with Roman churches because they experience some sort of theological or ecclesiological awakening. The reasons here are far more mundane: boy falls in love with a nice Catholic girl (or vice versa), or boy/girl was simply born into the Roman church. The reason for these folks putting up with or staying connected to Rome has always fascinated me because of its coexistence with South Dakota’s wily cowboy culture. For both good and evil, folks in South Dakota are very sensitive to receiving the advice of experts. This includes theological ones whom they support with their weekly donations. Talk about not getting what you pay for (I have to keep telling myself that not everyone has relatives whose last name begins with “Van”)! But there seems to be something more important than that here in these parts (if you figure out what it is, please enlighten me). All I can tell you is that, when it comes to the Roman church, cowboy culture seems to press the pause button, and people whom you otherwise can’t tell anything to go and express their allegiance to the man who sits in what is reputed to be Peter’s Chair.

This was a total mystery to me until I had lunch one day with a member of my congregation who very much has the pulse on what goes on with most people in our small South Dakota community. He and his associate, a former Catholic, intimated to me that the draw of Rome is very simple: all the pomp, all the circumstance, all the ceremony, all the gravity and dignity–as we like to say in the business, “the bells and the smells”–gives Roman worship a very strong sense of legitimacy. It wasn’t so much that people really knew what Rome taught or believed. The truth is that they didn’t really care enough to go and find out. They liked Rome–and stayed there–because it felt holy, dignified, religious. How strange Protestantism must seem to the born and bred Roman Catholic! There’s no missal, just a bulletin that keeps changing every Sunday. There’s no scripted kneeling or standing or crossing of oneself. If you’re a Catholic and find yourself in the wrong Protestant building, there might even be rolling around in the aisles or people spitting out gibberish that they call “tongues” (whatever that means)! At a much more realistic level, however, the problems of Protestant church life are manifold, especially when it comes to the local church. When is the last time a Roman parish had a church split? Um…the Reformation…nearly 500 years ago!!! If you’re Protestant, when is the last time your home congregation had a church split? For me: only about 10 years ago.
The temptation to come to Protestantism’s and the Reformation’s defense at this point is nearly irresistable, but I’m going to do so as best as I can. The lesson to be learned here is not how to engage in pro-Protestant polemics. The lesson to be learned here is that, for many people, their Christianity is appropriated through their experience of congregational life. The lesson to be learned, for Protestants, is that if our version of Christianity, from its doctrine of justification to its doctrine and practice of the church, is really so much better than Rome’s version, then we had better start living it out.
Here are three things we can start doing today.
1. We can commit ourselves to stability.
I like visiting Roman parishes from time to time (especially in little towns) because, when I do, I inevitably come to learn that two people who are sworn enemies out in the world somehow manage to play nice before the priest in church. Those predisposed to cynicism will say that this is part of the hypocrisy of Romanism. Sorry, but that’s too easy. In my opinion, it exhibits a kind of civility that most Protestants know nothing of, even though, as far as their doctrine goes, they should. In Protestant doctrine and ethics, congregational life (especially outside of worship) is all about carving away your own selfishness and sin so that God can use us to bless others. Sadly, we Protestants find ways to fight with people whom we only see in a church context! Personality and preference trump the preaching and practice of the gospel. Shame on us. We need what Gerald Schlabach (oh no!…a Mennonite!) urges in his book Unlearning Protestantism: we need stability.
2. We can deeply desire doctrine.
If the Reformation was all about Rome’s adulteration of the doctrine of justification (indeed, the kernel of salvation), guess what the success of all subsequent Protestantism will be based on? The charisma of your church’s next pastor? An awesome music ministry? The purchase of an arcade-esque ministry center? Nope. It’s doctrine, dummy! We need pastors who are ready to shepherd their flocks with an accurate and faithful summary of the truths of the Bible. Perhaps more importantly, we need churches that are eager to eat spiritually from the ministerial work of such a shepherd. Our heritage as the Protestant church is not one of the pursuit of relevance or of being snazzy. It’s one of doctrine. If we stop wanting that, we’ll naturally stop wanting to be those opposed to the unfaithfulness of Rome. In fact, we might even start being mesmerized by its bells and smells.
3. We can worship God in reverence and awe.
This isn’t just a Roman thing. It’s also (or at least should be) a Protestant thing. After all, as my favorite Roman priest always quips, aren’t we the Bible people! Hebrews 12:28-29 clearly states, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.'” The truth about Protestant congregational life and doctrine is that they all begin and end with worship. You’ll never find Protestant doctrine and practice closer than when a congregation gathers for worship. There is where you will find out whether folks are gathered for entertainment or for the feeding of their souls, for the triune God and each other or merely for themselves. If we’re going to chase relevance (which is necessarily subjective and determined by those outside the church) and fun in our worship, the messiness of a meaningful Protestantism will always seem like a distant second to the predictable yet safe liturgirobics of Rome.

Bavinck on the Sacraments

Similarly there is a great difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration, a sacrament in which a human is passive; the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of maturation in communion with Christ, the formation of the spiritual life, and presupposes conscious and active conduct on the part of those who receive it.

The Rev. Dr. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Dutch Reformed Translation Society, 2008), IV, 583.