Monday, December 10, 2012

The Banditos and Liberal Protestants

I think it is just as scary to do a risky and immoral act as it is to do a risky and noble one. In my younger days I had all but lost that alarm system which sounds when you are about to harm yourself or do something that would land you in prison or even dead. In my days self defeating I spent some time in a small western town with a Puerto Rican dude named Nick. He was from New York City and was crazy. By crazy I mean he had a high tolerance for danger and a low regard for safety. His natural charm won the confidence of a wide variety of persons from every segment and strata of society.  He had a quick smile. As far has he was concerned everything was “cool.” “It’s all cool” he repeatedly said to me when I frequently showed any signs of losing my nerve.
He stayed with Rita, a Mexican American, who was, if possible, even more laid back than Nick.  She lived in a one bedroom house which was part of a federally funded complex. She had several small children, but her mother cared for them. I never once saw them or signs of them. I remember that it was strange that her place was in the middle of town and yet the streets were packed dirt – not even gravel – just packed dirt. I was never directly involved in the purchase or sale of the vast amount of marijuana that passed through Rita’s apartment but I was there when it was received, processed, packaged, and distributed.  I never financially profited from it. I never purchased any of it. I know my disclaimers do not excuse my presence there and knowledge of their illegal activities. It has remained one of those things in my life that I consider when I think of the sins Christ atoned for on the cross. Although the activity was extremely immoral, the relationships were pleasant and real. Unlike many of my Churchly colleagues, I trusted Nick and Rita to “have my back.”

One evening I stopped by and came in through an outside entrance that opened to the kitchen. From the sounds of their voices I surmised there was a group of six African American men lounging in the small living room. They intently listened to what they called “Rap.” It was not like the Rap Music we hear today - old school, new school, west coast or eat coast. It was more a poetry reading than singing. It was like the style of some Black Preachers combined with the Beat Generation poets like Alan Ginsberg and Neal Cassity. There were lots of bongos. But the message was strictly political. It was a negative message about all white men and the American society at every level. Whites were considered a deadly threat to all Blacks. Violence was promoted throughout the Rap.  Rita stopped me in the kitchen and ordered me to leave. “These N…s are crazy and they will mess you up.” I asked if I could just sit at the kitchen table and listen. Rita almost never was stern but this was the exception. She gave me clear instructions on how and when to take my leave. I sat close to the backdoor and listened with fascination. I have always felt a sense of rage over racial injustice so the poetry drew me in. I was frightened and yet was willing to take the risk.

One Saturday, eight members of the Bandito gang rolled in on their Harleys. The one riding an Indian got a pass because this bike was the forerunner to the revered Harley Davidson. These guys came to see Nick about a large score of weed they brought from Mexico. They were wild and I liked them very much. They drank beer all afternoon and into the night. As time passed, they got louder and meaner. That is when I decided I had better find my way back to my apartment. All the while I was there; just as I did with the Black militants, I felt that same combination of fear and the thrill of taking a risk.

These risks were real and unrighteous. I risked going to prison. I risk serious injury and even death. All of this was for the sake of being too stupid to understand the threat I was under and too nihilistic to care much. Nothing I did then advanced the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At that point in my life, I wasn’t close to the Church, although I was always a seeker after God.  It wasn't very easy to walk away from this adventure. Nick and Rita were my friends, I liked them and they liked me. They were doing what they saw others doing in their families and among their friends. For them, the risk was part and partial of the only life they knew.

I am not facing a hostile gang of bikers or politically militant minorities. I am facing, none the less, a real and present danger from Liberal Middle-Class Protestant Church professionals who want to silence me for “keepin it real.”  Just as though I was part of the Banditos, there is a strict sanction administered against those who are disloyal to their revisionistic ideology. Like Nick and Rita, a person can become more and more involved in a destructive and wicked organization. One day, you realize that leaving is more dangerous than staying.

I often think of Jesus in the Garden the day before his public execution. He knew how to escape. He was encouraged by his friends to do just that. Even he, himself, desired to leave and avoid the humiliation of a trial and the degradation of a cruel public execution where he hung naked on a wooden stake for six hours while his enemies insulted him.

I am sure that faithfulness to God is never truly risky, although it will surely lead to pain and suffering. While the risk is immediate, it is not ultimately life threatening. You can not kill someone who lives forever in the blissful presence of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Prospective

So what if 100 or 200 or a thousand evangelical congregations withdraw from the PC (USA) by the end of next year. That denomination still will have over nine to ten thousand congregations remaining (10,266). There are still more than 21,000 ordained ministers - less than half are working the church. The latest statistics available (2011) indicate that the PC (USA) received no congregations from other denominations in the past four years reported. The PC (USA) dismissed, on average, 22 congregations every year since 2008. From 2008 to 20011 86 congregations were dismissed to other denominations. This doesn’t count the few who left without being officially dismissed or those who have left in 2012.  
In the presbytery where I reside, more than half the congregations cannot raise the minimum level of compensation for a full time seminary educated pastor. Of the ten thousand congregations currently a part of the PC(USA) it is possible that half are unable to call a full time pastor. Now we are considering 5,000 mission viable congregations all but a handful of which are in a steady membership decline. On average about 45 % of the active membership of any Presbyterian Church (USA) are in worship on a given Sunday.

It is has been pointed out many times, by evangelical leaders, that the decline began in the mid-1960s when the national church, already moderately liberal, took an even sharper turn to the left. Denominational insiders, naturally, deny that there is a correlation between the politicalization of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the steady decline in members. We are less than half the size we were in 1965. Some studies have indicated that we lose people mostly to no church at all. They not only leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) but withdraw from the Church of Jesus Church. This indicates to me that we are doing an ineffective job in nurturing faith in our youth and have been so for a very long time. When a denomination moves into the godless secular world, thereby worshipping its values, why should the secularists see any relevence is worshipping the God revealed through sacred scripture? 

 The leaders of the PC(USA), at the national level, spends ten times the amount of its mission resources in the pursuit of “justice” than it does on advancing the kingdom through the pronouncement of the Gospel. It is little wonder that we are becoming increasingly secular.

If you have a program calendar from the GA offices in Louisville, you will find a staff directly at the back of the calendar. In reviewing it, just now, I am amazed at how the structure has downsized since I last looked at it. Many departments that were once independent are now combined into one large section with a single senior director and many associate directors under that one person. Many of the offices are associated with various gender and ethnic/racial adjectives denoting each. Some are directly structured to support a specific social cause – such as the environment or peacemaking. The most overt pursuit of “civilian affairs” is obvious at our Washington and United Nations’ offices where direct lobbying takes place. Under the title “social witness” I noticed that the associate who was (perhaps still is) responsible for advocating for a tomato pickers’ union in Florida is now hidden under a more ambiguous title. At one time she had her own office title and staff assistant with a budget in excess of one hundred thousand dollars.

We can certainly expect greater visibility of homosexual rights advocacy now that we have born false witness by declaring their behavior to be holy and righteous before the Lord. There will be a concerted effort to place homosexual pastors in congregations, just as there was once such an effort to place women in our pulpits. There might even be an openly gay person elected moderator of the General Assembly. How many of our current stock of clergy have kept their homosexual behavior secret?

Of the 13,000 ordained Teaching Elders more than half are female. The number of female clergy was zero in 1950. While most evangelicals oppose the ordination of homosexuals, they support the ordination of women. Since a landmark judicial case in the late 1970’s where a candidate for ministry was denied ordination because he opposed the ordination of women, there are no evangelicals who would dare admit their opposition to the ordination of women. I see the same dynamic with the forced acceptance of homosexual clergy. What is currently permissive will one day become mandatory. Please note this, all you peace-at-any-price moderates who want to be seen as those who honor the Word of God.

The loss of evangelical congregations, whether it is a hundred or a thousand, will have only a small financial impact on the national offices or their programs. The most controversial or progressive offices are funded by endowment monies. I suspect that the financial shortfall in the budgets of the national offices is due more to a lower return on investments than a decrease in giving.

For those congregations that depart the PC(USA) and find a Reformed body that still proclaims to saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is likely that you will escape the influence of a steady decline in numbers and faithfulness.

The only hope I have for the renewed spiritual vitality and restored faithfulness of the PC(USA) rests solely in the mighty hand of God. Looking toward the dry bones of the PC(USA) which will only come when all the current flesh has completely rotted away. I do not hear God asking me, “Can these bones live again.” If He did, I would have to answer like the prophet and say, “O Lord, only thou knowest” (Ezk 37:3) Just as I do not hear my Lord turning my eyes on the drying bones of a rotting denomination, I do not hear my God exhorting me to “Preach to those bones.” I fear the day of preaching righteousness while amidst the decaying souls of the PC(USA) is long past.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is the Harvest Ripe or Rotten?

The following words are harsh and carry a biting candor. They are not my words; they are the words of our Lord, Jesus Christ. They are, thereby, the very word of God.
Matthew 7:6 (NKJV)
6 Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.

If we take this as an absolute prohibition to every ministry to sinners, we make its meaning absurd. Jesus, was a friend of sinners and attached himself to them. In fact, every Christian was first a dog or a swine that had a Gospel pearl thrown to him or her by a faithful witness.

I remember a man named Ira, who I met while working in a walk-in Christian coffee house in the central business district of my home town. He was one of the finest Christian men I ever knew. Ira had an intriguing conversion testimony. He readily admitted that for the first twenty years of his marriage he would drink himself to a point of unconsciousness every weekend night. His wife would make him sleep on a cot in the basement. Ira had a neighbor who was a fine Christian man and one who had a compassion for the lost and spiritually perishing sinner. This neighbor persistently endeavored to reach him with the life changing truth of Jesus Christ – that is, his perfect life, atoning death, victory over the grave, his place at God's mighty right hand, and the certainty of his promise to return one day to restore his Kingdom in it full glory. Ira said they would talk way into the night, all the while Ira kept drinking, and to the wee hours of the morning. By his own admission, Ira was a mean drunk and would call his Christian friend every foul name he could. Still this Christian man would answer his abuse with kindness. One night just before Ira passed out; the man did something that finally reached Ira. He sat on the floor, with his back supported by the edge of Ira’s cot and he sang to him every gospel song he knew. Ira reported that he began to weaken and his heart began to soften as he realized that this Christian fool would humiliate himself by singing (badly) just to reach him with the Gospel.

While our Lord admonishes us to not labor too long with the stubborn sinner there is surely a place for persistence. Two challenges. Are you persistent in your aim to bring a lost friend or liberal colleague to the Savior? Perhaps, you are the dog or pig Jesus had in mind? Maybe your heart has grown cold to the saving power of the Gospel? Maybe you have turned on the messenger of Divine grace and torn such a one to pieces because you have so long resisted the call of the Spirit and persistently failed to turn away from your sin and toward the Savior?

Much of the energy that persecutes faithful witnesses to the Gospel within the Presbyterian Church (USA) are wild dogs and ravenous swine whose hearts are cold to the work of the Spirit. We can throw pearl after pearl after pearl to those who are ashamed of the Gospel. We can speak the truth in love to those who have replaced it with the latest political cause or with some form of shallow “spiritual” exercises. We can even try to win a hearing for the saving truth from those who have replaced the truth for a lie.
While this is a noble cause that has been advanced and blessed by thousands of missionaries in far more hostile environs than a middle class liberal dominated churchly setting; while we can wait for the movement of the Spirit to bring a sweeping revival in the PC(USA); while we can attach our love for the tens of thousands lost hell-bound sinners in its pews and pulpits, we can also shake the dust from our sandals and labor to gather the harvest in more promising fields.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nicolas Cop Out

The gorgeous solemnities of the day wound up with a horrible autodafé of six Protestants: they were suspended by a rope to a machine, let down into burning flames, again drawn up, and at last precipitated into the fire. They died like heroes. The more educated among them had their tongues slit. Twenty-four innocent Protestants were burned alive in public places of the city from Nov. 10, 1534, till May 5, 1535. Among them was Etienne de la Forge (Stephanus Forgeus), an intimate friend of Calvin. Many more were fined, imprisoned, and tortured, and a considerable number, among them Calvin and Du Tillet, fled to Strassburg.

This is how one historian summarizes the context under which John Calvin wrote the first edition of this cool calm three hundred page exposition of the Gospel. He is in exile from his own country and in danger of losing his life because he helped write an inflammatory speech delivered by his friend and professor, Nicolas Cop. As is often stated by scholars, Calvin did not leave with Cop right after he delivered this inaugural lecture to the University faculty. Calvin got out of town the night before. (Smart man!) In the speech Cop presented a case for the Protestant reforms. You might say that Calvin, choosing the best side of valor, Copped out.

As for me, I just learned last week that an angry mob of twenty or so again middle-class, middle aged men and women are meeting secretly in comfortable living rooms to talk about others in the congregations who desire to change from one Presbyterian denomination to another. While they are strategizing to keep control of the future, they are only incidentally criticizing me for stirring up discontent and writing about their particular sin the congregation's weekly newsletter that has a circulation of around 200 readers.
They have become in league with a committee in my presbytery who had the authority to remove me from this pastorate if they can find evidence that I am fanning the flames of discontent and thereby fomenting schism.  This process can also take away my ordination as a minister of the Gospel. Worse than that, they can blame me for the congregation splitting in two. I trust the reader will draw the clear analogy between the mobs in Paris and my harrowing battle with the forces of complacency and petty bickering.

This morning, while standing in the shower, I took a quick but thorough inventory of all my limbs; they remained attached to my body. My back was free from the wounds associated with flogging. My neck had no rope burns. My head was affixed to neck, which was attached to the rest of my aging body. I checked the church calendar for the forseeable future and a torturous death at the hands of an angry is not mentioned.

I stand to lose my chosen career after more than three relatively peaceful decades pursuing it. Instead of leaving with a few books, little money in my purse, and only one change of clothing, as many of the refugees in Calvin’s day did, I might lose a few thousand dollars a year from my otherwise modestly generous pension and will be barred from ever being a Presbyterian pastor again. It is not the gallows I face. It is a reasonably comfortable retirement taken a couple years before I had planned to take it. It is a future in a hostile denomination that no longer wants my services or a reasonable faithful denomination that does not need my services. 

Being the petty little narcissist I am, fit only to be called a Christian by God’s mercy and finished work of Jesus who purchased my full pardon, I am anxious about my prospects and depressed by the state of my suffering. OOOOOh, people are meeting in secret saying unflattering and mostly untrue things about me. OOOOh, scary, scary, they are hoping to blame me for dividing of a lack luster congregation that has been in a carnal power struggle between a number of egotists for decades before I even knew the congregation existed. Even when they were under no stress, they ate up and spit out the past seven pastors who tried to lead them into deep spiritual waters.

John Knox of Scotland was arrested, banished, and sentences to a prison ship where he rowed while chained to a bench, deep in the bottom of a ship. I stand with him in his persecution. (Reader, please note that this is scarcasm.) I am not able to show physical wounds but my self esteem been under constant assault and I have lost many a sleepless night worrying about my career and my pension.

What do I learn from Nicolas Cop? Very little, I’m afraid. Like me his heart was right but he settled for a comfortable life over against a life of richer meaning and faithful witness for the truth. At forty, while serving the royal family as their personal doctor, he dies too young, but not as one who had his life taken at the hands of angry wicked men. His life had a season of courage sandwiched between years of mundane accomplishments.

This imbalanced proportionality of perceived sacrifice for the entire “Renewal Movement” with the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs to be recognized by congregations who lost their property and ministers who lost their jobs. Suffering Christians throughout the world today, are testifying for Christ. This is costing them their lives, their family, and their possessions; but, it is not costing them their faithful witness. No one or nothing can take that from us, we must willing remain silent for our Christian witness to end. Even given the coward I am, "For Zions sake, I cannot be silent; for Jerusalem's sake I cannot be still."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Presbyterian Feudalism

The property policies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are not based on biblical standards, or sound doctrine, there is no mention of property in any of the Reformed Confessions, but a form of ecclesiastical feudalism.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, its holdings fell into the hands of those who had the military power to claim it. That included ecclesiastical structures. This power vacuum  gave rise of certain Collectors of privilege, royal families and noblemen. How did they gain the authority to claim vast areas of lands formerly owned by families? Well, they just took it by force or intimidation. Sometimes this intimidation came in the form of theological claims to the land. When you believed the Church controlled your soul's eternal destiny, you dare not question its authority to claim your land. If you couple that with a gang of armed men, it is easy to see how land owners submitted to the property claims of the Church and the State.

Historians have labeled this system of land ownership, feudalism. From a functionalist perspective, it proved to create an orderly society. The farmers and herdsmen were free to work the land and gain the benefits of its bounty. The true owners merely wanted their fair share of the "wealth" produced by the land the supposedly owned.

After several generations any farmer would say, "I work this land but it is not mine, I have been entrusted this land for use and benefit of my lord." That is a system that is mutually satisfying.

One of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation was the eventual end of feudalism. The priesthood of all believers became basis for the human rights of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No government, civil or churchly, could take property owned by another without a due process of law. Governments existed of and for the people of the society. Under feudalism, governments kept the powerful in power and protected their "lords" right to take the wealth produced by the labor of others.

We find remnants of this antiquated mindset in various places. In the system of "strong men" found in Latin America a single leader will hold claim to the land through an oligarchy of families who may have economic ties to international corporations. If you ask any tyrant or benevolent dictator if they favor democracy they would say, “Naturally.” If you press him further he would say I do everything with the interests of my people in mind.” Should anyone demand autonomy and self-sufficiency or truly free markets and unfettered private ownership of land and property, they would be considered “traitors of the people” not traitors of the dictator or its oligarchy.

The property clause of the Presbyterian Church (USA) states that all property (both real and personal), paid for and maintained by congregations, is, in fact only held “it trust” for “the use and benefit” of the collective “Presbyterian Church (USA).” Here is how it is described. Notice how it negates freedom in its first line. The “organic body” is the artificial self servicing construct to justify the denial of the human right of a group of Christians to determine how they can best be faithful to God. This through the stewardship of property own solely by God.

The church is not a voluntary association of those who share the same opinions and experiences, but is an organic body called into existence by God that celebrates and transmits through the ages the name and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The constitutional provisions under which congregations hold property for the benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) arise out of and reflect our theological conviction that this denomination constitutes one indivisible body, which itself is part of the body of Christ, and which encompasses not only the visible church today but our forebears and heirs in the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church (F-1.0302). (This is from the office of the General Assembly's Advisory Opinion 19 at

Defenders of this form of feudalism will claim that this system of collective ownership creates and maintains the unity of the Church. As you read above, they will use theological and religious terms to justify their confiscation of lands they never owned and the wealth they never worked a single day to earn. If you carry out the logic of this paragraph, all Property is held in trust for God's Church - that is, "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church." So the Presbyterian Church (USA) does not own our property, God does.