Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Après cela, le déluge

This brief notice from WORLD magazine signals what could very well be the beginning of the end of the way of life assumed by countless evangelical congregations across these United States. The vast majority of Churches are small (under 100 members) and entirely self-supporting; even those which are part of denominations rarely receive regular budget support from broader ecclesial bodies. The clergy housing allowance tax exemption is a little-appreciated mechanism by which they're able to stretch their dollars a little bit further.

The housing tax exemption evolved as a way to level the playing field between Churches which provide parsonages for their pastors, and ones which expect the pastor to provide for his own housing. In the first case, the Church owns the pastor's house, and so the government does not tax it. In the second case, the monies paid to the pastor to enable him to pay rent or a mortgage (and the costs of maintaining a domicile) are not taxed. If this ruling in Wisconsin is upheld on appeal, Protestant clergy could lose their right to the housing tax exemption and congregations would have to have to pay them that much more to compensate for the additional tax burden. Yes, that would be only a few thousand dollars more a year. However, given the extremely thin margins of most Church budgets, that additional tax burden could easily put a full-time pastor out of the reach of many small congregations.

I've written at length on the implications of such a development for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in my "Manifesto for the OPC." This court case may be the chink in the conservative Churches' dam against the rising flood of legal hostility to the cause of Christ. Remember: Noah built the ark before the rains began.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Some belated aggregating

I've had some webpages bookmarked for a while now to share with my vast worldwide audience, so it's well past time for me to clear out the backlog. If these articles share a theme, it's that they each introduced me to new arguments which made me think more deeply on a topic than I had before.

While the Presbyterian Church in America lacks a denominational magazine, they have a close substitute in the byFaith website. "Prisoners in the Pew" documents how some congregations are working to uncover and remediate domestic abuse of all sorts. It provides food for thought for sessions of all presbyterian traditions.

"Prejudice and the Blaine Amendments" was published a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Trinity Lutheran of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. (This is the playground resurfacing case.) Philip Hamburger does admirable historiographical work to demonstrate that amendments to state constitutions which now appear to have been intended to require government neutrality in religious matters were in fact designed to institutionalize the then-dominant forms of liberal cultural Christianity. In our day, that has effectively morphed into the institutionalization of an anti-ecclesial bias.

In a two-part review of the book Executing Grace, James R. Rogers carefully examines Christian arguments against the death penalty and sets forth a Biblical argument for its judicious use. From a redemptive-historical framework, he shows that death is an appropriate sanction for the attempt to extinguish God's image by killing an image-bearer.

These aren't short essays, but they're well worth your time if you'd like to think more carefully about these issues.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It's the little things

Last night I enjoyed my first pumpkin beer of 2017 because the only people who drink pumpkin beer outside the Oct. 1 to the-day-after-Thanksgiving window also wear white trousers before Memorial Day (in other words, satanists).

This morning I awoke to learn that the Denver Post has dropped Fred Basset from its comics section.
As Ice Cube might say, it's a good day.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Authority, charisma & charism

As my presbytery has debated and discussed various pastoral matters (by which I mean issues which arise out of, or directly affect, local congregations) over the last eighteen years, I've suspected there's been an (although by no means the) underlying theme, but only recently have I been able to put a finger on it. What seems to come up, again and again, is a concern to maintain and enforce the authority of the pastor and/or session of the local congregation. I think I've had a hard time identifying this theme because it's simply not a concern I share. I've been mystified as to why some care so much about this issue, but I've come to suspect the difference may lie in an American perspective on the basis of personal authority.

In many areas of life, Americans tend to grant authority to individuals on the basis of personal charisma. Here, I'm using "charisma" to refer to the ineffable qualities which induce others to trust an individual. There's the charisma which draws us to prefer certain dining companions, and then there's the charisma which leads us to believe this person's views on Spiritual affairs should be respected. The pastor's charisma is not that of the actor's, but there's certainly a general gravitas we expect of ministers of Word and sacrament. It may be ineffable, but most think they've identified it when they tell a young man they think he should pursue the ministry.

Charisma is a powerful force, not to be underestimated, but its great weakness lies in its very ineffability. Tom Hanks is America's most beloved movie actor because we all believe him to be self-effacing and charming. Should a video surface of him kicking basset hound puppies for sport, no one would watch Sully ever again. We would all be angry that he had deceived us with his charisma. (I hasten to add that I, personally, am certain Tom Hanks is uniformly kind to children and small animals. CERTAIN.) Charisma is a double-edged sword: we want to be seduced by it, but then are angered by its seductive power.

So, too, with a pastoral authority based on charisma. If a pastor on some occasion acts, well, unpastoral, his charisma is called into question. If charisma is but a fleeting mirage, then the authority founded on it quickly evaporates. I remember well my fear as a new teacher (so, so many years ago) that my control of the classroom would disappear if even a single student successfully challenged my authority. That fear can motivate a reactionary posture in which all perceived opposition must be vigorously put down lest it spread like a contagion. Sadly, I think I've seen this in more than one pastor's or session's attitude toward the congregation.

To be clear, I'm not commenting on the legitimacy of the opposition. The person challenging the pastor's preaching may be entirely out of line and not a little bit crazy. (More than once, a person has accused me of saying something I did not say in a sermon, then refused to listen to the audio to double-check.) Even in those cases, the man of God must pursue gentleness: it's the only way to fight the good fight with those who are wayward and confused (2 Timothy 6:11-12). Frankly, those people are the bruised reeds our Lord would not break (Isaiah 42:3): they're done no good when they're punished for questioning the elders' authority.

Now, it's all well and good to suggest the pastor ought be like Jesus and not return reviling for reviling (1 Peter 2:23), but won't doing so undermine his authority in the eyes of the congregation? If authority rests in charisma, yes indeed. But his authority cannot be undermined if it rests on a charism.

"Charism" means "gift," and all presbyterian Church officers should remember they received one at ordination: "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (1 Timothy 4:14). The Spiritual charism granted by ordination is an objective reality, and cannot be removed or undermined by challenges to authority or questioning of charisma. During our Lord's earthly ministry, his authority got challenged plenty, but (obviously!) he never lost it. Similarly, the authority granted to elders by ordination is a durable thing, easily able to survive any opposition. A challenge to my authority to preach would be like a challenge to the blueness of my eyes: silly, and not worth quarreling over.

Church officers do well to remember all Church power and authority is ministerial and declarative: it is exercised as delegated by and on behalf of our Lord Jesus, and can only set forth that which is set forth by the Word of God. So long as I exercise my charism of authority according to those very presbyterian principles, my charisma (or, frankly, lack thereof) is utterly beside the point. Authority  in the Church is lost only by those afraid of losing it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

My philosophy of ministry

[I, Paul,] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God. (Colossians 1:24-25)
While every Christian is called to share in the sufferings of Christ (Luke 9:22- 26), over the years I have learned, experientially and exegetically, that this call is given particularly to ministers of the Gospel. This fact is modeled for us in the pastoral work of the Apostle Paul, which was for him a ministry of suffering. If his admonition “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ,” (1 Cor 11:1) is to all believers with regard to their use of earthly things, it is much more so with regard to pastors in the discharge of their office. The Scriptures, which teach the man of God all he needs (2 Tim 3:15ff), were so inspired by the Spirit to give us the Apostle to the Gentiles as our most comprehensive model for the Christian ministry, and so it is to his example that we should look. 
Paul’s pastoral suffering is summarized perhaps most poignantly in 2 Corinthians 3:2-3: “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being revealed that you are a letter of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in tablets that are hearts of flesh.” The Corinthians’ Christian conviction was a testimony to the successful labors amongst them of Paul, who was held in low regard by many in that congregation, as both 1 and 2 Corinthians amply demonstrate; in other words, he was rejected by those he had blessed. When Paul speaks of his sufferings for the Gospel (2 Tim 1:8), he no doubt includes the many beatings and persecutions he endured. Still, it seems to me the greater pain of the pastor is to be rejected by one’s own friends and disciples (2 Tim 1:15), just as our Savior wept most bitterly over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-44). 
Note that both Paul and Jesus were faithful in their ministries; they suffered and were rejected not because of personal fault, but because men were through them rejecting God himself (Lk 10:16). Pastors must not desire the reward of being well-thought of by their congregations, though our Lord is kind in allowing many this experience. In helping their people become conformed to the image of Christ, they must be willing to endure patiently anger and bitterness, much of it entirely misdirected. They must accept disrespect and ingratitude, the aggravation of one’s wise proposals being ignored or derailed by one’s session. They must even accept blame for the pastoral malpractice of others and be extraordinarily slow to defend their Ninth Commandment rights to a good name. They must patiently and silently suffer injustice so they may be free to do the one thing on which they can in no way compromise: proclaim the grace of God through the Cross of Christ. 

This suffering is itself a proclamation of God’s grace because it testifies that the pastor only needs the Lord’s good testimony of him, and his confidence of that is not based on his accomplishments or recognition received. He can tell his people to rely solely on the Cross for all things without fear of being accused of hypocrisy. Over time, his people will learn to think less well of themselves as they think more highly of God’s grace, which in turn may reduce their tendency to attack their pastor when their self-esteem seems threatened. However, that result comes about only as the fruit of much patient labor, usually over some period of time and through the endurance of several trials. For these reasons, pastoral ministry is only for those prepared to rejoice when they are called to complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his Church.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Insert dope joke here

A couple months ago I participated in a discussion of the impact of marijuana's legalization on Colorado and the Churches here. An edited transcript is the cover story in the most recent Reformed Presbyterian Witness.

I should also note that the RP Witness's editor sent me a copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship as a thank-you gift, so I totally recommend participating in any discussion to which you're invited by your Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America pastor friends.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nakedness & Saul

Then Saul’s anger was aroused against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” 
There's an awful lot packed into Saul's insults in 1 Samuel 20:30-31. Initially, it may seem odd that when he is angry with his son Jonathan, he attacks the character of Mrs. Saul. Actually, he's making a subtle, although highly offensive, dig at Jonathan. By making a covenant with David, now Saul's enemy, Jonathan is faithless toward Saul, as though Saul were not in fact his father. Saul alleges that Jonathan's choice suggests he is the product of adultery, which would make Mrs. Saul a perverse and rebellious woman. The only way Jonathan can restore his mother's reputation (in Saul's opinion) is to break his covenant with David and turn him over to Saul.

That reference to "your mother's nakedness" puts me in mind of the Law's various commands that "the nakedness of your [insert category of family relation here] you shall not uncover," the vast majority of which are found in Leviticus 18. Since these are all variations on adultery and already clearly prohibited by the 7th Commandment, one might wonder why they need to be enumerated in such exhausting detail.

The context of Leviticus 18 provides illumination. It prohibits all consanguineous adultery, child sacrifice, and homosexual and bestial sex acts. These were the grave abominations of the Canaanites who the Lord rejected from the land, and can be grouped together as fertility cult practices. Leviticus 18, then, is a specific warning to Israelites to not break covenant with the Lord by adopting the fertility cult religion of the Canaanites.

Fertility cults are attractive because they make the propagation and welfare of the family of central importance, which seems intuitive to most people. And by "most people," I mean "especially men" because the  head of the family, the patriarch, becomes a virtual object of worship. After all, it's his name and reputation that are being preserved and propagated. The recent resurgence of  polygamy in scripted and reality television provides many examples of how the man is the center of his vast family's universe.

Ironically, although his insult against Jonathan is remarkably witty, it's Saul who violates the intention of Leviticus 18. As the patriarch, he considers his will to be inviolable and binding on his son. In commanding Jonathan to break a lawful covenant with David and conspire in his murder, Saul demands he be obeyed rather than the Lord of Israel. He is just another in a long line of fathers who insist their families serve them rather than the Lord's Anointed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Please tell me you're ashamed of yourself

Dear fellow confessional presbyterian minister,

  Believe it or not, I understand why you voted for Great Leader, and even encouraged others to do so. After so many years of overlooking Republican mendacity and embracing the false Manichean choice between two evils imposed on the electorate by our cynical political system, you felt you had no choice but to vote against Mrs. Clinton. Of course, there is no such thing as a "vote against" in our system, and Great Leader took yours as a vote "for" (as would any other politician).

  So let's stop pretending, shall we? You voted for Great Leader, and so bear some responsibility for his brutal mission to destroy what remains of the Republic.

  Now some of his supporters (open Nazis and Klansmen) have participated in a terrorist attack in Charlottesville (previously best known as the home of a small liberal arts college with pretensions of superiority over the great James Madison University). You objected that the last president wasn't strong enough against Muslim terrorists. Now I'd like to hear you object that Great Leader isn't strong enough against white supremacist terrorists. I'd like you to start talking like a minister of the Gospel instead of a shill for the Republican party. If you can't take a stand against Nazism, what can you take a stand for?

  Please tell me you're ashamed of yourself. I'm certainly ashamed of you.

  regards,
the Presbyterian Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The anti-Macbeth

In his Interpretation commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel, Walter Bruggemann observes of David's rise to the throne that he "takes no initiatives. He does not assert himself or express any ambition. He only receives what is given." David is almost passive as he comes to power, never taking direct action against King Saul or his family. Having been anointed as Israel's next king in 1 Samuel 16, David waits patiently for the moment his position will be recognized by all Israel.

David stands in striking contrast to William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Whereas David is anointed by a prophet long before he can take the throne, Macbeth is told his destiny to rule by three prophetic witches. Macbeth is a tragedy because a great and noble warrior determines to bring about his destiny through "murder most foul" (Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5) and makes himself cruel and corrupt. The witches, as the three Fates of Greek mythology, induce Macbeth to self-condemnation and destruction rather than glory.

In 1 & 2 Samuel, that royal tendency to hubris is expressed by King Saul. He knew he had lost the throne because of his sins of disobedience (1 Samuel 13 & 15), but refused to submit to the sentence pronounced by Samuel. Saul plotted to undo prophecy, and in so doing simply sealed his doom. Unlike Macbeth, Saul did not play out a fate written for him in a cauldron, but instead chose rebellion over repentance.