Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ahab's peace

When he was my pastor, Joseph Pipa would sometimes greet me with "Is that you, oh troubler of Israel?" He meant it (and I took it) as a back-handed compliment, as that is how Israel's king, Ahab, greeted  the prophet Elijah. Especially during seminary, I had a tendency to question everything about presbyterian doctrine and practice, which meant I challenged Dr. Pipa with some frequency. Far from bothering him, I think this rather pleased him. Dr. Pipa was, and remains, supremely confident in the Biblical fidelity of the Southern Presbyterian tradition and so was more than happy to give its answers to a pesky seminarian. He also believed that if the tradition really had a problem, it could be reformed according to Scripture. The system could not be troubled, for even its most serious challenge would merely be an opportunity to reform and improve.

That, of course, was not Ahab's attitude toward Elijah. By the time of 1 Kings 18, Israel had long been suffering the drought Elijah prophesied in 1 Kings 16. Elijah had ruined things for Ahab and Israel, destroying the peace for which any king might hope. We can all imagine Ahab's immense irritation when Elijah replied, "I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals" (1 Kings 18:18). From Ahab's point of view, the problem wasn't Israel's idolatry: it was a prophet who couldn't leave well enough alone and kept ruining his peace of mind.

I've been saddened to realize that Ahab's idea of peace is shared by any number of presbyterian pastors and elders. Take, for example, Jennifer Greenberg's "Open Letter to the OPC." While her account of neglect and indifference in response to her attempts to report physical and sexual abuse was met with sympathetic concern in many circles, reactions in private and on the Twitter and other social media were mixed. I've seen attempts to minimize ("she's exaggerating; she's taking things out of context") and to condemn ("whatever may have happened, she's at fault for airing her concerns in the wrong way and should apologize"). These responses echo those of sessions and presbyteries on other occasions: the problem isn't the abuse which is being reported, but that the report of the abuse troubles the Church's peace.

In other words, too many in presbyterian circles enjoy Ahab's peace and become quite upset when it's disrupted.

I learned a great deal from Dr. Pipa, especially when disagreeing with him. A system which is founded on Scripture and continually strives for greater fidelity to it enjoys a peace which cannot be disrupted by a report that it has failed because such reports indicate that the system is working and can be improved. I think I share Dr. Pipa's confidence in confessional presbyterianism.

I wonder why those who cling to Ahab's peace do not.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: "Jezebel & Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard" by Francis Dicksee

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Blame the shepherds

I was ordained and installed as an OPC pastor in 1999. A few years in, I started getting calls from members of other congregations.

I'm not sure why I got these calls, or if it's common for most pastors to get them. (One time, it was because I was serving as moderator of my presbytery.) These members (a few of them ruling elders) were concerned about their pastors' conduct. The issues were varied: the quality and doctrinal soundness of the preaching; a high-handed leadership style; an inability to resolve conflict; dishonesty; general manner of spiritual abuse. In all these cases, the individuals had already spoken to their pastor and/or session, but felt their concerns weren't being addressed. In a few cases, the individuals felt targeted for reprisals. Sometimes they wanted to know what to do; on a couple occasions, they wanted to know whether it would be sinful to transfer to another congregation. 

If I remember correctly, concerns were raised about five or six pastors. Nearly everyone who reached out to me wanted me to take their concerns to the presbytery so it could take action regarding the pastor in question. Each time, I had to tell them that I could not do anything on the basis of one person's report (because, as an individual presbyter, I lack the authority to launch an investigation, especially on the basis of a single testimony) and encouraged them to contact a presbytery officer or  committee directly. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever did and they all eventually left their congregations. I found this frustrating, if for no other reason than that if their allegations were correct, other members would also suffer under these pastors.

Through these years, I also got calls from ministers in other OPC presbyteries about pastors in my presbytery. (Again, I'm not sure why they reached out to me in particular.) Once it was about a distressing visit to a worship service while in the area on vacation, another was because of controversial comments made on the interwebs and podcasts. The bad manners and lack of common decency of one man in my presbytery were frequently commented on throughout the denomination: an older minister once advised me, "You'll have to forgive him; that's just the way he is." In most of these cases, I was asked, "Is your presbytery doing anything about him?" In each case, I asked the minister to communicate his concerns in writing to the session of the pastor in question and/or to the presbytery so that these bodies would not be asked to rely on a second-hand account from me. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever did.

In the Venn diagram of the fellow presbyters in question, the two circles overlap considerably but not entirely. What unites them completely, of course, is the unwillingness of those who called me to take formal action, and this I blame on the OPC presbyters. Presbyters, especially ministers of Word and sacrament, are far better-equipped than ordinary Church members to raise concerns in the Church courts and get inquiries begun. Members, especially those who have suffered under spiritual abuse, are naturally timid around those with greater expertise and often feel that their voices will not be heard. Before they speak up, they need to see that allegations of abuse are taken seriously by those with authority and that presbyteries will respond wisely and justly to them.

If presbyters will not act to protect the sheep of other congregations, we should not be surprised when those sheep act to protect themselves without taking necessary and appropriate action regarding shepherds who do not conduct themselves in a manner worthy of their office. Don't blame the sheep for not reporting abuse: blame the shepherds.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The heart is deceitful above all things

A couple years ago, my presbytery was debating whether to proceed with the trial of a minister who had been charged with what amounted to tax fraud. (In presbyterianism, Church courts also function as judicial courts in which allegations of sin are tried in order to determine whether Church discipline is necessary.) For at least a few men, it seemed that before they could weigh the evidence, they first had to grapple with whether it was possible for the accused to commit such a sin. In fact, another pastor made a speech stating, "We all know in our hearts that [X] couldn't do this thing."

This episode is now being writ large for the entire Orthodox Presbyterian Church because of Jennifer Greenberg's recent "An Open Letter to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Regarding Abuse." Amongst other things, Mrs. Greenberg explains how she was abused by her father and (as a teenager) propositioned by an OPC minister. In this letter, her concern is less with the abuse itself and more with how her reports of it to pastors were met with inaction, excuses or milquetoast attempts at sympathy. There were no (to the best of her knowledge) reports to civil authorities or initiations of Church discipline. She finds this grievously offensive.

In the OPC as a denomination, it seems her officers and members are wondering to themselves (and out loud to others) whether such behavior and inaction is possible amongst our elders and presbyteries. I don't know whether anything Mrs. Greenberg has written is entirely accurate, since I've only read her side of the story. But I have been a minister of Word and sacrament in the OPC for twenty years, and I know from experience that everything she has written is entirely plausible: this is the denomination I have come to know reasonably well.

I hope those who interact with Jennifer Greenberg's blog won't get hung up on whether or not such things as she reports can happen. I don't know my own heart or the heart of any other person, but I do know the heart is wicked and deceitful and capable of all things (Jeremiah 17:9-10). What she reports could very well occur in the OPC: for those of us who are this denomination's officers, it is for us to determine what exactly occurred, what redress is necessary, and how to do much better in the future.

I know that anyone, even another pastor in my presbytery, is capable of great sin. Every presbyterian should not only confess the same, but act accordingly.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


George Scipione died yesterday.

He was my counseling professor in seminary and let me sit in on sessions one summer even though I wasn't enrolled in the official program. Skip had a strong personality and was kind of a piece of work, but he was always kind to me (which is not universally true of my seminary professors). Not just me, but as far as I could tell, to everyone. He had a natural gift for rubbing people the wrong way, but that was never his intention.

The last time I talked to him was a couple months ago, when he called me out of the blue. (This was before the cancer diagnosis; he was talking about plans for starting a retreat center for pastors in his retirement.) He had heard the rumors about the train wreck which is my pastoral career and just wanted to encourage me and pray for me. I wasn't surprised because that was Skip. I wish everyone knew that about him.

I was praying for him yesterday morning. I knew he was suffering, but I also knew he had spent much of his life struggling with various physical ailments. Suffering was something he knew how to bear. I thought about what I might tell people about him, and I realized the most obvious and important thing about him was that he loved Jesus. Really, really loved Jesus. At that moment, I was sad he was suffering, but even more I was happy for him because pretty soon he would be seeing Jesus in person. For Skip, I knew that would be as good as it could possibly get.

I am so happy for him now.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Whose hope of blessing on the Lord his God is stayed

One of my favorite Psalms is 146, which came to control my understanding of the world through Lowell Mason's paraphrase, Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, O My Soul (which is to be distinguished from Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, a paraphrase of Psalm 148:1-13; try to keep up). As the impeachment trial of Great Leader gets underway, I keep thinking of those American Christians who feel compelled to support him because all possible alternatives are worse and he defends their political interests. I am reminded of Psalm 146:3,
Do not put your trust in princes,
Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
I am once again grateful to be a Christian in these United States, founded on the remarkable premise that government exists to secure the rights and liberties of the citizenry. In these United States, said citizenry need not put its trust in princes or presidents, but in the rule of law as it is fundamentally expressed in the U.S. Constitution which secures a more perfect Union. If the rule of law is maintained in this nation, it is maintained by the insistence of said citizenry that its government officials must be accountable to the Constitution they are sworn to uphold.

I can't say I have an overabundance of trust in the massed citizenry of these United States, but I trust their confidence in our Constitution more than that of our current president, who described the emoluments clause as "phony." I hope my fellow Christian citizens will recognize that Donald J. Trump is the greatest existential crisis to the rule of law and any hope of restoring the Republic since Richard Nixon (which is saying something, given the presidents in between). Our hopes for the Republic and our standing in it cannot rest in the current president, but must be in the good providence of the Lord our God
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea, and all that is in them;
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners.
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
The LORD raises those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. (Psalm 146:6-9)
The Lord loves the righteous. Let us not love the unrighteous because we fear some unknown alternative. After all, "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Hallelujah, praise Jehovah,
O my soul, Jehovah praise;
I will sing the glorious praises
Of my God through all my days.
Put no confidence in princes,
Nor for help on man depend;
He shall die, to dust returning,
And his purposes shall end.

Happy is the man that chooses
Israel's God to be his aid;
He is blessed whose hope of blessing
On the Lord his God is stayed.
Heaven and earth the Lord created,
Seas and all that they contain;
He delivers from oppression,
Righteousness he will maintain.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History) is an entertaining presentation of the thesis that the culture of these United States tends to encourage the citizenry to entertain views and lifestyles not well-tethered to reality. In broad strokes, Kurt Andersen makes his case.

As a researched document, though, "Fantasyland" disappoints. Andersen has an annoying tendency to mention persons without giving their names. For example, this occurs twice on page 333, where he cites a "Pentecostal Christian author" and "the co-host" of the television program 20/20 without naming either. Obviously, these omissions make it difficult to check on his use of sources.

With regard to my areas of expertise (things Biblical, Christian and Church historical), Andersen disappoints still more. In footnote 12 to chapter 31, he describes Ephesians as having been "translated from ancient Hebrew to ancient Greek to Old Latin to New Latin to Middle English to Modern English…," which demonstrates breath-taking ignorance of Bible translation methodology and of the New Testament itself. In an earlier chapter, he identifies Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist, as an Episcopalian. Because his errors are so gross and unnecessary in this area, I suspect him of similar problems in the other fields he discusses.

Andersen has a provocative and fun argument to make, but I doubt he has backed it up very well. I'll continue to mull over his descriptions and ideas, but am not persuaded he writes from the realitiy-based perch which he seems to think he occupies. American may not actually be as haywire as he believes.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The sooner, the better

As always, my countrymen have been waiting with bated breath for an unemployed presbyterian minister of Word and sacrament to weigh in on current events, and I must pay heed to their wishes. Great Leader having been impeached by the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate must now hold a trial to determine whether he shall be removed from office. Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, has published an editorial which advises American Christians that they should favor such an action. Galli's thoughts have been met with cries of outrage and more measured criticism from the First Things website. Peter Leithart seems to view Great Leader as a ruler with whom we may not be entirely happy, but whose rule we should continue to accept. Carl Trueman finds Galli kind of judgy
and thinks the alternatives to Great Leader argue for his retention.

From the start, Trueman irritates me because of a deeply held belief that while foreigners have every right to criticize the foreign policy of these United States (since it does affect them), our domestic affairs are none of their business; doubly so when said foreigners are subjects of a hereditary monarchy. Writing not as a xenophobe but a jingoist, said foreigners have houses of their own to get in order before they start airing opinions about ours.

That's not just a cheap shot against the Windsors and their vassals, but an introduction to a more substantive issue: I was struck by how the three editorials discuss evangelicals as Christians, but not really as Americans. While our Christian identity is paramount in making our political decisions, we must make them as Americans. Englishmen must reckon with the fixedness of a monarchical parliamentary system without a written constitution in making their prudential policy judgments, but citizens of these United States live within a Constitutional republic.

This is where Peter Leithart goes astray. He writes, "…there’s a difference between selecting a president and retaining him. Once a ruler is in power, the demands of Romans 13 kick in." No they don't. In these United States, we owe allegiance to the Republic, not to any of its elected or appointed officials; our nation's officers swear to preserve and protect our Constitution, not our President. As Christians who are citizens of these United States, then, we must never submit to any particular official, for to do so would be to betray our primary loyalty (as citizens, not as Christians) to our Constitutional Republic. Instead, we submit to the Constitution and laws of our Republic, and are obliged, when necessary, to obey its provisions by calling to account and removing government officials who refuse or fail to faithfully discharge their duties.

For his part, Trueman asks what the alternatives to Great Leader might be, and can only find them amongst those currently contending for the Democratic party's nomination for the presidency. This is odd, since the most likely successor to Great Leader, in the event of his removal from office, is the current Vice-President (although it may not be entirely fair to fault a benighted monarchist for his ignorance of the arrangements of a constitutional republic). More broadly, it seems to me Trueman's argument belongs to a species which I find particularly annoying: we must vote for the lesser of two evils lest the greater prevail. The consequence, of course, is that we end up supporting evil, which is something I prefer to avoid.

I've been told this view is not practical, but so what? If Christians find themselves without influence in public policy because they refuse to cooperate with those who would co-opt them without honoring their convictions with anything other than empty words (looking at you, Republican party), it wouldn't be the first time since our Lord ascended. What practical ends are achieved by giving political power to someone who uses it for his own ends, not in faithful service to the citizens of these United States? What does it profit a man to retain some political influence if he must countenance or even endorse evil-doing?

This is where Galli's arguments are strongest.
If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?
…So we have done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view, to see the prudential nature of so many political decisions they have made regarding Mr. Trump. To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern. 
Like Carl Trueman, I'm not an evangelical; as a presbyterian, I maintain a bemused distance from those who appear to have a rather confused sacramentology and no ecclesiology whatsoever. Indeed, I tend to suspect "evangelicalism" describes a political disposition as much as it does a set of religious convictions, a suspicion sadly reinforced by the pronouncements of Jerry Falwell Jr. and the like. Still, I think that, as a group, they love these United States and want to know more about Jesus, which are sentiments I share. As fellow believers and countrymen, I assume they want what's best for this nation of ours.

Donald J. Trump is not that. He may not be the objective absolute worst, but he (and the Republican party's servile willingness to fall in line behind him) poses an existential threat to the future of the Republic. The sooner we are rid of him, the better.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A charge to a prison chaplain

(This charge was given to the Rev. Ken R. Honken on December 6, 2019 on the occasion of his installation as an evangelist by the OPC's Presbytery of the Midwest to serve as the world's best federal ladies' prison chaplain. An audio version can be found here.)

So Ken.

I was meditating on our Form of Government (as one does) and was struck by the peculiar fact that when an evangelist is to be ordained and/or installed, no provision is made for a charge to the congregation. This is in contrast to the installation of a pastor, when, as my father-in-law has just demonstrated to all here gathered, a charge to the congregation is entirely necessary. Why the difference?

The answer is evident upon a moment’s reflection: in a very real sense, an evangelist does not serve a particular congregation, and certainly not a congregation which must be charged to be faithful to its duties to him. But on the other hand, the Apostle Paul tells us the evangelist does have a very definite congregation whom he serves: the world.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) 

My parents were both Foreign Service officers, a career field which our current president’s travails have recently brought to the public’s attention. Having grown up in and around diplomatic missions, I’ve thought a great deal about how the Apostle describes the minister of Word and sacrament in this passage. An ambassador is a stranger in a strange land, representing the cause and interests of his government and uniquely empowered to speak on its behalf. In a very real sense, when an ambassador speaks, it is as though his entire government were speaking through him.

While every minister of Word and sacrament serves this ambassadorial function, it seems to me that none does so nearly so much as does the evangelist. When the pastor preaches to his congregation on the Lord’s Day, he speaks of the Kingdom of grace and glory to citizens of that Kingdom who have fled the kingdom of Satan that very day to hear their pastor’s ambassadorial proclamation from their King. The pastor is an ambassador, yes, but he speaks to fellow countrymen who share his expatriate status and long for the day when they will finally arrive at their homeland, the city which has foundations.

Not so the evangelist. He is alone amongst indifferent citizens of the kingdom of the Evil One, bringing them a strange message about a foreign King who demands their allegiance for himself. As an ambassador, the evangelist not only speaks the very words of his King to these people; in his life, he imitates the life of the King whom he serves. For did not that King leave his home, setting aside his royal rights, prerogatives and regalia to live as an alien in a foreign and unfriendly land? By imitating his King, by going to a hostile place to proclaim his King’s message to a hostile people, the evangelist recapitulates, he retraces the steps of his Lord’s own ministry.

And what is his King’s message? As I just mentioned, it is a demand that his hearers deny their worldly master and become our King’s servants instead. However, and mysteriously, this demand is framed as an appeal: “Be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So Ken. Whether in the military or in the federal prisons, you serve two masters: our Lord Jesus and the ruler of this present age, the government of these United States. We all have had to, in our own way, negotiate these dual loyalties, striving to not unnecessarily offend the civil magistrate while simultaneously performing intact all our duties to the Lord of heaven and earth. However, this universal attempt to faithfully serve both Caesar and our Lord is not what I want to talk to you about tonight.

The chaplain has many duties, and I readily concede and affirm that all of them are necessary to the proper discharge of his job. Chief amongst these are various and sundry administrative chores: services must be provided; reports of said services must be prepared; summaries of reports must be compiled and collated and cross-referenced. And it is, interestingly enough, these types of activities which seem to carry the most weight when promotions and advancement are considered. One understands, then, the tendency to give their efficacious discharge the highest priority when one is arranging one’s schedule.

I am the proud son of two federal bureaucrats, so let me be the first to urge you to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But more importantly, I am with you a fellow ambassador for Christ, and so I charge you to faithfully steward the message of reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself! He does not count their trespasses against them!

Therefore, I charge you to be ever mindful that God is, in all your work, at all times and in all places, making his appeal through you. In all you do, be faithful and implore all those in your path, on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God.

I’ve said the evangelist has no congregation, but as a prison chaplain you have a defined group of women whom you are to serve. They have taken no vows and owe you nothing, but you owe them everything. They are not your congregation, but you are, nonetheless, not to regard them according to the flesh. Instead, they are persons who may or who have already become new creations in Christ. Tell them the new has come. Tell them that we all may become the righteousness of God in Christ.

Implore them, as you must implore the world: be reconciled to God.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fertility & faith

Maybe it's just because my undergraduate major was in the social sciences, but I've long believed that sociology is more important than theology if one wants to understand functional ecclesiology. "Fertility, Faith, and a Secular America?" by Philip Jenkins is a treasure trove of information on the recent decline in fertility rates across the western world and, increasingly, in the rest of the world as well.

Jenkins makes an important demographic observation and offers a useful ecclesiological/theological point. The former is that religious participation rates across a nation tend to go down along with its fertility rates (the number of births per woman; the commonly accepted "replacement rate" to keep a population stable is 2.1). The secularization of western Europe accompanied a severe decline in population growth through reproduction (as opposed to immigration). His insight is that participation in religious communities is not the same thing as belief in religious tenets: an individual may hold to the basic Christian faith and at the same time not be a member of a local congregation.

These two come together because having children tends to drive men and women to participate in religious life; that family participation, in turn, enculturates their children into religious life and makes it more likely to continue when they are grown. In other words, "belief" and "belonging" are severable practices which Churches must strive to put back together. 

My inner sociologist was fascinated by the data Jenkins offers. For example, Iran's fertility rate has dropped below 1.7 and "[b]y some estimates, Iran’s rates of mosque attendance run at perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, and barely 3,000 of the country’s 57,000 mosques are fully operational." Demography may be the United States' best ally in containing the potential threat of the Islamic Republic.

Most interestingly, Jenkins is not concerned by these trends, but (as is only fitting for a Christian)
Finally, my argument isn’t that Euro-American religion is dying, but that it’s changing. Many millions believe without belonging, and that number will grow. The challenge for churches, then—for all churches—is to decide how to respond to this new world, so hostile to institutions and hierarchies, so resentful of intrusions into what’s so widely seen as private space and private morality. How do you speak to those who wish to believe, but dread belonging?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

A few observations whilst we frame our questions

Paul makes an interesting move after his blunt statement in 1 Corinthians 11:10, "That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." He seems concerned to preclude a patriarchal overinterpretation of his admonition and qualifies it by adding, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God."

•If all things are from God, then both man and woman are from God. In other words, woman is not subsidiarily derived from the man and related to God only through the man (or, by extension, her husband). If she is as immediately derived from God as is the man, then she enjoys all the privileges of access to God that he does.
•While the creation order of woman from man (1 Corinthians 11:8-9; Genesis 2:21-22) necessarily means that the man is the head of the woman and therefore the husband is head/authority over his wife, the subsequent providential order must be given equal weight. After Adam and Eve's creations, every man thence was born of a woman. While we must say that woman is derivative of man, we must also say that man is derivative of woman. Accordingly, we ought not get too carried away by considering only the creation order and ought also recognize the mutual derivation and interdependence of man and woman.
•The Apostle himself wants to guard against excessive emphasis and prescriptions in gender relationships.

From which we can conclude, at the very least: honor your mother.