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Opinion and Editorial

 

Ecumenical Relativism?

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI addressed Brazilian bishops on September 10. Read a translation here.

This particular quote struck me:

“In the first place, an erroneous view of ecumenism must be rejected that induces a certain doctrinal indifference that attempts to level, in an a-critical Ireneism, all ‘opinions’ in a sort of ecclesiological relativism”

I think that I often lean towards advocating a kind of ecclesiological relativism in my approach to ecumenism. Certainly not “believe whatever you want to believe” but beyond the core beliefs there is a wide field of adiaphora (things indifferent) or I might call them emphases. Methodist emphasize holiness, Uniting traditions emphasizes ecumenism, Disciples emphasize communion etc. How can anyone call any of those emphases untrue or not the church?

Maybe Pope Benedict’s emphasis is on the a-critical acceptance of all things simply because they have a Christian tradition. I do not believe that the field of adiaphora is a wide as some Protestant traditions want to believe it is. For example in faith and morals a Christian (individual or one’s tradition’s) stance on abortion, other life issues including euthanasia, the death penalty; sexual morality including gay marriage, contraception, premarital sex, IVF, etc. And of course the foundational matters of faith – the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, virgin birth, etc, etc.

Perhaps he was saying that these issues/questions must be reconciled before we can talk about what kind of diversity is acceptable in the Body of Christ. Diversity on these questions of faith and morals are unacceptable in a united church.

I believe there is fertile ecumenical ground to be explored between Evangelicals and Catholics for this reason; who both share rather similar views on these questions.


The Language of God – The UCC’s Latest Ad

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

The UCC has been building hype over the past few weeks for its latest advertisement which was released yesterday (April 16) exclusively on the internet. It was meant to go viral – the UCC asked members to post to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. It seems to be off to a good start with over 4,000 YouTube views as of 9:30 PM the day of launch (though there seems to have been an early problem with YouTube’s counter) and nearly 18 thousand views on vimeo.

This 90 second ad offers quite a different style though the same message as previous UCC ad campaigns. Specifically “Bouncer,” and “Ejector” which suggested that other Christian denominations actively discriminate against minorities, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and the LGBT community. “The Language of God” is much more subtle, and thankfully so. This new ad does not take cheap shots at the stereotypes of other Christian communities. Instead it  simply speaks from a UCC perspective; reaffirming its mission for abundant inclusion.

I appreciated the toned-down, not so in-your-face-progressive approach of “The Language of Love” ad. Still, it was quite underwhelming. For the most part it was a series of still photos set to music with words overlaid: “Compassion, Love, Community, Justice, Hope, Equality, and Praise.” All so very generic and vague. Words strung together, diluted of any real meaning. This has been done, and over done before in other sentimental Christian videos. Being a UCC insider I can understand the message of inclusion that was being presented, but will that be picked up by those outside the denomination (please leave your comments, non-UCCer’s), and outside the church? Also, one must question that underlying message – is this the only way the UCC wishes to identify itself?- That we are welcoming, period. Where is Christ in this self-identification?

While the ad was much more subtle about the UCC’s position on homosexuality, it was still present. There were a few seconds of a pastor mouthing the words “partners for life” in front of two women. Later there is a still photo of two men sitting on a couch with a child – perhaps a gay adoptive family. These might be easily missed if one wasn’t looking. The UCC is congregational which means that the denomination does not make decisions for the local churches. The questions of homosexuality within Christianity are still highly controversial, even within the UCC. For the UCC to decide at a denominational level its stance on a controversial issue and then advertise it as the stance of UCC churches everywhere is disingenuous to congregational governance. Many may disappointed when they walk into UCC congregations which are not Open And Affirming. Further, it suggests that the time for discussion has already passed on an issue which is settled.

The UCC message of the radical inclusion of God’s abundantly free grace is praiseworthy. This call for inclusion is of two tracks. 1) It affirms the catholic nature of the church – that its a faith for all ages, genders, races, nations, abilities (disabilities), and sexual orientations. 2) It is evangelical – the church is called to reach people wherever they are on life’s journey (to use the UCC tag line).

Some find offense at this wide call of welcome. But we must remember that it is aimed at those without church homes or those who have been hurt by the church with the hopes that they may come to discover the redeeming love of Christ. However, the call is not come as you are and stay as you are. God calls sinners, but does not expect them to remain so. The abundant welcome is not the end of the Gospel message – it is only the initial call. That is the kind of formation that is meant to happen in local churches, not a 90 second internet ad.

What did you think of the ad?


Canceling Worship

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Yesterday was the first time church was canceled due to snow since starting my pastorate. Our church certainly wasn’t the only one, but it still feels weird – canceling church?

I don’t recall it happening for me before. The church I grew up in was on a major road that was treated rather quickly in a snow emergency. Attendance may have dwindled on snow days, but I don’t recall cancellations. In college, a snow day actually helped church attendance – it was a minuscule town and the two churches were about the only places you could get to on a snowy Sunday. And then my seminary years were spent in sunny southern California – no breaks for the preacher between December and April out there.

Don’t hear me wrong – there was certainly good reason to cancel yesterday. This is a rural area and those mountain roads were horrible.

But, what does it mean to cancel church? Church cancellations were displayed on the local news channel and I couldn’t help but notice a few of them were worded “so-and-so church: morning worship canceled.” Worship is canceled? Could you imagine a town, state, or entire region in which God is not worshiped on a given Sunday morning? Or what about on a given day? Good thing it didn’t snow when Jesus died for our sins.

Let’s not mistakenly say that worship is canceled. It is at the very least a work-from-home situation. God must be worshiped – and not only on Sundays, but every day of our lives. It is our job as Christians, and God deserves it! I wonder how many Christians from yesterday’s canceled churches worshiped God at home versus how many thought they had the day off.

The physical gathering of the people of God may be impossible due to the weather; but our union as the Body of Christ is never hindered. The next time it snows on a Sunday remember that the gathering called “church” may not happen, but worship is never canceled.


8 Year Old Grasps Substitutionary Atonement

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Recently I shared a story about a boy who was sent to undergo psychological evaluations for drawing a crucifix to fulfill the assignment “draw something that reminds you of Christmas.” The boy’s family took him to The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette to view a Christmas display. In addition to the Christmas display were several crucifixes throughout the shrine. School administrators were concerned when the boy put his name above the Jesus figure. When asked about the drawing, the boy said the person on the cross was himself. He was sent for psychological evaluations which determined that the boy is not a threat to himself or others.

This boy may understand what many older and wiser people fail to see their whole lives. That Jesus died for our sins. The ten cent theological word for this is atonement. The idea that Jesus took punishment in our place is substitutionary atonement, an idea made popular in Western Christianity by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. It is also interesting that when thinking of Christmas, the boy immediately went to the cross. That Christ’s primary work on earth was his passion.

I think the school administration is right, it is crazy: That God became man in order to die for our sins. In the church we call this the mystery of Christ. It is a mystery many will spend a life time attempting to grasp.

For further reading:


Sexual Morality and Entitlement

Friday, December 11th, 2009

The question of homosexuality has sparked great controversy in the church over recent years. This past summer the ELCA dropped a rule forbidding the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. In 2005 the United Church of Christ became the first Christian denomination to endorse same-sex marriage at a national level. In 2003 the Episcopal Church (USA) elected Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the communion. Last week, the Los Angeles Diocese of the Episcopal Church has followed suit by electing a lesbian bishop who has been in a committed relationship for over 20 years.

These moves have had, and continue to have church splitting consequences. Liberal Christians invoke the name of social justice, equality, and point to Jesus’ interaction with other “undesirables.” Conservative Christians point to the Biblical condemnation of homosexual acts, and invoke the idea of “traditional marriage.” All the while groups on either side, and the middle, of the issue seemingly refuse to speak to one another. Both work hardily at their agenda – Liberals working within the church systems; Conservatives withdrawing from those systems and establishing entirely new ones. Given the already divided nature of the church, can a resolution to such an emotionally charged issue ever be reached? I simply don’t know. I hesitate to jump in the the debate by saying “this is right” or “this is wrong.” I want to try and take a step back and approach two foundational issues which I believe many are skipping right over.

As I observe the debates and news developments I can’t help but notice two underlying assumptions within this debate. That 1) Sex is morally neutral and that 2) Humans are entitled to sex. Both assumptions I believe are flawed.

To rephrase the first observation in the form of a question: Can sex be morally good or bad? Why is this question absent from this debate within the church? It seems to me the many Christians assume that yes, sex is morally neutral (though not in so many words).

The underlying assumption that sexuality is morally neutral: Sex is neither good nor bad, it is just another biological function like a bowel movement. I believe this perceived moral neutrality stems from the fact the sex is a private matter. In American society we assume a right to privacy, and along with that privacy comes an assumption of moral neutrality of all things private. If it doesn’t hurt anyone or if no one finds out, then it cannot be wrong/bad/evil/immoral. No harm, no foul. “Get the church out of my bedroom!”

As I read the Gospels, some of Jesus’ most condemning pronouncements were about things internal, and most private. Matthew 5 “You have heard it said ‘Do not kill’ but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother is guilty;” “You have heard it said ‘Do not commit adultery’ but I tell you that if you look at a woman with lust then you are guilty.” You have heard it said that sex is morally neutral, but I tell you that sex has moral consequences…

Sex is not morally neutral. It is full of moral decisions. Sex makes two one. How it is done, with whom and in what context does matter. See 1 Cor 6. Christians do not have a right to privacy from Christ. Just because something isn’t public doesn’t mean it is morally neutral.

I observe a second underlying assumption: that sex is an entitlement. That everyone some how deserves to have sex. It is this entitlement mentality that blurs the area between sexual orientation and sexual action. If you are straight you deserve to have straight sex; if you are gay then gay sex; if you are a teenager or young adult then promiscuous pre-marital sex…so long as you are “safe.” According to sitcoms you should expect sex by at least the 7th date. The Pill lets you have sex all the time without “risking” a pregnancy. A little blue pills helps little old men to continue to get-it-on. Sex is not an entitlement, it is a gift. Some Christian traditions even understand it as a vocation – one to which not everyone is called.

I don’t propose that I have any answers here, but I am suggesting that these two key question are absent from an already absent dialog between Christian in response to homosexuality. That is where we need to begin this debate…if we are ever to have one. As I see it people on both sides of the political-church agenda have already made up their minds and refuse to talk to one another as they advance their respective agendas.

What do you think? Are there other items missing from the discussion? What is your view on moral neutrality and sexual entitlement?


Asking the Right Questions in D.C.

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Headlines read that the archdiocese of Washington will end charitable support in the District of Columbia unless the same-sex marriage bill is voted down on December 1. This is an extreme misunderstanding of the situation. I encourage everyone to read the archbishop’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post which clarifies his position.

For clarification, Catholic Charities will not stop services in the district. However, if this bill passes in its present form they will have far less resources with which to accomplish their work because D.C. will refuse to extend contracts to the diocese. The denial of service will come from the district, not the other way around. This is because the district requires groups which receive grant money to certify that they comply with city laws – something the diocese will be unable to affirm because there is no religious exemption in the bill. For example, in order to receive city dollars, Catholic Charities would be required to offer adoption services to same-sex couples, a move which is against the church’s deeply held convictions.

Homosexuality is not the issue here, it is only the context. This law could be about any other issue which is at odds with the church and the same problems would surface. For example a bill which required all hospitals to perform abortions, or a bill that required all schools to distribute condoms to students – without religious exemptions.

Or to be completely ludicrous, imagine a bill which required every citizen to bow down and pray to a golden statue of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States. The city would tell churches “If you cannot comply with this law then we will not give you money for charity work.” What is the church to do? Compromise on its convictions and pray to that obscure golden leader? Or remain true to its deeply held convictions, turn their back on the golden idol, and lose a large portion of financial support for charities? This is the tight spot that the Archdiocese of Washington faces. There are many who would say “Good rittance, the church shouldn’t be getting government money anyway.” And that is the primary issue here.

Asking the right questions. Again, it is not a question about homosexuality; it is a question of church and state cooperation. Let’s ask the right questions in this particular context.

  • How should the church and state cooperate on social issues such as serving the poor?
  • What issues arise when money is involved in church/state cooperation?
  • What happens when church and state have contradictory beliefs? Who trumps whom?
  • What provisions should the state make to the church in order to allow it to maintain its convictions?
  • Has the cooperation between D.C. and Catholic Charities been a good thing up to this point?
  • Should there be a limit to religious exemptions to discrimination?
  • When (if ever) should the church compromise on its convictions in order to serve the poor?
  • To what extent should the state be able to force the church’s actions?

The Archdiocese of Washington is not blackmailing the city or throwing a tantrum to get their way. They are saying “I can see we disagree on this issue and that’s fine; we still want to partner with the city to help the poor. But, where is the respect for the church’s beliefs and our right to disagree?”

Please leave a comment if you can answer any of these questions, if you have a different opinion, or have anything to add to the discussion.


The XBox 360 Gamer’s Bible

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Finally gamers no longer have to put down their controllers in order to read the Bible. A Bible reader now exists for the Xbox 360. Now when you are finished killing Nazis, insurgents, zombies, aliens, or drug dealers you can crack open the letters of John (which are often called the love books in the Bible). See for yourself:


Why ain’t this your grandma’s church?

Friday, November 6th, 2009

elderlycrossingThe Christian radio station here offers free advertising to local churches. A pastor gets about a minute to tell about their church and invite newcomers to attend. One local church ended their ad with “This ain’t your grandma’s church.” Googling the phrase showed that it is a fairly popular advertising campaign among churches these days.

I can completely understand how this might appeal to youth culture: “Woah, look dude! That church is totally dope. They speak my language by using the word aint, I am totally going to check out that joint and give my life to Jesus!”

But what gives with hating on grandma? What has she ever done to the church besides attend faithfully over the years, offer brownies at every bake sale, and sing every hymn even when others were too afraid to sing? Grandma doesn’t turn away the young folk. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard an elderly lady tell me “it is so wonderful to see young people in church these days.” So why are these churches saying grandma ain’t welcome here?

Okay, okay. I’m sure that’s not what they are saying. I’m sure The Ain’t Grandma’s Church wouldn’t turn away old folk at the door – but don’t think you are going to come in here and make us sing hymns (from hymnals and with an organ!), sit in pews, or wear choir robes! No ma’am! That’s, well that’s just…old.

Don’t down play the old people. An inter-generational Bible study played a significant role in the development of my calling to Christian ministry. I was 15 at the time. There were also young adults, working parents, and retired people more than 4 times my age. I am eternally grateful for their wisdom and guidance that old folk have offered me personally and the church as a whole. The counsel of scripture is clear that the elderly are a vital part of the church and ought to be honored.

Old church folk are full of wisdom. They will be the first ones to say “What does the Bible say about this? Maybe Oreos and milk are NOT proper elements for communion. No, you cannot play soccer in the sanctuary. Stop texting, you are in church! Speak up pastor, don’t you know I’m old?”

This Sunday give grandma a hug at church and tell her that she is most welcome here – that it sure is nice to see old folk in the church these days. The Church teaches that Christianity is universal. That is, it extends through all of time and is for all peoples; regardless of race, gender, or age. I’m tired of the church continuing to segment itself, especially by age. If this ain’t grandma’s church, I’m not so sure it can be called a church at all.

Do you belong to an Ain’t Grandma’s Church? How does your church honor it’s elders?


All Saints-o-ween

Sunday, November 1st, 2009
Jesus-o-latern

Jesus-o-latern

At church this morning it looked like a few kids were showing off their Halloween costumes from the night before. My wife pointed out that they were dressed as saints. I thought for a moment “Wow, those are some really conservative parents – making their kids wear saint costumes for Halloween.” But on the other hand there is some very scary stuff in those saint stories.

Well, it turns out that the kids were dressing up for All Saints Day. The kids pick a saint, do a bit of research, and then dress up in commemoration of their chosen saint.

What a wonderful way for the church to interact with our modern culture! (Unlike the poor example of interacting with cutlure pictured above) There is the obvious connection to dressing up in costumes this time of year. But there is also the concept of heroes for children. Just think of all the comic books turned into movies in recent years: Spider Man, Batman, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, G.I. Joe, and the rest. Also all of the sports and pop-star heroes who children admire. We have no shortage of these heroes and role models within the faith. We call them saints.

Instead of fighting culture this is one example in which the church is able to teach our faith and history in a culturally engaging way. Did children in your church dress up for All Saints Day? What are some other ways the church has successfully interacted with modern culture?


Christianity Today: Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Christianity Today published an article yesterday (Oct. 29) highlighting a church controversy which is getting special treatment in the modern day – the theology of justification. In simple terms, how do you answer to the question “how are sins forgiven, and how do you get into heaven?”

The article highlights the actions of an evangelical Christian group, InterVarsity, in their attempts to bar Roman Catholics from leadership positions.

My synopsis:

The article talks about how the statement of faith for InterVarsity simply stated in 1960 that “justification is by faith alone.” In 2000 the statement was revised to “justification is by God’s grace to all who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.”

Catholics could not sign the first statement (it is condemned by Trent) but they could sign the second because the church has always taught that salvation is through Christ alone.

Now InterVarsity folks want to undo the 2000 statement and go back to “by faith alone” and not allow anyone on leadership who cannot affirm this.

….where have I heard this kind of anti-Catholicism before?

Chick Tract

Chick Tract

My comment:

It’s interesting to note the focus and source of justification for each of the two statements. “justification by faith alone” makes the one who believes their own redeemer whereas “…faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation” makes Christ unequivocally the author of salvation. I am lost in attempting to understand why one would want to remove Christ from a statement on justification! On top of that, the move is done explicitly for the purposes of excluding Roman Catholics. Doesn’t the second present a more full, accurate, biblical, and ecumenical approach to justification?

As a Protestant Christian (even evangelical!) I could not, in good conscience, sign that first statement. I think InterVarsity is excluding more than just our Catholic brethren here.

For further reading:

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification – signed between the Vatican and the Lutheran Church in 1999. It lifts the anathemas of the council of Trent (see 41), and explains more fully what Protestants really mean when we say “salvation is by faith alone.”

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision – Haven’t read this yet, but I love just about everything from N.T. Wright. This work is mentioned in the Christianity Today article.