How Can The Church Thrive In A Non-Christian World?

If our churches have to be a little more uncomfortable to us insiders in order to reach even one lost soul for Christ, that’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.

By Ed Stetzer, The Exchange.

73011As we all know, it’s election season. This isn’t ever a rosy time for America, filled with rainbows and warm hugs. But if the political season of 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that the United States is culturally confused. Competing narratives vie for attention, as we’re trying to figure out just who we are as a country. There was a time in our history when it seemed like everyone was a Christian. Now, depending on where in America you live, it can seem like no one is a Christian.

Are we losing our Christian heritage? Were we ever a Christian nation to begin with? And how should churches respond to all of this?

However you read our country’s history, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we have reached a cultural tipping point. Our society no longer assumes the gospel, which means the Church often stands at odds with the rest of society. That may make us uncomfortable and frightened. We like being in the majority.

But the gospel is always clearer in an age when it is not culturally assumed. The Early Church thrived in the midst of a hostile non-Christian world—not because they were more numerous or more powerful, but because they were both .


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Unglued Church — Our Churches: Originals or Old Copies?

Figuring out who we are as times change

By Ayana Teter, Presbyterians Today.

Empty board on wooden tableRecently, I was invited to share my thoughts on the “big-picture” view of my church.  I had the honor of sharing in a panel with a group of Presbyterian pastors from the Middle East.  As Christians they were the minority in their national culture.  As Presbyterians they were the minority among their Christian brothers and sisters.  As such, they had to be intentional about nurturing the faith in their youth and cultivating character in their families and making disciples who could be the salt and light in their communities.  And, though I have no first-hand experience of the lives they live, I was struck by the beauty and challenges they faced in their journey of faith.

As I prepared to answer the same questions, the strangest image popped into my mind.  It was the image of a flier.  You see, when I was a kid, if you wanted to get a group of people together you would make a flier.  And, then you would stick it up on a wall for something like a school pep rally or weekend party in the hopes of spreading the word and inviting others.

But, since that was the day before digital social media it would always take a little creative work to make the fliers.


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Your Unchurched Neighbors Are Not Unreachable

They are more open than you think.

By Eric Metaxas, Christian Post.

Your unchurched friends are not unreachable. How do I know? They’ve said so themselves.


Eric Metaxas

We’ve all heard the statistics about the growth of the religiously unaffiliated in America — the sociologists call them the “nones” — those who don’t belong to any church or denomination. We’ve seen the effects of a secular worldview displacing America’s Judeo-Christian consensus, with the decline of religious liberty, respect for life, and marriage. On top of all this, some of the churches best known for doing evangelism are declining, with fewer and fewer of their members sharing the good news of Jesus. In our guts we can feel the cultural ground moving beneath our feet, and it’s unnerving.

It’s no wonder that evangelizing our unchurched neighbors can seem like a daunting task. More and more of them are downright hostile to the things of faith, right? Wrong!

That’s not my opinion — it’s straight from a new online survey of 2,000 unchurched Americans from LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. The survey reports that nearly four in five of those who haven’t been to church in the last six months — except for weddings and funerals — say they don’t mind talking about faith if it’s really important to a friend. Not only that, but 47 percent say they will discuss religion freely if the subject comes up. Nearly another third say they’ll listen without responding. Remember, we’re only talking here about people who don’t go to church!


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A Shadow of Former Things: PCUSA General Assembly Post Mortem Analysis

From my seat on press row looking back at observer seating during GA222 debate of the apology overture

From my seat on press row looking back at observer seating during GA222 debate of the apology overture

There seemed little reason to be meeting in a space as large as the Portland Convention Center as the exhibit hall was nearly empty as were the bleachers and most of the chairs in the section for observers of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Press row was a mere 11 chairs, four occupied by The Layman, four by The Presbyterian Outlook, one by the GA Junkie, and none by secular press.  So, if you were waiting for secular news media coverage of the PCUSA General Assembly (GA222), there wasn’t much. The Associated Press did seek to disperse one article entitled “Largest Presbyterian denomination picks 1st black leader,” in reference to the election of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as the fourth Stated Clerk of the PCUSA.

It’s not that Presbyterians didn’t garner big headlines last week, it just wasn’t the Presbyterians in the PCUSA. The PCA, Presbyterian Church in America, made plenty of headlines for its renewed conversation about the role of women in leadership, while the PCUSA’s election of a pair of female co-moderators in the 50th year of the ordination of women failed to make a media ripple.  Similarly, the PCA’s repentance of “racial sin” also made national headlines whilst the PCUSA’s many apologies issued to several native people groups, African Americans or victims of church sexual abuse did not.  The PCUSA’s own Presbyterian News Service, The Presbyterian Outlook and The Layman were joined in the press section by bloggers but no other Christian media outlets were physically present.

Why did the biennial meeting of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country garner so little attention? Well, news outlets like extremes and from a worldly perspective, nothing particularly explosive happened. Volatile items of business like that related to Israel and fossil fuels, were answered in measured ways.  The so-called “apology overture” in which LGBTQQ advocates were demanding a public and comprehensive apology for harms done in the past, was amended down to a statement of deep regret.
So, from the world’s perspective, little news was made during the eight day meeting that costs more than $33K/hour. But one must also consider the possibility that the lack of media coverage is an indicator of the world’s disinterest in the machinations of a declining denomination wherein the debates are now largely between varying degrees of liberalism.
The world has little interest in the fact that the PCUSA GA:

The second mark of the Church: the right administration of the sacraments

According to Reformed theology there are three marks of the true church: where the word is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and church discipline rightly applied.  The first and third marks have been at issue among American Presbyterians since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s. But to this point, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been maintained, at least in the denomination’s documents, with integrity. The new Directory for Worship adopted by the General Assembly effectively decouples baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table.

Efforts were made by commissioners to amend the proposal to restore the explicit requirement that those receiving communion be baptized.  Those efforts failed and the debate was illustrative of the reality that pastors are not currently administering the sacraments in keeping with the PCUSA’s constitution. They are not asking if those partaking are baptized and they are offering to baptize those they know are baptized into the Christian faith. This leads directly into the conversation about the assembly’s action on evangelism … but first, let’s talk evolutionary theory.

Embracing evolution and eschewing evangelism

In several separate items of business the PCUSA affirmed evolutionary theory and eschewed evangelism.

In 1969, the PCUSA started down an evolutionary path that resulted in the 2016 full endorsement of evolution. Evolution and climate change were not matters of serious debate but treated as foregone conclusions by a wide majority of commissioners.

A majority of commissioners also rejected calls for a commitment to evangelism.

I couple these two issues together because of the Gospel. If you do not accept the reality of Man’s unique creation in God’s image, you need not accept so-called binary ideas like the purposeful nature of male-female creation. Nor do you need to acknowledge that Creation, in God’s original design, was perfect, marred by sin and now subject to sin’s degradation.  So, if sin is not personal then redemption from sin need not be personal, effectively eliminating the need for a personal savior.  That changes the nature of the Gospel.

Evangelism becomes something radically different and the first Great End of the Church, “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind,” means a social-justice, progressive restoration of creation and not the seeking and saving of the spiritually lost.

When you change the gospel being proclaimed you redefine the mission of the church. That means that henceforth, when you see the word “evangelism” used in PCUSA literature related to local, national and international mission, you must now ask what is expressly meant by that term because this General Assembly made clear that it does not mean personal conversion to Jesus Christ alone as Savior and Lord, by faith alone, through grace alone, as defined by Scripture alone.

There can no longer be any question that Machen was right when he observed that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. The PCUSA has made abundantly clear which faith alone will be practiced under its denominational flag.

All of which leads to how the PCUSA GA222 could sit still and receive prayers contrary to both the Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Muslim prayers to Allah 

For many, the most troubling aspect of the entire GA222 happened at the very beginning of the week, during Saturday’s opening worship service.

Mateen Elass, who speaks Arabic and has a lifetime of experience with Islam, addresses the issue better than I could. He says:

“as a token sign of its expansive tolerance, a Muslim was invited to participate in leading this liturgy. His name is Wajdi Said, president of the Muslim Educational Trust in the Portland area.

When it was his turn to lead, Mr. Said began by chanting in Arabic, most but not all of which was translated into English on the screen for the ignorWajdi_Finalant participants. Hardly anyone there, I’m guessing, had any idea where the words Mr. Said chanted came from. The first sentence was not translated — apparently, Wajdi threw that in on his own. This is what he said: “I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed.” Within the Muslim world this is a common interjection when one fears the presence and power of evil spirits. Since Islam teaches that Christians and Jews who reject the claims of Muhammad are the vilest of creatures, under the sway of Satan, it is not surprising he would begin with this intercessory prayer for himself. Apparently, he need not have worried.

The remainder of his Arabic chanting was the most well-known chapter of the Qur’an, the Fatiha, which observant Muslims recite a minimum of seventeen times a day. Often called “the Mother of the Qur’an,” this chapter composed of seven verses, is a prayer to Allah. Its main request is that the petitioner be led on “the straight path,” that is, the path revealed through Muhammad, and not be misled on the paths either of those who have incurred Allah’s wrath (popularly understood to refer to the Jews), or of those who have gone astray (popularly understood to mean the Christians). So here at the start of the business of the PCUSA General Assembly is a Muslim man praying to the Allah of the Qur’an that the gathered delegates be led to Islam and away from the cursed Jews and the wayward Christians. What an uplifting way to begin the national meeting of a denomination once faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ….

After he finished this chanted prayer of Islam, Mr. Said then spoke a seemingly extemporaneous prayer in English seeking blessing, where he once again invoked Allah’s power to “…lead us to the straight path, the path of all the prophets, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, Moses and Jesus, and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. Amen.” To the untrained theological ear, this may sound somewhat innocuous. But in his prayer Mr. Said made three bold claims antithetical to the gospel:

  1. Praying to Allah (a god different from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ), he was pleading that the Presbyterians gathered there would be converted to the straight path, i.e., become Muslims. That is the definition of chutzpah, to use a Yiddish term.
  2. He revealed the Islamic belief that all true prophets were in fact Muslims, i.e., believers in the straight path that Muhammad taught. In other words, there is no plan of salvation that God is unfolding, pointing to the coming of a Messiah for the world, but only a static message which prophets have been repeating unchanged from the time of Adam, the message of surrender to Allah and his will, to be rewarded or punished for eternity depending on how well or poorly you please him.
  3. Jesus is only one among these numerous prophets. To be sure, he has high ranking in the prophetic pantheon, but like all the rest he is only human.According to Islam,  Jesus is no mediator between God and humanity, he has no divine nature, he did not die for the sins of humanity, he was not raised from the dead, he did not open the way for the Holy Spirit to indwell and transform human beings into his likeness, he is not the Lord and Savior of humanity. 

Elass goes on to catalog a list of theological concerns

  • a practicing Muslim is invited to lead the worship of Christians
  • he invokes the name of Allah in Islamic prayer, and prays the anti-Jewish, anti-Christian prayer of the Fatiha
  • he asks Allah to convert the assembly
  • his prayer implicitly denies biblical  salvation history pointing toward the culmination of the Incarnation of God the Son into this world for our salvation
  • he disparages the person of Jesus by demoting him as “one of the prophets” without any corrective from Christians present
  • the liturgy he leads is woven from Qur’anic passages, with no Biblical input

Elaas concludes his blog by observing that:

Many liberal Presbyterians have castigated evangelicals for leaving the denomination over the diminished place accorded Jesus in the life of the PCUSA. The theological left says this is nonsense, that the PCUSA still stands for the unique lordship of Jesus, and for the truth that salvation is uniquely through him. But if the denomination lets stand this travesty, they will show once and for all that their words have no meaning.

Now, it is important to note that following receipt of a letter of protest from 25 Korean commissioners, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly issued an apology that some were offended – but he not apologize for the offense itself.

Those who were holding out hope that the PCUSA’s commitment to Jesus Christ was exclusive, need hope no longer. And the “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” document to which they continuously point as evidence of their commitment is on the same dusty shelf as the 1991 Evangelism document this GA denied to celebrate.

Fall out: Per Capita is going up

After all the financial implications of the assembly’s action were taken into account, the PMA is saddled with absorbing more than $450K in new programming demands without any identification by the assembly of new funding sources.  Other measures approved by the assembly will be offset by increasing per capita assessments — a per member tax — by 17 cents in 2017 and 18 cents in 2018.

In context, per capita rose a full dollar in the six years from 2011 to 2017 — and $1.58 in the eight years from 2010 to 2018.

  • 2010 $6.15/member of the PCUSA
  • 2011 $6.50
  • 2017 $7.50
  • 2018 $7.73

Per capita increases are driven by two inversely related forces: rising budgets and falling membership.  And while the GA rejected evangelism, the OGA projected year over year membership losses through 2020 of an additional 400,000 members.

Seven or eight dollars per member may not sound like a lot of money but by the time synods and presbyteries attach their per-capita demands, local churches are expected to pay $30-40/member.  In a time when more than half of the denomination’s 9,800 congregations are already financially distressed, the per capita increase is not going to come as welcome news from the assembly.

It’s difficult to see how the decisions of this most recent GA — which were largely socially progressive — help those struggling congregations that are overwhelming white, rural, small and aging.

Indeed, there were many other actions taken at the assembly — Jerry Andrews preached a fine sermon, organizations held lunches, seminaries held receptions, course was reversed on synod reorganization, a commission was created to deal with institutional structural demise, and again, apologies were issued to many groups wronged by the denomination throughout time. But in the end, little was done that will better enable local congregations to reach their neighbors with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in the way that the Church throughout the ages has defined it.

The next meeting of the General Assembly will be held in St. Louis, Mo. in the summer of 2018.  By then, this year’s shadow of things past will be longer still.  



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The Church’s Next 10,000 Years

When considering the future, could our vision be much too small?

By Daniel Darling, Christianity Today.

A large group of people in the shape of the church. Isolated, white background.

It was a slick PowerPoint—presented by a (self-described) cutting-edge ministry practitioner—that sent me over the edge. Carefully presenting cherry-picked research, this ministry leader offered a doomsday scenario for the American church: heresy is rising. Millennials are fleeing. Culture is changing.

Of course, this inevitable slouch toward Gomorrah could be prevented, we were told, if we purchased this organization’s brand-new curriculum.

If I sound cynical about the demise of the church, it’s because I am. I read Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18 and I believe them: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” I’m bullish about the future of the church because Jesus is bullish about the future of the church.

And not only “the church” as we think of the worldwide communion of saints, but your church, my church, and every local expression of Christ’s body. Healthy churches are not formed simply through handwringing, navel-gazing, or trend-setting, but through an appreciation for the past, a clear-eyed view of the present, and a fixated march toward the future—and not just any future, but the approaching kingdom of God.


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Donald Trump needs the Presbyterian Church

by Henry G. Brinton, Senior Pastor, Fairfax Presbyterian Church

Donald Trump went to a service at a Presbyterian Church in Iowa last Sunday and said that his faith meant “a lot” to him. I’m glad that he considers himself to be a Presbyterian — not because he is a good one, but because he needs the perspective of the denomination.

We Presbyterians believe in:

1. The sovereignty of God. One of our central beliefs is that no one is as great as God, and all things are under God’s rule and control. We are God-centered, not human-centered. One of our statements of faith is The Scots Confession of 1560, which describes God as “eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, [and] omnipotent.” God is the one who has created “all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible.”

In his book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, Trump describes himself as “a great builder” with a Trump brand that is “one of the world’s great icons of quality and excellence.” He wants to build a wall to control illegal immigration and a powerful military to stand up to any and all foes. In such a human-centered approach, the president has tremendous rule and control, and Trump dreams of using this power to “make America great again.”

But Presbyterians believe that only God has this kind of power.

2. The danger of idolatry. Presbyterians understand that our love for God and other people can easily be corrupted by love of money, sex and earthly power. Trump is proud of having “built a great company and a massive net worth.” One of his Atlantic City casinos had an in-house strip club, and in his book The Art of the Comeback he speaks about his “experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women.” He enjoys the power he wields in the world of business, and would like to have similar influence in politics.

But money, sex and earthly power are idols. Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller calls them “counterfeit gods,” and argues that they cannot give us what we really need. Money and sex are stumbling blocks for many elected leaders, and the exercise of unilateral power is rarely an effective strategy for a president.

3. Total depravity. This hallmark of the Presbyterian tradition asserts that everything is tainted by sin, even our best intentions. Jesus himself said, in response to a rich man, that “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). Total depravity does not mean that everything is evil, but instead that we cannot find perfection anywhere in this world. Such an understanding keeps us humble and aware that we all stand in need of forgiveness.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid/Vibe Images via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid/Vibe Images via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon

Trump should be reminded of this doctrine, because he said in an interview on CNN, “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.” But total depravity is a reminder that everything is tainted by sin, included a statement such as “I am good.” Such a positive self-description is a clear sign of the sin of pride.

The sovereignty of God. The danger of idolatry. Total depravity. Donald Trump needs to hear this kind of Presbyterian preaching. And maybe some is breaking through — after listening to the Scripture at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, he said, “I have more humility than people think.”

Since we all need to grow in humility, I’m glad he’s been sitting in a Presbyterian pew.


To read the article as first published: Donald Trump Needs the Presbyterian Church

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The silent war of the Church

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By Peter Lee, The Exchange.

I was asked to preach at a church where I chose as my text 1 Pet. 4:12-13. Afterwards, many approached me with words of appreciation for the message. One person, however, made a comment that I have pondered since. The comment was, “Your message was difficult to apply since my life is not filled with the persecution that you spoke of.” If you are a Christian who lives in America, then you may find the words of the Apostle Peter difficult to appreciate also. After all, he describes Christians suffering due to their faith in Jesus Christ (see 1 Pet. 2:19; 3:14). Although the church in America can be described in many ways, I am not certain that “persecuted” is the one that would immediately jump out at us. At least, not when compared to the frightening reality of so many of God’s churches in other parts of the world where they follow Christ while literally fearing imprisonment, torture, even death! We find such experiences absolutely shocking and we must remember these churches regularly in our times of prayer.

The church is at war. It is impossible not to come to this realization in light of the atrocities committed against Christians throughout the world. While we should be thankful to the Lord for providing a secure place for us to grow in our spiritual disciplines, we would do well to remember that the church in America is also at war. Whether we acknowledge it or not does not change this theological fact. When we reflect on the strategies that Satan would implement against the church, we should keep in mind that the evil one is shrewd. Just as he manipulated the situation in the Garden so many millennia ago to lead God’s people astray, so he remains devious in his tactics today. Militant oppression against the church would not be effective in silencing the preaching of the gospel in our society which is already horrified by the brutality of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. This would lead to greater outcry and sympathy for the cause of the church in America.

Consider this thought: a strategic method of Satan in America is to engage in a “silent war,” one that is so subtle that the church can easily forget its true nature and the identity of their true enemy. In other words, one way in which the evil one persecutes the church in American is by not persecuting the church in America! Allow the American dream of prosperity dominate the values of the average Christian.
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The Layman answers the Moderator’s Call to the Church

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has issued a Call to the Church that presents an unprecedented opportunity to re-think how the PCUSA is organized, how it operates, how it treats those seeking to realign with other Presbyterian denominations and how it bears authentic witness in the world today. 

The call for a restoration of trust is a public admission that trust has been breached. The Moderator has made that admission but he has done so on behalf of agencies, bodies and judicatories that have not, to this point, admitted that they have violated the trust of their members and congregations. Nor have the trust violators indicated a willingness to repent and commit themselves to a “whatever it takes” posture in order to restore trust. That is not to say that it won’t happen. That is just to say that to this point, the trust violators are not the ones calling for a radical change of course. 

The Moderator’s call centers on a process that he hopes will restore trust.  In the statement, he says, “I ask our … people who have felt disenfranchised, people from different theological positions … to participate actively and expeditiously in order that we might gather data which can help our Portland General Assembly next June to make informed and healthy decisions about our future.” The Layman accepts the Moderator’s call to participate in such a process by raising up disenfranchised evangelical, conservative and theologically orthodox voices and concerns.  We are initiating here “active engagement” in the Moderator’s call with the hope of stimulating others to join in the conversation. 

So, what is trust and how can it be restored? 

Assured reliance highlighted in blue, under the heading Trust

What is trust? 

Trust implies truthfulness and requires honesty. Organizationally the word is “transparency.” So, the Moderator might start by posting the full line item budget of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Office of the General Assembly so that the members of the church can actually see what their monetary gifts are being used to fund.  A second step of transparency would be releasing the million dollar report produced by Alston-Byrd that resulted in the removal of four members of the PMA staff earlier this year.

But we all know that trust is a deeper and more personal issue than transparency in governance.  Trust is a mutual peace, freedom and ease in a relationship where both parties are committed to each other in such a way that the interest of the whole is set above the interests of the parts. In the spirit of Philippians 2, it is regarding others as better than self and sacrificing self for the good of the whole.  The Moderator points out the necessity of the restoration of this when he talks about the reality of “teritoriality.” 

How can trust be restored? 

#1. The question must be honestly asked and answered, “Is there a willingness to be reconciled?”trust quote

For some, on both sides of the breach, the answer to that question is “yes” and for others, on both sides of the breach, the answer is “no.”  It’s not just theologically conservative Presbyterians who feel betrayed and disenfranchised. Those who consider LGBTQ concerns as a genuine justice issue are not — and should not be — satisfied with a denomination whose mind is split on the issue. Allowing for gay ordination and allowing for same-sex marriage is not full acceptance and it is not celebration. The trust chasm is wide and there are those on both sides who are not genuinely interested in seeing it bridged.  As much as the right wants to evangelize the left, the left wants to evangelize the right – and both believe that they have discerned the mind of Christ on the matter – which means they are not likely to give up their position for in-so-doing they would be betraying their conscience. 

#2. For those who genuinely do want to be reconciled and participate joyfully together in the resurgence of a renewed, redesigned PCUSA, the first step may be to allow those who do not want a future together to leave peaceably.  So, where the restoration of trust is possible among some within the PCUSA, there are others who need to be allowed to leave in order that those who remain can rebuild trust among a willing, committed body that intends to be the PCUSA in new ways in the future. On both ends of the theological spectrum, exit ramps may need to be created and blessed. 

A few concrete steps the Moderator might lead the denomination to take in that direction include: 

  • The creation of a safe space for teaching elders to pursue their calling without threat of trials, defrocking, other vindictive actions by their presbyteries, and loss of productive pastoral calls. The transferability of evangelical clergy in the PCUSA is virtually stagnated. Committees on Ministry that are using pro-gay-marriage litmus tests and fidelity-to-the-PCUSA pledges prior to allowing a candidate to be considered for a call must be reigned in. 
  • The provision of a reasonable way for churches who desire to depart to do so peaceably with their property. This might be accomplished by a time delimited (2-3 year) suspension of the “trust clause” and the implementation of a fair process. This would necessarily include the relief of churches who wish to enter discernment from punitive and unreasonable administrative commissions.  This might also include the creation of a route to appeal unreasonable actions by AC’s. 
  • The development of a means of and encouragement for the expression of our divided denomination within local churches that find themselves theologically divided.  Teaching elders across the theological spectrum, should be encouraged to express the intrinsic unity of the Body of Christ universal, while recognizing – rather than ignoring – the very divided understanding and application of His message to us today. 

Speaking from one identifiable side of the trust divide

The position of The Layman has not changed but we recognize that the PCUSA has changed substantially in recent years. We will continue to speak the truth about Jesus as the only way to salvation, the Bible alone as the Word of God and the call to holiness that includes all aspects of human life, including sexuality. We recognize that we do what we do in a broken denomination and in a culture that is broken in many of the same ways. We believe that the Word of God must be restored to its rightful place in the life of the church, that the church might be restored to the rightful place in the life of the culture, that the Lord might be glorified and people edified.  So, we will love our neighbors regardless of the disagreements that arise as a result of conflicting beliefs about marriage and ordination and we will participate in the process envisioned by the Moderator with those who may disagree with us for the sake of the common good. 

The Moderator has indicated that the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly will take the lead, admitting that trust does not even exist among PCUSA agencies. The Moderator said, 

“I hear the concern that some people feel which suggests that if we rely on one area of our denomination to take the lead in this process, they may be tempted to control the outcome so that their interests will be served.  They feel the same way about any other agency or body taking the lead.  This is not a specific condemnation of COGA. Instead it is a general suspicion and unrest with our organization.  When the Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) discussed tackling this issue, they recognized that their position needed to be clear and that any bias or preferred outcome from them should not have any more influence than those of other bodies.  I am convinced that they believe this and will utilize objective processes and procedures including resources outside of our denomination which can help us hear the will of our membership.”

While The Layman sees the importance of hearing from people, this is the Church and hearing God’s authentic and authoritative voice through the Scriptures must come first. Coming to one mind in the matters before the PCUSA is useless unless the one mind arrived at is the very mind of Christ. 

Additionally, for those within the PCUSA who now see The Layman as “outside of our denomination,” we welcome the Moderator’s inclusive call that the disenfranchised not be excluded from the conversation about the positive possible future for the PCUSA.  We look forward to being invited to participate in the process on behalf of those in the PCUSA who feel disenfranchised by a myriad of changes in the denomination’s theology, practice and witness over the past 50 years. 




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The opposite of restoring trust

Leadership, by its most basic definition, includes the ability to see beyond what those following cannot yet see. Vision, foresight, planning and protecting your organization from avoidable pitfalls are part of being a leader.  Good leaders generally want to make decisions that result in organizational health and growth — and avoid catastrophe.  All of which makes the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s appointment of Tony de la Rosa so curious, especially in light of the moderator’s “call to the church” for immediate action. 

It all happened in a matter of 30 minutes on Wednesday. 

To understand what transpired requires a brief survey of the players. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a body with many parts and several heads. The three heads in this narrative are:

  1. the Stated Clerk, who is the head of the Office of the General Assembly,
  2. the Moderator, who is the head of the General Assembly, and
  3. the Executive Director, who is the head of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

These are the three people who “speak” for the denomination. It is over their signatures that letters are sent to the President of the United States, Congress, the media and other denominations.  One of those heads, Linda Valentine, resigned from the position of Executive Director in June.  The Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, is now a lame duck following his announcement that he will not seek another term. Which leaves the Moderator, Heath Rada, who is mid-way through his two year term and still confident that the bridges he promised to build in a divided denomination are possible. 

Rada ran for moderator on a platform of bridge-building. I believe he sincerely desires for the denomination to find peace and move beyond its current intractable problem:  divergent understandings of the Gospel, divergent understandings of Biblical authority, divergent understandings of moral and ethical behavior, divergent understandings of the relative freedom of conscience, and divergent understandings of the right role of the church in politically partisan advocacy.  Bridging those chasms takes more than the will of one man, even when that man is the Moderator. 

trust2Which is why Rada’s heartfelt “Call to the Church” is so important. He is right in his observations that this is a critical time in the life of the PCUSA. The decisions and actions made in the coming months will either turn the proverbial tide or accelerate the current slide into irrelevance. 

Rada’s message was received with a standing ovation from all who heard it at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s meeting. But what happened next? Did the chair suspend the agenda and create space for the consideration of the moderator’s proposal? No. Did someone rise to make a motion that would actually produce some action? No. What happened instead was more like a gut punch for those who might have been hoping for the PMAB to “get it.” 

Couched in the language of hope, the Chair of the PMAB, Marilyn Gamm, announced the appointment of Interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency: Tony de la Rosa. 

Toward the end of four hours of Cultural Humility Training on the day following the announcement, PMAB member Marcella (Marci) Auld Glass of Boise, Idaho said “When Tony was being introduced it never crossed my mind that he was gay … in the materials that have been released announcing his appointment that has been lifted up.” She continued that it is “still important to claim things that are good and important, even in churches that will not be happy about it. There’s no need to keep that news quiet.”

From what I’m already hearing, she’s right: churches are not happy. It is one thing for individual clergy to have the right to perform or not perform same-sex marriages and for local church sessions to retain the right to authorize the use of specific church property. But when the Presbyterian Mission Agency allows the denomination’s Chapel to be used for a gay wedding and then turns right around and appoints a married gay man to the highest corporate post in the church, little room remains for those who want to argue that the PCUSA has not demonstrably taken a pro-LGBTQ position. 

Ears to hear for those who follow this cadre of leaders

How does the appointment of de la Rosa line up with the Moderator’s call to the church for radical reformation? Which depends on how you choose to hear what the what he said. 

What did you hear when the Moderator said, “Not having a permanent current CEO in our Presbyterian Mission Agency, and having a Stated Clerk who is not going to seek reelection, has offered us a Kairos moment which  is unique”?

The appointment of de la Rosa indicates that the PMAB intends to fill the vacuum of leadership with strong advocacy in one direction. 

And what did you hear when he said, “We are indeed facing a crisis where there is lack of trust across the church.  This is manifested in many ways but includes – departing congregations, confused members concerning who we are as the PCUSA…”? 

The PMAB’s action in appointing de la Rosa gave those confused members great clarity about who the PCUSA is at the national corporate level.  

Rada rightly observed that “there is a disconnect between what members feel is happening at the national and even the Middle Judicatory levels.” He astutely observed that “many people across the Church … believe that ‘Louisville’ is out of touch with them and that there is not an effective system in place for us to ‘be the church.'” That disconnect and that sense of Louisville being out of touch just widened significantly on Wednesday.

Bridging chasms that grew wider Wednesday

The challenge of bridge-building was hard when Rada took the job of moderator in 2014. It has gotten more difficult since. And now, well, without God it would be impossible. But that’s where God does His best His work.

So, Mr. Moderator, we’re “in” with you on this one. If there’s a hope-filled future for the PCUSA that’s faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and glorifies God, I for one will fan the flame of that reformation.  


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As goes the USA so goes the PCUSA, so says the Stated Clerk

Gradye ParsonsIn an article that appeared over the weekend, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Gradye Parsons, comments on an on-going case in which the congregation and its leaders are barred from making public comment.

Parsons told the reporter that, “The way we got here is the way America got here. People suddenly met their gay fellow Presbyterians, their gay children or grandchildren and realized that false dichotomy — that a person couldn’t be Christian and gay — it just wasn’t true.”

Parsons here admits that the decision of the denomination is purely sociological, based upon a sudden discovery of same-sex attracted people in our midst. He admits that the basis of the decision was human rationalization and not God’s Word nor God’s design.  The person charged with upholding the constitution of the denomination, which includes the church’s theological Confessions, makes no reference to Scripture nor theology.

Parsons’ assertion that the PCUSA has recently discovered gay people is, on its face, a direct contradiction to what he said earlier in the same article. He admits that the PCUSA has been at this for 40 years. The truth is, the denomination has been actively engaged in this internecine struggle since the mid 1970’s. The 1978 Definitive Guidance on the subject aligned the denomination with the Biblical prohibitions against same-sex intimate acts. The “fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman or chastity in singleness” requirement for those in leadership stood from 1997-2010. The reality of same-sex attracted people and the denomination’s acquiescence to those demanding the church change to accommodate their desires is not new for Presbyterians.

Parsons comments also imply that those who do not agree with him and the trend of the denomination away from Biblical standards on LGBTQ issues are somehow not in contact with LGBTQ people.  Again, this could not be further from the truth.  Local church ministry, including the local church under discussion in the article, is done with real people, broken by real sin, in the context of the real world. That means that everyone in ministry in the 21st century is in contact with people faced with temptations of all kinds, including sexual anarchy.  The question is not relationships, but the response to the condition of the person with whom we are in relationship.  Do we speak the truth in love to them or do we fall into the error described in Romans 1. Knowing God’s righteous decree, do we not only fail to speak the truth but approve of those who practice any form of sin?

When God’s Word speaks about homosexual practice it speaks with one voice and that voice is never affirming of the activity. So, has God, as Parsons says of the PCUSA, suddenly discovered same-sex attracted people? Is God’s view evolving on the subject or are there now those who claim to know better than God on the subject?

Just because we feel something, even passionately, does not make it right. God alone has the authority to determine what is right or righteous and what is wrong or sinful.

By grace, God has a redeeming plan for all who acknowledge that our lives are broken by sin and in repentance, turn to Jesus Christ in full submission to His Lordship. And yes, that includes our sexuality. There’s no part of life that is excluded from Christ’s reign.

There’s nothing in the article about God’s power to transform a person. Instead Parsons draws a false parallel to slavery and women hoping to bully those who believe what the Bible says about homosexual practice into standing down. Then, after making direct reference to two justice issues upon which there is no room for divergent views (race and gender), Parsons says that on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion “the church still loves and affirms those people who think differently,” he said. “We want to be a church where both sides of the issue can live together.”

Doesn’t that sound fun? After being told that you’re wrong, unaccepting, unloving and behind the times, you can stay — but you should know that you’re going to be subjected to serious efforts at re-education.

To help Lehigh Valley churches embrace inclusivity, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center will host a December conference, according to Adrian Shanker, the organization’s founder and executive director. The event’s keynote speaker will be Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Notably, Alex is also transgendered. I’ve attended and written about workshops that Alex has led. I expect that he will be persuasive to those in Lehigh presbytery and elsewhere who fail to recognize the very real spiritual battle being waged for the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and every member of it.


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