Category Archives: Theology

Digressions in Church Polity: There are no members of the Reformed Church in America

For anyone familiar with my ecclesiastical communion, the Reformed Church in America, or anyone who has read my writing elsewhere as of late, perhaps you are aware of the struggles that our communion is facing regarding differing understandings of human sexuality. However, the real issues are much deeper, the real issues are the things below the surface that we don’t talk about. I hope in this series of who-knows-how-long of digressions in church polity, I will have an opportunity to address some of these issues, and hopefully this (and other engagements) will serve to edify the church.

***

Part of the struggle within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over differences in biblical interpretation is a misunderstanding of how a communion (or denomination) exists within our theological doctrine of the church. One of the biggest problems that perpetuates and enhances this misunderstanding is the concept of being a member of the RCA. The root of this misunderstanding is a misidentification of the locus of the church.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a member of the RCA. No one joins the RCA, people join local churches which are a part of a covenantal communion called the Reformed Church in America. While the RCA has a common glue that holds it together (Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government), the major bonding agent in that glue is our own willingness to submit ourselves to it. So while there are procedures to hold each other accountable to our covenantal commitments, these processes are to originate locally rather than from afar. There is no magisterium or college of bishops. The RCA does not have a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in New York, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan or anywhere else.

The General Synod, then, is not a magisterium, it is not a collegial pope, and it is not the essence of the church. Instead, church is when the congregation gathers, shepherded by the offices, around pulpit, table, and font. Church is located in the local churches, not in synods. 

One of the ubiquitous statements arguing for the urgency of a lock-step uniformity on understandings of human sexuality (and interestingly enough, many of these same people also desire complete liberty for local interpretation of many other things, sometimes even those things which are of the essence of the church) is that people are leaving local churches because the RCA doesn’t have a lock-step uniformity on this one topic. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of understanding and education, on the part of office bearers, to help their flock understand how we, as Reformed Christians, understand the church.

The RCA is not a monolithic hierarchy . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, the Reformed Church is not a hierarchy and has never located church within an episcopacy or hierarchy. Rather assemblies operate within their sphere of responsibility, with the greater assemblies not infringing upon the lawful prerogatives of the lesser assemblies.

So as we discuss this, we need to stop talking about being members of the RCA, as there are only members of local churches (and in the case of ministers, members of the classis).

So rather than disregarding and discarding our doctrine of the church in the name of cultural utilitarianism, perhaps it would behoove us to live into our countercultural way of being and understanding our covenantal communion, and help the members of our churches to understand this.

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

My Only Comfort

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

(Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 1)

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 2)

In the first part, I discussed exegetically and theologically some of the challenges when talking about “accepting Jesus”.  In this second (and much shorter) part and conclusion, I will address the problems with the second part of the statement, referring to Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.

The terminology “personal Lord and savior” is problematic because it is not biblical in any way. Scripture never calls Jesus our personal savior, scripture refers to Jesus as the savior of the world. Our relationship with God is not simply “me and Jesus” but it includes the Body of Christ, the church, with whom we must be joined in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. When we speak of Jesus as our personal savior, then we have no need of a broader body. For instance, I have a personal computer that I do not need to share with others and I have a personal refrigerator in my office which I purchased, and which belongs to me, and is used for my items.

Jesus is not my personal savior or your personal savior. Jesus is the savior of the world. You see, either God is God or not. If Jesus is our personal savior, then the door opens for us to understand others to have different personal saviors, which would certainly be okay because person a can have a personal savior and person b can have a personal savior, but since they are different people, their personal saviors can be different. This reduces the stretch of God and opens the door for pluralism (or universalism), something which evangelicals (those who primarily use this “accepting” and “personal” language) certainly do not want.

Finally, scripture tells us that we did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose us (John 15:16). Perhaps a better way to talk about this experience is that we have responded to God’s call. There certainly has to be some sort of response, because if God has called us we will bear fruit. Rather than asking if someone has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior, perhaps it would be better to ask if they have felt the call of God. This is more likely to open up a conversation, I know it would with me, and holds the potential for a more fruitful interaction, and a better way to discuss the real issue at hand.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 1)

I cringe every time I hear someone ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, primarily because I don’t know how to answer.

I identify as a child of the covenant. I was baptized when I was an infant, and when I was growing up, I responded to the promises that God made in my baptism. So while I do identify as a Christian, and a follower of Jesus, and a child of the covenant, I never had a time that I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and I never said the “sinner’s prayer.” I also cringe, because I do not think that this is the best way to think about it. I think that the language of “accepting Jesus” and “personal Lord and savior” are both problematic.

The language of “accepting Jesus” is appealing to the ear of American individualists, but it is problematic for two main reasons, the first of which we will discuss in this first part: talk about accepting Jesus is not entirely biblical.

The Bible, particularly the New Testament, does not speak of “accepting Jesus”.  Some English translations do use the word “accept” in various places (such as the NIV), and below are some of the different ways that it is used.  I have also included the lexical form of the Greek word that is used in each instance.

John 5:43, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept [λαμβάνω] him” (NRSV)

John 14:17 “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [λαμβάνω], because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (NRSV)

Romans 15:7 Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed [(NIV: accepted) προσλαμβάνω] you, for the glory of God” (NRSV)

Romans 10:16 “But not all have obeyed [(NIV: Accepted) υπακούω] the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?'” (NRSV)

Romans 14:1 “Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. ” (NRSV)

1 Corinthians 2:14 ” Those who are unspiritual do not receive [(NIV: accept) δέχομαι] the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. ” (NRSV)

The easiest words to explain are υπακούω (hear, listen, understand, learn from) and δέχομαι (take, take up, approve or accept things, put up with or tolerate someone or something).  The word that appears more often and requires a bit more discussion is λαμβάνω.

λαμβάνω generally means “take”, but it can have several connotations.  It can mean to actively take as in take a hold of something or grasp, it can mean to take into one’s possession, it can mean receive or accept things, such as takes, it can mean to passively receive something or get something, and it can mean to take up receive including recognizing authority.  This last interpretation is what we see above in John 5:43, and this is probably the closest way that one can talk about “accepting Jesus” as in recognizing Jesus’ authority.  Another interesting aside, the usage of λαμβάνω in John 5:43 is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and denotes something that did or did not happen (or will or will not happen), not necessarily a command to do something.

While the Bible does not talk about “accepting Jesus” it does use two other words: believe and confess.

Romans 10:9 “because if you confess [ομολόγησις] with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe [πιστεύω] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV)

Acts 16:31 “They answered, ‘Believe [πιστεύω] on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” (NRSV)

The word ομολόγησις refers to confessing as an act and not as a state of mind or a thought. The word πιστεύω refers to belief as in believe in something, to be convicted of something, to let oneself be influenced, convicted, trust, have confidence in.  These are all connotations of πιστεύω, and these have the more intellectual or affectual undertones.  I find it interesting that the passage above in Romans contains the words ομολόγησις and πιστεύω but not λαμβάνω, and moreover, it includes both an outward action, as well as an internal intellectual/affectual movement — which I suppose is similar to saying the “sinner’s prayer”. It is also important to note that Romans says to confess that Jesus is Lord, not accept that Jesus is Lord, and to believe that God raised him from the dead, not accept that.

The terms confess and believe referring to Jesus are far more biblical terms than “acceptance” which often carries the connotation of giving approval to or to give admission to, neither of which adequately describes our relationship to God.

Additionally, theologically speaking, it places the locus of control on us. I speak from a Midwestern American context, and in such a context we like to be in control of our lives. We like to feel like we can stand on our own two feet, and we like to feel as though we can control our own destinies. We like to feel as though if we fail it is because of bad choices, and we like to feel as though our successes are because of good choices that we made. It is only natural, then, that it should be up to us to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus. After all, it would not seem right for that decision to be made by anyone else but us. Moreover, talking about accepting Jesus places us in a position of control over God. If I apply to a job, they are the ones that have the power over me, because they do the accepting or the rejecting. Therefore, this acceptance language almost is as if we are in a position of authority over Jesus and we are the ones determining whether we should accept him or not.

This is problematic is because it places everything upon us. Our entire relationship to God is then dependent on us, as though none of God’s work was effective until we make it effective. In this worldview Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning, and it has any efficacy only insofar as we accept its efficacy. This, certainly puts us in a position of power over God as we are the ones who determine if God’s work has any ability to restore or redeem.

I think the better question for us to ask is if Jesus will accept us!