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"It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up."--Joseph Sobran

“Bowing and scraping”? A response to a few objections to liturgical worship

A few years ago, my wife and I took the plunge and were confirmed in (became members of) an Anglican* church in Dallas. I remember well the general attitude I encountered throughout my previous church life and in Bible college (and which I held myself) about liturgical worship. It wasn’t good. Liturgy was formalistic and rote and cold. So why this change for us? My interest began to develop in the late ’90s, while my wife’s only began when we visited our current church four years ago. We aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Anglicans; I’ve never identified myself by my church type or denomination.  I’m a conservative Christian who still likes the designation “evangelical” when understood in theological terms (rather than social ones).

What I’d like to do hear is to offer fairly briefly responses to the objections I heard often and assumed to be true myself. If a person is going to reject something (or choose not to participate), it shouldn’t be for the wrong reasons. Especially now with our culture showing less and less appreciation for anything Christian (except for prayers in times of emergency), we don’t need to have unnecessary barriers between Christians. This is much less a problem for the Millennial generation than for mine (Baby Boomers) and previous, and not always for good reasons. Understand that I’m not here talking about theological matters in which relativistic or skeptical thinking can be a problem. I’m talking about worship practices.

So there is no intent here to persuade others to come with us. I just know that the liturgical world is foreign to a lot of my friends, as it was to me, and the differences aren’t seen by all as mere differences but are seen rather in a negative or at least questionable light. Our friends from previous churches are too polite to ask us directly what in the heck we’re doing, and they have enough confidence in us (I hope!) to believe we wouldn’t make a foolish move–at least, not intentionally! But I know concerns are there. It can be detected in the surprised “Really?” that comes when I tell someone of our move. A more extreme attitude surfaced in a conversation I had with a professor at a local seminary. He told me he visited a big (conservative) Episcopal church in Dallas once (for what reason, I don’t know), and there he saw a mutual acquaintance “doing all that bowing and scraping.” I was so taken back that I was momentarily speechless. When I could get my mouth working, it seemed the better move to say nothing given the circumstances. Chances are, anything I would have said wouldn’t have made a difference in his thinking.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church (first Southern Presbytery and then PCA) that had strong social ties with some local Baptists. Members sometimes referred to themselves as “Bapterians.” Subsequently I have attended several Bible, community, and Baptist churches. Since the Christian world I was in was very big, I felt no loss at not having any first-hand acquaintance with liturgical churches. In the same way that, say, cradle Baptists might not know how much is going on in other churches because the Baptist world is so big, I, too, grew up in a big Christian world that offered much: not only a slew of churches that believed much the same but also mission agencies, publication houses, radio stations, etc. We weren’t connected by denomination but rather by doctrine and interests. Given that I assumed, because of the attitude I had imbibed, that liturgical churches were mainline and possibly just barely within the circle of authentic Christianity, there was no reason to investigate. As a consequence, I had no familiarity with liturgical worship. The Anglican world was as foreign to me as the Greek Orthodox Church, and I didn’t sense anything missing.

My interest in the liturgical world was piqued when, after returning to Virginia from seminary in 1988, I thought I should find out what went on in all those other churches around my own (and there were a lot of them). Among those I visited were a Lutheran church (Missouri Synod) and an Episcopal church. I found them interesting if not awkward with all the shuffling between Book of Common Prayer, hymn book, Bible, and church bulletin. After we moved to Texas in 1997, I visited a conservative Episcopal church in the neighborhood on occasion and even attended their catechism for awhile. Several years after we moved from that neighborhood I frequently visited another Episcopal church in the area. In both of those churches I taught a few times.

What I found in these churches was rather startling. I had picked up the attitude quite strongly from Christians in my previous circles that liturgical churches were cold and formalistic and stifled the Spirit, and that the attendees were probably hovering on the outskirts of genuine Christian orthodoxy. I think that if I had asked some knowledgeable teachers and preachers directly if that’s how things really were in liturgical churches, they would have acknowledged genuine Christian belief by some or by many, but likely might have quickly offered an objection or two to the formality if nothing else. What I found, however, were committed Christians who were serious about their faith (not all were, of course, but neither are all who attend Bible and Baptist** churches). They were most definitely conservative (and evangelical in a certain sense). J. I. Packer spoke at the second of the two several times. This was during the time when there was great upheaval in the ECUSA because of its liberal moral stances. I attended a great gathering of Episcopalians-turned-Anglicans in Dallas held in response to the ordination of a gay bishop. These were definitely not liberal Christians with a cold religiosity! And during this season of observing Episcopal worship and practice, I was reading about Anglicanism and related topics, such as the nature and value of liturgy and the connectedness of the church through history.

Before responding to objections, I want to give a few positive reasons for my move to an Anglican church. One was the worldwide character of the Anglican Communion. I spent most of my adult life in nondenominational churches where I imbibed (although not taught in a formal way) the attitude that there is something distasteful about denominations. Why should people who aren’t part of our church tell us how to do things? To have any oversight by a church government somewhere else, especially way over in England, made no sense. For a long time I agreed, although I must acknowledge that I only heard the nondenominational voices. However, I came to like the idea of formal connectedness with believers in other churches in America and overseas that is in addition to my relatedness to all Christians by virtue of our union in Christ. Also, I saw the value of formal accountability to others outside one’s own local church. Pastors and other church leaders need to be accountable, too, and not just to each other.

Another reason was the consciousness of a historical connectedness with Christians back through the centuries to the time of the apostles, a consciousness I rarely encountered apart from my church history class in Bible college. Only on rare occasion was any mention made in sermons or Sunday School classes of anything in church history or the history of Christian thought since apostolic times except for the Reformation. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin occasionally made appearances, but besides them all that mattered was the New Testament church and the evangelical and fundamentalist churches of the late nineteenth century up until our own day.

Thus, my first and second reasons had to do with the horizontal connection with other believers around the world in the present tine and with the vertical connection with believers back through time.

The third reason for my interest was the richness of the liturgy. I had been taught in subtle and not so subtle ways that liturgy was rote, meaningless recitation. What I found, though, was that each Sunday basic doctrines are reviewed aloud by the church often in wonderful prose. Attendees are much more involved in worship because of the recitation of portions of the liturgy. Yes, I sometimes get lost in my thoughts and recite without thinking, but that’s my fault, not the fault of the liturgy. When I tune in, I’m reminded of some great truths that I need to hear frequently. I even like communion better than what I’d experienced before. I’m not a sacramentalist (the Anglican tent is a big one; there’s room for all!), but I like going to the rail for communion. It feels more like a communal act than sitting in the pews. (And no, a priest doesn’t have to stand between me and God in personally delivering the elements, although it’s the practice for the priest or pastor to deliver the bread. Lay people participate in the distribution, too, by giving us the wine.)

And now to the objections.

1. The formalism of liturgical worship is a major stumbling block to a lot of Christians. There are two sub-issues here (at least). For one thing, it’s thought that the complex form somehow inhibits the Spirit from doing things during a worship service, that the spiritual is somehow stifled by a fully pre-planned service. For another thing, it’s not fresh and new; how can it not very quickly become rote?

In response to the first sub-objection, the Spirit isn’t inhibited by prior planning and structure. And just what people think the Spirit might want to do but wouldn’t be able to because of it, I don’t know. An obvious response is that one shouldn’t have any structure at all if structure is a problem. Of course, that would be silly, I would be told, but I’m not sure how one would mark the line between enough and too much. The point of the liturgy isn’t to drive out a fresh ministry of the Spirit but to provide a kind of vehicle for it.

Liturgies are generally the same among Anglican churches, but there is flexibility (a brief overview of the structure of the service can be found here and a number of other places online). The service consists of praise and adoration, confession of sins, the reading of Scripture (OT, NT, Psalms, and Gospels), prayers, the reciting of a major creed, a sermon, communion (the liturgy of the communion is absolutely marvelous!), the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries (an unexpectedly folksy aspect given the formality), and a charge at the end to send us out. And singing. Lots of singing in our church. There is a lot here to provide avenues for the Spirit to work in our lives.

Regarding the second sub-issue, that such formalism grows stale, one thing that helps prevent that is the changes of “seasons” in the church calendar throughout the year which prompts changes in the liturgy (you can read about that here). Of course, even within that structure, the form can become stale and rote. But so can the form of a non-liturgical church: stand up to sing; sit down for announcements; stand up for the reading of Scripture; sit down to hear the special music; stand up to greet others; sit down to listen to the sermon . . . You get the picture. That isn’t intended to make fun. If you are part of such a church, you know what I mean. A form with few parts can be as rote and stale as one with many parts.

It is because of the form or structure in liturgical churches that we are able to get through so much in a worship service. And if you don’t want to kneel or cross yourself or read the text or go to the rail for communion? I don’t know about other Anglican pastors, but regarding participation our pastor’s motto is this: “all may, none must, some will.” The form is a vehicle, not the substance. It is important (to us) for what it enables us to accomplish and experience in worship, but it isn’t the heart of it. And it isn’t stiff feeling either, at least in our church. “Relaxed formality,” we call it. There are no pinched noses or stilted language or robotic motions. (I’m not trying to sell you on Anglicanism or my church, but please feel free to visit All Saints Dallas sometime!)

2. What about all the pre-set things that the pastor reads and the congregation reads back? This is related to the matter of roteness discussed above, but has more to do with reading prescribed things as a group. And prayers?! Why on earth would we read other people’s prayers?

I think I detect, underlying these objections, a belief that originality is important for saying what is really important. It has to be extemporaneous. Of course, in my previous churches people sometimes wrote down their prayers before uttering them before the congregation, which negates the requirement of extemporaneity. But it really does have to be original with the person praying, doesn’t it, to genuinely come from the heart?

In a word, no. Tu quoque arguments (the kind of argument that says, “Oh yeah? Well, you do the same thing yourself!”) are logical fallacies, but they can serve the purpose of stopping a person short and making them think. So regarding reading other people’s words and even reading prayers, is that very different from singing songs together in church that someone else wrote? I’m serious! Don’t we sing songs directed to God in praise or in supplication that others wrote? How is that different? And don’t Christians talk about praying the Psalms? I think there is an inconsistency here. Maybe the big problem is that no space will be made for “free-form” praying. There isn’t much in my church. However, the pastor will pray extemporaneously on occasion as he senses the need. And we also have what’s called the “prayers of the people” which includes both written prayers and extemporaneous responses from us, such as when the pastor calls us to pray for people we know who need the Lord and for people who need healing and restoration. People say those names out loud. And then there are the prayer teams at one side of the sanctuary during communion that we can approach individually for prayer.

What I’ve said may not convince anyone to begin the practice, but I hope my point will be gotten that there is nothing inherently wrong in reading prayers written by others if one reads them from the heart. And I’ll say this as kindly as I can: some of the extemporaneous prayers Christians utter in church are seriously lacking the depth one can find in prayers formulated ahead of time. For example, every week we read this prayer of confession together early in the service to help prepare our hearts for worship:

Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I are truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Sometimes I’m distracted and I just read the words. But I can honestly say that when I focus and attend to what I’m saying, there is nothing more to the point that I can come up by myself that is better than this prayer of confession. It is the most meaningful one to me in the whole service. Can you imagine what a believer can do and be if that last line is answered with a resounding “yes”?

What we read together was developed over a long period of time, and it is not only beautiful to the ear but it is rich with meaning. When I fully attend to what is being said and what I am saying, I do not feel stifled at all but am uplifted in my mind, spirit, and emotions. If you haven’t read or heard the liturgy, say, around the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, find it online and read through it. In our church, it often begins with this:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. For by water and the Holy Spirit you have made us a new people in Jesus Christ our Lord, to show forth your glory in all the world. . . .

We sing this together:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

And then we continue with,

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. . . .

And on it continues. Yes, this can become rote and stale and meaningless to some people, but it won’t do so necessarily, not any more so than what is done in a Baptist or Bible church.

And if I don’t mean it, I don’t have to say it. We have no liturgy police in our church. The liturgy is a vehicle to guide us in worship. It’s bad if it becomes rote and stale, but no more so than when a non-liturgical worship service becomes rote and stale.

And if I may add just one more thing having to do with all of us doing the same thing together in church, something that goes against the grain of individualistic Americans. This applies to all Christians in whatever form of worship service they find themselves. When we come together, we are involved in corporate worship. We are worshipping together. When you sing at church, do you all sing whatever you want at the same time? Or do you sing the same song with the same words at the same time? Liturgical worship extends that principle throughout the whole service. This doesn’t mean that our individuality is lost. When I read aloud, if I am meaning what I’m saying, it is me as an individual joining in worship with others.

3. And then there are those actions, what the seminary professor called “bowing and scraping” that he saw in an Episcopal church. I didn’t ask which actions he saw, but it must have including genuflecting, the lowering of one knee to the floor as a sign of honor. My question for him (which I didn’t ask him because I didn’t want to fight) is this: Do you ever bow your head in prayer? Do you kneel in prayer? If so, is it right to do that in private but not in public? You don’t cross yourself or genuflect, but I bet you bow your head and occasionally nod and utter an “Amen.” Do you really think there is something wrong with bowing toward the cross?

At our church, in general we stand to sing, sit to listen, and kneel to pray. We bow when the cross goes by, and we cross ourselves at certain parts of the liturgy, such as when the Trinity is mentioned. Are such actions necessarily mechanical? We see people crossing themselves on TV, an empty superstitious gesture made by people who give no indication of really being Christians. But good things that are meaningful can become cheapened and rendered meaningless. These actions can become mechanical but they don’t necessarily become so. And no one has to do them.
So there you have it, a stab at a defense of some things truly meaningful to and taken very seriously by some Christians but which are odd to others. I don’t always fully join in on everything in a given worship service, but that’s nothing to worry about. I haven’t broken any rules. There is nothing, or should be nothing, imperative about any of this. But believers who do not participate in such things should be cautious about making fun of them or speaking derogatorily of people who do. This kind of worship has a very long heritage. That in itself is enough to incline Christians who are overly influenced by the modernist impulse to shrug off of the past to pooh-pooh the whole thing. Tradition that isn’t the final authority, form that enhances worship and doesn’t strangle it, and liturgy that accurately rehearses the great things God has done for us, are good things. There are other reasons you may never be inclined to align yourself with Anglicanism or any other church that practices liturgical worship, but I hope my comments will caution readers to avoid making them easy targets for mocking or derision.

Here are two books, by the way, that were influential in my thinking about the Anglican world:

Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down
D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism

The first is a study of worship that shows the place of liturgy in worship. Dawn points out that we all employ liturgy in our worship. Liturgy means “the work of the people.” Every church service I’ve attended involved at least a very basic liturgy, some actions by people in the pews (or folding chairs) in response to something said or instructed in the pulpit. There is much to learn from this book about worship even if the reader doesn’t choose to join what we typically think of as liturgical churches. The second book has to do with the vertical connection through time we have with the church past that I mentioned earlier.

*The use of the name “Anglican” is a clue that the church is on the conservative side of the body of churches that had their start centuries ago in England. The American branch of the Church of England is the Episcopal Church USA. Given the extent of the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, especially with regard to matters of sexual ethics, many churches have separated from the ECUSA and call themselves Anglican instead of Episcopalian. A major triggering event for this division was the ordination of a gay bishop in 2007. Hence, my involvement before then was with Episcopal Churches. Since then it has been with Anglican ones.

**I’m sorry to be picking on Bible and Baptist churches so much, but they were the non-liturgical churches that formed my church background for many years. I mean no offense.


Branding and the church

In a discussion on Facebook about the face of anger that Christians sometimes present in the various social media, someone made a comment about Christianity having a “brand problem.” I don’t know precisely what he meant by that term, so I’ll take it at face value.

I was surprised by the comment but shouldn’t have been. I’ve heard it before. But I can’t help but wonder, why on earth would Christians worry about a brand problem? Branding has to do with commerce, with an image presented by a person or company that accurately (one would hope) presents the nature of the business or product with the intent of making it memorable and attractive to potential customers. It requires a knowledge of the buying public and of what they find attractive. In short, it is brought into being to interest people to buy. There’s nothing inherently dishonest about that.

But what place does that have in thinking about Christianity and about the reputation of Christians? Is the gospel a commodity, and are we its advertisers? It is certainly true, negatively speaking, that our actions which are not in keeping with the message and character of Christ can turn people away from the gospel. It’s also true, positively speaking, that some people might be so moved by what we do and how we behave that they will respond positively to the message. But should we think in terms of branding, which might incline us to make our likability the important thing?

While winning favor with people is a good thing, branding is not the way to think about it because it places too high a value on the sensibilities of nonbelievers. Trying to win a good name can cause us to water down the gospel. If we speak and act in keeping with the character of Jesus and according to the instructions in Scripture, our goodness may cause some people to glorify God in the day of his visitation (which some take to mean that they become believers). But it may also bring persecution (2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 2 and 3).

I hear so much nowadays about the terrible image Christians—especially evangelicals—have with non-Christians, and much verbal self-flagellation results. Do we really know why people have such a bad opinion of us? Is it because of bad things that they know we do? Or is it just an attitude, like a prejudice, that begins with some people and spreads without good reason to others? Is it because of what we believe, such as our claim that Jesus as the only way to the only true God, or because we have fixed ethical standards that we claim apply to everyone? If so, we can’t let ourselves worry about it. We are to please God, not men.

Whatever the reason non-Christians don’t like us, good branding is not the solution. The ideas of branding and image have connotations that give them little use in Christianity. The sensibilities of non-Christians are not our standard. Jesus is. All we need to ask of ourselves is whether we are honoring him. And then we let the chips fall where they may.

Addendum: Someone may complain that I’ve read too much into “branding,” that all that is meant is that we should look to our behavior to see if we are or are not modeling Christ. But words matter, and it’s a mistake to use words that carry connotations which aren’t fitting. If we don’t have a commercial model in mind, a different word should be used. It’s hard enough to communicate what we believe without using misleading terms.

I bet they don’t even see the problem

A Planet Fitness in Michigan cancelled a woman’s membership when she complained about a man, who self-identified as a woman, using the women’s locker room. Apparently, if the person filing the complaint had kept it to herself, a live-and-let-live mentality would have allowed her to continue with business as usual. But she objected to the management and warned other women, noting that no notices were posted by the locker room or restroom, and her membership was cancelled.

What I find especially interesting is how the usual liberal mantras were turned in the other direction. Here’s part of PF’s response:

“Planet Fitness is committed to creating a nonintimidating, welcoming environment for our members. Our gender identity nondiscrimination policy states that members and guests may use all gym facilities based on their sincere self-reported gender identity” (emphasis mine).

“Nonintimidating” for whom? Certainly not for any women who object to having a man–sorry, a “woman” with male genitalia–in their dressing room.

The woman raising the complaint said, “This is all new to me. I didn’t go out to specifically bash a transgender person that day. I was taken aback by the situation. This is about me and how I felt unsafe. I should feel safe in there” (emphases mine).

Aren’t we all supposed to feel safe in the liberal vision? Whose safety gets precedence? The report says that “LGBT advocates applauded the Planet Fitness policy, saying it was necessary to ensuring the safety and privacy of transgender individuals.” Why should the transgender get to feel safe but not women who object? An attorney with the ACLU said that “A transgender woman would be much more at risk for her safety if she had to use the men’s bathroom.” Really? And what about the safety of women a man pretends to be transgender to gain access to the women’s dressing room and restroom and engages in some kind of mischief? Will PF apologize for its silly policy? Not likely. And who gets privacy? Apparently not women who don’t want to undress in front of strange men. What kind of privacy issues are there when a transgender with a male body uses the same locker room as men? Whatever they may be, they outweigh those of women who uncomfortable undressing in front of a person with a penis (what is the PC shorthand for males who claim to be women?). We can count on situations like this to multiply as this PC stupidity continues to hold sway.

So, people who are making the new rules for social practice, what are the rules now? Who gets to feel safe and why? Who gets to have privacy protected and why? I really don’t expect reasonable answers to this. As Stella Morabito writes in her article “How To Escape The Age Of Mass Delusion,” “the emotional stew in which we are now boiling doesn’t allow logic or reason to prevail.” A train running on emotion and mob thinking can’t be stopped by reason. I suspect that it’s going to take a lot of instances of liberals suffering the effects of their own PC silliness for change to come about.

(It should be noted, by the waym that the woman filing the complaint apparently isn’t your run-of-the-mill hard core conservative. “She agrees with LGBT advocates on one potential solution: unisex, single-stall bathrooms.”)

A correction for Christians

In the previous blog, I mentioned the problem of the current love and commitment view of marriage which leaves space for same-sex marriage and which is also held by many Christians. The recent Supreme Court case should provide a serious motivation for Christians to re-examine their basic view of marriage.

The opposition to the Supreme Court case is presented as being a religious one, and, as we all know, religious beliefs aren’t allowed to have a say in what goes on in secular society. All that’s left to fight for is personal religious freedom. Which will win when religious freedom is pitted against secular freedom? While people of faith might not be forced to do things themselves that go against their beliefs, the issue itself is settled in favor of secular thinking.

What we aren’t hearing in the news is that there are non-religious arguments in favor of one man/one woman marriage. It isn’t simply that the currently victorious opinion goes against God’s Word. It is bad in itself. Such an argument is made in the book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George. (I’ve read that this book was mentioned by one of the dissenting Supreme Court justices, but its arguments were not considered.)

This book can be slow going (as can an article by the same title that appeared first and can be found online here), but it is worth becoming acquainted with its main points. Readers who don’t want to take on either document can find an accessible review article by Bill Muehlenberg that summarizes the argument here.

In addition to the value of the book as an argument for the one man/one woman side, it also has a lesson for Christians regarding our view of the fundamental nature of marriage. According to the authors, the current view of marriage (that also underlay the Supreme Court decision) is that marriage is “the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable.” Now take out a few phrases and read it again: “Marriage is the union of two people . . . who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, . . .” Isn’t this the core of what many Christians believe about marriage? If so, nothing is left to stand against such things as same-sex marriage except what the Bible says, which means nothing in secular society. And given the current divorce rate among Christians, biblical commands often lose out when the emotional love fails.

Christians not only should be able to say more in defense of the conservative view than “the Bible says so” (as important as that is); we also need to think more deeply about the very nature of marriage–what God created it to be–to strengthen our own resolve. God’s law, yes, but also God’s design, built into us, and necessary for the full development of children and the strength of a society. As the authors write, “the more people internalize this [revisionist] misunderstanding of marriage, the less positioned they are to live out the real thing.” Or, to turn it around, the more people internalize God’s design, the better positioned they are to live out the real thing.

Not by moral correction

In 1981 I spent some time in a Caribbean nation working at a Christian radio station. Back then the Moral Majority was trying to drum up grassroots resistance to cultural changes that were markedly non-Christian. The group had come under attack by some Christians as well as non-Christians as a misguided way to effect change. When I voiced that opinion to a man at the station, he asked whether I’d rather live in a society which esteemed Christian values more than one that didn’t. I had to agree that I’d rather it reflect such values. I’d rather there be prohibitions against abortion whether or not the country were truly Christian (meaning a large population that was genuinely Christian).

That conversation came to mind after yesterday’s announcement of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges and the other related cases regarding same-sex marriage. I would rather there not be this new liberty because of the effects on the married couples and their children and on society as a whole (since this clearly isn’t a matter that is confined to the bedroom, as proponents sometimes claim), even if our society as a whole weren’t more Christian.

What I have to admit after this ruling is that I was hoping that moral correction would be a good potential means of returning America to a more Christian character. But given the basically deistic worldview of Western secularists (most believe in God but see him as distant and uninvolved until we need him to fix a problem), and more specifically the current view of marriage as being fundamentally a matter of love and commitment, what is there to object to about gay marriage? Even to Christians this “love and commitment” view is widely held because it has always been fitted into a view of marriage as consisting of one woman and one man. Now that marriage isn’t so limited (legally), that view has shown itself to be very weak (on this matter see the document “What Is Marriage?” here).

To many, the abortion issue was the major watershed issue in defining America’s values. I see the decision about same-sex marriage as a greater watershed, sealing the fact that American influence-makers have no interest in historic Christian values. There are some instances where abortion can be open for discussion even among pro-lifers (ectopic pregnancies and pregnancies where the mother has cancer the treatment for which could harm or kill the baby are two that come to mind). But I can’t think of any extenuating circumstances that would make same-sex marriage a viable option. Even nature argues against homosexual sex and marriage. So the playing field has now been clearly laid out.

So I see the decision as disastrous. However, I see it as corrective for Christians. It is clear now that America is not going to be “saved” by means of moral correction. We’ve tried our hardest (I’m including myself here), but we aren’t going to return America to a more Christian character that way. Even if through some kind of legal maneuvering the SCOTUS decision can be overturned, fundamental beliefs that underlie the apparently majority opinion on this matter–the current “social imaginary,” to use Charles Taylor’s term–are not going to be changed by legalities. Objectors say the Supreme Court overrode the states improperly, and maybe that’s so. But from what I’ve read, the majority of Americans are on the side of legalizing same-sex marriage. If we want to see a change in values here, we’re going to have to do it the biblical way. We’re going to have to depend on the gospel message itself which alone is able to change hearts, something which we should have been doing all along.

However, if only for the sake of Christians in our churches who have a confused understanding of this issue, we’ll need to keep talking about it, at least amongst ourselves. And we can continue to vote and employ proper democratic methods to let our voices be heard. But we shouldn’t expect too much from that. Changes of heart are needed. For that, the answer is the good news of Jesus.

What’s next?

Anthony Kennedy, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), made this bold claim: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This claim is preposterous except as is it taken to mean that no one really knows about these things, so we have some kind of right to imagine what we will. But we don’t need the Court’s imprimatur to believe things. Regardless of what the law says, I can imagine whatever I want. Imagination cannot be legislated.

But if Kennedy meant that there really is a truth about these matters about which we have different opinions, then, even though we can imagine what we will, our imaginings don’t create these truths. They are what they are, and we need to find out what they are. Not all beliefs can be true; the law of non-contradiction stands opposed to that.

More importantly for Kennedy’s purposes and for our lived experience is whose beliefs will determine the law of the land. My belief about the “mystery of human life,” held by many other people, does not include same-sex marriage and families. Someone might respond that I can live out my beliefs in my own home and not bother others with them. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. People’s same-sex marriages should also be confined to their own homes, right?

But we know it doesn’t work that way. We aren’t islands; our lives affect others. So-called “progressive” opinions are taught in schools and in the media and in public forums. So Kennedy’s prima facie magnanimous claim, while sounding philosophically sophisticated, is really just a flimsy foundation upon which to build the “progressive” dream. Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld the Court’s previous decision about abortion. Today’s decision created the right of same-sex marriage throughout the country. What will “progressives” want next? Polyamorous marriage?

Time to move on

Christians, indeed everyone, need to stop using terms like “preyed upon” and “predator” to refer to Josh Duggar. He was a curious boy who investigated something fascinating to ALL teenage boys (girls’ bodies, that is)  the wrong way. Predators heartlessly kill or destroy for their own needs. They stalk and hunt down in order to destroy. Duggar was wrong, but we’re wrong if we talk about him like he’s an animal or a monster.

But Christians feel like they have to talk about such offenses like non-Christians do. Certain kinds of offenders have to be treated as thoroughly vile and all on the same level or else we’re considered to be sympathizers or heartless. So a teenage boy who satisfies his curiosities the way Duggar did is talked about like a pedophile who stalks children at the local park. And the offender is marked for life, because our wrongdoing is thought about in pathological terms rather than moral ones. It’s a sickness that’s probably there for life rather than a sin that can be forgiven and washed away.

There are women who were abused terribly by men whose interests went way beyond curiosity, and the revelation of Duggar’s sins brought it all back. But he shouldn’t have to bear the weight of other people’s sins.

Christians need to quit tripping over themselves to show that they, too, see that this was a bad thing by using “predator” language. Truth be told, Christians see it as worse than secularists because we see it as sin against a holy God that, like all other sins, deserves divine judgment, not as a sickness that may or may not be cured.  But we also recognize, and ourselves depend upon,  mercy and forgiveness and the casting away of forgiven sin.

God has forgiven Josh and thrown his sins as far as the east is from the west, and so should we.

More from the university front

I like this line from Laura Kipnis’s “My Title IX Inquisition”:

“[P]retty much anything might be a ‘trigger’ to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses” (emphasis mine).

“Emotional peril.” Hence the need for trigger warnings and safe rooms to protect fragile students from ideas they don’t like (or they’ve been told not to like). When I read about these things, I again wonder, can this really be happening?

One thing is for sure. This won’t be corrected by reasoning with students. I’m not sure that reasoning with administration is the answer either. Possible solutions, anyone?

Christian: Are You Ready For Exile Stage Two?

[Note: The title above is for Stephen McAlpine’s article linked at the bottom or found directly here. The comments that follow are my own.]

I remember thinking, back when I first started working professionally in the field of apologetics, that something wasn’t quite right with all the talk about escaping the sacred/secular dichotomy and seeing all as sacred. This went hand-in-hand with the talk about transforming culture. I never was clear about how that was to be done. The idea seemed to be that if we talked about it all being sacred, and if we performed our cultural tasks with excellence, somehow culture would be changed for the better. Now, I know that the first concern behind this was that seeing all as sacred would lead Christians to live more godly lives. But there was an external, cultural application as well. The idea of changing hearts before changing lives that I heard from pulpits and evangelists wasn’t prominent in the culture-transforming talk. The only ones of Niebuhr’s categories that were live options for conservative evangelicals were Christ against culture and Christ transforming culture. We couldn’t go with the separatistic fundies on the former, so the latter it was.

What I was witnessing in the church, however, was that, far from bringing everything up to the level of the sacred, the sacred was being brought down to the level of the secular, and evangelicals were looking a lot like their non-Christian neighbors. We had to be hip and cool. I haven’t read McKnight’s book, but I agree with the observation (quoting McAlpine) that “Jesus did not come to make the world a better place, but to redeem people out of it, and that trying to make the world a better place is in fact, ‘a species of worldliness.’” Trying to be “in the world but not of it” is an interesting idea, but the results depend upon how far into the world one goes. Rather than being so heavenly minded that we’re no worldly good, we could be—and in many cases are—so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good.

There are no simple rules for how to engage a post-Christian culture in the Bible. Christianity isn’t just a competing religion now, one in a sea of many. It now is regarded more as “been there, done that,” and not with a sense of nostalgia. Also, many of us are still smarting from having our quasi-Christian culture taken away from us, from losing, if not a place of power, at least a place of some respect. America was a comfortable place for Christians (speaking as a Baby Boomer), but now it isn’t, and we’d to back things up.

But lacking a friendly response today, taking our ball and going home isn’t an option. We really shouldn’t retreat to the fundamentalist trenches since we can’t even reach individuals well from a hiding place, much less influence culture. We do have to “Come out! Come out, wherever [we] are!” and be witnesses for Jesus live and in person.

Maybe that’s a key point or at least a place to start. Our job isn’t to change our culture (which might only be possible in the very long run after hearts are changed) but to be living and speaking witnesses for Jesus. Which means we have to leave the constantly shifting sands of “coolness” behind. If Builders and Baby Boomers made no headway by complaining that this country is ours and we want it back, generations following will make none by pointing out that we are as hip as the next guy.

Francis Spufford, in his book Unapologetic, thinks the next generation of Christians will have to deal more with being thought weird than being considered evil, the basic charge of the New Atheists. I think McAlpine is correct, however. If Christians are living like Christians, other-than-Christians can hardly be neutral in their responses, especially if we’re seen as encroaching upon their territory. Paul said that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). We may have had a bye on that to some degree in the West, but I think that promise will have more and more relevance in the coming years.

Read this article. Christians must make this a topic of serious consideration.

Stephen McAlpine

The Western church is about to enter stage two of its exile from the mainstream culture and the public square. And it will not be an easy time.

In case you missed it, Exile Stage One began a few decades or so ago, budding in the sexual revolution of the sixties before building up a head of steam some 20 years ago. Finally some Christians sat down to talk about it 15 or so years ago, and that set the ball, and the publishing companies rolling.

For those of us in ministry who were culture watchers, Exile Stage One was a heady time.  Only we never called it Exile Stage One. We simply called it “Exile”, and poured over biblical texts such as the exilic book of Daniel and its New Testament counterpart 1Peter.  After all no one ever called World War One “World War One” before World War Two came along…

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We will find you

My last post alluded to attempts to shut down free speech on campus and smear the reputations of people who don’t toe the strident PC line. If you aren’t aware of what’s going on, a good place to start is to look at the recent experiences of Christina Hoff Sommers on campuses as she has been making a case for equity feminism as opposed to gender feminism (this report in Washington Post is a good place to start).

This attitude isn’t confined to campuses. I found a post on Facebook that illustrates the general idea as clearly as anywhere I’ve seen (I don’t know the person who posted this, so no names). The writer calls on his friends to engage in a “new Facebook game” of calling out people of a certain type summed up as “the genuine internet crazies.” He explains:

“I am talking racist and proud, sexist and confident, homophobic, transphobic, religious extremists, who think that all problems could be solved by a judicious application of extreme violence.

“You know, the people who advocate using nuclear weapons…without any trace of irony.

“The rules: check your friends [sic] feeds till you find a meme or a post that suits the profile I listed above, ( it has to be something they shared or posted originally, comments and reshares do not count). If you can’t find anything then select one of your friends [sic] friends and do the same. Keep going down the layers of the internet till your [sic] find the mad ones.

“Post or not, after all they are my/your friends. Maybe just make a note of it for your own edification.”

This isn’t the open-minded classical liberalism of the 19th C. or even the liberalism of the 1960s that believed in the open sharing of ideas. This is the newer “if you don’t agree with us we’ll call you out” liberalism of today. Sometimes this takes an angry tone, as Sommers witnessed it. Some of it is in a superior, mocking tone, as in this example. But the attitude is the same. Find the crazy people and just point at them. Don’t try to reason with them because they’re nuts (never mind the fact that this project has nothing to do with reasoning and all to do with childish making fun).

What got my attention most about this, more so even than the unthinking arrogance, is the tone of a witch hunt. That’s a label usually hung on judgmental conservatives who want to root out those nasty “libruls.” Now it characterizes the other side, at least some of its exemplars. How long before this begins to look like fundamentalist separatism, if it doesn’t already in some places? “We don’t fraternize with those transphobic types.” Wouldn’t that be ironic? Liberals cast as fundamentalist separatists on a witch hunt.

Nietzsche was right. When there are no transcendent moral standards to which we all are subject, what remains is power. The right of free speech implies (or at least hopes) that some ideas are true and some false, and that open discussion can bring the truth to light and persuade people of it. Today’s more extreme liberals, especially those who find a safe haven with like-minded people in our universities, can’t have such free expression, but instead use the power of name-calling and social pressure to attempt to force people to either conform or shut up. What scarlet letter would they have dissenters wear on their clothes? “C” for “crazy”? So much for “live and let live.”

You may think this doesn’t affect you (if you aren’t on a college campus), but it does. Think, for example, about what happens to a conversation when a person is called “homophobic.” The target doesn’t want to be labeled with such a nasty term, so he or she gets quiet. Name-calling and put-downs played a large role in swaying public opinion on gay rights and now same-sex marriage (liberals accuse us conservatives of fixating on sexual matters, but they illustrate the problem so well). We don’t like to be called nasty names, so we shut down.

Many people look back to the late ’60s with sadness because of some of the social changes that took root. I look back on those times with a little envy; the playing field was open for all ideas. Is it possible to get that openness back without resorting to the stifling methods of today’s silencers?