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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

If they do listen, do we have anything to say?

How are Christians to live in an era which is so far removed from Christian theological and moral values (which from the beginning had held sway in America, more or less) that now prominent people like Chris Cuomo (and many others) simply dismiss our moral concerns as intolerant without making the slightest attempt to interact with them? Cuomo responded to a father’s concerns about his daughter encountering a male in a high school lockeroom. Here is Cuomo’s tweet as reported by Rod Dreher:

i wonder if she is the problem or her overprotective and intolerant dad? teach tolerance.

— Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) February 23, 2017

There you have it. Teach tolerance. End of discussion. There’s no room even for debate anymore.

More and more is being written by Christians about how to think about how to live in a society racing headlong into total secularization where the rules of life are chosen by us with no transcendent input. Not only are Christian beliefs rejected; there is little or no attempt to even understand them. Rod Dreher has gotten a lot of attention for his “Benedict Option.” I won’t describe it here; descriptions are easy to find online. In his (very long) article on The American Conservative linked above, Dreher challenges the lack of thoughtful opposition to his (and most any other Christian) views. He has several links to other blogs and articles worth reading.

I encourage–no, urge–Christians to start thinking seriously about this, first by stepping out of the typical political liberal vs. conservative vs. libertarian framework. Politics has to do with action, with how we live in society. More fundamental issues have to be addressed before action can be considered. We must first have a good foundation in Christian doctrine, especially today in the areas of divine authority and human nature. Then we have to engage in some serious self-analysis. Have evangelicals capitulated to our secular culture? Having focused our thinking, we can then consider more clearly how to think and live as faithful Christians in today’s culture. A good place to start with that is to read or at least skim through articles like Dreher’s to become familiar with the issues involved (this article or any of his many others online). I still recommend James Davison Hunter’s book How to Change the World which reviews several perspectives on the Christians-in-culture issue and offers his own ideas. There is much more available as well.


A side note here: In Dreher’s discussion of what stands behind conservative Christian views, things opponents and critics ought to understand before dismissing them (and us), he gives some space to the significance of metaphysics, a subject Christian apologists should give more attention to. We have been made male and female; to alter that is to go against the way we are designed. He quotes Michael Martin:

“Our current, postmodern moment — materialistic, technological, technocratic, atheistic — exemplifies a nominalism writ large. Here there are no universals. There are no ideas, no archetypes. Only names. ‘Marriage,’ for instance, no longer embeds universal cultural archetypes of ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ . . . Marriage, previously assumed as the union of a man and woman into organic whole, has been relativized beyond the point of recognition. A collateral ontological shift has also occurred in the postmodern understanding of the word ‘family.’ Perhaps most emblematic of this shift is the new conceptualization of the term ‘gender,’ which, tellingly, has proved the most plastic of all. Does not the notion of elective gender reassignment surgery, like nominalism, assert in the clearest terms that universals do not exist?”

And this from Russell Moore:

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.

“This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, ‘male and female,’ from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?”

If it is so that we are designed for a purpose (teleology), then this would be more than a simple philosophical notion, but should be visible in nature. If transgenderism is an alteration of an built-in design, then our bodies should show damage or at least some kind of diminishment when “re-purposed.” I would also expect that, since we are wholistic beings, changes would also be seen in non-physical aspects of our beings. Time will tell if this is so as more and more people become transgenders.



Churches as models of real love and forgiveness

I am feeling quite subdued and flat today after last night’s shooting of police officers and civilians at the Black Lives Matter march next door in Dallas, a feeling enhanced by having been involved in a lengthy conversation on racism and racist charges on Facebook with friends just before the assault happened. This is how I respond emotionally when my thinking is that all is lost. Before we can get a good start on dealing with one problem another arises. What can we make of all this? There is sin on all sides, and distinguishing between the justifiable and non-justifiable (and the non-justifiable that is still somewhat understandable) can be difficult to do. There are no simple explanations and solutions. All of us, of all colors, must look to ourselves and our own sins and failings. Mere finger-pointing isn’t getting us anywhere.

Short of us appropriating a transcendent morality which unseats our own (usually selfish) standards, and being or becoming grounded in the love of the One who is in Himself love, I see no other direction America can go apart from the increasing application of power, whether legal or illegal, to force us to do what the ones in power deem to be right. I do think John Adams was correct when he said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The extensive freedoms we’ve enjoyed require self-control, and that self-control needs to be rooted in a moral strength that exceeds our own.

I’ve been increasingly convicted, having been in the business of arguing for the truth of the faith on an intellectual level for a long time, that we will only convince people of it by demonstrating it in how we live (along with giving voice to it). If it isn’t just a set of ideas but rather a complete way of life, then it should be observable in action. And since racism isn’t merely a matter of the heart, an individual matter, but shows its face in society, we have to show the truth of God’s love and goodness in society as a desirable and truly possible alternative; first of all, though, in the church, amongst ourselves in the small societies of our local churches. How those of us who attend churches far from our homes will do that, I don’t know. But it has to happen. This, of course, doesn’t preclude the necessity of displaying the love of Christ on an individual level with our neighbors. But I don’t think that will have as much impact as seeing it lived out amongst believers. In itself it will be good, and it will also be a witness to the truth of what we confess.

As an aside, I would urge Christians who aren’t part of churches to become part of one (if possible), for this and other reasons. Yes, I know the people in churches are still sinners who don’t always behave the way we ought. But that’s true for Christians who don’t go to church, too. Jesus came to establish the church, not just to provide individual salvation. It is there, in local congregations, that his image is better seen and his purposes worked out. Perhaps the presence of these living witnesses to love and forgiveness will help turn the tide in our country and, even better, lead people to believe the good news we proclaim, a process in which all of us should play a part.

We can know God’s word

There is a mood among more than a few younger (in age) evangelicals which is somewhat reminiscent of neo-orthdoxy in its diminishing of Scripture. Several months ago I read a blog in which Christians were chided for being more “Biblian” than “Christian.” Christians who hold to a high view of Scripture are scolded for worshiping the Bible rather than Christ.  The attitude seems to be that holding a high view of Scripture requires a diminishing of Christ, that the two can’t go together. In all my years in churches that held to a high view–even that the Bible is inerrant–I never detected that (although, of course, I cannot see people’s hearts). In fact, I’d say that the higher a view of Scripture I saw, the higher the view of Christ I saw as well.

This way of thinking is fed of late by postmodern angst about being able to properly interpret written texts. But not wanting to let the Bible go entirely, some Christians will pull out a few attractive parts that somehow can be understood (almost always including the verse that says that God is love) and decide on their own how those truths should be applied. This way of using Scripture leaves us free to speculate on matters that have been clearly addressed. Amazingly enough, God is coming down more and more on the side of secular progressivism. 

In his book Words of Life, Timothy Ward argues for a close relation of God to His words, and further claims (I think correctly) that there is no need to fear that people can’t know God’s words because of the distance between us (either ontological or as a result of sin). Writes Ward: “Our language can be made by God to speak truthfully of him because our language has its origin in him and in some way is like his own. The fall makes this much more problematic, of course, but sin does not erase humanity as the image of God, and thus does not destroy the capacity of human language to speak truly of God.” (34-35)

We needn’t choose between either Jesus or the Bible. The Bible is about him, and he, as our creator, is fully capable of getting his word to us, even using fallen people to do it. To honor Christ includes honoring his word. To say we can’t truly know God’s word is more a declaration of limitations on his side than on ours.

Why I am engaged this time

In a recent Facebook exchange, a friend noted that it was clear that I don’t like Donald Trump. Here is my slightly edited reply. (I should note for people who don’t know me that I have always voted Republican.)

This isn’t simply a matter of disliking Trump. I’ll say it plainly: I’m afraid of a Trump presidency. I don’t like politics; I try to avoid the subject. I’ve never been engaged as I have this election season. And I am now because, while the thought of a Clinton presidency is depressing, the thought of a Trump one is scary.

Short of some radical conversion on her part, I could never in good conscience vote for Hilary Clinton. But at least I think people know what they’d get from her as president: four more Obama years. With Trump, no one knows for sure. Why don’t his voters notice his flip-flopping on policies? Why do they believe what he says now?
But while we don’t know for sure what he’ll do, we do know his authoritarian attitude (military leaders will commit war crimes if he tells them to; Mexico will pay for the wall). We know that he believes he is superior to everyone else in America, maybe everyone who walks the earth. People who think that way and think they are above the law are loose cannons. He’s going to change the way things are by negotiating, as long as things go his way, or on his own, if they don’t. Apparently, Trump thinks of everyone else as his future employees who will do what the boss says.
Things come up during a presidency that can’t be foreseen. We have to trust in the character of the president, that he or she will deal responsibly with such eventualities. How can anyone trust a man who believes everything he does is great, despite the evidence against that, and that everyone loves him, which obviously is untrue? I’ll say it again, Donald Trump a delusional egomaniac. Can such a person be trusted in such an important position? It scares me, truly. We don’t like bleeding heart liberals meddling in our lives. We wouldn’t like ham-fisted conservatives doing it either. In hard times, people will vote into office strong authoritarian figures to make things right. The history of the twentieth-century shows that that doesn’t always go well, especially when such leaders believe themselves above the law.
I’ve tried to figure out why people support Trump despite all the evidence against his suitability. The only thing I’ve come up with is his supreme self-confidence. It isn’t his conservatism; Cruz beats him on that. It isn’t his record; that’s a muddle. It isn’t that he’s an “outsider” (Cruz; Carson). It’s his demeanor. We’ve seen how he manages the stage at debates. He shushes other candidates and talks down to them like a parent talking to children and says repeatedly how stupid and incompetent everyone is. I don’t think this is an act to help win debates; he really does think he is superior to everyone. And if this were an act, in keeping with his business strategies in “The Art of the Deal,” how could we ever know whether he’s saying what he really thinks or is just engaging in manipulative marketing? No, he is supremely confident, and that confidence gives voters themselves confidence (40% of them or so, anyway). They can’t be confident that he’s going to do certain things, because no one knows. He could turn out to be the Democrat that Clinton has said he is. But that’s okay. He is supremely confident, and he makes people feel confident.
Honestly, I don’t know which is scarier: Trump as president, or the fact that so many people want him to be president. I still think he won’t be, even if he wins the Republican nomination. His 40% of Republicans (or thereabouts) won’t be enough to win over a significant number of Democrats (and I’m being generous there) or the moderates of whichever party. Which way the other 60% of Republicans would vote is uncertain (I think a Trump/Clinton election could result in the lowest voters turnout ever). As I’ve pointed out before, President Obama won not just one but two elections. Trump is not going to win over the nation. If he does, things are even worse than I think they are.

SSM: Focus on the practical ramifications

A Kentucky clerk is in hot water for refusing to grant marriage licenses for same-sex marriage. Her reason is that it goes against the law of God (you can find the story here). I agree with that, but that kind of defense isn’t going to accomplish anything. Besides issues related to the formal separation of church and state, there’s also the fact that this sounds like simply a religious reason, and people who don’t share her religious views won’t care what she believes.

Christians need to stop pointing to God’s law first of all as their reason, not because that is insignificant, but because it won’t be heard. It’s a fine answer if one only wants to explain one’s actions, but it won’t work to effect change. People have to be shown the practical problems resulting from SSM, and there are some (which shouldn’t be a surprise; if God created marriage to work a certain way, any other way can’t be successful). It isn’t wrong simply because of these things, but these things are realities because it is wrong.

I may have mentioned here before the book What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, by Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson, which discusses these problems at length. A journal article by that title is available online. Even better, for those who want the argument quick and dirty, is the abstract of their amicus brief presented to the Supreme Court that can be found here.

Problems created by SSM have to do with real marital fulfillment, child and spousal well-being, and religious liberty. Christians should make these kinds of matters their main talking points if they want to be heard.

The church for the world?

I remember reading years ago that Christians have things turned around when we say that the church exists for the world, that rather the world exists for the church. Jesus came to build his church, and it is his church that will abide with him forever, not the fallen world. I was intrigued by the idea but also felt cautious. Won’t that make us self-centered? Might it condition us to be puffed up and think too highly of ourselves?

According to Simon Chan, that idea is correct, says Dennis Okholm in his review of Chan’s Liturgical Theology (2009; Okholm’s review can be found here). I haven’t read Chan’s book, but it’s now on my reading list.

Okholm’s review is brief, so I’ll just try to whet your appetite with a few quotes. He writes:

I usually think of the church existing to serve the world, and there is truth to that sentiment. But Chan is right to say that it is more biblically and theologically correct to say this: “creation exists to realize the church.”

I should have known this. My favorite New Testament letter is Ephesians, and Paul makes it very clear in the first chapter (v. 4) that God had his covenant community in mind before the world was even created. And the Swiss theologian Karl Barth taught that the covenant is the “internal basis” of creation while creation is the “external basis” of the covenant, which, to put it in simpler language, means that creation is simply the stage on which God’s plan to be in a covenant relationship with his people gets played out. . . .

This has important implications for the way we think about us—about church. . . .

It . . . means that the church is not to exist as a counter-culture, but that the church is a culture (an alternative culture if you’d like). And as long as ACNA—or any other church, for that matter—sets its agenda as a counter to something else (even a “liberal” denomination from which it broke), that “something else” will be determining ACNA’s identity.

It is right to want to avoid becoming puffed up and self-centered. But such concerns can be allayed by reminding ourselves that we participate in the church by grace alone, and that it is our call and duty to be active participants in building Christ’s church to his glory by reaching out to the world around us as Jesus did and by discipling all who join us. We don’t decide our doctrine in pragmatic terms, by worrying about what might possibly come of it. If it’s true, it’s true, and if anything needs to be adjusted, it should be our attitudes. We can be reminded every week in the liturgy (or by some other means in non-liturgical churches) that it’s ultimately about Jesus and the church he died to create. The church isn’t simply a means to the end of reaching the world, but is rather the place where people in the world should want to find themselves. It’s our job to help them get there.

Okholm’s caution about the church not existing as a counter-culture is also important. This attitude sets us up to watch what “they’re” doing and do otherwise, to restrict the engagement of our minds, hearts, spirits, and energies to reacting rather than to proactively carrying the light and showing the way forward.

I’ll be interested to see how Chan fleshes all this out.

“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.