Thursday, April 22, 2010

Strategic Plan/Identity for the PCA?

The Cooperative Ministries Committee has unanimously approved its "Strategic Plan" for understanding, evaluating and responding to the slowed numerical growth of the PCA (even the apparent frightening reality that there was even numerical shrinking),
This Strategic Plan seeks to address these realities by helping the PCA identify its challenges, address them with strategies that are consistent with our biblical values, and build denominational support for implementing these strategies. The overall goal is to enable the church to work together to steward its blessings and resources to advance the cause of Christ according to the principles and priorities of his Word.
If one does not wish to read all the analysis and evaluation and get right to the "strategies," a helpful overview can be read here.  You can find an article in byFaith Magazine here.  You can also find a series of videos presenting the CMC's plan here.

At the heart of the issue here, is the question over identity, or in the words of the committee "a proposed plan for the future of the PCA."  There is much that could be said about this plan and there are many points that could be addressed.  But, given that this proposal concerns identity, I would like to address a couple of big-picture issues rather than specific details.  So, in my mind, a foundational question that must be answered is, "Is the identity that is assumed in these strategies and will be further entrenched by these strategies biblical/confessional?".

First, the plan further centralizes power for making decisions in the PCA's ministry.  Centralization of power, even in the church, is never a good thing, but especially within a Presbyterian denomination.  Presbyterian is not a top-down ecclessiology, but rather a representative ecclessiology where men ordained to exercise the keys of the kingdom exercise them on behalf of Christ for the church.  Presbyterianism spreads the authority equally, where as, centralization takes it away from some and puts it in the hands of fewer men.  And this is particularly dangerous given what the Bible says about who is participating in governing the church.  Presbyterianism is a representation consisting of sinners saved by grace who still sin.  This fact of the ongoing presence of sin and struggle with it further under-girds why centralization is wrong headed.  Presbyters already have a impossible calling as is--is it very wise to make that calling even more precarious?  Do we want to temp men to abuse power?  No matter how godly leadership is, it is still a leadership consisting of sinners who can be easily tempted to abuse authority.  If you think this concern is unfounded, then you may want to read more history, yes, even church history. Centralization will put the church in harm's way by creating an environment for authoritarianism, where the will of the few powerful and elite will be forced on the many.  And the few powerful and elite always seem to be those with more money.  Is this the direction we want to take things?  To put the smaller and the weak in a position to be furthered looked over and ignored?  Centralization, then, is contra Presbyterian.

Secondly, the plan calls for the PCA to withdraw from NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.  Theme #3, specific means #4 states:
Means (Specific) #4: Partner with national and international ministries with whom we can most effectively participate in God’s Global Mission by: (a) seek union or appropriate levels of cooperation with Reformed movements making Gospel progress and in harmony with our ethos and goals; (b) withdraw from organizations with whom we share doctrinal history, but not ministry priorities, currently draining our ministry energies (e.g. NAPARC); (c) find new ways to give away our knowledge and resources to bodies of believers being spiritually blessed, [emphasis mine].
NAPARC is a group of churches that represent different denominations with whom the PCA has fraternal relations for the purpose of assisting one another for building the church of Jesus Christ rather than just focusing on individual denominations.  This group represents those with whom the PCA shares the same doctrinal heritage and represents the truest of fellowship and ecumenicism.  These are the guys who are standing with us.  These are the guys with whom we can participate in clear conscience in church planting and missions because we know they believe what we believe.  The reason stated for withdrawal is that even though they do share this doctrinal history, they don't share the PCA's ministry priorities.  Because of this, the strategy says that NAPARC is draining the PCA's resources, so to be more effective in planting reformed churches and doing world-wide reformed missions, the plan says we need to stop participating with the other reformed bodies who are striving do the same.  What priorities aren't the same?  In essence, by withdrawing, it would appear that we are limiting ourselves in ministry. 

Unless, by withdrawing from those with whom we share a doctrinal heritage, we join in with groups with whom we don't.  Is there a move here to be aligned with non-reformed groups to accomplish reformed evangelism, church-planting and foreign missions for the sake of having greater "influence and growth."  What will we be growing?  There is already a serious issue in the PCA with the use of non-reformed worship practices and non-reformed church growth strategies.  Will we now just go ahead and join in the work of the  groups whose methods have already been adopted?  According to Theme #3, the answer is yes.  The strategy would prefer the PCA learn from and work with the non-Reformed and the Reformed not part of NAPARC.  Which is interesting, given that there are no conservative churches in North America that are not part of NAPARC.  So who are these Reformed groups?  Who is it that makes up the "global church"?

O.k., so this has already gone much longer than originally intended, so I will stop for now.  But these two issues are very important.  The strategy calls for the PCA as a Presbyterian and Reformed church to pursue evangelism, church planting and missions in a non-Presbyterian fashion that centralizes power and to do so by no longer participating with other conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  So, the strategy seems to suggest that the PCA needs to develop a less Reformed, maybe even, non-Reformed identity in order to do Reformed ministry.

Now, please don't come away from this thinking that the whole thing is bad and awful and the plague.  But, on the big picture, I am very concerned.  For critiques that deal with more specific details, you can read here and here.

The next step is for the "Strategic Plan" to be brought to the floor at GA.  It will be interesting to see what the PCA decides to say about herself by her vote.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Shakin' Things Up Here at A Pilgrim's Redress

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil . . . ~ Ecclesiastes 4.9

As you notice in the new title "Pilgrims and Pastors," the blog, it is a changin'.  "Why the new title?," you may be asking.  Well, because the former title was singular and didn't make sense any more now that there are two authors for this blog! 

I am very happy to introduce to you Pastor Jeremy Jones.  Jeremy is the Associate Pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church where I have just been called.  From listening to many of his sermons and from our conversations, I knew that I had to invite him to write with me here and to share his thoughts.  I have been blessed by him and I know you will be too.  You will soon be able to learn more about Jeremy when his bio is completed, which you will find above at the "About Jeremy" tab.

So, we needed a new title to reflect the new situation. I didn't want the new situation, however, to be divorced from the brief history of "A Pilgrim's Redress," so I kept the "pilgrim" theme since it is so important to the Bible's description of Jesus Christ and his church.  But I also wanted to reflect the new situation in that I am about to be ordained as a minister, which is a big step in my pilgrimage that has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Therefore, since Jeremy and I are Christian pilgrims and will soon be writing as pastors, I thought the new title "Pilgrims & Pastors" was rather fitting.

For now the url will remain what it is, but that will be changing in the near future, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jesus is My Girlfriend Worship?

Sometimes things like this make me wish I was an exclusive Psalm singer.  Songs that can be sung to a girl or to any human cannot be sung to God!

O.k., so you're probably wondering what I'm talking about.  Well, this past Lord's Day, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church held his Easter service at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA.  At this Easter "worship" service, Warren had the Jonas Brothers do "a three-song session" (or performance) to close the nearly two hour service, worship service.  A service reportedly devoted to worshiping God was closed with a performance by a popular boyband, singing Easter classics like "Hold On," A Little Bit Longer" and "Gotta Find You."

Now apparently the last song was written by a member of Saddleback Church, so certainly it should be about the resurrection, Jesus, or at least about God, right?!  Unfortunately, no!  Well, at least we're really not sure since the song had been originally sung to a teenage girl in the ABC Family television show Camp Rock.  Now if you can sing a song to a girl, and then later sing that same song to God as worship, then either your view of that girl is way too high, or, the more likely scenario is that your view of God is much too low.  In fact, it is what the Bible refers to as idolatry.

Below is a video clip that shows the song being sung at the Easter service compared to when it was sung to a girl.  I do not endorse the man that introduces the clips nor his cynicism, although the idolatry it reveals is quite flagrant and shocking. 

Songs that can be sung to a girl or to any human cannot be sung to God!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Word and Sacrament: Bathing Pilgrims in the Powers of the Age to Come

"If our churches are not bathing us in the unfading powers of the age to come [through Word & Sacrament], why should it surprise us when people assign greater reality and significance to the age that is passing away?  If we think that we can sustain ourselves and our churches simply by trying to make things more user-friendly, we have not reckoned with the enormous power of this present evil age."

Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life, 205

Friday, April 2, 2010

For Whom Did Jesus Die On The Cross Primarily?

Today is referred to as "Good Friday" because it is a special remembrance of Jesus Christ's death on the cross.  So as we spend this special time meditating on the cross, what was the central issue at stake?  What was the primary problem that God was fixing through the crucifixion of Jesus?  Now, there were many things at stake and many things being accomplished by the cross--but what was at the heart of it all?  Romans 3:25-26 answers that question this way,
God put [Christ Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The answer is startling and mind boggling!  God's righteousness was the central issue at stake!  The primary problem God was solving with the cross was his ability to be just, while declaring those who were inherently unjust as being just.  God's primary purpose with the cross was not the salvation of sinners by providing them the righteousness needed to be declared just, but it was keeping himself righteous in the process!

God was at the center of his redemptive acts in Christ.  Now this is not the typical perspective of the cross.  Often when we hear about the cross, we are told that it is somehow a statement of our value; it is a statement about how lovable we are; it is a statement about how God loves us more than anything else.  But this man-centered perspective of the cross is flipped on its head by this passage in Romans.

I had an email exchange with a member of the church where I have been elected as Pastor about God's God-centeredness.  We typically like to put ourselves at the center of things because we believe that it is the way to secure our good.  But did you realize that we can practice this idolatry even when it comes to our understanding of the cross?  We turn something that is centrally about God into something completely about us.

But what we fail to realize is that if God is not primarily in focus with regards to the cross, then there would be no benefit for us in the cross.  If God does not first and foremost take care of the problem of securing his own righteousness in being able to declare the unjust as just, then he would be unjust, and unable to declare us as just.  The whole system, the whole universe would fall apart . . . if, God was not God-centered.  If God is not God-centered (another way to say this is "self-centered"), then we could not receive salvation from him.

On this Good Friday, then, we should keep in mind that the cross is first and foremost about God.  Jesus died primarily for God.  The cross speaks of his value and how important he is.  And the benefit of that self-centered act is that now he is able to love the church by declaring her just.  God's care for his own righteousness secures his giving that righteousness to us who have no righteousness of our own.  As God fixes his problem, he is able to fix ours.

What an amazing gospel!  God gave himself on the cross for himself in order that we too might be accounted as righteous as him and, therefore, enter in to his love for himself.  The cross that is good for God is the cross that is good for us.  Today truly is a "Good Friday," but more importantly, everyday is now good for those who receive the cross work of Christ and his glorious resurrection by faith.

I remember first being confronted with this perspective in the writings of Jonathan Edwards.  If you want to hear a great sermon by one who also was effected by Edwards teaching, then listen to this sermon on Romans 3:25-26 by John Piper.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Lord's Supper: The Nexus of Heaven and Earth; the Future, the Present, and the Past

Another hymn that I love to read and meditate on (that for some reason I've never gotten to sing in corporate worship) is the hymn, "Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face," (Trinity Hymnal, #378).  It does a beautiful job of displaying Christ in the elements of bread and wine and the fellowship that brings.  Yet, it also has a very biblical-theological presentation of that fellowship.  First, it reveals the horizontal plane of continuity of God's redemptive plan in Christ by tying together the past redemptive acts of Christ, the present act of fellowship because of those acts, and the future consummation of the fellowship to which the supper points.  Yet, it also beautifully reveals the vertical dimension of God's redemptive plan by bringing together heaven and earth through the worship of the Lord's Supper.  There is true fellowship in the heavenly presence of Christ enjoyed by his still earthly pilgrim people.  Although the church has not entered into the full consummation that will take place at the end of history (the horizontal plane), the church does not have to wait until the end to enjoy that heavenly fellowship (the vertical) now.

In the Supper, the horizontal and the vertical come together.  Each time the church fellowships with Christ and one another around the elements of bread and wine, they enter into the future, while in the present, because of the past, because in that moment, heaven and earth come together.

Oh what fellowship we have with the Christ at his table!

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand th'eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with thee the royal wine of heav'n;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.

This is the hour of banquet and of song;
This is the heav'nly table spread for me:
Here let me feast, and, feasting, still prolong
The brief, bright hour of fellowship with thee.

I have no help but thine, nor do I need
Another arm save thine to lean upon:
It is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;
My strength is in thy might, thy might alone.

Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness;
Mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace,
Thy blood, thy righteousness, O Lord my God.

The Lord's Supper: A Sweet and Awful Place

On this evening, here is a hymn that brings out the paradox of the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially how that paradox is displayed in the Lord's Supper and felt by sinners who are invited to partake of it in joy.  This paradox is emphasized in the original wording of the first line found in #271 of the original Trinity Hymnal, "How sweet and awful is the place," but has been lost in #469 of the revised version, which now reads, "How sweet and awesome is the place."  Notice the paradox as it is brought out so clearly in the second and third stanzas:
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
"Lord, why was I a guest?

"Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"
Now, there is no doubt that when the church gathers for fellowship with Christ at the Lord's Table for the Lord's Supper it is surely an awesome event.  Yet, we must never forget that it is also an awful place to be.  Yes, we meet Christ there to be fed from him and to see him in the bread and wine.  We are reminded of our fellowship with him in the new creation, and our fellowship with one another and all the members of the church throughout all time who will fellowship together in heaven for eternity.  But, we see all of this through the confrontation of the elements, as they show us a broken body and spilled blood.  That because of our sin, we are not invited because of anything good in us, and therefore, can only meet with the savior through his awful act of sacrifice and the ongoing awful act of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What a sweet privilege and honor to be invited to this feast and to meet with him who gave himself for his bride, and yet, what an awful means of coming to that table and that fellowship. 

Below is a beautiful rendition of this great hymn of the Lord's Supper.  They are singing the words as they appear in the revised hymnal, so below the video, I have also included the words from the original.

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
"Lord, why was I a guest?

"Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"

'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.

[HT: Gene Long]