Monday, November 12, 2007


One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in Deuteronomy:

1When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:1-10, NRSV)

God gives freedom. The whole story of the Exodus tells us that God had made a covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Those descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved, oppressed. God, as the passage says, led them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and led them into a fruitful land. God set them free.

But it is, in a sense, a terrible thing to be part of God’s people. Freedom given from God is not freedom to do as we wish. It is freedom to be what God intends us to be. The people of Israel did not put aside their idols and false gods. They oppressed the poor among them and bribed judges. God warned them that they were to live as holy people for God had set them apart as a light unto the nations. Ultimately because they misused their freedom God took away their freedom and punished them.

But something happened in exile in Babylon. There was a renaissance of faith in God. There was a renaissance of obedience to God. The people of God began to see that outward slavery did not deny freedom. The people began to celebrate their freedom. The Sabbath meal became a meal of freedom. While God’s people might labor six days a week, on the seventh day they rested for, as it says in Deuteronomy, God commanded them to do so for God had led them out of slavery. (Deut. 5:12-15) The Sabbath was a celebration of freedom.

So was the Passover. Every year the people would gather and remember that God had set them free. No matter how awful daily life might be, God was still a God who brought liberation.

But freedom always exists within bounds. I remember hearing James McCord when he was president of Princeton Seminary preach one time that God was not only a God of liberation. God did not simply lead the people out of Egypt. God led them to the Mountain and gave them commandments. True freedom can only exist within limits. St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.” The assumption behind this statement is that if we love God we will seek to please God. We please God by living as God commands us to live. To live as if freedom means there are no limits is to live in chaos. This is precisely the problem we have in America and in the PCUSA today.

People drive up the street I live on with stereos that have massive bass speakers in their cars. They turn the music up loud and the bass reverberates through the neighborhood. My house shakes and I can hear the bass notes even with the windows closed. Now I like loud music as much as the next person. But when in my house I want to hear my own music, not that of someone driving by. Fire and police sirens I understand. They are necessary. So are train whistles. But as nice as the driver with the bass booster is to share his music with me, I wish he wouldn’t. He probably claims to have the freedom to play the music as loud as he wants. What about my freedom to be at peace in my house?

And if we all thought we were free to do as we wish the roads would be a colossal mess. If we all thought that we don’t have to stop at stop signs or at red lights traffic would be so snarled that no one would ever get anywhere! (Oops, I forgot: there must be a new law I haven’t read that says that four cars can turn left on red!)

I’m going to come back to the limits on freedom. There is another freedom that is important: the freedom God gives in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came and taught the way of freedom. He lived the way of freedom. He died and rose again to set us free. And curiously the way of freedom for Jesus was the way of obedience to the Father. We are set free from the powers of sin and death because Jesus chose to obey the Father, to allow himself to be arrested, to die in our place. Jesus shows us that the way of freedom includes the way of obedience to the Father.

Martin Luther puts it this way:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. Martin Luther, A Treatise on Christian Liberty)

As Luther points out, this sounds like a contradiction. It isn’t. God made us for freedom. Jesus died to set us free. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could do as we please, totally ignoring God. As Paul says in Romans, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2 NIV)

I spoke previously about the covenants God makes. God always acts with grace first. Then God calls people to be the people of God, to be holy, to live for God. Our freedom then is to be dedicated to serving God.

That is freedom for the people of God. What about freedom for others? Contrary to what Christians did for more than 1500 years, we cannot impose obedience to God upon others. There are at least two kinds of freedoms in a free society. There is the freedom of the people of God, which is freedom to serve God. There is also freedom for everyone. When Christians come to legislate in a free society they cannot impose their beliefs on others as law. We must make a case that the laws we propose, (and this must be true for all), are good for all no matter what people believe. In a sense we could say that law is based on freedom. One cannot kill another because killing takes away the freedom of the other to live. One cannot pay another substandard wages because the worker deserves the freedom to live and eat. Law must be for the good of all the people. Christians cannot impose, say, attendance at Christian worship upon others.

The problem with freedom in America and in the PCUSA today is that freedom is too often no longer seen as freedom within limits so that all may be free. Freedom is seen as the right to do what I want no matter how it affects the other. As participants in a consumerist society we believe we have the right to riches beyond the imagining of the rich in the past. We forget that riches are earned and that even the possession of riches comes with commands from God, to serve God and other with riches.

The same is true in the PCUSA. We have taken on the language of rights, the watchword of the Enlightenment. People say they have the right to be ordained. No one has the right to be ordained. God calls people to particular tasks and gives people the gifts to enable them to carry out those tasks. Many tasks demand a certain amount of holy behavior. A congregation should not call a pastor who openly has a wife and a mistress. Yes, I know, there were people in the Old Testament who had concubines. In fact it was even a habit that was not ruled out among Christians in the early years. But we have come to see that God calls most men and women together to be one, to be married. One cannot be one with more than one other person. Check out the stories of those in the Old Testament who had more than one wife! Everyone man who had more than one wife or wives and concubines had troubles.

In the Church we have freedom within limits. We are free to serve God. Even if we are oppressed for our faith we are free because Christ has made us free.

Let us so live that our freedom shows that we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is true freedom.

Pastor Bob

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I have terminated my conversations with John Shuck. While we have been friends for a long time, and still are friends John has mocked members of the Presbyterian Church. He did so in three posts on his blog:

New Winos Are Too Holy for PCUSA

New Winos Are All About Jesus

Name the New Wineskins Contest!

Now I will be the first to admit that some of the folks in the New Wineskins movement have not been at all polite in the comments about the Presbyterian Church. Further, as some of them leave the denomination, the call the PCUSA apostate. I disagree with them. And frankly some of them have been terribly nasty to John. But I don’t believe in returning evil for evil. So I posted the following on John’s blog:


I find your mocking of the New Wineskins people totally unacceptable. I can no longer in good conscience participate in a dialogue with you.

I certainly don’t agree with the people leaving the denomination but frankly your current behavior is exactly what has caused me pain from the rigid liberals for my whole career.

I know you love and are concerned about the PCUSA. I do and am too. But the way to respond to all who disagree with you, no matter what their behavior, is by treating them as we have each other not by mocking them. Others may not respond as we have but we still have a responsibility to “. . . be (friends) among (our) colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit,” even when others do not behave in such a fashion.

If you remove the three mocking posts about the New Wineskins and apologize for mocking them I will continue in dialogue with you. Just send me an email if you have done so.

I have appreciated our conversations and continue to love you as my friend.


I make no claim to be sinless. But I do try to be courteous to all, no matter how much I may disagree with them. I believe the greatest thing the PCUSA needs is careful, courteous listening.

I say this and do this with a heavy heart. John is still my friend. I don’t approve of what people have said about him. But I expect him to extend the same courtesy to others as he has to me.

But I am going to continue my posts on the essentials of faith. Look forward to a post coming soon on Freedom.

Pastor Bob

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


This post is longer as the proposed Form of Government is longer. You can find the full text of the proposed Form of Government here.

Again FoG refers to the Form of Government

1. Old G-5.0103 new G-1.0302: I think the deletion of this: “No persons shall be denied membership because of race, ethnic origin, worldly condition” is a mistake. I think our racism is still with us and needs to be stated directly rather than indirectly.

2. New G-1.04: I think the removal of the category of inactive members is a missiological mistake. Granted too few congregations reach out to inactive members but it is an important ministry that should be revived rather than abandoned.

3. New G-1.0402: “Active members shall regularly, after prayerful consideration, recommit themselves to the disciplines and responsibilities of membership outlined in G-1.0303.” What would this look like liturgically? How might a session provide for such re-commission? What does this mean?

4. New G-1.0404 loses the distinction between baptized who are not members and non baptized persons. This blurs the distinction between those who may receive the Lord’s Supper and those who may not. To say, “Persons who are not members . . . are welcome and . . . may participate in and worship of this church . . .” confuses the question of whether non baptized persons may or may not receive the Lord’s Supper, even though it is stated elsewhere that they may not.

5. Old G-5.0502: “The session shall review the roll of members at least annually, and shall counsel with those who have neglected the responsibilities of membership.” What happened to this responsibility?

6. I recognize that the new FoG seeks to be a constitution and not a handbook, but losing G-6.0202 loses both Scriptural definitions of teaching elders and various categories of possible ways teaching elders may serve. It may become important to the lives of Associate Pastors and Co Pastors to have their offices listed, particularly if the later sections do not protect them.

7. Why lose the list of responsibilities of ruling elders and deacons? I use these as primary teaching tools for new officers, pointing out to them that the constitution requires certain tasks of them.

8. Old G-6.0404: If it isn’t made clear that the deacons are responsible to the session some bad stuff may happen down the road! I am sure this came into the FoG because there were conflicts over who made the final decision!

9. “Release from the Exercise of Ordained Office G-6.0600a. If a minister, elder, or deacon against whom no inquiry has been initiated pursuant to D-10.0101 and D-10.0201, against whom no charges have been filed . . .” Isn’t this an important tie to the Rules for Discipline? Later in both the old and the new sections it specifically says, “No judgment of failure on the part of the ruling elder or deacon is implied in this action.” But if there are charges against the person there may indeed be a judgment of failure! Then the action of restoring the person to the roll if requested seems to be automatic! There has to be some procedure for dealing with cases of misconduct of some kind even if the person seeks release from office. Leaving the denomination is another matter.

10. G-1.0101: “All the gifts of the gospel necessary to being the church are present to the congregation.” This sentence would be clearer if it said . . . present in the congregation.

11. Old G-7.0302c has been deleted! Does this mean a congregation may conduct business anyway it chooses to? What happened to Robert’s Rules?

12. New G-1.0501 says: “Adequate public notice of all congregational meetings shall be given at a regular service of worship” I bet this will be a problem is some session thinks adequate means “Today we are going to have a congregational meeting to dissolve the relationship between the pastor and the congregation.” The old 2 week rule had a lot of value and I bet was put in place because of a situation like the one I suggested. We Calvinists have rules like this one because we know humans, including all Christians, still sin.

13. Old G-9.0102b: “They may frame symbols of faith, bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and of discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience, and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of the Book of Order.” Why was this removed? It seems to remove some powers from the session, the synod and the General Assembly, since all powers not named revert to the presbytery.

14. No more Committees on Representation? I don’t think we are ready to get rid of this!

15. I approve of the use of the word “council,” however it is going to take some time to learn that it does not mean presbytery, synod or GA council.

16. I think there is a curious problem with saying that other means of discernment may replace Robert’s Rules. By eliminating the section which says who may dissent or protest the new FoG necessitates turning to Robert’s Rules. Also the elimination of the right to dissent or protest a judicial decision leaves a member of the council with no possible action except judicial to disagree publicly with a judicial decision.

17. New G-3.0107: “Presbyteries may apportion requested funds to sessions within their bounds.” Does this mean that presbyteries may require sessions to pay particular amounts to the presbytery? Since we have eliminated per capita apportionments, what does apportion mean in this context?

18. Since the following sections of G-3.0107 are divided into different paragraphs, Councils more inclusive than the session may provide examples of policies and procedures that may be gathered into advisory handbooks. These examples illumine practices required by the Constitution but left to councils for specific implementation. Such handbooks may also offer information that enhances or secures the ministry of the particular council.” And “Each council shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that body. A council may delegate aspects of its tasks to such entities as it deems appropriate, provided that those entities remain accountable to the council.” Does this mean that a session must have a manual of administrative operation?

19. New G-3.0109a doesn’t seem to require the review of the rolls of a congregation or a presbytery, although it does require review of the minutes. While this may not seem important, some records of a congregation may not be included in proceedings and actions such as deaths and weddings. Baptisms of member’s children might not be included either as well as the records that ordinations and installations have taken place. While these things should be in the minutes what happens if the clerk failed to record them?

20. New G-3.0204: for historical reasons records of weddings and deaths, (with place of burial) should be maintained as well for those in future generations seeking to search their genealogies.

21. New G-3.0110: a commission no longer has to keep records and provide them to the council?

22. New G-3.0301c I think where the word congregation is used the word presbytery is meant.

23. Could the first paragraph of G-3.0307 be construed to mean that the presbytery may not only set criteria for what work will be considered validated but also what a MWS must believe to be a member?

24. Ordination and Installation questions should be retained in the FoG. While they will be asked in a worship service they are, nevertheless, questions concerning a person’s qualifications for leadership.

25. Are synods really needed except for review of presbytery records and judicial proceedings? Leave in G-3.0404 and take out the rest about synods.

26. Ordination exams should be listed in the FoG. Otherwise a committee of the GAC might change the number or nature of the exams without the approval of the presbyteries.

27. It is my opinion that a person who has served in a temporary position with a congregation, particularly that which is currently called an interim pastor should not be eligible to serve as the next pastor. The interim period provides time for a congregation to go through a process of self examination and examination of its mission. If an interim pastor can serve as the next installed pastor that person may not provide the leadership needed in an interim period. Further, since an interim is hired by the session, allowing an interim pastor to be a candidate to be the next installed pastor does not give a PNC the appropriate latitude needed for its search. Also putting a presbytery in the position of deciding whether an interim pastor can be come the installed pastor may damage the relationship between the presbytery and the congregation seeking to call their interim as their next installed pastor. I strongly urge this section be changed. Frankly I think it is one of the possible deal breakers for this new FoG.

28. G-2.0701 is contrary to the agreed upon section of the G-14 passed by presbyteries in 2007. We were assured that there would always be a congregational meeting if a dissolution of relationship is considered. This too is a deal breaker.

New G-5.05b says: “Such joint witnesses shall be formed according to a plan approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of each of the congregations at duly called meetings of the congregation, and by the presbytery or comparable council or governing body of each church.” This sentence seems to suggest that both the congregation and the presbytery or comparable governing must approve the plan by a 2/3 majority. Is this the intention because it isn’t clear?


Some of you, Presbyterian at least, may know that there is a Task Force to write a new Form of Government, part the PCUSA constitution. These are my comments and questions on the first section. You can get a full copy of the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity here.
Abbreviations are as follows: PCUSA refers to the Presbyterian Church (USA), FoG refers to the Form of Government, and BoO refers to the Book of Order
  1. 1.01 “The Church proclaims that in the one God’s threefold work” – What does this say about the Trinity and the work of God? Does it mean that the work of God is divided between the persons of God?
  2. 1.01 Why leave out the clause about the resurrection? The current FoG 1.0100 is a clear quote from Scripture. Why change it?
  3. 1.0202 Why exchange the word “Kingdom” for “new reality? Isn’t Kingdom more Biblical?
  4. I like the listing of the Great Ends of the Church. It is clearer than the present paragraph.
  5. Are there going to be references to Scripture as in the current BoO?
  7. 3.0304 – The new section abandons geographical and theological diversity. The lists in G-4.0403 provide for a clearer picture of what diversity means and makes a specific connection to leadership in the church.
  8. The first 4 chapters of the current FoG is clearly part of the FoG. What will be the relationship between the Foundations and the FoG and will they have the same power of law as they would if they were part of the FoG?

Friday, October 19, 2007


At Fuller Seminary Presbyterian Students were expected to take a bunch of Presbyterian courses. They included Presbyterian History, Presbyterian Polity, Presbyterian Program, Presbyterian Ethos, and I think there was one other but I don’t remember what it was. It was 30 years ago.

Anyway, Jack Rogers taught Presbyterian Ethos. One day Jack asked what word would most characterize Presbyterian theology. There was this long silence and then Jack started almost jumping up and down shouting, “Covenant! Covenant! If you don’t get anything else out of this class I want you to remember that Presbyterians believe in covenant! So of course, I do.

I believe in a God who makes covenants. Most of us tend to think a covenant is something like a contract. One side agrees to do one thing and the other side agrees to do another think. Like getting a contractor to come in and replace your furnace. The contractor puts the furnace in and you pay. A covenant, from a Biblical perspective, is nothing like that.

In the Bible God acts first and then asks people to follow and obey. We see this in the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments begin:

1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before£ me. (Ex.20:1-3; Deut 5:6)

God acts with grace and then calls people to follow and obey. It’s the same in the New Testament. God acts in Jesus, (incarnation, life, death and resurrection), with grace and then calls people out to follow. (Okay, yes, Jesus called followers before he died and rose, but the incarnation was part of the grace. And yes, God called Abraham to follow and made promises, most of which were not fulfilled for years. So sometimes God calls first and then gives the gift. But the promise of the gift always comes before the call to follow.

Covenantal Theology says that God acts graciously and calls people to follow. This is the case throughout the Old Testament (literally Old Covenant) and also the New Testament. In fact Reformed thinking says that there is no difference between the Old and New Covenants in the aspect of work. The Covenants of the Old Testament are covenants of grace as are those of the New Testament. In a sense they are all one covenant, God acting graciously and calling people to follow. In this sense I do believe in salvation history.

Some caveats: while I believe that God made a covenant with Abraham and other covenants with the people of Israel, there can be no historical evidence for this. We can find some archeological evidence for the existence of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, (although whether some of the evidence actually goes back to the time period or are fakes is highly debated), but that evidence can’t tell us that God spoke to Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah and made covenants. Belief in a God who makes covenants and that specific covenants were made is a theological statement.

Another critical factor is the false assumption by some that God makes covenants with secular nations today. The US is God’s land only in the sense that all the earth is God’s. All nations do both good and bad. God has made no covenant with any nation today. To suggest that God does so is not only theologically wrong but also dangerous.

So a major part of Church belief that affects or at least should affect the behavior of the Church is the covenant God made with the people of God. Deuteronomy says that God didn’t choose Israel because there was something special about Israel. God doesn’t choose those who come to faith because there is something special about them. God simply chooses and makes a covenant.

This should produce two effects in the Church. First, there are no grounds for boasting because we are part of the Church. We didn’t become part of the Church because we did anything. Humility is the order of the day. Second, while there is no work that gains God’s favor, part of being people with whom God has made a covenant is that we are called to live as the people of God. We must seek to live as if the Kingdom of God was already present in all completeness in the world today. Being people of the covenant makes ethical demands.

Grace and Peace


Sunday, October 7, 2007


First, I finally found the picture of me with really long hair and a beard. Here it is!

Sin. I had to get around to it sooner or later. And after talking about the image of God I figured now was a good time. I think the two need to be talked about and heard together. C. S. Lewis says something about humans that I think describes the relationship between being created in the image of God and sin perfectly: "'You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,' said Aslan.' And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth.'"[1] (Prince Caspian)

We have had this conversation time and again in the responses to John and my blogs. Are humans totally evil? They cannot be totally evil because they are created in the image of God. Are humans good? They cannot be totally good because they sin. All humans are created in the image of God. All humans sin. You could say that the image of God is twisted and marred in humans by sin.

There are probably many more aspects to sin than two but I will highlight two: individual sin and inherited sin.

In response to my last blog societyvs pointed out that in some societies the idea of the individual is difficult to understand. The members of those societies see themselves primarily as members of the group. We in America see ourselves primarily as individuals. I think one could make a case that the Bible sees humans first as part of the whole of humanity and then part of a nation or tribe and lastly as individuals. I think both of these views as necessary.

Curiously in the early 1800’s Christians in America had this very debate. Traditional Calvinists argued for original sin, that sin was inherited from the original humans. Members of a school of thought from Yale, (named after Samuel Hopkins) argued that sin was rather “an accumulation of actions rather than primarily a state of being issuing in evil deeds.”[2] (Actually these were the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards Jr. and Timothy Dwight.)

Now clearly science throws a wrench into all theological statements about sin. If we believe that humans evolved from other species, (I hate saying lesser species), then when or how did sin come into the world through the actions of some humans? Even more important, it seems that life on earth evolved in such a way that species were and are always in competition. Forget animals and insects, species of trees compete for space in the forest! So is intraspecies competition, (human against human), sinful while interspecies competition not? Or as John keeps telling us, and rightly so, because humans have the power is it sinful for humans to use other species as resources for our own gain?

Some try and explain the problem with Process Theology. God is in the process of moving creation towards perfection and God is not all powerful so God kind of nudges creation toward perfection. I find Process Theology an unpalatable answer. Part of my reaction is emotional. I want a God I can depend upon, not a God who may or may not bring in perfection. And, as we have discussed before, I see the Bible as an Authority, properly interpreted.

So that brings us to the beginning of Genesis. The second creation story tells us about a man named Man and a woman named Woman, (whose name the Man later changed to Eve, mother of all living). I do not take this story literally. I would use the word “legend” to describe it. Hebrews looked at the world and saw good and evil, particularly evil done by humans. They wrote a story to explain how evil came into the world. I don’t think the story is a literal description of how God created the world in general and humans in particular, although some of it is poetically beautiful, like the creation of Woman as both the same and different from Man. Neither do I think the description of how humans brought evil into the world is literally true. But I do think there is a deeper truth in the story. Human sin is primarily the attempt by humans to take the place of God, to set their own law in the place of God’s Law. The story tells of the attempt by humans to become autonomous, that is to become a law unto themselves. This attempt not only breaks the relationship between God and humans, it also breaks the relationship between humans. We see one consequence of sin in the attempt of the man to rule over the woman, in effect to say that women are less than men. But we also see as we go on in the story that humans move from simple disobedience to God, to blaming the other to murder! Human sin grows geometrically.

I think there is another truth in this story, one that will be roundly disputed: that humans brought sin into the world and somehow we communicate this disease we call sin from generation to generation, almost as if it is a genetic disease. Thus sin is something we all inherit.

So much for the collective or the community. Sin is also individual. I sin. I get lazy and don’t do what I promised my wife I would do until she finally goes out and does it herself. I get frustrated with members of my congregation, (as if I am perfect and they are not!). I watch the leaves turn color and marvel at the beauty but don’t stop to thank God for the wonders of creation and the regularity that God has placed in creation. And the list goes on. Like the Man in Genesis 3, I want to blame someone else for my sin, (my parents, my wife, anyone but me!), but I am responsible for what I do and for what I fail to do. And I see others sin too. In fact it is much easier for me to see the sins of others than it is to see my own sin!

Which brings us to another aspect of sin. I may get drunk and have an accident and kill someone. That is my sin. But there is also collective or corporate sin. We fail to elect governmental officials who seek to bring true justice. We elect presidents who send American troops into Iraq or some other land failing to understand the complexity of the situation and bringing death and destruction to people who only want to be left alone. Corporations cut the tops of mountains off to get at the coal underneath and so destroy God’s good creation. And many of us profit, sometimes unknowingly, from this corporate sin. We sin as individuals and we sin as groups.

I believe in original sin and individual sin.

Grace and Peace


[1] Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 211-212.

[2] (New England Theology), BELIEVE Religious Information Source web-site. 2007. A Christ Walk Church Public Service. 10/7/07

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


One of the basic affirmations of the Bible, (although it isn’t mentioned all that frequently) is that humans are created in the image of God. In fact when referring to humans in general and not to Jesus Christ the term is only used once, in Genesis 1. It says:

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind£ in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,£ and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind£ in his image,

in the image of God he created them;£

male and female he created them.

Let’s start with the science. If we believe that humans descended from a series of proto humans, and before that from other life forms back to one celled organisms, as the evidence suggests, one has to ask just when did humans become the image of God. The short answer is, who knows? Nevertheless, I think the belief that humans are created in the image of God is a necessary belief. Let me explain.

I’m going to argue backwards, from ethics to theology to anthropology, not the best way to prove a point but I’m not trying to prove that humans are created in the image of God. I am asserting it as a matter of faith.

I think the assertion that humans are created in the image of God is a necessary, indeed vital faith statement. For too long, in fact throughout most of human history, humans have treated the other, the human that is different, as sub human. We certainly see this in the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as well as Christian persecution of Jews throughout most of the past two millennia. We see this in the slavery of people from Africa over the past 500 years. We see this in our current war in Iraq and in the Vietnam War. Even in World War II American propaganda portrayed the Japanese as sub human. This allowed us to fire bomb Tokyo and kill over 100,000 people in one night. And yes, what happened in Johnson City, Tennessee over the past couple of days is also an example. We can publish the names of people accused of a crime on the front page of the newspaper because, after all, they were allegedly committing homosexual acts.

I affirm that humans, all humans, are created in the image of God. That means that whenever we look at anyone, no matter how we feel about that particular person, no matter what that person may or may not have done, that person deserves respect. We should see that person as one who bears the image of God. That means we have to look past what we see and past our prejudices and see the image of God in that person. That means we have to love and honor that person. There can be no stereotyping. People individually and collectively must be treated with love and care. This means that the following are the very least that we must do:

  1. We shall not kill the image of God. I include in this both abortion and capital punishment.
  2. We must listen to the other, particularly if we disagree with the other.
  3. We cannot treat people as groups but must take people as individuals.
  4. We must be very, very careful when we think about going to war. Frankly I would rather be a pacifist, but see the need for national defense in a fallen world. But we rush too quickly to war, not thinking through the very real and agonizing questions that must be asked when we make the decision to go to war. The questions asked about just war by Augustine should be send us into a careful process, not a quick checklist. Here’s a question for you: was the American Revolution a just war? My opinion is, not by Augustine’s standards.
  5. When we do think of people as groups we must see the image of God in every person in the group.
  6. Prisoners are all created in the image of God. The American prison system ignores the image of God in prisons and dehumanizes them. Even when someone does something that is terribly wrong that person still images God, not by what they have done wrong but simply because they are human.
  7. Intelligence or the lack thereof does not have anything to do with being created in the image of God. People with Down’s Syndrome are created in the image of God.

Just what does it mean to be created in the image of God? I think there are two aspects that we find in the Genesis passage. To be created in the image of God is to be created for community. While we can see this in human behavior, (we need to get together), the Genesis passage points to our need for community by saying that God created us male and female. God made us the same but different from each other, thus saying that we need each other.

The other aspect is that of dominion or stewardship. God created us to care for creation. John you keep insisting on the need to take care of planet Earth before it is too late. I suggest that such care is part of the very essence of what it means to be created in the image of God. Just as God is creator, so we are those who are created to care for the parts of God creation that come under our influence. No, we don’t have responsibility for the sun, (at least not yet) but we do have responsibility for the ocean. We are over fishing and thereby bringing some species close to extinction. The plastic holders for six packs kill turtles and dolphins. The list goes on and on. We are not caring for God’s creation and we soon will pay the price.

Now the big question: when did humans receive the image of God? Was Australopihecus afarensis created in the image of God? My answer is, how should I know? I am certain that Homo sapiens are created in the image of God. Before that I don’t have a clue. The scientific record isn’t going to tell us and the Bible isn’t going to tell us for two reasons: the writers/editors of the Bible had no idea about pre Homo sapiens and the writers/editors of the Bible were writing for the people of their time, not to provide an anthropological study of human or any other species.

In other words I don’t think science can prove to us that humans are created in the image of God and I don’t think the Bible can tell us when humans were endowed with the image of God. And while the past interests me it is our present treatment of each other that I find most important. We can’t fix the past. We can change the way we treat each other now.

I affirm that God created humans in the image of God.

Grace and Peace


Sunday, September 30, 2007


There are all kinds of topics that should be discussed before these, but here we are so here we go.

I think we need to start with the appropriate translations of the words. I’m going to stick to the Greek since we are talking about Jesus. The problem is that each of these words can mean a variety of things depending on the context. Thus kurios, the Greek word we translate as lord can mean, in context, God, a ruler of some sort, a master to a slave or a servant or even just one’s social superior. So let’s take a look at the context from which the Church has normally taken the basic meaning for this word: Romans 10:5-13;

5Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say?

“The word is near you,

on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because£ if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (NRSV)

The specific context here the question of whether Israel, that is the physical descendants of Abraham, will be saved or not and if so how will they be saved. Paul, as he has throughout Romans, argues that all are saved by faith and not by works. The key verses are 9 and 10. They suggest that one must confess with one’s lips that Jesus is Lord to be saved. The problem is what does the word Lord mean here? We could, given verses 12 and 13 guess that the text means that Lord here means God. But let’s take the basic meaning of the word. Lord is someone who can give commands and expect them to be obeyed.

If "Jesus is Lord" means he can command and expect obedience then we have a basic definition of the meaning of the Christian confession. To put it in the terms of the Gospels, to say Jesus is Lord is to be a disciple of Jesus. We follow Jesus. We commit ourselves to do and live as Jesus commands.

This, of course, could create a problem with Paul’s whole argument. If we say that one is a Christian because one obeys Jesus then we argue the opposite of what Paul says throughout Romans, that one is saved by faith. Reformed tradition has claimed that Paul says in Romans that becoming a Christian changes the use of the Law for the Christian. While in the past obeying the Law was the way to salvation, now one is saved by faith through grace. But after one becomes a Christian one shows love for Christ (and seeks sanctification) by obeying Christ.

There are a variety of problems with this whole argument, not the least of which is recent study by Christians that suggest we have misunderstood the Pharisees and the use of the Law by 1st Century Jews all along, that the basic Jewish position was and is that God elected the people of Israel by grace and that obedience to the Law is not a way to earn God’s pleasure but rather a response to God’s grace. This is a developing argument in Romans studies today. But for our purposes let’s leave that argument alone. Let’s say that the confession “Jesus is Lord” means that the person who says this will be a disciple of Jesus and seek to obey him.

So that I suggest is the first part of the confession. To say Jesus is Lord is to confess that he has the right to command me, to tell me how to live.

The second part of the confession is just as problematic. The Greek word for Savior, soter, can mean healer, someone who saves your life, as well as the traditional way the Church has interpreted the word: that Jesus saves us from sin and thus opens the way to forgiveness and to the coming Kingdom of God.

In fact the New Testament uses the verbal form of the word much more often than the noun form. And the use of the verbal form is even more problematic. Paul uses the verb most often in the future tense, as in the passage I quoted from Romans above. The person who confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised him from the dead shall be saved. Salvation then is a future event. (And notice that Paul doesn’t say that a Christian is one who confesses that Jesus is Lord and Savior. He says that one who confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Jesus from the dead shall be saved, a different statement altogether.)

Again, the Church has traditionally used the word Savior to mean that through Jesus one is forgiven of sins. And Paul does talk about Jesus as the means by which we receive forgiveness; specifically that Jesus’ death gives forgiveness.

(A brief excursus on forgiveness) Unfortunately people often take one Biblical image for forgiveness and claim that image is the one way to think about Jesus and forgiveness. The image chosen most often, at least in conservative or Evangelical circles is the judicial image or that of atonement. I suggest that forgiveness is so big that one image cannot contain all that is meant by it. I think we need all the images, including the judicial image but also the other images like reconciliation and that Jesus’ death exposes the powers of oppression. To claim that Jesus’ death on the cross can only be interpreted by one image is to miss the richness of the New Testament on the subject.

Let’s move out of Paul for a moment. After all, Paul is not the be all and end all of Christianity. In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus himself uses the word salvation. Here is the passage:

1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

As we think of Jesus as Savior there are three critical aspects to this passage. Jesus does not proclaim that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house until after Zacchaeus repents and reverses his earlier behavior. Salvation then includes a change in the way one lives. Jesus tells the crowd that salvation has come because Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham. Thus at this point in Luke’s narrative salvation was only open to Jews, a position he changes later in Acts. Finally Jesus, using “the Son of Man” to refer to himself, says that he came to save the lost. Note that there is no content in this passage, if we isolate if from the rest of Luke and other New Testament material that suggests that salvation refers to the future, as it does in Paul. Here salvation means that repentance brings one back into the people of Israel. While Jesus often refers to the Kingdom of God in Luke as both future and present, he does not say that salvation is a future event. Zacchaeus receives salvation at once.

So if we use the word Savior to describe Jesus, what do we mean? Certainly we mean that Jesus brings forgiveness. Zacchaeus repents (after something happens during his lunch with Jesus), and receives salvation. But on the other hand Paul talks about salvation as a future event, suggesting to me that salvation only becomes complete in the Kingdom of God, (and yes I know, that is a term that Paul does not use. Instead he talks about the return of Christ.)

So to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is to say that Jesus can command and we who confess that he is Lord must obey and that Jesus brings forgiveness when one repents. Ultimately salvation comes when Jesus returns.

Grace and Peace


Friday, September 28, 2007


I was going to move on to talk about the image of God, but I think you are right, we should talk about communities.

We all belong to various communities. In a sense we, along with all life, we belong to the creation of God on earth. In fact I think that is an important affirmation and an essential of Christian faith. We are creatures along with all the other creatures in creation. In a more limited sense, we all belong to the human community. A Christian point of view on this is that all humans are created in the image of God and all humans are sinners.

There are various other communities like nations, cities, tribes and families, all limited by citizenship or membership. In tribes and families membership is determined by being born into the community. Curiously birth is also how one enters the Jewish community and, for some entrance into the Muslim community.

Then there are all sorts of clubs and other stuff. My great aunt kept pressing me to join the Mayflower Society and the Sons of the American Revolution as I have ancestors who came on the Mayflower and fought in the Revolution. Personally I find this type of organization distasteful. I don’t see why I should be considered special because my ancestors did something. On the other hand I wear kilts because some of my ancestors were Scottish. Go figure.

And there is the Christian community. While at times the Christian community has defined itself by birth, (your family was Christian and you got baptized so you were part of the Church, no other questions asked), there are some clear and some not so clear limits to the Christian community. One limit is baptism. People who were baptized in a Christian community are part of the Christian community. The PCUSA places a limit on what baptism means to help define whether one has been baptized into the Christian community or not. For example, Jews take ritual baths at particular times in life. One of those times is when someone who is not Jewish converts to Judaism. That person takes a ritual bath as part of entrance into the community. The PCUSA would say that this ritual bath is not baptism. We limit baptism to those who are baptized with a Trinitarian formula.

For adults and youth when one joins a PCUSA congregation one meets with the session and the session sets the limits for joining the congregation. Our Form of Government makes the following statements about conscience and membership:

(1) (a) That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”

(b) Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

(2) That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed; that in the exercise of this right they may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own. (G-1.0301-0302)

We Presbyterians do like balance.

As you pointed out in response to my last post, John, the session sets the qualifications for membership. But there are some restrictions. Again, the Form of Government says:

The incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives to the church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership. One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life. Baptism and a public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord are the visible signs of entrance into the active membership of the church. (G-5.0101)

For those who are not Presbyterians these are from the PCUSA Constitution Part 2, the Book of Order. The numbers are reference numbers to sections in the Book of Order. The first part of the constitution is the Book of Confessions. If you want to read the Book of Order you can find it online at:

So membership in the community called the Presbyterian Church (USA) is defined as those who have been baptized and who place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Of course in the PCUSA the session decides whether someone believes Jesus is Lord and Savior. It is my experience as a Presbyterian pastor of almost 30 years that we Presbyterians really operate on what I call the L & B method of receiving members. That means if you are living and breathing we will accept you as a member. In fact I think we might accept someone who is just living and not breathing! I rarely hear any questions from the session about the faith of a person who wants to join.

Now that’s the formal stuff. A community is not really made up of people who say the right things. A Christian community does share certain intellectual beliefs but that isn’t what the community is really all about. The community is for mutual support, love and encouragement. We worship together, prayer together and for one another, eat together, study the Bible and other things together, care for one another in times of trouble, reach out in mission in a wide variety of ways, including feeding the poor, visiting the sick and those in prison, speaking to governments about what is just and what is unjust, speaking to the larger community on issues such as gun violence, (a big problem here in Philadelphia), gathering with other members of the larger community to demonstrate against violence, and yes, evangelism. A Christian congregation is made up of people that Christ has called together to be a community. But the Church can too easily forget that it is part of a larger community. When a congregation turns inward and does not participate in the life of the larger community it begins to die.

Someone quoted Bonhoeffer on this subject and I reiterate what Bonhoeffer said: we all have to abandon our wishes and images of what an ideal Christian community looks like. We don’t build the community into what we think God wants. Jesus molds the community into what he wants. This is easy to say and very difficult to do.

Flycandler said something about membership in response to my last post which I think is very helpful. An official member of a particular congregation has one privilege that those who are not members do not have: the member has the right and responsibility to vote in a congregational meeting. Everyone is welcome at all events of the congregation. All those who have been baptized are welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper. And frankly we don’t ask those who receive communion if they are baptized or not. We don’t give out baptism cards. Will those who attend be encouraged to become members? Of course. Most of the time evangelism is not explicit conversation about becoming a Christian, at least not in congregational events. But worship, education and fellowship all present the message of the Gospel.

What I mean to say is that being part of the community is not so much a formal reception into membership, although those who choose to join may do so. Being part of the community means that you are involved in the community. Everyone is welcomed, everyone is loved, everyone is served and asked to serve. But we will also have conversation about the Christian faith. People will be encouraged to become Christians.

To unpack the basic Christian affirmation, Jesus is Lord and Savior requires some preliminary information on subjects like sin and forgiveness so I will try to get back to that process in my next posts.

Grace and Peace