Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Anyone who reads or even talks with someone in a different age group knows that words change their meanings over time. Some of those changes are short-lived or used ironically so that the main meaning of the word doesn’t change. I noticed this when I moved from rural Pennsylvania to upstate New York and first heard the phrase “wicked cool.” It quickly dawned on me that wicked in that phrase actually meant good or great. Actually the dawning wasn't all that quick. At first I was in shock. Fortunately in other verbal contexts wicked still means bad or evil.

Not so for other words. Some words drop in and out of everyday language. “By the Rood” was an way of swearing in Shakespeare’s time, the Rood referring to the cross of Christ. Only Catholics, Episcopalians (and not all that many) and church architectural historians today hold on to the word when they talk about the Rood screen, a wood or metal screen between the cancel and the nave, oops between the front of the church and the place where most of the people sit. See what I mean?

Other words lose their original meaning but hold on to a sense of the original. Bedlam was originally a prison for the mentally ill in London. Now it refers to crazy situations. Crazy, on the other hand, could mean cool or wonderful back in the 1950’s. And stews, as some Presbyterians have discovered, used to mean houses of prostitution back in the 1600’s. I was going to call them bawdy houses but the word bawdy seems to have dropped out of modern English. Maybe that’s because very little that used to be considered bawdy is unacceptable today.

But some try to change the meaning of a word by continually using it in a particular way. Consider two words: choice and abortion.

Today in America someone can say, “I believe in choice,” and almost everyone will know that the person means to say that they believe a woman has the right to choose whether or not to abort the baby she carries in her womb. The word choice has come a long way.

Choice used to refer simply to the act of choosing. If I went to a restaurant and said that I wanted the steak instead of the fish I was making a choice. And it still does mean that. But used in the sentence, “I believe in choice,” the word’s meaning has become limited. After all, who goes into a restaurant, asks for the prime rib, medium rare and then says, “I believe in choice?” The server would consider you crazy if you said that. Restaurants are all about choice, about "Having it your way." In fact most retail sales and service businesses are all about choice. While Henry Ford said you could buy a Model T in any color as long as it was black you can buy a car in a wide rainbow of colors. My daughter bought a “seafoam” colored car a few years back. I didn’t even know that there was such a color!

So let’s put the word choice when it refers to abortion back in its original context. When someone says, “I believe in choice,” they really mean, “I believe a woman should by law have the right to kill her baby if she wants to do so.” And I don’t want to have an argument about whether an abortion kills a baby. The fetus (fetus means baby in Latin), is not part of the mother’s body. The fetus has a different chromosome set. And yes, the baby in the womb needs the mother to live, causes changes in the mother’s hormones and anatomy, and is in a sense a parasite. But that fetus or baby is alive. After a certain amount of time, and much less than most of us think, the baby in the womb moves, its heart beats, reacts to the mother’s voice or heartbeat, jumps at sudden noises and feels pain.

It’s curious. We debate about when a fetus becomes human. We don’t debate about when a rabbit becomes a rabbit or when a mosquito becomes a mosquito, (although the latter goes through several stages of development toward adulthood). And a virus is always a virus.

Back to choice. Those who propound on the subject of choice seek to avoid the word abortion. Saying, “I believe in the right to choose,” avoids the difficult word abortion. After all abortion suggests that something has died. There is blood and flesh involved and it’s really rather messy. So the sentence gets shortened. It sounds so much easier to say choose than choose abortion. Curiously those who so easily toss about the right to choose will get downright irate if anyone suggests that a woman might not make the choice with serious forethought. Granted most women do but if the choice is so important why not make it sound important? Why not say, “I think a woman should have the right to kill her baby before it leaves her body?” (And isn’t it interesting that we get all shocked and it makes the evening news when some woman has her baby and leaves it on the church steps? Why is killing the baby acceptable 24 hours or 2 months or 6 months before birth but a crime immediately after birth?) If the decision is so serious we ought to claim it by using words that sound serious. “I believe in choice” doesn’t sound all that serious does it?

But the word abortion has expanded its meaning in the past 40 years too! A woman used to have a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Miscarriage suggests that something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. Stillbirth suggests that a baby should come out kicking and screaming but is still, silent, breathless, dead. And as we have learned over the past few decades women grieve for the still born babies and the miscarried. While in the 1950s and 60s women were encouraged to just forget about that lost child today we recognize that the life lost must be mourned.

However abortion now refers not only to the choice to kill one’s baby but also to miscarriage! A miscarriage is now called a “spontaneous abortion,” suggesting that the baby was aborted but no one made the choice. Yet the verb “to abort” carries a sense a choice. Military leaders say “The mission was aborted,” meaning that someone made a choice not to carry out the mission. Using the term “spontaneous abortion” suggests that abortion is somehow a bit more acceptable. After all, it happens lots of times. Women get pregnant but don’t carry to term through no choice of their own. And sometimes women make the choice.

I suggest that this change in language trivializes the radical act of aborting a child. To choose an abortion is to say that it will be better if this child does not live. That is a serious choice. It is a choice that demands careful thought. Frankly I believe it is a choice that humans do not have the right to make except in the most radical of situations. The choice of abortion is always sin. A woman should have to justify to herself that the sin of abortion would be less sinful than the sin of allowing the child to live.

I know my screed will not change the way people talk. It will also anger a great many. We prefer the easy way. Talking about choice is easier than talking about choosing an abortion. Talking about spontaneous abortion makes it easier to think about choosing abortion.

We prefer the easy way and want our words to make things easier. That doesn’t make it right.

Pastor Bob

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Conforming or Transforming, Part 2

The first leap, I suspect, begins with Jesus’ summary of the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Since we are talking about harming another human, and Jesus seems to consider all humans neighbors, I am guessing that those who believe that homosex behavior is blessed by God would argue that the second part of the summary is fulfilled by homosex behavior. If homosex behavior does no harm to another human and in fact does good, (providing close, loving, lifelong companionship in a sexual relationship as does heterosexual marriage), then homosex behavior in a consensual, lifelong relationship could be considered loving one’s neighbor.

This passage, of course, is a bit far afield from the various passages that most believe speak of homosex behavior in one form or another. But it does have the advantage of using Jesus’ summary of the Law. If all God’s commands can be reduced to loving God and neighbor, and homosex behavior does no harm to neighbor, in fact loves neighbor, then one could argue that homosex behavior is blessed by God.

There are a couple problems with this argument. The first is Paul’s writings and for that matter some of Jesus’ sayings. The New Testament makes commandments concerning several activities stronger, that is more restrictive than the Torah. The Torah forbids adultery. Jesus forbids thinking about having sex with someone else’s wife. If we accept that Paul in Romans and 1st Corinthians says that homosex behavior is wrong (and as I said in my first post I am more than willing to have the discussion/debate on what Paul intended to say), then, if we believe Scripture is inspired we have to say that homosex behavior does not show love for God or neighbor.

Here we reach a significant issue in the debate. Should we say that the words of Jesus (or the lack of them) trump the words of Paul? This depends on how one thinks the Bible was written. If we believe that the Gospels were edited by people who sought to apply the good news of Jesus and his teachings and actions to the needs of their particular communities then we have to say we simply don’t know if Jesus ever said anything about homosex behavior or not. We can say that if he did the editors of the Gospels, (if they knew of a saying by Jesus on the subject), did not think it necessary to record it. Arguments from silence are inherently dangerous.

A second issue is whether the Gospels are somehow more inspired than the letters of Paul. I think not.

More important is the question of whether sexuality is a significant theme in the Bible, or more particularly in the way Christians use the Bible. To put it another way: what is the central saving theme of the Bible? Most Christians would say the central saving theme is the good news of salvation that begins with the call to Abraham and Sarah and finds its completion in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sexuality is not a central theme in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. It is, in fact, attached to the central theme by the simple fact that some sexual behavior is sinful and must be repented of and forgiven.

To finish on the question of whether one can argue from the Bible that homosex behavior is blessed by God I think that the general Law, loving God and others, is further defined by specific commands or statements such as Paul saying that homosex behavior is wrong.

Just in case anyone is wondering I think all the other behaviors listed by Paul in 1st Cor. 6:10-11 are also sinful.

So we move to the second question concerning science. I think in the PCUSA there is pretty close to general agreement that the writers of the Bible spoke out of the worldview of their days. When inspiring the Biblical writers God didn’t tell them to correct the scientific misconceptions of their days. There was no firmament but God didn’t tell the writers that because debate over whether there was a firmament or not was not the point in the writings of the Old Testament. Genesis 1 is a radical statement that the gods of the Babylonian oppressors were not really gods at all but were simply things that God had made. Correcting the science would have confused everyone.

So we can and should think that the universe is not shaped the way people of Abraham’s or Jesus’ day thought it was. Neither should we think that the intestines are the seat of feelings as suggested in Greek words used for feelings. Feelings, that is, emotions, come from brain chemistry, not where we may feel the feelings.

So does modern science, by showing that homosexual desires are extremely difficult to change, (no matter what their cause), suggest that science should overrule Scripture on this particular issue? If we assume that modern scientists know more than the ancients about homosexual desire should those findings determine how we think about homosex behavior as Christians?

The first, as I noted earlier, is that some ancients believed in a kind of sexual orientation for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. They didn’t have scientific proof that sexual orientation is extremely difficult to change, as far as I know, because they weren’t doing surveys.

The key question is this: did the Biblical writers know and believe that sexual orientation existed? And the answer is: we don’t know. The closest we come to an answer is in Romans 1 and it is difficult to draw such a conclusion from that passage. When it says that God gave them up to unnatural passions does that mean that their passions were fixed as in orientation or not? In this case I think we have to say that the Bible doesn’t say.

It seems to me that the question is backward. Christians should use the Bible to decide whether the product of modern science should be used or not. I’m writing this on a computer. Are computers good? I think that depends on what one does with the computer. But are chemical or nuclear weapons good? I think we can safely say that the Bible, while it doesn’t mention them, has themes that argue against the use of weapons of mass destruction.

So does the current level of study on the subject of homosexual orientation tell us something that would suggest that homosex behavior can be a good? If we use the Bible to examine the science we have to say, first, that the Bible clearly sees sexual feelings as strong motivators for both good and bad behavior. Acting on sexual feelings is not always good. Certainly David acting on his desire for Bathsheba was not good. David’s orientation, at least in this case, was heterosexual but his acting on his orientation was wrong in this case.

So should we apply the same standard for acting upon homosexual orientation? If one’s sexual orientation is either fixed or extremely difficult to change should we apply the rules for heterosex behavior to homosex behavior?

This, I think is the strongest argument of those who say that homosex behavior can be good. In my mind, however, it does not overrule the Bible. Until it can be shown that the ancients did not believe that sexual orientation in some was fixed one cannot argue that modern science overrules the Bible. If we have to argue from silence I’m going stand with the Bible.

An argument either way is an argument from silence. To say that Paul didn’t know about homosexual orientation is an argument from silence just as is the argument that he did. Therefore, as a Christian, I think the Biblical position must rule.

Homosex behavior conforms to this world. One may not be transformed to a heterosexual orientation but one can choose one’s behavior.

One last comment. It is frequently said that we should not discriminate against a whole class of people, namely those whose sexual orientation is homosexual. It seems to me that this argument stands on shaky ground. There are many who are single who desire to be married yet who never marry. Should we then say that they, as a group, are discriminated against because the Church believes heterosex behavior should only happen within marriage? There are also those who were married but are no longer married either because of the death of a spouse or divorce. These people do not always have the opportunity to remarry. The argument for homosex behavior it seems to me is equivalent to an argument that single people who do not have an opportunity to marry should be able to act on their sexual desires with others. I think neither argument can be sustained.

Be transformed. Being transformed doesn’t always mean our desire to sin goes away. It does mean that we need to repent and with the help of the Holy Spirit change our behavior.

Pastor Bob

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Conforming or Transforming

I'm a bit behind in the lectionary because I took some vacation time, (see previous posts). Anyway, I wanted to preach on Romans 12:1-8. But the core of this blog is going to be about conforming and transforming.

Jack Rogers, beloved brother in Christ, friend and mentor, says that we Reformed types are like those who clean out desk and dresser drawers by pulling out the drawer, dumping out the contents, putting only the necessary stuff back in the drawer and trashing the rest. I think he's right. Further whether he intended to do so or not I think he has properly interpreted verse 2 of this passage, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." (NIV) Christians are to be about transforming not conforming.

Now we Reformed types make a big deal out of trying to transform the world. And don't get me wrong God intends this as part of our task. I get worried sometimes, however, that we seem to have lost the central individual and communal task described in this verse: the transformation of the individual Christian and (although not stated here) the Christian community as well.

This is curious because careful examination of self in comparison with the Bible on the one hand and the world out there on the other hand was long a central task of us Reformed types. Of course we can't claim this as our own. Roman Catholics, Methodists and lots of other kinds of Christians used to do this very effectively as well.

The task is on the one hand very simple and on the other very difficult. One studies the Bible (both individually and with others) to find out how we humans are supposed to behave. Then we take a look out there at the world we live in and make a comparison: Scripture and world. The implication here is that Scripture is right and the world is wrong unless it conforms to the Scripture. And we compare our own reading of the Scripture with that of others, (and we also use all the proper tools available to get the real meaning of the Scripture), so that we are as sure as we possibly can be that we have really learned what the Scripture says. Oh, and it doesn't hurt to compare what we learn from Scripture in our captivity to our culture mindset (culture helps determine how we read the text) to the writings of Christians in the past and Christians from other cultures. White Americans, (more than 90% of the membership of the PCUSA) don't know everything about the Bible.

That's the easy part. The hard part is the transforming. We can't do it by ourselves. We need the strength of the Holy Spirit and help from other Christians as well. It helps if we all have a few sisters and brothers who know all about our lives, keep their big mouths shut, and listen to us as we describe what's changing and what isn't in our lives.

That's the task. But the problem I see in the Christian world today, and it isn't just in the PCUSA but in every Christian group I see in America is that we are more interested in conforming than transforming. Well, that's not true of the Amish.

What concerns me today in the PCUSA is that too often we actually make up our minds on the basis of what the culture says and does and not on what the Scripture says. An example: our ongoing debate in the PCUSA about homosex behavior and the origins of homosex desires.

A bit of truth telling first: I think that homosex behavior is wrong. I also claim ignorance of the origin or homosex desires.

For the Christian the proper method to decide about any issue is to look to the Biblical text to determine what our viewpoint should be on any issue including this one. So I am all for debates about the meaning of the various passages that definitely do or may refer to homosex behavior and/or desires. And my idea of the proper method of determining that meaning is this:

1. Translate the text. Translators over the years have made decisions about the meaning of words and sentences. If one has the skills to define the words and then place them in the grammatical context use them!

2. Check the context around the passages. Do the sentences before and after the text under examination say anything about the meaning of the text in question?

3. Try to figure out the author's and/or editor's intention by reading the text not only in the immediate context but also in the context of the whole particular book of the Bible.

4. Take a look at the text in the context of the whole Bible. Are there other passages that tell us something about the meaning of the text? Is there a theme, major or minor, into which the particular text falls?

5. Then and only then should we look at the current culture and decide how to apply the text in today's culture.

Now to experienced exegetes this is not news. This is what we are supposed to do. I happen to think, after using this method to study the passages that clearly refer to homsex behavior that the Bible says that homosex behavior is wrong. I also happen to think that there is a theme that stretches from Genesis to Revelation that suggests homosex desires are not God's intention.

Thus as I apply the Biblical text in today's culture I think that homosex behavior conforms to this world and, if one is transformed by the renewing of one's mind one cannot call homosex behavior good.

I am more than willing to have a discussion/debate about the Biblical message about any subject including homosex behavior and desire using this method. What concerns me as I watch the debate and participate in the debate these days in the PCUSA is that some of my colleagues in the PCUSA seem to use a different method to decide whether homosex behavior and desire is blessed by God or not.

Two particular methods concern me. And let me put in a caveat here: I may be not be hearing people correctly. Unfortunately as we have these debates we use the 2 minute method. This means that in governing bodies of the PCUSA we give a speaker 2 minutes to make a statement on the issue. But in discussion with colleagues as we do the hard word of exegesis I hear one method that I am sure is wrong and another that may be wrong.

The method that I am sure is wrong is to start from this world, in other words to use natural theology. One can see this method at work on both sides of the debate. Among those who agree with my conclusions I hear sometimes that the penis is meant to fit in the vagina and therefore that God intends humans to only participate in heterosexual sex, (and not heterosexual oral sex either). Now if one comes to this conclusion by beginning with the Biblical text I have no problem. In fact I think some of the texts may point in this direction. Yes, the writers of the Bible sometimes point to the natural world and say this is what God intends. But the Biblical text is the revealed word of God. If God wants to inspire Biblical writers to use nature as basis for saying that a particular act is right or wrong, that's God's business, not mine. I am concerned with people who start with the natural world and then move to the Bible. So if someone tells me that homosex behavior is wrong because the penis is made to fit in the vagina I'm going to ask that person to show me where s/he finds that in the Bible.

Those who disagree with me may actually go through the hard work of exegesis or not but then say that God has created some with homosexual desires. I would ask where they find that in the Biblical text. What I often hear is that

1. Some have homosexual desires and as far as they can tell they have had those desires as long as they can remember.

2. Science says that those who have homosexual desires have those desires for genetic reasons or for reasons that result from chemical or other reasons in the womb.

3. Therefore God intends people who have homosexual desires to have those desires and those desires are good and should be acted upon in a way that gives God glory. (most who use this argument say that homosex behavior should be acted out between 2 people who have these desires as a lifelong experience and those two people should make a lifelong commitment. A very few argue that homosex desires and subculture are different from heterosexual desires and subculture so therefore should not be limited to God's intention for heterosexuals.)

There is a further part of this argument but I'll get to that in a bit.

If one begins from experience rather than the Scriptures I suggest that one has moved outside of the Reformed method of determining what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong. In fact even the Methodists who use a quadrilateral, (Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition), say you have to start from Scripture. So if one begins from experience I have to say we are not going to have a fruitful discussion because we are going to talk past each other. I am more than willing to have a discussion about why I think we have to start from Scripture with those who think we can start from experience but if we come to the conclusion that we disagree about the proper starting place I have to say, (and this is harsh), that the one who says we can start from experience argues from outside the Reformed tradition. I would even go so far as to say that that person argues from outside the Christian tradition.

So, with Karl Barth, I have to say "Nein!" And with Martin Luther I have to say, "
Wir haben einen anderen Geist!" Karl Barth says, "No!" And Luther says, "We have a different Spirit!" (I had to go to Google translator to get Luther's spelling right.) :)

However if someone goes through all the Biblical passages and themes and disagrees with me about the translation of the passages or the meaning of the passage for today, we can talk. Here is that other part I mentioned.

Some argue that the Biblical writers didn't know that it in nigh unto impossible for one to change one's sexual orientation. I will agree with this. There are a limited number who can move from exclusive homosexual orientation to a bisexual orientation and an even smaller number who can move from an exclusive homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation. Most can only change their behavior. So the questions at hand are as follows:

1. Did the Biblical writers or at least some of the Biblical writers who write about homosexual behavior know that some humans are exclusively homosexual in their orientation and highly unlikely to change?

2. Has modern science shown that homosexual orientation is genetic or congenital in its origin or are there other possible reasons?

As to the second question as I have read the scientific studies the writers have said basically that there are some indications that point to some possible causes for sexual orientation but that there is no conclusive proof as to how one comes to one sexual orientation or another. There is some evidence that a limited number may be able to change their orientation but that evidence needs further study.

As to the first question there is some evidence that some in the 1st century AD believed that homosexual orientation might be fixed. There is no proof that the Biblical writers (Paul in this case) knew of such belief.

If indeed the Biblical writers did not know that sexual orientation is, at the very least, very very difficult to change, can one make the leap to say that homosexual orientation is a gift from God? I think not.

There are two assumptions in this leap. The first is important indeed vital to the leap.

1. No one gets hurt if two people who have a fixed homosexual orientation make a lifelong commitment and only have sex with each other.

2. Modern science may overrule Scriptural commands.

And since this is getting way too long I'm going to leave ya'll hanging and write more later.

Pastor Bob

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back to Work!

No great theological thoughts this time. Just a health update.

I'm out of the deep pain stage and into the aching stage. So tomorrow I'm headed back to the office, with a pillow. Gotta write a sermon for next Sunday and find out who is in the hospital. Suddenly I have a great deal more empathy for those in the hospital.

For all those of you who have kept me in prayer, my thanks.

Pastor Bob

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hebrew and Greek and Exegesis, Oh My!

Over the past few years we have been moving from a regulatory Form of Government to a Form of Government (FOG) that is called “missional.” The suggestion has been that a new FOG would be based on trust.

This year a whole rewrite of the FOG went to the GA and was turned back to a committee for rewriting. The committee was told to listen to the presbyteries as it rewrote the Form of Government.

But we had a foretaste of the FOG based on trust. An amendment to the constitution went to presbyteries a couple of years ago. It was a complete rewrite of chapter 14, the chapter on ordination. It was intended to make the chapter less regulatory and to allow more freedom to the local presbytery. Now as the committee that oversees the writing and reading of ordination exams for candidates for the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament sets new policy based on the new chapter 14 we see the results of trust and they are bitter.

Both the former chapter 14 and the current chapter 14 say the following about the responsibility of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry (COPM) about the candidate’s ability to use Hebrew and Greek:

Old G-14.0310b(3) and new G-14.0450c:

(the candidate shall)

c. presentation of a transcript from a theological institution accredited by the Association of Theological Schools acceptable to the presbytery, the transcript showing satisfactory grades, and presentation of a plan to complete the theological degree including Hebrew and Greek and exegesis of the Old and New Testaments using Hebrew and Greek texts;

So the COPM has the responsibility to make sure that a candidate is able to use Hebrew and Greek to do exegesis. The question today is whether the COPM can depend on the Ordination Exams to show that a candidate can do exegesis in the original languages. That has been a method used by the COPM. Satisfactory grades on the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam measured the candidate’s ability to use the original languages to do exegesis.

Alas the FOG no longer states what the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam will measure and how it will measure. Chapter 14 used to say this:

G-14.0311d(1) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall asses the candidate’s ability to find and state the meaning of an assigned passage of Scripture, demonstrating a working knowledge of the original language of the text and ability to understand its historical situation.

The candidate shall have access to any or all of the following:

Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries and other exegetical tools, including those which presuppose knowledge of the Biblical languages. Using these he or she shall be asked to state the meaning of the passage, show how he or she arrived at this interpretation, and suggest how this passage might be used in the contemporary life of the church.

The current chapter 14 of the FOG says the following about ordination exams:

G 14.0430 Examinations

G-14.0431 Inquirers or candidates are encouraged to take the Bible Content Examination in their first year of seminary. The other four examinations may be taken by inquirers or candidates after completion of two full years of theological education. These four examinations shall only be taken upon approval by the committee on preparation for ministry of the inquirer’s or candidate’s presbytery. The areas of examinations are:

a Bible Content.

b. Open Book Bible Exegesis.

c. Theological Competence.

d. Worship and Sacraments.

e. Church Polity.

G.14.0432 The examinations required in the five specified areas shall be graded by representatives of the presbyteries under the supervision of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates as provided in G-11.0103m. Descriptions of the examinations, the subjects, the schedule, and the procedures for their administration shall be prepared by the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee and approved by the General Assembly.

Notice that the examinations are no longer described but merely listed. Also notice that G-14.0432 says that the committee shall propose descriptions of the exams, the subjects, the schedule and the procedures for their administration. These must be approved by the General Assembly.

Now evidently the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates has proposed a new description of the Open Book Bible Exegesis exam. The Committee published the following on the GA news site. Tthe new description reads as follows:

  • The Biblical Exegesis examination will continue to offer questions which allow inquirers/ candidates to demonstrate proficiency in Greek and Hebrew. However, the demonstration of this working knowledge of the biblical languages will no longer be requirement in order to complete the exam successfully.

When the exams are graded, the readers will comment on the language facility which is demonstrated in the paper. Such comments will be offered as guidance for Committees on Preparation for Ministry. It will be the responsibility of the CPM, upon review of seminary transcripts and the exegetical work and sermon presented by the candidate, to determine if the candidate’s ability to use Greek and Hebrew is sufficient to serve as a helpful tool for the understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures as required the Constitution of the PCUSA. (Book of Order G-14.0450).

  • Inquirers/candidates will be asked to offer a faithful interpretation, rather than the principal meaning of the text. In many cases, a passage of Scripture may offer several meanings or possibilities for interpretations rather than “one” correct meaning.

See http://www.pcusa.org/exams/exegesisinfo.htm for the full article by the Committee. I urge all who read this letter to read the full article.

The 2008 Committee on the Review of General Assembly Permanent Committees approved the following concerning the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam:

(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall assess the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.

“The candidate shall have access to Hebrew and Greek texts, translations, commentaries, and other exegetical tools.

This committee also approved the following amendment to the FOG:

Amend Recommendation 1, first paragraph of “(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis” as follows: [Text to be deleted is shown with a strike-through; text to be added or inserted is shown with an underline.]

“(2) Open Book Bible Exegesis. This examination shall assess the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical [and literary]context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.”

Both of these were approved by the General Assembly in plenary.

Since the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates conducted a study of the ordination exams and recommended changes in the description of the exam both in their manual and in the FOG I strongly urge anyone interested in this issue to read the study at:


And the two recommendations to the General Assembly at:


The core questions raised by the Cooperative Committee’s new policies are:

  1. Should the Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam be a measure of the candidate’s ability to work in Hebrew or Greek; and
  2. Should the Exam require the candidate to find and describe the true meaning of the text?

So it seems that satisfactory grades in Hebrew and Greek and in Hebrew and Greek exegesis (G-14.0450c) are now sufficient to determine whether a candidate can do proper exegesis and use that exegesis in a church setting. The Open Book Bible Exegesis Exam will no be an instrument to measure such ability.

Given the failure rate among candidates taking the exam one has to wonder if the standards are changing because of the inability of candidates to pass the exam.

In any case, I think the Cooperative Committee’s new policies are a mistake. Certainly there are passages that can have multiple meanings. But most passages have one meaning. A Bible exegesis exam should test the ability of a candidate to find the central meaning of a text and to use that text in a congregational setting. Do we want to ordain people who choose to take a passage out of context or say that it means something different than, (to the extent that we can discover it) the intention of the author or editor? We are to examine our lives in the light of the Scripture, not decide the meaning of the Scripture in the light of our lives.

As to Hebrew and Greek, the ability to use the original languages has been a mark of ordained Presbytery clergy throughout the history of Presbyterians in America. Are we willing to abandon this requirement, at least in the Bible exegesis exam, without denomination wide discussion?

Pastor Bob

Monday, August 18, 2008


My brother Allan says that it is always a wonderful day when you walk into the mountains and walk out having learned something. Usually when you learn something in the mountains you did something stupid and if you walk out that means you survived.

Just over a week ago I went out riding my bicycle. I am still alive, no thanks to myself. I have no memory after leaving the house but it seems that I must have been going really fast down Pine Street without benefit of a helmet. That’s what the neighbors tell me, the ones who called 911 and made me sit down until the ambulance arrived.

I don’t remember much of the next two days. Sometime in there I learned I had a concussion and 6 broken ribs to say nothing of road rash. So a couple of basic lessons learned by going out bike riding and not riding home:

1. Wear that helmet! If I had had a helmet on I wouldn’t have had a concussion.
2. Slow down on hills! Wind and bugs in the teeth feel great but when you stop suddenly, (in my case by falling off, preferable to going head first into the telephone pole), it can be painful.

Now at this point I suppose I should state some basic reflections on human fallibility, (obviously I am), original sin and pain, some not so interesting theology and God and the problem of evil, but I have a few other observations about pain first.

Pain hurts! When younger, including a lot of people my age, you get up in the morning, go out and do your thing. Life just kind of goes on and you don’t even notice that you are up and walking. That’s life, right? But not only does pain hurt it also slows you down like nobody’s business! Getting out of bed is a tedious and painful process and just walking makes me dizzy. My knees hurt from the scabs when I walk.

We in the Western world, for the most part, just don’t even have a clue. We think of medicine not so much as a science than as a constant miracle. You get sick, you get pills, you get well. You have an accident like I did and even though you hurt for a while you know you’re going to get better. If you don’t get all better there are doctors and a hospital to sue because, after all, medical science is supposed to make everyone all better, isn’t it? We argue about who is going to pay the bill, not whether treatment can be done.

Most of the world has no such advantage. I’ve wondered if I was in rural India or parts of Africa or South America what would have happened to me. No scan, no x-ray, no epidural pain killers? With a concussion and all those broken ribs would I be up and walking around if I lived in rural Africa? Or would I have picked up an infection and died? And would I have vacation time, sick days etc.? We in the West complain a lot but life could be a lot worse. When I went bike riding I didn’t have to worry about catching malaria.

All of which is not to say that there aren’t theological issues involved. Why am I alive? It sure isn’t my fault! Thank the lady who called 911, thank the ambulance people, thank the great doctors, nurses, aides, etc., at the hospital and thank God! I don’t know why I’m alive but God surely has something to do with it even if you only consider the surface stuff like I live near a great trauma center.

Of course that doesn’t explain why a little girl died of cancer just a day earlier with all the medical help in the world at hand. When it comes to the whys and wherefores of who lives and who dies I wish God had chosen to heal Maggie and let me die. But I’m not in charge and make no claims to understand the will of God.

Yes, that means that I think God somehow participates in it all, doesn’t just sit on the sidelines and let things happen. No I can’t prove it. I think it’s a Biblical given, a theme. God is involved. You see God’s involvement from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. But when it comes to the whys and the wherefores we have to be content with God’s answer to Job: we just aren’t smart enough to understand.

So if you came here for profound insights into why I’m alive, I don’t have any. I certainly don’t think it’s because God loves me so much more than others. God has better taste than that. And it isn’t because I’m so much better, holier than others. God knows that’s not true!

I guess my best answer is Paul’s: to die would be better because I would be at home with Jesus. To live is to continue to serve Jesus.

And in the meantime even when it hurts to sit up I need to thank God because I can sit up and will continue in ministry.

Pastor Bob

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Many of my more conservative brothers and sisters, whom I love and respect, left San Jose angry, frustrated, and disappointed — sure that we Presbyterians have lost our biblical and theological souls. And I hurt because they hurt. But I am convinced that the main power player at this assembly was the Holy Spirit, laying waste to the best-laid strategies of most of the affinity groups. The heart of our faith is the absolute conviction that God calls us to die to the old, so that we can rise to the new. And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s.
Susan Andrews, General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery
And former Moderator of the General Assembly
In Presbyterian Outlook, Monday, 04 August 2008

Following PCUSA General Assemblies those who win tend to claim that the Holy Spirit was at work in what happened. I suggest that such a claim is dangerous.

I disagree with the Rev. Andrews for a variety of reasons, not the least that I am certain we disagree on the meaning of Scripture surrounding the actions of the General Assembly on homosex behavior. But that is not my point. When anyone claims that a human body has acted in accord with the intentions of the Holy Spirit I think some hubris is involved.

Presbyterians are people who hold our beliefs in tension. While we call on all who serve in the governing bodies of the denomination to listen for the Holy Spirit as we deliberate and vote we must admit that the intentions of the Spirit are not always clear. We claim that the Spirit operates through the governing bodies of the denomination but we also admit that “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.” (Book of Confessions, the Westminster Confession, 6.175)

The time between the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD is instructive. There were at least 15 councils during that time, many of which held that Arius was correct, that the Son was not fully divine. There were attempted compromises suggesting that the Son was of like being with the Father (homoiousious) not of the same being with the Father (homoousious). In the end, at Constantinople the decision of Nicaea was affirmed, after both Arius and Athanasius (his opponent) were dead. The doctrine of the Trinity was proclaimed as a central truth of the Church and has been so held by the main stream of the Church since then.

So today we would confess that the Holy Spirit was at work at Nicaea and Constantinople but not at any council at which the Arians or Semi-Arians won the day. In other words it is difficult to see the work of the Spirit in the present. In the present, in the midst of disagreements major and minor we often claim that the Spirit is on our side because we must be correct and those who disagree with us must be wrong! Only looking back in history (and then only with great humility) can we say there the Spirit was at work.

One of my concerns with some Charismatics that I met back in my college days was their utter assurance that the Spirit had spoken to them or through them. Some claimed that the Spirit had healed them with no proof that is no physical evidence that healing had taken place. I believe that the Spirit can and does heal miraculously but I think one should make sure s/he now has 20/20 vision before s/he goes off to drive a car. But of greater concern are those who claim that the Spirit has told them to do something or believe something without any substantiation.

The great test of a claim that the Spirit has spoken has always been the Scripture. Where the Scripture speaks there the Spirit also speaks. The Spirit does not speak against Scripture because the Spirit speaks in Scripture. To say that the Spirit speaks against Scripture is to say that the Spirit disagrees with the Spirit an utter impossibility. The Spirit is not human, making one decision one day and a couple millennia later saying the opposite. The human task is to determine what the Spirit says today by comparing human claims to Scriptural text. Of course that is not as easy as it sounds or we would not debate over its meaning.

Frankly this is one of my great concerns about GA 218. There was no great debate about what the Scripture says and how to apply the Scripture today. Yes we have had those debates in the past and they have not yielded unity. But from those who attended GA I hear that there was no debate over the meaning of Scripture that in fact there was little or no debate at all over the various decisions about homosex behavior. And that, alas, is a mistake.

Part of the problem is time. In the modern age time is of the essence. The Council of Nicaea lasted for over two months. The bishops took the time to get it right. I am sure there were no two minute limits on any bishop’s speech. Because the General Assembly must finish its work in a specific period of time we Presbyterians do not take the time to get it right, to have the full conversation. Instead we ask a small group, a Task Force to study the issue, give the commissioners the work of the Task Force, have a committee study the work of the Task Force, (along with a myriad of other matters) and then ask the Plenary, (the full General Assembly) to make a decision in a limited period of time. I suggest that this is a poor way to determine the intent of the Holy Spirit.

So did the Holy Spirit speak on the issue of homosex behavior at GA 218? I think no. Susan Andrews clearly thinks yes. We cannot both be right. What worries me the most is that we both went into the week of General Assembly and out the other side with our minds already made up.

Maybe the Holy Spirit will speak through the presbyteries. Maybe not. But unless we do the hard work of studying the Scripture together: translating, exegeting, and hermeneuting, how will we ever know?

Pastor Bob

P.S. I did not deal with the main theme of the Rev. Andrews article: Dying to the Old and rising to the New. All old is not bad and all new is not good. Again, only the Spirit can tell us what is good and what is bad. As I am sure the Rev. Andrews would agree, the heart of the faith is not dying to the old and rising to the new; the heart of the faith is dying to the old which is sin and rising to the new which is Christ. There is one sentence in the article that is definitely true: "And the dying and rising is not in our control — but in God’s." I pray that we will die not to the old but to the wrong, to anything that opposes the work of Christ in the Spirit and rise again to serve Christ according to the will of the Spirit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


One of the promises that all those ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) make when ordained and/or installed is in answer to the following question:

"Do you promise to further the peace unity and purity of the church?" (W-4.4003g)

If you are getting ordained you have to answer all of the questions in the affirmative, in this case by saying, "I do." If you say "I don't" you don't get ordained. Of course I've never heard anyone say "I don't" or "I won't" even if the person didn't really understand the question. It’s kind of like someone stopping a wedding in the old order of service for a marriage. Who dares when the pastor asks, “If anyone knows a reason why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in marriage let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” The only place I’ve ever seen anyone say that is in a Jane Austen novel. It just never happens.

This is an interesting question because it puts together three words that often seem to be at odds with one another. For some of us in the Presbyterian Church today, given recent events, these words do not describe the PCUSA today.

I write to suggest that among the people of Christ all these words must go together. And one of the major problems in the PCUSA today is that different groups within the denomination define the words in different ways.

So I begin with a series of affirmations:

1. where there is no peace there can be no unity and no purity.
2. Where there is no unity there can be no peace and no purity.
3. Where there is no purity there can be no peace and no unity.

To be in Christ is to be at peace with one another. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to make peace between those who believe in Jesus and the Father. We are therefore part of what some scholars call the organic unity in Christ. They refer to Paul’s images of the Church as the Body of Christ. Unless one is ill the hand will cooperate with the wrist and the foot with the shin. As Paul says in Ephesians 2,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:14-18 NIV)

So the spiritual fact of the matter is we are at peace because Christ has made peace between us, as Paul says Jesus has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

And yet, no matter what the spiritual reality we act as if there is no peace. From a human point of view f in the PCUSA today there is no peace. There has been no peace for years. (Has there every really been peace?) Curiously those in two different groups in the denomination: those who call themselves Evangelicals and those who call themselves Progressives agree that there is no peace. Some of us may not say that there is no peace. But when we disagree we blame each other. Evangelicals blame Progressives saying that if they would just drop this stuff about homosexuality then maybe we could have peace. To be fair we would disagree about other stuff but since homosexuality has been the leading issue in the denomination for more than 30 years, Evangelicals want some peace. Drop the argument, Progressives. You've lost so many times, why can't you accept it? (Sometimes I wonder if our argument about homosexuality is a way to avoid arguing about bigger, deeper issues, but let's stick to the presenting problem for now.)

Progressives on the other hand say that there can be no peace where there is no justice. For more than 30 years homosexuals have been oppressed in the PCUSA (and for millennia before that) and justice delayed is justice denied. There can be no peace until homosexuals can take their full place in the denomination including in ordained leadership. And they aren't going to drop it until they get their way. Besides if my definition of Progressive is correct, (and since I am not a Progressive I may very well be wrong), Progressives seem to believe in Progress. They believe sooner or later they will win because that is the way history is progressing. They don’t give up because they believe they just have to work long enough and sooner or later the denomination will move over to their opinion. To be fair Evangelicals are going to fight, trying to make sure that Progressives never get their way.

So while we who are in Christ are spiritually at peace here on earth there is no peace. Jesus calls us to love one another and many of us reach across the battle lines and love our friends who disagree with us but when it comes to votes we vote the party line. Sometimes we can have polite conversations but underneath the politeness there are a lot of strong feelings including a lot of anger and blame. I know I’m angry and I know I’m not alone.

The curious thing is that when we are talking about something else we can at least pretend we are at peace. We all agree that the ongoing genocide in Darfur is an abomination before God. We may not agree what to do about it and we may not even know what can be done about it, (although I think we all agree sending in the U.S. Army would be a mistake), but we can agree it is terrible. Nevertheless, even when we agree about some things there is always this big problem in the back of our minds. We all know that the day is coming when we will debate the issue again.

What I am about to say will sound radical but it is the way I think about it. I can be at peace with people who read the Bible and interpret it differently that I do. They are wrong, I know they are wrong, but we all make mistakes in translation and interpretation. (Humble, ain’t I?) The people I have problems with, the people I struggle to be at peace with are the ones who say that they know that they disagree with what the Bible says, its just that the Bible is wrong on the subject, or to put it in their words, science has shown that the writers of the Bible did not understand the concept of homosexual orientation. Some go even further, like Walter Wink, who says that he is sure that if Paul knew that homosexuality could be an orientation he would still think that homosex behavior was wrong. Still Wink thinks the behavior is acceptable to God. How can I be at peace with someone who simply says the Bible is wrong? Or is the problem that we have different concepts of Biblical authority as over against general revelation? Even then how can I be at peace with someone who takes general revelation, (what we see in the world), and place that as a higher authority over the Scripture?

A quick note for those who think I’m saying that there aren’t galaxies out there and the sun revolves around the earth: I believe that the authority of Scripture is limited to what the Bible intends to say. The Bible has nothing to say about dinosaurs or the workings of stars or galaxies. Neither is the point of the Noah narrative to tell about how the water came from outside the firmament into the world. But when we understand what the Bible intends to say the Bible is authoritative. Then, of course we have the responsibility to properly apply it to our present world which is another part of the problem.

Unity. Paul says in Ephesians 4, "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6 NIV) We may not act like we are one in Christ but the fact of the matter is, we are one in Christ. One of the biggest problems in the Church Universal is that for reasons big and small in this world we are not one in Christ at least at an organizational level. Denominations seem to multiply daily. But no matter how we be behave the fact of the matter is that everyone who is in Christ, that is everyone who is a Christian is one. We are unified.

Of course we have some problems with definitions. We Trinitarians say that the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons aren't really Christians and so we aren't one with them in Christ. (One as members of the human race, yes. One in Christ, no.) And speaking as a Trinitarian there seems to be a few leaders out there in the PCUSA who aren't Trinitarians. (To be fair we have done such a terrible job teaching the members of congregations over the last 50 years a lot of them can’t explain the doctrine of the Trinity at all!)

But all Christian are one in Christ. We are unified in Christ. Alas we don't act that way. In the PCUSA we gather in our political groups and plan how to win. We don't talk sometimes with those we disagree with because we don't want them to know our strategy. We call each other names. And sometimes we even say the person on the other side isn't really a Christian. It doesn't look like unity.

Unity doesn't mean we all have to vote the same way. But it does mean we have to acknowledge that we are one in Christ and treat one another as loving members of the same family, (and not a dysfunctional family!).

But how do we find unity when at the end of a General Assembly meeting some rejoice and some weep? What do we do when those who rejoice don’t care about the feelings of those who weep and vice versa?

And worse, what do we say about those who have finally had enough, who are tired of the argument and decide to leave the denomination? Granted the PCUSA is not the Body of Christ, but it hurts when someone says I can’t be in the same denomination as you anymore, even if you think that person, (or that congregation), is just wrong, that their reasons for leaving are not only misguided but a complete misreading of the situation?

Unity does not mean that all the Christians in a particular area have to send their pastors and an equal number of elders to a PCUSA presbytery meeting. Wouldn’t that be a mess? A blessed mess to be sure, but where would we meet? In the local stadium that holds 70,000 people? Besides some would expect us to send bishops to the meeting and we Presbyterians know we don’t need no steekin’ bishops! We’ve fought wars to get rid of bishops and Romanish liturgy! The unity that Christ has made is hard to find.

On to Purity. Again, in Christ all who believe in him are pure. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . .” (Romans 8:1 NIV) Christ made us pure when he died for us and rose for us.

But again the reality in this world is quite different. Christians all with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit are working at sanctification. At least we are supposed to. We know we are sinners and we depend on the Spirit to help us sin less.

The problem in the PCUSA today is that we look at homosexuality and see purity in two different ways. Evangelicals and some others say homosex behavior is sinful. To be sure it is behavior that God will forgive but it is sinful. And what horrifies us the most is that some in the Church teach that what is sinful is not sinful. Progressives don’t like the comparison but for us Evangelicals it’s like saying that adultery isn’t sinful or that polygamy isn’t sinful. (In fact I think I can make a better case for polygamy from Scripture than I can for homosex behavior.) It is the task of the Church to help people in their process of sanctification. How can we do so if we tell people that sin is not sin?

For others, those who believe that homosex behavior between 2 consenting adults is not sinful homosex behavior is pure. It glorifies God. God made some people heterosexual, some homosexual, some bisexual and some people are transsexual, (I’m not sure if transsexuals believe God made them that way or that somehow things got messed up in this sinful world and a man somehow ended up in a female body.) Anyway, most in the PCUSA who take this position believe that God intends for people to love one another and sometimes that love takes the form of two people of the same sex loving one another romantically and physically. That is not only pure but it is something to celebrate.

So in Christ we are at peace, unified and pure. In this world we are not at peace we are not unified and we are not pure. Of course we should all look to ourselves first and get some help from brothers and sisters in Christ to examine ourselves and figure out what God wants us to work on in the process of salvation. Our problem in the PCUSA is that as we seek to further the peace, unity and purity of the church those of us who disagree find ourselves destroying the peace, unity and purity as we seek peace unity and purity! Or to put it bluntly, we really believe that those who disagree with us are destroying the peace, unity and purity of the church.

If only you Evangelicals would love and accept homosexuals! Then we could have peace, unity and purity. Duh! We Evangelicals do love homosexuals! We see Christian homosexuals as brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with sin just like the rest of us. Our problem is that some of them and some heterosexuals believe that homosex sin is not sin. Then we get accused of having different standards for heterosexuals than we do for homosexuals. That accusation really confuses me. I would refuse to participate in the ordination of someone who was having a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex with whom that person was not married. I won’t let that person work with youth or teach Sunday School either because I don’t want people looking to him/her as an example for behavior. Do I love that person? Of course I do! I have relatives who have sex outside of marriage. Do I love transsexuals? Yes! Again, I have transsexual relatives. Do I love my friends who are homosexuals? Of course! Love does not mean you necessarily approve of what a person does. I don’t approve of everything I do! In fact I have a longer list of sins for myself than I do for anyone else. Of course I am always there when I sin and others don’t necessarily see me, particularly when the sin happens to be one of thought. I’m not always there when someone else sins, thank God.

If only you Progressives would obey the Bible and accept the authority of the Bible! Then we could have peace, unity and purity. This one is a bit more complicated for me partially because I disagree with Progressives on this issue and partly because I see a number of different viewpoints. Some look at seven passages that they believe refer to homosex behavior in the Bible, (and reject other possible passages), and think they applied to particular situations in the ancient world or don’t really talk about homosex behavior as we see it today. Also they think some of those passages aren’t really about homosex behavior in any form in any age. I would suggest that the dialogue has gone beyond this among scholars that are up on the most recent interpretations of the passages but some think that I and others like me are misinterpreting the Bible. My good friend and brother in Christ Jack Rogers interprets the Bible on this issue in ways that have brought him to the conclusion that homosex behavior between two people in a committed relationship is not wrong but a gift from God. Then there are those who think that the Bible does say homosex behavior is wrong but that since no one understood that homosexuality is an orientation back then the passages don’t really apply. And then there are those who love their homosexual friends and think that no matter what the Bible says God loves them as they are. (This is an argument I’m hearing more and more, that God loves everyone, that we shouldn’t judge others and look at what a fine person Jim is. Why shouldn’t he have a beloved like heterosexual couples just because he wants his beloved to be a man?) Or some combination of these and other positions. But how can you Progressives tell people that their sin is not sin? Don’t you know that you are endangering that person’s salvation? And how will you explain to God that you taught people that sin was not sin? It’s like saying, to quote one scholar, that incest between two consenting adults is not sin! We all know that God doesn’t approve of that!

Peace, Unity and Purity. Even if we solved this particular problem we wouldn’t have peace, unity and purity in the Church here on earth. But I don’t see how we Presbyterians can have peace, unity and purity around this issue. It isn’t, as some say, that one side wants unity and the other side wants purity. Both sides know that there can only be peace, unity and purity when they win. And to be fair to those on both sides we all in good faith believe that we are doing God’s will.

I find I can deeply love those who disagree with me about this. We can talk about other things and agree. We can even get together on other issues in the denomination and work together disagreeing with other Progressives and Evangelicals. But how do we have peace, unity and purity when we dare to say, “Look what they are doing to God’s Church!” Sometimes we accuse people of meaning their church not God’s church but to be fair to all, on our better days we believe that the other is hurting God’s Church.

So the 218th General Assembly is over. My side lost. It hurts a lot. The statement made in 1978 that homosex behavior is not God’s intention for humanity is gone. A curious and rather confusing Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 in the Form of Government that is meant to overturn a GAPJC decision was passed. Personally I think that the GAPJC will overturn the Authoritative Interpretation. Won’t that be interesting? And then a replacement for G-6.0106b passed as well and is coming to the presbyteries for a vote. Then the Book of Order will no longer say you have to be married and faithful or single and chaste to be ordained. Oh, and sooner or later, (I think after 2010), we get to vote on whether we will change the Heidelberg Catechism.

One of the reasons it hurts is that when I was in seminary we Evangelicals were a minority that almost always lost. Since then we have become equal in power with the Progressives at least at the presbytery level. It’s easier to lose when you know you always lose. It’s different when you know if presbyteries would just send people to General Assembly who represented the presbytery’s point of view none of this would have passed. And it must be difficult for Progressives who can be pretty sure that the amendment to G-6.0106b won’t pass.

I hate the battle. I don’t want to vote on the amendment to G-6.0106b. But it does bring to the fore that we don’t have peace, unity or purity. And both sides fight as hard as we can to make sure we have more peace, unity and purity from their perspective.

I know deep in my heart that the 218th General Assembly took a pick axe to the peace, unity and purity of the PCUSA. I know deep in my heart that more congregations will give up and leave the PCUSA for what seem to be greener and less conflicted pastures. How can the denomination have more peace, unity and purity when more congregations feel pushed out?

There is no peace, unity and purity and I might as well just get used to it.

Ken Medema says in one of his songs:

If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
Where can I go to cry?

And also

I don’t need another place for always wearing smiles
Even when that’s not the way I feel.

I have no smiles. My heart cries are only heard by those who agree with me and a few close friends who love me and disagree with me. Seemingly nice letters from people at the GA that condemn me in not so subtle ways don’t give me any comfort at all.

There is no peace, no unity, no purity.

May Jesus return soon and make what is spiritually real, (the best and truest kind of real) real in all ways.

In the meantime, where shall I go to cry?

Pastor Bob

Sunday, June 29, 2008


All that history in the last post was a prelude to this. The General Assembly endorsed The Amman Call, (See article in The Presbyterian Outlook).

While there are many things to agree with in the Amman Call, (who could not agree with a call for two states, Israel and Palestine, with secure borders and peace, with an open Jerusalem? Of course there will be great disagreement over whether Jerusalem should be an Israeli city or a Palestinian city or both and the real fight will be over freedom of religion for Jews, Muslims and Christians! When I was in Israel I was given to understand that if anyone who was not Muslim tried to pray on the Temple Mount that person was immediately hustled off by the Israeli police! And don't even get me started on the Waqf digging through archaeological areas with a backhoe!)

Whew! Anyway. I agree with the Amman Call that we need to support our Christians sisters and brothers in Israel and Palestine. What the call does not make clear is that part of the support they need is international light shining on the persecution of Christians by Muslims!

But the most important part is the part that sounds so innocuous. The call for the right of return. Read this part of the Call:

5. The premises of this action are the following:

5.2. That Palestinians have the right of self-determination and the right of return.

I'm all for Palestinian self-determination. Let them vote for whoever they want in free and fair elections. In fact they did when they voted for Hamas. The United States should have recognized the government, terrorist or not. Don't we believe in free sovereignty?

But the right of return is the real problem. Right of return means that all Palestinians who either voluntarily or involuntarily left their homes and villages since 1948 have the right to return to those homes and villages. This sounds very good but would create a variety of problems. It also does not take into account Jewish right of return.

As I stated in my last post after the 1948 war Jews all over the Middle East were forced from their homes, had their businesses taken from them, often even their personal possessions and were only allowed to take a limited amount of money with them when they left. As part of this agreement would the various Arab nations also allow their former Jewish citizens a right of return and compensation for their losses? I know the Palestinians are not responsible for what Arab governments did but why does the Amman Call make no reference to the suffering of Jews following the 1948 war? And why does it not take into consideration that there are many more Jews in Israel because the Arab governments stole from and kicked out their Jewish citizens? Should there not be justice for all? Or do only Palestinians get justice?

Quite honestly a Palestinian right of return is a deal breaker for Israel. The Amman Call says:

5.3That a two-state solution must be viable politically, geographically economically and socially.


5.5 That both Palestine and Israel have legitimate security needs.

These statements are meaningless if there is a Palestinian right of return. The reason is very simple. If Palestinians are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel then Palestinians will be the majority in Israel. In a democratic state the Palestinians would be able to vote out the Israeli government. Israel would not be a Jewish state. Then Israel would have no security concerns because there would be no Israel and no security for Jews in Israel. The two state solution would not be politically or socially viable for Israel because there would be no Israel. It wouldn't be economically or geographically viable either.

See, it's the little things that people don't mention.

One of several things would happen if there was a Palestinian right of return:

1. There would be no democratic government in Israel or Palestine. To be fair to the Palestinian people their choices of governments have been rather limited. Fatah was corrupt and really didn't want free elections. Hamas - well Hamas did get elected by a free and fair election. But Hamas has as one of its foundational statements that it pursues the destruction of Israel. If there was a Palestinian majority in Israel would Israel get a corrupt Fatah or a Hamas that wants to kick the Jews out or kill them?

2. At best there would be a secular state in which there was no Jewish majority or state. It should not surprise the world that this makes Jews very uneasy. After thinking that they were finally secure in Europe because of the Enlightenment the Dreyfus affair came along in France and then the Nazis came to power in Germany. And all through the 19th and 20th Centuries it was dangerous to be Jewish in Russia and, up until at least 1945 in Poland. Further antisemitism is on the rise in Europe. If you were Jewish wouldn't you want a land of your own in which your people were the majority and therefore there was a guarantee that no one would come and kill you just because you were Jewish? Besides rockets falling from Lebanon, (Hezbollah) and Gaza (at the very least tolerated by Hamas) suggests that Jews would not be secure in a secular state in Palestine.

3. There are more but I'll move on.

The security barrier. I've seen it. I hate it. From inside Bethlehem it looks like a prison wall. But if suicide bombers come into your country and blow up your children wouldn't you want a way to keep them out? I think the security barrier is in the wrong place. Too much of it falls on Palestinian territory. It has ruined the economic lives of Palestinian farmers. It has brought unemployment to many Palestinians. But the number of suicide bombers has gone down to almost zero. It would be wonderful if there was no need for the fences and the walls. The behavior of people in Gaza shooting missiles into Israeli towns does not suggest that the barrier is not necessary.

The other problem with the Amman Call is that it seems to assume that if Israel changed its ways everything would be fine. There are killers on both sides of the barrier. Yes there are some Israelis who want to kick all the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza and claim all of Biblical Israel. They are a small minority. There are also Palestinians who want to kill all Israelis. There is no way to measure what percentage of the Palestinian population wants this. Those with the guns keep those who want peace very silent.

I want to think that the overwhelming majority on both sides want peace and prosperity. Certainly most Israelis will exchange land for peace if there will be a real peace. There is no way to tell how many Palestinians want this because it is dangerous in Gaza in particular to say that you want Israel to continue to exist.

Starting as far back as 1948 the Palestinians have been offered a variety of great deals. Either other nations or their leaders have always turned them down.

When the Presbyterian Church gets serious about peace in Israel and Palestine it will have to listen to both Jews and Palestinians. Until that day I will have to keep telling my Jewish friends please don't associate me with the statements of the General Assembly.

Pastor Bob