03.05.2021 – Shall we allow democrats in the church?

Shall we allow democrats in the church?

That is, is democracy appropriate for the church? Presbyterians have been cautious but early in saying yes.

Following talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s death last month, a Christianity Today podcast dealt with questions of Limbaugh’s influence and impact on Christian radio. I found it fascinating, much more so than I anticipated. Limbaugh’s influence especially on media directed at American Evangelicals was huge. A genre of Christian talk radio, as with so many other forms of talk radio, evolved in the wake of Limbaugh’s success.

I don’t listen to any talk radio (or many podcasts), but those who do say that Christian talk radio has produced its own brash Rush wannabes and also expanded access to some good Christian thinkers and commentators.

I’ve been thinking about something one of the guests on the podcast said. Quoting another writer, she said talk radio has made the discussion of issues in the church more democratic. That seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?  But, really, shall we allow democrats in the church?

The photo in the header of this post is from an 1833 Book of Presbyterian Church Order. Whichever Presbyterian acronym you prefer – EPC, PCUSA, OPC, PCA, ARP, RP, and many more – each of the denominations they represent will have similar wording. “The election of persons to the exercise of this authority (bearing church office), in any particular society, is that society.”

In its chapter on Rights Reserved to a Local Church, our EPC Book of Order says, “The local church has the right to elect its own officers.”

Presbyterian churches, like most Reformed churches, have been full of democrats from the beginning.  We’ve never much liked hierarchy (as much as we sometimes love bureaucracy). Electing our own leaders has been a guard against the abuses of intrenched hierarchies. Bishops can’t send us a new pastor as reward or punishment (to congregation or pastor). Elders can’t appoint their own successors. All in all, Presbyterian democrats have proven to be a good thing.

Our elected leaders not only approve budgets, hire staff, and plan potlucks, they help us clarify what we believe. But we’re very cautious about such a democratic process. John Calvin writes about councils of elected leaders, Sessions and General Assemblies, in the case of Presbyterians, meeting to guide the church in knowing what it believes and how to live that belief. He says that when an issue of doctrine or faith is to be decided, it is best if the leaders “of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, (for it) will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it.” Elected leaders are to “deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.”

Winston Churchill was not a Presbyterian, but Presbyterians understand well his thoughts on democracy, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

So, carefully, cautiously, Presbyterians allow, in fact, welcome, democrats into the church. But when the democrats become populists, the church must say no, sorry, you’re not welcome.

As a political movement populism is often defined as an ideology that argues for the will and aspirations of (good) common people against the interests of an (evil) elite that governs in its own interests.  Populism claims to be democratic but is majority-rulism often at the expense of minority populations or convictions.  Claiming to be democrats, populists too easily become despots as Christians in Pakistan, Muslims in India, and, yes, still too many minority groups in the United States, testify.

Populism in the church rejects creeds, commentaries, and the work of councils as elitist. “Don’t confuse us with theology,” the populists say as they tune their radios and their screens to the purveyors of prosperity preaching, nationalist nonsense, and emotional excess.

Populism is nothing new in the church. Paul warned his young friend Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3–4, ESV).

Shall we allow democrats in the church? Yes.  But beware the itchy-eared populists and their podcasts, radio shows, and YouTube channels.

Saint Andrew friends: I am teaching this class again this Sunday.  This week we continue in Chapter 6. – Spiritual Warfare.  Join us Sunday at 9:00 a.m.

02.26.2021 – Why We Need to Work

I am fortunate to have had only one job I did not like. I was employed as a busboy one summer of my college years and was glad when the three months came to their end. Of course, there is a difference between a job and work. When we talk about the jobs we may have had or now have, we generally mean employment. Work for which we receive pay, monetary compensation. A boss and set hours may or may not be a part of any given job. We may be paid an hourly wage, a salary, or a commission; for the sake of common understanding, we might say a job is what we do to earn money.

Work is something more and something often better than a job. In Genesis 2, the first human is created, among other things, to work and to keep the garden. To be human is to work, a work that is caring and productive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul, admonishes his friends to do honest work both to provide for self and to provide for others (Ephesians 4:28). In his commentary on Ephesians, John Calvin says such work for the sake of others is part of the love we owe our neighbors.  And where job and work overlap, Calvin recommends we “choose those employments which yield the greatest advantage to (our) neighbors.”

All jobs involve work, but not all work is a job. Continue reading

02.19.2021 – Kindness on the Cul-de-Sac

Our house is one of six houses on our cul-de-sac, along with two still-empty lots. The street is one of the reasons we chose this lot on which to have our house built. Cul-de-sac dwellers are quick to point out that they are not living on a dead end street. It’s a short street with circular end. We like living on a cul-de-sac, but it turns out that snowplow drivers don’t like cul-de-sacs at all, because they have to figure out what to do with all the snow that accumulates in the circle at the end of the cul-de-sac.

We had a big snow fall earlier this week, and I was out early shoveling the snow from the driveway and sidewalks. That’s when the snowplow turned into the cul-de-sac. On its first pass by the driveway, the plow left a pile of snow blocking the driveway. I get it. It’s the rule of the game. Sometimes the worst part of shoveling show is getting through the mounds of snow the plow leaves on the apron of the driveway. Big slushy clumps.

But it’s the rule of the game, and there was a lot of snow and the plow drivers had already been out all night. So, I kept shoveling and the plow driver kept plowing. After his second pass down the street – and more snow added to the frozen barricade at the end of our driveway – the driver stopped and got out of the plow to survey the scene. He said something about plowing cul-de-sacs being a difficult task, or words to that effect. I think I said something to commiserate with him, and then thanked him for the work he was doing. Continue reading

02.12.2021 – Before the Grand Inquisitors

If all goes according to plan, I will stand before the (grand) inquisitors this afternoon. That is, rather than simply filling out a change of address form or even something like trading my Pennsylvania driver’s license for an Indiana driver’s license, the Midwest Presbytery must examine me before it will accept my credentials from the Presbytery of the East and welcome me into their ranks. (For you non-Presbyterians, don’t worry we have our own Presbyterian Polity Wikipedia page. It explains all you want to know, and not know, about presbyteries and the like.) Examinations are what we do. It is “shall” language in our Book of Church Order. Before I am made a member of the club I shall be, not could be or might be, but shall be examined as to my views on “theology and sacraments, English Bible, the Book of Order, the history of the Church and the Reformed tradition, and the nature of the office of Teaching Elder.”

I have been among the inquisitors, I don’t know how grand we were, many times, and have been the inquisitee several times over the course of my time in ministry. It’s how we Presbyterians do things, and I think it is a good idea. In fact, the pastors, elders, and deacons in our branch of Presbyterianism also promise to report back if there are any substantial changes in what they say they believe after they have been examined about it. We take our inquisitions seriously.

So, why not just a change of address form? Why not “if you’ve been driving safely in Pennsylvania, welcome to Indiana?” Because, to borrow a popular phrase, ideas have consequences. Theology matters. What we believe determines what we do and who we are. Continue reading

02.05.2021 – Child-Free and “What About Me?”

“We need to talk about the bias against child-free employees.” The headline was intriguing.  I knew it was clickbait, but I clicked anyway.  I was taken to the online version of Fast Company Magazine. Fast Company describes itself as “the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, leadership, and design.”

The gist of the article was that what the author calls “child-free” employees (more on that in a moment) are feeling increasingly resentful of the parents they work with because of various company policies – maternity and paternity leave and child-related time off – which give benefits to parents, but not to the child-free.  The pandemic has exacerbated the situation as employers and employees respond to school and daycare closures.

As the workplace seeks to accommodate new realities, the article says some have wondered “where does that leave those who don’t have children, but do have beloved pets? Or family members or friends for whose care they are responsible? Or nonwork passions?” Continue reading