The Briefing 03-19-15

The Briefing 03-19-15

The Briefing


March 19, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Thursday, March 19, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) PC(USA) redefines marriage under growing demand for theological compromise

On Tuesday the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination – the Presbyterian Church USA – reached the critical point for constitutional change; to redefine marriage. For that denomination and its churches no longer as the union of a man and a woman but instead, constitutionally, to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” The magic number was 87 as of Tuesday night – that is 87 presbyteries out of the 171 regional bodies within the PC(USA) – that had voted to approve the constitutional change. This past June the denomination had already voted to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages. But as observers inside and outside that denomination noted, the change in constitutional language is far more important because it is far harder to reverse.

Now when we’re looking at the United States of America it’s important to understand there are multiple Presbyterian denominations. The Presbyterian Church USA is the mainline Protestant liberal denomination that still counts the largest number of Presbyterian churches. But it has been hemorrhaging members over the last several years; losing 37% of its membership since the mid-1990s. According to the New York Times, the presbytery that eventually established the critical number for the majority was the Presbytery of the Palisades meeting in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. As Laurie Goodstein reports,

“[That Presbytery] put the ratification count over the top on Tuesday on a voice vote. With many presbyteries still left to vote, the tally late Tuesday stood at 87 presbyteries in favor, 41 against and one tied.”

Looking at the landscape of American Presbyterianism, the conservative Presbyterians are mostly represented by denominations led by, first of all, the Presbyterian Church in America – commonly known as the PCA. More conservative denominations also include the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with whom the famed theologian J. Gresham Machen was identified. Also we have the evangelical Presbyterian Church known as the EPC, which, while allowing for women to serve as elders in some of its jurisdictions, still holds the definition of marriage as the union exclusively of a man and a woman. It’s very important to understand that even as the PC(USA) has taken this vote the denomination known as the PCA, or the Presbyterian Church in America, remain stalwartly committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and to the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

But the Presbyterian Church USA was the merger of the more liberal bodies of both Northern and Southern Presbyterians in the mid-1980s. And as I’ve said, according to the New York Times, the denomination has been hemorrhaging members; 37% loss just since the mid-1990s. And the reason for that is abundantly clear because the denomination paid for a massive study in order to determine why they were losing so many members. That study produced a book entitled “Vanishing Boundaries” written by three religious sociologists hired by the denomination to look at the reason for its loss of members. And the title of their book “Vanishing Boundaries” indicated the reason why the denomination was losing so many members. It had blurred the distinctions between the church and the secular world. The name for that is theological liberalism; the effort to try to accommodate Christian doctrine to the secularizing trends of the society. By now the PC(USA) has found room for almost every theological variant imaginable and once a denomination or a church has abandoned the inerrancy of Scripture and the binding nature of a confession of faith that is tied to the inerrancy of Scripture, then it is only matter of time until the denomination finds compromise on other fronts.

And that’s true not only for denomination but for an individual congregation. The rules is the same, once you abandon the inerrancy of Scripture it’s just a matter of time until you abandon those doctrines that could not be abandoned if the Bible is nothing less than the inerrant and fallible word of God. If the Bible is not the word of God written form, if every word of it is not true, then virtually every individual or congregation or denomination will find some way to get around the plain teachings of Scripture.

The Presbyterian Church USA currently counts about 1.8 million members but Laurie Goodstein reporting for the New York Times, even as she describes it as the largest of the nation’s Presbyterian denominations, she goes on to say,

“…it has been losing congregations and individual members as it has moved to the left theologically over the past several years.”

Now, that’s a very interesting statement coming from a secular newspaper trying to explain for a secular audience why the denomination has been losing churches and members. She goes on to explain that there was a wave of departures in and after 2011 when the presbyteries ratified a decision to ordain gays and lesbians as pastors, elders and deacons, and she says that made have cleared the way for Tuesday’s vote. She then writes an extremely important paragraph, and I quote,

“With many conservative Presbyterians who were active in the church now gone, as well as the larger cultural shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, the decisive vote moved quickly toward approval, according to those on both sides of the divide.”

So that single sentence paragraph really helps to encapsulate something we really need to understand and that is that once a process of movement in the leftward direction towards theological liberalism takes place in a church or a denomination, that process tends to accelerate. And the reason for that is pretty easy to understand. Once a church begins to buy into the logic that Christian doctrine has to be redefined in a new age, certainly in the face of secular pressure, it’s just a matter of time before the velocity has to increase because a secular society is not easily satisfied. The demands for theological revision do not grow less insistent, they grow more insistent.

That report “Vanishing Boundaries” that’s now over a decade old points out that the crucial issue in many ways for the Presbyterian Church USA was the issue of the exclusivity of the gospel. The question, ‘is it actually necessary for a sinner to come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved?’ As the researchers in that report pointed out, once a church no longer answers that question – by affirming the exclusivity of the gospel – there is no reason to have any evangelistic or mission’s urgency. There is no reason to have any urgency about the preaching or the declaration of the gospel. Eventually, there’s no reason to go to church. Another interesting question immediately comes about and that is, will there be more congregations that will leave the PC(USA) at this point? Interestingly, just about both sides on the debate say it’s likely that there will be additional losses to the denomination in terms of churches seeking to leave. Some very high profile churches had negotiated their way out for the PC(USA) even in recent months; sometimes costing as much as $9 million in the case of one California church to retain its property.

But looking at this news and at that question concerning the PC(USA), another important issue comes to mind. Once a church has stayed in this long, what exactly would it take to get them to leave? This is a denomination that is already, in terms of previous years, voted to affirm the ordination of openly gay lesbian clergy. This is a denomination that has been allowing same-sex marriage to take place within its congregations for a matter of years. This is a denomination that as of Tuesday officially changed its position to reflect what it was already doing. No doubt there will be some congregations that will all the sudden see the light, but the question is going to have to be very urgent. What would it take now for churches to leave?

2) San Francisco church drops celibacy for gay members, neglects Scripture’s view of harm

Hitting a bit closer to home Kimberly Winston reported over the weekend at Religion News Service,

“A prominent evangelical Christian church in San Francisco has announced it will no longer ask members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to remain celibate.”

Fred Harrell Sr. and six board members of City Church in San Francisco, one of the largest congregations within the Reformed Church in America, wrote to members a letter that was emailed last Friday. And in it they said, and I quote,

“We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining,”

As Winston reports,

“The church, which claims about 1,000 attendees and meets at two San Francisco locations, has long welcomed LGBT persons to attend, but has required lifelong celibacy of those LGBT persons seeking membership.”

The letter that was released by the pastor and other elders said,

“Imagine feeling this from your family or religious community. If you stay, you must accept celibacy with no hope that you too might one day enjoy the fullness of intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical companionship. If you pursue a lifelong partnership, you are rejected.’ This is simply not working and people are being hurt. We must listen and respond.”

Well that’s going to be an argument we’re going to see over and over again. And it gets to the question: how would we recognize harm? One of the things the biblical worldview would at every turn is that it is sin that causes harm. And the right policy, the right doctrine, the right teaching, would not cause harm.

One of the basic moral debates we now face in our society when it comes to matters of law is whether or not the only morality that should be legislated is a morality that would prevent an immediate recognizable harm. Many of the laws we have on the book right now are very clearly attempts to prevent that kind of harm; that’s why we have laws against assault, we have laws against child abuse, we have laws against murder – those are all because we can recognize the harm that is done. We have laws against drunk driving. Those are laws in which we can very clearly draw a line from A to B. We can understand the harm that is sought to be avoided and prevented by means of the law.

Now you have language coming from this church, and again it was identified as the largest evangelical church in San Francisco, stating that an expectation of persons who are LBGT, that they must remain celibate throughout their lifetimes, and now that they are abandoning that policy the church’s leadership said and I quote,

“This is simply not working and people are being hurt. We must listen and respond.”

Well here’s something we need to have in our mind very clearly. If indeed the church’s historical biblical understanding was causing hurt then that would be a problem. But we need to step back and ask the question, how would we know? This is a very important issue from a biblical worldview because the reality is if we’re looking at it from humanistic worldview we might come up with all kinds of ways that we would measure whether or not something is causing harm. No doubt there would be LGBT persons who are telling us that they are experiencing harm by being prevented from getting married, by being dissuaded by means of moral conviction and biblical teaching from engaging in same-sex sexual acts and relationships. No doubt there are persons who think that harm would be alleviated if they were enabled to marry and to establish lifelong and emotionally fulfilling relationships with someone of the same gender. No doubt there are persons who are telling us that they are being harmed by the church’s deep biblical conviction concerning the reality of human gender as one of God’s most precious gifts and creation. And the fact that that gender, that biological sex, is given to us as a gift that is revealed even at the time of our birth.

But this is where the Christian worldview, based upon Scripture, comes back to tell us we are actually incompetent at figuring out exactly what causes us harm. We can demand things that we would say would prevent us harm now, only to understand that what we thought would lead to human flourishing instead leads in the very opposite direction – not towards human flourishing and the alleviation of harm, but towards the cause of harm.

Christians understanding why that we would support legislation that would define marriage as a man and a woman, and exclusively as a man and a woman, understand that we are doing so because we believe there will be harm; there will be harm towards individuals, there will be harm toward society as a whole, there will be harm towards the basic institution of marriage – which is so central to human flourishing. If we did not believe that then we would not understand the goodness of marriage in terms of a very clear affirmation of Scripture. But that gets back to a different issue. It is Scripture itself that is God’s gift to us to tell us what leads to human flourishing. Because left to our own devices, as scripture says, we will each go in our own way. And as scripture also says, that a way that leads to destruction not to human health and human happiness; not certainly, in an internal frame of reference, toward eternal life. What we’re looking at is the fact that it takes Scripture to tell us what is actually harming us. It takes Scripture to tell us what actually leads to human flourishing. And here we have a church that, to put the matter straightforwardly, has lost confidence that the scriptural teaching actually is what leads to human flourishing. And so in the name of alleviating or preventing what they declared to be harm, they are saying about the biblical position they are now rejecting “this is simply not working and people are being hurt. We must listen and respond.”

No doubt we must listen and respond. That’s an important Christian responsibility that too often we have neglected. But in listening and responding we cannot violate the clear teachings of Scripture. We cannot abandon the high ground of scriptural authority and the very fact that that Scripture is given to us as gift, as a gift to tell us not only the way to the true knowledge of God and the way of salvation through Christ, but the way of understanding what genuinely makes for human happiness – individually and in terms of the family and in terms of marriage and in terms of society as a whole.

There’s much to look at in terms of this announcement coming out of city church in San Francisco but it serves as a real warning to us and it’s a warning that points to the fact that the issue of same-sex marriage and LBGT persons, in terms of inclusion in the church, is never the issue that suddenly requires a theological change within the congregation. The trajectory of this very congregation shows that there’s been a process of theological transition that has been taking place over a number of years. And even as we noted in the PC(USA) and its own timetable, it’s just been moving towards this eventual major doctrinal change by a previous set of doctrinal changes that did not make headline news across the nation secular newspapers. But they were there and they were to be seen.

To put the matter bluntly, one of the issues here that is affirmed by this change is one that we’ve noted over and over again, and it is one that is also noted by the other side of the argument. For instance Matthew Vines in his book “God and the Gay Christian.” Once you have decided to redefine the teachings of Scripture to allow for women to serve as those in teaching authority, you have already adopted a pattern of responding to Scripture that will make it far more difficult not eventually to change the issue of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality as well.

3) Value of confession evidenced as Alabama Baptist church disfellowshipped over gay marriage

But before leaving this issue and this pattern of conversation I do need to leave the Presbyterians and the reformed to go to the Baptist world where the news on Tuesday night came out of Huntsville, Alabama, where the Madison Baptist Association voted to dis-fellowship a church that had, by its pastor teaching and by the fact that one of its staff ministers had performed a same-sex marriage, violated the Baptist Faith and Message – the confession of faith of that association and of the Southern Baptist Convention – and had effectively removed itself from the fellowship of the Association. The vote came on Tuesday night and the church, that is the Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, was removed as the Association of 85 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, after an investigation, determined that the church was no longer in friendly cooperation and of like faith with the other churches in the Association.

The Baptist Faith and Message, that is the confession of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, has, since the year 2000, defined marriage as:

“The uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime”

The keywords here of course are one man and one woman. Now note very carefully that those were the words that were basically used by the PC(USA) until the language “a man and a woman” was changed to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Traditionally means that’s the way it used to be, not necessarily so now.

According to reporter Bob Allen of Baptist News Global,

“Discussions revealed that the church’s pastor, David Freeman, also does not believe the Bible necessarily prohibits ‘adult, loving, monogamous, same-sex relationships’ at the center of the marriage debate, and that he is open to officiating a same-sex marriage.”

Again that is a quote within a quote from Bob Allen at Baptist News Global. In an open letter to the Association published before the vote on Tuesday night, a pastor identified as the Rev. Dr. Robbie White, senior pastor of the Locust Grove Baptist Church and also professor of Ethics and Religion at Athens State University there in Alabama, had said that the Association was acting in a non-Baptist Manor by even considering the removal of the church – that is Weatherly Heights Baptist Church – from its fellowship. In his letter this pastor accused Southern Baptist leaders of using the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. he says,

“…more as a Creed than a confession,”

He went on to say,

“This has become a litmus test of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.”

Responding he said,

“I believe in historic Baptist principles — the Lordship of Christ, authority of Scripture, autonomy of the local church, priesthood of the believer and separation of church and state. This is what has defined Baptists historically across the years. If Southern Baptists want to abandon those beliefs, then it is time for them to call themselves something other than Baptist.”

Well that’s the kind of argument that was writ large and debated in Southern Baptist life, especially in the 1980s and the 1990s during the years of what was called the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention when conservatives gained control in the denomination and brought about a change in the direction of its institutions and indeed it was a recovery about its confessionalism. But when the accusation is made here that Southern Baptist leaders use the Baptist Faith and Message (or in the case of Southern Seminary, the Abstract of Principles) as a creed, we simply have to point out that that is the way they were intended to operate. To take the Abstract of Principles, faculty members of this institution since 1859 have been required to sign to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, all that is contained within the confession of faith – continuing in the language of our founder –

“…without hesitation or mental reservation or a private arrangement with the one who invest the professor in office,”

Now that’s a binding confessionalism, that’s a binding confessionalism that some may want to call creedal, but even into the 1920s are confession of faith was published in the catalog as the seminary creed.

But there you have the controversy in the SBC writ large, but you also have something else. Remember what I said earlier in today’s edition of The Briefing, once you begin to abandon the fact that words mean words, they mean what they say, either in Scripture or in the confession of faith, then you’re on your way eventually to a doctrinal transformation. You’re on your way towards some form of theological liberalism. And you’re also on your way to a quickening velocity of that theological change.

These developments on the issue of human sexuality and same-sex marriage serve to remind us that there are always deeper issues at stake. And the deeper issue that’s most apparent here is the issue of confessional integrity and the authority of Scripture; it simply implausible to claim the authority of Scripture as a way of invalidating the authority of Scripture when it comes to defining human sexuality. But it also points to the pressing issue of knowing what the gospel is. If we don’t know what sin is and why Jesus came to die for our sins, then we don’t understand why we need a Savior and we really don’t understand why the gospel is such good news. And finally, we have to go back to that book that was done about a decade ago in the PC(USA), remember those words in the title “Vanishing Boundaries,” once the church simply starts to define issues the way the world does, you don’t need the church anymore. Pretty soon vanishing boundaries mean no boundaries at all.


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I’ll meet you again on tomorrow for The Briefing.




Podcast Transcript

1) PC(USA) redefines marriage under growing demand for theological compromise

Largest Presbyterian Denomination Gives Final Approval for Same-Sex Marriage, New York Times (Laurie Goodstein)

2) San Francisco church drops celibacy for gay members, neglects Scripture’s view of harm

Prominent San Francisco evangelical church drops celibacy requirement for LGBT members, Religion News Service (Kimberly Winston)

A Letter from the Elder Board – March 13, 2015, City Church San Francisco

3) Value of confession evidenced as Alabama Baptist church disfellowshipped over gay marriage

Alabama Baptist church dis-fellowshipped over pastor’s gay friendly views, Baptist News Global (Bob Allen)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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