Friday, Feb. 8, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, February 8, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
‘Keep up or die’: A church that won’t hold a heresy trial when confronted with heresy isn’t really a church
When you look at the state of Christianity, institutional, organized Christianity in the world today, one of the things you quickly have to note is that for the better part of the last 150 years, what is called Christianity is actually made up of what is authentically Christianity, and then there is some other religion masquerading as Christianity. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen made this point brilliantly: he said that, "When you're looking at Christianity and liberal theology, you are not looking at two different variants of Christian faith, you are instead looking at Christianity and then some other religion posing as Christianity."
Now, keep that in mind when you consider the Just in recent days, the New York Times has run a major news story with the headline, get this quote, "This Canadian preacher, doesn't believe in God but supports her church, and as it turns out, her church supports her." Catherine Porter, is the writer for the story, and it has to do with the Reverend Gretta Vosper: We have talked about her before on The Briefing, but never quite like this. We talked about her back in 2015, when after announcing that she was an atheist, her denomination thought that that just might not be a good idea for a pastor. But the headline news that just appeared in The New York Times in recent days, goes back to November of 2018, when right on the brink of what would have been an historic heresy trial, to determine whether or not an atheist was really qualified to be a minister in the United Church of Canada, well, just before it was to begin, the church announced there wasn't going to be a trial. It had instead reached to what was described as "A settlement," with Gretta Vosper. And pastor Vosper, is going to be remaining in her church, even as she doesn't believe in God.
Porter tells us that Gretta Vosper doesn't believe in God, but despite being an outspoken atheist, Miss Vosper has steadfastly maintained her place in the United Church of Canada, which with 2 million followers across the country, is Canada's pre-eminent Protestant Church, "This is my church," said pastor Vosper, "The United Church made me who I am." Well, Porter then goes on to write: in a country where thinning congregations have led to many church sanctuaries being converted into condominiums, Miss Vosper's outspoken views has stirred an existential passion. She has made headlines and received death threats. One tape to the church's front door that said, "Suffer the witch, not to live." Porter goes on, "The thrice married Reverend, has also driven a deep rift into a progressive church considered as Canadian as maple syrup. In 2015, a public letter she wrote sparked so much ire, the local jurisdiction of the church launched a review committee to examine her beliefs."
Well, to understand this story, you really do have to go back to at least the year 2008, when pastor Gretta Vosper wrote a book entitled "With or Without God." She made very clear that point, that it made no difference. Belief in God was not a determining issue, instead, the way one lived: what she defined as a moral life meant everything. Then you would also have to go to 2013, when pastor Vosper, announced to her church and to the public that she is an atheist. But then you have to go back to 2015, the year that sparked the most recent controversy, when Gretta Vosper wrote that letter to a leader in the United Church of Canada saying that, "By ascribing moral events and historical occurrences to God, he was implying that God was responsible," and thus she was saying he needed just to come out and say, "There is no God, no one's in charge, accidents just happen."
Back in August of 2015, the CBC, that's the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ran a story that said, "An ordained United Church of Canada minister who believes in neither God nor Bible, said she is prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs." Actually, you might say, technically, it's not for her belief so much as her absence of beliefs: the absence of historic Christian beliefs. Even the creedal affirmations, that were a part of the vows she took in ordination, and even the liberal denomination known as the United Church of Canada. Pastor of the West Hill Church, Gretta Vosper had said, "I don't believe in the God called God. Using the word, gets in the way of sharing what I want to share." The CBC reported that she had been ordained in 1993, and she became a part of the church she now serves, that West Hill church, in 1997. She rejects the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being, but even as the CBC acknowledged, it is that very God "on which so much church doctrine is based," she says that that understanding of God, the entire theological system "belongs to an outdated worldview."
The CBC reports that she had made her atheism basically visible in 2001 in a Sunday sermon. But then, the controversy reached a fever pitch in her own congregation in 2008, when she decided to do away with the Lord's Prayer. Now, understand the math that's about to follow. We are told that the controversy meant that 100 of the 150 attendees left the church: that's 100 out of 150, that's a small congregation, two thirds walked out. You have to wonder how much they put up with, before they decided to walk out. Speaking of some of her actions that led to the controversy, Vosper said, "That didn't go over well," but she said, "If we're going to continue to use language that suggest we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavor."
Well, that brings us back up to 2015, when the local jurisdiction decided that it was going to bring charges against Gretta Vosper, or at least it was going to investigate whether it was actually proper for an atheist to serve as pastor of one of the churches congregations. However, David Allen, the Reverend executive secretary or the Toronto Conference of the church, said that they didn't really know even how to do this, "We'd never done it before." And as we know now, they haven't done it yet. They're not going to do it. This is a church that has lost the will even to decide if an atheist pastor is over the line. That's in other words a church that has decided, there is nothing that's over the line, and for that matter, there are no lines, there are no beliefs, there is no truth, nothing is required, not even that a pastor believe in God, that's outdated, that's outmoded, that's so yesterday.
Following through the story as reported in the New York Times, the local jurisdiction did move forward in trying to determine the status of an atheist pastor: After a much publicized hearing, which she called a heresy trial, the local panel ruled her unsuitable for the ministry, since she "does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit." Then we are told, she was on the verge of being defrocked, but just as the National Churches final review of her case began last November, the local jurisdictions settled with Miss Vosper, and agreed she could continue to minister her congregation in Toronto's gritty East End. Now, if you find doublespeak as George Orwell calls it "interesting" you're going to love part of the statement that came from the United Church of Canada in explaining why the "heresy trial" at the end wasn't going to take place. The statement said, "This doesn't alter in any way the belief of the United Church of Canada in God." It doesn't alter in any way, we are told, the belief of the United Church of Canada in God except that they're going to allow a pastor who doesn't believe in God to be a pastor. Not believing in God is evidently in this world not incompatible with the requirement that one does believe in God. One cannot believe in God and still pass muster, as believing in God because evidently it doesn't matter. This is a church, that can't tell the difference.
After the announcement came that there wasn't, in the end, going to be any heresy trial, Vosper told CTV News there in Canada, "It's going to be wonderful. We'll be out from underneath that heavy cloud, now we'll be able to really fly." What exactly she meant by that we don't know, but even the press there in Canada's had to note that two thirds of her congregation's already flown: they flew out of the church. While speaking of doublespeak, we also have to look at a statement made by another national leader of the United Church in Canada who said, "The dance between these core values, how they interact with and inform each other, is one that we continue to explore as followers of Jesus and children of the Creator. As a Christian Church, we continue to expect that ministers in the United Church of Canada will offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith." Except they obviously don't: they don't, and they didn't. They didn't and they won't.
The Rt. Reverend Richard Butt, the national leader of the Canadian Church that was cited on this story in Religion News Service, said that the case came down to two conflicting core values: The first is our faith in God, the second is, "Our commitment to being an open and inclusive church." Now, that statement of supposedly contradictory core values is priceless because it does show to us the inevitable reality of what a church that declares itself to be open and inclusive will turn out to be. Open and inclusive of what? Open and inclusive of everything because if you are not inclusive of something, guess what? You're not inclusive, you're exclusive. And here's a church that isn't even exclusive enough to say that it's pastors ought to believe in God. So, when you're looking at these two core values: number one, faith in God, and number two, a commitment to being an open and inclusive church, they're not really in conflict. The second core value won. It clearly won. Belief in God has to go.
Vosper told Religion News Service, that she isn't sure why the church decided to settle rather than to move for her dismissal, but according to Religion News Service, she suspects that one reason might have been to avoid ongoing negative media attention over the issue. That statement was echoed in a release from her attorney, that is the lawyer Julian Falconer, who said, "Both parties took a long look at the cost benefit at running a heresy trial, and whether it was good for anyone, and the results speak for themselves." "They recognize," said the attorney, "there's a place for Gretta, and that there is no reason to separate the Minister and the congregation." A cost benefit analysis: The attorney is saying that the church did a cost benefit analysis, and decided the cost of a heresy trial would be too high. That again, is just extremely important for us to note. There is a cost to holding a heresy trial, no doubt: controversy, public scandal, there is the cost in the possibility of division, there is a cost in the energy that is necessary to hold a heresy trial, there is a cost, of course, there is a cost, but we simply have to note, there is an infinitely higher cost to a church that won't conduct a heresy trial even with an atheist in the pulpit.
But, of course, that raises another issue that intelligent Christians need to understand, if you come to the question only at the point that you have an atheist minister then you really are so open and inclusive, just about everything has been already there: Every doctrine has been denied, every doctrinal principal has been abandoned, every boundary has been transcended, and, of course, in this church that's a documented history. Some years ago, when I was doing a national radio program, I talked about the fact that the incumbent moderator at that time, denied the deity of Christ, evidently that wasn't a problem. And, of course, as you look at the church, there had been doctrinal denials, one after another, over the course of the last several decades. The best analysis and documentation of the theological revolution within the United Church of Canada, has been given to us by Kevin Flatt, author of the book, "After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church." Professor Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College near Toronto, said that the United Church of Canada since the 60s, has been propelled more by social justice then by theology. It was, as was noted, the first church to ordain transgender ministers, its leadership supported abortion, and same sex union before either became legal in Canada. It led liberalism in the country, it didn't just follow liberalism in Canada.
Professor Flatt's analysis of what happened in the 1960s in the United Church of Canada, points to similar patterns in other denominations not only in Canada, but in the United States. It is a fascinating and extremely instructive case study. He points to the fact that during the 1960s, the church changed its position on the question of Scripture. It changed its position on key doctrines and doctrinal requirements that might be expected of the church and its ministers, its divinity colleges, and the church and denomination as a whole. He traces, in the book, the isolation of evangelicals within the United Church of Canada during the 1960s, so that by the time that church came to the end of that pivotal decade, evangelicals were not only outnumbered, they were not only without a voice, they were openly identified by the denominational leadership as problems that needed to be excised from the denomination.
Over the course of that decade, they changed the curriculum of the church, eventually, they changed the creed of the church. It was a big jump from the creed of 1940, to the creed that was adopted in 1968. Abandoning the historic Christian creeds, from the apostles creed, to the Nicene creed, the entire pattern of Christian orthodoxy, abandoning any supernatural claims about Christ, not only the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection, but just about anything else, the creed came down to this, stating in the beginning, "Man is not alone. He lives in God's world. We believe in God." There was a very minimal creed that followed, but you will notice, at least, there is the propositional statement "we believe in God." But even as there was a jump from the basic Evangelical influence of earlier decades in the church to 1968, but then when you jump 50 years from this new creed in 1968, to this decision not to have a heresy trial in 2018, you will notice that now even that statement "We believe in God," is just left behind. It's just a relic of a previous age of belief now abandoned.
We also need to note that as Kevin Flatt argues in his book, the argument of liberals often comes down to what he identifies as "The keep up or die trope." That is that argument you hear over and over again, that the church, in order to be relevant, is going to have to abandon those supernatural doctrines, it's going to have to keep up or die, but the documentation of virtually every liberal denomination or church points out that when you keep up with the society, you then do die. It's not keep up or die, it's keep up and die. I noted with interest that late in his book all the way at page 234, Kevin Flatt wrote this, back in 2013, "This keep up or die trope has a venerable history with roots going back, at least, to the Enlightenment. Something like it has always animated Protestant liberalism, and it is alive and well today, in the prognostications," he wrote, "of contemporary popular risers of liberal theology like John Shelby Spong, the now retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark New Jersey," and he says, "Gretta Vosper." There she is in a book, in 2013 as a popularizer of liberal theology.
Well, she might be a popularizer in the sense that at least she has the presses attention, but when it comes to the faithful, well it turns out, that liberal theology has never been popular. The churches are empty. Even a church that was already so liberal as to call Gretta Vosper as pastor, experienced two thirds of those attending leaving the room when she declared herself to be an atheist. So, how in the world, can you keep up, this keep up or die argument when it's your church, following your plan that is dying fast? But frankly, whatever the numbers might say, it's what the Scripture says that's most important: A church that won't hold a heresy trial when it's faced with a heretic, isn't a church.
Is it possible to raise children without the notion of sin? Why a mere morality of harm isn’t sufficient
But while we're speaking in these terms, The New York Times in recent days also ran an article by Julia Scheeres entitled Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin. The sub head in the article in The Times: my religious fundamentalist childhood was built around the fear of sin. My daughter, she says, don't even know the word.
Scheeres is the author of a New York Times bestselling book from years past entitled Jesus Land, in which she tells of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and the fact that as she sees it, she was abused not only by her parents, but by the notion of sin. But then moving up to the present, she wrote about her nine year old daughter asking her, "Mama, what is sin?" Then she wrote, she stared at her, "My brain spinning with the magnitude of her question. By failing to teach my child the meaning of the word sin, had I somehow failed to give her a moral foundation?" Scheeres then goes on to write, "Sin that tiny word, still makes me cringe with residual fear: fear of being judged unworthy, fear of the eternal torture of hell." And then she goes on to say fear of her parents discipline. Later she says, the notion of sin dominated her childhood, "Raised in Indiana, by fundamentalist parents, sin was the inflexible yardstick by which I was measured: actions, words, even thoughts weren't safe from scrutiny."
She goes on to say that the list of sinful offenses seemed infinite, and the message she got was, "You're bad, you're bad, you're bad." Interestingly, later in the article Scheeres says, "I lost my faith by fits and starts the absolute truth of my girlhood crumbled when I watched Carl Sagan's 13 part Cosmos Series, in graduate school, a program that included an overview of evolution, which made it verboten for me as a kid, but whose logic made irrefutable sense to me as an adult."
Later when she and her husband had children, she says, "I toyed with the idea of dropping them off at a Sunday school where they could ingest bite sized chunks of morality and catchy songs and coloring books, but my husband," she says, "Catholic by nature, atheist by intellect, wanted nothing to do with organized religion." They were determined to live a secular life. And then she wrote, "I realized that my notion of sin has evolved. As a girl, my focus was on gaining admittance to heaven. Now, I believe that this life is the only life we'll know. This planet, our only existence. I am no longer motivated by fear of an unproven hell, but by real world concerns about injustice and inequality." She says, "I'm raising my two daughters according to my moral code. To me, the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world. So, the lessons are about being open to others rather than being closed off." She says her church is made up of fellow Crusaders on the street. She says that she is teaching her children, "to respect the earth by reducing, reusing and recycling."
But then, at the end of the article, she brings us back to that conversation with her nine year old in which the girl ask, "What is sin?" But then she says, she stared into her daughter's face "and felt a rush of love and happiness. I had raised her without sin." She went on to say at the conclusion, she did have a moral code, once she followed not from obligation but from her own desire to make the world a better place. She went on to say also, she didn't explain the definition of sin to her nine year old daughter when she was asked she said, "An explanation of sin could wait." Well, first of all, Christians looking at this kind of argument need to understand that this argument, and ones like it, are becoming increasingly popular and increasingly common. They are consistent with the general Weltgeist the general worldview of the age. They fit the spirit of our times: the idea that it is liberating to raise children without a concept of sin.
Now, here's one of the problems Christians need to understand, however, with this, it's not really possible to raise children without a concept of sin. It's not because if they don't hear from parents, they're going to pick it up elsewhere, that might be true. It is because God made us in His image, and giving us a moral conscience, there is no way we cannot know that we sin: even when we sin. We can not be concerned about sin, we are whether we articulate it or not. The next thing is, just assuming that there is some order and moral meaning in the household that's described here, I guarantee you that these parents really do believe in sin. By the way, the most radical secularist committed to eco feminism, or any other kind of worldview actually believes in sin: If it is not violating God's law, then it's going to be violating a vegan code, or something, something similar. Everyone believes in sin, even if they don't use the word.
But that word, that three letter word that's so important to us, as revealed in Scripture, isn't just about the fact that we sin against other human beings, much less just about that somehow we sin against Mother Earth, it is the fact that we sin against God. That's the difference in sin, and the kind of moral teaching that you might expect in a secular home where secular parents would say, "that's wrong." Why is it wrong? Because we know it's wrong, because it hurts someone. A mere morality of harm. But as we bring this issue to a close, I simply also have to reflect upon something else that I didn't even see the first time I read this article: here is a woman, once a girl, now a mother, who says that she has successfully raised her children without sin, that is without the notion of sin, and even as she denies her nine year old daughter the answer to the question, "what is sin?" You realize, this mother who thinks that she now lives in a world without sin, still has to deal with sin. So, much so that she wrote an article about it in the New York Times.
An historian, years ago said that a notion of sin inherited from Christianity continues to hang over and haunt Western civilization. Of course, it does. It haunts every civilization: it always will. You may say that you don't believe in sin, but you really do. And even as you deny it, you might find yourself writing an article about it decades later, for the New York Times, just accidentally, to make the point.
Buckle up: If you’re a German politician who wants to impose a speed limit on the Autobahn, you won’t be a politician for long
Then finally as we come to the end of the week, the kind of piece on which I like to end a week of The Briefing, an article that tells us something about humanity, and at the same time, can make us laugh. Here's an article in The New York Times, the front page, Speed Limit: Germans Voting With Lead Feet. It's about a current controversy in Germany, where the German government has considered, not because of safety by the way, but because of a desire to cut carbon emissions, actually creating and enforcing a speed limit on the Autobahn.
But it turns out, that that's just about one of the most controversial proposals that could occur in German politics because the Autobahn is a great symbol of German freedom. And as the New York Times understands, Germany is such a hyper bureaucratic, over regulated society that the Autobahn is where many Germans simply take out their frustration and they declare their freedom, and any politician who wants to put speed limits on the Autobahn is likely to find that that politicians career just might be kaput. It was in January that the German government considered imposing the speed limits, but then we are told by The Times, "Irate drivers took the airwaves, union leaders menacingly put on their yellow vest hinting at street protest, and the far right opposition used the opportunity to rage against the stranglehold of the state." The German transportation minister, accelerating his backtracking from the proposal acknowledge that the very idea of a speed limit on the Autobahn was "contrary to every common sense."
It turns out that around the world there are speed limits in almost every country with the rare exceptions of Afghanistan, The Isle of man and Germany. One German authority said, "When it comes to cars, the debate tends to become irrational." Erhard Schütz, a retired professor identified as an expert on the Autobahn's history said, "To many people, the idea of a speed limit feels like an affront to masculinity, like we're getting softer, we're degenerating." But then the New York Times, again, puts it in a cultural context, citing another authority as saying, "Germany is terribly regulated for reasons which have to do with the past, with a fear of uncertainty, a fear of being overwhelmed, but then people look for their little spaces of freedom, and the Autobahn, is one of them." That I knew, I have had plenty of experience, not driving, but being driven on the Autobahn, and I can tell you it is a nerve wracking experience. As the actor Tom Hanks once put it, "No matter how fast you drive in Germany, someone is driving faster than you." Some of them as fast as 200 miles an hour.
But even as the New York Times tells us that the Autobahn is a sign of freedom, and that the idea of speed limits is just a step too far for Germans, I'll be honest, I was unprepared for how the article ended, "Speeding isn't the only freedom the Autobahn offers, driving naked in Germany is legal too, but if you get out of the car nude, you face a $45 fine." That I didn't know, I'm glad to say, but I guess somewhere in Germany right now, there's someone driving very fast without clothes.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I want to make sure you know about this spring's Boyce College Preview Day. It's going to be held on March the 22nd. If you or someone you know is considering where to go to college, I want to tell you it is really, truly one of the biggest decisions in an individual's life.
I want to point you to Boyce College as an institution committed to equipping students with a comprehensive Christian worldview. I look forward to welcome you to the campus, and telling you the Boyce campus story and commitments. If you go to www.boycecollege.com/preview and use the code, TheBriefing, you can register for free. Mark your calendars for the Boyce College Preview Day, on March 22. I hope to see you there.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
Buckle your seat belts, I'll look forward to seeing you Monday for The Briefing.