Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, October 28, 2022
For all there is pain in having lovingly crafted prose torn up, there is purpose to it. We can rarely see our own faults, and since churches tend to work well for their leaders, we can rarely see our church’s faults either. Work with “editors,” be they trusted outsiders or those within the church. Trust their intentions even if their words make it hard, and edit like their lives depend on it. They might.
A much more experienced writer than me recently gave me some writing advice about editors:
He suggested that you don’t always need to make the changes editors suggest—and every writer breathes a sigh of dramatic relief. But you do need to assume that they have spotted something that’s wrong and that section or idea needs attention.
To put it another way, they aren’t necessarily right about the solution but they are right about the problem—or at the very least that there is a problem right there.
I thought that was helpful advice for a wider setting than the one I was being given it in. Let me show you what I mean.
If you receive criticism, and it doesn’t seem to jibe well with your own self-understanding and the other feedback you receive, it is possible to disregard it. After all, that person could be wrong.
Of course, the problem is, so could you. A Christian understanding of sin and the deceitful nature of our hearts should give us pause when we assume that the problem is outside of ourselves. We might be right. Before we decide we are, we should examine ourselves carefully. I found it helpful to think that, like an editor, perhaps my critic has put their finger on something even if they are completely wrong about what that is.
It’s certainly worth consideration and prayer before we decide that they are just flat wrong.
I think we should apply the same principle in Church leadership. All Church leaders have plenty of critics. Everyone has an opinion about how things should be done in the church. Some people have been hurt badly, and some of those by the church, meaning that their complaints and criticisms come laced with pain and can be difficult for church leaders to receive.
As pastors we’re supposed to understand people, so you don’t take the way the feedback is delivered into account and instead listen to the marrow of it.
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By Scott Yenor — 4 months ago
How can churches become more welcoming to blue-collar Americans? The first step involves seeing them as “our people.” Nothing about the decline of America’s working class is irreversible. The middle-brow contempt for the working class must be replaced with a spirit of brotherhood and a sense that we are in the same boat. They are worried about the fate of the country, every bit as much as we are. They have an almost instinctive form of patriotism, just as many Christians do. All of us have souls, struggles with sin and hopes for salvation–these must be boldly expressed through the Christian lens. As the recent trucker rallies in Canada show, if there is hope for our civilization generally, hope lies, as Orwell has Winston Smith narrate in 1984, with the proles. So it is for a Christianity that has always found believers among the lower classes.
Kvetching about the rise of the religious “nones” distracts from the other challenges of the world increasingly hostile to Christianity. One challenge is that working-class Americans are increasingly unchurched.
It was not always thus. No gap between working class church attendance and attendance in other classes existed before the 1980s. Working class Americans were long faithful Christians. Working class Catholics were the backbone of many urban perishes. During the 1990s, my wife and I lived across the street from a faithful Catholic family with 21 kids and no twins. Fundamentalists in the country were devoted church goers and were much more culturally conservative than well-educated WASPs.
This is no longer the case. Poll after poll and book after book show that a yawning church attendance gap has opened in America. Just under 50% of the college educated attended church, while about 23% of those without college attended according to a study in the early 2010s. That gap has, if anything, widened in the past decade. My Lutheran parish has flipped in much this way: it has gone from a mostly blue-collar parish in the 1990s to a solidly, but not exclusively white-collar parish now. Evangelical churches in my area reflect the same thing.
The church attendance gap reflects America’s ongoing class division. Marriage rates among the lower classes are significantly lower, while cohabitation rates and divorce rates are significantly higher. Suicide rates among those without college education have soared, as has drug and alcohol abuse. Children of the lower classes do worse on standardized tests than the children of the upper class. Working class Americans have a much more difficult time finding and keeping steady work as well.
These are interlocking problems. The old American synthesis of conservative faith and family life combined with economic opportunity seems to be dying or dead. Faithful churches are fewer in number than fifty years ago. Family life and economic opportunity seem increasingly to be privileges of the wealthy.
Churches cannot solve the whole of the issue, but they can do their part. The first step is understanding. Imagine most American churches through the eyes of a working-class or blue-collar American man. He is a powerline worker, a plumber, an HVAC technician, or a roofer. Whom does he see when he enters modern churches? He sees many bookish men—men who read some theology or who are serious students of their professions. He also sees many emotional men, filled with their love of God and their connection to their wives. Christ fills an emotional need for such men—and churches arise to provide a psychological defense of the need for faith. Neither the bookish nor the emotional parishioners are copasetic with our working-class, would-be Christian. Just as he is a fish out of water when people begin to talk about the demands of their desk jobs, our working-class man cannot find a place in the modern church where there seems to be little to no place for the working man.
Seeing him as a “misfit” may be a charitable way of viewing the problem. Churchgoers may, in fact, actively contemn America’s working class. “Those people” may have liked Donald Trump’s “mean tweets.” They do not affect urbanity. They get their hands dirty without the typical middle-class politesse or anxiety.
By Joel Ellis — 5 months ago
The game should be familiar by now, but evidently it isn’t. So let’s review the rules. There are no rules. This is how the game is played. An allegation is made. It does not have to be credible; the alleged offense simply has to be egregious. Social virtue requires the allegation be accepted at face value. Not taken seriously and investigated, but accepted as self-attesting.
I did not attend the 2022 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which met at Eastern University on June 8-14, 2022. I was honored and grateful to be chosen by our presbytery as a commissioner, but the sudden onset of severe illness landed me in the Emergency Room less than 24 hours before my scheduled departure, and I remained sick and weak beyond the conclusion of the Assembly. It was a hard providence, more so because this year’s GA was accompanied by controversy which will continue to be the subject of conversation for months, and perhaps years, to come.
Many reports have been made about the allegations of racism and the Assembly’s subsequent statements which were published online. You can read summaries of the incident in the OPC Daily Report, by a commissioner HERE, by a non-commissioned minister HERE, and in an article from Christianity Today HERE. Ministers in the OPC were also informed of the events in a letter from the denomination’s Stated Clerk on June 17th. Students and staff at Eastern University alleged four incidents of racial disparagement by commissioners of the OPC. These were reported to the Assembly on Thursday, June 9th. The GA was also informed such behavior could be grounds for canceling their contract and disbanding the Assembly. The next day, Friday, June 10th, the Assembly was presented with a “statement of regret and sorrow.” According to multiple reports, which have not been disputed to my knowledge, the Assembly was asked not to debate the motion which was then adopted without dissent.
“The 88th (2022) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church hereby expresses to the faculty, staff, and students of Eastern University its grief, sorrow, and disgust regarding four recent incidents of racial disparagement reported being made by some present at our Assembly. There is no place in the church for such conduct.
“The church seeks to magnify and honor Christ as the Creator of every human being, each one reflecting dignity and value as the image of God. Therefore, in accordance with God’s Word and the two great laws of love, we repudiate and condemn all sins of racism, hatred, and prejudice, as transgressions against our Holy God, who calls us to love and honor all people. In keeping with the law of God and the right order of the church for Christ’s honor, we resolve to deal directly and biblically with any such sins of hatred committed by members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In keeping with the gospel, we resolve to offer our assistance to Eastern University to confront offender(s) and seek reconciliation.”
The statement was delivered to the University which accepted it and considered the matter closed. It was also published immediately online via the OPC’s social media accounts, a decision which had not been discussed or disclosed to the Assembly when the statement was presented on the floor.
There has been a firestorm of criticism and controversy online since the allegations were made and the Assembly’s statement of regret was published. Critics of the OPC have seen this as further evidence that the denomination is racist and compromised. Others take the way in which the controversy played out as evidence of a different sort of compromise in the OPC, the sort of compromise that operates from the fear of man and hopes to placate angry mobs with winsome words and assurance that they really do hate the same things.
On the last day of the Assembly, Tuesday, June 14th, the moderator updated commissioners on the earlier allegations. As reported by the OPC on her website and social media outlets:
Regarding the four incidents of reported racism on campus, I am thankful to report that the individual responsible for the first two incidents surrounding remarks about the 13th Amendment has been identified. He was ashamed to come forward on his own, as his statements were a misunderstood attempt at humor. They were not intended as a racist remark. He desires and is seeking to apologize to those offended. Please pray for those hurt by his careless words and for this brother’s heart in all of this.
The one responsible for the third and most egregious statement has not been seen on campus since the incident. That means we know it’s not a commissioner. We frankly have no idea who it is.
Regarding the fourth incident, we were able to better understand what transpired in the cafeteria. It was not words spoken, but was an action that we now understand as confusion over how the cafeteria is organized, whether it was self-service or whether we would be served by the staff. We are seeking to work this out with those who were offended.
Four allegations of racially disparaging remarks were made. The alleged offenders were not identified. No corroborating evidence was presented. The allegations were unsubstantiated and uninvestigated. But the GA approved and published a statement of regret and sorrow. Some have said such a statement is always appropriate, that no specific apology was offered and no admission of guilt was made. The sincerity of those defending the statement is not in question. Some of them are personal friends, and I hold them in love and esteem. But one does become concerned that if they spin any faster they are bound to get dizzy and fall down.
The Assembly was in a difficult position. What is a man supposed to say when he is asked, “Are you still beating your wife?” The OPC chose to answer: “We express our grief, sorrow, and disgust regarding recent incidents of wife beating reported being done by some members of our Assembly.” No specific admission of guilt, only a general expression of hatred for what we all agree is a grievous sin. Surely that will convince everyone that we really are good people, right? Christianity Today moved quickly to report: “The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) apologized Friday for four racist incidents at its annual gathering” (source). “But we didn’t really apologize. After all, an apology is kind of an admission that we did something wrong.” As it turns out, the Assembly did do something wrong, it tried to placate angry people before it understood the game that was being played.
The GA’s statement of regret and sorrow satisfied Eastern University which allowed them to continue their work and remain to the end of their contract. But it only inflamed those committed to denouncing the OPC as racist and compromised. The careful wording of the statement was denounced by critics as not really an apology for anything at all, while others like Christianity Today characterized it as tantamount to an admission of guilt. The OPC was trapped, but the power brokers within the denomination did not seem to know it. “Are you still beating your wife?” It doesn’t matter what you say next. The allegation itself is the evidence which is accepted as sufficient for a conviction.
No one that I am aware of has said publicly what the “third and most egregious statement” alleged was, and that is because it involved naughty words that are not to be publicly uttered, even if the poor DA is only reading a persecuted actor’s own text messages aloud. The GA is not to be faulted for being in a difficult position. No one can control the kinds of allegations that are made, especially in our current climate. Anyone can allege anything. But the Assembly was at fault for failing to recognize the game being played, and that one allegation should have clearly indicated it, even if they didn’t recognize it from the others.
If a commissioner at GA violated God’s law—if he spoke or acted unjustly, demeaned or slandered someone, or was malicious and hateful—then he should be confronted, charged, and publicly disciplined. But to issue a public statement of regret in response to unsubstantiated, uninvestigated, and ultimately unfounded allegations of wrongdoing is unwise to the point of absurdity. It may have been well-meant, but it was an error, one that is now too late to correct. In today’s climate a person can claim to be offended by almost anything. Some of the same people most opposed to making public statements as an Assembly on the priority of public worship and the evil of statist tyranny in the aftermath of COVID lockdowns were the most willing to issue a public statement of regret because someone claimed to be offended. Now we discover their wounded feelings might not have been truly wounded after all.
The GA did not err in expressing abhorrence of racism. They erred in giving credibility to allegations of offense without exercising due diligence in understanding what was going on. This was contrary to the duties of the ninth commandment which requires “the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor… unwillingness to admit of an evil report… discouraging talebearers… and slanderers; [and] love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth” (WLC 144). The GA failed to be “wise as serpents,” and by admitting an evil report, encouraging slander, and failing to love and care for the OPC’s good name, they likewise failed to be “harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Issuing a public statement of regret before knowing the facts or investigating the allegations inadvertently but shamefully prejudiced “the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own” (WLC 145). The GA’s actions were also contrary to the OPC’s Book of Discipline which requires a specific charge to be stated, specifications supporting the charge, credible corroboration of the charge, and a preliminary investigation to determine the substance of the allegation (BD III). Both Scripture and the Book of Discipline require that no charge “be admitted against an elder, unless it is brought by two or more persons” (BD III.1; 1Tim. 5:19).
The game should be familiar by now, but evidently it isn’t. So let’s review the rules. There are no rules. This is how the game is played. An allegation is made. It does not have to be credible; the alleged offense simply has to be egregious. Social virtue requires the allegation be accepted at face value. Not taken seriously and investigated, but accepted as self-attesting. Believe all women, except the women who say such a standard is unjust and absurd. In this case, believe all victims of racism, even if there is no evidence they are victims of racism. If they say they are, if they feel they are, if they identify as such, you are obligated to believe them. If you don’t believe them, if you withhold judgment until you can investigate the claim, then you are a racist. If you accept their claim without evidence and express your regret and sorrow, you are admitting that you are a racist. Whether you respond with regret or reserve comment, you are a racist, because they said you are. That’s not fair, you may say. But that is the game.
The Devil once challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. What could be wrong with doing so? He multiplied bread on other occasions so that his disciples might eat. Skilled theologians will point out that such a miracle is inconsistent with Jesus’s mission and the Father’s authority. It is not the proper way to exercise the Spirit’s power and thus is a temptation to depart from the work the Father gave the Son to do. All of this is true, but there is also a more basic answer. It is always wrong to do something the Devil asks you to do.
The OPC does not need greater sensitivity to the grievances of professional victims, she needs a greater measure of the wisdom and discernment of Nehemiah.
Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. In it was written: It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together. Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” For they all were trying to make us afraid, saying, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.” Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (Neh. 6:5-9)
Joel Ellis is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Resurrection OPC in Apache Junction, AZ. This article is used with permission.
By Bill Muehlenberg — 2 months ago
As Europe was facing the onset of war in 1939, Lewis preached a sermon in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. With many other academics and students in attendance, the issue of how we should now live was certainly a pressing concern for all those present. So Lewis entitled his address, “Learning in War-Time”. What the academic community was thinking about learning while on the verge of total war was a most pressing matter indeed. Lewis gave those in attendance some very helpful advice.
How we live in peacetime is often quite different from how we live in wartime. How people were living in Ukraine a few years ago for example was quite different from how most are living today, with their homes being destroyed, their very way of life put on hold, and many millions being forced to flee the country.
I have often spoken about these matters in terms of the Christian life. Especially during these dark days where the faith is under such sustained attack and where the culture wars seem to be threatening the very existence of the church, we need to think about living in times of war. As I said in one piece in this regard:
In a time of war not everyone stays true. Many surrender, or go over to the other side, or go AWOL. And individual believers risk doing the same thing. In the battles we face today there is no place for sitting on the fence, or trying to stay in the middle of the road.
When warfare is all around us, the only proper response is to engage in the battle. With faith, freedom and family all at risk, this is no time for business as usual. This is not the time to live a normal life. It certainly is not a time to have the fear of man, or a time to seek to please men. Let’s try pleasing God instead, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. billmuehlenberg.com/2017/03/22/wartime-not-business-usual/
And one quote I have often used to ram home this point is also worth repeating here. In a 2014 essay called “A Time for Heroism” American Catholic philosopher Melissa Moschella said this:
Perhaps there are times and places in the history of the world in which it is possible to go through life as just an ordinary, good person—a faithful spouse, a loving parent, a concerned citizen, a regular church-goer, an honest and industrious professional—leading a normal, quiet life, not making waves or standing out in any way. Perhaps. But the United States of America in the year 2014 is not one of those times and places. Rather, in our contemporary society, the only way to be good is to be heroic. Failing to act with heroism inevitably makes us complicit in grave evils.
I of course still agree with all those sentiments that I have so often shared. But there is another way that Christians can look at all this. It is perhaps more accurate to say that we are in a state of warfare not just during times of great crisis or upheaval, or when the days are getting especially dark and evil, but ALWAYS.
That is, the Christian will always be in a state of war with the world around him, with the powers of darkness, and with this present evil age. Sure, sometimes the battles seem more intense than other times, but the Christian is never fully living in peacetime.
Even when most of the surrounding culture was Christian or at least fairly sympathetic to Christianity, the true Christian was always a bit of a misfit in this world. Indeed, we will never fully be at home here. We will always be in some sort of warfare – certainly always spiritual warfare.
Thus the practical question is this: how should we then live? When Christians are being heavily persecuted, rounded up into prison camps, and being killed, such a question takes on real urgency and significance. But we always need to be asking these sorts of questions.
And the issue is, do we just drop everything we are doing, head for the hills, and prepare for the end of the world? Or do we just go on living more or less normal lives, but with an eye always on eternity, and an awareness that this is not really our home, and battles will always be with us?
Christians can take differing approaches here. Some simply pull out of the world altogether, either to live as monks or as end-time survivalists. But some Christians live as if there is no war going on, and have very happily made themselves quite at home in this world.
Somewhere in between these extremes might be the biblical way to proceed. And to help me discuss this further, I once again simply draw upon the insights and great wisdom of English academic and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.