How To Make Your Favorite Doctrine Essential

(or, “How ECO* made a secondary issue, marriage between one man and one woman, a central tenet of the Christian faith, and you can too!”)

Note that if you’re in a non-denominational or independent church that doesn’t have any historic confessions other than scripture, you can skip this entire post and just

  1. find the thing you want to condemn anywhere in scripture,
  2. proclaim from the pulpit that it is a central tenet, and 
  3. it will be one.

So I was looking for the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” because if I’m going to be an ordained PC(USA)* minister one day, I have to

sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do,

and I was trying to find a document that explains what counts for the PC(USA) as “essential tenets.” Fun fact: Such a document doesn’t exist. We have a Book of Confessions, but I couldn’t find any documents that delineated which tenets in those confessions count as essential. ECO and the EPC* have one, but the PC(USA) does not.

This aroused my curiosity.

I know ECO was (in part) formed and filled as a reaction to the PC(USA)’s allowing non-celibate but otherwise-qualified LGBTQ people to be ministers, and later permitting (not requiring) marriage equality.

The ECO website pretends it was about concerns around declining denominational membership and disputes of theology and bureaucracy, but the seven founding pastors met for the first time to “find new ways to encourage each other in faith, ministry, and mission” in summer 2010.

I’m sure it was just a coincidence that the General Assembly approved Amendment 10-A, which allowed for non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers, that exact same summer. Continue reading

The Danger of Confusing Yourself with God

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

-Exodus 17:2, NRSV, emphasis mine.

Notice what happens in this verse. The people quarrel with Moses, and Moses asks them why they’re testing God. Incidentally, when Moses complains to God about this, God gives Moses a commonsense answer: Give them water.

Moses in this story has a problem that is shared by a frightening number of American Christian leaders: confusing themselves with God. Not in the sense that they’re encountering God and becoming confused, which would be good, but in the sense that people are challenging them, and they think people are challenging God.

I could give oodles of examples, but I’m sure you’ve seen them too. The most recent example I’ve seen is this post from Owen Strachan on The Gospel Coalition. Responding to a line in a book by William Paul Young, author of The Shack, Strachan says,

Don’t miss this: The most popular Christian writer in our time labels the biblical God a “cosmic abuser.” Ancient false teaching returns.

No, Owen. Young didn’t label God a cosmic abuser. He labelled your ideas about God cosmic abuse. There is a critical difference between the two – and a painfully underappreciated one.


The best example, I think, comes from a particularly dogmatic Bible professor who, as recently as winter 2015-2016, is known to have said, in so many words, on several occasions,

You can disagree with me on this, but if you do, know that you’re disagreeing with Paul, you’re disagreeing with Jesus, and you’re disagreeing with God.

The person who heard this dropped the class shortly thereafter. Learning is always a challenge, but it’s a special kind of difficulty to learn from someone who thinks their opinion is identical with God’s.


Some Christians have a painfully difficult time distinguishing God from their ideas about God. Many think the two are one and the same – that God is identical with what they think God is like. This leads to those same Christians assuming that an attack on what they think about God is identical with an attack on God.

On the contrary, many such “attacks” are not attacks on God at all. They are attacks on dangerous false ideas about God, and as such are defenses of God’s character, not attacks on it.

Let those with ears, hear.

Book Review: The Remnant

I grew up on Left Behind, among lots of other books. One of my uncles found out I was an avid reader and made it his business to send me books. That’s how I ended up in a Walmart one night just before midnight when one of the books was coming out. I had finished it by the next afternoon. Nothing was more disappointing than when, at the end of Glorious Appearing, Jesus finally returned – and quoted Paul. I thought after 2,000 years he might have developed some new material. Gosh.

Then I took a class on the book of Revelation at Huntington University, where I discovered, to my disappointment, that the theology in the Left Behind series was complete nonsense. In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright called Left Behind “pseudotheological fiction.”

After I watched Left Behind II: Tribulation Force in the light of that class, it seemed Tim LaHaye must have acquired his theology of the end times by tacking a few chapters of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation to a wall and throwing darts at them to determine the attributes of the Anti-Christ.

The Remnant…Which is why I was delighted to find in my inbox an invitation to read and review a book by Monte Wolverton called The Remnant, a title it shares with Left Behind book 10. I trust the people who sent me the offer, so I knew it was going to be decent. Plus, I needed a little more fiction in my life.

Wolverton’s The Remnant is not about the rapture, though. Not even a little bit. Like the Left Behind books, however, The Remnant is about a post-apocalyptic world. In this one, though, Jesus didn’t come back. The world has ended because of World War III and been rebuilt without religion, as much as possible.

The prologue is set in Tunisia in 2063. The second sentence of The Remnant reads this way: “In the year 2062, a cataclysmic global war prompted the World Federation to ban all religion.” The banning process is cartoonish. While I was reading it, I kept telling myself, “Willing suspension of disbelief. Willing suspension of disbelief. Just let it happen.”

In chapter 1, we are introduced to Grant Cochrin, his wife Dana, and their son and daughter Tadd and Lissa. Also featured are Sara Davenport, Owen Fenbert and Bryan Hantwick. To be honest, I got them mixed up sometimes.

Anyway, the world is divided up into three areas:

  1. Safe Zones, cities where moral atheists live protected  by drones and zappers from anyone and anything dangerous.
  2. Work camps for anyone religious, where we find our heroes.
  3. The Wilderness, which is mysterious, unknown, and lawless.

Our little group isn’t particularly persecuted. They live in crappy one-bedroom apartments, and they can’t leave the camp, but they’re otherwise generally well-taken-care-of. They work long hours, apparently doing some kind of manual labor.

The book opens as they escape their work camp, under cover of darkness, in danger of being zapped to death by Federation drones. They leave because they are looking for a faith community they’ve heard exists somewhere in the Wilderness. Continue reading

Breitbart and Fox News Perpetuated a Trump Lie

I read something yesterday that freaked me out. Like a lot.

But first, you need to know two things:

  1. The women’s march on Washington was bigger than Trump’s inauguration.
  2. Obama’s inaugurations were both bigger than Trump’s.

This has been substantiated by numbers from the Washington Metro. Politifact has links to tweets from the Metro about the numbers of riders on the individual days about 2/3 of the way down this article. (Politifact rated White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period” as “pants on fire.”)

Fox News posted an AP fact-check article about the claim that Trump was wrong about the crowd size. They said, “THE FACTS: Trump is wrong,” and followed up with the evidence linked above.

Here’s a video. (It zooms in at the end when Trump starts speaking).

Review the evidence. Take as long as you need. Do your own research; use google. Article after article confirms that Trump did not have the biggest crowds. Not even close.

Done? Good.

Because this is the part where Fox News and Breitbart (and God knows who else) perpetuated Trump’s lies. Breitbart is infinitely worse. Like “Dear God I wish their readers were being lied to by Fox News instead” worse.
Continue reading

Fact Check: Religious Wars: Only 123 of 1763?

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A friend shared the image above from a Facebook page called WHY?Outreach. I thought the statistic was interesting, so I followed the links they cited for their claim in the caption text.

In one of them, an article at CARM, which I despise and link under protest, Robin Schumacher makes the following claim, which is cited verbatim in the meme:

An interesting source of truth on the matter is Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history. Of those wars, the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature,2 which is an astonishingly low 6.98% of all wars. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%.

Footnote 2 is a broken link, but it’s supposed to take readers to a Google Books preview of a book called The Irrational Atheist in which author Vox Day adds up “all the wars that the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars saw fit to categorize as religious wars for one reason or another.” Day includes several caveats, like some wars being lumped together, but is generally satisfied with his work. At the risk of another dead link like the one suffered by CARM, I include a link to the book preview here.

The claims that (1) there have been 1,763 wars in human history, and (2) only 123 of them are a result of religious causes, appear explicitly nowhere in Encyclopedia of Wars. Those numbers were tallied up by Vox Day using data from Encyclopedia of Wars. Sort of. Continue reading

A Map of My Faith Community

I took a class last term called “Education and Pastoral Imagination” with Dr. Helen Blier.

One of our assignments was to make a map of our faith community that shows where knowledge is, and how one gets there. Dr. Blier passed out large sheets of paper, some National Geographic magazines for images, glue sticks (I still have mine – whoops!), and pencils and crayons.

This is my map. (Click to enlarge, or keep reading for close-ups).

Full Map

Continue reading

“Do What Feels Right”

When I was growing up, my dad did something that bothered me immensely: He made rules and said that because the Bible says “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” it meant that if we didn’t do what he said, it would be a sin. It would be morally wrong for me to not do what he told us to do, just because the Bible said so.

The Bible, of course, was the highest authority. What the Bible said to do was morally right, and what the Bible said not to do was morally wrong. (I’ve written about that elsewhere).

This frustrated me immensely. There was no way to tell right from wrong, only obedience from disobedience, and the two concepts were fused together. Continue reading

“God’s Not Dead”? Then Stop Acting Like It.

A horrifying number of Christians say they believe God is not dead, but lock God in solitary confinement where God is unable to say anything that disagrees with what inspired Christians from the past have said about God, or insisted upon on God’s behalf.

I remember my dad saying something along the lines of “So many Christians today think God is dead and the Bible is a history book.” Then he proceeded to behave as though God is dead and the Bible is God’s last will and testament.

This position is unfaithful to the witness of scripture. But what would it mean for God to not be dead? God would inspire human beings to look back at the tradition and reflect upon it and find the spark of inspiration, just as God does in scripture. God would lead people to say that others before them did not speak rightly about God. Just as God does in scripture.

God corrects. God pulls people forward. “An eye for an eye” is a good start, but “Don’t seek revenge” is better, and “love your enemies” better still.

But revelation cannot progress because the Bible is a textbook, not a story, not a witness, not a series of witnesses. It’s a love letter God sat down and wrote to individual modern (American) Christians over a long weekend in Patagonia, not the writings of countless inspired writers over hundreds of years to people who were growing and learning and didn’t yet know all the things we know, or all the things human beings from the future will know.

God is not allowed to have employed human beings in all their humanity, but was required to strip away their ability to err while they wrote God’s perfect book. Why? Because modern Christians said so, and we require God to toe the line to our notions about God.

God’s not dead, but if you listen to many Christians these days it sure seems like God is in a vegetative state. But don’t worry; God will one day wake up and review the security tapes and punish those who disobeyed and reward those who obeyed.

Is this what faith in God has come to – just the affirmation that God is not dead? Continue reading

Guest Post: A Letter to the Church I Left

One of my closest friends left his beloved home church recently. He started describing what he’s been going through and I asked if he would be willing to share his story here because I think it might resonate with some of you.

This post contains strong language. Breaking up with your church hurts, and I have chosen to leave it in.

Someone from church called me.

I want to call back.

Because I respect this person.

But I don’t want to have to tell him how I feel.

I don’t want them to know how badly they’ve hurt me – because we all make mistakes and I am sorry for mine.

Because if I did, here’s what I would say: Continue reading

It’s Easter. Is Jesus Alive?

It is Sunday morning.

Jesus, so far as we know, is dead. Death is a constant. It tends not to change. When people die, they stay dead. This is not on our minds, at least not until some women arrive proclaiming an empty tomb and visions of angels and some wishful thinking nonsense about Jesus being risen.

Peter and John run and find the tomb empty. Mary says she saw Jesus but thought he was the gardener.

But you and I know how the world works. We’ve been around to know the sad realities of our world. When the 10 see Jesus in an upper room, we shrug and roll our eyes and attribute it to a mass hallucination. We side with Thomas. We won’t buy it until we can put our hands through the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet.

But then Thomas sees Jesus too. “My lord and my God.”

And 500 others at another point.

And it slowly starts to feel like we’re the only ones who haven’t seen Jesus – or maybe as though the risen Jesus is like Joseph Smith’s golden plates: attested to by many wishful liars.

The two from Emmaus come back announcing that they walked home with Jesus and he explained how all the scriptures point to his resurrection, and our modern apologists write books about how the resurrection of the Messiah has been foretold since time immemorial.

But we have read the prophecies that everyone says are about the resurrection of the Messiah. And you and I are good exegetes. We know this is a load of crap.

And then he’s gone. 40 days later, like Joseph Smith’s golden plates, Jesus is taken back up into heaven, never to be seen again.

There’s no proof of the resurrection. It’s just hearsay from gullible first-century peasants.

But something has happened.

The world has somehow changed in a fundamental way.

Peasants become powerful preachers. A man like us, who knows it’s all a lie, does a 180 and then takes beatings and does time in prison and risks his life to announce that Jesus was executed and raised from the dead – like he believes it with everything he has. Of course, he expects that Jesus will be back within his lifetime, but he expects those who believed in Jesus will also rise, like he believes Jesus did.

Centuries march on. Rome falls, but the church of Jesus Christ lives on. It is everywhere attacked. People try to destroy it from without and from within, but it lives on – sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes in obedience to Jesus, sometimes in cowardly conformity to the world and the sad realities of the world. The church fights for slavery, for discrimination, for killings, but somehow slowly through the centuries, the church lives a little more and a little more into the trajectory of Jesus. It takes 1500 years for Luther and Calvin to discover and be overwhelmed by the radical grace of God, and when they do they write pages upon pages but still do not quite live into it.

Almost as though Jesus was alive.

We can’t prove it, of course. We are good children of the enlightenment, and we know people do not rise from the dead as a general rule.

But what if this one did?

What if, that Sunday morning two millennia ago, the women did in fact meet the risen Jesus? What if he did appear in the upper room, and offered his hands and feet to Thomas a second time? What if the law and the prophets really were about Jesus in a way that the original authors never intended?

What if Jesus has been alive ever since, invisibly pulling his church along, helping us live more and more in line with the trajectory his life set the world on?

And what if you and I believed it?

We couldn’t prove it, of course.

But our lives, like the lives of those before us, could be signs along the way, that not only did Jesus rise that Sunday morning two thousand years ago, but that Jesus is alive and with us today.