The Existence of God is Worthy of Debate—But an Atheist Minister in a Christian Church?

October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

atheist-pulpitFrom the UC Observer Magazine, published by the United Church of Canada: “After nearly a week of deliberating, the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference voted to ask the General Council of The United Church of Canada to conduct a formal hearing to determine whether to fire Rev. Gretta Vosper — the last step in a long process that now seems increasingly likely to remove the atheist minister from her pulpit.”(1)

Ponder these things:

1. Somehow, there is a congregation that identifies as a Christian church that at some point actually hired a minister who identifies as an atheist.

2. Somehow, an atheist has been allowed to minister at a Christian church for 19 years.

3. Somehow, it takes a “long process” of “deliberating” and a vote to request a “formal hearing” to consider whether or not an atheist should continue to pastor a Christian church.

Does a doctor, while seeing a patient with a knife in his gut, deliberate for weeks over the decision to remove the knife (whether or not it was self-inflicted or allowed to fester for a long time)? This boggles the mind.

For sure, people are upset because bounds—that should never have been set—are being overstepped in the process, and some fear that “the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity”—code words for theological compromise that began long ago. Obstacles that should never have been.

Gretta Vosper has fans in the church (she is also “a prolific blogger, author and guest speaker”). In fact “a petition in support of Vosper…calls on the church ‘to show loving kindness to everyone, irrespective of belief or no belief.'”

Loving kindness respects all people as human beings made in God’s image, regardless of their beliefs, and love calls us to seek God’s best for them. Loving kindness does NOT invite heresy, or entrust the preaching and teaching of God’s Word to someone who does not even believe in God or His word. This doesn’t seek God’s best for the congregation either.

“Vosper calls herself an atheist and has been serving her church for 19 years. She has stated that she does not believe in a Trinitarian God or a supernatural god. She said love is the most sacred value and that she had stopped using the word ‘God’ because it was a barrier to participation in the church.”

God is love. To exclude God from Vosper’s “preaching” is to exclude love. If “God” is a barrier to participation in this church, what can there be in this church that is worth participating in? The love of God? The truth of God’s Word? The good news of salvation from sin through God’s one and only Son? If “God” is not preached from Vosper’s pulpit, the silence of the name of “Jesus” will be even more deafening.

Thankfully, “others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith.” At least someone sees the problem.

Vosper’s lawyer “called for Conference to put the review on hold for a year in favour of a structured dialogue or debate,” meanwhile Vosper would remain a minister. Structured dialogue and debate is a great thing, but if you’re expecting that process to take a year, you’re likely not looking to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”(2) You’re contending for theological liberalism or atheism, heresy we already know God detests and Jesus died for.

If a minister is an atheist, and a congregation is a Christian church, then the atheist belongs in the pew, not at the pulpit. The pairing makes no sense at all, and frankly there’s little to debate about that. Now if we want to debate the existence of God, let’s have a dialogue.

1) Milne, Mike. “Atheist minister Gretta Vosper one step closer to dismissal, formal hearing requested” UC Observer Magazine. United Church of Canada, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. (Link: http://www.ucobserver.org/faith/2016/09/vosper_atheist_minister/)
2) Jude 1:3: Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

The Effects of a House Divided

September 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

“The children of divorced parents have grown up to be adults of no religion,” a new Pew Research Center study(1) says, according to the Washington Post. “People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”(2)

divorce

The correlation in this study seems pretty strong. Does it make sense that when an impressionable young person sees something as fundamental and life-shaping as a safe and sound family structure, where he placed his faith, divide, it can lead to the shaking of other foundational structures, like his understanding of God and faith? And maybe in particular faith in the community aspect of church life?

From the Post article: “Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides… Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”

From politics to family to church, Jesus’ words (also famously quoted by Lincoln) seem to have an increasingly wider application: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

Maybe the lesson for the church is to strive in unity and love as an answer to those soured on it by broken families, if they will come.

1) Cooper, Betsy. “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back” Pew Research Center. PRRI, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016.
2) Zauzmer, Julie. “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion” The Washington Post. WaqshingtonPost.com, 27 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016

Climbing Together

February 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

FullSizeRender copyI took my wife to the local climbing gym for her birthday. It had been years since either of us had been on a climbing wall, so we were up for a new adventure. Once there, we ran into an old friend, Jamie, who was now quite obviously a very skilled climber and a regular at the facility—He has a nine year old daughter who climbs competitively, and they had recently conquered a 250 foot cliff together in Wyoming. As we caught up, Jamie quite literally showed us the ropes and talked about his love for climbing and especially “the community” at places like this.

We quickly saw what he meant by “community.” Jamie enthusiastically introduced us to a spirited and friendly guy named Ed, and within minutes we all knew where each other worked, worshiped, what we liked to do for fun, and where these guys have vacationed together to climb. A young woman they both knew appeared and the group of fellow climbers exchanged hugs and jovial hellos. She expressed how busy she’d been teaching piano (but was dropping four students), and we all sympathized with her recently having to say goodbye to a beloved horse she owned.

Now about these hugs. At a climbing gym. I can remember some casual conversation with a few of the folks we see at our fitness club regularly, but I couldn’t imagine a hug fitting into those relationships. These climbers were quite obviously friends who genuinely cared about each other’s lives.

Throughout the afternoon of climbing the walls around the gym we saw this played out a lot, at least among the regulars who knew what they were doing (as opposed to newbies trying out climbing because they had a coupon or had climbed a wall at Bible camp a couple times—like my wife and I). I began to think about this “community” and why the climbing world seemed to have it down so well. Jamie and Ed happened to be Christians, but I sensed there was something about the sport itself that cultivated and strengthened this relational atmosphere. Then I realized it had to be about the belay.

If you don’t what the term belay means (climbers do), it’s the act of managing a rope, which is attached to the climber’s harness and runs around a bar or belay device at the top of the wall, and then back down. The belayer’s job is to stay below and anchor the opposite end of the rope, which is also attached to a harness on his own body, and let out slack as the climber ascends. The critical part of the gig is to exert friction (squeeze) on the rope if the climber slips off the wall so he doesn’t fall. In a gym with 50 foot walls, a belayer is pretty important. On a rocky mountainside with 250 foot walls and no cushy mats on the ground, they are a matter of life and death. These climbers take turns belaying for each other, basically putting their lives and limbs in each other’s hands. I’m willing to bet this is a big part of what fosters such a tight climbing “community”. It’s critical to know who is on the other end of the rope, and you continually practice trusting them with your life.

Do you routinely hug people at your gym, office, book club, pottery class? How about your church? Out of all our communities, church should be a place of not only warm greetings but sincere love and care for one another. The church is marked by what we do there (teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer—Acts 2:42) and also by its purpose to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20), to encourage each other toward a deeper and grounded faith (Romans 15:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:11), to look out for one another’s welfare (James 1:27) and to love each other (Mark 12:31). Church is where life’s biggest questions and our biggest struggles should be brought and shared in community. Church is where we point each other “heavenward in Christ Jesus” because of what He has done, but we trust and help each other to move closer to Him. When a church is doing what it should do, we are trusting each other with our lives, and the rewards can be eternal.

Other than catching a climber before he falls, a belayer is often a coach. He has a different perspective of the route and can often see things the climber can’t. If the belayer is a more experienced climber than the one on the wall, he can offer suggestions on what handholds and footholds are best and which ones to avoid. The belayer’s objective is not just to protect the climber if he slips up but to encourage him to be “straining toward what’s ahead.”

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2) Remember what hangs in the balance at church, and that your part as God’s hands and feet is important, even moreso than the pastor’s part. God uses this important community to change lives, and sometimes to save them. If your church isn’t known as a community of people “devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10), then it starts with you. Be a belayer. Pick up the rope and help someone along. Or head to a climbing gym and see how community is supposed to work!

Church Doctrine: We All Got It

December 6, 2013 § 3 Comments

Interestingly, Atheist “churches” are getting more popular. These are not churches in the traditional sense, but congregations of atheists gathering in a church-like setting to fellowship, sing, hear messages about celebrating life, and go out and serve their community.

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 10.51.38 AM

The Sunday Assembly, started by two British comedians, is now an international network of atheist churches with US locations in New York and Portland, also listing 4 UK assemblies and one in Australia. The Sunday Assembly calls themselves “a godless congregation that celebrate life.”… “the one life we know we have.” The About page at SundayAssembly.com contains a “public charter” including 10 points of what we should certainly call doctrine. Ironically, point number 2 states that the Sunday Assembly: “Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.”

The obvious contradiction here is that excluding yourself as a rule from an allegiance to doctrine is itself a point of doctrine. This is the first most significant mistake many atheists makes about doctrine; atheism attempts to distance itself from it by saying it has none. If you are going to say anything, you are adhering to a set of principals which comprise your doctrine. Like any religion, atheism has a set of dogmatic principals too.

Making use of “wisdom from all sources” sounds inclusive but is dishonest. Would an atheist assembly allow the teaching of any text that was expressly theistic? They may be cordial and tolerate a certain amount of Biblical teaching. They are, after all, “radically inclusive” according to rule number 4. But how does a group remain “godless” and allow God in at all? Being “Godless” is a core tenet of atheism and therefore inviolable doctrine. And if Sunday Assembly were to somehow manage teaching “wisdom from all sources,” such a mixed bag of philosophy inevitably results in self-contradiction, since “all sources” will bring many opposing truths. Preaching everything means preaching nothing.

Maybe the first mistake atheists generally make about doctrine is assuming that it’s a bad thing, hence the perceived need to avoid it. Doctrine is defined as “a principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group; dogma.” A group that outlaws doctrine is relying on doctrine to do so. The reason any group needs a “public charter” (a document outlining the principles, functions, and organization of a corporate body; a constitution) is because you can’t outline your purpose without some kind of doctrine. This makes doctrine good and necessary!

Addendum 1-12-14: Furthermore, churches split when they develop distinctions that the congregation can no longer tolerate. That’s exactly what happened with the New York Sunday Assembly in this recent report, which is splitting over “ideological differences.” Some members have decided that Sunday Assembly was not atheist enough. Thus, a new denomination of the atheist church is born. But of course, you can’t have differences and distinctions without doctrine.

According to Christianity, we are made to assemble in worship, evidenced by the fact that, historically, humans were doing this long before the church age (see Genesis 4:26, Deuteronomy 16:8, 1 Chronicles 29). Sunday Assembly and other atheist congregations are after much of the same things theistic congregations are supposed to be doing (zero points for originality). Along with this inevitably comes some sort of man-made purpose and a set of rules for assembling. And of course the object of worship in a “godless” church is something other than God, something inherently human like autonomy, wonder or logic—but atheists nonetheless worship.

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

This group espouses love, good deeds, inclusiveness, and growth. All great things, but all doctrinal teaching. They try to exclude themselves from doctrine, purpose, and worship but cannot because they are not leading, but following higher doctrine than their own. Made in the image of God, we all can’t help but recognize God-given moral and intellectual intuition, even if we reject the God-given part. When we try, it’s often comedic—but there’s really nothing funny about wasting this one life in worship of ourselves.

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

“…what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being…” (Romans 1:19-23)

The Routes of Faith Testing

July 7, 2013 § 4 Comments

Abraham and Isaac by Ferdinand von Olivier, 1817

Abraham and Isaac by Ferdinand von Olivier, 1817

Sometimes God will ask us to do something He doesn’t intend to have us finish. That may sound like another way of saying we are doing something we shouldn’t, something we thought was the will of God, but then we receive a course correction. That’s always possible, but the test of Abraham in Genesis 22 shows that God does challenge the faith of His children by defining and then changing our course. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it’s hard to imagine the weight of that in Abraham’s mind as the two of them journeyed up the mountain to the altar site, Isaac having no idea what was ahead. But there was also tremendous faith displayed in the confident response of Abraham to his son’s inquiry.

“Here is the fire and the wood,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham replied. The two of them continued on together. (Genesis 22:7-8)

Despite whatever anguish that may have welled inside Abraham from God’s command to sacrifice his own child, the overruling conviction was Abraham’s faith in God providing some way to redemption. We know how the rest of the story goes. Altar built, son bound, knife in hand, Abraham’s hand was stayed by God at the right moment.

“Do not do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Abraham looked up and saw behind him a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. So he went over and got the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. (Genesis 22:12,13)

God doesn’t change His mind, but He may change ours.

There was a church that had sold an aging building and ended up “wandering” 13 years looking for a permanent home moving from one rented space to another—3 schools and a conference center. A familiar scene for many churches. This wandering church had actually made a land purchase, only to use it for a down payment on another piece of land that was not to become their permanent home either. Several land opportunities came and went.

Along the way the wandering church met a church with a building and a very similar vision and decided to join forces in youth ministry, something both churches had struggled to maintain independently. The ministry was strengthened by this. But the grittier side was that both churches had mountains to climb. The small, wandering church faced the daunting task of building on a newly acquired property with very limited funding. The church with land and a building was faced with the very real possibility of losing both due to dwindling numbers and a tragically injured pastor. Nonetheless, both churches remained faithful with what they’d been given and were confident God would see them through the days ahead. Both churches had done their due diligence.

Then God stayed the hand. The church with the building offered it to the wandering church at the cost of taking over the remaining mortgage payments. The wandering church accepted, inviting the others to join them and allowing them to keep the building they had built just 10 years earlier. Both congregations could now continue in worship and service together, neither having to make the sacrifices they had been faithfully preparing for.

The wandering church is ours, and today was our first Sunday in a new 20,000 square foot building with nearly twice as many saints as last week. But new challenges are ahead. Remembering that churches aren’t beautiful buildings but people, and that we are not an elite group of people because God chose to make our path easier—these may be among the new challenges. But God knew how wearisome we all had grown from the old challenges and the climb that was ahead of us. We worship today with a renewed sense of gratitude and purpose.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Tests of faith come in different forms. Sometimes we go through the fire and sometimes we are given a reprieve when God sees we are willing to go through the fire. Either way, He is there with us, and we can have the confidence of Abraham that “God will provide.”

Don’t Give Up

February 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Changes-Are-Taking-Place-in-Church-Attendance-Patterns-2“And let us consider…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV)

Don’t give up church.

The first part of this plea from the writer of Hebrews charges the church not to give up meeting together as believers. You can be a Christian and never meet in a church, because “we have a great priest” in Christ (vs. 21) wherever we are. But who would want that kind of misery? There is much to gain from regular church fellowship. A great benefit is spelled out in the second message of this verse:

Don’t give up, Church.

Go to church and be found “encouraging one another,” something you can’t do outside a community of believers.  In fellowship, we can encourage brothers and sisters in our salvation because of the Lamb’s once for all sacrifice (vs. 10), in assurance of forgiveness (vs. 22), in right living (vs. 26), in confidence in what we believe (vs. 35), in perseverance in the faith (vs. 36-39).

I belong to a church that is not without struggles, as is true with any church. I’m grateful for this dual exhortation. I won’t give up on my church, and as a part of it, I can encourage others not to give up God’s work that the church was made to do for His glory.

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