Friday, January 31, 2014

Rethinking the church's civic role in marriage

We have an interesting situation facing our culture (by which I mean, the American culture): for the first time in history, the definition of "marriage" is vastly different in the Christian church from what the state (by which I mean, the civic governing authorities) says that it is.


Historically, the Christian church has defined marriage as a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman, bound together before God and committed to maintaining God's standards for what constitutes that marriage. Marriage was given to us by God for particular purposes: for the mutual help of the husband and wife, for having children, and for prevention of sin. Marriage is not the same as other relationships that the Bible describes as "lawful" (such as friendships, parent/child, work-oriented relationships, etc.) or that the Bible declares to be "unlawful" (including same-sex relationships, marital affairs, and others). Some may disagree with whether this position is "right" (and obviously some do), but whether that has historically been the church's position is indisputable.

Also historically (and continuing to the present), the church and state have held hands in a peculiar practice. In a tacit acknowledgement of the origins of marriage and the church's right and authority in the institution of marriage, the common practice and legal allowance is that pastors, priests, rectors, and ministers are allowed to function as civil magistrates when it comes to marriage. How so? They are recognized as a legitimate authority who may sign the marriage license. Whereas a pastor or priest asserting civic authority in any other realm would be laughed at, in this one sphere they are granted the strange status of being both ecclesiastical and civil authority.

More recently, and increasingly across the country, individual states are passing laws that define marriage more broadly, including the allowance of same-sex couples to marry with the same recognition of their marriages as those whose marriages would fit the definition of the historical church above. There are different arguments for why this is being done, but the underlying rationale pins on two presuppositions: (a) that homosexual practices are not morally or ethically wrong, and any individual or institution that claims otherwise is bigoted and misled; and (b) that practicing homosexuals deserve the same rights civically as any other citizen. Thus, they conclude, any restriction to the civic rights afforded by marriage on the basis of some moral or ethical restriction is wrong, and should be removed.

What's my point

The second premise above is not the focus of my post today, and frankly I wouldn't dispute it (as I've blogged about already; see "Inconsistency in opposition to civil unions"). Really, the first premise is not the focus of my post either, except to say that it finds little to no support in the Bible when any orthodox hermeneutic is applied, and therefore is not a claim that should carry much authority with Christians.

Rather, my focus is on the sticky wicket that this change in status quo presents to the church. To get there, I'll need to unpack the implications of the American pastor's strange function as quasi-magistrate a bit further.

A marriage in a church is recognized by the state as legitimate and licit, because the pastor is given that right to officiate both the ecclesiastical and the civil aspects of the marriage. Likewise—by default—a marriage that is recognized as legitimate and licit by the state is presently assumed also to be legitimate and licit in the eyes of the church. Which is to say, if two Christians choose to elope rather than hold a traditional wedding, and they employ the services of a justice of the peace to officiate, then they can safely presume that their church will recognize their marriage as a legitimate one. There is something of a Material Equivalence at work: in either case, the circumstances of a marriage presided-over by a recognized officiant meets both the necessary and sufficient conditions for the marriage to be deemed licit by both the church and the state.

With the recent changes to the laws of many states (and the likely inevitability of the same in most, if not all, of the remaining states), however, this logic fails. There may be sufficient conditions on both sides, but now there is a missing necessary condition for the church: the certainty that particular requirements are met to qualify the marriage as biblically licit. Without this certainty, the church can no longer be assured that a marriage approved by the state is a truly licit marriage ecclesiastically.

To be sure, this is not, in itself, exactly new; with the proliferation of "no-fault divorce" in the 1970s, this certainty dissolved. It has long been possible for a husband to abandon his wife, divorce her, and elope with his mistress—and for that marriage to be presumed to be a legitimate, biblically-licit marriage. Frankly, we should have acted on the implications of this decades ago, and our inattention has caught up with us.

Some solutions

How we got to where we are is a long and winding path, and includes many concessions and missed opportunities through the last many years. One could argue that this was an inevitable conclusion for our culture to reach, and they may be right. But here we are nevertheless, and though hindsight may be 20/20, foresight and wisdom for the days ahead is what we need.

We do seem finally to have come to a fork in the road, and I believe it is time for the church and the state to quit holding hands. The Material Equivalence that was the logical basis of our implicit acknowledgement of civilly-officiated marriages has been dissolving for years, and is no longer present in any reliable form. The function of the pastor as civil magistrate when it comes to marriage needs to come to an end.

This is actually the way it is in most other countries in the world! If you want to have the civic benefits of some sort of formalized union, you apply to the state for a marriage license and have the (regular) magistrate sign it. If you want the blessings of the church on your marriage, you see your pastor or priest and he officiates. And if you want both, then you must follow through with both.

A long-time friend of mine who is a political consultant in South Carolina recently blogged about this topic as well. In an interaction that followed, I asked him whether he thought the best route to sever this relationship between pastors and the state was a political one: passage of a bill that would revoke the pastor's right to sign marriage licenses. He said that we're way to far gone for that: "It's in state law in a thousand places."

Thus, it seems like the best route is for pastors and churches to voluntarily lay down our "right" to this role in civic society. To do this, we would need to amend our church constitution (in the PCA, this would mean an amendment to the Book of Church Order) so that this is plainly stated.

(I actually presented a proposal for this to my presbytery recently, and it was voted down—but mainly because the wording of it was not as clear as it needed to be. I'll keep working.)

Tricky factors

Moving in this direction will present a few bumps along the way. As I list these, I confess I'm not sure entirely of the implications of them, but I do recognize that they are there.

For one, it raises the possibility that some Christians may seek a marriage in the church but not with the state. One friend wondered about whether this would be a way for senior citizens to avoid any implications for their Social Security benefits, for example. I suppose that's possible, but I think it would be difficult to make a solid case for why this would be wrong for Christians to do.

It also raises the question about marriage as a creation-wide institution, and that's a good point. We don't see marriage as a sacrament, as it is not for believers only. Nevertheless, many pastors would seriously think twice about officiating a "church wedding" between two non-Christians as if their marriage was no different than that of two Christians. And I actually think this distinction is helpful precisely because it draws a clearer distinction between what is present in a Christian marriage versus a non-Christian one.

Other questions raised concerned how the church would deal with marriages not conducted by the church (or, for that matter, conducted in churches of a different denomination). Would none of them be recognized? How would the pastor and leadership deal with a civic union/marriage that they didn't believe was legitimate ecclesiastically? These are great questions, but not without some precedent. By analogy (and I want to be careful to distinguish this as an analogy, because we don't view marriage in the same way that we do baptism), when someone presents himself or herself for membership and the question of their baptism from another tradition—Roman Catholicism, say—comes up, then the Session must decide whether they will acknowledge that baptism as legitimate or whether they will require them to be re-baptized. To some degree, we take these case-by-base, but in another sense then patterns and precedents are established. I think marriage would be much the same.

I know there are other questions I haven't thought of. What do YOU think? What tricky factors do you see, that I haven't listed?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What happened?

In case you didn't know, the church I moved to Tucson, AZ in 2011 to serve as Senior Pastor, Dove Mountain Church, closed its doors in October of last year.

I get asked about 3–4 times a week, "What happened?"—so I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a few words about that here on my blog. At least my 10s of readers will know, and won't have to ask!

Though I wasn't part of DMC until 2011, I have done my best to piece together a working history of how we came to the end that we did. It's hard to say for sure, and I know that what I will say below is just one "take" on the whole thing. If you ask others involved in the church (especially if they were in the leadership), they may give an entirely different answer. And, frankly, their answer may be just as legitimate as mine.

[One request and caveat, however: be very careful of the opinions of those who were only peripherally connected. Even people that speak very confidently as if they are "in the know" can be, and have been, very mistaken in their accounts of what happened.]

Dove Mountain Church (DMC) launched as a church plant out of a mother-church congregation, Catalina Foothills Church (CFC) in 2007. They launched with a large number of great people (around 175) including some strong leaders, with a healthy amount of money, and with a generous gift of a 15-acre piece of land (in an area called Dove Mountain—thus the name). They had a good man as their pastor, and a lot of ambition as a "core group" (I use that term somewhat loosely, as 175 people is larger than most of the churches in the PCA).

That group was zealous about the idea of a new church, and enthusiastic in employing that zeal to good work. They got busy right away, and "particularized" as a church (instead of a church plant) quickly—in about seven months. Yet, though they were one group, it now seems clear that they were not united behind what they were setting out to do. No one had articulated, in a way that was understood and "bought into" by the whole congregation, several key aspects of vision:
  • Where they were going
  • Why they were going there
  • What they were going to do when they got there

They lacked vision; instead, they were comprised of segments with very different visions.

One segment of the group wanted to replicate the work and ministries of CFC in the new location, which was about 30 minutes to the northwest of the mother church—essentially, their ambition was to build "CFC North" and take the mother church's effective ministries to a new part of town.

Another segment had been well-served by the ministry of the church planting pastor while he was an associate pastor at CFC. Their hope was to see his style and emphases in ministry writ large, and to realize the fulfillment of the dream of a church community that he had articulated—which was, in a number of ways, quite different from that of CFC.

Yet another segment had never quite fit in at CFC, and saw this as an opportunity to build a church that was similar in some ways to CFC, but different in some key ways.

There were probably other segments, too, but these were the main three as far as I could tell. This lack of unity in purpose and vision became a clear problem as time went on.

Initially, there were great efforts made to make plans for building on the 15 acres of land. Soon, however, it became clear that these plans would not be fulfilled as quickly as many had hoped, if ever (the founding pastor told me that, after a very short while, he became convinced that they would never end up on that land); consequently, most of the first segment left over the following months.

A couple of years later, the founding pastor burned out and left. This was, understandably, a blow to the whole congregation—but especially to that segment who had essentially followed him. Many of them left immediately, and others followed over the next 18 months or so.

That left a group of about 80–90 people, most of whom were initially part of the last segment.

When I interviewed, the clear impression I got was that the leadership, at least, had recognized the need for a clear and compelling vision that would drive the congregation forward. I was asked repeatedly what my vision would be, and my answer was, "I won't know until I get there—but I will make it a priority to ascertain what vision would best serve the congregation and articulate that as soon as possible."

(This was my first and probably largest mistake. One take-away here is that, if the church itself doesn't have a clear, well-stated and widely-understood vision, then the pastor should not accept a call if they aren't ready and willing to accept his vision for them.)

As I met with members of the congregation, I inquired as to their sense of the identity of the church. Most could not give a clear answer, but the central idea that I got was, "we are not CFC." The core identity, such as it was, focused on how they were different from the mother church.

The trouble was, even here there were variations. Some loved aspects of CFC's ministry that others saw as insignificant or even worthy of abandoning. Others wanted a church that was different altogether.

When there is no single, unified vision in a church, it's not that there is no vision at all. Instead, in this case, there were many visions. And each member was holding out to see if their vision would prevail. As I worked with the leadership and began to hone a vision, it was clear to many others that their vision would NOT, indeed, prevail—and they left too.

Our numbers continued to decrease; one deacon, who had a knack for numbers, showed me a spreadsheet where he had tracked giving and attendance from the very beginning. It demonstrated a pattern of constant decline from the very early months, and that pattern held all the way to the last days.

We tried a number of approaches to stem the tide and turn things around, but were unable to do so. Last summer, we held a number of meetings with the congregation in which we discussed options for how we might continue forward. Ultimately, we voted to ask the presbytery to take us back to "mission church" status (essentially, to become a re-plant or a new church plant again). At that point, about half of our remaining people left.

Presbytery was cautious about it, and rightly so. After some further discussion, we came to the point where we didn't believe it would be fruitful to press on, and decided to close up for good in October.

Which brings us to now. That's my account of "what happened" as best as I can tell it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Celebrating the Mac...

NewImageThis week marked the 30th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh, otherwise known as the "Mac." Congratulations, Apple!

I love Macs. Some have "accused" me of being a Mac Evangelist (which, if you didn't know, is actually a thing), but I'm not: I don't seek out opportunities to tell people about my love for Macs, or try to convince them to switch to Mac. I am, however, always happy to field questions when people have them, and to tell them what I love about my Mac (and other Apple products). I see this more a mark of a satisfied customer than an evangelist—in other words, if you were as satisfied with your Windows or Linux computer as I am with my Mac, you would be happy to tell others about it, too.

I have a long history with Apple computers. In fourth grade (or maybe third?) our class went weekly to the computer lab, where we learned very basic (pun intended) stuff on Apple IIe computers. A couple of years later (in 1984), a friend showed me his dad's new computer, which he called a "Mac"—it had this weird thing I had never seen before, which my friend called a mouse, and when he started it up it smiled at us. I was curious.

Though my first computer was a Coleco Adam (the one with the cassette tapes for drives), I continued to use the Apple IIes in the computer labs at school until my junior year, when the school got a Mac Classic. Though it wasn't technically mine, this was "my first Mac"— seriously, I quickly became more adept with that Mac Classic than the computer teacher, and she would often refer people to me about how to do things she didn't know about.

When I graduated from high school, my graduation present was—you guessed it—a Mac: specifically, a Mac LC with the 13" (not the standard 12") color monitor AND one of the new Apple inkjet printers. The whole system cost my mom about $3K, and I used that Mac for years (my first introduction to the longevity of these machines). As a reminder of how far technology has come since then: I was able to be very comfortable with the 40 megabyte hard drive for a long time, and when I upgraded it to have 4 megs of RAM I was pretty sure I would never need more than that. I had a 56K dial-up modem with which I joined AOL (I was a charter member, username: BigEd3) and CompuServe (I don't remember my number; sorry).

Five years later, my mom gave me a laptop computer they weren't using at her office, and I had my first-ever introduction to a Windows-based computer. I came to appreciate the portable nature of that computer, and when my Mac finally was too old to run any of the current applications I wanted to run in '98, I found I couldn't afford a replacement Mac. I built a Windows-compatible computer then, and used that for a few years (also buying a Windows laptop for seminary a couple of years later).

In 2002, though, I once again had the pleasure of a Mac smiling at me when some friends of a seminary classmate offered him their iMac and he wasn't interested (so it came to me). I quickly re-embraced my Apple and Mac roots, and have run Macs exclusively since then.

These are the Macs I've owned (and/or my family has) in the intervening years:
  • 12" iBook (2003)
  • 13" MacBook (2006)
  • 21" iMac (2006)
  • 17" MacBook Pro (2007)
  • 13" MacBook Pro (2010)
  • 27" iMac (2012)
  • 13" MacBook Air (2013)

I don't see any reason yet to consider other options. Thanks, Apple, for all that you've done to support my technological life for these 30+ years! Keep up the good work.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Liturgy, forms, and "everyone is wrong but me"

Jeremy Walker reports on the Reformation 21 blog that, in essence, the reason for the resurgence of interest in liturgy is because of the absence of spiritually substantial religion. In other words, the only reason why people might prefer a more formal liturgy is, he says, that they hope it might "fill the void" in their spiritually-empty lives.

That's interesting. I don't know Mr. Walker, nor am I aware of what congregation he is a member of—but in the circles I've moved in, it's actually the inverse of this: the people I know who are the most mature, spiritually, seem to have a growing interest in liturgy.

Mr. Walker's fellow Ref21 blogger, Carl Trueman, took him to task for his misunderstandings just 45 minutes later. He takes apart most of Mr. Walker's post better than I could.

All but one key idea. Mr. Walker concludes with this:
"The only thing that arrests the swing is when the anchor drops in the Word of God and simple, unaffected worship enlivened by the Holy Spirit is known and felt by saints who are satisfied with pursuing and enjoying God's promised ends by God's appointed means."

The great irony here is that Mr. Walker is under the impression that "simple" and "unaffected" worship is not, itself, a "form" and a "liturgy" of itself. He is welcome to his preference for a simple and plain form of worship—but let's not pretend that a plain form is anything other than exactly that.