07 July 2015

Doctrine Matters, or The Homosexual Chip on the Church's Shoulder

With the recent SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage, there's been a lot in the news and social media about homosexuality and equality, and the memes about hypocrisy and homophobia in the church have been flying. I have not been impressed by the theological or religious arguments by the homosexual apologists, but the attention has made me consider a phenomenon from a few years back that I think makes understandable the charge of homophobia that's so often leveled at anyone claiming to take the Bible seriously in a conservative way.

Before I start, a couple of caveats:
  • I'm not saying there is a particular animus toward homosexuality on the part of any specific Christian or Christian group. I believe one can and should accurately hold to a biblical understanding of the sinfulness of something without hating (corporately or individually) those who commit that sin. Rather, I'm going to be speaking about a trend within the church and specifically, how that trend could be reasonably perceived.
  • I think the description of homosexuality as sin within Scripture are pretty clear in both Old and New Testament. Getting into whether a particular civil punishment for the behavior remains valid is a different conversation outside the scope of this post.
  • Similarly, I'm talking about acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate part of a Christian's sanctified life. I'm not talking about a believer who sins, repents, and seeks forgiveness under the blood of Christ, but rather, the assertion that there is no sin, thus no need for repentance or forgiveness.
  • My background is Lutheran, and since I've been attending Lutheran churches for the last decade or so, I'm going to focus on what I've seen in that theological stream. I'm guessing the same would be true for other denominations, but I can't speak to it.
  • I'm not getting into the civil government side of this at all. Not going to talk about America as a Christian nation. Not my point. I'm looking at the churches here.
In 2009, after years of incrementally becoming more accepting of homosexuality, the ELCA finally voted to approve practicing gay clergy. Even with all the preparatory legwork, the vote was incredibly close, but it did pass.

So what happened next?

In the next two years, the denomination shrunk by 500K (about 10%). In my town of approximately 12,000 people, in a fairly conservative area of my state, both ELCA churches in town quickly voted to leave the denomination. My own church (which is AFLC, a significantly more conservative Lutheran denomination) experienced an influx of new attendees (probably 25-40% increase in our weekly attendance), many of whom have become active members.

I don't believe my experience is unique; there was an enormous exodus from the ELCA, and while many former ELCA churches have joined together in new organizations, anecdotally, I've heard of many conservative Lutheran churches which grew as a result.

So, a denomination votes to approve practicing gay clergy, and a lot of people leave it. What can a reasonable person infer from this? It sure looks like homosexuality was the tipping point, but why? What makes that particular issue special? More importantly, what previous changes within the ELCA had not been considered important enough to separate over?

To give a peek at an answer, I'll quote something of the history of CORE (a group within the ELCA active in the decade leading up to the 2009 vote and dedicated to reform), regarding its goals:
The first and primary goal was to uphold the authority of God’s Word, particularly the authority of Scripture over all matters of faith and life. The second was to confess and invoke God’s revealed proper name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The third goal was to uphold the biblical norms for marriage, family and sexuality. The fourth was to work for the election or appointment of ELCA leaders at the churchwide and synodical level who would support the first three goals. A couple of years later, a fifth goal was added and made the second priority – the Great Commission – proclaiming Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior and His Gospel, and making disciples of Christ. 
Remember, these are goals for reform, so one seems reasonable to think that the authority of Scripture, faithfulness to biblical language regarding the Persons of the Trinity, biblical norms for sexuality, and the proclamation of Christ alone as the way of salvation could no longer be assumed within the ELCA.

That's already a pretty big departure from historic Lutheran orthodoxy.

That's what I mean when I say "Doctrine matters." Because the theological underpinnings that (legitimately) prevent acceptance of homosexuality as part of a Christian lifestyle are the same foundations for many other doctrines. And if someone seems to have been willing to shrug and let their church deny those doctrines when it comes to the authority of Scripture or the essence of the Gospel (let alone things like observation of the sacraments, or abortion, or creation/evolution, or women's ordination), but decides to leave that same church over homosexuality, then isn't it pretty reasonable to think that it's got to be something other than Scripture that drove the decision to depart? And if the Bible isn't the reason for our position as Christians, aren't we making our personal preferences and opinions the real source of our doctrine?

I'm not saying that the homosexual apologist is right. I'm saying that it's hard to disagree with someone who says that's what it looks like, and for the vast and growing number of those ignorant of or ambivalent toward Christianity, that's a problem. I'm not trying to blame or shame anyone who has left the ELCA, either. However, I do think individuals, churches, and denominations ought to be honest enough to admit their actions have given credence to this perception, and consider what they can do to address it and avoid falling into the same pattern in the future. And I think the first step is to think long and hard about what they actually believe, teach, and practice, and why those things are important.

06 September 2013

Rom 8:28 wins again

Anyone who follows the online discernment sphere is likely to have heard about the recent blow-ups involving Chris Pinto, Brannon Howse, Christine Blackerby Pack, James White, and a few other people.

I'm not going to comment on the bulk of it yet; I have a strong opinion, but I want to think through what might be a better way to comment first (though I have a question on one of the central arguments involved). Instead, I want to talk a bit about Rom 8:28 and what I hope proves to be an example of God's Word proving true once more.

All of the hurtful accusations, false or misleading implications, and flat-out bad behavior has definitely put a strain on a lot of Christians involved in what's going on (or on those who just care about those being dealt with poorly). It's not always been unexpected, but it's been very sad to see.

However, on 3 Sept, Chris Rosebrough opened his show with a discussion about reconciliation, and described how he and Ingrid Schlueter had reconciled. It was a good announcement full of good content. Without putting too fine a point on it, I would say that the horrible situation currently swirling around is at least part of the impetus for reconciliation; truly God can cause all things to work together for good.

I pray that Chris and Ingrid will continue to heal their relationship, and I hope others would be able to do the same.

05 September 2013

A Question for Chris Pinto

Anyone familiar with Mr. Pinto is likely aware of the recent controversy involving him, Alan Kurschner, and Dr. James White, so I'm not going to go into it. If you don't know the details, Google is your friend; I'd only recommend you set aside a bunch of time to catch up and consider all sides before making a judgement.

I posted the following on FaceBook, but I wanted to put an excerpt of it here too, in case I actually see a substantive response that I can record.
Mr. Pinto points to the Roman Catholic involvement in the Greek source text used in producing the ESV as one reason to distrust it. From what I've heard, he prefers the Textus Receptus (I haven't looked into it enough to call him TR-only). But the bulk of the TR is based on the work of Erasmus, a Roman Catholic scholar, which actually includes verses in Revelation which were back-translated from the Latin Vulgate, which was a translation commissioned by the Pope and produced by the Roman Catholic Jerome.

So my question is simple:

Why is the TR immune from question, when its connection to the Roman Catholic church is significantly stronger than anything related to the ESV?

17 May 2013

An Open Letter to Mediacom

(I'm moving this from my business site to here, since it doesn't really deal with a business-related expense.)

Here’s a letter about a recent customer service nightmare I’ve had with my home broadband provider, Mediacom Cable. I hope it’s pretty self-explanatory. I’m sending this off via snail-mail and email to Mediacom today, but just in case it helps someone else, I’m posting in online.

FWIW, losing the pics isn’t what frosts me; it’s bad, but if I’d been told that there was no hope initially, I’d've chalked it up to my not having secondary backups for even unimportant web files. Lesson learned, and move on. But since I could see them on the server while I was on the phone with customer service, I thought I’d patiently try to use the process; the files were available after all. I just would have to hack my way through Mediacom’s customer service hierarchy until I found someone with a clue that could transfer them or give me the info I needed to do it myself.

Insert your rose-colored-glasses insult here. I deserve it.

So, ultimately, I’m still at lesson learned, and I’m moving on. But I thought I’d take a shot at telling my story to someone at Mediacom who should care.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I’m writing to complain about the way my internet access account has been handled over the past few months. I will provide fuller details below, but in summary, here is my problem. Files which I’d hosted on your servers using space provided as part of my accounts with you were not migrated when some changes were made at the beginning of the year, even though your own documentation said they would be. Now, after repeatedly trying to get them moved, I’ve finally been told my files are no longer available.

After the runaround I’ve been given by your support people the past several months, I no longer know whether to believe they are gone. However, even if it is true, it definitely was not the case when I initially called, because that day I could see the files in the old system. The only reason I didn’t download them myself then is because the onsite utilities you provided didn’t allow me that option. It is infuriating to be stalled for weeks and months, waiting patiently to get something corrected, only to be told at the end that it is no longer possible, in large part because it’s been so long since the change was made!

I work in the computer industry, and I can understand how something might be missed or not work properly during a migration. However, the service I’ve received in this case is inept to an almost criminal level. I have not asked for any special attention; all I wanted was what your own communications said was supposed to have occurred. In response, I have received nothing but condescension and stalling tactics. This is absolutely unacceptable, and truly, the only reason I am still a customer at all is because there isn’t another broadband provider in my area that can provide similar connection speed at even twice the price. The moment one is available, I will be leaving even if I have to pay a premium for that other service. Until then I am letting everyone I deal with know about the incompetence I’ve been met with over this issue.

In case you have any interest in trying to improve your customer service for the next poor doomed soul who has any non-trivial issue, here is a more detailed explanation of my experience.

Late last year, Mediacom transitioned to a different system for hosting member web sites. In my conversations since then, I’ve come to understand that this must have involved a vendor switch as well. At the time, I received emails describing the transition, but since I never used the website development services you offered, once I confirmed that my existing hosted files would be migrated to my new directories, I did not take any action. I did host files on the space that was part of my account, but I either used third-party applications to upload them or used the utility web page that was available to do simple site operations (adding subdirectories, getting directory listings, uploading and deleting files, etc.)

Let me repeat: According to your website, the migration would automatically place any files in my old site into an archive directory on the new site.

The files I had on my site were not heavily accessed, but within a couple weeks of the migration, my wife noticed she couldn’t use the old links to see them. I figured this was because of the migration, but when I checked the new directory, the archive (which was supposed to contain all the old files) was empty. So I tried to see if there was any way for me to retrieve them myself.

Using the utility page on your old website hosting pages, I was able to get directory listings of the old files, and even add, delete, and rename files in those directories. There was no utility to download the files, so I could not retrieve them this way.

So I called customer service, looking for them to complete the file transfer that your site and email had said would take place. I have spoken with them at least ten times in the past four months about this issue. I didn’t make a note of every call, but I know I spoke with someone at MediaCom at least twice before Feb 19 (once to someone named [OMITTED]), then again with a woman named [OMITTED] on Feb 19 and again Mar 10. The ticket number I had was [OMITTED], though that didn’t seem to generally be of use; each call I ended up repeating this entire story. The conversations almost always took the same path. First, I had to explain again what I was trying to have done. Then I had to explain again, when the call was escalated. Then, I had to provide some other detail that they wanted (e.g. Did I use the web builder software? Do I have the name of a sample file? What sub-accounts did I use?). At that point, I would be told the person who could actually look into it was out, or at a different company, and that the information would be sent to them, and they’d get back to me. Typically, two to seven days later I’d get a call on my answering machine asking for details that I’d already provided in previous calls.

Only once was my call transferred to someone who seemed to be from a more knowledgeable technical background, and after working with him for approximately twenty minutes, he too finished by saying he’d sent a request to some other company who had the ability to actually address my problem. Obviously, that didn’t end up happening either.

This is ridiculous, and even thinking through the whole mess long enough to write this letter has angered me again. Your company dropped the ball on this, then refused to even admit you had a ball, kept asking me to describe the ball, and finally said only that you were sorry but the hypothetical ball was gone. That’s not an oversight or an error. It’s disrespectful, discourteous, and wrong. I fully expect to hear your company has been purchased by another at some point in the future, because tolerance of this sort of behavior can only speak ill of your corporation’s attitude toward excellence and all other qualities that lead to success.

I look forward to not being your customer. In that I am


Jason Coyle

30 June 2011

Age of the Earth and Orthodoxy

Update: I've tweaked this post to make it more explicitly not about someone else's position. At this point, I'm not comfortable that I'm prepared enough to challenge him on this, so I don't want my work to encourage someone else to do so. My hope is by the end of this process, I will either be prepared or have come to realize there is no standing or need to talk with him.

I recently learned that a man whose ministry has been very helpful to me holds to an agnostic position regarding the age of the earth. This teacher is very conservative in his biblical interpretation and has a strongly logical mind, and while I disagree with him on some secondary doctrines, I've always found his positions to be well-grounded and ably defended.

This post and those following aren't meant to respond or criticize his position on this issue; I can't honestly say I could accurately summarize his position, and for me, that's the first step to interacting with it critically. Instead, I'm writing about ideas of my own that are a result of thinking through some of the comments I've read challenging a dogmatic young-earth position. In particular, I'll be using two points I read from the teacher I mentioned above as a springboard for examining different aspects of this topic.

First, he separates age of the universe from acceptance of evolution. In other words, just because one doesn't assert a young earth doesn't de facto mean one accepts evolution. This is something that may seem minor, but I think it's a bad idea to dismiss this observation as a distinction without a difference. Granted, any evolutionist I've read agrees with an old universe (and as far as I know, would agree that great periods of time are necessary for the evolutionary processes to work). However, one can argue that evolution is fundamentally impossible regardless of the time given for the process; whether the universe is six thousand or six thousand million years old is irrelevant if the evolutionary engine doesn't work. So evolutionary assumptions don't necessarily follow from skepticism regarding a young age of the earth.

(Of course, that doesn't mean that position is logically sound or biblically consistent.  More on that later.)

Second, and this is the point I expect to dwell on for a few posts, the assertion is that we cannot be dogmatic about the age of the universe (i.e. Scripture doesn't clearly support any asserted age, old or young). Of course, this requires a rejection of the biblical interpretations typically presented by young-earth creationists, such as the "no death before sin" argument.

I want to spend some time on this because as I've discussed this with different people, they've raised questions regarding salvation, church polity, and general Christian orthodoxy that they see as inextricably tied to one's acceptance of a young earth literal understanding of Genesis 1-3. With stakes (and emotions) that high, I need to have my arguments clear on this, because I'll need to either defend or refute that understanding.

In this post, I want to outline my presuppositions and give an outline for the posts to follow, as I work through this.  Here's where I'm starting from:
  • The Bible is God's Word, perfect and complete, and a correct understanding of what it says is always the truth.
  • The grammatical-historical method of hermeneutics is the best way to understand the original intent of the Author, and therefore the correct understanding of the text.
What does mean here?
  • If a consistent interpretation of Scripture requires a young earth, then I'm going to hold to that position regardless of any extra-biblical evidence or interpretation to the contrary. Fundamentally, this could be seen as no different than believing in any of the miracles of Jesus. (I'll expand on this later.)
  • If a consistent Scriptural interpretation does not require a young earth (and this interpretation should be done without any reference to earth age from outside the Bible), then it's correct not be dogmatic about the doctrine.
In short, the biblical argument is the key. Nothing else matters until that is explored in good faith.  My next post is going to flesh that out in greater detail.

After that, I'm going to look into the two strongest arguments that I've seen for being definitive regarding a young earth (by which I mean less than  approximately 10,000 years since creation of the universe):
  1. A plain reading of the text will conclude that everything was created in six twenty-four hour days just a few thousand years ago.  This is the heart of R.C. Sproul's argument that caused him to embrace the young-earth position, ask described here.
  2. Any timeline that allows for death prior to Adam's sin contradicts Scripture (Gen 1:31; Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:20-26)
These two arguments have far different standards, but I think if either holds strong, it would satisfy my condition for a biblical requirement of the young-earth position. So I'll look at both of them.

Finally, I want to consider how important this topic is within Christian orthodoxy by considering these sorts of questions:
  • Is adherence to a young-earth position a foundational doctrine?  In other words, does rejecting it leave you with something other than Christianity?
  • What other orthodox doctrines (if any) are especially tied to one's position on the age of the earth?
  • Should elders and teachers be required to hold a specific position on the age of the earth?
That's my game plan. We'll see how long it takes to work through.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that a correct position is a consistent one, and a consistent position can withstand rigorous examination; my intent is to approach this as skeptically as I can, always bearing in mind my fundamental assumptions regarding Scripture as God-breathed. So in the interests of full disclosure (and in case I end up changing my mind on anything), I want to state my own position up front:
  • I hold to a young-earth creationist position.
  • I think the ramifications of any other position contradict proper understanding of the Bible.
  • I think that the foundation of a rejection of the young-earth position (even if it's just an agnosticism) is the appearance and assertion of great age in the universe, not any ambiguity or silence in the biblical text.
  • I'm not comfortable saying that belief in a six-day literal creation is itself a primary doctrine, but it's a pretty important secondary doctrine. I do think improper teaching on secondary doctrines will bear fruit in conflict with primary ones, so it's a very appropriate question to pose to any elder, expecting an orthodox and energetic response.
To repeat: I don't want to imply that the teacher I mentioned in my first paragraph hasn't thought about this issue, and I don't mean to present my posts here as a refutation of his position. I'm thinking through my own position here; I'll admit it's contrary to his, but I'm not aiming anything at him.

I hope I can find time over the summer to finish this up...