December 2006


Christmas is over as far as the Western cultural celebration. But in the Church calendar, Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25, and it lasts for 12 days. So let’s take advantage of the season, now that the busy-ness is over, to talk about the Incarnation.

The Christmas carol “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” has a line in one of its verses that goes like this: “This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface”. I think “deface” meant something a little different back then–perhaps “render obsolete” would get closer to the meaning now.

In any event, it’s a bold statement–to privilege the Nativity and its commemoration above all other Christian remembrances. And in one sense the statement is quite false. The Crucifixion and Resurrection have a far greater place in Christian remembrance, celebration, and salvation theology. Without the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Nativity would be of no value to us. It would be a stupendous, marvellous, praiseworthy, and ultimately unhelpful (to us sinners) display of God’s power.

Yet in another sense, the carol is right. Before the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and Resurrection were more than merely unimaginable. They were inconceivable. How could God, who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, become for his people the perfect sacrifice and the perfected human righteousness without which we must be condemned? How could the changeless change? How could the limitless take on limits? How could the immortal die?

Before the Incarnation there was scarcely a way to frame these questions let alone have any chance of guessing their answer. But once God has appeared in the flesh, his people can conceive of the possibility that he will offer himself up on their behalf and then, taking up his life again, precede them into heaven. Conceiving that, they might have the audacity to hope for what before was inconceivable.

The inconceivableness of the Incarnation weaves itself into Scripture from the very beginning. You will find it in the story of creation. What could be more plainly written into the Genesis account than this–that the distinction between Creator and creature is insurmountable and inviolable?

God creates humankind male and female, not as little gods but as creatures in God’s image. This language emphasizes at once the similarity and difference between man and God. They are like God not as his equals nor as lesser beings of the same sort, but as reflections, as analogies. So man is called to work just as God worked in creation. Yet man’s work is of a different quality. God’s work is simply speaking and seeing things brought into being from nothing by the power of his word.

Man’s work is not of this sort, yet it is similar. It is analogous. It is a reflection. Man’s work, though creaturely, is modeled on the work of his Creator. Yet the nature of this work is easily distinguished. God and his work are on one level, man and his work on another. Though analogous, the two cannot–and must not–be confused.

In the same way, by resting on the seventh day, God implicitly invites man to a similar rest. Yet man’s rest involves ceasing his creaturely activity and refreshing himself. It is like God’s rest but the two could never be confused. (There is a bonus here for those who understand the Framework Interpretation. We see clear notes in the creation account that man’s “days” are not the same as God’s but analogous to them. Even here the distinction between Creator and creature is preserved.)

Notice that this distinction between Creator and creature arises and is insisted on in Paradise, before the Fall. The distinction–even, so to speak, the distance–between man and God does not arise because of God’s holiness and man’s sin. Even before sin entered the world, God was God and man was man. Neither one could be the other.

Yet at the Incarnation, God did become man. The thing is impossible! The Creation story pounded it into our heads that such a thing could never, by any imaginative stretch, happen. Yet it happened! Before it happened, nothing could have been more unthinkable. It was beyond comprehension. After it happened, nothing could have been more amazing. I do not have enough awe in me to meet this event with the amazement it deserves. At times, the clouds part and I catch the merest glimpse of the amount of awe the Incarnation should inspire and I find myself in awe of how much awe that is.

When we add sin into the mix, the thing becomes more awesome still.

It is amazing enough that God the Creator should become, impossibly, a creature. It can only add to our amazement that the Holy One, who cannot dwell with sin, became a creature so he could dwell among sinners.

God made Moses take off his shoes before approaching the burning bush. Even the surrounding ground was holy. When God appeared at Sinai, he told Moses not to let the people approach or they would perish (Exodus 19:21). When the angel of the Lord announced the coming birth of Samson, Samson’s father Manoah said, “We shall surely die for we have seen God” (Judges 13:21). When Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, high and lifted up, he did not rejoice. He cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). How could this infinitely holy God come and dwell among sinners without consuming them?

And what sort of sinners are we? Go back to the beginning and find out. How does the Serpent tempt the woman? He says, you can be just like God, deciding for yourself what is good and what is evil. In other words, you don’t need to be content with being in the image of God–a mere reflection and analogy. You can become exactly like God. The Creator-creature distinction is a myth.

That’s what Original Sin is–an attempt to surmount the distinction between creature and Creator. Naturally, that is impossible.

To redeem such sinners, God does the impossible. He surmounts the Creator-creature distinction. Man fell because he wanted to become God. God saves by becoming a man. The redemption fits the crime.

What man could not do, what caused man to fall when he tried to do it, God, out of his boundless mercy and infinite love, has done. That’s the glory of the Incarnation, of this Nativity that we celebrate. It is beyond all telling.

Merry Christmas to all,

Bill
Christmas Day 2006

(For a follow-up to this post, see The Incarnation and Ethics posted on March 6, 2007.

Ask a conservative Presbyterian what Jesus taught about church government and you’ll likely be directed to Matthew 18. That’s where Jesus talks about going to an offending brother in private, then bringing someone with you, and finally, if necessary, telling his offense “to the church.”

I won’t deny that we can derive some principles of church government from Matthew 18, but it seems an odd place to start. We start there, I think, because we’ve predefined “church government” as primarily a matter of structure and procedure. And if we think in these terms, Matthew 18 is about the only place where Jesus addresses the issue. But if we allow Jesus to define the term, he was constantly talking about church government.

In his earthly ministry, Christ offered two major directives for the government of the church, and he offered them over and over: 1) Don’t be like the Pharisees. 2) Be a servant, like me. He elaborated on these directives at considerable length to be sure we wouldn’t miss the point. These two directives are the heart of church government, the sine qua non. But of course we miss the point anyway.

Even when things get so bad that a congregation thinks about leaving the denomination (OPC, PCA, whatever), they ask the wrong question. They don’t say, “Where can we go where the shepherds serve the sheep humbly and don’t lord it over them, just as Jesus commanded?” They say, “What other Presbyterian options do we have?”

We’ve made the form of government our first priority. It’s non-negotiable. Whatever Jesus recommended will have to come in a Presbyterian form or we’ll just do without. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

We reap what we sow. Our obsession with the structure of church government leaves us with lengthy books of church order that spell out the minutiae of every procedure. It surrounds us with lawyer-like men who know how to use that book to stifle debate or railraod motions.

Many true ministers of the Gospel are demoralized like this. (I remember the case of a minister friend who was travelling to General Assembly and reviewing all the upcoming proposals and cases. The person next to him on the plane asked if he was an attorney. The question haunted him all week.) They begin to attend Presbytery only sporadically. They avoid going to General Assembly. This just means that the lawyers, who love those meetings, consolidate their power.

So what should we do? Fight back? Make sure we attend all those meetings filled with caffeine and testosterone so we can argue well into the night? Then the terrorists will have won. (Whoops. Wrong rant, but you get the idea.) Believe me, the lawyer types have far more stamina for such wranglings. The lengthy disputes that demoralize us fill them with energy. We’ll never beat them at their own game. We’ll starve our sheep and wreck our marriages if we try.

Instead, we need to seek the kind of government that Jesus commends. And I am speaking not only to ministers but everyone in the church (especially in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination) now. I don’t mean we need to leave our denominations to find Biblical government, though that may be the conclusion for some. I mean we need to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and we need to seek out rulers who look like Christ, washing the feet of his disciples, bearing the cross.

What does it mean to beware the leaven of the Pharisees? It means beware those who like to rule and who seek to do so by giving orders rather than providing an example. Beware the man who loves airing his ideas about how the church ought to run and who pays more attention to those who are influential and prominent in the church. Beware the man who elevates human tradition above the Word of God, who knows his Confession and his Book of Church Order better than he knows his Bible.

If you can peaceably prevent it, don’t allow such people to become deacons or elders in your church. Don’t extend a pastoral call to such a man. Don’t waste too many words on people like this who are already in authority. You won’t out-argue them. Rather, take their presence and their behavior as a symptom of sickness in the church and as a warning to seek a more excellent way.

What does it mean to be a servant and bear the cross? It means to consider the needs of others as more important than your own. It means to seek out especially the weakest, least visible sheep and care for them.

Don’t make deacons out of people simple because they have organizational ability and the sort of sympathy that’s common even to many unbelievers. Go ahead and use their organization talent, but don’t confuse that with spirituality. Make them deacons when they love the sheep sacrificially, without drawing attention to themselves, because they have a deep understanding of the mystery of the Gospel.

Ordain as elders only those who love the sheep sacrificially as well. Don’t let the congregation vote them in with a shrug, or with reservations, or out of a desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings. The congregation must be able to say, “Here is a man who would give his life for me. He will always be gentle toward me. He will rule me by example. And that example will not be a matter of outward piety and ‘good works’ for me to attain to if somehow I may. Rather, that example will be a matter of walking alongside me and teaching me not so much how to behave as how to believe–how to know Christ and rely on him.”

Finally, call as pastors only those of utmost gentleness and humility toward the weak. Remember what Isaiah prophesied concerning the Christ: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Do not accept a pastor who motivates the sheep through guilt or fear, who troubles the assurance of the weaker sheep while giving the self-righteous reason to pat themselves on the back. Rather, find pastors who are utterly gentle with the weak and bold with those who think they are strong.

For those reading this who hold such office, seek always to be conformed to these words of our Savior: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). If that doesn’t sound like you, don’t be afraid to turn in your resignation. There will be enough time to take up the office again after you have learned more perfectly to bear the cross.

Who knows? Maybe by pursuing these things we’ll change our congregation or denomination for the better. Or maybe we’ll get kicked out or at least feel forced to leave. If that happens, let’s not make the Presbyterian mistake. Governmental structure should not be our first priority. Let us seek instead an affiliation where those who govern the sheep will be allowed and even encouraged to do so by bearing the cross. If that lands us in another Presbyterian denomination, fine and dandy. If not, at least we chose the one thing necessary. It will not be taken from us.

By now, any number of people are familiar with Misty’s paper defending same-sex marriage. I think most people understand that she wasn’t seeking status for such marriages in the church. She was proposing a civil remedy. Then again, maybe I’m overly optimistic about what people do and don’t understand. In any event, the paper provoked an uproar in Reformed circles and gave rise to many responses, a lot of them quite vicious.

Why?

Many would say the answer is obvious. They don’t even understand why I’m asking why. They would say the Scriptures make it clear that gay marriage is wrong wrong wrongity wrong wrong wrong (and if I’ve misrepresented the position by not throwing enough “wrong”s in there, I apologize). Therefore, civil government cannot rightly allow it.

There’s a massive assumption in that “therefore”.

If the Bible defines something as sin, does that automatically mean the State cannot permit or regulate the activity? I trust everyone immediately sees the absurdity of such a position. But in case my optimism is once again clouding my view of reality, let’s take a look at the problem.

Specifically, let’s look at an example that may prove instructive in the same-sex marriage discussion–building permits. May the civil government issue a building permit for a mosque? A synagogue? A Roman Catholic church that will include a statue of Mary for people to bow down to? Scripture defines idolatry and false religion as serious sins. These sins get a lot more Biblical attention than same-sex couples. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say the civil government may rightly issue permits for such buildings. Christians ought to support and protect the civil rights of Muslims to build mosques, Jews synagogues, and Roman Catholics churches.

I’ll go further out on a limb and predict I’m not going to get a lot of hate mail for taking that stance. I probably won’t even get my husband kicked out of the church. (Um. If you don’t know the context to that joke, just move along.) Yet I just openly solicited Christian support for false religion and idolatry. Do Christians not worry about those sins as much as they do about homosexuality?

Seriously. Why am I allowed to support building permits for idolaters, but Misty isn’t allowed to support marriage licenses for gays?

Now some people will respond that the issues of same-sex marriage and idolatry are different. I’ll even grant that up to a point. But this still doesn’t explain the furor that erupted against Misty’s view.

I’ve heard some suggest that the State doesn’t regulate our duty to God, only our duty to our neighbor. Let’s concede that distinction at least for the sake of argument. And let’s further pretend that this theological distinction fully accounts for conservative Christian calmness at the thought of worshiping Jews versus their hysteria at the thought of married gays.

If we make this distinction, then marriage is within the State’s purview and worship isn’t. Civil government need not prohibit sins of worship and may cheerfully regulate false religion by granting building permits, providing roads that service idolatrous facilities, etc. etc. But the government under this theory may and must prohibit marital sins and issue permits for right marriages only. It’s simple.

Or is it?

Let’s think a little further. At the very least, this means the state needs to outlaw adultery and prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. (Also, divorce where an unbeliever leaves a believer would not be contested. We won’t go down this rabbit trail, but it helps point out the absurdity of attempting to govern by “Biblical” law.) Now a lot of conservative Christians who read this will be unperturbed. “That’s fine,” they’ll say. “Outlaw adultery. Prohibit divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. We’re cool with that. Bring it on.”

Ok, let’s explore that.

First, why aren’t Reformed and evangelicals up in arms over these issues? Why aren’t they enraged to the point of hysteria that some of their elected representatives are divorced or have committed adultery or both? How can they practically canonize Ronald Reagan while refusing to vote for a gay candidate on “moral” grounds?

Why aren’t conservative Christians clamoring for anti-divorce laws and harsh sanctions against adultery? They may claim they’d like to see such laws, but look at their actions. The only thing that’s got them screaming is same-sex marriage. The only thing they really oppose is something that doesn’t even tempt them. How are gays supposed to take us seriously when we demonize them and give our own kind a free pass?

Second, consider this issue of divorce. Jesus said it’s not permissible to divorce except in the case of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31,32). Should the state hold its citizens to that standard? Must it? What if I said no? What if I said people are inclined to divorce and laws against divorce won’t stop them? So the State may as well regulate the process. Would that suggestion unleash an avalanche of vicious emails? Would I get called a heretic? Maybe, though I doubt it. Most conservative Christians wouldn’t be incredibly upset by my attack on the institution of marriage (if I may borrow terms ironically from the other debate). Some wouldn’t be upset at all. They might even agree.

Not to drop names, but if I took such a position, I would only be advocating what God did under Moses. When God set up a government under Moses, He lowered his standards for marriage. That’s right. If you don’t believe me, listen to Jesus:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

The Pharisees are asking about the command of God in Deuteronomy allowing a man to to leave his wife by writing a certificate of divorce. Jesus replies by saying that this permission was given because of their hardness of heart. God knew they were a stiff-necked people and would be inclined to divorce. Rather than prohibit divorce outright, he regulated the process.

But as Jesus points out, this is not the creational norm for marriage. As God created marriage, he intended it to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman. How dare a civil magistrate lower that standard? Well, when the civil magistrate is God, I guess we have to let things slide. Not only did the sin of divorce go unpunished under his theocratic rule, the sin was permitted and regulated without comment.

Wow.

Even in the theocracy, God watered down the institution of marriage in the interests of civil order. We’re talking Israel, a holy people set apart to God. Even there God permitted and regulated divorce.

Do you see where this is going?

Is it perhaps possible that, given the current political and social situation in the US, it would be better to permit and regulate gay marriage than to ignore it?

Remember, you can’t make the argument that civil government can’t permit and regulate anything sinful. We’ve shown that to be false. And you can’t make the argument that with the institution of marriage, at least, civil government can’t permit any deviation from the creational norm. The institution of marriage is the one thing where we know definitively that God himself once lowered the standard when setting up a government. If that makes you uncomfortable, take it up with him. But I’d suggest you not try the old “holier than thou” stance when you do so.

So if you’re going to speak against State regulation of gay marriage, you’ll have to come up with a different argument. More important, can you see that it’s possible to support governmental regulation of gay marriage without being a heretic or compromising with sin? You don’t have to agree with Misty’s view to agree she’s not sinning or committing heresy by suggesting it.

Where do I stand? I don’t know. The older I get, the more I realize I’m a terrible political theorist. But I’m a good exegete and theologian. So I stick with those strengths. And speaking from those strengths, I’m saying that Scripture does not offer us much in the way of political theory. What it does offer does not prohibit a civil government from permitting and regulating gay marriage.

If the US legalized gay marriage tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I might even breathe a sigh of relief. It would put the believers in “Christian America” one step farther from their terrifying goal. That’s got to be worth something.