Showing Them Christ

By Rev. Andy Cornell

Did you see the screaming headline? “Major Canadian Church Abandons the Gospel to appease LGBTQ lobby.” And with it, a photo of people marching in the Toronto Pride Parade holding signs saying “Presbyterian pride God’s love includes everyone.” What followed was a holy tirade of condemnation of a once-biblical denomination which has, apparently, fully accepted same-sex marriage.

Yes, they’re talking about the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC).

No, you didn’t miss anything.

The object of the unfortunate rant in LifeSite News (the online news by Campaign Life Coalition) was the February letter from General Assembly moderator Peter Bush seeking repentance for our sins of homophobia and hypocrisy against individuals and communities who identify as same-sex attracted and transgendered. It was written at the direction of 2017 General Assembly to fulfill a promise made by the church in 1994 to publicly admit the church’s admonition of hate on the one hand while turning a blind eye to the unChristlike way many in our fold have treated the LGB communities over the years. They have been ignored, cast out, ridiculed, marginalized, bullied, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually harmed. We have condemned the sin without listening to their struggles and pain. The result is a legacy of hurt, violence, and mental and physical illness. This is not what Christ called us to do. Moderator Peter Bush wrote a thoughtful, loving, and pastoral letter that was long overdue.

But nowhere does the moderator’s letter affirm the LGB lifestyle. Nowhere did it declare that the PCC has changed its official, traditional stance on marriage – because we haven’t. And nowhere did it signal that any such change is coming.

The opinion writer gave in to the temptation to read what she wanted to read and believe what she wanted to believe. Never mind the facts getting in the way of a good story; she took a Christlike, pastoral gesture and turned it into something manifestly ugly.

Among her comments: “Compromising Christian beliefs and the core tenets of the Bible in order to appease LGBTQ leadership, will do nothing but undermine the authority of the church and the Word.” What? Basic research would have revealed that nothing of the sort happened. In fact, it’s the opposite.

If we are to call LGB people to a lifestyle of biblical purity, then the least we can do – the very least – is to acknowledge their natural desires, accept them as a burden and tell them that we do not condemn them. We need to love them more.

And how about this comment: “There is not a single reference in the letter to the many passages in the Bible that forbid homosexuality.” Well, that wasn’t the purpose.

Some in the PCC have criticized the moderator for not stating clearly in the letter that – notwithstanding our repentance – our traditional definition of marriage has not changed. That’s unfair. The whole purpose of a pastoral letter is to be generous in love, accepting one’s human condition without judgment. It’s always the first step in evangelical witness: getting to know the person, listening to their stories, making a connection. Not judging.

Finally, this: “The letter itself reads like an extreme act of verbal self-flagellation and deprecation.” Wow. If only she knew.

Rev. Christine O’Reilly, the moderator’s chaplain, says this: “Peter remains solidly orthodox theologically; his love for the Lord, for Scripture and for the church is deep, strong, and true.”

The irony of LifeSite is that, in general, it follows a conservative, evangelical biblical orthodoxy. Just like Renewal. But it’s the tactics that differ. I don’t see much love in this misinformed, poorly researched, unprofessional rant.

One positive thing: the headline calling us a “major Canadian church”. So encouraging that we are still seen as a player!

Those who read Peter’s letter in context found gracious words: “We will reach out, rejoice together in fellowship, and seek holiness as we worship, pray, sing, eat, and listen together for God’s Word speaking to the whole church.” Holiness, which I understand to be biblical purity, is far removed from the lifestyles chosen by those who choose to act on same-sex attraction. If only the critics saw that – and not what they wanted to see.

As we continue to pray for General Assembly 2018 to do the right thing and re-affirm the godly definition of marriage, may we go forth with this letter of repentance and proclaim our love for those who are same-sex attracted. And rather than condemn, let us simply show them Christ and point the way in love.

The moderator’s letter can be read here.

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Eyes Wide Open

I love following electoral politics: the leadership races, debates, speeches, campaigns, the who’s who, the cabinet and its rising stars, the leaders in waiting, and the has-beens who are hanging on.

I’ve worked for candidates in municipal, provincial, and federal campaigns. I am a member of a national party. In my university days, I was president of the youth wing of my party’s provincial riding association. (It doesn’t matter which one.)

And it carried into my first career calling. My years as a reporter were devoted to municipal government; I was the one-man bureau and it was pretty much all I wrote about.

And now, strangely but not surprisingly, it’s followed me into ministry.

We live in a political age. It’s human nature, and it’s infused our denomination to the extent that every move we make – whether on the floor of General Assembly, in presbytery and its committees, even on sessions – seems calculated.

It’s what happens when the house is divided. And that’s where legislatures, parliaments, and the courts of the church are similar: there are two or more parties or factions competing for control and influence.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada is no different than other denominations, which are fraught with liberal and conservative theologies in conflict. It’s a centuries-old tug of war. I don’t remember when the Presbyterian Church in Canada was predominantly conservative in theology, but it had to be have been at one time for our main subordinate standard, Living Faith, to have a relatively orthodox outlook. Check out Section 3, in which Jesus Christ is proclaimed as “truly God, truly human, Saviour, Lord” and the source of salvation. And of course, Section 8.2.3, the definition of marriage. Given the widespread lack of support for this one section, particularly so at 50 Wynford Drive these days, it’s clear that a new wave of thinking has emerged. It didn’t happen overnight.

And as our Church Doctrine Committee and our Life and Mission Agency and Committee consider the feedback to all those papers dispersed by the 2017 General Assembly, we see divided presbyteries battling over nominees to committees and positions on theological papers. In one Toronto-area court which voted in support of Option “B” (a wholesale change in our marriage standards), we saw the brave witness of presbyters registering their dissent.

So, is all this a good thing? Despite my love and fascination with politics, I’m not so sure. What I do know is that it’s part of human nature. Yes, God wants us to stand for what is right. And He wants godly women and men to bring their faith into our legislative assemblies and not be afraid to declare it. Like those dissenting elders, we must stand and be counted.

As the Church Doctrine Committee and the Life and Mission Agency and Committee pore over stacks of responses and prepare their reports to 2018 General Assembly, we pray for their eyes to be wide open to see the light of Christ. 1 John 1:5-10 tells us that God is light and if we claim to be followers of a triune God, then we will remain in the light, declare our innately sinful nature, seek forgiveness, and declare that we are steeped in sin.

May all of our eyes be opened.

Pray for each member of the Life and Mission Agency Committee (see page 33 of the 2017 Acts and Proceedings for members’ names) and the Church Doctrine Committee (page 31) as they prepare their reports to 2018 General Assembly. Pray for staff at the Life and Mission Agency and the General Assembly offices. Pray for our 2018 commissioners-in-waiting. Pray for God to open our eyes to which of the three candidates for General Assembly moderator would be best to lead us to submit to God’s will.

Just pray.

Pray for our eyes to be wide open to the enduring truth that Christ came to bring life to its fullest and that life is not to be lived in the flesh but in the Spirit, which is as pure as light and white as snow.

When Reforming Isn’t Good

We love what’s new – cars, homes, clothing, technology. It’s what fuels the entertainment industry and the news business. It explains the vast success of the Internet, social media, fashion and entertainment industries, and our appetite for news.

It also (partially) explains why many in the church are so vocal in their campaigns to change the church to be in tune with the times – or die.

It’s really about reform, they argue.

Ah yes: we are reformed and always being reformed, according to the Word of God. Every Presbyterian believes in that.

Trouble is, there are too many who see that dictum more as a rallying cry for the church to be an agent of social justice rather than a motivation to maintain or rediscover a purer expression of the church as the Bride of Christ.

Look no further than the two opposing documents produced by the Committee on Church Doctrine and referred by the 2017 General Assembly to the church for study and report. To those who search for a purer expression of the church, the paper which advocates a change in the definition of marriage was theologically flawed and is a step back.

Assembly asked for responses by January 31, 2018, and provided three options in the paper, “Where from Here?”

Click here to access the committee’s documents: http://presbyterian.ca/sexuality/

Click here to complete the survey: https://form.jotform.com/72747538873977

Purity is Option ‘A’ in the “Where from Here” paper. Social justice is Option ‘B’ or even ‘C.’ Respondents are also invited to propose their own solution in 500 words or less. Purity might also be found here. One proposal being advanced is to reform the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) into theological houses, in an effort to regain purity by association.

Sadly, I am discovering that many people in the PCC have not responded.

But there is time.

It’s vital that the Committee on Church Doctrine hears from those who believe reform is good if it helps the church come closer to purity of doctrine and practice.

This is real renewal. Anything else plays into the hands of the enemy.

Change or die? With the issue before us, changing doctrine to mesh with secular culture and law flies in the face of peer-reviewed research which finds conservative theology is a driver for growth and liberal theology leads to church decline.

There is change which results in true renewal: it’s a rediscovery of the church in a purer form, which recognizes our innate sin, our weakness in the face of temptation, Christ’s pure witness, the presentation of the sobering truth that “wide is the avenue that leads to destruction”, and the mission of the enemy to ask the same question over and over: “Did God really mean that?”

Let us speak the truth in love while we still can.

That Difficult Fruit

We know the fruits of the Spirit. Drummed into our heads – either by memory or by that catchy kid’s tune – you can probably rhyme them off: “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22-23).

We have no problem embracing and working on the first eight fruits. But that’s where the fun ends. It’s that self-control thing that most of us wrestle with.

Self control? Take stock of our lives and most of us register a “fail”. Not that we’re perfect performers with the first eight. But doing what we do not want to do, and not doing what we should do is arguably the biggest challenge in the “How now shall we live?” department.

Take our fascination with everything online, particularly social media. The news has been awash in recent weeks with stories of tech leaders hanging their heads in shame, admitting that the industry has known for a long time that we are latched to smartphones in the same way addicts are slaves to their substances: the technology relies on the same neural pathways.

The former president of Facebook admitted that they rely on dopamine, which is released when the brain expects a reward or gains knowledge. “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he was quoted as saying. Another ex-Facebook VP told a business school audience that he “felt tremendous guilt … we are destroying how society works.” We are becoming antisocial, unhealthy, addicted and less intelligent. Sobering stuff. And quite possibly true. But does it have to be this way?

I get a lot of my news online, but I also read newspapers the old fashioned way. Old and new. Hmmm. Here’s a suggestion: what if we opened our eyes to our human frailties and tendencies and recognized all this as temptation and refused to give in?

Enter that crazy little thing called “self control.” As I admitted to my congregation last Sunday, I frequently get lost on a bunny trail of click bait. But when I become aware of my human nature (and the guiles of the devil) I take control. More than that: social media actually helps me focus. For example, I typically read a newspaper with a smart device at my side. When I want background, I tap and click and I get enlightened. But then – and here’s the key – I don’t go further. I return to the article in question and carry on. No rabbit hole.

Self control takes time, practice, endurance, and discipline. Imagine that. What’s old – taught by our grandmothers – is suddenly new again.

Deceived by Packaging

How often do we stop and consider the meaning of our words – the absolute and true meaning? Take the word “resolution”. In everyday use, especially at this time of year, it refers to a New Year’s decision to change. Frequently, the resolution dies within a few weeks or months. Life goes on. But check out the deeper meaning. “Resolution” is one of those words used in different contexts. One meaning provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is “The smallest interval measurable by a scientific (especially optical) instrument; the resolving power.” I like that. A high-resolution photo is sharp, no matter how much it is enlarged. Technically speaking, the highest-resolution photos are the best quality.

I recently read Faith Undone by Roger Oakland. It’s a scathing dissection of the emergent church. His argument is that while the movement may appear to be the wave of the future – some even call it a new Reformation – it’s rooted in ancient spiritual practices that are at odds with sound, traditional, biblical Christianity. Even those in the movement who brand themselves as conservatives and evangelicals have been deceived by Satan, the author suggests. There’s no use condensing the book’s message or even reviewing it in this space, as I could not do it justice. I do urge you to read it. For me, it was an eye-opener.

I am now listening and reading more closely, more critically. I have a minister friend who always listens intently to what I say. More than once, he has caught me speaking untruth, tossing out nuggets of wisdom as if they were Scripture. But does the Bible really say that? Uh, no. Guilty. While annoying and somewhat embarrassing, I have come to appreciate his attention to detail. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV). We need to be there for each other.

I recall visiting a church where I got talking with a man who had been a member for more than fifty years. On the wall behind him were photos of every minister who had served during his time. I asked if he remembered them all, and he said that he did. I asked if one stood out above all the others. He pointed to one. When asked why, he described his theatrical style, his voice, and his pulpit presence, bringing Scripture to life like an actor on a stage. Lacking in his description was any reference to content, theology, proclamation of truth, or calling sinners to repent. In this dear gentleman’s mind, it didn’t seem to matter.

I have a strong sense that we are all subject to such deception – myself included. So, my resolution is this: that 2018 be the year in which I learn to listen closely, to read carefully, and to pay close attention to the content and less to the packaging, all with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

I think I can? I know I can!

These unforgettable lines from the 1930 children’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, became a motivational mantra for generations.

And they are just as powerful today. I read the story – via PowerPoint – at our after-school kids program recently. It was an illustration of Proverbs 28:20: “A faithful person will be richly blessed.” I was taking a chance. Would the message come through despite the dated language and lifestyle? I delivered it with dramatic punch – and it worked! The kids chanted the lines with me. Timeless messages can shine through ancient illustrations.

In the same way, it’s worth knowing that an old-fashioned small group gathering retains its power in an age of online everything. That’s how my congregation, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Dresden, Ontario, is tackling the reports handed down by 2017 General Assembly for study. We have partnered with Knox Presbyterian Church, Wallaceburg, and have contracted a recently-retired Presbyterian Church in Canada minister to take the lead. We started with two evening discussions on physician-assisted suicide. We heard intelligent questions, profound insight, and powerful stories. Four evening presentations and discussions on sexuality and marriage are on tap.

As moderator of the Presbytery of Essex-Kent, I took privilege and closed our September meeting with a pep talk. Our denomination’s action on sexuality and marriage will change us in a profound way, no matter what we do, hence the importance of these conversations at the congregation level.

Yes, the volume of documents is heavy, in every sense of the word. Yes, many of our minds are already made up. But we still need to gather, pray, and talk.

At the 2017 General Assembly, some commissioners were opposed to the additional motion to add the Life and Mission Agency (LMA) report to the document pile. We already have four documents, and the challenges of predominantly aging and declining congregations are already a burden for our ministers. I will never forget the final speaker, a young minister of a small-town charge: “I have no problem finding the time for important theological reflection,” he told assembly.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the conclusion of the LMA paper or are passionately opposed; we are called to study it. The Apostle Paul’s command to submit to governing authorities demands it. In Dresden and Wallaceburg, we are committing an entire evening to it.

On the issue of finding the time, our Saviour’s words in Mark 9:24 come to mind: “Anything is possible if a person believes.” Jesus was chastising His disciples’ inability to cast out an evil spirit, but this truth can be applied to any ministry. We can get through it. We can do it.

Gathering in person to pray, open the Bible, and apply its timeless truths to postmodern problems may be considered old school. But with faith, it will happen. We can wade through lengthy documents and provide Reader’s Digest versions on PowerPoint or in print, as many have done in recent weeks.

The Renewal Fellowship is encouraging all congregations, whatever their theological bent, to study these documents. Earnestly pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal truths and untruths.

I think I can? I know I can, for anything is possible if a person believes.

Speak Up!

At first glance, 105 pages of reading isn’t all that much.

But not all reading is equal. The stack of documents each congregation is being asked to study and report on by the end of January contain some profound and hugely divisive material. We know that many in The Presbyterian Church in Canada pay no attention to matters sent down from General Assembly each year, and this year the temptation is even greater. They may say “It’s too much for our brains and schedules to handle” or “We can see the writing on the wall and our voices won’t matter.”

Wrong and wrong.

If there is ever a time to speak up, it’s now.

Renewal Fellowship exists, in part, to encourage The Presbyterian Church in Canada to be strong and courageous in the face of secular and liberal forces which say we are on the wrong side of history.

I believe too many evangelicals with a healthy respect for biblical purity are afraid to speak up. It’s easy to get the feeling that we are on the margins, even in our own congregations and presbyteries.

But here’s the good news: The Holy Spirit-fueled, apostolic, conservative, and evangelical elements of the PCC are larger and more vibrant than we may think.

Twenty years ago, it took real guts for a hetero person to publicly support the gay community. Now, it takes the same courage to stand up for traditional beliefs.

Be counter-cultural in a Christlike way. You have many friends. We are here to pray for you and with you. We are here to encourage you and listen. This is a time of great decision in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Make your voice heard.

God’s will be done.

Rev. Andy Cornell, Executive Director