Sharing Kingdom Burdens and Opportunities with “Mainline” and “Separated” Brothers and Sisters

Sharing Kingdom Burdens and Opportunities with “Mainline” and “Separated” Brothers and Sisters

Back in the 1990's a certain American Presidential candidate ran on the unofficial slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid!” For thoughtful Christians today, that should translate into, “It’s the Kingdom, disciples!”

Authentic Biblical ministry is always “Kingdom ministry.” Mark’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus came preaching not the church, not a denomination, not political ideologies, not even doctrinal formulae; instead, He came preaching the Kingdom. It’s all about the Kingdom.

When I address our congregation’s new member classes, I always say, “You’re not obligated to join Highland Park Presbyterian Church by going through this class. After going through the class, if you come to Christ, but then feel led to join Faith Lutheran Church – Hooray! Our job is to get you into the Kingdom, and then help you find your way to a Kingdom congregation. We’d love to have you here—if that’s where the Lord is leading, but if not, we simply rejoice that you’re in the Kingdom.” It’s all about the Kingdom.

I’m glad that the Executive Committee of the World Reformed Fellowship was Kingdom-oriented enough to invite a “mainline (old-line) sideline” Presbyterian to be a part of this volume. I count it a real privilege to be part of this effort as we cross over racial, political, geographical, and denominational boundaries to embody “harambe” in service to advancing the Kingdom. I believe that being a Christian mandates me to look for what I have in common with other Christians, rather than focusing on the differences.

John Frame in his book, Evangelical Reunion, says that a good way to foster a spirit of unity among diverse Christians is to tell three jokes about your denomination. So, here goes:

(1) How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Change?!!

(2) A chronologically-gifted lady went to her Presbyterian USA pastor and asked if he would conduct a funeral for her recently deceased dog. The pastor graciously and gently explained why, theologically and Biblically, he didn’t do funerals for animals. Matter-of-factly, the lady replied, “Well, I guess I’ll go down the street and talk to the Baptist pastor, then, and see if he’ll do the funeral. If so, I’ll give him the $500 honorarium,” With that, the Presbyterian pastor exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me the dog was a Presbyterian?!”

(3) A Presbyterian pastor went bear hunting. He wandered into a blind canyon and suddenly found himself cornered by a giant, ferocious grizzly bear who was blocking the only way out. The pastor aimed his rifle and the gun jammed. The grizzly raised upon his back legs and was poised to attack. The pastor dropped to his knees and began to pray, “Dear Lord, please turn this grizzly bear into a Christian.” Suddenly, a great miracle occurred. The bear dropped to his knees and began to also pray, “Father, for this food we are about to receive, we give you thanks. Amen.”

Yes—believe it or not—there are evangelical, Reformed Christians still left in the mainline denominations. I am actually only one of millions. Lest you question my truly Reformed pedigree, let me state: “I’m a seven-point Calvinist. I found two that Calvin missed!” In all seriousness, I left seminary priding myself on being a “Four-Point Calvinist”….the problem being, of course, that thorny doctrine of “limited atonement.” At a conference, early in my ministry, I made the providential “mistake” of sharing my stance with Prof. John Gerstner of Pittsburgh Seminary. He stared right through me and said, “Son, I want to have dinner with you tonight.” That night, over dinner, he put me in the “Calvinistic crucible” and helped me see that, unless you’re a universalist, everyone has a doctrine of limited atonement; the only question is - Who limits it? Us, or God? If us, then you and I are ultimately sovereign over our salvation, not God. His final words to me were, “Son, you’re going to have to decide to either go with your gut or with the gospel of grace. You better make a choice soon.” Haunted and convicted by Gerstner’s manifesto, I decided to go with the gospel of grace and replaced my “Elmer Fudd theology” with John Calvin: I went from “TUIP” to “TULIP.”

But, if I’ve seen the light of evangelical, Reformed faith, why have I remained in a mainline denomination like the PCUSA? I won’t rehearse here the dirty laundry of the PCUSA. Suffice it to say that if anyone is aware of the deep theological and moral crises that continually plague the PCUSA, it is I. Actually, I’ve tried to leave….twice….but the Lord won’t let me go. Being wired, missiologically at heart, my prayer has always been, “Lord, I’ll go wherever you call me to go, or stay wherever you call me to stay.” So far, God has not let me leave what is a very spiritually dysfunctional denomination. Instead, He’s helped me see the PCUSA as a “mission field.” I’ve never run from the mission field. Please pray for the PCUSA….and those who stand for Biblical orthodoxy within that denomination as well as other mainline bodies. Each year, it becomes increasingly harder to be an evangelical, Reformed Christian in the PCUSA. I go back and forth between wanting to cut and run, and being “Athanasius contra mundo.” I will stay until the Lord releases me. I believe the Lord has called others out of the PCUSA as a judgment against her, but so far I’m not one of them.

One crucial thing that helps me stay is the challenge of cultivating a Kingdom vision versus wallowing in denominational myopia. Wherever I’ve gone in ministry—San Antonio, Baltimore, and Dallas—I’ve made a top priority out of remembering that my ministry is not chiefly about me, my church, or my denomination. It’s supremely about the larger Kingdom. This has caused me to seek out and forge relationships with pastors across denominational lines who have a similar Kingdom vision. In Dallas, this has meant that for the past six years I have been in a covenant group with Jim Denison (Senior Pastor of Park Cities Baptist Church) and Skip Ryan (Senior Pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church). Every other Monday we meet for lunch and to laugh and cry and pray together and hold ourselves accountable to our calling. There was an immediate chemistry between the three of us. Three different denominations, but only one faith. We’ve not let issues of polity or baptism keep us apart. As we have—by God’s grace—modeled partnership between our churches, to our churches, to the larger church, and to the world, the laity of our three churches have observed the fun we have together, and have grown—from the grass roots up—a ministry called “Churches Together” where our three churches collaborate on Kingdom ministry as a witness for the Lord. So that you know just how much of a God-thing our covenant relationship is, never in six years have we three Senior Pastors ever talked worship attendance, membership or budgets!

Please don’t axe PCUSA and other mainline types, from your map of the Kingdom. We need you….and you need us. We need to be and to work together. Though 19th Century Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney was not very Reformed, he did get it right when he said, “Whenever there’s a Presbyterian General Assembly, there’s a jubilee in hell!” Despite that reality, the two marks Calvin used to identify true churches still exist: (1) Where there is true preaching of the Word; (2) Where there is right administration of the sacraments. As for the third mark—added after Calvin—the diligent exercise of church discipline…well….there is not a whole lot of discipline that can be exercised in the PCUSA at present. When I was in Baltimore Presbytery, I had four disciplinary cases involving church officers and in each case, rather than cooperate with the measure of discipline, each officer eventually jumped ship and went down the street to liberal Presbyterian churches where they were welcomed with open arms . . . despite their lifestyles. No church perfectly lives out the marks of a true church, but we should intentionally aspire in that direction. And I believe that it is Jesus’ desire that churches that do aspire to that end, team together for ministry, worship, fellowship and service with other churches that have similar aspirations.

I am convinced that denominations are irrelevant to God as we head into a post-denominational 21st Century. There is only one Church of Jesus Christ made up of all who truly bow the knee to Jesus and who seek to order their lives under the authority of God’s Word. Jesus established only one Church, not many denominations. We, over the centuries, have allowed race, politics, geography, cultural peccadilloes, economics, class, etc., along with theological pride to slice the Body of Christ up into thousands of sinful pieces. We need to repent of our divisions, and move past them into what Philip Jenkins is calling the “new Christendom.” If you’ve read his book—and I recommend you do so—then you know that God is bringing about a great realignment of the Christian church around the world.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Christendom’s locus, power and numbers were in the “first world.” By the end of the 20th century, we had seen the demise of “first world” Christianity—the Church in the West becoming largely captive to, not only the winds of liberal theology, but also affluence, power, and a northern European/North American cultural stiffness. That malaise is now being challenged by a 2/3 world church that is growing, and worshiping, and making disciples in ways that call into question our previously held First World vision. As a whole, the first world church is shrinking. The 2/3 world church is growing like topsy. If this is a typical year—my denomination (the PCUSA) will lose between 40,000 and 50,000 members. The Rural Presbyterian Church in India is, by contrast, making disciples hand over fist. They alone will make up for PCUSA losses in about four months. You’ve heard the statistics before: somewhere around 10,000 people a day are becoming Christians in South America, Africa, and Asia. God has shifted the center of world Christianity back to the 2/3 world.

I really believe that God’s plan for advancing His Kingdom in the 21st Century involves the “rescue” of the first world church by the 2/3 world church. As I speak, we’re seeing this unfold in the worldwide Anglican communion where 2/3 world bishops and churches—who are orthodox and evangelical—are flexing their muscle (they have the votes!) and are trying to correct the aberrant course that the first world Anglican churches have taken in the areas of human sexuality and theology. In my own denomination, one of the few bright spots and signs of growth is the planting of immigrant ethnic congregations who are looking at “Mother Church” and saying, “What’s wrong with you? How did you get this way? Please come home!”

And their concern is not just with theology and human sexuality. The 2/3 world church has something to say to us affluent first-world types for whom money and power have sometimes displaced our passion for Christ. Every year, I take a mission trip into the 2/3 world. And each time, as I struggle to leave my first world comforts and conveniences behind, I meet brothers and sisters in Christ who have so much less than I do (by the world’s standards) but who have so much more when it comes to the joy of life in Christ. Every time I go on one of these mission trips, I come back wondering whether or not I’m even a Christian. Often amongst what God is doing in the 2/3 world, I am un-masked as the one—even with my true-blue evangelical Reformed faith—who quietly bows the knee to the unholy trinity of “bodies, bucks and buildings.” Back in the US, I sometimes throw a pity-party for myself when I am “persecuted” for praying at a public event in the name of Jesus. But the party soon ends when I hear about Chinese pastors who have been beaten, imprisoned, threatened with death—and when told that Christians in the first world are praying for the persecution to stop—reply by saying, “Oh, no, please don’t pray for the persecution to stop. It’s the persecution that hones our faith. It’s the persecution that keeps us close to Christ. It’s the persecution that is advancing the Kingdom in China.”

In my own congregation, we have undergone a paradigm shift in terms of how we need to submit ourselves to Christ and our 2/3 world brothers and sisters. Five years ago we decided to plant an African Presbyterian Church in Dallas because of the great number of African immigrants in our city. We brought an African pastor on our staff. We gave him money and a place to meet in our building. The idea was for him to build the church up to the point where it could sustain itself as a viable congregation. We would then ceremonially launch the new church and pat ourselves on the back for advancing the Kingdom. But a strange, Holy Spirit thing has happened. Over the past five years, big, affluent Highland Park Presbyterian Church—once the evangelical flagship church for the old Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) realized that perhaps we need the African Church more than they need us. Both congregations realized that the Kingdom would be better advanced by our staying together. We realized that we need to be re-evangelized by our African brothers and sisters. We realized that they have gifts of passion and joy that we lack and that we need to be re-discipled by them. We realized that if Highland Park Presbyterian Church was to ever approximate looking anything like the Kingdom (“from every tribe and tongue…”), we’d better assimilate our African friends into who we are and vice versa so that we might all become who God wants us to be.

Parallel to that, we’ve also brought a Korean pastor onto our Staff (this is radical for the Park Cities area of Dallas), but we are committed to advancing the Kingdom by moving toward looking more like the Kingdom. We joke and say that we are now a “mission church” of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa—but, in reality, it may be more serious than joke. Two-thirds world church, we need you to come and rescue us! The mainline church has gone a-whoring—we constantly toy with heterodoxies and aberrant sexual lifestyles, in addition to addiction to wealth and affluence that have led us to compromise the faith once delivered to the saints. All of these aberrations arise because, in our affluence, we have the luxury of toying with such idols. We need you to intervene, slap some sense into us, and show us through your lives of authenticity and integrity in Christ, the heights from which we’ve fallen. There is hope for the mainline church. I don’t believe the Lord has completely given up on her yet. One of the reasons I wanted become involved with the World Reformed Fellowship was so I could be in more direct contact with Christians from the 2/3 world and, in that contact, issue a cry for help. Please pray for the Western Church. Please say “No” to our foolishness. Please send missionaries to re-evangelize the West.

Let’s partner together for the Kingdom’s sake. I believe a Reformed, evangelical Christian is someone of any race, tribe, or nationality who believes:

(1) that the Scriptures are our supreme authority and our infallible guide for faith and practice;
(2) that Jesus is fully God and fully man and the only way to salvation;
(3) that people have a need for personal conversion to Christ in order to be saved;
(4) that the Holy Spirit is Lord over the process of election;
(5) that missions and evangelism are priorities for the Church, and
(6) that people need to be a part of the Christian community for worship, fellowship and service.

Wherever I go, I encounter countless people in mainline churches who affirm these six things. I find Anglican, Lutheran, even Roman Catholic evangelicals that assert and live out that—or a very similar—corpus of faith. In this increasingly post-denominational age, I find myself having more in common with people from all kinds of denominations who hold to “mere Christiantity” than I do with many of my fellow PCUSA clergy. Both heresy and schisms are sin—one against truth, the other against unity and love. As we strive for an authentic, Biblical Kingdom vision, as we seek to advance the Kingdom together by partnering with believers across all sorts of denominational, geographic, political, racial, and class boundaries, I believe we’re headed where the Lord wants us to go. Whenever I want to draw the boundaries too tight, when I’m tempted to draw someone out of the circle over some fine point of theology, I’m reminded of what Francis Schaeffer calls “The Mark of the Christian.” If we can’t reach across our differences and diversities (those that do not compromise the core of evangelical, Reformed faith) and join hands and treat each other with love, then we give unbelievers, who observe us fussin’ and fightin’, the right to walk away from Christ.

The Lord has preserved a remnant in the first-world, mainline churches. Don’t write us off. Don’t forget us. We want to partner with any and all who are about Kingdom ministry. As I often tell my congregation: “For God so loved the world….,” that the only question remaining is, “Will we allow God to love the world through us?” I believe He can and will do that better if we’re working together, not apart.