Monthly Archives: October 2013

Thinking about the Liberal Arts

I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations lately about the value of the liberal arts, which is why I paid attention when I saw this scene from The Big Bang Theory in a recent re-run. Sheldon’s attitude is alive and well where I live. And despite the humor of this scene, in real life it’s not terribly funny.

The liberal arts are by definition non-productive. These are things we study simply because they are worth knowing, because knowing things like these is our calling as human beings. There are many other worthwhile approaches to study. It is a good thing to study in order to make the world a better place, to cure disease, to alleviate poverty, or to govern justly. But those are all secondary tasks that must be done in order to make space for our primary tasks as human beings: knowing, naming, offering, praising, worshipping…. These are acts that are done freely, liberally, for their own sake.


Meeting Jesus at His Table

I have a new post about the nature of thesacrament at the ECO blog



HPPC’s Vote Today on Joining ECO

The following is now posted under “News” on the website of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Dallas (
Welcome to ECO, friends.

HPPC Votes to Change to New Presbyterian Denomination
October 27, 2013
Thank you to everyone who attended today’s Congregational and Corporate Meeting today at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Today our church voted to end the HPPC’s voluntary relationship with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by a vote of 89 percent in favor. The congregation also voted by 89 percent to join a new Presbyterian denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. This has been an historic day in the life of Highland Park Presbyterian Church.

The other two major motions were also adopted decisively.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” said Rev. Joe Rightmyer, Interim Senior Pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

“We are thankful that thousands in our congregation have attended informational meetings, church-family gatherings, round table discussions and prayer times,” said Monty Montgomery, elder and co-moderator of the Session-Appointed Discernment Coordinating Committee. “We’ve been impressed with the way the people have engaged and they’ve asked questions — good questions that help make genuine discernment possible.”

“Regardless of how you voted today, we look forward to moving together in Christ,” said Rev. Rightmyer.

Go to the church site for voting results.

Signs of Fall

Signs of Fall

at St Peter’s, Leuven

Jesus is like Tiger Woods

I really love this old Nike commercial. So lovely. It makes me feel like flying. I’ve been using it as an illustration in class for a long time.

So here’s how I think about it. At the time when this commercial was made, Tiger Woods was universally recognized as the greatest golfer in the world, the perfect image (or embodiment, or instantiation) of the golf swing. When the other golfers in the line move in unison with him, they participate in that instantiation. They become participants in the essence of golf. The whole line of golfers is united in a great dance of golf.

Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” in whom all things have been created, so He is the perfect expression or speaking of all things. He unites the whole cosmos in a perfect dance. Because He is the one who speaks our true name, we find our real identity by moving in unison with Him. And He never steps out of the dance, never leave us to fall apart on our own. “In Him all things hold together.”

“But you have a choice…”

Once again I have had a conversation about sexual ethics that goes something like this. 

  • I articulate a confessional Christian understanding of right sexual behavior, i.e., that marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, and that those for whom marriage isn’t an appropriate option are called to celibacy. 
  • My conversation partner then tells me that celibacy is a fate worse than death and expresses outrage that I would condemn others to this terrible way of life. 
  • I reply that as a celibate person myself I am insulted by this way of characterizing my life, that celibacy is quite survivable, thank you, and that indeed the New Testament presents celibacy as the most honorable form of Christian life. 
  • We may go back and forth a bit about what the Bible really says, about whether celibacy is honorable or horrible, whether being celibate is the equivalent of living without love (it isn’t), etc.  But eventually, this other person will say to me, as if it’s the clinching argument: “Yes, but you have a choice.”  The implication is that I, as a heterosexual person, am free to choose whether to marry or not to marry, and that this somehow delegitimizes everything I’ve said about the value of celibacy for homosexual people, who have no choice.

Which makes me begin inwardly grinding my teeth in frustration.  But by that point, the conversation is usually so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to make a clear argument.

So here’s the answer I ought to give at those moments.  (I’m going to set aside for now the question of the extent to which any choice is ever free, and how the liberty of secondary causes interacts with God’s providential care.  Save that for another time.)

First, yes, I have had a choice.  Twice in my life I have been close to getting married, and each time I walked away because I became convinced that marriage would have been disobedient to God’s will.  In each case, I was dating a man who was at best spiritually immature (in one case, perhaps not really a Christian at all).  If I had been truly discerning and obedient, I wouldn’t have dated either of them in the first place, but I believed that I was in love, and yes, love can be blind.  At least I saw the truth before I made the decision to get married.  So yes, I had a choice – the same choice that confronts anyone for whom marriage would not be obedient.  I could choose to obey or to disobey.  I chose obedience, which is the same choice I ask other people to make. 

Second, no, I haven’t had a choice.  After those two early relationships, I fell seriously in love with a godly man, whom I wanted to marry.  He didn’t want to marry me.  That’s the nature of marriage: it needs to be chosen by two people, not just one.  This is not a consumer decision, as if spouses could be ordered from a catalog to fit one’s timing and needs and desires.  Most of the single people I know didn’t make a decision that they really, really wanted to be single.  Singleness is the situation within which we find ourselves for a whole host of reasons, some of which have been under our control, some of which have not been; we’re called to be obedient within that situation.  The Bible does not tell us that we only need to be chaste if we’re single by choice.  Singleness that’s unchosen must still be obedient, and yes, like many single people of no-matter-what sexual orientation, I know about that.

Third, yes, I have had a choice.  In the years since I wanted to be married, I have listened to God, and obeyed God, and come to a place of peace with God’s call on my life.  I’ve been able by His grace to consent to the choice that God made for me, which is indeed a way of making a choice of my own.  At this point in my life, I have come to be grateful that I didn’t get my way many years ago.  I have surrendered.  Again, this is the same choice I ask other people to make, though I recognize that it usually takes years and years to make it.  Sometime the things we freely chose once are now the source of our pain, and sometimes the things we didn’t choose at all become the source of our blessing.     

Fourth, since when are we only ethically responsible for situations that we’ve chosen?  Most of life’s ethical challenges happen precisely in situations that no one would choose – situations of trial, of temptation, of pain, of hard choices.  Should you be exempt from the commandment to be faithful to your spouse because his Alzheimer’s was not your choice?  Should you be exempt from the commandment not to steal because your financial troubles were not your choice?  Should you be exempt from the commandment not to kill because you didn’t choose to feel threatened or angry?  Of course not.   All of us are always dealing with a mix of things we have chosen and things we have not.  God requires obedience in all of it.



The Christian Reformed Church: A Familiar Trajectory?

When I saw R. Scott Clark’s blog posts about some recent Banner articles (here: and here:, I decided I had better get caught up.  What I’ve discovered is a very discouraging fiasco.  Why is it that confessional Reformed folks are so often entranced by liberalism?  Why does the surrender of ethical and confessional standards look so appealing to people raised in the CRC?

I know something about trying to live out a Reformed identity without recognizing the normative value of our confessional tradition.  Just over a year ago, I left the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination I had loved and served since 1987 and in which all my pastoral work has been exercised.  The PCUSA has grown more liberal in many ways over the past decades, and it was becoming more and more difficult for me to remain a member of this denomination with integrity.  In the summer of 2012, I transferred my ordination from the PCUSA to a new denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  (Our website is here: 

The PCUSA likes to think of itself as “a big tent,” in which a variety of theological approaches and moral views are accepted.  The problem is that such “tolerance” only works for those who think that matters of theology and ethics are relative and contextual, in which case it makes perfect sense to be accepting of those with whom one disagrees.  The only people who are not welcome in the big tent are those who reject a relative view of theology and ethics, who believe that the Bible and our Reformed confessions continue to speak authoritatively to questions of faith and practice and that the denomination should be held accountable to those standards.  The relativists will say to such non-relativists, “Of course you’re welcome here, but you need to be as accepting of us as we are of you,” refusing to recognize that requiring non-relativists to become relativists isn’t really accepting their position on anything at all. 

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and educated at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary.  I became a member of the Calvin College faculty in 1999, and in 2003, when I became the college’s Dean of the Chapel (a position that no longer exists), I was ordained into the ministry of the CRC (while still retaining my Presbyterian ordination).  I’m part of the CRC.  But the current state of conversation in the CRC about theology, about cultural engagement, and specifically about sexual ethics exasperates me, because I hear us making the same mistakes that the PCUSA made before us. 

Some of my friends in the CRC seem to think that this would be a good thing.  They speak to me with wistful longing about the “freedom” of the PCUSA.  This is a romantic vision that is unrelated to the truth.  The PCUSA is not a place of freedom, but a place of chaos, lacking any clear direction, and losing members at an alarming rate.   It is a denomination without a spiritual or theological center that is unequipped either to offer sustenance to its members or to proclaim the gospel to the world.  There are faithful pastors and congregations within the PCUSA, many of whom are my dear friends, but they are working in a difficult mission field, and their situation should not be envied. 

The CRC has resources in our confessional heritage to keep us from falling into this same situation.  We need to regroup around them.  As long as we insist on defining the Reformed tradition as nothing more than “engagement with culture” we are destined to end up following the PCUSA in its descent into irrelevance.  The Reformed tradition is not simply a posture of engagement toward the world (which is what passes for the Kuyperian vision in many parts of the CRC).  It is a theological and confessional tradition that has real, objective doctrinal and ethical content on which we must insist.  The Banner should be a place where we read thoughtful articles about the meaning of that tradition, perhaps even articles that disagree with one another about exactly what our confessional commitment require of us.  But there should be no place in The Banner for articles that simply call for discarding our theological tradition.  Let people who advocate such positions publish in one of the PCUSA magazines instead.