Licensed to save

In August, I delivered a sermon at the United Church that my parents attend, in Peterborough, Ontario. This month, there’s a story in the news that has me thinking back to my sermon.

Here’s an audio excerpt from the introduction, with a portion of the excerpt transcribed below it:

The text we’re about to read [Mark 3:1-6] says that authority can be used in one of two ways. Authority can be used to do good, or to do harm. It can be used to save a life, or to take a life.

As I was writing this sermon, I gave it the working title, “007 and Jesus”. That’s rather odd; I assure you, there’s no mention of James Bond in the text I’m about to read.

The thing about 007 is that he was licensed to kill, just as every secret service agent with the double-“0” designation was licensed to kill. James Bond is viewed as a glamorous character:  evidently, if you have the authority to kill, that’s pretty cool.

Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t have a double-“0” designation. He wasn’t licensed to kill; he was licensed to save. In my books, that’s even cooler than being licensed to kill.

The text that I’m about to read stands as a warning to the Church, in this era and in every era. It warns that we are to do good, not harm, to the vulnerable people who are entrusted to our protective care. That, like Jesus, the Church is licensed to save.

Here in Canada, there’s a story in the news that has me reflecting on that sermon. Bishop Raymond Lahey, of the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, was arrested earlier this month:

Raymond Lahey was carrying on his laptop images of young boys engaged in sexual acts when he tried to re-enter Canada, according to a search warrant application released Thursday.

Some of the boys appeared to be as young as eight years of age, it states.

Father Lahey resigned as bishop of Antigonish the day after he was charged with possessing and importing child porn. The charges were not public at that point and he cited personal reasons for his decision.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Halifax said Thursday night that she could not say whether Father Lahey had been on church business during his trip.

The search warrant application reveals that multiple red flags went off after the 69-year-old cleric flew from London to Ottawa last month. He was singled out for secondary search at the airport for no fewer than five specific reasons, one of them repeated travel to countries known as sources of child pornography.


GWDCS: Manifesto and Episode One

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son.

GWDCS: Guys Who Do Cool Stuff. It’s the title of our summer men’s program at the Bridge Youth Centre. I’ve been volunteering for the Bridge since this past fall. It is a Christian organization geared around reaching out to “youth” from lower-income backgrounds within urban centres, with “youth” being a loose term that represents people ranging from 10 up to 25. Their tactics are unorthodox, their theology conservative. And often, it’s a stretch for people like myself (middle-class university kids) to get their heads around the world-within-a-world that exists even in innocuous places like downtown Peterborough.

Guys Who Do Cool Stuff is oriented towards young adult men that participate in other programs at the Bridge. It’s a males-only program, as the name implies, which might be politically incorrect in some of the better-off circles in our culture (Cubs is no longer boys only, for example), but hardly raises an eyebrow at the Bridge. And it’s refreshing, in a beat-the-pants-off-that-other-guy sort of way! 🙂

Because of the great time we had with our first get-together this past Wednesday (July 1st), and because I’m stoked for the rest of the summer, I figure I’ll post the videos to the blog, for your viewing pleasure. First, our man-ifesto (and the first taste of the male humour. Sorry ladies, for some of the lame jokes!):

And now the first week’s adventure:

And yes, that’s me, blowing it within three seconds by taking off a friend’s head.

Afterwards, we discussed how men should treat women, and what to look for in a woman. There were life stories, and Biblical examples. Even though we were short on guys, the conversation was solid and the event was great fun. And best of all, we’re reaching out to young people that Sunday morning services simply fail to connect with!

On Abortion

Abortion, argues Andrew Sullivan in his book The Conservative Soul, has been made the pre-eminent political issue not by rational citizens, but by fundamentalist Christians. Their position, he claims, flies in the face of reason, and seeks to undermine the principles of freedom upon which our society has been based. While conservatives maintain freedom of choice for the individual, the fundamentalist demands social adherence to a strict set of rules, which go above and beyond human judgement. And the abortion argument — that all people should have to ascribe to a zero-tolerance policy — is an affront to choice and part of a larger theoconservative project of restructuralization.

And yet, of all the issues Sullivan could have chosen to attack, the abortion issue is probably the least plausible. Others which he focuses on are much more feasible. Taste in music? A choice of individuals. Religious beliefs? A choice of individuals. Homosexuality? Also arguably a choice of individuals, although the “choice” argument is as often used against them as for them. But the one issue he seems most intent on confronting is the only one where a black and white overruling of individual choice seems to be logical. And in the same line of thinking, it is actually reasonable for abortion to be made into the most important issue in an election, as some Republicans have attempted to make it over the last decade.

Take Chris Selley’s position in a recent blog post at

I’ve long argued (not here, but elsewhere) that despite legitimate concerns over how Canada’s legal vacuum on abortion came about, ours is the single most logically coherent way for any nation to allow its citizens freedom of choice. A fetus is a fetus, and subject to the choices of its host, until it’s entirely outside the mother, at which point it’s a human being. The other pro-choice frameworks out there in the world aren’t without virtue, but they suffer from arbitrariness. In Sweden, for example, restrictions kick in at the 12th week, well before any definition of fetal viability. Why 12? Ten’s an even nicer round number, surely. And in systems that bestow protection on fetuses at or around the point of viability, such as in the UK, the arbitrariness is revealed whenever gaggles of politicians, very few of whom are OB/GYNs, start campaigning to lower it.

Canada doesn’t mess around with any of that. And as Cynthia Gorney pointed out in a brilliant piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, neither does Sarah Palin. Her views, says Gorney, represent “abortion opposition at its most coherent.”

If a fetus is genuinely a child from the instant of conception, then the law can’t permit killing it for any reason except the extraordinary circumstance of an emergency to save a woman’s life (and in some right-to-life circles there’s argument about that, too, or whether equal measures should be taken to save woman and unborn alike).

Selley misses the ball in a few ways. But his overall point is sound. If a position on abortion depends on the humanity of a fetus, it is logically a black and white issue. There is no grey if the core reasoning depends on a yes or no conclusion. For this reason, Sullivan and other realists like him are missing the mark when they say that yes, there is a logical middle ground that the extremes should be ascribing to.

However, the debate is clearly not quite as black and white as this. There are many factors which contribute to one’s thoughts on abortion. And I’d like to consider these, and through this dialogue justify what I think to be the right position on abortion. Consider it a response to my father’s post a couple days ago if you like, or a response to some of the comments on my own post slightly earlier. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I don’t hope to sway many people, but what I really aim for is to justify the theoconservative position on abortion, and hopefully show that we “fundamentalists” can think, too.


A sign of the times

“To think that someone would come and steal from a church, it’s hard to swallow,” church warden Rosalie Webb told CBC News.

What were the thieves after? Heating oil.

It’s a sign of the times, I suppose. Perhaps in more ways than one.

Where the women aren’t

Nebcanuck and I were recently discussing complementarianism. It’s a doctrine, popular among some evangelical (or fundamentalist) Christians, which states that men and women have different, complementary roles in the Church.

I reject complementarianism in favour of the alternative position, egalitarianism. It’s an issue of longstanding importance to me. I’m happy to return to the issue from time to time because the strong arguments in favour of egalitarianism bear repeating.

The complementarian position

So-called “complementarianism” attempts to put a positive label on the politically-incorrect notion of male headship:  i.e., that women are always to be under male authority. Scriptures like 1Ti. 2:11-13 are regarded as determinative of church practice:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (Today’s New International Version)

I end the quote at verse 13 because the reference to the order of creation is crucial. Complementarians argue that this is not a transitory rule, required only in the first century context. The rule is rooted in creation and therefore permanent and universally binding.

The egalitarian position

It is obviously true, biologically, that men and women have different and complementary functions. But complementarians elevate this into a general principle, and forbid women to exercise leadership in the church or to teach men. I suppose complementary in this context means, “I rule and teach, and you follow and learn.”

But if women are no less intelligent than men, no less responsible, and no less vessels of the Holy Spirit —

“In the last days,” God says,
      “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
      your young men will see visions,
      your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
      I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
      and they will prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18, TNIV)

— how is it that complementarians prohibit women from leading or teaching men?

Texts in tension

It’s important to note that the issue doesn’t turn on one side remaining faithful to scripture while the other side repudiates scripture. The issue turns on which scriptures are regarded as paramount. While complementarians emphasize 1Ti. 2 (and other, similar texts), egalitarians emphasize Acts 2 (and other, similar texts).

In other words, an interpretive problem arises when we try to reconcile one thread of New Testament teaching with another thread of New Testament teaching.

For example, St. Paul says (1Co. 14:33b-38 ) that women are to be silent in church. He states that this is the rule in all the churches (taking the latter half of verse 33 with the verse that follows — translations differ on this point).

But elsewhere in the same letter, St. Paul refers to women prophesying and praying. Indeed, as long as women wear a symbol of authority on their heads (1Co. 11:5-16), Paul indicates that it’s OK for them to pray and prophesy during corporate worship.

On the face of it, there’s a contradiction between these two texts, even though they were written by the same author in the same letter. One of the texts must be qualified (interpreted narrowly) in order to bring the two texts into harmony with one another. The question becomes, Which text is paramount, and which text must be construed narrowly?

Rules vs. actual examples

New Testament texts diverge in a similar fashion on the topic of leading and teaching. As with the 1 Corinthians problem, the pattern is this:

  1. On the one hand, there is a rule that women are to submit to male authority (which makes it out of bounds for them to teach men) ;
  2. On the other hand, there are actual examples of women carrying out ministries that involve leading and teaching.

Thus we can rephrase our earlier question:  Is the rule paramount? — or is the church’s practice paramount?

In one of his books, John Stott (a leading evangelical) lists the following biblical examples of women leaders:  Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, Philip’s four unmarried daughters (who prophesied), the women who prayed and prophesied at Corinth, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Junia.

That’s quite a list! It establishes an a priori case that God approves of women ministering in ways that necessarily involve leading and teaching. As in Acts 2, we see the Sovereign Lord pouring out his Spirit on women and empowering them for ministry.

Urban legend debunked

As someone who has heard a large number of sermons in his lifetime, I can tell you that this urban legend (debunked here) is frequently used as a sermon illustration:

The urban legend is that if you place a frog in cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will not attempt to jump out of the pot and will appear as if it is feeling no pain and will gradually boil to death. The story is that being that the frog is cold blooded, its body adjusts to its surrounding environment and it will simply “allow” itself to boil to death. It is often used as a metaphor to say that gradual change can be imperceptible, when compared to a major change, or just throwing the frog into boiling water. …

Vic’s [Dr. Victor Hutchison of the University of Oklahoma] answer was as follows: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Hat tip James Fallows, who points out that Al Gore used this illustration in An Inconvenient Truth. In a different post, Fallows points out, “It’s mean to the frogs to keep talking about them this way.”

The emergence of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism

Evangelicals are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns, from disease in Africa, to the environment, to racial reconciliation. And they want to be a witness to these values instead of a tool in the power games of others.

Newsweek. The last sentence of the quote aptly characterizes where American evangelicals have positioned themselves for the past twenty-five years:  as a tool in the power games of others.

(Perhaps I should speak of “Christianists” — the term by which Andrew Sullivan distinguishes this politicized group from other evangelicals.)

The mainstream US media has recently published a couple of articles hailing the arrival of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. The New York Times reported:

The founding generation of leaders like [Jerry] Falwell and [James] Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene [either dying or retiring]. … Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions.

There are many related ways to characterize the split:  a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty.

In my experience, concern for the environment is also taking root among younger evangelicals.

I hope Newsweek and the Times are right to suppose that this represents a generational shift. I’m not quite convinced yet, but I’m hopeful.

There are two trends to consider. The Times is alert to one of the trends, which involves very large, “seeker sensitive” churches.

The church pastored by Bill Hybels averages 20,000 in attendance each week. To maintain a more personal touch, it makes use of 2,600 small groups. The Times comments:

Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America; in the last 15 years, his Willow Creek Association has grown to include more than 12,000 churches. Many invite their staff members and lay leaders to participate by telecast in Willow Creek’s annual leadership conferences, creating a virtual gathering of tens of thousands. …

As his stature has grown, Hybels has seemed more willing to irk Christian conservative political leaders — and even some in his own congregation. He set off a furor a few years ago when he invited former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of his conferences. And the Iraq war has brought into sharp relief Hybels’s differences with conservatives like Dobson.

… On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.

The other trend is more of a grass roots phenomenon. There is a rising interest in something called the “Emergent” church. Or “movement”, or “conversation” — Emergent leaders are uncomfortable being defined by labels.

The Emergent movement reminds me of the internet-driven political campaigns of Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Yes, there are identifiable leaders (e.g., Brian McLaren), but the movement as such has no hierarchy, and is not identified with any individual. It is amorphous — a concept that has spread virally — a meme.

As such, it isn’t clear how much impact the Emergent movement will have on Christianity. It could self-destruct, as Howard Dean’s political campaign did in 2004. On the other hand, it might represent the beginning of something new in Christianity:  a way of doing church differently in a postmodern era.

The thing to note is that these two trends, so different in approach, have similar ideals with respect to social issues. There’s an amusing, semi-serious description of the seven layers of Emergence on a Christianity Today blog. Consider the seventh “layer”:

Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church? … To their amazement, [the article’s hypothetical congregation] discovers significant swaths of the Bible (such as the Pentateuch, prophets, gospels, and epistles) talk about justice, poverty, and compassion. The church begins to speak about social issues and participates in efforts to combat poverty, AIDS, and global injustice.

This paragraph takes a bit of a cheap shot at the Hybels model of doing church — “Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church?” Emergent folks tend to be critical of the megachurch model. Nonetheless, the paragraph’s emphasis on poverty, AIDS, and global injustice is consistent with the mission objectives of Hybels’s church.

In the convergence of these two trends, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. The reader may note an approving nod to the Emergent movement in the name of my theology blog, Emerging From Babel.

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