OPC’s Doctrine of Assurance Blamed for Bergdahl’s Religious Uncertainty
In this day when America is, for better or worse, trying to wind down its war against radical Islamist jihadists, Skidmore College Professor and Director of Religious Studies, Mary Zeiss Stange, opines in a USA Today piece that we don’t think enough today about how religion can be a source of evil as well as good. Just let that sink in for a moment. But Stange’s focus is not on radical strains of Islam. Hers is on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. You know, that “hyperconservative offshoot of the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA” which she calls “Calvinism on steroids” because it “sees the world in stark either/or terms” in which you are either “saved and bound for heaven. Or you are a sinner, treading a one-way path to the fiery pit of hell.” She characterizes the struggle to discern one’s eternal destiny as “making extraordinary demands on a sensitive young person’s conscience and conduct.” Having painted this dramatic portrait of my denomination with such colorful brush strokes, broad as they may be, she then proposes the possible diagnosis for the “chaotic mood swings” which lead to Bowe Bergdahl’s “transformation from gung-ho warrior to pacifistic deserter”: “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church compels followers to feel the inner spark of absolute certainty of one’s own God-given righteousness.” This is what we hyperconservative Calvinists on steroids call “assurance of salvation.” But Stange’s description of this teaching is overly simplistic, and with the use of the phrase “absolute certainty,” she is associating the OPC with that predominant flaws of the fundamentalist movement. In the doctrinal standard of the OPC, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find a little more nuance in what we confess about the Bible’s teaching on assurance. Chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 3, reads,
This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Likewise, in Chapter 18, “Of the Assurance and Grace of Salvation,” the doctrine is treated more fully. Section 3 again demonstrates our allowance for degrees of assurance which may often fall far short of Stange’s portrayal of “absolute certainty.”
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
These excerpts indicates that not all will come to “absolute certainty” regarding their assurance of salvation, but this lack of absolute certainty does not necessarily entail the absence of faith. A weak faith, maybe, but a saving faith nonetheless. Since 2012, the congregations of the OPC have been praying that Bowe Bergdahl would come to faith in Christ, if he truly does not believe, or, if he does, that the Lord would strengthen that faith, that he might grow up “to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of [Bowe’s] faith.” We are careful to point out that assurance is a goal, yet it is not a constant, unwavering quality of the genuine Christian life. For those who find this assurance of faith elusive, it is our desire to comfort, encourage, and point them again to the imputed righteousness which Christ procured by his humble, sinless life, propitiatory death and glorious resurrection in the Word of God preached, and signified and sealed to them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these are ordinary means of God’s grace which can develop an assurance that is not contingent upon the strength of one’s faith, or the quality of his works. So it’s not as if those of us who believe in assurance of salvation strive to keep the heat turned up on people to make sure they get some “feeling” of certainty, or else they’re in trouble. That is mischaracterization of the doctrine of the grossest sort on the part of Professor Stange.
Yet it is just such a one-dimensional view of the doctrine of assurance which Professor Stange would have us believe makes my religion a “source of evil.” The idea that moral absolutes and the search for assurance of salvation are bad is consistent with the contemporary religious and philosophical culture in Western civilization, where secularism and relativism are the virtues of our time. I can’t help but see the climactic light saber duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which the latter paraphrases Jesus (and George W. Bush) by declaring the ultimate either/or proposition, “if you’re not with me, then you are my enemy,” to which the former replies, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
That’s right, dear reader, if you affirm the Ten Commandments, and believe that only through repentance of sin and faith in Christ can one find assurance of salvation from eternal conscious torment, then to liberals like Mary Zeiss Stange, whose kind of view is currently in favor, you have embraced the Dark Side, and your form of religious extremism is what makes people want to kill the innocent and take over the world, and it may even be what stresses our kids out when they can’t “feel” this “absolute certainty” and makes Bowe Bergdahls of them. I never cease to be amazed by the logical leaps which liberals make about orthodox Christianity. It’s positively fundamentalistic.
But Bergdahl’s woes cannot be the sole responsibility of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, because, from what I’ve read, the Bergdahl family were members of two different OPC congregations in the past, neither of which exist today. I’ve heard that it is possible that they may remain under the oversight of their regional presbytery, and Bob and Jani do retain an ongoing relationship with pastor turned missionary Phil Proctor, but the OPC does not seem to be as solely influential in the life of the Bergdahl’s, Bowe least of all, as it may appear.
The Bergdahls: Muslims? Christians? Traitors? Patriots?
For five years, citizens of the United States have waited, wondered and prayed for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl who was taken into custody by the Taliban on June 30, 2009 after leaving his outpost (OP) in Afghanistan. While there were indications of possible desertion on Bergdahl’s part, and a 2012 Rolling Stone article reporting email correspondence between Bowe and Bob Bergdahl in which Bowe expressed rather distressing sentiments critical of the United States, many of us did not follow the story closely enough to be aware of these things. As far as people like me were concerned, Bowe Bergdahl was a straightforward victim of the war in Afghanistan, who was bravely suffering for his country in the hands of the enemy.
As you may or may not be aware, I am a member of a congregation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). One Sunday in 2012, a flyer was distributed to our churches, calling on us to pray for the health, safety and faith of Bowe Bergdahl, and peace of mind for his family. Responding to this call, our congregation, and many like ours, corporately prayed for the Bergdahls. This flyer was the most I would read about Bowe Bergdahl until this past weekend when he was released, and his father, Bob, raised eyebrows by reciting a Muslim prayer from the Koran in a personal statement to Bowe. This, added to the growing awareness of Bowe’s desertion and possibly traitorous intentions while among the Taliban, and Bob’s recently publicized tweet expressing his desire for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, has made the person of Bob Bergdahl the object of much controversy as well. People wonder if he converted to Islam, or if he is an Islamist sympathizer.
Even I began to wonder, given our denomination-wide efforts to pray for the Bergdahls, if they were at least still members in good standing of an OPC church, and inquired about this on Facebook, hoping for some input from OPC ministers with which I am in contact. I did learn much in private messages with my FB friends which was reassuring regarding the ongoing Christian faith of the Bergdahl family. It is safe to presume that Bob and Jani Bergdahl have become all too familiar with the Christian grace of perseverance over the last several years, and, despite the release of their son, no end of their need for perseverance seems to be in sight. Prayer on behalf of the Bergdahl family remains a tremendous obligation.
Details about Bowe and his leaving his outpost, statements by fellow soldiers who knew or were involved with recovery operations, and the political and national security implications of releasing the Taliban figures from indefinite detention, continue to dominate the daily news. Yesterday, the Washington Post published a profile of Bob Bergdahl and World Magazine has now also run a story featuring the perspective of the Bergdahl’s former pastor and friend, Phil Proctor, who remains in contact with the Bergdahl family.
Today in my Facebook newsfeed, I discovered another statement from Proctor who wishes to silence the rumors that the Bergdahls have converted to Islam or seek to aid Islamist efforts against the United States. This statement was posted by Andy Webb, Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on his Facebook page, The Outer Monologue. Phil Proctor writes:
I appreciate your asking about the Bergdahls. I’ve really been saddened about how the Christian community is jumping all over this. Here’s the deal…
I pastored the Bergdahl family in 2003, prior to going to Uganda. We were very close, and remained so throughout my time in Uganda (I just found out this evening that apparently I’m referenced in some important Rolling Stone article from 2012).
Bowe was a young man with all the dangers of home-schooling—a brilliant and inquisitive mind, a crisp thinker, and someone who had never really been exposed to evil in the world. He was wanting to determine whether the Christian faith was his own, or his parents’ and was doing a lot of exploring of ideas—never drugs or alcohol, but trying to be an outdoors/Renaissance type figure. We’ve stayed in close contact with Bob and Jani, especially since Bowe’s capture. Since we moved here to Northern Virginia, Bod and Jani have stayed in our home on a couple of occasions and I’ve spoken on the phone with Bob once a month or so.
Bob felt (with some justification) that the US government was not going to engage with diplomatic efforts and so decided to try to free his son himself. He learned Pashtun and developed a lot of contacts in the Middle East. The Qatar connection is one that either originated with Bod or, at the very least, became very personally connected to Bob. Bob has, for quite some time, been saying that the closure of Guantanamo is integrally connected to the release of his son.
Whatever one thinks of Bob’s political views, I can attest to both he and Jani’s unwavering commitment to Christ and trust in him. I’ve prayed with both of them regularly. They both have been through a torture mill that I cannot begin to comprehend—5 years of a living death. It has affected their health, both physically and mentally, as Bob has been completely obsessed with tracking down any possible communication avenue to get his son home. There are a number of things I would disagree with Bob on in terms of political statements, but at the end of the day, I think this whole mess is a WHOLE lot more complicated than a 30 second sound bite (sic) can explore—the very existence of Gitmo attests to the complicated nature from the very beginning, and it’s only gotten worse over the years.
To the foundational issue: Bob and Jani both have regularly confessed their dependence upon Christ and rest in him—the most recent being Bob’s conversation with me about a month ago. They are broken peop;le who need prayer, love, and compassion. I personally intend to run as hard as I can in the opposite direction of judging his words in the moment of his crucible—I would HATE to have that standard applied to my moments of stress, which have never reached anything approaching his intensity and duration!
Feel free to forward this and use it as widely as you like.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor, Sterling Presbyterian Church (OPC)
FYI, My most recent conversation with Bob and Jani was 30 minutes ago. Still Christians.
Exposing Myths Regarding Slavery and the Crusades
The September 9 episode of the White Horse Inn featured an interview between Michael Horton and Jeffery Burton Russell, author of Exoposing Myths About Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends. The following is an edited excerpt from this interview, in which Russell summarizes in layman’s terms common misconceptions about Christianity’s guilt regarding chattel slavery and the Crusades. I hope you find these to be helpful thumbnail sketches:
Horton: The moral questions–that Christianity is intolerant–if you look back at the history of Christianity, very often that criticism is wrapped up in lots of things, like getting hit with tennis balls coming out of that machine; they’re shooting at you so quickly you can’t bat them away.
[They say] Christianity is intolerant. Look at slavery; look at the history of injustice towards women. There’s just so many problems, that Christianity cannot possibly keep its promise to make the world a better place.
Russell: Yeah, let’s just mention a couple of them. Let’s look at slavery, for example. Well, it’s precisely Christians who did away with slavery. People may point out that people had slaves; well, so did everybody else! Slavery was unfortunately a worldwide institution in the ancient world. The whole movement against slavery was started by Christians: by Catholic bishops and Protestant clergy. They were the great leaders of the movement, first to abolish the slave trade, and then to abolish slavery altogether. So, Christianity’s record with regard to slavery is extremely good.
Unfortunately, we know that many of our founding fathers had slaves, but again, it was Christians, not atheists, who moved against the institution.
Then, on the intolerance question: people always raise questions about the Inquisition and the Crusades. The Crusades are somehow seen as a colonialist, Western invasion of indigenous peoples, and view it as a terrible thing. But people seem to be ignorant of the background of the Crusades.
The background of the Crusades is simply that all of the southern Mediterranean lands from Spain to all around North Africa, to as far as what’s now Iraq and Iran–these were Christian territories with Christian populations. The great cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were the centers of Christian bishops, and this is a thoroughly Christian area up until the 600’s. In the 600’s, the Arabs quickly come out of Arabia. By 750 BC, the Muslims defeated the Byzantine Empire and occupied most of the Christian lands. So it’s not as if Christians were attacking these innocent people who had been there for ages and ages.
Christians were fighting a defensive war. The immediate cause of the Crusades lies in the fact that most of the Muslim rulers that previously allowed Christians to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, had taken over Jerusalem, and by the 1080’s were forbidding any Christians to go to Jerusalem, and that created a horrible reaction in Europe. So the Crusades were to open up the pilgrimages back to Jerusalem.
So, in a sense, there is no doubt that a lot of the Crusaders behaved very badly. We certainly have plenty of evidence of that. But the motive of the Crusades, and the motive of most of the Crusaders were to open up the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to take back some territory that the Muslims had taken from them 400 years earlier.
Horton: So in many of these cases, one, it’s just that we don’t understand enough of the historical background; and two, that we sort of anachronistically project our standards of universal human rights on cultures that in any case–whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever—simply had no reference for what we are talking about.
Russell: Yeah. There’s a lot of projection, on the part of historians in the last forty years, of modern values and attitudes back onto the past. It used to be that our aim was to open minds to the various ways of thinking: how did Babylonians think? How did the Chinese think? Christians, Jews and so forth. But now, most teaching of history seems to be very propagandistic. Instead of opening peoples’ minds to various points of view, most historians seem to be imposing a particular ideology on their students and teaching them only one side of things.
“Understanding Islam” on 9/11
I just received word that James Walker, former Mormon and founder of Arlington, Texas-based counter-cult evangelism ministry Watchman Fellowship will be speaking this Sunday, September 11 on the subject of “Understanding Islam” at Mansfield Bible Church in Mansfield, Texas. If any of my readers are in the area and are so inclined, I recommend this ministry to you.
Here’s the text from a page at Mansfield Bible Church’s website introducing you to Watchman Fellowship and the credentials of James Walker:
|Date: Sunday, September 11, 2011 – 9:30 am
Duration: 1 Hour
Guest Speaker: James K. Walker
James Walker, the president of Watchman Fellowship, is a former fourth generation Mormon with over twenty years of ministry experience in the field of Christian counter-cult evangelism, apologetics, and discernment. He has been interviewed as an expert on new religious movements and cults on a variety of network television programs including Nightline, ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He has spoken at hundreds of churches, colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout the United States and internationally.
Rev. Walker holds a BA in Biblical Studies and an MA in Theology (Summa cum Laude) from The Criswell College in Dallas. He serves on the faculties of Arlington Baptist College and The Criswell College as adjunct professor and co-teaches an annual workshop on alternative religions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an ordained Baptist minister and a member of the Society for the Study of Alternative Religions, the Evangelical Press Association, and serves on the Board of Directors of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions.
In addition to network television, Rev. Walker has been interviewed as an authority on alternative religions and cults on numerous nationwide Christian radio programs. These include Truths that Transform with Dr. D. James Kennedy’s, Hope for the Heart, with June Hunt, Open Line with Kirby Anderson on the Moody Broadcasting Network, and Marlin Maddoux’s Point of View. He also hosted a video training program on witnessing toMormons for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
James Walker was born in 1955 to a Mormon family in Jacksonville, Florida. As a fourth generation Mormon, he was trained in their programs. At the age of eight he was baptized and received the “laying on of hands” for the “gift of the Holy Ghost.” In his teens, Mr. Walker participated in the baptism for the dead rituals in the Mormontemple in Salt Lake City. He also received the Aaronic Priesthood in which he served as Deacon, Teacher, and Priest. Mr. Walker left the Mormon Church and in 1976, he received Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
Rev. Walker joined the staff of Watchman Fellowship in 1984 and became president of the organization in 1994. Watchman Fellowship is a nonprofit educational organization headquartered in Arlington, Texas, with additionaloffices around the country and in Romania.
Watchman Fellowship is an apologetics and discernment ministry that provides research and evaluation on cults, the Occult, and new religious movements from a traditional Christian perspective. Rev. Walker is directly involved with evangelism and apologetics in a variety of related fields including Mormonism, the New Age Movement,Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Way International, Armstrongism, the Unification Church, Christian Science, Satanismand the Occult.
He teaches and preaches throughout the United States and internationally in hundreds of churches, colleges, and universities. He has also spoken at the chapel services of a number of seminaries including
In addition to teaching, he has also organized and participated in evangelistic outreaches at Jehovah’s Witnesses’ District Conventions, Mormon temple openings and pageants, and New Age events.
Because of his background and love for those lost in the cults and alternative religions, James Walker has invested his life into reaching them with the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. His desire is to work together with local churches to evangelize those in the cults and to bring them into healthy, Bible-centered churches.
© Copyright 1994-2008 Watchman Fellowship, Inc.. All rights reserved.
The Hermeneutics of Insider Syncretism
On this week’s episode of the Christ the Center podcast (#263, “Insider Movements“), Dr. David Garner is interviewed about his recent article in Themelios, “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel,” analyzing the hermeneutics underlying the Insider Movement, a sociological and anthropological approach to contextualizing evangelism without calling on people whose identities are tied to other world religions like Judaism, Islam and Hinduism to disassociate themselves from those religious, cultural and family ties, but to work inside them and transform their approach to those religions in light of the teachings of Jesus. While it is noble to attempt to find a way to minimize the risk of loss or danger a Jew, Muslim or Hindu (for example) may face upon becoming a Christian, it is unfaithful to the Jesus they claim to follow if they would settle for living to distort their new-found faith with the teachings and practices of the religion with which they have previously been associated. Living to syncretize Christianity with non-Christian world religions is not a faith worth living for or dying for.
This movement is clearly in contradiction with the teachings of Jesus to those who would follow him. Jesus carried his cross and died on it for those who believe, and he calls on believers to take up their cross, follow him, and be willing to live publicly for him and, if need be, accept rejection by leaders of other religions, communities and families, even if such rejection includes dying for him.
I know it’s easy for me to say, and to criticize those who would find a way around it, but I too have a cross of self-denial to carry if I am to follow Jesus. I must kill my own sin (a struggle which involves suffering and risk of social rejection on my part), and publicly acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior and associate myself formally with his people, the Church (Hebrews 10:25), serving him with my time, talent and treasure–loving, forgiving and giving to my brothers until it hurts. Should the time come that the culture or community in which I live demands that I deny my Lord Jesus Christ, I am called upon to defy such a demand and willingly suffer the consequences in reliance upon the grace and goodness of God, knowing that if such is happening to me, it is no more than what he sacrificed for me.
One of the interesting things about this movement which Dr. Garner points out in the article and the interview is that the intellectual source of such innovation in world missions comes from the same root as the church growth movement–Donald McGavran (d. 1990) and his School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary (formerly the famous School of World Mission).
While McGavran’s efforts in his time were more theologically conservative and a reaction against liberal missionary trends, a student of his named C. Peter Wagner built on McGavran’s principles and create the church growth movement which has brought us such phenomena as seeker-sensitive worship and the modern megachurch. Incidentally, he is also the one who coined the phrase New Apostolic Reformation for the worldwide sweep of Charismatic and Word of Faith theology with a special emphasis on the restoration of the apostolic office, which movement in America has recently frightened the political Left because so many who would fall under this umbrella have modified the theonomist views of R. J. Rushdoony (for more on that, see this) and declared that they would “take dominion” over every sphere of influence in America.
Syncretism in the name of saving one’s life is no way to spread Christianity. A new generation around the world must hear the age-old truism: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” [paraphrasing Tertullian, Apology chapter 50].