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.
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.