Tuesday, 7 June 2016

What Evangelical Denominations can Learn from the United Church of Canada's Atheist Pastor

Demolition of the "Shared Church" in Fort St. John, BC
Demolishing Church

I was getting groceries one day a couple of years ago as the demolition of the church building which was shared by the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada congregations of Fort St. John was happening across the street.  It seemed a fitting physical picture of a spiritual reality that has been playing out over the last 80+ years in these denominations and the local congregations that make them up.  These two congregations got too small to afford up-keep on the building they shared.  But the reason these congregations shrunk so small was that the denominations of which they are a part have been on a doctrinally and morally compromising, culturally accommodating trajectory for so long, the vast majority of faithful Christians went somewhere else, somewhere that still believes in and practices what Scripture teaches.  God has vacated the official denominational leadership and most of the local church bodies because the denomination kicked out the Holy Spirit in favour of the spirit of the age.

I've written about certain aspects of the secularization and compromise of United Church of Canada before here.

Now comes this story about an atheist pastor.  If this weren't so tragic, it would be funny.  The best satirist couldn't make this up.  I recommend reading the linked article first, then following up with some further thoughts below. 

Deconstructing God

Well, if you've read the article I linked above, now you see what I mean.  If this is reality, how can a satirist compete?  Below are some quotes from the article, interspersed with some of my own commentary.....I tried not to be too sarcastic....honest.  It's really hard not to be a bit sarcastic, however, when you are writing about a pastor who doesn't believe in God and who wants everyone in the church to quit believing in God too. 
Vosper was ordained in 1993, during which she was asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. 
So, was she speaking metaphorically when she told the ordination committee that she believed in God or did she add the metaphorical qualification to the interviewer who wrote the present article?  If the former, shame on them.  If the latter, shame on her.  While most of the ordination committee likely also rejected the bulk of traditional Christian confessional truth (based on how long she has been ministering and the state of the denomination by that point), both they and Vosper had to know that at that point there were still a good number of people in the pews who actually believed God exists, you know, like really, not just metaphorically.  This "confession" of belief in the triune God was dishonest at best, but very possibly out-right deceitful.

A pastor's vocation is to call people away from sin and idols and toward God.  A metaphorical God can't save real people from their real sins.  But Vosper doesn't believe that sin is the problem with humanity.  She believes that archaic notions of God and related old-fashioned ideas like people's need for salvation, and an ancient book containing wisdom and God-inspired revelation still relevant for today are the problems people in the church need to be rescued from.  Vosper seems to have been looking for a platform to voice her own opinions against the very truths this church (at least once) held to.  Now, pastoring is attractive to some folks....you won't get calluses, and you can be part of a big labour union (I'm not kidding - see first link above).  However, I'm guessing that in the beginning, no one in her congregation knew they were getting a minister who didn't even believe that God exists.
Some eight years later, vexed by the archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible, she delivered an off-the-cuff sermon in which she deconstructed the idea of God. “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs,” she says. “I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.”
It must have been really hard for her to put up with all the "archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible" for eight years, especially after not having to put up with it in whatever post secondary institutions the United Church pulls ordinands from these days.  How backwards of people to believe in a supernatural divine being who intervenes in human affairs.  I mean, what do these people think this is, a church?  And can you imagine that the prayers and hymns and liturgy all reinforced such ideas?  What kind of unenlightened, backward, superstitious people believe stuff like this?  Good for her to take a stand and make sure her congregation knew she didn't believe that kind of stuff.  I can't believe she ever let those people force her to become their pastor in the first place.  Oh, wait.  They didn't force her.  She purposefully pursued the role of pastor in a (at least to some remaining degree) Christian church.  Well, I almost want to ask her what she expected to find in a Christian church besides notions like God, the Bible, sin, salvation, prayer, hymns, the cross and resurrection, etc.  This is like a nudist submitting a job application to be a clothing model without telling anyone she's a nudist, then being irate when she is expected to try clothes on and pose for pictures.  Or a vegetarian applying to work in a butcher shop.  Or a teetotaler applying to be a sommelier.  Or...well, you get the idea.  I like to think I am not the only one who sees the ridiculousness of this situation.  But seriously, it seems Vosper doesn't believe in sin, except for the sin of believing in concepts like sin.    
She braced herself for a negative reaction (from coming out as an atheist). To her surprise, church leaders said they were intrigued by the direction she was heading and encouraged her to push forward.
No kidding.  Well, those same church leaders had hired all the seminary professors, ordained all the ministers and oversaw the decades-old demise of the United Church up to that point.  Why should the church leaders all of a sudden step out of character and demand that their pastors believe in a literal God who intervenes in human affairs, and other outmoded notions like that?
What followed was years of Vosper and her congregation retooling the service at West Hill. References to God and Jesus became talk of love and compassion and prayer was replaced with community sharing time. The removal of the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 proved to be a critical test, sending attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and leaving the church’s financial strength in tatters. “The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church,” says Vosper. “So it became the lightning rod for all of that loss.”
When Vosper finally got rid of the last thing that held this congregation to "previous generations of church," what she actually did was to finally get rid of the last, (by this time) hollow vestige of the liturgy and therefore, the last remaining tatters of the worship of a Christian church.  The content and substance was already long gone.  She was just chucking the empty wrapper.  When everything that holds a congregation to the "previous generations of church" is gone, it is not a church anymore.  Every other statement from the Apostle's Creed had already been deconstructed, disavowed, dismembered and discarded, some of it through the denomination's long history of self-destruction, and the rest of it since Vosper took over this local congregation.  The historic "communion of saints" with previous generations of the church (2000 years of it) in the praying of the Lord's Prayer is just a leftover, difficult to extract only due to the inertia of tradition and the comfort of familiarity. 

My main question is why so many people stayed on so long in light of the fact that God himself had already been chased from the congregation.  They had already run the Lord out.  Why did they lose so many people when his prayer finally followed?
Throughout this time Vosper couched her strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics, describing herself as a non-theist and, later, a theological non-realist. In 2013, moved by the case of Bangladeshi bloggers facing persecution over their reportedly atheist views, Vosper began calling herself an atheist. “I felt it was an act of solidarity,” she says, likening it to the use of the word feminist to in the 1970s. “If I shelter myself by not using that term, that’s unfair to everyone who is being maligned by the use of that term.”
Couple things.  There's a technical term for couching your "strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics": its called lying.  This "minister" ought to have told her congregation from the start that she denied even the existence of God (not to mention every other point of orthodox Christian doctrine).  And shame on a wayward denominational leadership that would place someone who denied everything resembling orthodoxy in a position of leading a local congregation that still did hold some semblance of traditional Christian belief.  Secondly, any "pastor" (and I use the term about as lightly as it may be used) who cares more about solidarity with atheist bloggers on the other side of the world who are being persecuted for their anti-God blog posts than for the eternal destination of her own flock is a hireling and worse, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  On the other hand, its good to know she has a standard. 

After complaints from other United Church ministers (far too little, way too late, but nice gesture folks) and others, Vosper is going to face a review.  Her opinion:
She sees the review as a betrayal, as the path she has forged is a logical one in a church that has always prioritized moral teachings over doctrinal beliefs. “I’m a product of the United church. It taught me to critique the Bible as a human construction … This means everything that it says is up for grabs, including God.”
First of all, when the United Church quit prioritizing doctrinal beliefs, it didn't start prioritizing moral teachings but immoral ones.  It will always trend this way.  You cannot abandon Christian doctrine and keep Christian morality any more than you can remove a foundation and hope the roof stays up.  But let's be honest.  The reason the United Church has been on the trajectory of removing biblical Christian doctrine is precisely because the powers that be don't really want biblical Christian morality either.  It would have been more accurate to say that the United Church has always prioritized cultural trends and societal values over biblical doctrine and morality. 

Back to the question of the review Vosper is facing.  She sees it as a betrayal, and honestly, she is exactly right.  She really is being consistent with the direction the United Church has been going for decades.  Its been decades since the United Church as a whole believed the Bible was the inspired and authoritative Word of God.  They long ago began viewing it as a merely human work, and one full of bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, and a dozen other nasty isms.  She is only carrying the trajectory of the United Church further toward its logical conclusion.  Her problem is that she skipped a couple steps of gradation.  Most of this denomination and its leaders and ministers expelled God and orthodoxy a long time ago.  As far as I can tell, the real issue with Vosper is not that she went too far but that she went too fast. 

What Can Evangelicals Learn from an Atheist Pastor in a Decimated Denomination?

I think the article speaks for itself and ably demonstrates where a church will ultimately go when they abandon the authority, sufficiency and centrality of the Word of God, exchanging it for every wind of secularist cultural doctrine that wafts along.  It is important to remember, however, that the United Church didn't make one big drastic change overnight.  Rather, this change came over decades of denominational dialoguing, special task forces formed to study the surrounding society rather than the scriptures, standing committees struck to examine an issue, asking how much traditional Christian content can be dropped without the majority of the people leaving for other churches, etc.  Each supposedly small compromise was like poking a little hole in a dam.  The compromises were each a seemingly little accommodation to the cultural and intellectual breezes blowing in their day, and each one was on a subject that the church leaders, each on their particular watch, did not consider to be something essential to the core of the Christian faith. 

There were the questions of big "L" liberal theology (about miracles, deity of Christ, virgin birth, literal creation ex nihilo, inspiration of Scripture, uniqueness of Christianity, inter-faith dialogue, nature of the atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc.) and there were the questions of the cultural pressures and trends of the day (regarding ordination of men unqualified to minister, then ordination of women, then sexuality, marriage, family order, moral standards, etc.).  But both sets of questions are inseparably linked.  You can't hope to poke holes in biblical doctrine without biblical morality leaking out all over.  Ultimately, all those questions were entertained by a church leadership who had quit caring about God's perspective and worried only about how people viewed them.  The leadership didn't worry about God's evaluation of them, but only about what the surrounding secular and secularizing culture thought of them.  Their concerns were not over truth, but over intellectual respectability and cultural relevance.  Paul's words to the Galatians (Gal. 1:6-10) comes to mind: 
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
For am I now seeking the favour of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.
The reason denomination leaders, pastors or anyone else doesn't just get to edit or change the gospel message the church is called to proclaim is in the very next verses (Gal. 1:11, 12):
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
But each compromise poked another little hole in the authority of Scripture.  As all this happens over time, the people who poked the first hole in the dam would likely never have imagined the block of mushy Swiss cheese currently spewing water through a thousand hippo-sized holes.  But there it is.  There is nothing left of the United Church of Canada overall but the memory that this was once a Christian denomination (again, I know there are still some faithful individuals and congregations in the United Church of Canada - I was invited to preach in one once - but I am speaking of the overwhelming trends in this denomination as a whole).  Each change was small and incremental.  Each early change was considered to be non-essential to the faith and by the time the later changes came, no one was concerned with essentials of the faith anymore.  And each change was made for the purpose of cultural relevancy and to bring non-churched people in.  But this is not how the church works.  The church is God's creation and it must function in God's way.  Denominational leaders on special standing committees are never wiser than God and their cultural surveys are never truer than God's Word. 

People can't be helped if truth is not the main ingredient in the medicine.  People might still go to the United Church, new people may even occasionally show up, but these people aren't being called to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.  Those showing up in the pews of the United Church today are typically going to have their preconceived and culturally informed notions affirmed rather than challenged.  This is like showing up for a chemotherapy session for your lung cancer and having the doctor pass you a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Most people sitting through a sermon in the United Church of Canada today may just as well stay home and watch Oprah, or listen to a Rob Bell sermon.

The reason most people have now abandon these churches either for conservative Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches, or for the local branch of the Rotary Club, is because a church that will sacrifice any of its little convictions and beliefs until all their big ones are gone too can't possibly minister to people's "little" day-to-day needs.  And if you can't help them walk through the little day-to-day things, you will never help them walk through the big things of life in a truthful and wise way either, things like vocation, marriage, children, death, etc.  The world is full of sin, and so are people.  People need to be told the truth about sin and the cross of Christ.  They don't need the church to change to become just like them - sheep without a shepherd.  They need light, they need truth, they need a shepherd, they need a saviour.  And they need churches to faithfully proclaim that Saviour and to help them follow that Shepherd. 

The truly sad thing is there are many evangelical churches and denominations today that are making the very same small compromises to the culture that the United Church has made over the years and they are doing it for many of the same reasons.  "Is this really an essential point of doctrine?"  "Isn't traditional Christian morality on this point just a bit harsh considering our unchurched and post-Christian culture?"  Many of the questions that evangelicals are asking today are just another way of asking, "has God really said.....?"  Today formerly biblically faithful denominations and individual churches are compromising on the clear biblical standards for pastoral ordination, on the biblical definition of marriage and context for sexual relations, on the ultimate authority of Scripture, and on many other clear teachings of historic Christianity.  Each issue seems to be its own debate, but in reality all of these issues are really one, foundational debate - is the Bible God's authoritative Word for all of life and doctrine for all people for all time or is it not?  Those who are trying to morph the church into something else completely (like Vosper) recognize this is the real issue.  Hopefully more evangelicals will come to recognize this also, and soon.

[This is not to say that all things of the faith are of equal importance.  There are essential matters (such as those confessed by the historic ecumenical creeds), there are important matters which are not essential (such as those often dealt with in confessions), and there are matters that are of lesser importance (by gradation).  However, churches that don't take the Scriptures seriously when thinking through even the matters of lesser importance (over which faithful Christians may differ and still be faithful and maintain fellowship) often end up transforming over time into churches that don't take Scripture seriously over the important or essential matters either.] 

Deconstructing Scripture

Now Vosper is working on something she calls revisioning Scripture.  Basically, she is taking her favourite passages of Scripture and removing all the stuff she doesn't like....you know, like God, for example.  Good thing the Bible isn't copy written. Oh wait - it kind of is. 

Unfortunately for her, the Bible actually is copy written:  "...if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city..." (Rev. 22:19; see also Deut. 4:2; 12:32).  And no, I don't take that to apply only to the words of Revelation but also to the whole canon of Scripture which Revelation closes.  "If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy...."  How much worse if the person taking away words from Scripture is a minister in the Church; how much worse if the first word that minister takes away is "God"?

There is, however, more than one way to deconstruct Scripture.  It can be done by removing all the pesky words we don't like, like Vosper.  But it can also be done even when we retain all those words.  It can be done simply through reinterpreting all those pesky words so that they don't mean what they have always meant or what God inspired them to mean.  This is the Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride) school of hermeneutics:

"This word you keep using...I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is often where evangelicals begin eroding the authority of Scripture.  Usually evangelical churches and denominations don't start snipping words out of the pages of Scripture, like a bunch of Thomas Jeffersons.  They usually begin by questioning the plain meaning of those words and suggesting perhaps the church has always misunderstood what certain passages mean.  Perhaps we've not taken into account some key context or we've missed some nuance.  I'm not saying these types of questions can't be asked of the text of Scripture legitimately; they can and they should be.  However, it seems to be almost a rule that compromising evangelical churches find all the nuance in the areas of biblical teaching that the unbelieving culture is pushing hardest against.  And soon enough the stuff that embarrasses us or that makes us sound harsh when we simply take the Bible at its word is redefined, relegated to a historical context which is no longer applicable, or some such thing.  Pretty soon, some key area of Scripture has been redefined to the point where the truth it used to communicate can be abandoned.

But God's Word is made up of words, words that God himself inspired.  The church may not simply abandon those words or the concepts they describe without jettisoning some of the very language God has used to make the church what it in fact is:  a people formed by God's own self-revelation through the gospel of Jesus Christ as communicated by the words of Scripture and applied to the church by the Holy Spirit.  We are what we read, in a sense.  We are, and we are to become more conformed to, who God says we are in his word and made us to be through his Word.  And if we effectively rewrite the Scriptures, we remake ourselves in an image God never intended for us....much like the United Church of Canada has done.

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