Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Introduction to A Growing Church: A Bible Study in Ephesians 4

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Today I had the opportunity speak at the Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) breakfast associated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in San Jose, California. This was a special privilege because I have such high regard for PFR and its ministries. But it was also a challenging opportunity because many signs at are our General Assembly are foreboding. It seems quite possible that this Assembly will vote to unravel many of our denomination’s long-term commitments, especially to holiness within heterosexual marriage. This isn’t certain, but it may very well happen, and that will be a sad day. It will also create a major mess for evangelicals in the PCUSA, some of whom will be in a new fight for the truth, and others of whom will decide that they’ve had enough of this denomination. I’ll be in the keep-on-fighting crowd, but I sure understand why people get tired of this sort of thing and want to focus, not on interdenominational battles, but rather on the mission of Christ. (Photo: San Jose, California, with the convention center in the foreground, the location of the General Assembly.)
I should add, however, that just because a General Assembly votes to recognize gay ordination or same-sex marriage, this doesn’t make it legal. Such matters still have to be approved by the whole church through its governing bodies [presbyteries], and the presbyteries have a history of upholding biblical truth in the wake of non-biblical General Assembly actions.
My message to the PFR breakfast, was, on the one hand, a word of encouragement related to the General Assembly. Many at the breakfast were voting members of the Assembly, and may be called upon to speak up for biblical truth in the next few days. (They need our prayers!) On the other hand, my message was meant to challenge us with respect to our larger mission. Nothing that happens at the General Assembly will change our basic calling as Christians, though it might complicate the ways we Presbyterians act out that calling.
In my next few posts I will share with you the text of my message at the PFR breakfast. I did not read this text verbatim, but spoke using my manuscript as notes, so what I said was not exactly the same as what I’m printing. But the main themes and most details are the same.
If you’re not a Presbyterian, or not a member of the PCUSA, at any rate, you may wonder if this series on The Growing Church will be helpful to you. A few of the details won’t fit, of course. But I believe the main points in this series talk, which are not my own, but come from Ephesians 4, will speak to you no matter your denominational affiliation. We all need to grapple afresh with the challenging and inspiring insights found in the fourth chapter of one of my favorite books of the Bible.
Tomorrow I’ll begin putting my sections of my address, which will probably require about four posts to complete.
In the meanwhile, I’d ask for your prayers for this General Assembly and for the PCUSA as a whole. We may be in for a rocky road ahead, which is not to say the past thirty years have been smooth ones. I must confess that I’m worried about the health and future of my denomination. But, just to be clear, I am not worried about the health and future of the church of Jesus Christ. Though the church might take a battering, in the end, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Thanks be to God!



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smithson

posted June 25, 2008 at 3:47 pm


Your steadfastness with the PCUSA is admirable – kind of like the Violinist on the deck of the Titanic. You may do well to re-consider your stance. My original thought in reading this blog is that ‘growing church’ and ‘PCUSA’ is the ultimate oxymoron. In fact I’m sure you would be hard-pressed to name 10 growing and dare I say, thriving PCUSA churches in America today. The PCUSA is shrinking to the point where in 10 to 15 years it will be largely irrelevant. Continued direction towards liberal theology will only hasten their demise.



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Jennie

posted June 25, 2008 at 4:33 pm


Even though it’s frustrating, it seems worthwhile for there to be continued conversation about issues in general assembly, even uncomfortable ones. As a dyed in the wool Presbyterian, it would be my pleasure to welcome homosexuals into equality with all the rest of us sinners. Once that barrier is down, I believe a whole lot of ministry could take place. And, it saddens me that there are still people who segregate themselves and claim superiority; ironically, participating in ongoing sin, just like those they judge. However, I’d sure rather be in continued conversation about it, and then sometimes, come to some compromise, then be in a denomination without Assembly (Ted Haggard’s church for example … hmmm). Even though we don’t and won’t agree on all issues, I’m glad you’re keeping up the fight and offering encouragement, as well.



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Thomas Buck

posted June 25, 2008 at 6:45 pm


Wow! Just read Ephesians 4. What a great chapter!
I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve got to say, Rev. Roberts.
May the Lord give you a peaceful heart as you continue to seek His will.
Tom



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Chris Giammona

posted June 25, 2008 at 7:59 pm


Mark
I will be praying for you and the GA this week. I remember your posts on this subject over the past few years and I know you have struggled with the decision to stay in the PCUSA.
CHris



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John C. Key MD

posted June 25, 2008 at 9:48 pm


Mark my prayers are with you and the PCUSA as I’ve followed this topic via your blog. Al Mohler discussed it on his program this week as well. I pray for God’s guidance and the faithfulness of the delegates.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 25, 2008 at 11:25 pm


smithson: Though I somewhat agree with your Titanic analogy re: the PCUSA as a whole, there are in fact hundreds of strong, thriving, Christ-centered, growing PCUSA churches. That’s part of the good news, and a reason many of us have hung in there for so long.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 25, 2008 at 11:43 pm


Jennie: Unfortunately, the issues now go far, far beyond the question of ordaining gays and lesbians. There used to be a legitimate and honorable debate in the PCUSA about this, one that took Scripture seriously. But now, for the most part, those who favor the ordination of gays and lesbians really don’t care what the Bible says, except in large generalities. Of much greater concern to me is their willingness to abandon bedrock doctrines, like the authority of Scripture and salvation through Christ as the one Lord and Savior. As a denomination, we are moving ever closer to building our house on the sand.



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smithson

posted June 26, 2008 at 12:20 pm


Living in Denver I do not know of one such ‘growing and thriving’ PCUSA church – glad to hear that they do exist in other parts of the country. My kids go to a thriving PCUSA university – but it thrives because it has largely separated itself from PCUSA control – that, and the fact that its President stands for, as you say, bedrock biblical doctrines; i.e. biblical authority and the Lordship of Christ.
I will pray for you and those like you within the PCUSA. Your work is cut out for you – but I know that leaders like you can make a difference to a point. Question. At what time do you abandon ship? When, in your mind, does the PCUSA cross the line that causes you (and others like you) to say enough is enough and withdrawal? I have read your blog for years now, and believe I know where you stand biblically. Would the ordination of gays / lesbians be the final straw? And if not, what would it take – or is the tradition you have with the PCUSA more important than being right biblically? I now this isn’t a black and white issue – just seems to me that the shade of gray is getting darker…



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Mark D. Roberts

posted June 26, 2008 at 1:01 pm


smithson: I don’t know the Denver area. I do know that there are two outstanding PCUSA churches in Colorado: First Pres Boulder and First Pres Colorado Springs. Both are solidly biblical.
Your question about when to leave is a good one, and may be even more relevant in the days ahead. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what I’d do if the PCUSA changes its Book of Order to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians. I couldn’t support that, but should I leave and continue to fight for what’s right? Or should I go? I know that if I were ever personally compelled to do something I believed to be wrong, at that point I’d leave. But I’m not quite sure what I’d do if I were free to follow my conscience, but others in the PCUSA were doing, with approval, that which I consider to be wrong. This is a tough one.



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smithson

posted June 26, 2008 at 3:28 pm


My pastor went through this – ultimately leaving the UPC. Most of his congregation (including myself) went with him – joined the EPC. The PCUSA church that was left ultimately closed its doors (sadly) – still sits empty today. I know how agonizing it was for my pastor to make this break. Looking back he would tell you it was the right decision – just not an easy one. My prayers are with you and the many other pastors seeking to do what is right. Please understand there is no judgement from me – being the godly man that you are, you will do what is right and for the right reasons, and God will be honored!



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Bill Goff

posted June 26, 2008 at 3:56 pm


In recent years I have not been involved in debates in the UPUSA regarding ordination of gays and lesbians so you may be correct in asserting that for the most part those who favor the ordination of gays and lesbians really don’t care what the Bible says. I am a retired Presbyterian minister who holds a high view of Scripture: it is inspired by God and authoratitive for all issues of belief and behavior. It is my study of Scripture that has led me to believe that being a homosexual does not make one a sinner any more than being a hetersexual makes one a saint. The Bible has admonitions against particular homosexual as well as hetersexual behavior.
My view is that it is our interpretation of Scripture that is crucial. In the 19th century there were plenty of Christians (propably a majority) with a high view of Scripture who believed that slavery was acceptable to God and that women were suburdinate to men. Most Christians now regard these interpretations of Scripture as quaint.
For those who want to engage in a careful study of Scripture and theology I recommend the book “Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church” by Jack Rogers, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA. Jack cannot be dismissed as someone who doesn’t care what the Bible says; nor can I. The subject is worth serious study and perhaps a series on your blog.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 26, 2008 at 4:14 pm


Bill: You’re right, of course. The issue is not one’s sexual orientation, but one’s behavior. The PCUSA doesn’t distinguish in the regard between gay or straight people. We are all called to faithfulness within marriage or abstinence outside of marriage. So a person who has homosexual inclinations but does not act on them is in the same place of a single, heterosexual person with respect to ordination. Bill, since you’ve been absent from the PCUSA debates, they have changed substantially. Almost nobody on the pro-gay side debates the meaning of Scripture anymore, except in broad generalities such as “God is love” and “Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality.” This in and of itself is a sad development in a denomination that has historically upheld the authority and relevance of Scripture. For many in the PCUSA, however, this is antique, or as they say, “vintage.” It’s old fashioned. Today’s people can know what’s right and true by paying attention to their feelings. It doesn’t require the hard work of biblical study and ultimate obedience.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 26, 2008 at 4:16 pm


Bill: I should add that, though I have had high regard for Jack Rogers and his scholarship, and I know he means well, the book you recommend is filled with errors and overstatements. I cannot share your recommendation. I’m afraid that Jack’s advocacy for the pro-gay position has made it difficult for him to grapple responsibly with the biblical text. I’m saddened by this, because Jack is a fine man.



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Bill Goff

posted June 26, 2008 at 4:59 pm


Mark, Thanks for your thoughtful responses. Regarding Jack Rogers, it was his grappling with the Bible that led him to a pro-gay position, not the other way around. I recommend his book because it is a serious attempt to grapple with this important issue from a biblical perspective. I am confident readers can decide themselves if it is filled with errors and overstatements. Most anti-gay stuff I have heard (like from James Dobson or the late Rev. Falwell)is just mean-spirited rather than thoughtful and Biblical.
As to your earlier response, it does not make sense to me to say that the issue is not one’s sexual orientation, but behavior that matters and to say that the PCUSA does not distinguish between gay and straight people. So if two gay men got married in California (where such marriages are now not only legal, but popular) and lived lives of total fidelity to each other honoring their vows of marriage, could either one of them be ordained in the PCUSA? If not, what is the objection?
By the way, in spite of the many same-sex marriages that have taken place recently here in California, I know of no heterosexuals including myself who have felt that their marriages have been threatned.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 26, 2008 at 5:43 pm


Bill: Now come on. You know very well the the PCUSA has affirmed on the basis of biblical teaching and with Christians throughout the ages and throughout the world that marriage is only between a man and a woman. We do not recognize marriage between two men, even if California does so. It’s not a matter of marriage being threatened. It’s a matter of faithfulness to the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture on matters of human sexuality and marriage. The only way one can approve of homosexual activity is by giving up a high view of Scriptural authority. This is exactly what has happened among Presbyterians who support gay marriage, ordination, and the like. Jack Rogers is a good example of such. Bill, I’m curious, given your views on such things, how is it that you can be happy at Saddleback, which is far more conservative than the PCUSA in matters of human sexuality, and which, as a Southern Baptist church doesn’t even ordain women?



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smithson

posted June 26, 2008 at 5:54 pm


Many biblical scholars have ‘grappled’ with scripture and come to your conclusion, Mark. The old arguements of ‘enlightenment’ just don’t work against the contextual biblical commands regarding sexuality. We therefore, either accept such as it relates to biblical mandates or we don’t. If we do then homosexuality is sin and as followers of Christ we must rebuke the sin – as we would any other sin. The ‘mean spirited’ mantra has run it’s course. In this age of tolerance no one can condemn anything anymore. No one can speak out and call wrong wrong without being labeled as closed minded or mean spirited. Frankly, most people are getting tired of that (I know I am!. Jesus would have been so labeled after his actions in the temple don’t you think? The problem as Bill points out is often we get upset at others sins – and not our own. We are called to look at ourselves first and foremost and individually repent when it comes to sin that disrupts our fellowship with Christ. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t as individuals or as a church body look at others actions and rebuke the sin for the purpose of bringing restoration… in fact Paul commands us to do so. The biblical mandate against homosexuality is clear. It’s time that the so-called enlightened or progressives stop trying to twist scripture into saying something that it doesn’t. Just admit you don’t agree with scripture on the issue and move on. Of course that won’t happen as such an admission creates a slippery slope that is irreversible. Consequently, Mark, you must keep fighting for the truth!



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Bill Goff

posted June 26, 2008 at 6:51 pm


Thanks, Mark, for engaging me in this important discussion. I have a high enough view of Scripture to have analyzed Scripture in light of the languages in which they were written and the historical and cultural situation of the original recipients. (Even though I am retired I still regularly read and study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. I refuse to be a the mercy of translators.) I used to believe that homosexual activity was a sin. My belief was not based on a careful study of God’s word, but was primarily shaped by my culture. While I was a pastor, I did not explore this issue in depth. I didn’t want to risk having my mind changed. It is because of my later study of the Bible rather than rejection of the Bible, that I have changed my mind.
One of the reasons I hesitated joining Saddleback Church was the policy regarding homosexuals and the ordination of women. However I discovered that the practice of the church is much more liberal and open than the dogmas. I have never heard Pastor Warren say anything negative about homosexuals. I have heard him say that he has had homosexual friends over for dinner. Saddleback Church (thanks mainly to Kay Warren, Pastor Rick’s wife) has probably the most extensive ministry to people suffering from HIV/AIDS in the world. I also learned that it is the policy of the church to accept gay and lesbian Christians into membership. Although Saddleback does not ordain women to the ministry, I have observed that women have a very prominent role in the ministry of the church including preaching. So last year I decided that inspite of some things I disagreed with (which also include a policy of no alcohol at all for staff which I think is very legalistic) I wanted to be part of a church that had such a positive ministry in my life and in the world. I also realized that if I waited to find a church that was perfect (agreeing with me on all important issues) they probably wouldn’t want to admit me to membership because of my imperfections.
Mark, I don’t dispute that you have a high view of Scripture and interpret it intelligently and honestly. I only ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt regarding my view of Scripture and my efforts at interpretation – even though my interpretation regarding homosexuality is clearly currently in the minority. I also wish you would reflect on the fact that history shows that often the Church has held majority positions (the earth being the center of the universe, divine right of kings, support of slavery, etc.) that today we can only look on with embarassment. Although those who are in the minority need to be respectful of the majority and to honor long-held traditions, I am not persuaded that truth is determined by majority vote.



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Bill Goff

posted June 26, 2008 at 7:38 pm


To my dear fellow Christian, Smithson: I do not consider myself enlightened or progressive. Although I was raised going to Presbyterian Churches, I used to look down on black people as inferior and use terrible racial slurs. I considered females to be unequal in status to males and treated my three sisters accordingly. And I considered homoxexuals to be perverts, queers, fags and enjoyed countless jokes about them.
My conversion to Christ at age 18 didn’t immediately change these perspectives although I quickly cleaned up my language which was really foul (especially on the tennis court).
Slowly, over many years my views have changed. In part this was due to cultural changes and in part to taking a closer look at the Bible. During the civil rights era in the 60s, I read the Bible in seminary and could see how terrible it was to mistreat people on the basis of their race or color. I came to see slavery and its aftermath in America as a great sin.
Due to the Women’s Liberation Movement and some rathier fierce women seminary students (at Fuller Seminary) I took a closer look at Bible passages I had long thought supported the subordination of women. Again my mind was changed and I became an advocate of equal treatment of women at a time when this was not a majority position.
Even while I served several different churches as a pastor I still believed that homosexuality was a sin. Then I discovered that Mel White, a close friend and teacher at Fuller Seminary was gay, had struggled against this many years and had finally decided it was not a sin to be gay. I knew Mel loved Jesus and took the Bible seriously. His book made me look again at familiar Bible passages. I learned that there was a different way to interpret passages that I thought were very clear. I have since studied this issue on my own and with the help of books I consider thoughtful and biblical. I have concluded that homosexuality in itself is not a sin. There is no biblical mandate against homosexuality. There is a mandate to pursue truth and justice in love. There are sins that homosexuals are prone to commit and sins heterosexuals are prone to commit. Both kinds of sinful action are subject to God’s judgment.
Most of my recent study of Scripture has focused on the Gospels. I am impressed that Jesus showed enormous compassion toward the bad people like prostitutes and tax collectors (by profession I belong to the later category) and reserved his strongest rebukes for the most religious people, especially religious professionals like the money changers in the Temple.
I confess that I am a sinner and all my viewpoints are tainted by sin. So all my conclusions about the Bible and how God wants me to live may be wrong. But I want you and others who read this blog to know that I am trying to do God’s will as I find it in his word and exemplified by our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah. God bless you.



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Mark D. Roberts

posted June 26, 2008 at 10:37 pm


Bill: What you describe at Saddleback is, in my opinion, a model for what the church should be, but rarely achieves. We should reach out to all people with love and care. But we should not give up on biblical standards of ethics, including sexual ethics. I’m glad Rick hasn’t said negative things about homosexuals. I don’t think I did during my tenure as the pastor of Irvine Pres, either. I did speak about sexual right and wrong from a biblical perspective, and that included saying that homosexual activity is wrong. But that’s a whole lot different from criticizing homosexual people. In fact, for the most part, when I spoke of sexual sin, I dealt with heterosexual sin, because that was the main issue at Irvine Pres. We had a few homosexual people in our congregation, but not many, for obvious reasons. Those who needed a church to affirm their sexual lifestyle would not have been happy at Irvine.
Bill, you are right that homosexuality is not a sin. But I don’t think it’s possible to make a case for the rightness of homosexual behavior on the basis of Scripture. That’s why the vast majority of those who defend homosexual behavior don’t do it from a biblical basis anymore. The basis just isn’t there.
I have no doubt that Jesus would have shown great compassion to homosexual people. And also I have no doubt that Jesus would have said to those who were sexually active, as he did to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” This would be consistent with everything else Scripture teaches us about sexuality, from Genesis 1 through the New Testament letters.
But, Bill, I do appreciate your admission that your viewpoints are tainted by sin. I surely join you in this confession for myself. It’s a good reminder of our personal limitations.



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Dick Powell

posted June 27, 2008 at 9:43 am


Forest Hills PC in Helotes, Texas after 10 years of steady decline is both growing and healthy and reclaiming its PC (USA) Reformed heritage. I can attribute this move of the Spirit to a singular event: the session elected to spend more time in prayer and Bible study (this season Ephesians and Paul’s portrait of the church Christ intended) than it does in the “business of the church.” It has been an interesting transition. I was excited to see Mark’s teaching on Ephesians – serendipity, I think not. The Spirit works where it will.



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smithson

posted June 27, 2008 at 11:15 am


Mark: Please explain your comment that ‘homosexuality is not a sin’.
Bill: From your comments I take it that possibly someone close to you has chosen a homosexual lifestyle and so you have searched scripture in support of this person. You have to admit that your conclusions are in the minority. Most biblical scholars clearly disagree with your conclusions including the author of this blog. With enough effort and creative analysis one can make scripture support virtually any lifestyle. There is safety in numbers when it comes to such interpretations. Support from one admitted gay theology professor does not mean you are right. You will admit, Bill, you are very much in the minority regarding your interpretation and ultimate conclusion, and consequently, wading into dangerous waters.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 27, 2008 at 1:37 pm


Dick: Great comment. Providential! Thanks.
smithson: By “homosexuality” I mean the inclination or desire or attraction to same-sex folk. I have a good friend who would say, “In my feelings, I am a homosexual. But I think it’s wrong to act on those feelings, so I’m celibate.” The problem with this language, of course, is that most folks think of homosexuality in terms of action, not just orientation. Homosexuality, I believe, is evidence of the brokenness of humanity (see Romans 1). But we can be broken people without sinning.



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Mark Roberts

posted June 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm


Note: My website software screens entries. Some will not appear immediately, but will need me to approve them. So if your comment doesn’t show up, don’t take it personally. Ironically, the comment I just posted above needed moderation!



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