Misconceptions About Homosexuality in the PCA

Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article will demonstrate that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold: 1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to; 2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and 3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

Next week the Presbyterian Church in America gathers in St. Louis, Missouri for its 48th General Assembly. This is after a year of COVID and a postponed GA in 2020, so there is a lot on tap. One of the main items of concern within the PCA is the perceived threat of homosexuality encroaching on the PCA. Many things have been said about this threat, both in terms of what currently exists within the PCA and what might exist if we slide down a slippery slope.

The PCA stands for biblical morality. Those biblical positions are spelled out clearly in the Westminster Standards and our Book of Church Order. Westminster Confession of Faith 24:1 states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.” Additionally, Larger Catechism 139 forbids gay sex in any form. In 2019, BCO 59-3 was made constitutionally binding and was amended to state the following, “Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24,25; Matt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore, ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.” Further, our Westminster Standards give us an excellent theological foundation for considering the issues of temptation, desire, indwelling sin, and sanctification.[1]

In 2019, the 47th General Assembly commissioned an Ad interim Committee to study and report on the issues of human sexuality (hereafter AIC). The resulting report is excellent, giving us a thoroughly confessional report that is informative and pastorally sensitive. I heartily commend this report as the answer that the PCA needs in order to remain faithful in this challenging time.

Given our strong confessional and constitutional foundation and the excellent AIC report, the PCA is on solid footing regarding the issue of homosexuality. Nevertheless, there are many within our denomination and without who are raising the alarm about “homosexual pastors” in our midst. I have personally seen several allegations about certain PCA pastors and elders that I believe to be untrue. As a confessionalist and as an ordained pastor, I am bound by vow to preserve and promote the truth and the good name of my neighbor, as well as to defend the innocence of those falsely accused and to discourage tale-bearers and slanderers (WLC 144). Indeed I would be sinning if I were silent in a just cause and held my peace when correction of untruths was called for (WLC 145). In this article I am seeking to keep my vow by laying out what I know to be true against some of the misstatements and rumors that have been circulating. I would remind my readers that the Larger Catechism likewise calls all of us to not stop our ears against a just defense (WLC 145) and to readily receive a good report regarding the innocence of our neighbor (WLC 144).

I will address the most important of these misconceptions section by section. In doing so, my earnest desire is to preserve and promote the purity, peace, and unity of the PCA. I have dialogued both in public and in private with several individuals and groups on the issues I am about to report on. The purpose of this article is to inform those who have not been as intimately involved in these discussions as I have so that they can judge rightly as we come to the General Assembly next week.

Gay Christian – Some have articulated that there are Pastors and Elders in the PCA who call themselves Gay Christians, or otherwise claim a Gay identity, and teach others to do the same. I am acquainted with quite a few pastors and elders in the PCA who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations, and yet I am aware of no pastor or elder in the PCA that identifies this way. There is a reasonable misunderstanding on this point because of a Christianity Today testimony in which the author uses the word “gay” 12 times.[2] However, a careful analysis reveals that he only refers to himself as such in the past tense. The opening line of the article is, “Bill, I’m gay.” Rather than being a declaration of his present identity, this is a testimony of how as a newly converted Christian he confessed his struggle for the first time to his campus minister. This is supported by the same pastor’s repeated clarification that he does not presently, and has not over the past 20+ years, used the term Gay or Gay Christian to identify himself.[3] His preferred term is “same-sex attracted,” though he realizes that term comes with some baggage from the ex-gay movement.[4] There are some PCA pastors and elders who will use the term “gay” as a descriptor in certain situations, specifically when talking with non-believers, but they emphatically reject that it is a core aspect of their identity. They claim their core identity to be in union with Christ.

Similarly, there are no PCA pastors or elders who embrace “Gay Christianity” as an alternate culture or community in the church. Those who do so are outside the bounds of the PCA and not adherents to our theological system or polity.

There may be members of the PCA, including seminarians, candidates under care, and staff members of PCA churches, who stray into some of these problematic areas. The AIC report advises the following pastoral response in those cases:

“Given this conclusion, how should we respond to fellow believers in our churches who may use such language? First, we ought not start from the assumption that they are being unfaithful or living in active rebellion to God. Rather, in the context of established relationships, pastors and leaders in the church ought to ask questions and seek to understand each individual’s story. Why do they use that language? Have they thought through the relative benefits and dangers? Noting the range of possible meanings of terms like gay and gay Christian, we would do well to seek understanding before imparting advice. In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.”[5]

Homoerotic Attraction and Sin – There is also a similar misunderstanding that there are PCA pastors and elders who teach that homoerotic attraction is not in itself sinful.[6] This is also not the case. There are no PCA pastors or elders that I am aware of who teach this. Specifically, in a recent presbytery investigation, one pastor stated, “I agreed that same-sex sexual attraction—even resisted—is of sin, is sinful, and is a movement of indwelling sin.”[7] He later stated:

“I don’t recall saying that same-sex attraction is a morally neutral condition. I have repeatedly stated otherwise. Any time I sense an internal sexual or romantic pull toward anyone God has not given me—including any male by definition—I have to recognize that pull for what it is. It is an effect of the fall, yes, but more precisely it is the pull of what St. Paul terms the flesh. It’s a motion of the internal corruption that remains in the believer throughout this life. “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated” (see WCF 6.4-6). This temptation is “original corruption” and is “properly called sin,” even when it does not lead to “actual sin.” Apart from Christ, I would carry the guilt of original corruption.”[8]

All PCA pastors and elders that I am aware of affirm the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter six on sin and of statements 3-6 on sin in the AIC.

On the subject of sin, PCA pastors and elders affirm that homoerotic orientation is sinful and therefore is the subject of repentance and mortification. PCA elders and pastors also affirm that temptation to sin is itself sin. Again, I am aware of no pastors or elders in the PCA who would deny these doctrines.

Furthermore there is a misunderstanding among some that some PCA pastors and elders teach that there is an aspect of being gay that is not of sin or that should be celebrated. In the report cited above that same minister stated, “Owning your sin does not equal celebrating your sin…. If a believer were celebrating their fallen sexuality, then there’s obviously a problem with that.”[9]

Sanctification – There are also reports that there are ministers in the PCA who teach that there can be no growth in sanctification for those who experience homoerotic temptation. This is largely a misunderstanding related to the possibility of orientation change. There are pastors in the PCA who teach that orientation change is rare. However this does not mean that no change whatsoever is possible for a Christian who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptations. When someone asserts that orientation change is extremely rare, he is referring to a change where someone moves from having only attraction towards the same sex to only having attraction to the opposite sex; in other words, from being 100% gay to being 100% straight.

This shift is very rare, according to those who have been ministering in these areas for decades. “In January 2012, Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, an organization representing over 270 ex-gay ministries, stated, ‘The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation.’ He later clarified that the 0.1% represented a woman who later told him she was bisexual. Mike Rosebush, former vice president of Focus on the Family and director of Exodus International’s Professional Counselors’ Network—himself a psychologist working exclusively with same-sex-attracted men—has said that he has yet to identify a single instance in which same-sex attraction disappeared. Longtime HarvestUSA director Tim Geiger has stated that he has also never seen same-sex attraction go away—in himself or anyone else.”[10]

On the subject of orientation change the AIC has stated:

The error of some Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire has been to tie faithfulness to the elimination of homosexual temptation (or even the development of heterosexual desire) as though if Christians really did enough therapy, had enough faith, or repented sufficiently, God would deliver them in some final and complete way, changing their orientation. This perspective reflects a sort of over-realized eschatology—a view that what we will be finally and fully in the new creation will be realized in that way in the present life. Against such a view, our Confession reminds us that even in the regenerate, the corruption of sin remains in this life (WCF 6.5). The task for believers is to pursue faithfulness and obedience in this life, holding in view our new creation selves into which we are progressively, though often with many fits and starts, being conformed.”[11]

However, this does not mean that those who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation do not change at all. In the presbytery investigation mentioned above, the pastor stated that some who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations are, by God’s grace, able to see their desires change to the point that they can marry a member of the opposite sex and have children. For those who aren’t able to experience this kind of change, the expectation and reality for the believer is that those unwanted sinful desires would diminish over time both in frequency and intensity. Thus, it is not true that PCA pastors are teaching that believers who have experienced homoerotic temptation should not expect to change.

This is in agreement with Statement Seven from the AIC report on Human Sexuality:

We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).

Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).”[12]

Lastly, on sanctification, there are are a minority of voices in the PCA who insist that true repentance and regeneration should result in the total elimination of homoerotic desires. Frankly, this position is out of accord with our system of doctrine in what it teaches on sanctification (WCF 13.2-13.3). This view seems much closer to Wesleyan Perfectionism than the Reformed view of progressive sanctification.

Orientation – There are some in the PCA who have argued that no Christian should say that they have a “homosexual orientation.” However this is contrary to the AIC report, which states:

How then should we think of the language of sexual orientation? Insofar as the term orientation is used descriptively to articulate a particular set of experiences, namely the persistent and predominant sexual attractions of an individual, it can remain useful as a way of classifying those experiences in contrast to the experiences of the majority of other people. However, insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical (e.g., overemphasized rigidity, its normativity, etc.), then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances.”[13]

Given what I have stated above regarding PCA pastors’ teaching on the possibility and expectation of real change for believers who experience homoerotic temptation, we should assume that those leaders in the PCA who describe themselves as having a homosexual orientation are doing so in the first sense mentioned by the AIC.

The Above Reproach Qualification – Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who states that they experience unwanted homoerotic temptation is automatically disqualified from being an ordained officer in the PCA. This is stated on the basis of BCO 8-2 and BCO 21.c.1.1, which cite 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These two biblical passages state that elders must be “above reproach.” The Greek word used in both instances is ἀνέγκλητος, which denotes being guiltless or blameless. Moreover, 1 Timothy 3:7 states that an elder must have a good reputation with unbelievers. The Greek word in that case is μαρτυρία, which means to have a good witness or testimony. In both these instances it seems that these refer to outward instances where a person would incur guilt or a bad reputation because of their actions. Given what we have seen in the AIC report regarding the issues of sin, sanctification, right use of terminology, and orientation, which we have all covered above, it would seem that some other act or aberrant teaching would need to be in play to make someone fail to be “above reproach.” As we have stated above, I am not aware of any pastor or elder in the PCA who would hold unacceptable positions on these matters.

Furthermore, the AIC states, regarding whether a man who experiences homoerotic temptation is ordainable, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).”[14]

In citing 1 Corinthians 6:9, the committee is presumably referring to Paul’s injunction that those who “practice homosexuality” will not inherit the kingdom of God. In verse 11 Paul states, “such were some of you.” Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptation is not a subject for ordination because the verse says “such were some of you,” and those men still experience the temptation. However, 1 Corinthians 6:9 does not say “those who experience homoerotic temptation,” but, “those who practice homosexuality.” The confusion may lie in that both the NASB and the NKJV translate the verse as saying “homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, as the ESV footnote points out, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.” The AIC report concurs with this in saying:

Paul coined the term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) from the use of two related terms in the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18 and 20. The basic meaning is “man-bedders” or men who have sex with other men. The word malakoi can mean “soft” as in soft clothing (Matt. 11:8; Luke 7:25), or when used pejoratively of men it can mean “effeminate.” In the ancient Roman world, “The ‘soft’ man lack[ed] masculine posture, courage, authority, and self-restraint; he is like a woman.” Fredrik Ivarrson, “Vice Lists and Deviant Masculinity,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 180. Sexual passivity or penetrability is not the definition of malakos, but it is one possible connotation. Ivarrson, “Vice Lists,” 180-81. The combination of arsenokoitai and malakoi, uniquely used in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 6:9, likely refers most directly—as per the ESV footnote—to the active and passive partners in consensual homosexual activity. For more extended discussion, see Chapter 5 in Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).”[15]

Thus, Scripture does not say that those who experience homoerotic attraction will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those who act on those attractions by engaging in gay sex. Again, there is no PCA pastor or elder who teaches that any form of gay sex is lawful (whether in marriage or not) or engages in same-sex sexual activity. It is also very clear in our recent history that those pastors and elders who have come to that position have left the PCA for denominations who allow those views and practices.

Further, some in the PCA argue that homoerotic temptation itself disqualifies because the temptation is “unnatural.” This is argued on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which call gay sex an “abomination.” I agree that gay sex is an abomination. But I would point out that the scriptures in their original languages do not say “those who experience sexual attraction towards the same sex are an abomination.” The scriptures uniformly say, “those who engage in gay sex are an abomination.” Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the act of gay sex. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Again, it is the sex act that is an abomination.

Now some may argue that being tempted to engage in something that is an abomination makes one not above reproach. I would counter that there are other abominations in the scriptures. The conclusion of Leviticus 18 says this:

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.”[16]

The list of sexual sins in Leviticus 18 is long. Are we going to say that if anyone is tempted towards any of these things it makes them not above reproach? Who will be left who is above reproach? Again, the end of Leviticus 18 calls all of them abominations, even the heterosexual sins. If someone has unbidden temptations of lust towards his neighbor’s wife, is he disqualified from ministry?

Deuteronomy 25 lists several sins related to the eighth commandment. “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.”[17] Are we saying that anyone who is tempted to be dishonest in business is disqualified for ministry? These are abominations too.

Proverbs six lists seven abominations, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”[18] In Hebrew poetry, the last item in a list like this is the most important, in this case the most heinous. Are we saying that those who are tempted to be argumentative and sow discord, who struggle with this sin and even occasionally commit it are disqualified from ministry? Sowing discord is an abomination too. Is the temptation to sow discord also disqualifying?

All of this presents a purity test that none of us can pass. All of us are tempted to do things that the Scriptures call abomination. When we say that homoerotic temptation itself is disqualifying we are singling out that temptation to one sin against others. If we are consistent, then we are all disqualified.

Revoice – Many concerns have been expressed about the teachings of an interdenominational parachurch ministry called Revoice. Revoice is a conference that first met in St. Louis in 2018 in a PCA church. It was a new ministry that sought to be a place of encouragement, exhortation, and accountability for Christian believers who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation. A conference like it was needed due to the fact that a previous similar gathering called the Gay Christian Network (now called Q Christian Fellowship) had increasingly taken a stance that affirmed the goodness of same-sex relationships and ostracized Christians who still believed that homoerotic sex acts are sinful.[19] Revoice itself is a broad-tent organization that welcomes all Side B Christians regardless of denomination.[20] As such not everyone who attends or even speaks holds our Reformed views on sin and sanctification (or even anthropology).

As a broad-tent organization, and one that was in its infancy and trying to figure things out, mistakes were inevitably made. Due to the fact that the first conference was held at one of its member churches, Missouri Presbytery performed an investigation of Revoice and the PCA church that hosted it. In that investigation, some of the erroneous teachings were repudiated and warnings and admonitions were given to the conference and to the PCA church that hosted it. But on the whole, the Presbytery found that for an organization that was in its infancy, the conference did a lot of good, while it needed to be shepherded and guided by the Presbytery’s recommendations. In other words, the court of original jurisdiction, Missouri Presbytery, did its job in investigating and issuing repudiations, corrections, and admonitions. It is not the case that Missouri Presbytery has given cover for Revoice or the PCA church that hosted it, or any of its pastors or elders.[21]

There has been some discussion in PCA circles warning us about “Revoice Theology.” What is Revoice Theology? It’s hard to know what is meant by the label in absence of a systematic description by those who employ it. Revoice Theology is not a term that Revoice itself uses, instead it is a label that is intended to warn us of Revoice’s teachings. What does Revoice officially teach? You can read it for yourself (link provided below). We have to be careful not to take talks given at the first Revoice conference when the organization was still getting its legs underneath it as standing in for what the ministry definitively believes always and forever. This was one of the main points of the Missouri Presbytery report: Revoice needs to grow and mature.

Now to be clear, the statement of theology provided below is not right in line with the Westminster Confession. As I said above, Revoice is broadly Christian, welcoming in all sorts of folks who want to be committed to the Biblical sexual ethic. Not everyone in Revoice believes that orientation itself is sinful. They believe that it is a result of the fall and any conscious lusts or actions that flow out of it are sinful. But, let me be clear, PCA ministers and elders do hold the teachings of the Westminster Standards on sin, sanctification, and repentance. PCA ministers and elders who may attend or speak at Revoice do believe that homoerotic orientation is sinful, as I’ve already quoted above.

Revoice statement of theological conviction

In conclusion: Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article has demonstrated that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold:

1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to;

2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and

3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

We should be proud of our denomination and its steadfast commitment to biblical truth. We should be thankful for those men and women who have experienced unwanted same-sex attraction and who have heroically stood for Christ and his teachings in the midst of a world that calls them traitors and self-haters for daring to believe in Jesus and do what he says. I, for one, am proud to call them friends.

If you found this article helpful, you might also consider visiting A Faithful PCA.


[1] See WCF 6 on sin, 13 on sanctification, and 15 on repentance.

[2] See https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/may-web-only/greg-johnson-hide-shame-shelter-gospel-gay-teenager.html

[3] See Missouri Committee to Respond to Memorial (Hereafter CRM), p. 63, lines 41-45, “Personally, I have never referred to myself as a “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” And I have not described myself as “gay” in the present tense since the 1990s. It’s always past tense as part of the arc of my personal testimony. I don’t mind when others use the term of me, but I myself have always stated that “I was a gay atheist, became a Christian, and my sexual orientation never changed. I am still same-sex attracted.”” This report is public and can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18_vvpZg2PwRFwBjwAg4fGp-bhJXh8Mhm/view 

[4] See PCA GA AIC on Human Sexuality (Hereafter AIC),p. 29, lines 35-38 and note 57, “Others find the term gay to be an important part of being honest about the reality of their sexual attractions, especially given that other terms like same-sex attraction are perceived by some to be associated with “ex-gay” or orientation change approaches,” and “See for instance Greg Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), 61, 63, where he says, “By talking in terms of attraction instead of sexual orientation, ex-gay advocates were better equipped to treat homosexuality as a passing phase…Because of this linguistic history, I couldn’t help cringing when people referred to my sexual orientation as ‘same-sex attraction.’”” This report can be found here:  https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf

[5] AIC, p. 30, lines 31-39. Emphasis added.

[6] I use the term homoerotic attraction to make clear that there is a sexual aspect to the attraction being described. The AIC report uses the term same-sex attraction, and I intend this to be synonymous with that.

[7] Missouri CRM, p. 16, lines 22-24.

[8] Missouri CRM, p. 18, lines 7-14. Emphasis added.

[9] Missouri CRM, p. 27, line 1 and lines 6-7.

[10] This section is quoted from a trusted source off the record.

[11] AIC, p. 25, lines 11-20.

[12] AIC, p. 10.

[13] AIC, pp. 30 line 42 – 32 line 4.

[14] AIC, p. 31 lines 29-31.

[15] AIC, p. 6, footnote 4.

[16] Lev. 18:26-30

[17] Deut. 25:13-16

[18] Prov. 6:16-19

[19] These two stances were given a short hand of Side A and Side B, with Side A believing that same sex unions were blessed by God and Side B believing that same-sex sexual acts are sinful. Note that Side B is a very broad-tent with some believing that the orientation itself and temptations are not sinful while others believe that they are. All PCA Side B proponents would profess our Reformed teaching that both homoerotic orientation and temptations are inherently sinful. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_Christian_Fellowship

[20] See the above footnote for a definition of Side B.

[21] The text of that investigation can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1XyxAwY-ACZsVS-pe_barvg2_wI9BBJsB/view

Re-Blog – Five Misconceptions about Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, better known as Reformation Day. I jest. Kidding aside, this is an important day in the history of Christianity. But just how important is it, and why?

I wrote this post three years ago at the 500th anniversary of the event. I think the points I draw out still have some relevance.

I would like to point out that my logging of these misconceptions is not simply an exercise in pedantry. These things matter because those misconceptions not only shift the way we think about that day itself, but the medieval church and the conditions in which the reformation started. By clearing away those weeds we can discover fruit that both the medieval church and the Reformation have to offer. This project allows us to see the Reformation more fully and richly as we perhaps discover and glean from the medieval church for the first time.

Take up and read: https://theopolisinstitute.com/five-misconceptions-of-reformation-day/

Did Augustine really say, “The Church is a whore,”?

I hear this quite frequently, “As St. Augustine said, ‘The Church is a whore, but she’s my Mother.”

The problem is that St. Augustine never said that.

If you try to run down the source of the quote, the trail ends in a book written by Tony Campolo. In Letters to a Young Evangelical, chapter 6 he writes, “I would urge you to consider this carefully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’ That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about the church.” He goes on to argue that despite all the failures and sins of the church, she is still our mother, and thus we should be a part of her. Where Campolo got that quote is a mystery because he gives no citation. But if you look further back you will not find it, because it does not exist.

How do I know? Well first off, as someone who has read an awful lot of Augustine and an awful lot about Augustine, I have never come across that quote, and that quote just doesn’t seem like something he would say. A few years back after I heard it yet again I decided to try and find the source. That’s when I discovered that the trail went dead at Campolo. Luckily, as an academic I have access to better search engines than Google.

I went to two of the best search databases for Christian Latin texts, the Patrologia Latina and the Brepols Library of Latin Texts. Between the two of them they contain pretty much everything written by ancient Christian writers in the Latin language. I searched for church (ecclesia) and mother (mater) using several different synonyms for whore (meretrix and prostituta being the main ones) and nothing came up exactly like the quote. That leaves me 99% sure that Augustine never said that.

The closest I was able to find is from Sermon 213 on the Creed. What he says there is significant so I’ve translated it for you:

Let us honor the Catholic Church, our true Mother, the true Bride of her Husband, because she is the wife of so great a Lord. And what shall I say? How great is that Husband and of singular rank, that he discovered a prostitute and made her a virgin. Because she should not deny that she was a prostitute, lest she forget the mercy of her liberator. How can it be said that she was not a prostitute when she fornicated with demons and idols? Fornication was in the heart of everyone; a few have fornicated in the flesh, but everyone has fornicated in his heart. And He came and made her a virgin; he made the church a virgin.*

Here we find the concepts mother, church, and whore, but we do not find that direct quote we are seeking. In fact there is a significant difference between the quote Campolo gave us and what Augustine actually said. Augustine here is saying that the Church was a whore because she formerly lusted after demons and idols. She is no longer a whore because her great husband, Jesus Christ, has liberated her from her thraldom, forgiven her sins, and made her his virgin bride.

Campolo is trying to make the point that although the church fails she is still the church. That is right and good. However, that is not Augustine’s point. Augustine is preaching about the glorious redemption that the great Husband of the church has accomplished. She is praised because of what He has done in and for her. She is our Mother because He is her Husband and because He has sanctified her. To make Campolo’s point resonate with what Augustine actually said, we should love and cherish the church, in spite of her failures, because she is Christ’s bride. Because she is his only bride. He found her, liberated her, sanctified her, and married her. That’s why we love her even when she is imperfect, because she is the only bride Christ has. He makes her great.

It is then grossly wrong to say that the Church is a whore. In fact that is blasphemous to say. Augustine himself says so in Sermon 10, which I found when searching for this supposed quotation:

I read in the Psalm, “The one who disparages his neighbor in private, I will destroy,” (Psalm 101:5).  If it is right for [God] to destroy the one who disparages his neighbor in private, then how much more right is it for Him to destroy the one who publicly blasphemes the church of God? When he says “She is not who she is!” When he says, “What is ours is partial.” When he says, “She is a whore.”**

 

UPDATE: Cyprian wrote concerning this concept in his treatise On the Unity of the Church. Since Augustine cites Cyprian extensively, even from this treatise, it is likely that he learned this concept from the African great himself.

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.

*My translation from the Latin text edited by G. Morin: Sancti Augustini Sermones post Maurinos reperti in Miscellanea Agostiniana, vol. 1, 1930, p. 447.

**My translation from the Latin text edited by Michael Petschenig, CSEL 53, p.177, available here: https://archive.org/stream/CSEL53#page/n269/mode/2up

 

 

Re-post: Holy Saturday Homily – A Great Silence and Stillness

I enjoy reading this ancient Holy Saturday homily each year. It is rich with biblical theology. It makes very powerful and sophisticated connections between the sin of Adam and the redemption of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

We do not know who wrote this homily. It likely dates from the 2nd. c.

I think the theme of stillness resonates with us in this time of COVID-19. A stillness that erupts with resurrection victory on Easter morning.

We are longing for that day to come.

Read here: An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

Come, O Root!

Download my 2018 Advent prayer guide.

O Radix Jesse… These are the opening words of the traditional antiphon on Dec. 19 each year (that the cover art of this prayer guide depicts). In English the prayer is worded this way:

    O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;

    before you kings will shut their mouths,

    to you the nations will make their prayer:

    Come and deliver us and delay no longer.

The “Root of Jesse” is an image used by the Prophet Isaiah in his eleventh chapter. This “Root” will come and deliver the people Israel and extend their territory to the ancient boundaries promised to the Patriarch Abraham. Paul quotes Isaiah 11 in Romans 15:12 and interprets the prophecy not to be about the extension of the kingdom of Israel, but the gathering of the nations into the Church. Just as in Micah 7:11-12, Isaiah’s prophecy, and indeed the Lord’s promise to Abraham, is fulfilled in the Church, whose boundaries extend to the ends of the earth and whose inhabitants include every tongue, tribe, and nation. The above prayer then is for the prophesied One to come and deliver us. The need is urgent. “Delay no longer!” we cry.

Root. Radix. The interesting thing about the concept of the Root of Jesse in the text of Isaiah is that it is not entirely clear who the Root is. Is Jesse the Root from which Christ springs? 11:1 certainly leads us in this direction. Or, on the other hand, is Jesus the Root from which Jesse springs? Verse 10 leads us in this direction. The answer to the question is, “Yes.” Jesus Christ is both the Root and the Shoot, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the author and the finisher of our faith. He is Ancient of Days and yet lately born. He ushers in the beginning and also the end. Jesus is the Root, the ancient ancestor of Jesse and also the Shoot, the one who springs forth from Jesse’s lineage to usher in the everlasting kingdom and the renewal of all things. Jesus is David’s son and David’s Lord.

Radix. This Latin word for “Root” is where we get the word radical. Jesus is radical. Jesus gets to the root of things and he calls us to get to the root of things. The word radix is also where we get our modern abbreviation for medicine. Rx is an abbreviation for radix because many ancient medicines were made from the roots of things. Jesus is radical. He gets at the root. He is our medicine. Come, O Root, and deliver us!

The most important thing to remember about Advent is that Advent is not Christmas. The word “advent” is from the Latin advenire which means “to come to.” Advent is a season reflecting on the “comings” of Jesus. There are three distinct comings of Jesus that are in view in the season of Advent. The first coming was in the past and was the birth of our Lord Jesus. The second coming is at the end of history and is the bodily return of Jesus Christ to judge the earth. Yet there is another coming of Jesus that we should not miss. The third coming is how we long for Jesus to appear and visit us now, in the present, to right wrongs and advance the kingdom of God in this world. In Advent we do cry out for Jesus to come again. But we also look for his coming to us today in his Word, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and in the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ who bear his image. Christ comes to us in all these ways, and we need him to come. We need him to visit us this Advent. Come and deliver us and delay no longer!

As we look around us we see a great need for The Root to come and deliver us. We have our own personal needs. We have the needs of our church and our community. There are national crises that we should be concerned about. We need the Lord to come. Now! we cry. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. This is the spirit of Advent.

The Good News is God will answer our cry for deliverance. The Root has come to set us free. The Root will come again to renew all things. And the Root promises to meet us in the here and now. He promises to be present with us through His Word. He promises to be present with us through his sacrament. He promises that when two or three of us are gathered together in His name, he will be smack dab in the middle of us.

This Advent let us commit ourselves to preparation and prayer in joyful and hopeful expectation that King Jesus will come and deliver us. Let us watch and pray and not give in to despair, though it seems he never hears us and never answers us. Many times, when we are praying we are expecting a big act of God, a mighty work, a life changing event. But often God, in His infinite wisdom, chooses to give us a sustaining grace instead of that life changing event we prayed for.[1] We may wonder why he does this, when we know he has the power to move mountains and stop time. Maybe he does it because His greatest desire for us is that we would be satisfied with what he daily gives us in his regular, ordinary comings to us: The very substance of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is enough. Let us be satisfied with Him.

[1] I credit my friend, Pastor Thurman Williams for this idea.

Cover art by Sister Ansgar Holmberg. Click here to order her Advent art series.


Download my 2018 Advent Prayer guide here, and bookmark the link to listen to the tunes for all the psalms, canticles, and hymns: http://christourkingcolumbia.org/advent/

Infant Baptism in the History of the Church

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. The early church was not credo-baptist.

Note: I wrote this post in response to a question I received from a fellow pastor. I like to address practical issues that pastors and Christians are facing on the ground. If you would like me to address a particular question, drop me a note!

Ancient practice in the Church sets an important precedent for present day practice. This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are bound to only do things as they have always been done, but the principles of catholicity and unity move us not to break from historic church practice on a particular item unless there is a strong biblical rationale.  Where there is not a strong biblical rationale, or, strong cases could be made on either side, the precedent of church tradition should play a factor in making the decision.

Such is the case with infant baptism. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists both present biblical arguments that either side is fully convinced of. Thus, church tradition is often brought into the discussion to lend weight to the support of one side or another.

So what does church tradition have to say on the issue of infant baptism? What was the historic practice of the church from the earliest days?

Before we go further, I would like to make a few distinctions and give a few definitions. First of all, credo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that only those who credibly and consciously profess belief in Christ are valid subjects for baptism. This can also be referred to as believers-only baptism. Second, paedo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that infants of at least one believing parent are valid subjects of baptism. The paedo-baptist conviction therefore does not exclude baptism of adults who have converted to Christianity and have never been baptized. I shall also use the term infant baptism as synonymous with paedo-baptism.

Also, I would like to make two caveats. First, I am fully aware of the biblical evidence and rationale for the paedo-baptist position and can readily give it. This point of this article is to give historical evidence in the face of two positions that both claim to have biblical rationale. I am also fully aware that credo-baptists have fully developed biblical rationale for their position (though I disagree with them). The point of this post is to address the historical precedent as a sort of “tie-breaker” to the biblical stalemate. Second caveat: I fully embrace my Baptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers in Christ. This is a intramural discussion, and one I offer not with rancor, yet with firmness of conviction.


 

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. At the onset of the Reformation, none of the magisterial reformers abandoned the practice of infant baptism, but began to vigorously defend it with fresh biblical rationale based on Covenant Theology. The Reformers went so far in their defense of paedo-baptism that none of them even advocated the re-baptism of those who had received baptism in the pre-Reformation church. To this day, churches that are the ecclesial and theological heirs of the Protestant Reformers have continued that practice of infant baptism. These would be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed of various kinds, and Anglicans (which I would argue fall in the Reformed camp, but someone may protest that I left them out). In these churches there is a continuous and consistent theology and practice of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church.

Thus infant baptism was the universal practice of the Christian Church until some Reformation leaders began to question many of the standard practices of Christianity and the Christian life. These Radical Reformers (what scholars call the anabaptists) opposed padeo-baptism, and they advocated for the re-baptism (thus the name anabaptist, one who re-baptizes) of those who had been baptized before the Reformation. But the 16th century anabaptists can not be properly described as holding to credo-baptism as I have defined it. These radical reformers made a very high hurdle to cross before baptism, not simply allowing those who made a credible profession of faith come to the font, but only allowing those who had proven themselves over a long period of time as committed Christian disciples. The radical reformation reserved baptism for the few, a subset of Christian believers. This is not the modern Baptist position. Furthermore, there are many aspects of 16th century anabaptist movements that modern baptists do not adhere to, specificaly, pacifism, communitarianism, and mysticism. The proper heirs of the 16th c. Radical Reformation are to be found in the Menonite and Amish churches, not in modern Baptist churches. (NOTE: see James R. Payton, Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, pp. 160-172).

Baptists, rather, are the spiritual heirs of the English Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. As such, the 17th century theology of credo-baptism was quite new, even by the timeline of the Reformation. There is no real historical precedent for the view before the 17th century and no place where it was practiced outside of England. In contrast, the paeo-baptist position was practiced and defended biblically and theologically from the onset of the Reformation and in every place where the Reformation spread up to the present day.

To the time before the Reformation: no one disputes that the practice of the ancient and medieval Church was universally paedo-baptist after the time of Augustine. This is because Augustine’s treatment of both original sin and the doctrine of grace made a theological path for the practice of infant baptism to become universal. From the 5th century onward, there is no question as to the universal practice of the Church in baptizing the infants of believing parents.

However, in the earliest centuries of the church (before Augustine) the evidence for infant baptism is scant and many credo-baptists will argue based on this that believers-only baptism was the first practice of the church until Constantine got a hold of things. The Constantine thing is always a red herring. Almost nothing he is credited (or blamed) for in the Church is accurate. As I said above, Augustine was the one who closed the book on infant baptism. Constantine himself never weighed in on it and still evidenced the flawed early church baptismal practice in his own life (which I will talk about below).

Yet the argument for credo-baptism in the early church is not sustained by the historical evidence. It is true that the writings we have access to today give overwhelming evidence to adult baptism and to many folks delaying their baptisms well into their adult life. However, this evidence for delaying baptism does not support the credo-baptist position for the following reasons.

1) The reason why adult baptism is the focus in the early church is because everyone is converting to Christianity (it’s the same as in the New Testament). Many of the stories told in the very early church are of converts, and so many were converting from paganism to Christianity that the stories of infant baptism get lost. The story of the early church is one of conversion. Thus the baptism of professing believers is the story told. This is not therefore evidence against infant baptism or for believers-only baptism. It is evidence that people were converting to Christianity in droves and being baptized.

2) There is no writing (that I know of) that is polemical against infant baptism. If the Early Church was credo-baptist by conviction, you would expect much polemic against infant baptism. It simply doesn’t exist.

3) There is evidence for infant baptism in the early church. It isn’t the only practice, but the evidence suggests that infant baptism was a normal and expected practice. One specific example is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (late 2nd to early 3rd c.). In this text a baptismal rite is described that includes infants. There are other examples of this in the early church. As I said above, the adult baptism of converts was the most attested practice, but there is still ample evidence that infant baptism was occurring and no one, I repeat, no one was arguing against it.

4) The reason why many Christians in the early church delayed their baptism was due to a faulty baptismal theology and a faulty soteriology. Before Augustine gave the definitive treatments, many believed that since baptism washed away all previous sin and that if you sinned after baptism there was no possibility for forgiveness, you should delay baptism as long as possible to get your sinnin’ in. This is why Constantine was baptized late in life, for example, not because he was not a committed Christian, but because he wanted to make sure to be saved (there was also a political reason for him delaying baptism). After Augustine developed his doctrine of grace and gave the definitive (and final, at least till the Reformation) argument for infant baptism, this is no longer an issue.

Here’s the payoff, Baptists point to the early church for evidence of believers-only baptism, but are they willing also to own the errant theology that was the reason for it? I think not. There were people who delayed baptism in the early church but it was not for modern credo-baptist conviction that only believers should be baptized. It was for other (faulty) theological reasons. Baptism was not delayed until a credible profession. It was delayed  until the person felt they could go on for the rest of their lives without sin (or to enter the Christian ministry). This is not the modern Baptist position, nor should it be. The early church was not credo-baptist.

2017 Advent Prayer Guide

Each year I produce an Advent Prayer guide for the use of the folks at Christ Our King. We also put it up on our website in electronic form so that people can download and use. There are also audio clips of all the tunes for singing the psalms, canticles, and hymns in the guide. My hope is that this will deepen your prayer life and enable you to seek the Lord during this season.

Come, Lord Jesus!

2017 Christ Our King Advent Prayer Guide – CLICK HERE

Why Pray the Hours? – Reflections on Reformation

The church throughout her history has kept regular, set times of prayer each day. Should modern Christians reacquire this ancient practice?

Note: this begins a series on my blog called Reflections on Reformation which will be running this year in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation.

Early on in the history of the church, Christians understood that the 1st century Jewish practice of meeting for prayer at set times of the day was a good and biblical practice to continue. We find references to this in several places in Scripture. In Acts 3 we find Peter and John attending a set prayer at the temple at 3PM. Acts 10 seems to reference Peter continuing this practice in his devotional life as he was praying at the ninth hour (3pm). Later in the story he prays at the sixth hour (noon).  Pentecost occurred at the third hour of the day (9 am). In Jesus’s parable in Luke 18 we find two men going up to the temple to pray. While he does not tell us the exact hour, it was a corporate prayer service they were attending. Simeon and Anna prayed in the Temple continually, it says in Luke 2. We tend to assume this is individual devotional prayer, but it would make more sense if this referred to them participating in the set prayers of the temple service. In Acts 22 we find Paul praying at the temple. In Luke 1:10 we find a multitude praying in the temple courts at the “hour of incense.” In Daniel 9 we find Daniel praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. He did this even though the temple was destroyed and there was currently no sacrificial ministry occurring.

In the Psalms there are multiple references to prayer and times of day. Psalm 88:13 says, “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” Psalm 5:3 says, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” Psalm 59:16, “But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.” Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.” Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” Psalm 119:148, “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.” Psalm 134:1-2, “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” This is not to mention numerous places in the Psalms where specific times of day are referred to with relation to receiving mercy, hearing God’s word, groaning, crying out, meditating on his greatness, etc.

Perhaps this is also what is meant by the several references in the scriptures to praying night and day and praying without ceasing. This would make sense in the context of gathered set times of prayer, which we know were happening at least in the temple and also in an extension of those temple services in private prayers (see Peter and Daniel above).

Are we to take these numerous references to prayer at specific times of day as a descriptive coincidence? Or do the Scriptures intend to prescribe a practice for God’s people? Indeed, the early Christians saw these references as scriptural warrant to offer prayers at set times each day. Based on specific times mentioned in scripture (just before dawn, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, sunset, evening, midnight) and based on Psalm 119:164 which says, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” the early Christians established set times of prayer at these times.

https://pastortimlecroy.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/daf9c-xpray-the-hours-pagespeed-ic-msrl-z6coo.jpg

Not everyone prayed seven times a day in the early church, although for some this was the ideal (see Hippolytus of Rome’s Apostolic Constitutions). Yet the churches called those to prayer who were pastors and workers, those with vocations within the church and those who were able and willing to do so. Eventually communities sprang up who were devoted to prayer, such were the early monasteries. In the Rule of Benedict he lays out the liturgies for the set times of prayer along with the Psalms that were to be sung at them. In the ancient practice of the Benedictine Rule, the monastery was directed to sing through the entire Psalter every week.

This may be what Paul had in mind as well when he describes that the widows who are enrolled in the church when he writes in 1 Timothy 5:5, “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day.” Interestingly, Calvin remarked on this in his Institutes in book 4:8:18-19 where he discusses the enrollment of widows as deaconesses to “discharge the public ministry of the church toward the poor and to strive with all zeal, continancy, and diligence in the task of love.” It is interesting because he does not address the apostolic command that these widows continue in supplications night and day. His reaction against late medieval monasticism was too strong to allow him to consider that possibility. In this he was not unlike many of the Protestant Reformers who saw the services of the hours as attempts to “appease God with songs or unintelligible mumbling.”

Despite Calvin’s protestation, the church has continued these daily prayers, the hours or divine offices throughout her history. At the time of the Protestant Reformation one of the main questions that arose was whether and which practices of the ancient and medieval church should be continued. While some protestant traditions continued the daily office in some form (mainly Anglicans and some Lutherans), most of the Protestants jettisoned the daily office in favor of the teaching ministry of the church. Calvin himself taught the scriptures daily, and for that reason we have an expansive collection of his biblical teaching. We might ask though, while teaching the scriptures is obviously a very good thing, should the corporate prayer ministry of the church have been abandoned? If the answer is no, what are ways that we can reincorporate this ministry into the life our churches today?

Evangelical churches have tended to relegate prayer to the private life of the individual believer. The emphasis on alone time with the Lord is in keeping with Christ’s teaching on prayer, and this was the main influence for Evangelical piety. Yet in the 20th century, Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have reacquired this ancient emphasis on prayer, while not taking up the ancient forms. Many charismatic prayer ministries seek to be faithful to God’s word by opening up prayer rooms where there is a sign-up and a schedule to ensure that prayers are being offered around the clock.

While this re-emphasis on prayer is to be commended, it largely focuses on the efficacy of prayer (a true and good notion), but not necessarily on the formative aspects of prayer for the Christian believer. In the early church it was both the efficacious and the formative aspects of prayer that shaped the church’s practices. Could we glean from this formative aspect of prayer today?

There has been much work recently in this area. James K. A. Smith’s work on Christian formation has drawn deeply from prayer’s formative aspect and the goodness of this for Christian formation. Additionally Greg Thompson in his public teaching ministry has made this a focus. Both Thompson and Smith have drawn from the life of the ancient church in its rich liturgies and from the Rule of Benedict which prescribes prayer as a way of life for disciples of Christ. It should be noted that both Smith and Thompson are active in the Reformed context, Thompson being a pastor in the PCA and having given a series of foundational lectures at Covenant Theological Seminary on this topic.

What then are we to make of this? I’m not suggesting that every Christian should pray the seven offices every day. Yet it would be helpful if Evangelicals leaned into this rich tradition to form our congregations in some way. It is also very helpful, if not necessary, that those who are in vocational ministry participate in the daily office as a way to rest, recharge, and fulfill our callings to intercede as ministers of word and prayer.

I’ll offer several practical suggestions below.

  1. Offer avenues for daily prayer to congregants. This could be in the form of a prayer guide that the church produces, or suggestions of various smartphone apps which fulfill the same purpose. For example, each year for Advent and Lent my church offers a daily prayer guide to all our congregants to enter into daily prayer. Mind you, this is not seven times a day, but a suggestion and resource for engaging in once-daily prayer as individuals and families. Another option is to offer a page in the weekly service bulletin with all the lectionary readings for that week and encourage congregants to use that week’s service as a prayer guide throughout the week.
  2. Offer a mid week prayer service. Churches with access to facilities during the week could offer a mid-week vespers or matins (or both!) so that congregants who wish could attend to pray together and be shaped by these rich patterns of prayer.
  3. Pray daily as a church staff. If you have multiple staff who office at the same location, gather for morning prayer as you start each day. Make it a priority and block the time out on your schedule.
  4. Seminary Communities. Seminaries are uniquely positioned to enter into the richness of communal prayer. If chapels are more lightly attended than years past, perhaps a shift away from the didactic focus of a chapel sermon to the communal and formative act of prayer will reinvigorate seminary communities. Begin by exposing students and faculty to things like chanting psalms and saying the hours. Do the office for one or two of the chapel services a semester. Pick one day per semester to cancel classes and pray the hours (9am, 12, 3, and at sunset), encouraging the students and faculty to work in between the prayer services. Eventually begin offering morning prayer on a daily basis for those that desire it. Then sit back and see what the Lord does with it.
  5. Individual pastors. I encourage all pastors to say the office at least once a day. I say the morning office every morning (even Sunday before church!) except for my day off. This has been very beneficial for me in a number of ways, which I will detail in a future post.

Won’t this require too much work and take up too much time? The great thing about the office is that once you learn how it works, you don’t need to spend time preparing and practicing like we have done for many chapel services and Sunday services these days. Find someone who can lead it well. Find someone who can chant psalms. Then just show up and do it. Take 15-20 minutes out of your day (minimum) to spend time in community before the Lord. I promise that you will begin to see tangible results in the lives of those who participate.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done.” There is no written evidence that he ever said that, though perhaps it was a oral tradition that was passed down through the ages due to its poignancy. Whether he said it or not, we must remember that Luther was a medieval monk who prayed the hours. That shaped him and formed him in his knowledge of the scriptures and in his love and knowledge of God. Augustine prayed the hours. Chrysostom prayed the hours. Anselm prayed the hours. In fact, all the theological giants of the ancient and medieval church prayed them in some form. Our fathers and mothers were steeped in scripture because of this. We often think that we know the bible well and understand it even better. But are we steeped in scripture to the level that our fathers and mothers were? Who recited the psalter by heart once a week? Who read through the bible at least every three years? Who daily spent hours in prayer before the face of God?

 

Want me to help you learn how to chant the psalms? Contact me.

Apps for the daily office
These apps are available in your app store. Note: these apps come from various theological traditions.

  • Mission St. Clare
  • Divine Hours, Vinyard Ann Arbor
  • Universalis
  • Daily Prayer from the COE
  • Do you know of others? Comment below!

 

Ambrose’s Advice to Augustine When Visiting Other Churches

A beautiful example of Christian discipleship

When I was in graduate school preparing for my doctoral comprehensive examinations on the history of eucharistic theology, I came across an insightful passage in Augustine’s letter to Januarius (Letter 54, found here). In this letter, Augustine relays to Januarius a situation he had with his mother who was scandalized when visiting a church in a distant city that did not worship the way she was accustomed. You see, Augustine was raised by his mother, Monica, according to the Roman rite, and during her sojourn with her son in Milan she was confronted with the different practices of the Milanese rite. All that to say that when traveling, she and Augustine went to church and she was putt off by the way they worshiped (the exact details are contained in the text below).

Now when I came across this passage I was a bit younger and more strident in my opinions about worship. To be sure, I still have a developed liturgical theology, but as I have aged a bit and grown from experience, I have softened a good deal. One of the things that softened me was Ambrose’s advice to Augustine (Was Monica’s scruple really his own?), and Augustine’s advice in turn to Januarius.

Here is another example how the wise Ambrose’s shepherding helped the young Augustine to mature. I think it’s a beautiful picture of Christian discipleship. Like Augustine, my own opinions in my younger days were such that I could not truly participate in worship with any sort of true and humble spirit of unity for all the scruples my sinful heart was throwing before my eyes. I’ve had to repent of that, and this passage from Augustine helped me to do that. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Be mindful that Augustine uses some strong words at the end of the passage, but we can forgive him as he was confronted by violent schism in his native diocese of Hippo and the surrounding areas near Carthage in Northern Africa.

There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

I think you may have heard me relate before, what I will nevertheless now mention. When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in another’s.” When I reported this to my mother, she accepted it gladly; and for myself, after frequently reconsidering his decision, I have always esteemed it as if I had received it by an oracle from heaven. For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church or by their manifest good influence on manners raise questions, it may be, from some crotchet of their own, or from attachment to the custom followed in one’s own country, or from preference for that which one has seen abroad, supposing that wisdom is increased in proportion to the distance to which men travel from home, and agitate these questions with such keenness, that they think all is wrong except what they do themselves.

SOURCE: Augustine, Letter 54 to Januarius, CCEL (accessed here).

IMAGE: Gozzoli, Ambrose baptizing Augustine with the words of the hymn Te deum (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 15th c.

Hadrian of Carthage: A Medieval African Who Changed Europe

February is Black History Month, a month to pay “tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.” As a church historian I am particularly interested in paying tribute to those African-Americans and others of African origin who played a major role in the story of the Christian Church. There are many who have done excellent work in telling the story of early African-Americans who contributed to American Christianity: leaders like Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, and early African-American Presbyterian leaders like John Gloucester.

My interest in church history though lies further back in the annals of time. I’m a medievalist and I also dabble in the early church period. I have been encouraged at the increased awareness of just how many of the early church Fathers were African: Athanasius, the staunch defender of Nicene Orthodoxy, Augustine, the Schoolmaster of Western Christianity, Cyril of Alexandria, Origin, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian… I could go on. I was encouraged to see an article recently that highlighted this wonderful history as a part of a series of posts on Black History Month on the Reformed African-American Network.

The medieval period, however, has often been seen as a time without much contribution from Africans to the life and work of the Church. Part of that is due to the spread of Islam over North Africa. Part of that is due to our ignorance in knowing and telling the stories of African Christians during that time. Yet, as I was reading the article linked above I remembered one particular African who had an enormous impact on medieval Europe: Hadrian of Carthage.

Hadrian, also known as St. Adrian of Canterbury, was like St. Augustine a North African of the Berber people. He was born in Carthage in the early to mid 7th century, and classically educated. He later moved to Italy and became an abbot of a monastery near modern day Naples. Bede describes Hadrian as, “a native of Africa, very learned in the Scriptures, experienced in ecclesiastical and monastic administration, and a great scholar in Greek and Latin,” (HE IV:1). That’s a pretty impressive endorsement by Bede! Because of his experience and erudition, Hadrian was impressed upon two separate times by his friend Vitalian, the Bishop of Rome, to take the vacant see of Canterbury and engage himself in a much needed reformation and revival in the English Church. Twice though Hadrian turned him down, the last time recommending another monastic leader, one Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore accepted the appointment, but the Pope insisted that Hadrian go along, ostensibly, to show Theodore the way through Gaul to England. Yet it was not travel directions that the Bishop of Rome truly desired Hadrian to give, but to be a partner to Theodore in the reformation and revival of the English Church.

Theodore and Hadrian set off for England in 668, after a brief pause for Theodore to grow his hair out so as to be able to accept the Roman form of tonsure. They arrived in England in 669 and began visiting the churches so as to ascertain their state and begin the needed education and reform. They began to attract students whom they instructed in the knowledge of theology, church customs and rites, sacred music, Greek and Latin, and the study of sacred Scripture. Bede describes a renaissance of sorts in England that came as a result of their labors, “The people eagerly sought the new-found joys of the kingdom of heaven, and all who wished for instruction in the reading of the Scriptures found teachers ready at hand,” (HE IV:2).  This explosion of learning was such that Bede remarked a couple of generations later that, “some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue,” (ibid.).

Thus we can see that Hadrian’s impact on England and the church in England was massive. Yet what remains to be seen is just how much his contribution to the reformation and revival of England led to the foundations of Christianity in Western Europe.

Western Europe in the 7th c. was still a largely unreached place. Catholic Christianity was established in some places, while others of the Germanic tribes had been converted to Arian forms of Christianity. Still others remained pagan. There was a great need in these Germanic areas for both evangelization and Christianization. The problem was that the existing churches of Western Europe (mostly in Gaul, modern France) were not equipped to undertake this mission. This is where the English came in.

Due to the work of Hadrian and Theodore, the English were equipped to engage in this mission to the Germanic peoples. And so they did, with great vigor and success. Boniface led a wave of missionaries from England back to the continent to evangelize and establish churches. He is now known as the Apostle to the Germans. Educational leaders like Alcuin of York were brought from England by the Carolingian rulers to help establish court schools as well as cathedral and monastery schools and to lead in the Christianization and reform of the churches in Western Europe. The legacy of these English missionaries is hard to overstate: these are the fathers of the Europe we know today. They established the institutions and infrastructure upon which Western civilization is established.

And none of this would have been possible without the efforts of St. Hadrian, the African. A medieval giant who had a greater impact than any of us probably realize.

Let us give thanks for St. Hadrian and celebrate his work and ministry and its vast impact on the world we live in.