British agency is requiring open communion

A British commission is refusing to allow a Plymouth Brethren church to be registered as a charity because it practices closed communion:

A government agency that oversees charities in the United Kingdom has decided that a local Christian congregation cannot be registered because it does not open its communion services to just any outsider.

The decision by the U.K.’s Charity Commission is being reported by The Christian Institute, which has been working on the case of the Plymouth Brethren assembly in Devon for seven years.

Without registration, the group would be subject to a number of government restrictions that do not apply to charity organizations.

The decision “would have a huge impact on the group’s tax relief and would also have other implications,” said the institute in a report.

The report said the congregation’s elders testified to a select committee of Parliament last week.

The government has determined the group cannot be registered because it has decided that its communion services are for members only.

“During the evidence a letter from the commission’s head of legal services emerged claiming that churches cannot be assumed to be acting for the public good,” the report said.

The institute said it is working on the case because of the need to protect religious liberty for all church groups.

A statement released by the government agency said, “The application [from the church] was not accepted on the basis that we were unable to conclude that the organization is established for the advancement of religion for public benefit within the relevant law.”

The institute said Conservative Member of Parliament Charlie Elphicke speculated whether the government agency was “actively trying to suppress religion in the U.K., particularly the Christian religion.”

According to a report from the Telegraph of London, the faith group is planning to take the battle to the European Court of Human Rights if needed.

via Government regulates church communion.

I don’t pretend to understand church-state relations under British law, and I think I must be missing something.  Roman Catholic churches don’t practice open communion.  Are they registered as “charities”?  Also, there is a small but vibrant group of confessional Lutherans in England.  Are they in the same jeopardy?  And what does it mean to be a registered charity in England?  Is that the same as our “non-profit” status, with all of the tax deductions that makes possible?  If anyone knows anything about this, please comment.

Is this an example of the state control of churches in a country that does not have our separation of church and state?  Or is it a foretaste of what American Christians will face also if they are not sufficiently “inclusive” according to the canons of state-mandated toleration?

Why Lutherans can’t take Catholic Communion

Russell E. Saltzman, a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church (the relatively conservative off shoot of ELCA), wrote a post at the First Things blog plaintively asking, “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?”  After all, he says, Lutherans and Catholics are agreed on justification–as of that Joint Declaration on the subject–and we are pretty much OK about other things, properly conceived.

Rev. Saltzman exhibits the annoying quality of speaking for “Lutherans” while ignoring those millions of us in that tradition who are conservative theologically and don’t go along with the Joint Declaration and other ecumenical overtures.   The mostly Catholic commenters tried to explain why he can’t commune at a Catholic altar, and in this case we conservative Lutherans do agree with conservative Catholics that this would be highly inappropriate.

You’ve got to read Anthony Sacramone’s discussion of this issue, which concludes with a vivid account of the differences between Rome and Lutherans, especially when it comes to the Gospel:

Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:  “If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.”

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.

Really?

The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

via Reformation Day: Lutherans vs. Alien Righteousness « Strange Herring.

Is the purpose of work leisure?

The New York Times published an online column arguing that the purpose of work is leisure.  (We work for the sake of the weekend; we have a career so we can retire; we try to amass wealth so we can stop working.)  That is also the view of Aristotle (we need to leisure to fully exercise our intellects) and of medieval Catholicism (the contemplative life is more spiritual than the active life).  Luther’s doctrine of vocation, by contrast, challenged this view, teaching that the purpose of work in all vocations is to love and serve one’s neighbor.

The folks at the Gospel Coalition blog asked me to pen an answer to the New York Times piece, which was by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting.  I did.  Go here to read my response, which includes a link to Prof. Gutting’s essay:

The Purpose of Work – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

 

Legalism is worse than liberalism

More on how Christians from all traditions are discovering Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel.  This is evident in this post from Southern Baptist pastor Micah Fries at Project TGM, who goes on to make a further point that we conservative Lutherans might sometimes overlook:

When I grew up, the great enemy of the gospel was almost always known as “liberalism”, or possibly, “moderate theology”. Today, however, it seems that we must equally be on guard against a different enemy. This new enemy is just as old as the first, but it is often more difficult to spot. Of course, it would be the enemy of legalism.

These two polar opposites of liberalism and legalism both stand apart from each other, in a sense, but in a very real way, they both accomplish the same goal; that of undermining God’s word. Liberalism, of course, reduces God’s word, and in doing so attempts to make a mockery of those who would dare take that word at face value. It assumes a position of great authority, in fact it could be argued that it assumes a position of greater authority than scripture itself as it attempts to “rectify” the “errors” found in the bible. Legalism, however, is also guilty of reducing the power and authority of God’s word, albeit in a much more insidious manner. While liberalism takes away from God’s word, legalism adds to it, and although it is different in practice from liberalism, it is essentially accomplishing the same goal, that of assuming authority over God’s word. While liberalism claims that scripture says too much, legalism claims that scripture does not say enough.

In all of this, however, I often find myself wondering if legalism might not be a greater danger to the Gospel, than the danger that liberalism itself poses. . . .

First, legalism is a difficult to diagnose cancer. All too often legalism is a subtle, creeping cancer that masquerades as holiness. In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that the Pharisees were guilty of adding “heavy loads” to the backs of their disciples. In Philippians 3 Paul points out that the Judaizers were “dogs” who “mutilated the flesh” in their pursuit of holiness. Both of these groups were guilty of affirming Scripture and yet adding to it in a further attempt to clarify their brand of “holiness”. When we take our personal convictions and apply them unilaterally, regardless of their clarity in Scripture, we may be guilty of this same creeping legalism. . . .

Second, legalism leads to a diminished recognition of sin. . . .A certain mark of legalism is a capacity to recognize others’ sins while failing to see our own. In his article on a topic similar to this, J.D. Greear cautions us concerning this danger. Good legalists get so busy playing watchdog for the sins of others, that they fail to see their own gross failure. As a result, personal sin is diminished, all in the name of “protecting holiness”. . . . [Read more...]

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Yesterday had been declared “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” by a group of activist pastors and a conservative legal organization.  Over a thousand pastors purposefully violated the law by endorsing, by name, a political candidate, something non-profit organizations are not allowed to do.  They recorded their endorsement sermons and are all going to send a copy to the IRS.

The idea is to force the IRS to take action against them, setting up a court challenge on the grounds that the law violates the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  See Pastors to take on IRS in plan to preach politics from the pulpit | Fox News.

Did any of you pastors take part in this act of civil disobedience?  Did any of you attend a church where this happened?  Do you know of any Lutheran churches that participated (which would seem to be a clear violation not only of the secular law but of Lutheran doctrine with its Two Kingdoms theology)?

Doesn’t this violate Romans 13?  Shouldn’t the churches that did this lose their tax exempt status?  After all, civil disobedience includes taking the punishment for violating the law.  If churches want to exercise a political authority–something that the Reformation utterly opposed when the Pope did this sort of thing–shouldn’t they just abandon their tax exempt status so they can function like other political organizations?  Is it really unconstitutional?  Or is there a case to be made for Pulpit Freedom Sunday?  If so, what is it?

An art critic discovers Luther

Daniel Siedell is a Christian art critic and curator, the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  In a recent post on his Patheos blog Cultivare, he describes how frustrated he became with evangelical and Reformed scholarship on the arts, leading him to turn to Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  But then he discovered Luther and Lutheranism, who were not at all the way he had assumed:

 The outlier in my aesthetic evangelical resourcement was Luther, whom I had simply lumped into the Protestant tradition as a “pre-Calvinist” and a “post-Catholic,” shaped as I was by the biases of Catholic and Reformed interpreters, and art historians like Joseph Leo Koerner, who blamed the Reformer for a privatized, relativized, and disenchanted Protestant faith. But things changed when my family and I became members of a confessional Lutheran Church (LCMS), and I discovered through the weekly practice of the preached Word and Sacrament, that Philip Cary is right: Luther is not quite Protestant. And for the sake of enriching evangelical cultural thought, that is a very good thing, as even Reformed historian Mark Noll observed in his classic essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to conference-circuit evangelicalism.

Although I practiced the Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition for almost eight years, it was not until I encountered Luther, liberated from a confessional tradition that had domesticated it and non-Lutheran thinkers who had distorted it, and interpreted through sensitive readers like the Hamann scholar Oswald Bayer, Steve Paulson, Gerhard Ebeling, and Gerhard Forde, that he came alive for me, presenting to me a Luther I never knew. And a Luther evangelicalism desperately needs.

What I discovered is a Luther whose thought offers fertile ground for a desperately needed re-evaluation of evangelical approaches to art and culture, from his understanding of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit; law and gospel; theology of the cross and theology of glory; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world; the human being as simultaneously sinner and saint; God hidden and revealed; and nature and grace. In addition, in his revolutionary understanding of vocation and through his emphasis on the sacramental nature of the preached Word, Luther opens up space to think freely and creatively about modern art, without expectations for what art should look like. For Luther, it is not what we see, but what we hear from paintings, when the bullets are flying, when push comes to shove, as we live and feel the pressure of life and the strained relationship between God and neighbor.

And so I find Luther a welcome and helpful companion when I go to art museums and art galleries, when I am confronted by work that looks different, that frustrates my expectations, and distracts me by its strangeness. Luther is teaching me to wait in faith, and listen, with love.

via Luther, Evangelicals, and Modern Art.


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