an open letter to the TED team

Some time back I was talking with church leadership about possible opportunities for me to serve the church, including potential calling to leadership. At the time I insisted that theological differences between myself and the church disqualified me.

I still believe I have important theological differences with the church, even if only in my own questioning and theological formation; but I have felt a weight of consideration ever since, and I believe that the Spirit is provoking me to action. What that means I do not yet know, but I decided that, at the very least, I could formally put my name in for consideration by the church, and leave it to the church, rather than my own preemption, to disqualify me.

After applying I was asked to schedule a 30-minute conversation with the church's trustees, elders, and deacons (TED) team. As part of the conversation, I will be expected to share responses to the following questions:

Please share a brief statement (3-5 minutes) about your faith in Christ and how your personal relationship began and continues.

I have been raised in the church my entire life, my father a Christian Rock Band Jesus Hippie and my mother proselytized by him early in their relationship. I didn't appreciate the full impact of my upbringing until adulthood; but my father always had an earnest heart for God, and my mother a love for everyone around her. I grew up assuming these characteristics, and I am so thankful that they are encoded so deeply in who I am.

As a family we attended a Church of the Nazarene; but I also exclusively attended a small private school, kindergarten through highschool run by a fundamentalist Baptist church, followed by four years at a Nazarene univeristy. Church, has been embedded in virtual every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember; and more than that, a pervasively diverse church context means that I have always had to acknowledge and consider different, conflicting, and often opposing views of God and the scripture, even within Christianity.

This much pervasive access to church can make the experience of God somewhat mundane; so it wasn't until somewhere in my teens that I really felt God alive in my life. It's somewhat cliché, but I attended a weekend cursillo retreat run by local Methodist churches as part of The Upper Room ministries. I shouldn't have needed it--I had exactly the same kind of example at home already--but it was there that I first recognized the difference between assumptively "going to church" and living a life that is transformed by the Spirit and oriented toward God. I continued to work (and speak) at the retreat for years after, and my entire family attended successively afterward.

The next notable impact to my faith came as a result of my wife and I living for three and a half years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though we were only there professionally, the facts of being a Christian in the nation of Isalm cannot be avoided--and why should they? There our understanding of God and Christ was deepended through comparison and contrast with the people around us. We met several strong Christians, largely among the students, and gathered to worship in our homes (eventually our home specifically) every week.

We have worshiped almost exclusively at Presbyterian churches since returning to the States, first at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York and now at First Pres in Boulder, an extension of our existing desire to challenge our own theological background and assumptions through comparison and contrast.

What is currently going on in your life spiritually? What is God teaching you? What growth are you experiencing?

Fankly, this is something going on in my life spiritually: I am trying to be ever more open to the leading of the Spirit, particularly where I habitually resist Him. For example: when we were first asked to open our home to our church in Saudi Arabia, I literally said, "OK; as long as I'm not expected to lead." Of course, it was scarcely a year later that I was preparing scripture readings, selecting songs for us to sing together, and distributing communion, after our previous leaders graduated from their respective academic programs and returned home.

I love theology, and I try to not let my esoteric interests get in the way of ministry and community. Most recently I have been reading the work of David Bentley Hart. I finished his defense of universal salvation "That All Shall Be Saved" and found it a profound challenge to what might be the last vestiges of my fundamentalist assumptions about hell; but I am currently re-reading the New Testament with his defense in mind to better discern my assumptions about scripture from my actual reading of it. After and during that I am also reading his defense of theism: "The Experience of God."

More personally, the Spirit is convicting me regarding how I respond to disagreement in my marriage. I say this here only because my comments so far have been largely academic, and I don't want to imply that the Spirit doesn't affect me more intimately as well; but, while I'm open to discussing such things, I tend to wait for them to be asked explicitly as well.

How did you come to be a part of First Pres? What experiences have you had as a part of our church family? What excites you about the future?

We came to Boulder largely chasing my wife's family (in Greeley) and the church family that we had had in Saudi: themselves largely from the Boulder area. When we surveyed the churches in the area we found mostly a certain type of closed conservatism, a certain type of loose liberalism, or a certain type of seeker congregation: none of these seemed to fulfill our expectations to be challenged toward growth in the faith. But we found First Pres, supported by our previous experiences at Redeemer, and encouraged by what we heard in sermon recordings online. We attended and, in our first services we encountered academic theology (led by Carl); passionate tradition (bagpipes); and earnest community (in coffee with Erik).

We showed up to Family Small Groups without prior arrangement; and, though there was no group for us to join on the spot, our chidren were cared for and we were told to enjoy the evening together.

At First Pres I feel at home, in a way that I have not felt since I left my childhood church.

How do you seek to discern God's will for you personally? How might you discern God's will in a group setting?

I seek God's will for me personally through prayer and study; but I cannot ignore the transforming work of the Spirit in my life as well. I can scarcely believe my life, and I am excited by the prospect of even deeper relationship with God.

In a group setting, if my self-assessment is accurate, I have a tendency and aptitude for listening to all perspectives and helping to bring parties to at least a common understanding. I consider what is said long after a group meeting, and often follow-up off-cycle to ask questions or assert possibilities. I pray, but more generally I believe that I feel the Spirit leading throughout the day, and I hope that I would be able to discern that leading in a more formal group as well.

Perhaps more technically, I argue. And I hope that that is not understood as argumentative; but I try what I believe to be Truth by presenting it for scruitiny. I am strong in my beliefs, but I am also quick to abandon my own misunderstandings. When I argue, I argue from scripture and (where it is a help and not a distraction) well-established shared belief.

I was also pointed to the Essential Tenents of ECO 1; and it is here that I am afraid I will have the most trouble. As above, I don't intend to be argumentative; but I also do not want to conceal anything, so I will do my best to enumerate my concerns here.

I want to be clear: I do not begrudge ECO or First Pres these essential tenents. I recognize the importance of common doctrine, and I value the diversity of Christianity as expressed in the diversity among congregations: that diversity does not necessarily need to be expressed within each congregation. Still, First Pres is my home; and if I am to serve here, I have to be honest about what I believe as well.

Regarding "God’s Word: The Authority for Our Confession"

I have serious concerns regarding the common definition of the Word of God. Even today, Carl preached in his sermon that God's word is incarnate, proclaimed, and written; but the essential tenents omit acknowledgement of God's word as proclaimed altogether.

I further fear, and have for many years, that the veneration of the so-called "written Word of God" is a form of idolatry: the Bible serves as an image of God's Word, and its worship (in everything but name) is troubling to me. More striclty, I consider the scripture a testament to the Word of God, not the Word itself (as opposed to Christ, the Word Incarnate.)

I do acknowledge, as Paul taught Timothy, that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." But I'll still point out that Paul certainly was not talking about the gospels, the revelation, or much less the epistles (particularly that he was contemporaneously writing), but "the sacred writings" that Timothy had been acquanted with "from childhood." This is not to say that the Christian scriptures are not themselves "Breathed out by God," and I have faith in the work of the Spirit in preserving the Scripture through church tradition and study; but I believe the true nature of the scripture is more complex than is often exhorted in such essential tenents, and the true nature of the Word of God more complex still.

We confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience, but this freedom is for the purpose of allowing us to be subject always and primarily to God’s Word.

We are happy to confess ourselves captive to the Word of God

Perhaps there is some scriptural basis for this imagery that I am missing; but without it I am troubled by this imagery. Life in Christ is denotatively freedom; we are not captives, but heirs, ransomed from sin and death. I do not deny that "the Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the Scriptures that He has inspired"--perhaps this is an unnecessary complaint; but the heart with which we approach the Word matters to me, and I find it important to recognize that the Spirit changes our desires to be those of God; we are not captive to the Word, but freed by it.

Regarding "secondary authority"

[W]e affirm the secondary authority of the following ECO Confessional Standards as faithful expositions of the Word of God: Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, Westminster Larger Catechism and the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

I don't know how I missed this before; but this greatly expands the scope of the so-called "essential" tenents. I have studied some of these; but certainly not all, and I would be loathe to assumptively confirm their authority in my theology, or my adherence to them, without further study (and given the differences raised by the primarily-stated essential tenents, I can only expect there would be further differences in a greater body of confessions).

regarding "Trinity and Incarnation: The Two Central Christian Mysteries"

I have strong, fundamental concerns regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.

But first let me be clear: I believe in God, non-contingent, transcendent, Father and creator of all. I believe that Jesus, the Christ, is the incarnate Word of God, one with the Father, in the Father and in whom the Father is. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, the helper and advocate, who comes in the name of Christ and is sent by the Father, the Spirit of Christ and, thus, the Father.

But there is a great deal of distance between that and bold claims about God as having a fundamentally "trinitarian" nature. This is not quite idolatry; but it is seeking to define God by our experience of him, where he is more accurately transcendent. God has revealed himself freqntly through social terms, but it is eisegesis to read this as emphatically trinitarian. God did not direct Israel, for example, to worship "God the Creator; God the Fire of the Bush; and God the Pillar of Cloud"; but God. And if God did not direct worship to a plurality, but a unity God, then we should not break from that direction.

And what of the Word of God? Surely the Word of God is God, as John proclaimed. But if Christ is one part of a trinity God, then surely the Word is a person of God, existing before "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." So perhaps the trinity is more accurately "the Father, the Word, and the Spirit"?

But I am particularly troubled by extra-Biblical habits I have observed recently of praying to individual "members of the trinity"; we are to pray to God, the Father, as Christ did and directed us to.

affirmed by all Christians everywhere

This is simply not true: there have been many Christians that have had different interpretations and understandings of the being of Christ. I may not agree with them, but to ignore them is distracting and disingenuous.

like us in having both a human soul and a human body

This anthropology isn't Biblical, so far as I can tell. Maybe it is technically true to say that Christ had a human soul; but this statement does not mean what a western mind will infer from it. God did not make a human body and then put a human soul into it; man became a living soul when God breathed into it. As such, to say that Christ is "like us in every way but sin" but then say that he has a "human soul" is both non-sensical and contradictory.

Regarding "God’s grace in Christ"

Our desires are no longer trustworthy guides to goodness, and what seems natural to us no longer corresponds to God’s design.

I hope that these tenents do not mean to indicate that we who are alive in the Spirit are unable to discern good. "We have received [...] the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual." It is the promise of life in the Spirit that our hearts are turned towards the things of God; that our desires are made trustworthy, being those of the Spirit.

Jesus takes our place both in bearing the weight of condemnation against our sin on the cross

I require further study here; but I believe this to be incorrect theology. Christ did not "bear the weight of [presumably God's] condemnation against our sin"; in stead, his death paid the ransom to free us from our slavery to death.

Regarding "Election for salvation and service"

I am thankful that ECO does not, at least here, go so far as to proclaim limited atonement an essential tenent. (Perhaps it does implicitly by extension through one of the "secondary" authorities.) But I must say that the language of atonement does not appear, to me, to be concerned with eternal salvation or the church in general, but of specifically the work of the Spirit in Israel in the church age. "Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." But later "a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved."

"just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all."

Therefore I hold that, at the very least, the concept of election as expressed by Paul does not reflect eternal salvation, or its absence; but the work of God in the lives of some for the age towards an ultimately redemptive purpose for all.

One last thing: Paul explicitly doesn't use the word "elect" to refer to Gentiles; only Israel.

Regarding "Living in obedience to the Word of God"

I note here only to claim this commandment as expressed:

pursue truth, even when such pursuit is costly, and defend truth when it is challenged, recognizing that truth is in order to goodness and that its preservation matters;


ECO Constitution (Polity and Essential Tenets)