The Watchman’s Cry
Ezekiel 3:16-21, I Timothy 1:3-11
Dr. Rod Pinder
February 17, 2013
Imagine this scenario. You come home from a business trip or a visit with family and, as you walk through the door, you find your spouse lounging on the couch in the arms of another lover. Without blushing or apologizing, your spouse calmly stands up and says, “Honey, you remember Tony (or Toni). Tony has moved in and will be sleeping in our room. Of course I still love you and I hope you’ll stay with us, but Toni is here from now on.
Perhaps you should have seen it coming. Your spouse and Tony had been friends for years, but you refused to give in to your suspicions. Friends told you this was bound to happen, but you never believed it would come to this. Yet now, here it is.
What would you do? Basically you can choose from four options. You can go along with the new arrangement and hope you’ll get used to it. (Maybe Tony will pick up some of your least favorite chores.) You can stick it out and hope things will get better. You can stay and work to get things back to where they were, or you can leave. And of course, if you choose to move out, there’s a very real question as to who left whom first.
That actually happened to me – not with my wife but with the denomination I have loved and served for decades, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Things have changed.
Number 1 on your sermon notes is:
1. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is making some dangerous changes.
And so this scenario has happened to you, too. Our denomination has changed. How shall we respond? It seems that there are four options available to an evangelical, Bible believing Presbyterian in the PC(USA). You can go along with the changes. (Maybe you think they’re good.) You can cross your fingers and hope things will get better. You can stay and work to get things back to the way they were, or you can leave and join another denomination. (Still leaving the question of who left whom first.)
For the last 20 months or so your Session has been studying, praying, talking with presbytery officials and listening to the Lord, trying to discern which of these options is His will for us. Some were ready to leave the denomination back in May of 2011, but wisely, the Session didn’t want to make a rash decision. All of you were invited to join us in seeking God’s will last Summer as we devoted our Adult Sunday School time to these issues.
Last October I told the Session that if Woodbury chooses to stay and work for change, I will stay and work with you. If Woodbury chooses to leave for another denomination, and if you’ll have me, I could go with you and continue as your pastor. But if the church chooses either to go along with these changes or pretend nothing has happened, I would have to leave.
What, then, are these changes? And why are they so important? In this sermon I am going to speak very, very frankly.
Actually these changes shouldn’t have surprised us. Twelve years ago, our elders signed a “Confessing Church” declaration, which reaffirmed precisely the positions and practices that were being threatened even then. The Confessing Church statement firmly says the following:
Jesus Christ alone is Lord of All and the way of salvation
The Holy Scripture is the Triune God’s revealed Word, the Church’s only authoritative and unique rule of faith and life
God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life. This includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate.
Now all of those things are changing. Let’s look briefly at them, one by one.
2. The PC(USA) is changing its belief about Jesus.
Since the beginning Presbyterians have believed what the Bible says about Jesus: that He is God incarnate, that He died for our sins and was raised from the grave and that He is the only means God has provided for our salvation.
In Acts 4:12 we read that the apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed this truth: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Jesus Himself taught the same thing. John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Nowadays, however, there are even prominent leaders in our denomination who cannot affirm such an important, basic truth. A few years ago, when she was the Moderator of our General Assembly, Cynthia Bolbach visited our presbytery. During a question and answer period, she refused to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Later, in the lunch line she ended up next to Ruby, our Commissioned Ruling Elder. Ruby pressed the Moderator and tried to get her to agree with what the Bible says about Jesus, but she could not. The person holding the highest office in the denomination could not say she believed in something so basic to our Faith.
At other presbytery meetings we have received ministers into our presbytery who, in their examinations, have had similar problems.
Pastor John Shuck in Tennessee is notorious for posting faithless proclamations in his blog, “Shuck ‘n’ Jive.” For example he denies that Jesus is God and declares that Christ didn’t really rise from the dead.
A few years ago our Book of Order said, “The Church is called to tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord….” (G-3.0300a). That statement is now completely gone from our Constitution.
Perhaps this is because we want to be politically correct. There is an emphasis on “Interfaith Dialog,” and I think dialog great. But when you say things like “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Him,” that kind of puts off people of other faiths.
The problem, however, is that if Jesus is not the only way of salvation then He came and died and rose for nothing. If people could be saved any other way, any other way at all, then what Jesus did simply doesn’t matter. Jesus is not really our Savior, He’s just a joke. His death was a cruel joke and His followers are pitiful fools.
The PC(USA) is changing what it believes about Jesus Christ, and that is a dreadful, dangerous change.
3. The PC(USA) is changing its belief about the Bible.
(Authority of Scripture)
II Timothy 3:16-17 says, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Presbyterianism is about faithfulness to Scripture. The founder of our expression of faith, John Calvin, was primarily a Bible scholar and his theology and vision for the church come directly from his understanding of Scripture. The teaching of Scripture trumps everything else – tradition, theology, personal taste, cultural convention – everything. The Bible is our authoritative guide to faith and practice.
We believe that a loving God gave us the Scriptures to teach us how to live life to the fullest. Scripture teaches what is for our good, and obedience to God’s Word is basic to our way of life.
However, today things are different. The Scriptures are no longer held in such high esteem. Doug Ottati is one of our most prominent theologians. Doug was one of my professors in seminary. He is a brilliant man and I consider him a friend. However, Doug has started referring to the Bible, not as the Word of God but as the “poetry of the church.”
That’s it? That’s all we get? That’s all God gave us? No divine revelation? No eternal truth? No God-breathed Word? Just the poetry of the Church? What help is that?
In April of 2012 this low estimation of Scripture became official. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, which is sort of like the Supreme Court of our denomination, indicated that when there is a “vast variety of interpretation of scripture,” we can no longer turn to the Bible for guidance. We can no longer trust the Bible. (Parnell v. San Francisco)
We’ve looked at this kind of fallacy many times. Several years ago I preached a series of sermons called Is the Bible Reliable? You can find it online at the address on your sermon notes. http://www.woodburypres.com/wpc/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=105&Itemid=97
But the point I want to make today is that when we ignore or even diminish the authority of Scripture we cease to be Presbyterians. Worse, we trust our own wisdom and learning above God’s Word. That is a grave danger.
Two of the most important doctrines of our faith are being challenged, attacked,
weakened. That in itself is a serious issue. But we’re not just talking about doctrines as
abstract ideas. Mind games. Doctrines have very practical consequences because:
4. Wrong belief leads to wrong behavior.
Or you can say it differently: Right belief leads to right behavior.
As you study the letters of Paul you notice a pattern. After he greets the congregation, the first major part of each of his letters is theological. He sets out great truths about God and Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church and so on. Then after this explication there comes a pivotal point. Usually it is the word “therefore.” And after the “therefore,” the letter gets very practical. He’s saying, “Because these things are true, this is how we should live.” Wrong belief leads to wrong behavior and right belief leads to right behavior.
We see that same thing in our New Testament Reading for this morning. Paul starts by talking about the importance of sound teaching. He tells his protégé Timothy,
I Timothy 1:3 3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer. False doctrines are dangerous. Followers of Jesus cannot believe anything they want to believe and still be followers of Jesus. What we believe matters.
He talks about that for a few more verses, then he gets into this list of sinful behavior that is opposed to God’s will and God’s law, and he concludes that by saying,
I Timothy 1:10-11 …10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.
Do you see it? Did you catch it? Sinful behavior is “contrary to sound doctrine.” It doesn’t fit with the glorious gospel of God. Belief and behavior go hand in hand.
One more example. We see this in the book of Revelation, which some of you are studying in Sunday school. In Revelation 2:20 the risen, glorified Jesus says to the church in Thyatira, Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. Now few of us struggle with what to do about food sacrificed to idols in a literal sense – though I have missionary friends who have faced that. But we in our society certainly understand the temptation to sexual immorality. False teaching leads to bad behavior.
So it should not surprise us to learn that in our denomination, there are not only theological problems but moral problems as well.
5. The PC(USA) is changing its stand on sexual ethics.
Hebrews 13:4 says Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
There are many passages of Scripture that talk about sexual immorality. On your sermon notes you find a link to a compilation I put together for our college students on “Sexual Immorality in the New Testament” http://www.woodburypres.com/wpc/sex-NT. So though I’ve only listed one verse here, there are many.
A friend of mine, who is an elder in another church, says “Sexual sins are the least important sins.” Perhaps she’s right. There are certainly other sins that are more heinous – murder, human trafficking, perhaps larceny or perjury. But sexual sins are still sins. So while perhaps we ought to guard against some other sins even more than we resist sexual sins, that doesn’t mean sexual sin should be embraced or even tolerated. If we are wise we will remember that what the Bible teaches, it teaches for our good. So when it calls us to sexual purity, to avoid sexual immorality, it is calling us to a better and more joyful life.
Presbyterians used to believe that. For example, until May of 2011 our Book of Order said, “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in obedience to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” (former G-6.0106b) That wording no longer exists in our Book of Order. Fidelity and chastity are no longer demanded of our leaders. Perhaps they are not even expected.
Recently I was talking on line with a seminary student at one of our more conservative PC(USA) seminaries. He said that co-habitation in the dorms is commonplace. And if that is true at this seminary what is it like in our liberal seminaries?
Perhaps sexual sin is not the worst kind of sin there is, but it is sin. And in that area, our denomination is going in the wrong direction.
That leads to a fourth problem.
6. The PC(USA) is changing its practice of Church Discipline.
I John 5:16a says If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.
James 5:19-20 says, My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
As Christians, as part of a community of faith, it is our responsibility to lovingly correct one another when we get caught up in error. We encourage one another to walk in the light. This loving correction is called Church Discipline. And the Scots Confession calls church discipline one of the marks of the true church. In other words, where Christians do not lovingly correct one another, there is no true church.
The Presbyterian Church has a well worked out, biblically sound system of church discipline. However, lately it has been used in a very sloppy manner. At the last General Assembly, many pastors made speeches in which they declared that they had broken church law. No charges were brought against them. People have been censured for wrong behavior, but the censure was followed by congratulations. A Permanent Judicial Commission chided the Presbytery of Los Ranchos for being “divisive” when it said that would still expect fidelity and chastity from their ministers.
Last month I met a PC(USA) minister whose church is looking for an associate pastor. Churches looking for clergy are required by the denomination to fill out a “Church Information Form.” This pastor was shocked to learn that they were required to sign a statement that they would not discriminate against candidates for the position, “regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography or theological conviction.”
Regardless of theological conviction? A church can’t refuse to call a minister just because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God or she gets some of her best inspiration from séances, or because that person thinks of the Bible as “the poetry of the church?”
We have changed our understanding and practice of church discipline, and that is a dangerous change.
So far this hasn’t been my favorite sermon t0 preach. Maybe it hasn’t been your favorite sermon to hear. I like to preach about the love of Christ. I like to preach about intimacy with Jesus. I like to preach about the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t like to find fault and criticize and pick. I particularly don’t like to pick on the church that has nurtured me and the church that I love.
Speaking of picking, sometimes my wife picks on me. She criticizes me when my shirt tale is out. She nags me when I have food between my teeth after I eat. She picks on me about eating better and exercising more. Sometimes I think she doesn’t like me very much.
But in fact the opposite is true. She criticizes me because she loves me. St. Thomas Aquinas said that to love someone is to will his (or her) highest good. My wife wants to save me the embarrassment of preaching with a blueberry skin on my incisor or an unnoticed wardrobe malfunction. She wants to spare me the pain of a heart by-pass or kidney dialysis. So she points out, shall we say, areas of potential improvement.
In that way she is like what Ezekiel called a watchman. (See Ezekiel 3:16-21) In our Old Testament reading for this morning, the Lord told Ezekiel that if he warned the people about their sins and they didn’t listen, Ezekiel was not held responsible for their conduct or the consequences. But if he didn’t warn them, any calamity that befell them would be on his shoulders. The watchman must cry out when there is danger.
7. This message is a watchman’s cry.
See Revelation 2:4, 2:14 and 2:20 “I have this against you”
This sermon is pointing out areas where the church is in danger. These are areas where the church needs to change direction because we are on a dangerous course. These are areas where we need to repent. And I am telling you this precisely because I love the church so deeply.
8. How can we respond to the watchman’s cry?
I’ll talk about three ways.
Last Wednesday night was the night before Valentine’s Day. I made my wife a card on the computer. On the cover it said, “A Puritan Valentine Card.” On the inside it said, “Sometimes being near you causes me to have impure thoughts.” I signed it, “The Reverend Doctor Pinder” and left it on the dining room table for her to find when she got up the next morning.
By the time I got up on Valentine’s Day, she had already left for work. But she left the same card on the table. I opened it to find that she had written, across the bottom, in bold print, with a black magic marker, “Repent!” She had signed it, “Mrs. Pinder.
That story points us to the first and most important response to the watchman’s cry.
8.1 Repent where necessary.
Perhaps you’ve allowed your understanding of Jesus to get fuzzy. Perhaps you think of Him as a great teacher and as “a way” to salvation and “a path” to God. Maybe you even think of Him as “your Savior” and “your path to God.” But you’ve lost sight of the fact that there was no other way for you to be saved. And since there was no other way for you to be saved, God became a man in Jesus Christ and died for your sins and conquered death and evil on your behalf. Perhaps you have robbed yourself of that wonderful, joyous knowledge of His great love, and reduced Him to a “first among equals.” If you have, repent! You don’t have to abide by that kind of foolishness any longer. You can know the love of the Savior of the world.
Perhaps you’ve become mushy in your view of Scripture. You think of the Bible as an old book written by mere mortals, who did the best they could. It’s a good book. Maybe it’s the best of all books. But you can’t really trust it. It’s filled with all kinds of out-dated ideas, and who knows how many mistakes were made in the copying of it? So you can take the parts you like, but the parts you don’t like you needn’t bother with because, after all, you’re smarter than those ancient people who didn’t even know how to operate a cell phone.
But you don’t have to settle for such a puny Bible. You can have more than the poetry of the Church. You can have the revelation of God Himself to be a lamp to your feet and a light to your path. Repent!
Or maybe you have fallen prey to the sexual confusion and anarchy of our culture. You may be involved in a physical relationship outside the safe boundaries of marriage. You may entertain an impure fantasy life. But you don’t have to be stuck with a lifestyle that degrades intimacy to instinct and cheapens your body and the bodies of others, as though they were less than temples of the Holy Spirit. You can repent. And I pray that you will. Our first response is to repent.
A second response is to pray. Especially I ask you to,
8.2 Pray for the session.
This Tuesday night, February 19, a recommendation will come to the Session that Woodbury begin the process of discernment with presbytery as to whether we should begin the process of leaving the PC(USA.) Pray that God will guide the elders as they discern and vote.
Now, understand that Session’s vote will not be the final decision. If Session votes to begin the process, we will have conversations with the presbytery. Members of the congregation will be invited to take part in those conversations. Finally the congregation as a whole will take a vote whether to leave or stay.
If you have questions or insights to share, I’ll be at the church at 4:30 this afternoon and we can talk freely about this issue. I only ask that if you come for the conversation at 4:30 you stay for the prayer gathering at 5:30. We don’t want to make this decision based on our own wisdom or opinions. We want to seek guidance of the Lord. We must pray.
8.3 Always respond in love.
Our New Testament reading today started with Paul’s command to Timothy to stay in Ephesus and guard against false teaching. It ended by saying that sinful behavior is contrary to the Gospel. But right in the middle of that passage, we find this verse.
I Timothy 1:5 . 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
John Calvin thinks “this command” refers to all the commands of God. It is certainly true that the goal of all God’s commands is love. However, I think Paul is talking about the command to guard against false teaching. The goal of that effort must always be love, and must come from a pure heart, a good conscience, a sincere faith.
And so our goal through this whole process must be love. We must be loving toward one another, even if some disagree with us. We must be loving toward the presbytery. We must be loving toward the PC(USA.)
There will be no need for nasty comments, rude behavior, grudges, sabotage or any other behavior that is contrary to the love of Christ.
Jesus told us the most important things are to love God with all our being, love our neighbors as we love ourselves and love one another as He loves us. If we stop doing those things, if we stop striving to be a community of Christlike love, then we cease to be a Christian church at all. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what denomination we belong to!
So let us do everything in love. That is the most important aspect of the watchman’s cry.
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