You’ve Been Invited To A [Fill In The Blank]: Should You Go? (1)

polycarpAs the culture descends further into post-Christianity and even the memory of Christianity fades in the minds of most Westerners, Christians will find themselves facing many of the same questions faced by the Christians of the first and second centuries. Many of us are probably finding ourselves in a circumstance where we’re being invited to attending homosexual weddings, the ordination of persons who are not biblically qualified for office, a cultic/pagan/non-Christian ritual, or some other event that is equally problematic.

How should we respond? There are two things that we must do: communicate our genuine love for those involved and our resolute commitment to honor Christ and his Word in every circumstance Let’s start with the latter. How do we honor Christ in a difficult circumstance, when by saying “No” we may seem to be unloving and thus perhaps judgmental, uncharitable, and even unchristian? The answer is that if we act on biblical principles we honor Christ even when it is painful to do so.

As Christians we are free to do a great number of things. In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1 ESV).” To the Colossians, who were being falsely taught and thus tempted to the spiritual bondage of man-made rules (Col 2), e.g., “do not touch, do not taste…” the Apostle Paul re-asserted the Christian’s liberty to enjoy God’s good creation within the bounds of his law, in the freedom of the gospel. In 1Corinthians 8, Paul defended the Christian’s freedom to eat meat offered to idols, even when others think that we should not. Nevertheless, there are things we are not free to do. We are not free to do things that may cause a brother or sister stumble back into paganism, unbelief, or into gross sin. Some believers understand that pagan gods and idols are nothing but figments of the imagination.

Not all, however, possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (1 Corinthians 8:7–8 revised from the ESV)

We are also free not to eat if the exercise of the freedom to eat will cause a brother or sister to stumble. We are free to eat until that eating becomes a competing communion. The moment our pagan host says, “We offered this to the gods” then we must say, “Thank you for your kind invitation but I cannot participate.”

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are cone body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that fan idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1Cor 10:14–22; ESV)

Believers are already in communion with the Lord. Just as the Israelites (infants and adults) were baptized into Moses, and just as they communed in the wilderness between redemption and the promised land, so we have been identified with Christ and are sojourning between redemption and consummation (1Cor 10:1–13). So, too, we’ve been initiated into Christ’s covenant community (the visible church), identified with his death in baptism. We’ve made profession of faith and have eaten his ascended, proper and natural body and blood (John 6:53; Belgic Confession Art. 35) by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, through faith. Our loyalties have been bought with a price. Therefore we honor God with our bodies (1Cor 6:20).

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:23-33 ESV).

As Paul says, we are free from the opinions of men and from bondage to the same but we are not free to damage brothers and sisters by leading them back into sin and we are not free to participate in rituals which rival those instituted by Christ. On this principle Reformed folk have historically refused to participate in the Masonic Lodge and related and parallel societies, their youth auxiliaries and the like. On this principle Reformed folk have refused to commune in a Roman Catholic mass (see Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 80).

Paul is clear that it’s not that we must withdraw from the world (1Cor 5:10) but there are limits to our freedoms. We cannot participate in a competing religious ceremony or communion.

Whether attending an ordination service constitutes participating in a competing communion is a judgment call but it’s hard to attend such ceremonies (e.g., a homosexual wedding) without signaling approval. If something is really wrong then to do it is to act against truth and conscience. We know that the Apostle Paul would not participate in a meal in which the host said, in effect, this meal is no longer purely common, it is a religious meal.” Would he attend the ordination of a homosexual male or of a female of any sexual orientation? Uncomfortable as it makes late moderns (and, according to surveys, Millennials in particular), the Apostle Paul categorized both homosexual orientation and behavior as sin. It’s hard to imagine that he would sanction a homosexual wedding with his presence—not because he was a prude but because his conscience is bound to the Word of God. Arguably, the same is true for the question of the ordination of females. There are writers whose work I really like, outstanding female scholars who are also ordained ministers. I appreciate and value their persons and their work without endorsing their ordination or their defense of the ordinate of females. Try as they may, the advocates of the ordination of females to the ministry have not been able to make 1Timothy 2 disappear from Holy Scripture:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve… (1 Timothy 2:12-13 ESV).

Steve Baugh has effectively refuted the argument that Paul was responding to a particular kind of feminism in Ephesus—with the consequence that Paul’s prohibition in 1Timothy 2:12–13 no longer applies today. As my dear friend Don Treick always says, “It’s in the Bible.” Indeed, as a practical matter, life would be easier if it wasn’t but it is and it’s there for a reason and this is one of those pressure points that will continue to cause friction between Christians and the broader culture. If we allow 1Timothy 2 to be swept away for the sake of getting along, then the rest of Scripture must necessarily go by the boards.

As the liberals long ago caved in and evangelicals have conceded the ordination of females, those who resist will be regarded with even great suspicion: “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go along with the program?” At that point, it’s clear that the real issue is no longer: what is the truth, what does Scripture teach, how has the church historically understood this passage, what do we confess? Now the question is why some stubborn folks won’t conform. That’s exactly the challenge faced by the early Christians in the 2nd century. As in the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Romans weren’t typically asking Christians to believe that Caesar is a god but. They were only asking us to say that he is. They weren’t typically asking us to stop believing in Jesus. They were only asking us to renounce Christ outwardly. They were asking us to conform outwardly. Those who refused paid for it with blood. We’re not there yet but we don’t have to look far to see it, do we?

According to 1John 4, there is a connection between words and what they signify. They signify spiritual realities with spiritual consequences. Therefore there are limits to what we may say and sometimes we are called upon to confess the faith in the face of moral and theological error, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

Next time: How do we disagree from the majority without being disagreeable?


  1. Dr Clark, Christians trying to reach Moslems have traditionally had no problem with eating halal, and the same seems to be true of Judaism and kosher. My rationale is that you only participate in this kind of false religion if you abstain from eating food of which it disapproves, rather than merely eating the food of which it does approve. However, there is a growing body of Christians, who are saying that we should not eat halal food, and it isn’t just on grounds of cruelty. What is your take on this?

  2. Very interesting. “The ordination of persons who are not biblically qualified for office” – Makes me wonder about the ordination of an elder I attended recently who’s a very wealthy man, works full time in the secular world and has never been to a seminary… I’ve wondered if I should have been a part of that.

    • Paul divides elders into four categories: 1. Elders that sin and should be rebuked, 2. Elders worthy of honour, 3. Elders that rule well and are worthy of double honour, and 4. Elders who labour in the word and doctrine and are especially worthy of double honour. I assume this ordination is a statement that this particular wealthy man, who works full time in the secular world and has never been to a seminary, is one who also labours in the word and doctrine. It’s not impossible, is it? I’m sure you have a better idea than I have as to whether this is indeed the case.

    • Neo,
      Likewise, “Very interesting.” Nothing you mentioned would be a basis for disqualification of an Elder, per se. Now, if you are describing someone being ordained as a Pastor, considered a Teaching Elder, that would be another thing altogether.

  3. Dr. Clark, it appears you are missing part of a sentence:

    “The initiation rites On this principle Reformed folk have refused to commune in a Roman Catholic mass…”

    • Isn’t a reformed person supposed either to be entirely absent from the Roman Catholic mass or raise a visible and audible protest if compelled to attend it? John Bradford’s booklet was entitled “The Hurt of Hearing Mass”, not just “The hurt of Receiving Mass”.

  4. On the other hand I vaguely remember hearing about a guy who was refusing a call to be a teaching elder because he hadn’t done enough study and was planning on going somewhere else to do more, only to hear the words “God curse your studies!” from the person issuing the call – Something like that.

    • Sorry, this was meant to be a reply to Jim Johnson’s comment in Neo’s discussion.

  5. John-

    Yes Christians should not even be present at the mass for it is abominable idolatry and thus we should avoid any sign of giving approval to it. To attend something and observe it is to give the impression one approves of it. But not only that: one is exposing oneself to something which is harmful.

    • Certainly we should not be attending a (Roman) mass for the purposes of worship or to assent to the errors that are taught but it does seem morally possible to attend for academic or scientific purposes. Protestants who criticize a mass without ever having seen one (there are different types of masses) are at a disadvantage and less credible in their criticisms. Obviously, there are limits to what one can see in order to argue against it. One need not see a murder to criticize it but is a mass morally equivalent to the crime of murder or theft etc?

      What we reject is the Roman claim of transubstantiation and the Roman doctrine of propitiatory, eucharistic sacrifice. We also, of course, object to the invocation of the BVM and the saints. The mass is more than these things.

      Those who’ve come out of Rome or who might be tempted by it ought to avoid it but I couldn’t say that it is sin to attend a mass for academic reasons.

      In our reaction to errors we should not set up new laws that bind the conscience.

      Those who refuse to come out, however, are another case. Calvin called those who refused to leave Rome: Nicodemites.

      Here’s an explanation:

  6. Well one example given is John Kennedy of Dingwall who, when travelling in Italy and visiting churches, witnessed masses being performed in parts of the church. Whether that would be advisable (I’d say no) it’s different from going to a Catholic Church to attend a service: i.e. the reason you’re there is to attend the service.

    I feel I must disagree with your argument about having greater legitimacy by observing things one condemns. If we are told something is wrong- transubstantiation &c.- and we are told that something contains that then I think we can quote legitimately condemn that thing without viewing it ourselves. One doesn’t have to know all the ins and outs of the mass to object to it. And anyway we have detailed accounts of the mass so I don’t see why we need to see it for ourselves. Others have already done so and written about it.

    I don’t dispute that being educated on an issue is helpful but that education does not need to be first hand. A lot of what we are educated on and examined on is second hand knowledge.

    • John Kennedy’s example came up in the controversy over the disciplining by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland of Lord MacKay of Clashfern for attending two requiem masses for two previous colleagues of his. Kennedy did rubberneck churches in Italy and observed masses being said. To protest, however, he would have to have walked over to the part of the church where mass was being said (Some of these Italian churches are massive), so he simply passed by. That was indeed different from actually attending a mass.
      My sympathies were initially with Lord MacKay and the people who separated to form the Association of Presbyterian Churches (He himself withdrew from the FPs and started attending St Helens Bishopsgate for a time; however, not too long after, he was to be found in the rather less evangelical Temple Church, the church traditionally frequented by barristers – I say traditionally, because a number of bachelors among them started going to the Charismatic movement dominated Holy Trinity Brompton because there was far more “talent” there), but I was, and still am persuaded by the arguments produced by the FPs. In particular David Clemence, from the Barnoldswick congregation reprinted John Bradford’s “The Hurt Of Hearing Mass”. Subsequent events have rather vindicated the FPs, as I understand the APC now to be wholly given over to pop-style worship.

    • This is somewhat of a calumny. The Associated Presbyterian Churches are still a capella metrical psalms only!

    • I was mistaken as regards present practice in the APC and majority practice since its inception (Their website only mentions psalm-singing) and James is probably right. The information on which I based my assertion came when they still had a congregation in Aberdeen and was about practices at the premises they occupied, under a minister who soon after departed for the Church of Scotland (having previously been quoted as saying that the APC was now somewhere between the Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland). Following his departure, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland reclaimed the buildings (which were being used contrary to trust deeds), and there is now no longer an APC congregation in Aberdeen. Contrary to the impression I had, Aberdeen was not typical of the denomination as a whole.
      I notice that their website teaches that believers are not saints until they get to glory (i.e., their definition for the term differs from that of the Bible)!

  7. Pioneer missionaries have an extra problem: How on earth will they pick up anything of the language or the culture without taking the risk that something they find themselves doing may actually be idolatrous?

  8. On the matter of women’s ordination, C. S. Lewis wrote a perceptive essay, “Priestesses in the Church?” Of course it’s from an Anglican perspective, but expresses astute observations of human nature and created order.

  9. “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go along with the program?”

    I’m sure they said that to Daniel and his three friends!

  10. I didn’t read all the comments, but I have a question… How do you feel about going to a wedding of non-believers? That may have been living together before marriage. I agree with the article and would not chose to go to a homosexual ‘marriage’ ceremony, but have then been asked about the non-believer thing. Anyone have good thoughts to help me with the argument?

    • Bre,

      Well at least we’re talking about a union that is not contrary to nature, i.e., to say it’s heterosexual. So, there’s that.

      I suppose that if we were to say that we aren’t going to attend any wedding of those who previously co-habitated, we could save a lot of money on wedding presents!

      Insofar as this rite/ceremony is fundamentally a creational, civil function, then I can’t see why Christians could not attend. Marriage is rooted in creation. It is analogous to salvation (Eph 5) but it is not salvation or an administration of salvation (i.e., a means of grace).

  11. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve… (1 Timothy 2:12-13 ESV).”

    It appears the issue is women teaching men. Is there any reason a woman can’t be ordained to pastor other women?

    • Teresa,

      No one has ever asked me that question before. As I understand Scripture, Paul intended that only males be ordained to pastoral office. 1Tim 5:17ff, Titus and 1 Pet 5 all seem to indicate that the ruling and teaching offices in the church are to held by males—however politically incorrect that might be today.

      It’s probably the case that men and women were physically separated within the congregation, at least in some cultural settings, but they were in the same congregation at the same time. In other words, I’m not aware that there were same-sex, segregated congregations. When Paul gave his instructions to Timothy, it doesn’t appear that he was intending to limit the ordination of females to same-sex, segregated congregations. He only gave the one ground there but it seems perverse to use the ground to get rid of the rule, but of course this is what some have tried to do in other ways, to so limit the original circumstances—even going so far as to read into 1st century Asia Minor issues from 800 years prior, as in the suggestion that Paul was addressing alleged proto-feminist “amazons”—and to conclude that his restriction is no longer in force because the problem no longer exists. As far as I know the early church understood Paul to restrict the teaching and ruling offices to males on the basis of the creational order.

      A combox is poor medium for sorting out a thorny question like this but yours is an interesting one.

  12. I’m not sure if prison chaplaincy is considered the same as pastoring, but that’s one area I can think of where single-sex ministry would be necessary.

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