The Tower of Babel and the PC(USA)

The Tower of Babel

Watching the 2008 Olympic Games it is easy to see the rich diversity of God’s creation.  Many colors, many sizes, many shapes, many tongues.  One need look no further than the book of Genesis and the story of Babel to find the explanation for this rich diversity.

According to Genesis, after the flood, Noah and his family emerged from the Ark and were blessed by God and given the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1 & 7).[1]  This was the charge originally given to Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 1:28), and here it is repeated to Noah, who represented the new start for humanity, living in the covenant of God’s grace. 

Surely God’s intention was that Noah and his children would grow in number, covering the earth and exercising dominion over it.  God had created a vast world with new and unimaginable wonders waiting to be discovered.  In faithfulness and obedience, the children of Noah were to encompass the world, worshiping the Lord and bringing Him glory from even the farthest corners of creation.

But not even 100 years after the waters had receded there came man named Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah.  “He was called a mighty hunter (Gen 10:9),” which could also be translated “a mighty warrior.”  He was the first of his kind in all the earth, feared and respected by all because of his prowess.  Nimrod established the first kingdom recorded in scripture, comprised of the cities of Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar, and himself built the cities of Ninevah, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen.  This was in direct disobedience to God’s command to fill the earth.[2]  Rejecting the will of God, Nimrod and his people build the first city-state, and the pinnacle of their disobedience was manifest in the infamous Tower of Babel.

The height of human arrogance

Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make brings, and burn them thoroughly.”  And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:1-4 ESV).

The unrestrained pride of man pours out of these verses.  Realizing their technological ability (making bricks and mortar) and the possibilities it afforded, the people said to one another, “Come, let us make…”  If this sounds familiar, it should.  It is what God said in the creation of man: “Let us make man in our image…”  Drunk with pride and ambition, and with full disregard for the will of God, the people of Shinar decided to start a creation of their own.

It is telling to see their building plans, for it reveals the nature of their hearts.  First they would build a city; a city for themselves.  It was not to be a city for God.  It was not a city built for the glory of God.  Nor was it built for the honor of God.  It was built for themselves.[3]

Next they would build a tower, with its top in the heavens.  The tower, or ziggurat, would become a common symbol in the religions of the east.  Reaching up to the heavens, it would draw all people who saw it together for worship.  The tower was to be a symbol of their religion, a religion of their own creation.  Up to this point in scripture, very little has been said regarding an authorized form of worshiping God, but we see clearly that God honored the burnt offerings of Able and of Noah[4].  The construction of such a tower was the outright rejection of God and the acceptable form of worshiping Him.  Instead, they would worship a god of their own creation in their own way.

Finally, they would create a name for themselves.  Rather than lifting up the name of God and glorifying Him, their desire was to have their name known throughout the world.  They would place themselves on a level with God, and have their name worshiped.  Interestingly, in later Babylon, Nimrod is deified as the god Marduk, and more towers are erected in his name.[5]

Through all this we see a blatant disobedience to God’s word.  As the apostle Paul writes, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, the became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom 1:21-23).  We see in these few verses of Genesis man’s desire for self-glory and self-fulfillment.  As John MacArthur writes, “It is man at his best and his noblest trying to achieve his greatest anti-God act.”[6]  God commanded Noah and his descendents to cover the planet, to discover and know the wonders of His creation, but man rejected God and rebelled against Him.

God’s judgment on Babel

Genesis 11 continues, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of man had built.  And the Lord said, “Behold they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do.  And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.  So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and the left off building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.  And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:5-9).

Never did the builders of the Tower of Babel expect their tower, “with its top in the heavens,” would attract the attention of the living God.  Their open defiance of His command proved they either did not believe Him to be the true living God, or perhaps that they had moved out of His realm of power.  But God visited the people of Shinar nonetheless, and poured out his judgment upon all people.

Seeing the utter depravity of men, and how, with one language they would achieve anything they proposed, God intervened.  We may be reminded here of Gen 6:5 “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  God knew that left unhindered, humanity would continually devise new and greater ways to sin.

God’s intervention at Babel was twofold.  God confused their language, so that no one could understand one another’s speech.  What had only moments before been a unified people in language and understanding, was now chaos and confusion.[7]  Throwing the people into confusion, humanity’s ability to work together against the glory of God was broken.  No longer would there be a unity among the tribes of the world.  Furthermore, the Lord scattered the people over the face of all the earth.  What God had originally commanded as a blessing, the people now receive as a curse, and the human race, because of its sinfulness in rejecting God and His word, was forever divided.

Resurrecting Babel: The PC(USA)

Sadly, today have we find ourselves staring at a new Tower, built in defiance of God’s word and for the glory of man, but not in the various religions of the world.  No, it shamelessly stands within the PC(USA). 

In its pride and arrogance our General Assembly has flaunted immorality and brazenly defied the clearly revealed word of God.  Through its recent decisions the church has rejected God’s will and the command of Christ our Savior to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  Instead we hear the words of our General Assembly, “Come, let us build a church in our own image…

The similarities between Babel and the PC(USA) can be clearly seen in the actions of the General Assembly.  This year the GA approved the removal of an Authoritative Interpretation of Scripture from 1978 which stated that, in accordance with the word of God, unrepentant homosexual practice is a sin and does not accord with the requirements for ordination, establishing the standard of fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness for its church officers.  In response to this action, the Presbyterian Lay Committee offered the following statement: “The 218th PCUSA General Assembly waged a frontal assault on Biblical Christianity.  The assembly disregarded historic Reformed standards, undermined its Constitution and failed to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ with its actions.”

We also see the man-made Tower of Babel in many of the lauded teachings of the denomination.  For example, at a pre-assembly gathering of the Witherspoon Society, Rita Nakashima Brock suggested that “Christ’s death has no place in an authentic Christianity;” that “the idea of a substitutionary atonement was a concoction of male church leaders in order to justify violence;” and that “another Christianity is possible.  We already live on holy ground.  It does not belong to any individual, not even to God… We actualize it when struggling for justice in community.”[8]  Moreover, the opening worship service at General Assembly omitted any “references to God the Father, sin and Christ’s death on the cross to pay for it.”[9]

Regardless of the emerging traditions of the 21st century Church, we, like the people of Babel, are not free to worship God any way we see fit.  However, the actions of the General Assembly look a lot like a church building a religion that dismisses the word of God.  By setting aside God’s word (which was given to regulate our faith and life, that we might glorify God and enjoy him forever), the church has placed the will of man above the will of God.  In this new way of worship, in this new Christianity, salvation is not pardon from sin and the promise of eternal life, it is self-actualization and social-justice.  It’s not about God; it’s about the good you do.  And this is all done in the name of the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.[10]

Similarities to Babel are also seen in God’s clear judgment on our denomination.  Like the people of the world in the days of Babel, our assemblies have become an incessant babbling of a confused people.  We are mired in endless debates pitting subjective experience over and against the revealed will of God in Scripture.  Those on either side of the issue merely talk past one another, and the voice of God is lost in the clamor.  The Presbyterians for Renewal recognized this when it issued the statement: “It is clear that the PC(USA)’s confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and commitment to our Reformed confessions has weakened to the point that we can no longer assume a common framework of conversation.”[11]

Not only has God thrown the denomination into confusion, we have also been scattered due to the denomination’s unfaithfulness.  There as been a mass Exodus from the PC(USA) as with 95,343 members estimated to have left the PC(USA) in 2007, and another 43,436 are projected for 2008, not including those congregations that are leaving the church.  The last year of positive growth in the PC(USA)was in 1965.  The PC(USA) has rejected the word of God as its authority for faith and life, and the tower it has constructed in the strength of its own hands is crumbling.

Babel Undone

But there is hope.  The story of Babel find’s its conclusion in the book of Acts.  There, in the story of Pentecost, we find Babel’s undoing.

The celebration of Pentecost began long before the story in Acts.  Pentecost was actually a celebration of receiving the 10 Commandments of God, the Word of God which established Israel’s covenant obligations.  According to tradition, the Moses received the commandments on Sinai 50 days after they had left Egypt, 50 days after their deliverance.  Pentecost (50 days) became a national observance, in which celebrants would assemble in Jerusalem, singing praises to God for His word.  The culmination of Pentecost would come on the final day, when the law of God, most likely the book of Deuteronomy would be read to the congregation, and the people would recommit themselves to God’s law.

It is in this context that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in tongues of flame.  The disciples were gathered in Jerusalem[12].  We read in Acts 2 that there were devout men from every nation under heaven gathered in Jerusalem, who had come to hear and commit themselves to the word of God.  When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, they began to proclaim the mighty works of God, and everyone heard the message in their own language.

When God’s word was prayerfully proclaimed by the power of the Spirit, the curse of Babel was reversed.  Those who had been scattered were drawn near, those who were confused heard clearly the Word of God.  God sent His Holy Spirit – in and with and for the word of God.  The people repented of their sins for they were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37), and God created a new community.

Undoing Babel Today

The only hope our denomination has, and has ever had, is a renewal of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit can undo the damage done, bringing healing, unity, and restoration to our broken family of faith.  But we dare not look to find the Holy Spirit of God in some revelation, or in any decision, that is not consistent with the revealed word of God in Scripture. 

As the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, waiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they were steadfast in prayer and faithful to the word of God.  No church can stand unless it stands on the word of God.  The church has no mission unless it is in bringing the forgiveness of sins to a broken and hurting world.  The church has no life except in the life of Christ alone.  The church has no peace unless it is the peace with God that comes from Christ alone.  The church has no unity unless it is the unity of faith in Christ alone.  The church is not pure unless it is purified by blood of Christ alone.  The church has no strength but the strong name of Christ alone.  The church has no message unless it proclaims clearly, and unequivocally the gospel of salvation in Christ alone.  The church has no hope unless it hopes in Christ alone.

May God, by the power of His Holy Spirit, awaken our church to the error of her ways, striking down the towers we have built with our own hands, and creating anew His Presbyterian Church, redeemed by the cross of Christ, faithful to the proclamation of His word, living for His glory and honor alone.


[1] All Scripture references from the English Standard Version

[2] Note also that Cain is reported to have built the first city, which was named Enoch after his son (Gen. 4:17).

[3] Compare this to the faith of Abraham as described in Hebrews 11:9-10, “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

[4] Gen 3:4-5; Gen 8:20-22

[5] Compare this with God’s promise to Abram to make his name great in Gen. 12:1-3.

[7] In fact, Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for confused.

[8] Williamson, Parker T., The Presbyterian Layman, Vol. 41, No. 4/July 2008, page 15

[9] Ibid., page 19.

[10] In a heated debate on the floor of Heartland Presbytery over the issue of homosexual ordination, one presbyter stated that the Holy Spirit spoke to the General Assembly when they voted to remove G-6.0106(b), the fidelity and chastity clause.

[12] Which unlike Babel was a city built for God; and they were gathered under the tower God had given, the cross; and in the name God have given, Jesus Christ.

 

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About reveds

Occupation: Pastor, Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, Lennox, SD Education: BS - Christian Education, Sterling College; MDiv. - Princeton Theological Seminary Family: Married, with Four children. Hobbies: Running (will someday run a marathon), Sci-Fi (especially Doctor Who and Sherlock), Theater, and anything else my kids will let me do.
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2 Responses to The Tower of Babel and the PC(USA)

  1. Jeff McAdoo says:

    Amen!
    Thank you, my paraclete Nathan.

    >
    Jeff

  2. Marcy says:

    Well said! I hadn’t realized just how bad things had gotten in the PC(USA) lately, but knew it was getting pretty scary. Keep fighting the good fight and standing up for Christ and his sacrifice, friend!!

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