Baptismal Regeneration in the WCF?

Does the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) teach baptismal regeneration (new birth)? Does it say that the sacrament of baptism actually confirms an individual’s regeneration, conversion, justification, etc? A quick reading of Ch.28, section 1 might give that impression:

BAPTISM is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

Many, if not most would agree that baptism is a sign (or symbol) of these spiritual blessings, but is it a “seal” (confirmation) of them in every baptized person? Does the WCF teach that every person baptized possesses these spiritual blessings, among them regeneration?

There is a maxim of biblical interpretation which says that “a text without a context is pretext for a proof-text.” We must interpret every passage of Holy Scripture in its context, both immediate and ultimately, the context of the entire Bible. This is a principle which applies just as well to other forms of communication: don’t take people’s words out of their context.

If we read on in Ch.28 of the WCF, we find this in section 5:

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn [despise] or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

This statement in pretty clear, once you wade through the double-negatives! There is no certainty that all who are baptized are regenerated. There is no inseparable link. That’s what it says, very plainly. The WCF denies baptismal regeneration in section 5.

But how does that fit with the statements in section 1 which say that baptism is a sign and seal of the person’s ingrafting into Christ, etc?

Let’s be generous to the Westminster divines (top theologians), and NOT assume that they contradicted themselves within a few sentences!

We must ask, in what sense did they use the word “his” in section 1? “…a seal… of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life…”

 Baptism doesn’t guarantee salvation, whether in the case of the children of believers (paedobaptism) or in the case of professing  believers (credobaptism). In both cases, people have been known to fall away from the Lord. However, we may speak of the blessings of salvation “belonging” to all the baptized insofar as it is the sign of admission to the church (the WCF would say, “visible church”), and these are blessings that belong to Christ’s church in a general sense. So if you belong to that church, in one of her congregations, these blessings are said to be yours (“his”). Through faith, cultivated in the covenant communities of church and family, you partake personally of these blessings. However, by forsaking Christ and his church, you lose those privileges and blessings.

Here’s an illustration: someone deposits a million dollars in your bank account, but you never draw on it; you never receive any benefit from it. In one sense, it’s yours, but in another, it’s not. Christ is that great fortune. As a baptized member of his church, he’s offered to you, he is yours for the taking, but you must actually take him in order to receive his benefits!

Baptism preaches the gospel of Christ. But just as a sermon won’t do you any good unless you believe and obey God’s Word, so with baptism. In fact, it will add to your condemnation on the Day of Judgment, because you had it, but you didn’t use it.

The Voice of Conscience

Not long ago, the Tasmanian Parliament enacted a statute compelling their citizens to use preferred pronouns when requested. According to an ACL spokesman, “This move could see people dragged before Tribunals for causing unintentional offence to trans people, by misgendering them. That is a new threshold in compelled speech, never before seen on Australian shores.”

(Incidentally, it was this issue of compelled speech that helped to propel Dr Jordan Peterson into international fame. See here, for example.)

What is going on here, and with other legislation legitimising particular gender expressions?   Why should such folk want to enforce recognition upon others? Why not simply accept that their activities, etc. are no longer illegal in most Western societies, and that others have no desire to persecute them?

The Lord Jesus said, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). The Jewish leaders counted the affirmation of others more important than that of God himself. They had elevated personal peer review to an art form!

What was the problem? I think that it’s the matter of the conscience – that inbuilt sense of right and wrong, implanted in mankind at creation. It’s the facility that exercises judgement (“It’s not fair”), and either praises or condemns others (see Romans 2:1).

We are all rebel-sinners both by nature and by choice, but our conscience still nags us – at the start, anyway. However, conscience is a sensitive beast and it can be suppressed. When we choose to sin, we suppress conscience, and the more we do that, the more hardened in sin we become.

How do we suppress the protests of our conscience? There are many ways, but one of them is to seek the approval of others for our actions. The voices of our friends drown out the quiet pleadings of conscience, and so we plunge ever deeper into self-justification for our behaviour and for our rebellion against the holy God.

I think that this is a major factor in the push for ever-expanding legislation: it’s to drown out the voice of conscience, and compel others to join in the chorus of approval — whether they want to or not. Because it’s not about the freedom of others, their preferences or beliefs: it’s all about ME and what I want. It’s about drowning out my conscience.

But what really matters in the end? Jesus said, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?”

Pearls and Pigs

Pearls and Pigs

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Mt 7:6)

Traditionally, verse 6 has been seen as balancing’ our Lord’s words in v.1, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves.” To those who said, “Oh, but you mustn’t judge,” we have said, “Jesus wasn’t forbidding the right use of discernment, for does he not immediately encourage us to classify some men as dogs or swine?” For example, D.A.Carson writes that, having been warned (in v.1) against being judgmental, the disciple of Jesus “is in chronic danger of becoming wishy-washy, of refusing legitimate distinctions between truth and error, good and evil“ (The Sermon on the Mount, Baker, 1978). He needs the advice of v.6, requiring the application of wise judgment.

In general, commentators have assumed that in v.6 our Lord is giving an essentially straightforward piece of advice, commending to us some form of discretion. Is that right?

In the first place, the terms, “dogs” and “pigs” were (and still are) strongly derogatory terms. Commentators explain that men earn these titles by actively rejecting every prudent offer of divine instruction, thereby excluding themselves. But does this not reverse the order of the text? It is not after, but before they reject “what is holy” that discernment must be exercised. Indeed, the point seems to be to prevent rejection of the truth.

Secondly, why should animals turn to attack when given pearls, or “that which is holy” (often taken to refer to left-over sacrificial meat)? Many picture a man feeding pearls to pigs, which, when they discover them to be inedible, attack him. But is this really the way pigs behave? And why should dogs attack the one who has given them meat?

Thirdly, we should ask, What is being actually protected by this proverb‘s injunction? The traditional answer is, the “holy thing” and the pearls. But isn’t the warning is to the person who “gives” and “casts”: he is danger of being attacked, even as his pearls are trampled. The thing to fear is the vengeance of the animals, their retaliation.

Perhaps we should search for a better interpretation of Matthew 7:6.

Firstly, given the proverbial nature of this verse, we should be open to a less definite understanding of it. For instance, we may paraphrase: “Give not [what you consider] holy to [what you consider] dogs; neither cast [what you consider] your pearls before [those whom you consider] swine.” What if we now stress the “you”? What if the “holy thing” and the “pearls” are not intrinsically valuable, but only judged to be so by those who give or cast them. This raises the question as to whether there is sarcasm involved in our Lord’s words here…

In the second place, consider the immediate context of verses 1-5. In v.1-2, Jesus’ hearers are warned to keep their judgments to themselves, lest those whom they judge apply the same standard to them “measure for measure.” Jesus’ own estimation of his audience’s ability to judge emerges in vs.3-4, where the key word is “hypocrite.” The hypocrite, so ready to judge others, is blind to his own weakness, and in danger of attracting the revenge of those whom he condemns.

In v.6, we may identify “what is holy” and “pearls” in a way which accounts for the retaliation which is attracted by giving them. They are “your judgments,” so precious in your sight, perhaps, but better kept to yourself lest they be returned, measure for measure!

In this case, the primary emphasis of this saying is that retaliation can be avoided if one is reticent to condemn (vs.1-2, 6). And the secondary emphasis contains the rationale: You are not fit judges anyway (vs.3-5).

This understanding of the verse answers the several objections which are raised against the traditional interpretation:

First, Jesus is not really classifying men as dogs and pigs: he is referring to the subjective assessments of those hypocrites who make such damning judgments. Second, the attack of the “dogs and pigs” is the retaliation of “being judged” in return, as in v.1. And third, this retaliation may be avoided by not making hypocritical judgments in the first place.

In conclusion, Jesus’ words are laced with sarcasm directed to those log-eyed hypocrites who dismissed others as “sinners,” when Jesus himself said ironically, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” They are a restatement of the command in v.1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged yourselves.” Hypocrites should keep their “precious” judgments to themselves.

– Peter Gadsby (with thanks to Thos Bennett, WTJ 49.2 369 (1987))

Dr Jordan B. Peterson

There can’t be many clinical psychologists who become international celebrities, but Prof. Peterson is the exception. At time of writing he is in Australia on another tour talking to large audiences about his second book “12 Rules for Life.” As an index of his popularity, I understand that his lecture at the Sydney Opera House sold out in five minutes!

The man seems indefatigable… along with an intensive lecture tour, he conducts numerous interviews, and on 25 February 19 appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program. The final viewer question on that episode (iView file around 1:02:20) concerned God, and whether we can uphold belief in the dignity of mankind without belief in a personal God. The panel and its moderator managed to miss the point, and instead each panellist indicated his/her position on belief in a deity. Dr Peterson was the last to comment.

Now, Jordan Peterson is notable for not evading hard questions. In innumerable interviews he has expressed his opinion on a large variety of topics, and hasn’t been backward in revealing personal struggles with depression, etc. However, and strangely, the Q&A question, “Do you believe in God” prompted him to waffle and evade. This was all the more strange because Dr Peterson has had much to say about the Bible, religion and God — just check out his YouTube channel here. Why might this be?

Many, and especially younger, people are very keen on Jordan Peterson. People come up to him in the street and tell him how he has ‘saved their lives.’ His YouTube channel has 1.8M subscribers and rising. He is also popular among Christians. Former Deputy PM, John Anderson – a believer – has had Peterson on his ‘Conversations’ program three times now, most recently on 22 Feb.2019, after his Opera House gig. See here. Dr Peterson is strong on personal responsibility (“Clean up your d*** room!” — I’m reminded of Dr Jay Adams!) and many other themes familiar to biblical Christians. It’s not hard for believers to see him as an ally.

So why the reticence about belief in God? Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. Dr Peterson is a fan of the Swiss psychologist and spiritualist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Jung believed in the existence of ‘archetypes’ – fundamental themes or beliefs common to all humanity, and transmitted through ‘racial memory.’ Such themes can remain unconscious in the mind, but still influence our thinking, expressed in religion, poetry and other ways.

Jordan Peterson believes in evolution and, as far as I can tell, regards humanity’s collective unconsciousness as being the product of millions of years of evolution. The archetypes have evolved as the human species transitioned from pre-human to human, and as consciousness appeared. In Peterson’s view, when the archetypes move from the unconscious mind to conscious expression, they generate myths and legends, and other effects that indirectly show their existence.

What about God? Listening to Peterson, it seems that ‘God’ is a synonym for ‘reality.’ And, I would guess, archetypal reality. Thus, the Biblical stories along with other mythical accounts are the outworking into consciousness of those archetypes. If you watch Dr Peterson’s lectures on “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: Genesis,” this becomes clear.

Therefore, I believe that Christians need to be very wary of Dr Peterson’s approach, and listen to/view him with great discernment. In essence, he psychologizes religion, including the Christian Faith. That is why, in my opinion, he was reticent to say whether he believes in God: to say “Yes” would have been misleading in that situation; but to say “No”could have alienated large numbers of (Christian) fans. While I don’t doubt his integrity, I suspect that while we may learn much from Dr Jordan Peterson, he is not far from being a ‘goat in sheep’s clothing.’ Caveat Emptor.

“We preach Christ crucified”

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A crucified Christ is a dead Christ, isn’t he? Is that what Paul and the other Apostles preached – a dead Christ, who died for our sins? Certainly not! Ponder Paul’s words in 1Cor.15:12-19.  Here’s v.17: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

Why “futile”? Because faith is personal trust, and we place our trust in a living Person, not a dead Christ, or a mere proposition. “Jesus died for you,” for example.

As we have seen, the cutting edge of the Apostles’ gospel message was the declaration that Jesus is Lord, with the command, “Repent therefore, and put your trust in him.” Why then does Paul, in 1Cor.1:23 and 2:2 affirm that he preached “Christ crucified“? Why does he challenge the Galatians (3:1-2),

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

While ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ (A. Pope – see here), a little knowledge of Greek can help us here.

With NT Greek verbs, there are various ‘tenses’ or ‘kinds of action.’ For example, the ‘present tense’ in Greek denotes actions that are in progress, or are repeated. The ‘aorist tense’ refers to actions that took place at a point of time, or which are considered as completed.

In 1Cor.1:23, 2:2, and in Gal.3:2, the verb ‘crucified’ is the ‘perfect tense.’ What kinds of action does this ‘tense’ describe? According to one  Greek grammar book (Blass-DeBrunner-Funk, §318(4)), the perfect denotes “a condition or state as the result of a past action.” Another writer (Stanley E. Porter) says that the perfect depicts “the action as reflecting a given (often complex) state of affairs.”

What does this mean for our interpretation of the verb “crucified,” which is in the ‘perfect tense’? We might put it, very awkwardly (!) like this: “Christ crucified” means “Christ, who is now in the state or condition of having been crucified in the past” (Phew!).

There are two other places in the New Testament where this exact word “crucified” appears:
Mt.28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified (ESV); and
Mk.16:6 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified (ESV).

Notice that in both places, most English translations have translated the word as “who was crucified.” They do not translate “I know you seek Jesus crucified” as they do in 1Cor. and Gal. Why? I don’t know. But it has led many preachers to imagine that in those passages Paul is saying that he preaches “the cross.” That is not the case. In 1Cor.1:23, for example, we should translate “…we preach Christ who was crucified, etc.”

Why doesn’t Paul use a simple ‘past tense’ (ie. aorist)? Because he wishes to emphasise the ongoing reality of Christ’s death for us, and its role as a model for our discipleship. Our calling to “take up the cross.” The gospel message is that Jesus Christ is Lord right now – he is alive from the dead, and reigning over all for his church!

Preaching ‘Christ-crucified’ does NOT mean preaching the cross, or the atonement, as the heart of the gospel. It means preaching the Risen Christ and the call to faith in him, and to a life of self-denying discipleship together as his people. “We preach Christ who was crucified.”

The Word of the Cross

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In 1Cor.1:18 Paul uses an unusual expression: “the word of the cross.” He says that it is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

He has just written, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (v.17) (Note: the words “of its power” are not in the original.) So, the “word of the cross” is the message Paul preached about the cross.

What then is the “power of the cross”?

It is part of the gospel message, which, as the Apostle says in Rom.1:16, is “the power of God for salvation.” (He uses the same word in 1Cor.1:18 – dunamis.) But how does the message of the cross actually function in the proclamation of the message about Jesus?

We have seen that the cross of Christ was not to the forefront in the Apostles’ gospel preaching as summarized by Luke in the Book of Acts (see here.) However, it was clearly an essential aspect of the gospel message: so much so that Paul could write (1Cor.15:1ff) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (We’ll return to this passage in a future post.)

To answer our question, I believe we need to go back to the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself. What place did the cross have in his instruction to his disciples – to the Apostles, to us?

 The word “cross” appears only 16 times in the four gospels. In 11 of them, the reference is to Jesus’ literal cross. In the remaining 5 it has a metaphorical meaning: in these passages, the Lord Jesus uses the image of a cross to describe becoming and being his follower, or disciple. A disciple of Jesus must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt.10:38; 16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23; 14:27).

In these verses, the Lord uses the word “cross” in calling us to become his disciples. You cannot be his disciple unless you first count the cost (see Lk.14:25-33). The invitation comes with a warning: first count the cost, and the cost is to take the way of death to self – the way of the cross. To follow Jesus means to take the same road that he took: the way of the cross.

Now, to the self-sufficient person, this is indeed folly! Real life to be found in death? Surely not, says the wisdom of the world. Exactly that, says Jesus who is Christ-crucified (1Cor.2:2).

The Apostles followed the instruction of the Lord: they preached Christ as Lord, calling people to turn in trust to him, and to commit themselves to his service. And they issued his warning: following him is going to cost you. And that was the word of the cross that formed an integral part of the message they proclaimed, and which is still an inseparable part of the gospel today. This is the message that powerfully produces the faith that saves.


Frustration of the Fallen

In his comments on Genesis 3 in his book, For the Love of God, vol.1, Prof. Don Carson writes,

“God’s curses on the human pair are striking. The first (Gen. 3:16), which promises pain in childbearing and disordered marriages, is the disruption of the first designated task human beings were assigned before the Fall: male and female, in the blessing of God, being fruitful and increasing in number (1:27–28). The second (Gen. 3:17–19), which promises painful toil, a disordered ecology, and certain death, is the disruption of the second designated task human beings were assigned before the Fall: God’s image-bearers ruling over the created order and living in harmony with it (1:28–30).”

God’s curse on his creation results in merciful frustration for his image-bearers. For us who are ‘under the sun’ (Eccl.), all is vanity, emptiness. It’s what Paul mentions in Rom.8:20,

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…

Leaving aside for a moment the dire, eternal consequences of our rebellion against God, our own minds and hearts have been disrupted by sin. We know that there is something wrong, but apart from grace, we can’t put a finger on it.

In his mercy God has put this burr under our spiritual saddles. We seek comfort and relief in all kinds of ways and places, but we find that “all is vanity.” There is no relief to be found “under the sun.” As Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

My quotation from Rom.8 above didn’t complete the sentence: Paul continues,

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

By God’s amazing grace, there is hope for us. There is the offer of liberation, glory and adoption into God’s family!

Our lives and families are messed up; our world is messed up; but in Christ, God promises healing and hope! Those who belong to Christ patiently look forward to a new creation. As the Apostle says (Rom.8:23-25),

… we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

What is the Gospel?

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Before we consider how the “Word of the Cross” (eg. 1Cor.1:18) relates to the Apostles’ message recorded in Acts (ie. “Jesus is Lord”), we need to think about the content of “the gospel.”

Now, everyone has some idea about this. The Greek word for “gospel” is “euangelion“; it’s made up of two parts: “eu-” meaning “good,” and “angelion” meaning “news.” So, “Gospel” means “Good News,” right? It’s the good news about Jesus dying for our sins, about our being saved by faith alone in him alone.

We need to be careful at this point about not falling for the idea that the meaning of a word is determined by its history. For example, the word “decimation” originally meant “reduced by one-tenth.” Now it means almost complete destruction!

In any literature, the meaning of a word is found by observing its actual use. What may we say about the euangelion group of words?

In New Testament times, Christians’ Bible was the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the “Septuagint.” The basic meaning of the word euangelion is “news.” The context tells us whether or not it is received as good news , and in most cases it is. (When a man brought news of Saul’s death to David, he thought he was bringing good news, but it was bad news to David. And it ended badly for the messenger – see 2Sam 4:10f.)

In the New Testament, euangelion refers to the content of the message preached by Jesus and his apostles, the gospel about God’s Kingdom. Eg. Mk.1:14-15, “…after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'”

This kingdom-message includes the fact of coming judgment by the King. In Rev.14:6-7, John sees and hears an angel flying overhead bearing “an eternal gospel.” The angel says, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” This also is a part of the marvellous news of God’s Kingdom: it’s good news to some, bad news for many.

What is the gospel? It is the message from God, centring on King Jesus, about all that his Lordship means for the creation. The actual detailed content of the message will vary, according to the circumstances. We must not reduce the gospel to a few trite statements, or limit it to what makes people feel good!

Please let’s have your bouquets or brickbats in the comments below!

The Cross and Evangelism

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Is the Cross, and Christ’s atonement for sins, to be front-and-centre when we share the gospel with non-Christians? Many “Gospel Presentations” focus on our sin and guilt first, and then present Jesus’ death on the Cross as God’s solution to our problem. But is this how the apostles presented the gospel?

The Book of Acts by Luke records a wealth of important information about the spread of the Christian Faith in the days after the resurrection of Christ. What does Luke tell us about the early preaching to Jews and Gentiles?

The word “cross” “does not appear in the Book of Acts, not even once. The word “crucify” is found only in Acts 2:36 and 4:10, and in both cases, it refers to the manner of Jesus’ death at the hands of the Jews. Nowhere is  Christ’s death on the Cross directly linked to the doctrine of the atonement, or to the forgiveness of sins. Only in one passage is the link implied – when Philip speaks with the Ethiopian official (8:26-40) and begins with the passage the official was reading – Isa.53:7-8 – which refers to the death of God’s Servant.

If the apostles didn’t normally start with the Cross and our great need of forgiveness, what was their starting-point in preaching the gospel-message? Read through Acts and the answer is as plain as a pike-staff! They everywhere proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord through his resurrection from the dead.

Telling this truth led Jews and Gentiles to cry out, “What shall we do, then?” To which the apostles’ answer was, “Repent – change direction – and turn to him with trust, and he will save you.” The great motivation to turn to him was the fact of who he is, and the dire consequences of rejecting him.

But, you reasonably ask, what about 1Cor.1 and the ‘message of the cross’? What about 1Cor.15, and Paul’s reminder about the ‘gospel’ that he preached in Corinth?

We’ll come back to these important questions later, but meantime, why not read through Acts again, and see if what I have said is true. Please post your findings in the “Comments” below?

“Marriage Equality” (It’s all about ME.)

Marriage Equality. What a smart slogan that is! After all, who could be against “equality”? Don’t we pride ourselves on being an egalitarian society, here in Australia?

But get behind the slogan… what does it actually mean? Do the advocates for ME believe that it extends to polygamous marriage? Does it include group marriage, with several adults of different gender all getting “married”? If not, why not? What about extending “marriage” to other species?! Well, why not?

The point is that ME is a slogan, and it’s only a slogan. It looks OK on the outside, but if you unscrew the lid, the container is empty.

Maybe we should be advocating Marriage QUALITY. That is, marriage as God ordained it, and as it has been practised for centuries by every nation on earth. A life-long union and commitment to one another of a man and a woman, where, if God is pleased to grant it, children who are the product of their union can be raised in an atmosphere of love.

Of course, these days, to advocate Marriage QUALITY will be denounced as “hate speech.” Perhaps the best response to this ludicrous slander is simply to laugh at it, for it is laughable. (And of course, the same epithet could be applied to those who denigrate the advocates of traditional marriage: those who generally don’t descend to the gutter when engaging in polite debate or polemics.)

So, let’s leave ME out of it, and sing the praises of MQ!