Results tagged “local church” from Reformation21 Blog

When Discontent Sheep Show Up


Most pastors have heard the complaints of visitors coming from other local churches. It is not uncommon for believers to grow discontent with their circumstances and begin looking elsewhere for a new church family at some point in their Christian lives. In America, it is all too easy to leave one congregation and join a new one a few steps down the road; but, pastors and churches need wisdom to know how to engage discontent sheep.

Faithful local churches want to grow through the redemption of sinners. Through evangelistic efforts and the consistent administration of the ordinary means of grace, there should be a healthy expectation that there will be new believers joining the church periodically. However, the most significant growth in most local churches is Christians transferring their membership from other local churches. Almost 60% of American churches have an average of 75 members, so it's refreshing and can be exciting to see new faces with new and different gifts. It is not wrong to want to see the church grow, but it should never be without several important considerations.

It can be easy to fall into the snare of entertaining the unrighteous comments of discontent sheep when they come from other congregations. C.S. Lewis brilliantly described the allure of comparison when he explained the true nature of pride in Mere Christianity. Lewis wrote, 

"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone." 

A pastor must guard against comparing himself or his church to other pastors or local churches. There can be an unrighteous tendency to prey on those who may not be thinking clearly about their circumstances for want of a new church member. Pastors should always be quick to remember that for every discontent sheep that comes to them from another congregation, there are more than likely sheep in their own congregation that have done the same thing at other times. Proverbs 18:17 provides the helpful reminder that, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." Pride is a pernicious evil that can only serve to drive a wedge between churches and their leaders who should instead be encouraging and praying for one another, hoping for each other's growth and faithfulness in their shared community. The "golden rule" certainly applies in the relationships between churches and their members (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Pastors should make an effort to meet with the discontent sheep from other faithful local churches who have visited, and should be prepared to ask several pointed questions: What is so bad at their church that Christians can't be reconciled to one another or problems solved in a godly manner (Matthew 5:24)? Have they done everything possible to live peaceably with the members and leadership of the church they're leaving (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14)? Are they filled with any malice, strife, deceit, jealousy, anger, or hostility, or are they engaging in gossip (Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20)? Pastors should be careful to not listen to the discontent ramblings of a bitter spirit, but should instead seek to encourage the brother or sister to remove the log from their own eye and make a new attempt at reconciliation (Matthew 7:5), or even offer to act as a mediator if the issue is with the leadership of the other church.

There are certainly cases when the discontentment of sheep is legitimate and they have good reasons to leave their church. Sadly, churches can be abusive and authoritarian, or they can be heretical. Additionally, a Christian should have a general desire to be in their church knowing that there is substantial agreement on doctrine and philosophy of ministry. If things change, there may be very legitimate reasons for a believer to look for a new church family. Likewise, Christians are never obligated to remain in a local church and nobody can insist that they must. Church membership is a vital aspect of the Christian life; but, Christians need to be members of a faithful local church, not necessarily any one church that they may have joined at some particular point in time.

Nevertheless, when pastors are not careful to ask the right questions, to challenge gossip or uncharitable comments, or to insist on attempts at reconciliation, there is a subtle undermining of the other church that takes place. Often, the issues that cause discontent sheep to leave their churches are not informed by all of the necessary details to make a decision. Sometimes there are bits of information that are not known and sometimes cannot be divulged. So it is important for local pastors to develop healthy relationships with other local pastors so that when a discontent sheep shows up from another church, the pastors of each congregation can talk openly about the best steps forward. There is no room for ministerial greed in the Kingdom of God; it does great harm to the church at large and only serves to fuel the pride of men. Churches need not have territorial, competitive spirits. The churches of God should want the best for one another, and how we interact with discontent sheep from each other's churches can go a long way in being a united, faithful, God-glorifying presence in our communities.

Keeping the Para- in the Para-Church


I benefit from a number of para-church ministries, and I'm grateful for those who serve as leaders and volunteers of those groups for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. Over the years, however, I have become increasingly aware of my generation's low-committal, take-it-or-leave-it approach to the local church and have wondered about the actual biblical basis for many of these para-church groups that functionally usurp the ministry, worship, and fellowship of the local church.

While para-church ministries might have their place--and the perceived failure of the local church in reaching certain targeted demographics is not a justifying reason--the fact remains that those para-church ministries that do not intentionally and functionally come alongside the local church find little to no foundational support from Scripture. They are simply not the God-ordained, God-established institution here on earth called to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 3:12), the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), the bride and body of Christ (Eph. 5:23-27; Rom. 12:5), of which God has given overseers (Acts 20:28) and directives on worship and ministry (1 Cor. 14:26-40).

Some para-church organizations and ministries are great and serve a specific purpose. I'm thinking specifically about collaborative ventures, such as The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries, or efforts to pull combined resources for larger targeted projects. While many like these have legitimate goals, I'm specifically targeting those para-church organizations that supplant or usurp the weekly ministry of the local church and its ministry. Functionally, they end up serving as a "replacement" for the ministry of the church.

Although many para-church ministries will often vocally support the local church, I would venture to say (from my experience over the years) that many are content to let their ministry practically replace the church. A number of youth para-church organizations do this quite often. We shouldn't get caught up in the false dichotomy between the church as institution and the church as people. Both are biblical, integrated, and are two sides of the same coin. In an age when people are strapped for time--due to sports, work, or home responsibilities--why steal more of their time for a ministry that fails in comparison to the local church? Why not come be a part of the local church, really and truly, to support what the para-church cannot?

I want to give you seven biblical areas that many para-church ministries do not practice and, thus, should not (and cannot) serve as a replacement for the local church:

  1. Weekly preaching in Lord's Day (Sunday) worship.Yes, many para-church groups have teaching and discipleship times, but they don't have the body of Christ meeting together to hear the Word preached in corporate Lord's Day worship. From creation, God has set aside one day in seven for holy rest. The fall (Gen. 3) didn't abrogate the idea of Sabbath worship. It has continued and now commemorates the triumph of Christ's victory over death as an ongoing one-in-seven day of worship and rest.
  2. Multi-generational discipleship and service.While para-church ministries have "leaders" and "directors" who (I hope) are older, wiser, and spiritually mature, they fail to have the plethora of spiritual fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers to disciple them (Titus 2) and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Moreover, they are not given opportunity to assist parents by discipling and leading younger generations as they themselves mature and grow in the knowledge and love for Christ. When you see scenes of worship and the community of faith throughout the Old and New Testaments, they are made up of people of all ages. The para-church simply does not functionally support such a biblical pattern.
  3. The spiritual and physical oversight by elders and deacons.This might be one of the clearest deficiencies of para-church groups. The Scriptures make it clear that churches are to choose qualified (Acts 6; 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1) elders and deacons as officers in the church to provide spiritual and physical oversight. Elders, in particular, are to shepherd the congregation, exercising oversight over the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28). Likewise, Christians are to obey their leaders in the church, submitting to their oversight (Heb. 13:17), and respect those who are over them in the Lord (1 Thess. 5:12), considering them worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Para-church groups cannot practice the oversight of God-established elders to the same degree as a local church.
  4. Submission and obedience to church discipline.Closely linked with the presence of ordained elders in the church is the necessity of church discipline. For the peace and purity of the church, as well as the restoration of wayward saints, the church is to exercise discipline through admonition, barring of the sacraments, and--in some cases--excommunication (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Para-church groups cannot exercise this sort of admonition.
  5. The participation of the body in the Lord's Supper. In His eternal wisdom, God has supplied the church with the perpetual and ongoing means of growing in His grace through the Lord's Supper. Not only is it a means whereby the Holy Spirit nourishes God's people, it is also a means whereby God's people commune with one another as Christ's mystical body. Para-church groups simply cannot biblically participate in this rightly administered means of grace. How would they fence the table? Who would approve of the partakers' participation if a local church's session didn't exercise oversight of those admitted to the Table?
  6. The joy and responsibilities of church membership.People today see few models of committed love, committed relationships, committed anything. In the church, people can (hopefully) witness a number of committed relationships between spouses, families, and church members, all which are lacking in most para-church ministries. Moreover, Christians have the privilege and responsibilities of joining a local church, pledging to support its worship and work, supporting it financially, serving through spiritual gifts, and practically placing him or herself under the ordained, God-given, leadership.
  7. An emphasis on family. In a fundraising plug, one young man spent nearly thirty minutes outlining how he wanted to reach teenagers through a para-church ministry. When he finished, I looked at him and said, "In your entire presentation, you did not mention the local church or family. Why?" He didn't know, and he is not alone. You would be hard pressed to find much about the importance of family--honoring father and mother, preparing to be good fathers, mothers, husbands, or wives, etc.--on para-church websites, during para-church meetings, or in para-church study groups. They are simply not set up to support the family.
I have seen and heard a number of positive examples of lives being changed in para-church youth ministries. But rather than using those examples to legitimize their preeminence over and against the local church, we should prioritize and pour our energies into the local church. Let's re-affirm the God-given, God-revealed, God-ordained institution of the local church--its worship, its discipleship, its leaders, its discipline, and its families. God's Word is sufficient.

Dr. Brian H. Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, and author of over a dozen books, including John Flavel: Puritan Life and Thought in Stuart England.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I recently wasted four of five minutes of my life watching a clip of a segment of a sermon by a well known mega-church preacher. Over the past five years, this individual has reinvented his preaching style. Once a more relaxed speaker, he now effectively works the crowd over with high energy, moral, unctuous, pseudo-biblical smarmy. Sadly, those present seem to be drinking it in. The congregation cheers every time he reaches a crescendo in his motivational rant--leaving the uniformed observer with the impression that the Holy Spirit must be at work in this man's ministry. The problem? To the biblically informed, the whole thing smells a lot more like teen spirit than the Holy Spirit. We have met the phenomenon of the pep rally preacher. 

Sitting aloft the copious illogical practices at the High School I attended in the 1990s was the obligatory pep rally. Lost somewhere in the middle of a sea of teenagers who were either socially crushing it or who were being socially crushed, I desperately tried to make sense of the meaning of the pep rally. Had everyone's life bottomed out at 16 in an existential crisis of the reality of mediocrity? Where could one find the strength to summon up the energy to yell at the top of ones lungs for a team that was almost certainly going to lose the better part of their season? I distinctly remember a fellow student explaining to me that the team needed our spirit. Apparently, everything was riding on our ability to tap into a reservoir of manipulated existential excitement. One of our own philosophers captured the essence of the pep rally life when he wrote:

"With the lights out, 
it's less dangerous; 
Here we are now, 
entertain us; 
I feel stupid and contagious 
Here we are now, entertain us."

The better part of professing Christians in America are living in the sea of a Christian pep rally. For many, "going to church" is less about worshiping the infinitely holy God who has redeemed a people for Himself by giving up His Son to the bloody death on the cross, as it is about getting a shot of motivational vitamin-B for existential significance. Rather than being called by God into His presence by the mediating work of His Son, "Here we are now; entertain us" becomes the liturgical responsive call to worship. After all, the success of the church is dependent on your excitement, isn't it? At the very least, your life will certainly forever lay stagnant in mediocrity if you can't tap into your spiritual teen spirit, right?

This is not a dour repudiation of the more vivacious. I've frequently criticized dry, lifeless, unanimated preaching that has marked many so-called "faithful pulpits" in our day. Rather, it is meant to be a call to encourage professing believers to seek out solid joys and lasting treasures through the biblical ministry of the means of grace in a local congregation of believers. What we need more than anything in life is to put ourselves under the weekly Christ-centered, expositional ministry of God's word. Emotionally charged soundbites of misinterpreted biblical phraseology won't get our souls to glory. God has promised to shape and reform His people by His Holy Spirit through the expositional preaching of His word, calling on Him in prayer, singing His praises, partaking of His Supper and fellowshipping with His people on His Day. Don't trade the often unimpressive work of the Spirit of God that occurs through the faithful preaching of the word of God by true ministers of the Gospel for the emotionally manipulated teen spirit aroused by motivational speakers. Life is far too short and high school was far too empty for you not to do yourself the spiritual favor of attending a true church rather than a pep rally. 

Benefits of Theological Education in the Local Church


In the previous post, we considered the rationale behind a local church model of theological education. In this post, we want to turn our attention to five potential benefits of such a church-based theological education model:

  1. In-person instruction, mentoring, and discipleship.

There is much to be said for the gift of modern technology and the instantaneous methods of communications we have available to us. I teach in West Africa at a pastors' college from time to time, and it is absolutely astounding that my students there can use their smartphones to download lectures on covenant theology and apologetics from some of the finest instructors in some of the finest seminaries in America and be listening or watching said lectures within minutes. What a blessing this is for the wider church, and especially the nascent church in the global south which is often so resource-poor. We have much for which to be thankful in this regard.

Nevertheless, there is still much to be said pedagogically and pastorally for traditional, in-person, physical classroom educational environments. You'll note that in West Africa, though there are voluminous resources available to the student body and denomination digitally, the leaders of the denomination still desire an instructor to come to campus and teach the students in-person, in-classroom, and provide personalized mentoring and feedback and guidance tailored to the students' needs. This is something no recording can ultimately do, and there is a strong case to be made for the advantages of in-person classroom instruction.[1]

Moreover, I know of one professor who has noted how infrequently his students will cite their own pastor when listing the preachers who have most shaped and influenced them. There is certainly nothing wrong with appreciating and being edified by a multiplicity of strong preaching ministries, but should it be the predominant trend that one's actual pastor has a fairly minimal role in shaping one's theological education? Historically, this was not always the case and with a local, church-based program of theological education it need not be the case. What a gift it is to be instructed in the classroom in the doctrines of the faith, and then to have those same doctrines applied to the health of one's soul as one is shepherded, mentored, and cared for the same cohort of pastor-professors.

Last but not least under this benefit is the oft-overlooked asset of learning in community. Some of my very best friends are from our seminary days. I don't know that there's any way to replicate that kind of experience: a band of brothers training for a life of pastoral ministry, learning together in the same classes day after day, living as next-door neighbors on campus, interning in churches together, growing in knowledge, grace, and piety together during some very formative years. But even if that rich and nostalgic experience cannot be reproduced entirely, the value of learning together with a fellow cohort of flesh-and-blood peers cannot be overstated. Attending classes together week after week, forming relationships and friendships, discussing the assigned reading content for the class, studying together and going over each other's notes, hearing each other's question asked in class and being able to offer response and perspective when one person perhaps slightly misunderstood, the live-fire dynamic and back-and-forth exchange from student-to-student or student-to-teacher, or the fine-tuning and reinforcing of each other's comprehension during those crucial after-class discussions in the lobby: all of these intangible aspects are of immense value to the greater educational enterprise and none of these, I would suggest, can be replicated by the student sitting alone at his kitchen table, tuning in to pre-recorded lectures on his iPad.

  1. The opportunity for growth via deeper study.

It has been said that everyone is a theologian. Certainly, then, every Christian is a theologian. Whether they are doing right theology or sound theology is the question. But the fact is: every Christian is making theological distinctions and formulating doctrinal sensibilities, and since they are, it behooves church leaders to inform their people with a healthy and robust theological framework. Theological study can serve every Christian because every Christian is urged to love God with their mind as well as their hearts and souls (Matthew 22:37).

Not every church member will avail himself of the opportunity, but many will and many are desirous of the prospect, and in an age of biblical illiteracy and theological paucity, it can serve the church well to offer opportunities to facilitate a more theologically-educated laity.

This benefit might seem to be the most obvious, but just in case the readers of Ref21 need convincing, we might borrow from the words of Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas in this regard:

Why is doctrine important? And why is it important for every Christian?

Three reasons rise to the surface:

a. Doctrine helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. What does the Bible teach us about vocation, recreation, money, relationships, or the gift of tongues? "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking... but in your thinking be mature" (1 Corinthians 14:20). If we are to understand what the Bible is teaching us, we need to understand the message of the Bible as a whole. 

b. Doctrine helps us engage the world of unbelief. We are to provide a "defense" to anyone who asks for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Knowing the truth aids us in defending the Bible against the philosophies of our time that seek to undermine the Christian faith.

c. Doctrine helps us praise God. In fact, all truth is designed for doxology; its goal is to help us worship and praise God. When we take our eyes off that goal, doctrine "puffs up" and produces pride and factionalism (1 Corinthians 8:1). But when doctrine meets the heart, the result is always a song!

  1. The opportunity for growth via greater facility.

Not every pastor can be a seminary instructor; nor should he be. On the other hand, there are many pastors that would enjoy and probably benefit from trying their hand at delivering and instructing collegiate or graduate-level theological content in a classroom environment.

If you're anything like me, you find that you learn a subject matter best and obtain greater mastery over it when you are required to teach it. Reading is good, but having to distill and communicate the content of a subject matter has served me even better in deepening my understanding of historical theology, church history, and systematic theology over the past few years. Having such an opportunity can help drive the pastor/instructor to become a better reader, student, aspiring scholar, communicator, and--ideally--teacher of truth. This can help to serve not only the life of his mind and ministry, but also the life of the congregation in the long run.

A secondary benefit here for the pastor is a shared distribution of labor. In the region where I serve, our Reformed churches tend to be smaller, with pastoral staffs consisting of one minister, two tops. There are people to be visited, funerals to preached, hospitals to be frequented, community functions to be attended, letters to be written, bulletins to be prepared, worship services to be planned, media to be uploaded, counseling to be had, weddings to be officiated, jails to be visited, interns to be mentored, people to be loved, studying to be done, and sermons to be prepared. Add on top of that meeting the desire for a robust theological education at a higher level to be taught among the congregation, and the prospect sounds overwhelmingly exhausting.

But if, as BRITE has done, we can pool together our resources and energies, and one man teaches covenant theology, and another man teaches church history, and another Greek, and another Old Testament, and so forth...well, suddenly the goal doesn't seem quite so insurmountable.

  1. The opportunity for teaching and training. 

In my short tenure in ordained ministry I have met numerous ruling elders and deacons who have expressed a desire to be able to study at a level that their pastor has enjoyed--to be able to learn and glean from the robust and rigorous biblical and theological content that we pastors often take for granted--in order to inform their own ministries within the local church. I've even run into several ruling elders who sometimes consider themselves to be "second rate" elders due to their perceived lack of formal theological training. I find this to be patently untrue when I learn of the heart, character, and doctrinal apprehension of these men, but just the same: to strengthen them with deeper biblical instruction and theological grasp, to better equip them as they visit, prepare Bible studies, pray, counsel, and even preach--what a wonderful opportunity that could be!

Here is such an opportunity. Oftentimes elder/deacon/officer training is helpful: covering the basics of the Westminster Confession, Presbyterian polity, theological high points, church history etc. And--we should be quick to note--education and instruction is no substitute for years of learned wisdom and experience. Nevertheless, what a gift it is to be able to give a ruling elder training and facility in systematic and covenant theology as he strives to grow in his own aptness to teach and grows as a fellow-laborer in shepherding the flock of God. What a help to the deacon to be given deeper instruction in ethics or pastoral counseling as he tends to the needs of mercy and physical care for the members of the flock he serves. What a wonderful opportunity to give to the youth volunteer, the Sunday school coordinator, or the women's Bible Study leader a greater understanding in hermeneutics or biblical theology as she seeks to plan lessons and curriculum for multiple age groups or lead a study amongst a group of people from varying theological backgrounds and all sorts of baggage of theology that is best "unlearned."

  1. The health of the regional Church.

Wherever seminaries have been planted, they have served to bolster the health and strength of the local church and congregations in its general region. This is part of the reason why some seminaries have adopted the multiple-campus model: more biblical orthodox schools of theology in more places serves to bolster more churches.

This is not unlike the thought behind the strategic creation of some church plants or campus ministries. Turning the tide on theological anemia is an endeavor which will take years--decades!--not days. But if a theological school or training center can be established, and if it can begin to have an impact on the theological mind and life in the pews, and if local pastors and planters and offices and churchmen can be raised up and trained in that setting and sent back into their local contexts whether to revitalize or to start a new work, then the robust teaching that is being exported from that center can begin to take root and--eventually, Lord willing-- have a profound effect on the church in that region (both Reformed and non-Reformed) for generations to come.

An educational ministry such as this is most certainly not the church nor is it a substitute for the church. Nothing can substitute for the reign of King Jesus within the church and the work of the Holy Spirit through the faithful, biblical church ministry of the Word, sacraments, and discipline. But an endeavor such as this is one that can come alongside the church, bless the church, and invest in the good of the church. Rather, it is a tool in the service of the church, striving for her good, and for the bolstering of her health for generations to come.

Sean G. Morris serves as the Associate Minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Roanoke, Virginia and as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education.


Theological Education and the Local Church


Theological poverty is rampant in the majority of the Western Church today. North American evangelical/Protestant churches are suffering an endemic deficiency with regard to biblical and theological understanding. This is no new assessment,1 and the consequences to our spiritual health have been dire. One need only refer to the penetrating and embarrassing survey provided by Ligonier Ministries in their recent "State of Theology" report. Formerly-basic tenets of the faith and fundamental principles of Christianity that were intended to be catechized to and understood by children are now misunderstood or ill-comprehended by the majority of self-confessing conservative Protestant adults. Consequently, our spiritual health is anemic, our piety lacking, and our moral and ethical sensibilities on once straightforward issue are now in shambles. How is a pastor, elder, or Session to respond to this problem?

If we are committed to the ordinary means of grace--and by extension, the ordinary means of spiritual growth--it stands to reason that we trust that God's Word, applied by God's Spirit to do God's work. In this day and age, it's safe to say that God's people need more of God's Word, not less; more doctrine, more theology, more Scripture, more understanding, and more study of the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." Mere intellectual, cognitive apprehension of these matters is not a full-proof solution nor guarantee of godliness among God's people. It is, however, a target at which we want to aim.

If we believe in the engaging and transforming of the heart through the mind in the life of the Christian believer, then we must begin by targeting the mind with doctrinal meat, and not milk. Theological education should be happening in our churches on a regular basis. Theological education is, at a fundamental level, Christian education. While our corporate worship services require expositional sermons from the text of Scripture--and not academic lectures--there are, no doubt, other venues in the life and ministry of a local where Christian education and doctrinal instruction take place: in our Sunday schools and Bible Studies and small groups and midweek teaching occasions.

But what about opportunities for more advanced theological studies, both for the congregation member who would like to learn and for the pastor who would like to teach, but isn't a part of a seminary faculty? Some churches do have wonderful theological training programs as part of the regular teaching schedule within their church,2 but many churches--especially smaller churches--simply do not have the student base, resources, staffing, or schedule flexibility to pull off such a program. But what if several churches pulled together to accomplish such an endeavor? What may be insurmountable or impractical for one may be doable if shared among several.

I can only speak with reference to the model or paradigm with which I am most familiar, namely, the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education (BRITE). BRITE aims to be a parachurch ministry--pooling the resources and energies of several different Reformed and Calvinistic congregations and leaders in our area--that exists to serve the wider church in our region. We desire to be a center that provides theological education and training for folks (whether officers or laity) who need or desire it, to assist area pastors in such an endeavor who are unable to do so themselves, to provide continuing education, to be a resource for church officers and ministry leaders, etc.

In short, our desire is to serve those who cannot avail themselves of the opportunity and blessing of a traditional seminary education--whether due to financial constraints or to station in life--and to serve them and invest in the health of the local church by bringing the seminary to the pews.

Models of Theological Education

What our institute is endeavoring to accomplish is nothing novel. I suspect that the aim of BRITE is much the same as the aim of other church-based theological initiatives in our day and earlier. One thinks of the Pensacola Theological Institute, the early days of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology founded by James Montgomery Boice, the ongoing annual Theology Night at Tenth Presbyterian Church, or even the renowned Pastors' College founded by the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon. For our region's needs, the church seems to have been best served by establishing a sort of theological college and training center, with traditional curriculum plans and degree criteria, as well as the occasional conference and seminar. Both laity as well as church officers and pastors have enrolled in our courses and have attended conference offerings.

Prior to the rise of the modern seminary model and the scholastic-university model before that, it was common to find in-house or local methods of theological education, mentoring, and training.3 Small cohorts of ministerial candidates, mentored and taught by a man in the ministry (oftentimes the candidate's own pastor) were the standard norm. One thinks of the cathedral schools of the medieval church or even the Genevan Academy founded by John Calvin as extensions of this simple model.

This is not to argue any demerits against the theological seminary. This author stands as a happy and grateful graduate of one such institution. Rather, this is simply to recognize the potential benefit and blessing that can come when the content, opportunity, and ethos of the seminary campus and curriculum can be transplanted back into a local church context. Moreover, the benefit and blessing enjoyed by the seminarian-turned-pastor can also be extended to more than just the pastor, and can serve to edify his congregation and the wider church. In a subsequent post, we will consider a few of the benefits that accrue from church based theological eduction and training. 


1. For instance, see Ross Douthat's NYT article, "Bad Religion," and Kevin Deyoung's post, "Why Jonny Can't Preach."

2. One thinks of the Centerpoint School of Theology put on by our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC).

3. For an insightful treatment on this subject, see Justo Gonzalez' The History of Theological Education (Abingdon Press, 2015).

As Jesus Sees It


One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, "Oh we used to go there! It's a great church! But...there just weren't enough teens for my kids to have friends." I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.

When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there--and that was the most important thing for them--but there just weren't enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.

As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, "You know, if every family that complained we didn't have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we'd have had the biggest youth group in town!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.

There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. "the building needs to be beautiful"). They can be substantial (e.g. "The Word needs to be preached faithfully"). Others are understandable (e.g. "I want people my age with whom I can connect"). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor's preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.

What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn't there, we saw the church that is there?

One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, "This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they're a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems."

When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn't simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, "You know, the church isn't what it should be or could be...yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?

When in Babylon...

Regard for the Lord's Day is on a steep decline, and, sadly, has been for quite some time. Disregard for the Lord's Day is evidenced by the fact that many churches have decided to cancel their worship services this Sunday in order to encourage families to spend time together on Christmas. The Babylon Bee recently ran an article titled "Church Honors Birth of Jesus by Cancelling Worship Service." The satirical (though it would be straining to call it entirely fictional) piece goes on to hilariously put words in the pastor's mouth: "I can think of nothing more worshipful on the Lord's Day than foregoing worship services in order to tear into gift after gift after gift from under our ornate tree... Also, I'll get to play with my new iPad that I just know my wife, Kate, got me. I felt the package. I'm pretty sure it's the Pro edition."

It's a brilliant piece of satire. However, many have become extremely defensive about it. I know that I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm naïve enough that I was shocked at the vitriol in the comments section under the Facebook post. It is clear to me that very large segments of the readership of The Babylon Bee don't have what we might call a "robust" view of the Lord's Day.

Now, I also know that massive swaths of the church (sadly even those in the Reformed camp) would like to see the Larger and Shorter Catechisms consigned to the dust bin of history. And it causes me no loss of sleep to think that someone, somewhere, is having fun on a Sunday. What does concern me is the sorts of arguments that people are offering in favor of cancelling church whenever the Lord's Day and everyone's favorite holiday should come into conflict. Here are some of the more troubling comments from the Facebook post:

  • "Love the Bee but, since the church is not a building, place or event, it is never closed. There are other ways to BEE the church this coming Sunday, Christmas Day!"
  • ""Thus saith the Lord, 'Thou shalt have a church service every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night without ceasing, and shouldest never to cancel any service for any reason under the sun'." II Opinions 3:12"
  • "Don't be so hypocritical to condemn those who realize that church isn't a building you have to go to worship but the fact that through salvation we are able to worship him in our heart."
  • "I'm not trolling and have intention of starting a flame war but only legalism dictates church has to be open...ready and willing on Sunday morning or God is not honoured."
  • "It seems that many people prefer the sacrifice of 'going to church' on Christmas, but maybe Jesus desires the compassion of letting people have the freedom to worship the day as they see fit. Go and learn what this means..."
  • "Our church building IS closed on Christmas day and we are not holding services. We can spread the Good News in other ways."
  • "Some people spend too much time in Church, and not enough time with their families. I think it's important for families to be thankful together at home. We as a church must never stop worshipping, but we can get caught up in feeling as if going to church service and true worship are the same thing."

The comments go on and on like this. One could fill pages with the arguments that have been set forth. The most serious problem is that arguments of this sort prove too much. If these arguments are correct, then the end result isn't just that Sunday worship can be displaced whenever it comes into orbit with a better holiday. The logical result is the elimination of any day of the worship of God in the gathered assembly of the people of God for local churches.

If it's really true that we can "spread the Gospel in other ways" than holding services, it is reasonable to ask why we have services in the first place. If the "doors of a church don't need to be open" in order for God to be honored, then why should they open at any time? If it's enough for us to "worship him in our heart," then why do churches even gather? If we should "have the freedom to worship the day as [we] see fit," then everyone can have their own Lord's Day - why have any services? If "it's important for families to be thankful together at home," and if it's not the case that "going to church service" is true worship, then there is literally no reason I can think of why churches as local gatherings of God's people need to exist at all.

On top of all of these problems, these sorts of arguments lead to a church that is not only scattered geographically already, but is also scattered chronologically. If you take for granted that any day is fair game, and if it's just a matter of when you want to worship, then an anarchic approach to picking which day to worship on means the church would no longer even be temporally united. While the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, meet as one group (Acts 20:7; 27:35), to take up offerings as a collective, and to meet with the Apostles (Acts 20:11), many of these arguments would have the believers disband out of a sense of "compassion" (see the third comment from the bottom in the list of comments above) or out of a sense that it is sufficient to "worship him in our hearts." We have entered an era when it is actually viewed as lacking in compassion for the early church to have met every time the first day of the week rolled around.

What I can't help but think in the midst of this all is that many actually have such disdain for meeting together with believers as The Church that they view Sunday worship as "lacking compassion." And I'm left just shaking my head. Is it really that bad? Meeting together with our family which is closer than blood? With people closer than blood - with whom we share the Holy Spirit? Is it really that bad? Hearing the Savior tell his people from his Word that he loves us? Is it really a burdensome yoke that God would call us together?

While this disdain for the worship of the Lord is troubling, we need to know that there are more than just fellow evangelicals looking in on this whole situation. I conclude with one comment which beautifully illustrates the ugliness of it all for "Protestant" churches:

  • "For real, if your church is closed, the Catholic Church will welcome you in, standing room only, with lots of smiling folks making room for you. Gathered together near the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

Our churches need to be open, because there will be people looking to worship with God's people in spirit and truth according to His command (Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 10:24-25), and they will be expecting to do it on the same day that God's people in the New Testament era have always gathered (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). If we don't hold out the light, someone else will be holding out the imitation.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14

B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14. 

This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends. 

Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12). 

The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.

Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion. 

First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.

Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect. 

This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.

And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.

On the Beauty of the Local Church

Our dear brother Paul Levy, who obviously needs a decent baptism, has affirmed that "networks, associations, affiliations and fellowships don't cut it," which is a fantastic assertion for a fellow whose standard confession of faith stops short of actually affirming the role of elder and pastors in a local church.  Of course he will affirm Synods and Councils in good form and order, but I wonder when the last time was his session conferred with the local PCUSA session for a little iron-sharpens-iron?

Far be it from me to say that we Baptists have the local/universal tensions all worked out and tidy -- because I think we don't by a longshot.  But given the limits of presbyterian (small-"p") government as actually practiced, I'm not sure throwing rocks at confessionally-united associations of independent churches is the most clever approach to advocating for the superiority of the sprinkled over the dunked in this case.

Should we ask for an editorial call regarding how to engage here, or does everybody know something about this issue that I don't?

See It Publicly

When I made arrangements to start blogging here, I told the fellows in charge that it was unlikely that I would blog more than twice a month at Ref21, but I'm about to only have posted once in my premiere month.  That's a soft start to be sure.

Last time, as you remember, I made the point that Christ must have his Church - but not just some universal church, some church without particular people in it.  And I left you with the pointed affirmation that if we want what Jesus wants, we also ought to want the church in a particular sense.  For those of you who aren't getting what I mean, let me say it plainly: if you don't belong to a local church, you're disdaining the people Jesus has called to himself.

There are a lot of places to go from there - places most people avoid studiously so they can do as little as possible for those who are fallen and only Jesus can get them back up again.  But I'm going to make my second post here about someplace I think you need to think about before the weekend kicks off: your worship is too puny if you worship this weekend without God's people.

Look: How Sweet the sound that Saved a Wretch like Me, right?  Everybody reading this blog understands how great is the grace which is used to save "me personally," (whosoever you personally may be), but that fantastic, impossible, immeasurable grace which God used to save you is magnified when you stand next to someone else who was also saved by that grace - your spouse, for example.  Or maybe your kids.  Or maybe all of you - and some of you are planning to House Church it this weekend because you have two or more gathered together in His name.  In that way, you think your job is done, your obligation and gratitude toward God Almighty and the Lamb who was Slain before the Foundation of the World is all set.

But I want you to think about this:  Jesus didn't die for us so that those who were born of the will of man could (or merely might) worship with us.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  That doesn't mean that you were surprised at how many children you and your spouse had because they were all born when God appointed them to be born: it means that there are many more people born into the family of God than you and your spouse can have made.  It means that somehow God's grace and mercy in Jesus Christ is greater than the will of any man or woman.

That's why you need to get together with other people not related to you by blood or marriage or because they are like you in some ordinary way based on your preferences: because God is glorified when we get together all of us who are born into His family and show it and say it and see it publicly.  It Makes God's greatness obvious to all and confuses the world in all the right ways when we do it - because they have no idea why every tribe and tongue and neighborhood ought to be able to sing the same (unpopular) songs and eat the same (small portioned) meal and hear the same (sometimes complicated, sometimes apparently-clichéd) words of life.

But we do.  And we should.  And if we don't, shame on us - for making too little of what God has done for us.

Nobody Wants Jesus to Offend


Hi everyone.  Thanks to Carl for inviting me, the Top Men at Ref21 for allowing a menace like me to cause my brand of mayhem here in this part of the mostly-respectable blogosphere, and to my wife for her always-generous approach to my one-line life (which looks a lot like "don't ask, don't tell.").

Let's get to it.  In Matthew 16, Jesus declares the following:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! [He says] For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

That's quite a declaration from Jesus.  He started with what looked like some sort of opinion poll or a survey of ideas about what it is that was happening as he was going around with these fellows teaching, and he changes the discussion from what everyone is expecting from Jesus to what God Himself is doing, and is about to do, through Jesus.

See: Jesus did not come to appeal to flesh and blood, or to fulfill the desires of our flesh and blood: Jesus came to do what God Himself wants accomplished.  Those who see it, says Jesus, will be "like a Rock" - like Simon who is the first to say it out loud.  This is why he calls him "Peter."  He's like a rock.  This is plainly a reference back to the parable in Matthew 7 -- the wise man and the foolish man, yes?  The foolish man built his house upon the sand; the wise man built his house upon the rock - and the rain came tumbling down.  Right? This is the end of the sermon on the mount -- "the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock."  So on the same rock which caused Peter to declare Jesus to be the Christ and not merely a prophet, Christ himself will build what he calls "my church" - and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Consider this carefully:  Jesus wants to set up or expose the priority of things, contrasting what "everyone" thinks against what the Disciples think - and in doing so, as I said earlier, he starts with Himself.  "Who do you say that I am?"  It's clear: Peter's answer is God's answer to the question, because Peter got this answer from God.  But as soon as He gets the right answer, Jesus draws a conclusion: Since I am the Messiah, the Christ, I will build my church on the rock of faith which God has given.  The first conclusion Jesus draws about the priority of things - in this passage anyway - is that if there is a Christ, there is a Church.

Now, look: the hang-up that will appear immediately is this - some people will say, "Jesus is here speaking about the universal church, or the invisible church - the set of people from Adam to the last person saved in Revelation - and that is as broad as the scope of the cross-work of Christ."  The reason they do this is simple: they read Jesus here to be saying, "I will build a church in general, with an indeterminate number in it."

The reasons to read this in that way are simple: nobody wants Jesus to do anything which offends.  We want Jesus to be saying things which are inviting only, and not in any way intimidating or putting demands on us.  And let's face it: it is easier on us if we think the church is merely an indeterminate and disembodied set of people because that means there's nobody in particular in that church.

I think Jesus is making a different point here.

When the apostle Paul reflects on those consequences, he says this to the Corinthians (1Cor 1):

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

In Paul's view of it, the idea that Christ builds a church is not a theoretical idea which we can sort of modestly ponder in its ineffable wisdom.  Look: in Paul's view, he can write a letter to the church.  You can't write a letter to a theoretical group of people.  In Paul's view of it, the church is nothing if it is not a real gathering of people.  But they are not together not because of who they are.  Who they are is stupid and foolish.  They are brought together because of who Christ is - and look at this: they are not together in theory but together in fact.  As we read 1 Cor 1-3 with Paul, that's his point - it's even an insult to God to say things like, "well, I follow MacArthur, and you follow John Wesley, and you follow Paul Washer, and you follow Rick Warren."  

We must see this in Christ's declaration that he will build his church - because he's not saying that to the wind, or writing it in a manifesto as a claim for the ages to people not yet in evidence.  He's saying it to the disciples who are right here, right now, in front of him.  This fellow here here? He is Simon Peter.  He's standing on the rock of faith Jesus was talking about back on the hillside.  And what he's got is what Jesus will build his church on.

This gets buried behind that word "church."  In Greek, it is the word "ecclesia."  Most of you have heard that before, I am sure.  The word means "an assembly," or "a group called together for a common purpose."  It is not a word like "citizen" - although Christians are called "citizens" elsewhere in the Bible.  A "citizen" can be in a place but not of a place - or at the same time, they can be an American, but present in Canada or Mexico or China.  To be a "citizen" is to be a class of person without regard to your current whereabouts.  "ecclesia" is not like being a "member" - because I can be a member of a political party and never vote and never meet another soul who believes what I believe.

But an "assembly", a "church" as we translate it: it's not an association in theory.  It's an association in person, a coming together in one place.  In an "ecclesia," everyone is present.   When the Greeks used this word, they used it to describe a body of people which is called out in public for a purpose of ruling, or doing the things required for government.  I'm working this over for you only to say this: for us to misread Christ here to mean some kind of invisible body where the people are vitually linked together merely by a mark or a quality entirely misses Jesus'  point.

He's saying that as the Christ, he's going to bring a real body of believers together, starting with this fellow Simon Peter.

Christ will build his church - it is the first necessary consequence Jesus tells his Disciples.  This is interesting because Jesus had what we might call a target-rich environment in Judea and Caesarea.  The Romans occupied the land; the religious rulers were corrupt and hypocritical; the standard of living, let's face is, was, to say the least, impoverished - and Jesus was the Messiah.  He could have said anything as the first order of business:

"Flesh and Blood did not declare this to you Peter, and because of your faith I will rain my wrath down on Caesar, after whom Caesarea Phillipi is blasphemously named."

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah - and to show you my power as Messiah, bring the Scribes and Pharisees as my enemies before me so that they I may lay them under my footstool!"

"Upon your faith, Simon, I claim healing upon the whole land, and wealth, and prosperity, and good marriages!"

No: the first order of business was to declare that as Christ, he must have the Church.  He must have people who have faith in Him, built upon the rock which cannot be shaken.  Since that is the case, let me propose something to you when we think about this fallen world which we live in which is full of trouble: our first order of business, if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, ought to be to have the church, that is "that which Christ builds on the basis of real faith in him in real people like Peter."